Couples, marriage

Marriage is a Two-Part Targetvention: A Short Play in 4 Acts

42245464 - young couple choosing the best food in a supermarketWhen I got engaged, my husband and I thought alike about so many things that I foolishly thought we would have a perpetual conflict-free mind meld.  That lasted for about a month until I dragged him to a fabric store, trying to get his opinion on material for curtains I was going to sew for our first apartment.  I discovered very quickly that he considered shopping to be a unique form of torture.

Anyone who has been married for any length of time knows that marriage is an ongoing series of compromises and negotiations against a backdrop of mundane routines sprinkled with momentary triumphs and losses.  As a former piano student who was required to learn several of J.S. Bach’s two-part inventions (watch one of my favorites, #8 performed here), it is easy for me to think of a marriage like a two-part invention.  The pianist is playing a harmonious theme with both hands in counterpoint; both hands take turns playing a variation of the dominant melody while being supported by the other hand.  The hands seem disparate at times but work together to create an aesthetically pleasing tune.

While my husband and I shared a visit to Target recently, I felt like I was in a relational two-part invention.  We were both adapting to each other the whole time with some tension thrown in the mix. I felt like I was making the sacrifice of shopping with the equivalent of a recalcitrant youth and I’m sure he felt like his willingness to shop at my pace was the ultimate endurance test.  This is dedicated to those couples who think they are the only ones who aren’t always on the same page.

Act I:

The Scene:  My husband and I need to shop for household items.  My husband is “starving,” and we try to go to an early dinner at 4 pm, but discover that our favorite restaurant doesn’t open until 5.

Me:  Well, Target is just right around the corner.  I need to return something and we can get lots of the stuff on our list there, so let’s just go and come back.

Him:  (In a voice suggesting that he has just done some heavy lifting) But that’s a whole hour and there’s no way I can spend an hour at Target.  Plus, I’m starving now.

Me:  OK—I know—Target has lots of snacks—you can just march yourself over to the produce aisle right by the entrance.  Get yourself some organic hummus or almond butter and organic baby carrots or some other snack that is healthy enough to leave you feeling virtuous.  That should hold you over.

Him:  (With utmost reluctance and another heavy sigh) OOOkaaaay.

Me:  OK drop me off at the entrance and I’ll go get in line at the returns and I’ll meet you in there.

Act II:  30 minutes later (He says 20—I’ll compromise to 25)

The Scene:  I’m standing in the bathroom organization aisle and wonder why I haven’t heard from my husband for a half hour, and he isn’t responding to my texts. I’ve decided he either ran into someone he knows or is taking an important call.  I finally take my chances at calling him on the phone.

Him:  Yes?

Me:  Where did you go?  Is that sports radio I hear in the background?

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

Me:  You went in and bought a snack and went back out to the car? (Restating the obvious, trying to express my incredulity) Why didn’t you just come find me and eat it in the store?

Him:  They would have thought I was shoplifting.  I’m almost done.  I was just about to come find you.

Me:  (knowing that shoplifting is not his main concern) Hmmm…..K well I’m making my way over to the kitchen aisle so I’ll meet you over there, ok?

Him:  OK I’ll be right in. (Shows up at the kitchen aisle a few minutes later)

Me:  What do you think about this new mat for the sink?

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

Me:  OK—so I was thinking that if we added one of these items to the silverware drawer, it would eliminate the black hole in the back—or do you think this size is better?

Him:  (Yawns—starts to put head down on cart) I don’t know, dear.  I can’t bring anything but apathy to this conversation.  Whatever you think.

Me:  OK let’s get this one.  Now, I need to run over to the pet aisle so can you go over to the bathroom organization aisle and return this thing I don’t think I want anymore?  I’ll meet you over by the cleaning aisle, OK?  Oh, and while you’re over there, look at the storage stuff and see what you think about the different options for our bathroom.

Him: (Yawns—looks up, rubbing eyes) OK.

2 minutes later:

Me:  (Look up, surprised to see my husband back in the pet aisle so soon) Hey, you’re just in time to help me go pick out a kitchen sponge.

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

Me:  (Ignore his sarcasm) Hey, so what did you see in the bathroom aisle?

Him: Huh?

Me:  The bathroom aisle—did you look at storage options?

Him:  Oh.  Yeah.  I didn’t see anything that would be useful.

Me:  (Laughing) You saw nothing that would be useful?  Oh, honey, you didn’t even look, did you?

Him:  Nope.  I’m bad at picking out that kind of stuff.

Me:  Well, we need some bathroom storage stuff, so let’s run over there really fast.

Him: (Yawns–follows)

Me:  Oh, look, this is the lazy susan I was telling you I thought would work for our daughter’s hair products.  What do you think?

Him:  (Gazing over my head, suddenly alert)  Is that….a Squatty Potty?  It is!  Look, there’s a unicorn! (If you’re new to the Squatty Potty, see explanation here)

Me:  Oh yeah—a healthy colon is a happy colon—are you kidding me?!!   You’ve been acting like you have narcolepsy for the last half hour and suddenly you come alive when you see a Squatty Potty?

Him:  (Handling one reverently) These things are the best!

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

Me:  Oh, I forgot, I need a lighted mirror—there they are.

Him:  How about that one?  It matches our bathroom.

Me:  Wow!  You actually noticed that?  (I look closer, 10x magnification, gasp) Oh NO!  That is WAY too much information.  I prefer to see myself at a distance.

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

Me:  (Glued to “Mirror, mirror, on the wall”) It’s like a train wreck and I can’t look away—when did all those wrinkles happen?

Him:  Come on, I just remembered we need steel cut oats.

Me:  Wait—I need a minute to mourn my youth—steel cut oats is not going to fix this!  Even if they’re organic!

Him:  Come on, you don’t have wrinkles.

Me:  You’re just saying that because you’re getting farsighted—your vision is compromised—There is a reason that one of the pictures hanging in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland is a young lady turning wrinkled and haggard.  It’s frightening!  Honey, we are getting old!

Him:  Yes we are.  Together.  OK I’ll meet you at the register.

Act IV: At the register

Him:  This shopping trip has actually taken us 90 minutes.  I don’t even feel this tired after a hundred mile bike ride!

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

Him:  I’m serious.  If I go to Hell, they are going to make me shop at Target for 90 minutes at a time.

Me:  You said your personal Hell was having to watch a parade.

Him:  Well, it’s watching a parade while shopping at Target…(ponders) at the Circus!

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

Him:  Good point–definitely worse.  You can’t sit down at a carnival.  Shopping at Target while watching a parade at the circus at the carnival.  See honey, this proves I would go to the depths of Hell for you.  You’re welcome.

This was a very typical shopping trip, and if I’m being honest, it felt somewhat arduous to both of us.  We were both bored and tired and hungry.  We were both operating under obligation.  We both would have preferred to be a hundred other places that were more exciting.  That’s real life.  We’re just two different people trying to run a household with limited time, energy and resources.  Sometimes my opinion takes front stage and sometimes his does, with plenty of tension in between, but in the end we are hoping for a relationship with the same resonance as a two-part invention—and we are one shopping trip closer to that end.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’’>stocking / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Couples, Couples Therapy, Holidays, Love, marriage

Escaping a Zombie Marriage Apocalypse

19126152 - zombie bride and groom full makeup on their wedding day

Last year, my husband and I took our youngest children to the local amusement park for a “Frightmares,” event.  The fun zone was transformed into a Halloween fiesta, complete with spook alleys and wandering zombies mildly harassing the visitors.

At one point, we were standing in a loooong noisy line for the chance to wander aimlessly in a strobe-lit, gory, cacophonous wonderland.  I engaged my husband in conversation and noticed peripherally that a zombie about my size with ironic cheerleader pigtails was lurking about.

While I was talking, I saw my husband looking over my shoulder and I realized that somebody was screaming in my ear.  I glanced at cheerleader zombie and turned back to my husband, asking, “Has she been screaming at me?”  I resumed my conversation with him as she determinedly fixated on getting a reaction.  Eventually, she got right in my face and roared, “YOU CAN’T IGNORE ME.”  That little outburst elicited amusement on my end, as I laughed to my husband, “She has no idea who she’s dealing with, does she?”  My husband agreed and instructed the zombie with, “She has 7 children with 5 boys, and that has been way scarier than you are.  She has developed superhuman powers for tuning out noise.”

In this case, the more the zombie tried to get a reaction from me, the more resistant I became, until she gave up and went away.

Just like so many marriages.

Usually in marriage, there is one partner (often the female) who will raise the volume in an attempt to signal to her more withdrawing partner that something is wrong in the relationship.  Unfortunately, that withdrawing partner (often the male) in response to the escalation, will get better at disconnecting and numbing, shielding himself from the pain of being a disappointment.

Anyone trying to get a partner response without success experiences distress.  It’s less distressing to get an angry, bitter response from a partner than no response.  Couples quickly develop circular patterns of one becoming more aggressive as the other defends while exiting the conversation.  Over time, defending partners learn to become numb to the negative escalation in their spouses.  Upon getting no response, the aggressive partners give up and retreat and eventually burn out on trying to get any connection at all, leaving the couple at a stalemate.

What to do if you think you have entered the zombie apocalypse zone in your marriage:

  1. When things aren’t escalated, ask your partner what impact you are having on him/her in these difficult moments. Odds are that you think you’re not having an impact when you are actually having a very negative impact.  People who look calm in the face of relationship distress are often physiologically aroused (heart rate, skin conductance, etc.) and working very hard to regulate emotion.  I have asked many calm looking men what’s happening as they hear their wives express emotion about the marriage, and a common response is, “I want to get away.  I want to get up and walk out that door right now.”  They often have difficulty even labeling emotions because they are so practiced at escaping negative emotion.  We start socializing men to disconnect from vulnerable emotions when they are boys and then we criticize them throughout their adult lives for being so good at what they have been taught to do.  It’s very confusing, and really not very fair.
  1. Tell your partner more about how it has helped you when he/she has been responsive.  I maintain that it is easier to get people to do more of something than less of something.  If you tell a spouse to “stop doing that,” there may be lingering confusion about what is expected.  Sometimes in a distressed marriage, even if responsiveness increases, it isn’t recognized or trusted and is subsequently rejected, leaving those partners hopeless and helpless about change.
  1. Try to tell your partner in the moment when you are experiencing responsiveness.  If you can tell a partner, “What you are doing right now is helping,” it provides a powerful example of what it is you are asking.
  1. Increase clarity.  People often unfairly expect partners to know when they are needing connection.  It would be nice if spouses could mind read and predict moments of high emotional need.  They can’t and it’s a crazy-making, unfair expectation.

While Halloween has become in many ways representative of what we fear the most, the iconic symbols shrink in comparison to the fear of failing in our most important relationships.  For most of us, losing connection is the real stuff of which nightmares are made.

Photo: Copyright: <a href=’’>awesomeshotz / 123RF Stock Photo</a>



Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

What does an Amorphous, Seemingly Androgynous Little Green Ball of Clay Have to do with my Marriage?

Photo courtesy of Gray Wren Photography at

I keep a toy Gumby on hand.  Not only does it provide me with a zany sense of childhood nostalgia, but as a marriage therapist, I use it as an object lesson sometimes if I’m teaching a marriage class to university students.  I purchased one particular Gumby a few years ago (on purpose—thank you, Ebay), because its chest was emblazoned with the words, “Always flexible.”  He (it?) became something of a mascot.

I show it to my classes not just so I can feel old when they have no idea who or what Gumby is, but to ask them to guess what important quality Gumby possesses that I believe is one of the most important characteristics of an incredible marriage partner: flexibility.  In fact, if I am ever asked to identify one of the most important qualities one should look for in a potential mate, I respond with “flexibility,” every time.

Psychological flexibility has long been considered one of the hallmarks of mental health, and I am a witness that this is accurate.  Rigid thinking and its multi-faceted behavioral manifestations shows up in a variety of ways in the therapy room, and perhaps most frequently in marital relationship patterns.

You have probably heard the question, “Do you want to be right or do you want to be married?”  Well……it makes sense to answer, “Married, of course,” but in the heat of an argument, it’s so easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of reactivity that our choices actually become more constrained and rigid over time.  We start anticipating behavioral sequences and react as we always have without even realizing that we have the choice to be different.

The process is really no different than practicing a musical instrument over and over.  We practice relationship patterns over and over in the same way and stop being intentional in our actions.

I have a confession.  I like to be right (I know…shocker).  When my husband and I have conflict, we can sound like two firstborn children (read: power struggle).  He is a biological firstborn, and I am a youngest, but in the context of birth order theory, considering that there are six years between my older brother and me, I have many characteristics of a firstborn.

Add that to the fact that I was raised by two firstborn, depression era, parentified, pragmatists, and there you go.  Even though the limited research shows that firstborns and youngest children seem to be a winning combination in marriage, and most of my marriage reflects this complementarity, the firstborn in me rises up at times, and I find myself on a merry-go-round of competition.

Some ideas for stepping off the dysfunctional merry-go-round and creating new, healthier and more flexible patterns of behavior are to:

  • Slow down. Take a deep breath.  Talk slower and softer.  Rigid patterns tend to be lightning fast and seem automatic.  Slowing down is hard, but it can be accomplished if it is purposeful.
  • Notice what is happening. Map out your conflict patterns.  An easy way to do this is to answer, the more I..……., the more my partner………, and then the more I……….., and then the more my partner……….This is when people can see how paradoxical the patterns can be.  In other words, the more you engage in reactive behavior, the more likely you are to get back the very behavior you don’t want from the other individual.
  • Write down alternative approaches. I endorse the act of writing to articulate reactions and intentions because the act of writing often engages parts of the brain that facilitate problem-solving.
  • Most importantly, realize that you CAN develop more flexibility. Yes, you can.  However, it does require that you RISK doing something differently.  You still can.

Just as an FYI, Ebay has plenty of toy “Gumby,” dolls available for purchase if you need a tangible reminder…..except I’m not so sure about his little pal “Poky.”  And if you’re old enough to remember who Gumby is, consider yourself thanked…you just made me feel a little less ancient.