Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Fight Flirting with Flirting: Keeping your Marriage in the Fun Zone

flirtingIf you saw my husband calling out my name while holding up a piece of string cheese, and raising his eyebrows when I made eye contact, you might assume that he was just generously offering me a high-protein snack. You almost certainly would not construe it as open flirtation. That’s because you’re not me.

You see, when my husband and I were engaged, we went on a picnic, and in the silliness of young love, I peeled a strip from a piece of string cheese and offered, “Let’s race to the middle,” hanging one end out of my mouth. He put the other end in his mouth and just as we reached the middle, he vigorously bellowed, “OW!” pulling away from me, “YOU BIT ME.” I was rattled by his reaction. He pulled his lower lip down so I could see the blood oozing from soft tissue where I had indeed ripped out a small chunk in my over-zealousness to reach the middle first. “You’re so competitive!” he complained. I felt terrible. My intention was to meet up for a mozzarella kiss, but turning it into a race had destroyed the moment. That incident became part of our private language, so now if he offers a piece with raised eyebrows, I know he’s playfully alluding to this scene and inviting me for a “do over.” The flirtation is a small way of connecting—while trying to get me to kiss him.

People generally associate flirting with the first stages of a potential romantic relationship. It’s true that the ambiguous language, with non-verbals like smiles, touch and eye contact, can be used as a low-risk way to test interest in a love match. Flirtatious behaviors are generally playful and motivated by interest to pursue a romantic connection. Given that the sexual system is a common feature of romantic relationships, flirtation is often motivated by an interest in sex, particularly for males (unsurprisingly).

What if I told you that flirting might be even more important for a long-term relationship?

While many people think of flirting as an early stage relationship tool, it can be a useful maintenance strategy in marriage. It can shape a marital relationship toward increased happiness and commitment.

Here’s how flirting can maintain a marriage:

  1. It introduces positivity into the marital environment. This is important since many problems develop over time from “negative affect reciprocity,” meaning that eventually the negative emotional exchanges flood the marriage, so spouses are viewed through persistent negative filters.
  2. It creates a “private world.” In other words, if the innuendos are only understood by you and the other, it makes it special.
  3. It can reassure a partner that you still want him/her, or it can be a way to gain reassurance that you are wanted, reaffirming the marital relationship.
  4. It’s a way to reinforce commitment.
  5. It introduces playful fun.
  6. It invites physical connection.
  7. It invites sexual interaction.
  8. It reassures partners of ongoing desire and attraction, which increases confidence.
  9. It can help manage conflict.
  10. It adds interest to the relationship. It’s a way of stepping out of the box and inviting novelty.
  11. In general, all the above elements make the marriage feel SAFE, which sets up an environment where more risky playfulness can flourish.

Flirt Early and Often

The best time to be intentional about flirting is EARLY in the marriage, BEFORE DISTRESS has set in. One thing I’ve noticed about couples in therapy is that the playfulness is gone. Very little playful banter or flirting, if any, is happening. Sadly, playfulness and flirting, while less risky during relationship development, somehow become riskier in long-term relationships. Reaching out playfully in a shared context only to get rejected, is painful. When the marriage doesn’t feel safe to take risks, people essentially stop flirting. It doesn’t feel good to be playful and risky if the relationship is uncertain. I completely understand why this happens, because if my husband and I have had a negative exchange, the last thing I’m going to do is flirt with him.

For couples in distressed marriages, I’m going to propose that flirting can be approached from varying degrees of risk, and you can choose a less risky way to flirt as a start to try to reverse the downward trajectory of negativity.

Simple ways to flirt:

  1. Wink from across the room.
  2. Allude to an inside joke.
  3. Smile at your partner.
  4. Touch your partner while you are talking.
  5. Make eye contact.
  6. Share something that makes you laugh.
  7. Compliment your partner specifically about how he/she looks.
  8. Take a risk to invite a sexual encounter in a playful way. If I can be stereotypical, this is especially geared toward females, because we are socialized that males should be the sexual pursuers; that’s probably why the innuendos come from them more often. A wife’s inviting sexuality in a playful way can be a powerful affirmation for many husbands.
  9. Bring home your partner’s favorite snack or drink.
  10. Text flirtatious messages. Don’t skimp on emojis or the various dazzling effects. My husband likes to use the fireworks, heart and confetti effects on a regular basis, and it’s adorable.
  11. Think initials carved into a tree as a love declaration. I mention this because for my entire marriage, my husband has found various clever ways of presenting me with “SS + LS,” surrounded by a heart. He has printed them as a watermark on paper, written them on the bathroom mirror with my lipstick and shower door with soap, written on my car windows with window paint, stamped it in the snow, mowed it in the grass, traced it in the sand, squirted it on a sandwich with mustard, written it in whipping cream on dessert, traced it in almond butter, written it in a text message, wallpapered it on my iPhone, chalked it in the driveway, etc. He started before we were married and has never stopped. At least once a month I will find it somewhere. Small gesture with huge reaffirming impact.
  12. Have a secret non-verbal code. Right after we got married, my husband sat me down and said, “When I squeeze your hand in this pattern, it means ‘I love you,’ so if we are around a bunch of people, I can say it in a way only you will know.” He still uses that pattern frequently if we are in public.
  13. Whatever you do, don’t stop. This might be the most important. When flirtation stops, many couples end up in a game of chicken to see who will make the first move at reaffirming desire and love for the other.

My husband walked into our bedroom last week and noticed the clothes I had dumped on our bed. He saw his opportunity, “Honey, if I fold these clothes, will it turn you on?” Used to his ongoing innuendos, I matched his tone, “I don’t know. I guess you’re going to have to fold them to find out,” keeping it ambiguous.

If I’ve learned anything after three decades of marriage, it’s to fight flirting with flirting.

References:

The “How” and “Why” of Flirtatious Communication Between Marital Partners (2012) by Frisby, B. N. & Boothe-Butterfield, M. in Communication Quarterly, 60(4), 465-480.   DOI:10.1080/01463373.2012.704568

“Without Flirting, it Wouldn’t be a Marriage”: Flirtatious Communication Between Relational Partners (2009) by Frisby, B. N. in Qualitative Research Reports in Communication, 10(1), 55-60. DOI: 10.1080/17459430902839066

Photo credit: Copyright: langstrup / 123RF Stock Photo

Advertisements
Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, Romance

Love your Mate with a Regular Date*

couple-datingThe other day, I was cleaning the bathroom while my husband was sitting in our bedroom.  I grabbed a piece of toilet paper, poked my head into the bedroom where he was sitting and ceremoniously waved it over my head while calling, “I’m waving a white flag.  This is me surrendering.  You have officially won our passive aggressive contest over date night.”  He looked confused so I held up the dust-laden copy of a date night ideas for married people book that I had placed in a magazine holder near the toilet literally years before.  Its pages were warped from humidity and it was clearly untouched, because the last time it had been opened was, I’m certain, when I leafed through the pages at a bookstore.  “Remember I put this here, hoping you would use it for date night ideas?  You win.  I’m finally throwing it away.” “Oh.  Yeah,” he smoothly replied, “I read it already.  We’ve done everything in there.”

“What? No we haven’t!”  I exclaimed, “Look, on page 97, ** ‘The Backwards Date—Put your clothes on backwards and visit your local outdoor track and race each other walking backwards for a lap.’”  “Oh,” he continued, “I mean we have done everything in there that is not entirely stupid or just downright lame.” Well.

“OK honey, but remember the point was that YOU were going to plan what we do for date night.”  My husband finally made eye contact, “Lori, let’s get real.  Every time I make a suggestion for where we go, you change it and we go there, which is fine with me—I really don’t mind, but the truth is, you have strong opinions and I don’t.”

Oh.  He was right.  I hadn’t even realized that I set him up for failure.  I thought back to the previous weekend when he suggested, “Do you want to go get sushi?” and I pondered, “We can, but I think chicken tikka masala sounds better, or I read that a new Peruvian restaurant opened recently,” and he said, “OK, which of those sounds better to you?”  The more I thought, the more I realized that I was indeed the more particular of us.  I was the one who set up a sailing lesson, scheduled a hot air balloon ride, bought him a rope so we could rappel down a local waterfall, rented snowshoes, registered for a Santa run, planned a rafting trip by moonlight, set up couples’ massage dates and consistently scanned the internet for new restaurant openings and obscure locales, adding to my date night bucket list.  I thought of all the times he suggested something and I redirected him to something else.  In fact, the last time I remembered my going along with his idea instead of mine was when he had planned a surprise without my knowing, so I had to go along.

I apologized and asked him if he cared, and he said he really didn’t, which I believed, but I wondered how many times my actions discouraged him from even trying to plan something.  This is a big reason why couples give up on putting forth effort in their relationships.  They feel as if their efforts don’t matter or are outright rejected.  I think my husband experienced more relief about not having to plan date night than outright rejection, but I have seen discouraged spouses completely give up over less.

Recent research by The Marriage Foundation has confirmed that setting aside time to date your spouse for just one night a month can make a significant difference in marital stability.  In reality, this is just one indicator and not a clear cause and effect (just like all research with human behavior), but people who take the time to set aside special time together even once a month probably care enough about their marriages to manifest commitment in other ways that strengthen relationships.  The dates don’t need to be complex.  It could be as simple as walking out the front door with a coin, and at every corner flip the coin to see if you walk left or right to see where you end up.

This sounds so simple, but I’m always surprised at the amount of married people who live week to week with no plan to get a babysitter and go out.  I can’t remember a time in my marriage when I would not have moved heaven and earth to get a night alone with my husband.  I think it has made a big difference for us.

Just going anywhere together sends a message that the marriage is important, but there is some research suggesting that trying something new together might even boost couple happiness.  I suspect this might be related to the fact that we are attracted to novelty, but also that happiness is so tied to experiences instead of things.  One of our most memorable dates was when my husband and I went to a new downtown restaurant.  As we walked in past a film crew, we realized that the restaurant was currently being used for a scene in a movie.  We were seated in the crowded restaurant for about ten minutes when we were approached by a waiter who said, “The film director saw you walk in and wants to know if you will come sit in a scene for his film.”  When my husband found out the film had “peloton,” in the title, he was more than willing to sit in for them, being a fellow cyclist.  Later, when the film was released, my husband and I bought it on DVD solely to have that scene from our date.  Novel.  Check.  Experience.  Check.  Memories.  Check.  Happiness.  Check.

So, the next time you go into the typical popular home accent store which could be aptly named, “A Bunch of Crap I Really Don’t Need,” consider spending that money on date night or a babysitter instead.  If necessary, both.  Comparatively speaking, you will get more bang for your buck.

Trust me, it’s cheaper than marriage therapy.  Or a divorce.

*Credit to the band INXS for inspiring this title from their 1987 song, “Mediate,” which never gets old for me.

**Since I threw the book away, I just made that up, but it’s typical of some of the more…ahem…creative suggestions.

Photo credit: Copyright: oneinchpunch / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage, Romance

Kissing Like you Mean it: The Benefits of Lighting Fireworks in your Marriage

fireworks

As I was explaining to my husband that I was trying to write a blog post about kissing in marriage, he threw his arms open and offered enthusiastically, “And you want to practice?”  “No,” I answered, “But I admire your optimism and thanks for giving me my opening sentence.”

For most couples, kissing is a natural part of relationship development, particularly as they move toward higher levels of commitment.  Researchers confirm that kissing can be a strong reinforcer for mate assessment and attachment. In other words, if you think you like someone and the kissing goes well, commitment is likely to increase, while the reverse is true for couples who just aren’t “feeling it.”   As people form attachments, prolonged kissing behavior generally increases in romantic relationships.

However, I’ve noticed that really great make-out sessions diminish over time for lots of married couples.  Even couples who maintain frequency in sexual relations sometimes bypass the benefits of quality kissing in a rush toward goal-oriented orgasm in sexual behavior.

In our sex-centric society, kissing is often underrated.  This is unfortunate because there are multiple reported benefits from kissing in committed romantic relationships.  Some highlights are:

  1. Prolonged kissing decreases stress responses by reducing blood pressure, cortisol levels, and increasing skin temperature.
  2. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection in their relationships reported increased positive mood the following day.
  3. Individuals assigned to increase physical affection over six weeks reported increased relationship satisfaction.
  4. Individuals assigned to increase kissing over a period of six weeks had decreased total cholesterol levels.
  5. Engaging in prolonged kissing can increase sexual arousal for some women who don’t experience arousal prior to physical engagement.

Importantly, most of the research about kissing in romantic relationships is with “positively valenced,” relationships, meaning that the people generally like each other and are willing to kiss.  They experience positive emotions about each other.  That will skew the research.

Kissing can be one of the first casualties of emotional disconnection or unmanageable marital conflict.  Some couples report that an intimate kissing session can feel too vulnerable.  I have had many people say that if they feel disconnected, it is easier to actually participate in sexual intercourse than to spend time attuning to their spouses in mouth-to-mouth contact.  Kissing may just not feel safe, and if that’s the case, it can have a negative impact.

Even for people in good relationships, kissing can be a casualty of daily stressors and demands simply because it takes time.  For those people, intentional kissing is a tangible, measurable way to strengthen and enhance bonds.

Here are some ideas for increasing the mouth-to-mouth ratio in your marriage:

  1. Focus on kissing process rather than outcome.  Decide that you are going to have a really great make-out session as your goal.
  2. Incorporate kissing as ritual. Kissing can be a meaningful exchange after time apart, which communicates, “I missed you.  You matter to me.”
  3. Identify a regular kissing spot. My husband decided right after we were married that every time we passed by a certain location, he needed to kiss me.  Almost thirty years later, he still pulls me toward him for a smooch every time we walk through it.  He never forgets.
  4. Re-enact a first kiss or another meaningful kiss from earlier in the relationship.  My husband and I disagree about the particulars here.  He is tall, so I was standing two steps above him.  We were talking and as I recall, he pulled me so I fell into him.  His story is that I “attacked” him.  Highly unlikely, given our relationship history, but if it makes him feel better, I’ll let him think that.
  5. Look for novel opportunities to kiss. Once I saw a street on a map named with my first and middle names.  On a whim, I suggested that we needed to park and kiss on that street (don’t worry, residents—nothing illegal occurred). Silly, I know, but we haven’t forgotten it, either.
  6. Try a kiss of the month club. I once bought a book with different types of kisses and instigated a “kiss of the month,” program.  FYI, Trader Joe’s has a unique Fireworks chocolate bar, which is an excellent kissing accessory for July.

Since marriage provides great potentiality for close physical contact, it makes sense to intentionally maximize kissing benefits.

I have a pillow that says, “A kiss a day keeps the marriage counselor away.”  For low-distress marriages, I believe there is truth in that statement.

I was told as a beginning student in a marriage and family therapy program almost thirty years ago that I should never try to be my spouse’s marriage therapist, and I have followed that advice for the most part.  However, when it comes to the “romantic kissing intervention,” I completely have my husband’s support.  And NOW it’s time to go practice.

References:

Burleson, M. H., Roberts, N. A., Vincelette, T. M., Xin, G., & Newman, M. L. (2013). Marriage, Affectionate Touch, and Health. In Health and social relationships: The good, the bad and the complicated, (pp. 67-93), Washington D.C., US: American Psychological Association 

Burleson, M. H., Trevathan, W. R., Todd, M. (2007). In the Mood for Love or Vice Versa?  Exploring the relations among sexual activity, physical affection, affect, and stress in the daily lives of mid-aged women.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 357-368.

Floyd, K., Boren, J. P., Hannawa, A. F., Hesse, C., McEwan, B., & Veksler, A. E. (2009). Kissing in marital and cohabitating relationships: Effects on blood lipids, stress, and relationship satisfaction. Western Journal of Communication, 73(2), 113-133.

Wlodarski, R. & Dunbar, R. I. M. (2013). Examining the possible functions of kissing in romantic relationships. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 42,1415-1423. DOI 10.1007/s10508-013-0190-1

Couples, Family, Humor

Couple Conflict After the Laughter

older couple laughing

My husband can never just gently get into bed.  At any given time, he outweighs me by 80-100 pounds, and it always feels to me like he is flopping onto the bed with as much force as possible, which has the effect of both startling me and bouncing me out of my comfort zone.  He denies that he has this habit and always responds to my protests with, “What?  I’m just getting into bed like a normal person. What do you want me to do?”

So, the other night, while I was sitting in bed knitting, my husband got into the bed with his usual vigor, and my arm jerked several stitches off of my knitting needle which I had to go back and fix, and which also annoyed me.  I immediately snapped, “Steve!  Seriously?” which was code for, “How many times have we talked about this?  How hard is it to just ease into bed without announcing your arrival with the exertion of a bull elephant?”

I expected him to defend his technique as usual when instead, he said, “Well, it could have been worse…I could have done this…,” at which point he popped up on the bed and started jumping up and down like an 8 year-old.  The scene was so absurd that I couldn’t stop laughing, and instead of engaging in another tired quarrel, we shared  a moment of playful connection.

Dr. John Gottman identified humor as a common “repair attempt,” that many functional couples use to manage conflict.  If used well, and in a way that is inclusive and not contemptuous, it can be a very effective technique.

With nearly 30 years of marriage and 7 children, my husband and I have had lots and lots of practice both engaging in and averting typical couple power struggles.  A long time ago, I remember at one point saying to my husband, “Stop trying to control me.  You can’t control me,” because I do have a rebellious streak a mile wide with a tendency to do the opposite of what someone is trying to make me do (which is all coming back to me through my teenagers).  Neither of us likes to feel controlled.  It has become an ongoing joke now that if things start escalating, one of us will commonly interrupt with, “Are you trying to control me?” with a tone of voice that suggests that we are being ridiculous, and we end up laughing.  Once, I remember him throwing out, “I’m trying to control you right now and you’re not cooperating,” and it was so unexpected with the comical look on his face that I was completely disarmed and laughed, and another conflict was avoided.

Humor can be used to manage potential family conflict as well.  Parenting and finances are two common potential points of contention for many couples.  On one family vacation, I remember an incident in which those both collided, and I started getting irritated with my husband.  It was a typical vacation in which one child had already vomited in the car, there were ongoing quarrels about who was in whose space and who was breathing whose air, and my nerves were raw from all the noise.  On the way home, when my husband stopped at a gas station, I couldn’t wait to get out of the car and walk away somewhere by myself to breathe.

When I walked back to the car, my then three year-old began pulling my hand to show me something she wanted at a vending machine.  It was a pink mustache for 75 cents, and she was so insistent that I decided to hit her dad up for the money.  Instead of thinking it was cute like I did, he thought it was a ridiculous waste of 75 cents and he was tired of bleeding money on our vacation.  Instead of agreeing, he gave me a look that said, “A pink mustache? Really?  Why don’t I just hand you three quarters to go flush down the toilet?”

Soo…instead of lashing out about what a cheapskate he was, I decided to take a different approach.  I knew he was tired and stressed like I was from the torture of being in a confined space with 7 noisy children.  I picked up a quarter from the bottom of my purse and announced to my teenage sons, “Okay everyone…your sister wants a pink mustache that costs 75 cents, and I personally think that would be amusing to look at, and so I am willing to donate a quarter to her pink mustache fund.  Does anyone else want to donate to see the pink mustache?”  Immediately, two brothers anted up and even offered to take her in to purchase the disguise.  When she came back, delighted to be wearing a pink mustache, we all laughed, and even my husband had to admit it was adorable, and instead of being upset with me over an argument, he was grateful that I hadn’t undermined him in front of the children and escalated conflict.

Humor is effective if the relationship already feels safe.  If you see your partner as your collaborator, you are more likely to join with them in the silliness.  You take bigger comedic risks, because humor is often about presenting the unexpected.  If you see him/her as the enemy, it can easily be misinterpreted.  Humor also requires a fair amount of creativity, which is more expansive when people are not emotionally flooded, so when people struggle to regulate emotion, it can be more challenging to access humor.

Couples who can use humor are couples who work at building friendship actively outside of conflict.  They are couples who have lots of experiences laughing together.  I don’t think I could endure a relationship in which my spouse didn’t appreciate my sense of humor; I am well aware that not everyone finds me as amusing as my spouse does.  However, because he laughs at my lame jokes and laughs at shared comedic references with me, it feels safe to explore humor with him.

Humor can be accessed intentionally in a spirit of playfulness.  If you don’t know where to start, listen to a funny podcast.  My favorite is NPR’s Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  For additional inspiration, watch the Argument Clinic by Monty Python’s the Flying Circus, which you can access on YouTube here.  I might be showing my age with that suggestion, but I promise you won’t look at an argument the same way again.

 

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, Humor, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

To Stay Together…Play Together

couple playing

Around this time last year, I was wandering the aisles of a department store with one of my good friends, hatching a plan to surprise our husbands with an unexpected double date.   I had arranged for an aerial yoga instructor to give us a private class in contorting ourselves in long scarves and on bars hanging from the ceiling, trapeze style.  The whole idea appealed to me, since I had a background in gymnastics and competition cheerleading.  What appealed to me more was the anticipation of seeing the look on my husband’s face when I told him what we were going to do.

Our plan was to tell our husbands that we going somewhere they would find completely unsavory (e.g. the opera) and then to show up at the yoga studio with outfits for them to change into for the class.  “I know….tights,” I mused, “If we put the word ‘cycling,’ in front of them, my husband will think they’re legit…Look, green shorts…They’ll be like oversized leprechauns!”  We laughed and schemed and found just the right clothes to fit their tall frames, and laughed some more in anticipation of their reactions.  The planning was a lot of the fun.  The evening went as planned, and fortunately our husbands were good sports, even though my husband protested that he does not wear “outfits;” the best part is that we have a great memory to laugh about when we go out with our friends.

The American Journal of Play, recently reported findings that playfulness is a significant role in not just attracting a mate, but in creating long-term relationships.  It makes sense to me that playfulness is very appealing in attracting a mate.  At least it was in my case.  Every boyfriend I had won me over in large part by making me laugh and playing off of my sometimes quirky personality.

When I met my husband, I had no interest in pursuing a relationship beyond friendship, and yet he kept showing up every time I turned around.  I remember that I was not particularly playful with him because I just wasn’t interested and didn’t want to get his hopes up, despite the fact that he did, as the quintessential All-American basketball player, represent my “type.”

One evening, he was walking me across the university campus and invited me to come watch him play intramural football.  “OK….maybe,” I offered hesitantly in order to be polite, with no intention of showing up.  Later that evening, I was thanking the heavens above for the snowfall that gave me a convenient excuse for not showing up without hurting his feelings.  When someone knocked at my door a few minutes later, I opened it to see him standing there with a bag over his head, illustrating the fact that I had “dogged,” him by not attending the game.  He made me laugh, which was how he eventually won me over.  I wasn’t trying to impress him, because I still didn’t want to pursue a relationship, so I felt free to be my quirky self without recrimination.  Once, I showed up to go on a date wearing black lipstick just to see how his conservative side would respond.  He just played along, acting like he didn’t notice.

Because we were clearly “just friends,” and he wasn’t going anywhere, we spent months in a relationship absent of physical affection, but rich with playful friendship types of experiences.  If I was running at the track, he would show up and run alongside me (and around me).  If I was going to play tennis with a roommate, he would show up with a tennis racket and the skills of a country club trained tennis player (literally).  He kept making me laugh.  Our natural abilities to be increasingly playful facilitated a more secure courtship.

After we got married and had children, life started to become more serious and stressful, but I still valued our playfulness, and I would use holidays like April Fool’s Day to play tricks on him with my children, continuing our tradition of whimsy.  One year I read my children a book about a little boy who hid insects in homemade chocolate, and that was the year we made homemade chocolates for daddy with gummy worms and bugs hidden inside.  One year, because I had all boys, I dressed the baby up as a girl and tried to hand my husband his “daughter,” when he walked through the door.  I previously wrote a post about another April Fool’s Day that you can read HERE.

I still believe in the power of play for couples.  There are many benefits in a long-term relationship:

  1. Increased well-being.  The byproduct of playfulness increases coping ability.
  2. Expressing affection. It’s a way of conveying that the other person matters.
  3. Increasing excitement in relationship. Relationships are often created and fueled by novelty, which diminishes in long-term bonds.  Playfulness brings that novelty back, which has been significantly associated with increased relationship quality in marriage.
  4. Cultivating the relationship. There is an exploratory aspect of playful behavior that generates memories, securing bonds.
  5. Increased problem solving capability. Playfulness accesses creativity, which broadens the ability to seek solutions to common relationship problems.

The problem is, being playful requires some vulnerability and risk, and couples who are distressed have often lost this element in their relationship.  It’s not safe to be playful with someone who might be critical or contemptuous in return.

If a relationship has lost its playfulness, one of the best segues back in is reminiscence.  Sometimes my husband and I play the “remember when,” game.  Viewing old photo albums or watching home movies from the past can also be useful.  This usually invites positive emotions and can lead to an instant feeling of connection.  It’s the perfect launching pad for additional playful behavior….and April Fool’s Day is the perfect time to start.  Come to think of it, I might even break out the black lipstick…

References:

Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C. (2000).  Couples’ shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(2), 273-284.

Proyer, R. T. & Wagner, L. (2015).  Playfulness in adults revisited: The signal theory in German speakers.  American Journal of Play, 7(2), 201-227.

Couples, Couples Therapy, Holidays, Humor, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Romance

Humor in Marriage: The Gift that Keeps on Giving

In the hunt for the perfect gift for your significant other this holiday season, why not consider an offering of humor and laughter?

Laughter has many documented immediate and long-term individual health benefits; it essentially increases physical and emotional coping and resilience.  However, shared laughter also generates important bonding experiences in interpersonal interactions and is perhaps the most valuable in close attachment relationships.  When someone shares your sense of humor, it’s a form of responsiveness and a way of feeling understood.

I think many people underestimate the power of humor.  I grew up in a household with a father who was uniquely witty in a way that was classy.  He made people laugh without sarcasm or tearing others down, which is hard to come by, and in the process developed in me a huge appreciation for humor.  I don’t consider myself particularly witty, but I hold humor in high regard.

Negative emotion is so absorbing that it makes sense to actively infuse as much positivity as possible into marriage outside of conflictual moments. Some of John Gottman’s marital research demonstrated that healthy couples were often able to repair rifts in their relationships by using humor.  I think sometimes couples forget that they can use humor intentionally in their relationships to promote bonding and positive affect.  In other words, you don’t need to just sit and wait to come across something that might induce laughter.  You can make it a practice to seek it out.

A few years into marriage, my oldest son was born, and 3 weeks later I started a fairly rigorous graduate program.  He was extraordinarily colicky for almost the entire first year of his life, SCREAMING full force whenever he was put down in a baby carrier or swing, despite all the well-meaning advice I received from countless people.  Every shower I took during that year was accompanied by his blood-curdling serenades.

I was constantly trying to balance coursework, my client caseload and my fussy baby.  I was experiencing more stress than I ever had previously (which I think is sort of the point of a combined clinical and research program WITHOUT the new baby), and I had literally never been so tired in my life.  I was so depleted and fatigued during that year that my weight dropped to well under a hundred pounds and I developed shingles and mononucleosis, yet I still had to attend school and see clients and nurture a baby.  There was absolutely no time to be sick.  My husband would leave his full-time day job and come home at night and take over baby duty so I could see clients and study, but I was still constantly spinning in a tornado of demands.   I’m not even sure how I got through it, looking back.  It’s not something that I EVER recommend.

At one point, my mother was visiting to help out and offered to stay with the baby while my husband and I went on a date (As an aside, my son was her 28th grandchild or so, and she commented that she had never seen such a fussy baby—just sayin’).  My husband asked what I wanted to do and I replied, “I really, really just need to go laugh,” because I couldn’t remember the last time I found anything funny.  We purposely sought out a comedic movie which tapped into many of the absurdities of parenthood, and I laughed harder than I had laughed in a long time.  After the movie, I suddenly felt like I could handle life again.

Since that time, there have been many occasions in our marriage and family life that my husband and I have used humor together to reinforce interpersonal bonds.  We regularly share humor by watching particular shows, listening to podcasts, or even reading books together that make us laugh.  I am always excited to show him something that I find amusing.  In the spirit of good fun, we even play jokes on each other.

Once, I purchased a picture frame with the words, “My Mr. Wonderful,” emblazoned across the bottom.  It is equipped with a button which activates one of several stereotypic phrases from the “ideal guy.” I will include a photo and type out the phrases uttered by the frame-o-male-perfection.

My amateur photo of the frame
My amateur photo of the frame (my husband is going to be thrilled when he sees it on my blog)

Here are the various phrases:

  1. Why don’t we have lunch together more often?  I miss you so much during the day!
  2. Enough about me….I want to know how your day’s going.
  3. Anytime you need me, just call. You know I’m always ready to listen.
  4. I wish I was there with you right now. I bet you could use a shoulder rub.
  5. Of course I want to spend more quality time with you. I’ll just cancel that big night out I had planned with the boys. [if this were really accurate, it would say, “bike ride”]
  6. Let’s go dancing tonight!
  7. Do you want to go see that movie you were talking about? There’s nothing on TV but ball games.
  8. I’m sorry we argued. I knew you were right all along.  I just couldn’t admit it.
  9. I found this great cozy hideaway with no TVs. Let’s make plans to go!

Plus one more that’s too stupid to put into print.

I waited until just the right moment to set it up.

While he was out of town, I told him that I missed him, but that I had found a surrogate who said all the right things and didn’t take up as much room in the bed and didn’t snore.  When he came home, he found the picture frame on his nightstand with his photo inside.  When my husband first started pushing the button, he rolled his eyes at me, but it was couple comedy gold.  It is the gift that keeps on giving, because just when I forget it exists, we will be in the middle of a conversation (sometimes heated), and suddenly my husband will pull it out and push the button, eliciting one of the many phrases.  It never fails to make me laugh.  The funniest is, “Let’s go dancing tonight,” because for someone who used to move like a gazelle across the basketball court, my husband is astoundingly clumsy on the dance floor, by his own admission (and he is correct, which has completely delayed my bucket list item of mastering the Argentine Tango).

Differences in marriage can often be managed with a sense of humor.  It’s no secret that my husband and I have different tastes in music.  For his birthday, I was excited when I found a song composed entirely of sounds made from bicycle parts.  When I presented him with “Bespoken,” by Johnnyrandom (no, I’m not making that up) I told him I finally found a song speaking a language he understands – from Johnnyrandom’s garage and heart, to my itunes account, to him.  His response was “Of course you did…,” laughing, which was exactly the response I was looking for. The song is surprisingly mesmerizing, and I occasionally pull it out and announce, “Let me set the mood,” which generally elicits more laughter, and it is now an inside joke that we share.

If you’re stumped about how to incorporate more levity into your marriage, you can always try “Laughter Yoga.”  I’m considering registering my husband and me for a class just to see the look on his face when I surprise him with it.  I believe laughing about laughter yoga is a meta-process, and therapists love nothing more than meta-processes.

Now I need to go think of a great comeback for when my husband discovers that I have plastered a photo of him on my blog…  I think I’ll consult with my surrogate picture frame husband.  He is, after all, “always ready to listen.”

Couples, Family, Holidays, Humor, marriage

Halloween, Happiness and a Holstein: A MOOving Memory

cow
Copyright: tomwang / 123RF Stock Photo

The current trend in Psychology to study “happiness,” has resulted in consistent findings that making memories brings more enduring happiness than accumulating material possessions.  In our family, there are few holidays that evoke more lasting memories than Halloween.

I love Halloween.  However, I definitely prefer the kinder, gentler Halloween of smiling Jack-o-lanterns and friendly looking ghosts to the gruesome displays of zombies, open wounds and scenes from the dark side.  Mostly, I have enjoyed dressing my kids up in costumes and watching their excitement at being in character for the day.

Before I had so many kids, I used to sew my kids’ Halloween attire, because I thought that’s what good mothers did (I know—and I regularly thank the high heavens that I dodged the Pinterest bullet, which was non-existent in my young mother days).

One year, in a pregnancy-induced nausea fog, I managed to sew my way through my oldest son’s costume:  A stuffed chicken eggshell for him to wear over yellow, fuzzy, baby chicken-like pajamas, complete with a top half which he wore like a hat and bottom half which he wore pulled up like shorts.

The expression on my husband’s face when I showed him the costume I had sewn was priceless.  His eyes got big and he nearly shrieked, “My SON is going to be a CHICKEN?  Could you have thought of anything less masculine????!!!!”

“Why yes,” I replied, “Actually, I can in fact name many things stereotypically less masculine right now, starting with fairy princess.  Do you want me to continue the list?  Besides, he’s a baby rooster, and it doesn’t get any more masculine than that.  He’s also a riddle, as in ‘Which came first?’”

My husband rolled his eyes at me, but how could he argue with a Halloween costume which doubled as a deep philosophical question?  As we took my son trick-or-treating, the homemade chicken in an egg costume was a big hit, and my husband admits that it made for a good memory.

While I enjoyed dressing up my kids, we have never been one of those couples who goes all out on our own costumes.  We’re both too reserved and too tired for that.  The last time we had to dress up for a Halloween party, I wore a bathrobe with my hair in curlers and attached a baby doll to my leg, representing a clinging toddler, with two more baby dolls strapped to my front and back in baby carriers.  I bought my high tech husband a pocket protector, nerd glasses, an orange oxford button-up. We appeared as the “reality-based couple.”  Easy Peasy.

One year stands out, however, and it’s one of those instances in which my husband’s loss was my comedic gain (which really is a win-win if you think about it).  We got invited to a costume party a few days before Halloween.  I had only a few hours to pull costumes together in the short time I had a babysitter for our two young children. I rushed to the nearest store to try to find anything that wasn’t too complex or cost-prohibitive.  This was back in the days before large brick and mortar Halloween superstores were available in my area, and Halloween didn’t have quite the same hype that is does today, so I had far more limited options.

As I shuffled through the rack of costumes, a clearance item marked down 75% caught my attention.  It was an adult-sized costume in an XL.  Since my husband is over 6’2” and fairly broad-shouldered, I thought I hit the jackpot.   As I examined the white fabric with black splotches, for a split second, I worried that he might not want to dress up as a Holstein cow, but then I envisioned a gingham skirt hanging in my closet that looked just like it belonged to a farm girl, and decided that if I put my long hair in two braids and carried a bucket, we could go as a milk maid and a cow, and he would surely see the wisdom in my decision.  Mission accomplished.

Then, he came home from work and saw what I wanted him to wear for the party.

“You can’t be serious,” he whined at me when I presented him with my brilliant idea.  “What is it with you and farm animals?” he complained.  “What?” I answered innocently, “It’s just a cow—they’re everywhere.  It’s not like people haven’t seen a cow before—besides, that’s all the store had left in your size–now hurry and put it on because we are going to be late.”  While he reluctantly started undressing, I ran downstairs to give final instructions to the babysitter.  When I ran back up to our room, he was standing there looking bovine-ish, and I couldn’t help it.  I started to laugh.  He was not amused.  “There is no way I can go out like this,” he explained, “I look obscene.”

“What do you mean?” I asked, trying to stifle my laughter, averting my gaze from the obvious source of his discontent.  He gestured toward the large, disturbingly realistic looking polymer udder protruding from his lower abdominal region and explained, “Just look at this!  It looks inappropriate.”

I couldn’t help myself, “Well, you could be an exhibitionistic cow, which is way more interesting than just a cow.”  He wasn’t amused, and suddenly narrowed his eyes at me, fixing me with an icy stare.  “Wait.  Where’s your costume?” he demanded.   “I’m wearing it,” I answered quickly, “Now come on, let’s go.”  I was hoping he would drop it and just follow, but the reptilian gaze continued, “So…I’m going…looking like…this….and you’re going…looking…normal,” he said slowly, as if English was my second language.

“No way,” I said, “I look like I just walked out of an episode of Little House on the Prairie.  Plus how often have you seen my hair in braids?  And look—when have I ever left the house with a galvanized accessory for a purse?” I tried to be convincing as I swung my bucket toward him.  “Now come on, let’s go, and stop staring at me like that.  I keep expecting your tongue to dart out and catch a bug.”

He sighed heavily for the first of many times that evening, but followed along begrudgingly.

On our way to the party, I apologized for not having the foresight to realize what a focal point the udder was going to be, but tried to be optimistic.  “I really don’t think anyone will notice.  They’ll all be so busy with conversation and everything.  You’ll be fine.”  I was also wondering how with my Southern California street smart public school background I had missed any torrid implications of dressing us up like a milk maid and a cow.  I was hoping that my fellow Utahns wouldn’t notice.

We walked into the party a little bit late, and the guests were sitting around in a circle, chatting warmly.  I kid you not when I say that palpable silence descended upon the room as we walked in.  In other words, EVERYONE noticed the udder.  In fact, the udder was now center stage.  As my husband and I greeted everyone and sat down, the man sitting near my husband burst out, “Don’t aim those things at me,” and laughter erupted, bouncing off the walls.  I tried to lighten his darkening mood.  “Can you MOOve over?” I asked, and then whispered, “You’re a MOOvement–A costume that is also a pun.  How cool is that?”  He rolled his eyes at me and sighed.  Again.

I do believe that as the evening wore on and we engaged in a variety of games and activities, there were moments my husband had enough fun that he forgot for a moment that he was dressed as a female cow.  However, as soon as we walked into our bedroom that evening, he made a point of saying, “Take a good look, because this is the last time you are ever going to see me in this costume again.  That was humiliating.”

I replied, “But that was such a MOOving experience…you actually look LITERALLY udderly ridiculous,” and laughed.  He didn’t, so I went on, “I understand, honey.  The next time I get a cow costume, I will get the one for two people and I will even be the back end if you want.”  He made his position clear, “No more cow costumes.”

True to his word, he absolutely refused to ever put the costume on again, and I ended up giving it away to a friend.  However, the costume was the gift that kept on giving, because now every time we are out together and see anything cow-related, I can say, “What does that remind you of?” and we dissolve into laughter, although I admittedly laugh a little harder.

You cannot just go to the store and buy memories like these, people.  It takes special talent to be clueless enough to create something so “a-moo-sing.”  Sometimes our best memories are the mishaps we make as we stumble along and bump into each other in our relationships.  Fortunately, my husband is a good sport.  So, do you think he’ll like the Holstein-print sheets I got him for our bed for Christmas?  Animal prints are neutral, after all!