Couples, marriage

Why that First Five Minutes at Home can be so Important in your Marriage

ritual.flowers

One evening, I stumbled home from work at 10:30 p.m., exhausted and fighting a pounding headache.  I staggered into my bedroom, sped through a bedtime routine and melted into bed.  A few minutes later, my husband walked into my room and demanded, “Hey, when did you come home?  Why didn’t you tell me you were home?”  I wearily replied, “I was exhausted.”  “You’re supposed to come find me,” he complained.

Was I detecting irritation in his voice?  “Why are you getting mad?  I was too tired to come find you,” I argued.  He sounded both frustrated and a little wounded as he continued, “I was waiting for you to come home.  I was looking forward to it, and then you just went to bed without even saying goodnight.”  “I didn’t know that and I didn’t think you would care,” I called to the back of his head as he walked out the bedroom door contesting back, “Why would you think that?  You always come find me.  You’re supposed to come find me.  Why would I not care?”

Wow.  He really was annoyed (and hurt) over such a small thing, in my perception.

This is a typical example of how the microprocess in a marriage ritual can be rich with meaning.

Importance of Family Rituals

 Marriage and family therapists have known for years how important rituals are in family life.  Rituals are more than just routines—they are special routines that bring significance and meaning to events and people.  In families, they serve several functions.  Here are some:

  1. Rituals aid identity development.  Shared rituals provide a sense of self in a particular context.  The “we-ness,” of rituals actually gives people meaning for who they are and where they fit in the world.
  2. Rituals provide predictability and safety. Predictability and safety provide a secure attachment base which aids confidence to individuals in exploring the world.
  3. Rituals increase positive memories and happiness in families. Even though the stereotype of the dysfunctional family Thanksgiving dinner is a heavily promoted scenario, many if not most of these holidays contain positive memories which aid happiness.
  4. Rituals are protective. Family rituals have been associated with decreased anxiety and depression in children and with increased marital and familial relationship quality.  They can be especially important in families where stability and structure are threatened, as in situations with a family member with a chronic illness.

Importance of Comings and Goings 

Marital rituals are a subset of family rituals and provide similar functionality.  Just like family rituals, there are different kinds:  Holidays, weekly dates, bedtime routines, etc.  What was reflected in my above example was a ritual of separation and coming together again.  When a couple is separating, or rejoining with each other, there is embedded attachment significance, which is why it is so important.  Saying goodbye or giving a spouse a kiss when you leave the house is a way of saying, “I will miss you, but I will keep you with me mentally while we are apart.  You matter to me.”  Finding a spouse when you come back home again is a way of signaling, “I missed you.”  It’s communicating that, “We are important together.”  It is the key to reconnecting after a physical disconnection.  My husband was wounded in a small way when I didn’t come find him because in part, it seemed like I didn’t care if I saw him and connected with him.  It was a mini-rejection.

Marital researcher John Gottman asserts that the first few moments of a couple reuniting after a separation are key in strengthening marital identity.  Reaching out to find a spouse to reconnect upon arriving home has the potential to set the relationship on a positive trajectory.

Bedtime Connection

People might be surprised at how often couples argue about bedtime.  In my clinical experience, a common point of contention is a marriage in which one partner wants to go to bed together and the other partner stays up or goes to bed earlier.  This isn’t primarily about sex (although that can be part of it)—it’s primarily about a sense of togetherness.  Some individuals protest the ongoing disconnection in the relationship that is maintained by differing bedtime schedules.

It’s probably not surprising that frequently, dissimilar bedtimes can be associated with lower marital quality, or that highly distressed couples are often not even sharing a bedroom.

“Lucy, I’m Home!”

One of the most iconic lines in TV land is Ricky Ricardo’s Cuban-accented, “Lucy, I’m home!” from the famous I Love Lucy 1950’s television series.  It has been referenced in modern media pop-culture, like in the ever popular Gilmore Girls.

I might be a simplistic optimist, but I actually believe that if more spouses followed Desi Arnaz’ example and bellowed, “(insert spouse name), I’m HOME,” we might actually see an increase in positive marital connection.  With or without the charming Cuban accent.  The flowers in the attached photo are also a nice touch–just sayin’.

However, if I had used Desi’s line in my aforementioned story, I wouldn’t have that awesome example to show how I completely sabotaged my own relationship connection. I, the marriage therapist, after spending an evening meeting with couples, had underestimated the importance of a small connection ritual.

You’re welcome.

Reference:

Family rituals in married couples: Links with attachment, relationship quality, and closeness. Crespo, Carla; Davide, Isabel N.; Costa, M. Emilia; Fletcher, Garth J. O., 2008, Personal Relationships, volume 15, issue 2, starting on page 191

Photo credit: Copyright: flairmicro / 123RF Stock Photo

 

Advertisements
Couples, Love, marriage

Healing a Broken Heart

38591257 - close up of a heart shape with bandage on white background

Sometimes I listen to the British band, Bastille, because their sound appeals to my Anglophilic tendencies and is reminiscent of some of my favorite 80’s alternative bands.  A recent song that caught my attention is Good Grief.  The lyrics describe the phenomenon of grief as a terrifying event (“watching through my fingers”–like at a horror movie) with complex twists and turns.  Triggers are described as, “Caught off guard by your favorite song, Oh I’ll be dancing at a funeral, dancing at a funeral,” with a chorus that echoes, “Every minute and every hour I miss you, I miss you, I miss you more.”  In a split second, people can go from feeling okay to feeling devastatingly sad. This is the norm for relationship loss.

I’ve become more aware of the song lately because I was recently asked to participate in a question/answer webinar about moving on and healing from lost relationships.  Just about anyone who has been in romantic love agrees that it can be a uniquely and exquisitely joyful experience, but that it can also be proportionately and uniquely painful.

Although I’m usually in the business of helping people preserve and repair relationships, much of my practice consists of people in the throes of grief from recent relationship loss, or who are embarking on new relationships and terrified to proceed because of previous losses.

Losing important relationships can be downright traumatic.  The pain is so deep and often unpredictable, that it can also be disorienting and, as Bastille hints, terrifying.  People are extremely vulnerable in these scenarios.  One of my wishes is that we as human beings were more validating toward people in this kind of pain.  Most people are so uncomfortable with it that it can be hard to get adequate support.

Here are a few things to know and do when facing breakup recovery:

  1. It’s going to hurt.  No duh, right?  Except that it’s one thing to know it cognitively and another thing to experience it.  The brain registers grief and loss as actual pain.  There are even studies demonstrating that taking an analgesic like Tylenol can blunt emotional pain.  I explain to people that it is NORMAL to be in pain, and if they were not in pain something would be wrong.  The pain from a lost relationship means that there was a connection, and as human beings we feel pain with lost emotional connection.  Feeling pain means you can also feel joy.
  2. It’s going to hurt for a while. People often expect to feel better faster than they do.  It’s not atypical to see people in active grief for a year, or even a few.  For some relationships, grief triggers may not ever entirely disappear, but they generally get less intense, and the time between triggers increases.
  3. Feel pain well. This sounds strange, but what I mean by this is to actually set up a specific amount of time daily or weekly to actively grieve a relationship. Create a grieving ritual.  Write stream-of-consciousness style for a number of minutes.  Think about memories you want to keep.  Allow yourself to express sadness.  Set the timer, and when the timer is up, have a ritual to transition into another activity. Complete a mundane task and then move on toward a new activity.  There will still be diffuse pain, but I believe that actively grieving in a specific time and space helps create a boundary and contain some of the grief.  It moves people through the process with less complexity.
  4. Practice mindfulness. You cannot control when and where triggers will show up.  They are everywhere.  They lie in songs, places, dates, smells–potentially in any stimulus.  When a trigger happens, focus on breathing and become curious about emotional physical reactions and just “be” with yourself.
  5. Actively restore, strengthen or begin other new connections. Our society places a premium on romantic love and underrates other types of human connection.  Think about what kind of son/daughter, brother/sister, parent, neighbor, friend, grandchild, grandparent, community member, etc., you want to be and reach out to someone.  Write a note—even if it’s a text.  An attempt at human connection is movement toward health.
  6. Find self-care activities to appeal to the senses. Yoga is an excellent idea—calming, restorative and tactile.  Take warm baths.  Listen to music.  One of my favorite calming sensory activities is to sit near a container of kinetic sand and just handle it.  I used to provide sand tray therapy, and I noticed that my clients often significantly visibly relaxed while playing with sand.  These are all soothing activities for targeting distress.
  7. Write down anything you have learned from the loss of this relationship. Yes, really.
  8. Figure out how you would be happy if you never got involved in another romantic relationship again. Why would I ask this?  Because you will be less likely to rush into a compromised relationship.  Yes, romantic love can be nice (although being in a romantic relationship and feeling alone is MORE alone than being alone and alone), but people do survive and finds ways to be happy through other connections (see #5). What do you want to accomplish in life?
  9. Do something new.   Visit somewhere new.  Read something new.  Take a new class.  Go to a new restaurant.  Do new by yourself.  Do new with others.
  10. Write down a few things you would like to be doing in 2 years. Rule number one is that it cannot include the break-up partner.
  11. Practice visualization. Visualization is powerful, but most of us talk ourselves out of it instead of actually doing it.  Visualize a time, without the break-up partner, when you felt confident and happy.  Sit with that image and see if you can imagine guiding yourself toward the future (see #10) preserving those confident feelings.

One of my favorite episodes of This American Life, is #339 from 8.24.2007, entitled, “Break-up”.  Radio producer Starlee Kine wrote about a painful break-up during which she listened to Phil Collins songs and asks Phil to help her write her own break-up song.  In her description, she wrote, “I was no longer listening to his (Phil’s) songs for pleasure, but for pain. They were break-up songs. And hearing them was the only thing that made me feel better. And by better, I mean worse.”

I laughed when I first heard her assessment, because that resonated with me.  In short, hearing the songs created pain, but facilitated grieving in the long-run.  That, in essence, is how to mend a broken heart.

Lastly, I know you feel alone, but you are not alone.  The reason there are so many break-up songs is that it is such a ubiquitous human experience.  You can heal, and choosing activity over passivity can help.

Photo credit: Copyright: picsfive / 123RF Stock Photo

Love, marriage, Romance

Everything is Awesome—When your Spouse Thinks You’re “The Special”

lego-couple

**Long and gushy—you’ve been warned.

On a recent family vacation, one of my children started watching the Lego movie loud enough that all of us were enjoying the snappy dialogue and “Everything is Awesome,” earworm. When Emmett was potentially identified as “The Special,” my mind wandered to how often that word comes up in therapy.  In short, distress often develops when spouses don’t feel “special,” to their partners anymore.

Spouses Want to Feel Special

I have NEVER  met a spouse in therapy who didn’t want to feel special to his or her partner in the classic definition of “unusual in a good way; better or more important than others; or especially important or loved.”

One of the best examples I know of someone who does this well is my husband.  He could give lessons on it. I was reflecting on the specifics of how he has reinforced that for me, and how it has enhanced my marital satisfaction.  This post will probably embarrass him, but he really is that good.

Don’t get me wrong—I know I can drive my husband absolutely crazy with some of my annoying qualities.  He will tell you that I can be very sassy and difficult for starters.  Despite our stepping on each other’s toes from time to time, I have never lost the sense that he thought I was “The Special.”

We Often Marry People to Whom we Feel Special

When I met my husband, I really liked him and went on a few casual dates with him, but I already had a long-distance boyfriend, so I had no interest in getting close.  We had known each other for two weeks when he called and said he wanted to go on a walk and talk to me about something.  My roommates started laughing that he wanted to go on a “DTR,” (define the relationship) walk and that I should prepare for a way to turn down the “marriage proposal.”  Because I was wanting the opposite of a serious relationship, I could not wrap my head around the idea that he could possibly be feeling that way, so I protested their mockery.

It turns out, they were 100% right.  He explained that he had dated a lot of girls and that he didn’t need to date anyone else because he knew I was the one for him.  I awkwardly explained that I was in a serious relationship with someone who was away in a volunteer capacity in a different part of the country, and that while I thought he was a really nice guy, he really needed to move on because I was taken.

He was not happy.  I shut the door behind him when he dropped me off at my apartment and exhaled a sigh of relief to be back home.   I wasn’t very sympathetic to his moping because I just wasn’t interested.

For several months, he would show up and walk alongside me on my frequent outings to campus and ask me out on informal dates.  It seemed like I ran into him everywhere.  We got along well and seemed to think a lot alike.  I felt entirely comfortable around him.  I agreed to go with him places as friends, because his likability was irresistible, but I still didn’t want to get serious with him.  I distinctly remember saying, “I don’t have any more ways to tell you that I’m not getting involved in a serious relationship.  I’m being very straight forward with you.  Date other people.  I am.”

Repeatedly we would have a version of this conversation:

Me:  Who did you take out this week?

Him:  I told you I’m not asking anyone else out.  I don’t want to date anyone else.

Me:  Well, that’s ridiculous because I told you I’m taken.  I’m dating people as friends, but I’m not getting serious with anyone.  What about so-and-so?  She’s cute, don’t you think?

Him:  Meh.  I don’t know.  Sort of, I guess—cuter than most of the other girls.

Me:  Why don’t you ask her out?

Him:  She’s not you.

I would avoid him for a few days, he would pout, and eventually he would show back up.  The thing is, he was incredibly safe and predictable.  I could count on him for anything.  He was a constant and continually sent the message that it was me he wanted, and no one else.  After about 6 months, it occurred to me that despite my regular rejection, he must really like me because he was still hanging around.

When I was talking to my roommates one night about the fact that he seemed very sincere about loving me, I decided maybe it wasn’t a bad idea to consider building a life with someone I liked (loved, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself at the time) who seemed so sincere and constant.  They responded that it was clear that, “Steve will always love you—even when you’re old and gross.”  I realized that if this was something they viewed from the outside, maybe the sense I had that I would always be able to count on him was real.

My roommates were right.  Despite all of our ups and downs, I can honestly say that I believe my husband still sees me as “The Special.”  I have no idea why, but he has just always really liked me for me.  Because of that, I am free to be myself and take risks with him.  I can be playful, physically affectionate, and exploratory because I know he will accept me at a fundamental level.  He can see who I am, even with my frailties, and still want me anyway.  This is the core of “specialness.”

Here are some basic ways to help a spouse feel “special” in marriage:

  1. Watch for unique things your spouse likes and present them as gifts regularly. My husband knows I love blue flowers, so whenever he sees them, he brings me some.  This is just one example of how I know he is thinking about me when I’m not around, and that he has paid attention to my unique preferences.
  2. Pay attention to what your spouse dislikes. My husband knows I despise melted cheese and mayonnaise, so if he ever orders food, he knows to check on this.  This seems obvious, but it’s not.  I have met with many couples where the fight is that “We have been married for how many years and you still don’t know that I don’t like that?”  I read an article once in which Cindy Crawford used the example of her ex-husband Richard Gere trying to bring her a drink, and she realized he still didn’t know she didn’t like that drink after they had been married for so long.  It influenced her decision to leave him.
  3. Generate a unique symbol with meaning for both of you. Once, my husband and I were looking up meanings of names.  I knew that Lori came from the laurel tree and was a symbol of victory, because my mother had told me this repeatedly.  Steve and I came across explanations of Steven meaning “victor,” and Lori meaning, “to the victor.”  I gushed, “Look, honey—we were meant for each other.”  Later, he bought me a ring with a laurel branch with 7 leaves (one for each of our children) and presented it to me as a reminder of this meaning.  I adore this ring for the special symbolism.
  4. Have a secret language. If you were to scroll through my husband’s and my texts, you would see a regular and odd exchange of numbers we send to each other throughout the day.  We started a habit of sending reflexive numbers (I like mathematical symmetry) at various time points almost daily.  In short, it means, “I’m thinking about you right now.”  It also means, “You’re special.”
  5. Have a special restaurant or treat. I have a foodie obsession, and my husband and I generally have a current favorite restaurant or food item.  Earlier this week, my husband surprised me with a crème brûlée I discovered at Real Foods Market a few years ago.  It’s a relatively out-of-the-way item, which makes it even more special that he remembered.
  6. Have a special song or music group you share together. When I was dating my husband, I watched him play a lot of basketball.  I have a distinct memory of watching him play while Club Nouveau’s cover of “Lean on Me,” was playing, on several occasions.  I heard it playing on the radio, recorded it with my phone and sent it to him.  He also does a great job of playing songs for me that he hears that remind him of us.  His most recent song dedication was a song by SafetySuit with lyrics declaring, “I will never get used to you.”  He still plays this for me as an iPhone alarm right now.
  7. Think of a special way to present an act of service. My husband also knows I have a weird obsession with hearts.  On countless occasions, he has brought me some kind of food in a heart bowl or drink in a heart-shaped cup.
  8. Verbal compliments. For years, my husband will be talking and will stop right in the middle of a sentence and say, “You’re so pretty.”  Sometimes this would be in the morning and I would protest, “Oh stop…when you’re insincere, you cheapen it.  I have no make-up on,” and he would say, “Right.  That’s specifically one of the things I loved about you—you didn’t look very different without your makeup on, while some girls I dated looked totally different.  You’re just pretty.”  On countless occasions, he has said to one of my children, “Isn’t your mom gorgeous?” and they roll their eyes.  I’m not, but I believe there is something he sees uniquely about me that he likes.
  9. Tell your spouse how and why they are special regularly. I have completely taken for granted the fact that my husband thinks I’m special, because he so often comes right out and says, “I am so lucky I am married to you. You’re_______ and_____and_______and______and I love that you’re__________.  How did I get so lucky to marry my dream girl?”  He’s specific, which makes it more believable.

My husband woke up a few months ago, rolled over and asked, “How did I get so lucky to land you?  I landed you!”  I answered, “Well…..you wouldn’t go away for one thing.”  He laughed and added, “That’s right, I wouldn’t,” at which point I laughed along with him.  “But I’m glad you didn’t,” I continued, “Because you have been the best husband.  I’m lucky to have you.”  I meant it.

I think most people would consider me to be very average, but I do believe my husband thinks I’m special–because the fact is that HE is “The Special.”

Life can be very scary.  It is full of lots of rejection, misunderstanding and pain.  However, for most of us, if there is one person out there who believes in us and treats us like we are special,  EVERYTHING is indeed “Awesome.”

**I told you.

Photo Copyright: rosinka79 / 123RF Stock Photo

blended families, Family, Parenting

Hope for Blended Families: When Your Brady Bunch is a Weighty Bunch

3774955 - beautiful family on the dock

One of my favorite tv shows while I was growing up was The Brady Bunch.  Mike and Carol Brady managed each contrived family challenge with ease and contentment.  That’s why the popular sitcom is definitely a better example of fiction than of blended families.  Some of the most challenging cases I have seen in therapy are those with combined households.  Blended families are by nature exposed to a great deal of stress.  Some reasons they are particularly challenging are:

  1. Family structures are constantly shifting, with children coming and going. In families where both parents have children and the children spend time with both parents, they are in constant transition from one household to another.  Transitions generate stress.
  2. Children have loyalties to both parents. Children feel stuck in the middle trying to please their biological parents.  They can easily feel disloyal to a bioparent by accepting a stepparent.
  3. People often feel differently about their biological children than stepchildren. This isn’t how people want it to be, but the reality is that most people have an easier time empathizing with their own children.
  4. Children from different households have often been raised with different rules and types of discipline. This can generate arguments between the parents about how to develop and enforce rules.
  5. Blended families can have children in different life-cycle stages. For example, a parent with teenagers might marry someone with preschoolers, increasing the complexity of understanding and meeting the needs of all household members.

It’s important to note that blended families and step-parents have great potentiality for developing well-adjusted, secure individuals if the parents can work together and maintain amiable relationships with their former spouses.  I know of many instances in which a stepparent provided the type of love and security children need to have confidence in stable relationships.

Some intentional things blended families can do are:

  1. Promote a discussion acknowledging losses and gains of each family member.  Have an actual meeting in which you allow children to draw pictures or voice the things they miss from their biological families.  Then, ask what they have gained.  If children are asked about losses, they can immediately feel more validated and safer sharing their fearful and uncomfortable emotions.
  2. Establish a new family tradition with the blended family. Allow each family member to have input on what this might be.  Don’t overthink it.  Small rituals are powerful.
  3. Make sure stepparents spend one-on-one time with stepchildren. I’m disappointed by how many blended families miss this opportunity.  Parents have former history with their biological children.  They need to create new history with stepchildren.
  4. Think of parenting stepchildren as mentoring rather than traditional parenting. How would you mentor a niece or nephew?  The stepparent relationship is different than the biological relationship.  This must be acknowledged and respected.  Do NOT require stepchildren to call you “Mom,” or “Dad,” but if they want to, let them.
  5. Reinforce the marriage. This is even more important in blended families than in biological families.  The issues with children can quickly fray the marriage.  Take time to date, have discussions, attend workshops, and actively implement strategies to express love and care in the couple relationship.

As a general rule, if people focused more on improving relationships than on discipline, I believe there would be far less headaches with blended families.  This requires a certain level of emotional regulation on the part of the parents, who may be rejected by stepchildren.  Remember, your children are not there to meet YOUR emotional needs…you are there to meet your children’s emotional needs and help them develop into functioning, healthy human beings…those of the non-fictional variety.

Photo: Copyright: creativestoc / 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

Family, Grandparents, Marriage and Family Therapy

Grandparenting Power

Courtesy of Holly Robinson at http://hrobphotos.blogspot.com/
Courtesy of Holly Robinson at http://hrobphotos.blogspot.com/

When my dad passed away a few years ago, one of the saddest things about it for me as the youngest of six children was that my younger children wouldn’t experience his amazing personality.  I was already sad that my mom was gone and my kids wouldn’t be on the receiving end of her endless generosity.

Grandparents can have important protective impacts on children

Research demonstrates consistently that grandparents are potentially significantly influential in the cognitive, social and emotional development of children.  Positive grandparenting interactions are protective for children and can even moderate some negative childhood experiences.

Considering grandparenting can be a way to refocus on others in later life

I have had many opportunities to meet with people in therapy who are faced with various life transitions.  Sometimes, there has been a rupture in the family structure with loss of family members  due to death or divorce or children leaving home.  Sometimes, there are job changes based on unemployment or retirement.  Sometimes, normal aging processes and health challenges require transitions into new routines with limitations.  In these situations, it is common to experience stress, often accompanied by fear of the unknown and discomfort with the unfamiliar.  People often experience a type of existential angst about their identities, purpose and meaning.

Grandparenting can shape legacies

I like to introduce the idea of creating legacies through grandparenting, which is a frequently overlooked role in modern American life.  I often ask, “Have you thought about what kind of grandparent you want to be?  Do you realize how many potentially positive memories you can create for your grandchildren that can have a generational impact?”  It’s one of the few ways to really create an enduring legacy.

Grandparents can form safe attachment and happy memories

I only knew one of my four grandparents, but my little Swedish maternal grandmother was at the forefront of my life in shaping my identity and self-concept.  I spent a lot of time with her when I was young while my mother was recovering from back surgery.  Grandma had been widowed, and I kept her company while she kept me out of my mom’s hair.  Her nurturing was key in my experiencing the world as a safe and happy place.

Her memory jumps out at me in unexpected ways.  The other day, I walked into a market and was ecstatic to see a display of seasonal persimmons for sale.  I literally felt a wave of positive emotion connected to my maternal grandmother, who had introduced me to the unique fruit almost five decades earlier.  I bought a bag of them and took them home. As I bit into one, I was transported to her green-carpeted family room floor, where I would lie, listening to Swedish learning records she would play for me every time I visited.  I found that if I listened to the records and could then recite back to her many of the words I remembered, she would comment on how brilliant I was and brag to her friends about my intellectual skills.  I didn’t care that her exaggerations were inaccurate;  it gave me the feeling that someone believed in me and fueled my motivation to learn.

She and I had established a ritual upon entering her home in which she would ask me if I wanted something to eat.  She wasn’t the type of grandma to bake cakes and cookies, but she always had produce that my mother didn’t keep at our house.  This included more practical simple dishes, like sautéed spinach with lemon on the side, which was my standard snack food at her home.  She had a predilection toward unusual fruits and vegetables, and it seemed like every time I visited, she would introduce something new to my developing palate.

On one visit, she showed me how to eat an artichoke.  On another, she made me sautéed parsnips, and to this day the nutty flavor and texture of parsnips is associated with a warm hug and smile from my grandmother.  She introduced me to the small tangy kumquats that grew on a tree in her backyard, and eating them became a sort of Fear Factor challenge.  I have developed a near-obsession with acquiring boiled peanuts, since she kept cans of them procured from relatives in my grandfather’s native Florida.  I am often bringing home unique fruits and vegetables to my children, and when I was explaining persimmons to my daughter and how my grandmother taught me how to eat them, she said, “Oh, that’s why you like all those weird fruits and vegetables.”  Well.

Grandma was persistently cheery and smiled a lot, and if I needed correction, she always used a gentle approach to redirect my actions.   I don’t ever remember her raising her voice at me.  In her spare time, she had a practice of driving all of her widowed friends who no longer drove vehicles to their doctor appointments. She told me fascinating stories about when she was a child, like dancing around the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve in the Swedish tradition, or about sledding in Salt Lake City, Utah (her Swedish parents emigrated from Sweden to Utah in the late 1800’s).  For a southern California girl, the thought of having snow in my yard was surreal and I never tired of her descriptions.

She explained the story of how she got two middle names, since when she was born, she was going to be named “Pearl Adaline,” (pronounced “Adalina,” but retaining the Swedish spelling).  She explained that she only weighed 2 ½ pounds at birth, and her father gave her a baby blessing and added the name, “Eva,” up front, since it meant “life.”  She would say her entire name with Swedish emphasis on the first syllables, so it came out in a melodious, “Eeva Puurrl Aaada-leena,” and to this day when I’m telling my kids that story, I find myself adopting a temporary sing-songy Swedish lilt.

She regularly made me her travel companion as she visited and introduced me to an endless stream of distant relatives.  In short, she was literally one of the friendliest and most service-oriented people I knew, and she made me feel like I was valuable in the world.

When she died at age 90, and I helped dress her for her funeral, I was heavily impacted by the realization that none of her earthly possessions had followed her beyond mortality, but that the relationship she cultivated with me would potentially influence generations of people.

Simply stated, intentional grandparenting is one of life’s grandest gifts.  I look forward to being a grandma.  It matters.

Family, Fatherhood, Marriage and Family Therapy

Arrivals: Is Everybody Happy?

mom's flowers
A photo of my mom’s beautiful flowers

This month is the third year anniversary of my father dying.  I miss him and my mom.  A lot. My parents created a lot of safety in predictable rituals.  This is a story I wrote a year ago that was published in an edition of http://seeingtheeveryday.com/  , a publication which I adore, which centers around prosaic family process.  I think this story shows how much influence dads can have through simple means:

My garage door provided a predominant fanfare of my childhood, announcing my father’s spirited nightly arrival home from work in predictable fashion.  It was a rather ordinary door:  wooden slats painted white, visible with years of wear and tear, paint chipping from slightly warped slabs.

Tortured groans echoed from its springs in protest any time someone entered its dark quarters. Though loud and often obnoxious, the sounds emanating from any garage door quickly becomes a backdrop, unnoticed by household members distracted by incessant demands of daily living.

However, the sound of a garage door rising on its lift mechanism triggers physical warmth swelling up inside me.  It starts in my stomach and spreads upward, manifesting in a quiet smile on my lips, likely undetectable to others; every single time.

I smile and I think of my father, who passed away two years ago, leaving me grieving but also with a substantial sense of feeling loved and with the confidence to believe that I could accomplish anything I chose to pursue.  I still feel a unique comfort deep inside when anyone in my home pushes the garage door button, transporting me immediately to my 1970’s kitchen from decades ago when I was 6 years old.

Anyone with listening ears could hear our loud door from virtually any room in the house.  Like clockwork every evening, as my mother cooked dinner, signaling my dad’s imminent arrival, I listened carefully in anticipation of the appointed time, waiting for the garage door to trumpet his homecoming.

As if on command, the instant the sound reached my ears, I ran screaming through the house, and positioned myself with spring-loaded action, preparing to use my gymnast legs to hurl myself into my father’s arms.  Breathless from screaming, “Daddy’s home, daddy’s home, DADDY’S HOME,” I lurked behind the door from the laundry room, listening for his nearing footsteps in order to time my launch accurately.

The instant he stepped through the door, I leapt up, simultaneous with his lifting me toward him in one well-choreographed motion, entwining my arms around his neck.  This was all prelude to his nightly query, delivered in his typical energetic style, as it had been the night before and the night before that and every night before that.  “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY??!!!!” he shouted, drawing out the first syllable as if to coax any reluctant bystanders into his exuberant mood.  Walking toward my mother at the stove to kiss her cheek, his contagious tone sparked a smile on her face.  It was pure magic.  “YES, YES, YES, I’m happy!!!!!”  I would shout, and giggle as he rubbed his burnt toast cheeks on my face and commented on my scratchy five o’clock shadow, eliciting more laughter.

When my father died, my brother spoke at his funeral.  One of the first things he mentioned was that my dad woke us up daily by vigorously singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” somewhat intrusively for the early hour, and that he returned nightly from long days at work running his own company to announce his arrivals with a zesty, “Is everybody happy?”  In fact, all six of us children had the same endearing memory of our father’s nightly entrance and enthusiastic inquiry.   If you weren’t happy before he arrived, then you certainly were after he swept into the room with suggestive elation.  The predictable arrival ritual generated similar feelings of safety and warmth and unconditional love in all of us.

Now that I am a mother of seven and fully appreciate the fatigue that accompanies long days, I am even more grateful for what must have been a sacrifice on his part.  I realize that, tired or not, it was important to him to contribute an encouraging influence in the household when he came home.  It worked.  Those three words became a powerful utterance reaching us beyond his mortal absence.  He successfully created a solid positive energy that is woven into our lives, demonstrating a father’s ability to influence his children despite working outside the home in a demanding career.

Now, when my husband wants to cheer me up, he walks through the door, and attempting to imitate my father’s intonations, bellows, “Is EEVERYBODY HAPPY?!!!”

And every single time……I feel like, in life and in love, I have arrived.