Couples, Love, marriage

Recipe for a Better Marriage: Add Confetti and Mix Well

81312981 - cheerful couple celebratingWhile I was shuffling through some accumulated text messages on my phone the other day, one in particular caught my attention. I saw a familiar tagline on one of my husband’s messages that read, “sent with confetti.” As I touched the message, a “party In a text,” emerged, showering the words, “I’m so in love with you,” with a pop and an audible swoosh of virtual confetti. I smiled and replayed the message and noticed that as I did, I added to my personal reserve of positive feelings for my husband. One of the things he does well is find creative ways to send positive and romantic text messages on most days of the week, and one of his favorite effects is the confetti option, festooning his declarations with bright shards of color.

Research studies have shown that sharing positive events with romantic partners is significantly associated with positive emotion. By including our partners in the good things that happen to us, we can build positive feelings in the relationship.

Playing off his example, I suggested to my husband that we try our own little experiment and exchange text messages everyday at least once a day that were “celebratory,” in nature, meaning that we douse our gratitude in digital confetti and watch how it impacted our own feelings. I found that this exercise had a two-part impact: not only did receiving good news bring on the warm fuzzies, but thinking of positive things to share was bonding as well.

If you go looking, it’s amazing what you can find to celebrate. Here are some examples of our real-life exchanges, which I have categorized for ease. To gain the full celebratory effect, imagine the word “YAY!” before each statement:

“Making the ordinary extraordinary” celebrations:

  1. You remembered to put the garbage cans out!
  2. You put the lid on the toilet seat down!
  3. You remembered to get milk on the way home from work!
  4. You remembered to pick up our daughter from lacrosse on the way home from work!
  5. I remembered to turn on the crock pot!
  6. All the socks came back from the dryer in pairs!
  7. I found the source of the nasty odor in the fridge!
  8. I walked in the front door and no one’s shoes were sitting out on the floor!
  9. I walked in the front door and no one’s coat was hanging on the banister!
  10. You remembered to turn off the outdoor lights!

“Silver lining” celebrations: Tragedy with a bright side:

  1. When our son lost his fight with the lawnmower, and I wasn’t there to help him because I was taking a daughter to lacrosse, our neighbor who is a nurse saw what happened and took our son to the hospital!
  2. When I was freaking out that the ER docs said they wouldn’t try to reattach our son’s fingers, and I asked if they knew he was a musician, our good-natured, comedic son remarked, “Don’t worry mom, I’ll make more money as a lawnmower safety spokesperson than as a musician anyway.”
  3. When I was worried about our pianist son losing parts of his fingers, I had a friend who sent me a list of famous musicians who have lost parts of their digits, to make me feel better.
  4. Even though our son’s lawnmower accident necessitated the removal of some fingertips, he still has a hand that will likely be able to play the piano.
  5. When our son came home from surgery with parts of his fingers amputated, he took his bandaged hand and made a funny video with it.

“NULL” celebrations—celebrating the absence of terrible events:

  1. No one had to go to the emergency room today!
  2. Nothing in the house flooded today!
  3. No one is failing out of school!
  4. No one locked themselves out of a car today!
  5. No one dropped a full gallon of milk on the freshly mopped kitchen floor today!
  6. No one started a fire in the house today!
  7. No one put a dent in the drywall today!
  8. No one shattered the light fixture with a basketball!
  9. No one shattered the glass by throwing a football!
  10. No one got a flat tire today!

“Go us!” celebrations:

  1. My fortune cookie said, “You and your partner will be happy in life together.”
  2. We agreed on what movie to go see in less than two minutes!
  3. We were on time to the party!
  4. We assembled IKEA furniture without a single fight!
  5. Our kids like to be around each other!
  6. We still like each other!
  7. We are in our 50’s and I’m still physically attracted to you!
  8. We got to Skype all of our kids at the same time today!
  9. We have a beautiful granddaughter!
  10. We have reached the stage in life where we can go to the bathroom now without a child pounding on the door!

“No matter how stressful things are, we can count on this” celebrations:

  1. The sunset is beautiful!
  2. We have good friends!
  3. We have been through stressful times before and survived!
  4. We get to go to bed together tonight!
  5. We are still in love!

The possibilities really are endless. This is one of the easiest things you can to do generate positive feelings in your marriage. Set your phone to generate a reminder even once a day and try sending a celebratory message and see what follows…but don’t forget the confetti!

Reference:

How was your day? Couples’ affect when telling and hearing daily events (2008) by Hicks, A. M. & Diamond, L. M. in Personal Relationships, 15(2), 205-228.

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’https://www.123rf.com/profile_kegfire’>kegfire / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

 

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Couples, Romance

Flourishing in Blah Blah Land

24640009 - couple walking holding hands with sunset and palmsOccasionally, a movie is released that has enough universal impact that I hear about it repeatedly from my clients.  So far in 2017, the movie is “La La Land,” starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone.  Since its release, I have had many couples come in and report that the low point of their week was seeing the film.  Having read critics’ reviews, I realize that the movie’s ending is polarizing.  People like it or hate it.  I hated it.  As someone who dabbles in relationship angst daily, it gave me anxiety.  My husband liked it.  He pronounced, “I liked that ending—do you want to know why?  Because I didn’t let the girl get away.”  I’m sure many have experienced it that way, but after watching it, I realized why it was having such a depressing impact on my clients.

If you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want the ending spoiled, stop reading.  Basically, the movie highlights the utopian budding romance of a couple with enviable chemistry.  It generates nostalgia for the feelings associated with first love, which drive an obsessive need to be with one’s objet d’affection.  The feelings elicit hope and great expectations.

Then, in the last few minutes of the movie, everything is turned on end when viewers watch the female lead go on a date with her husband (who is not the original male love interest) and stumble upon her old boyfriend’s favorite haunt, which is now his dream-realizing jazz bar.  She sees him and immediately viewers experience a speedy montage of what her life and his could have been like if they had stayed together instead of following divergent paths.  And guess what?  Everything looked perfect.  Then, BAM, viewers are slammed upside the head with the scene back in the present in which the female lead is now with someone else.  Everything seems copacetic but also seemingly mediocre, even though she has realized her personal dreams and seems happyish.

Many critics like that the ending shook up the classic “happily ever after,” scenario which (sort of) suggests that life can go on even after lost relationships (All Hail Independence).  For any of my clients in distressed marriages, it elicited some discomfort about the present and fueled yearning for returning to the wildly hopeful state associated with new love.

I get squeamish when long-term marriage is contrasted with developing relationships.  They are quite different, but when they are compared, long-term love is usually presented with a stale energy, suggesting that people in those relationships are somehow missing out.  In other words, it is “Blah Blah Land,” vs. “La La Land.”  This feeling can be what drives some people to seek out alternative relationships which can ultimately destroy a marriage.

As humans, we are driven to attach to people, which often means setting up a long-term predictable relationship which can be a safe environment for raising children.  Sometimes, however, the predictability can diminish novelty and excitement, and dullness ensues.  When people talk about marriage being “work,” it’s more than just working at continual compromise—it also applies to actively putting energy and passion into the marriage.

There are several reasons why life in “Blah Blah Land,” (not meant to be pejorative, alluding to prosaic but meaningful process in quotidian family life) is worth pursuing.  People in healthy long-term marriages overall enjoy better mental and physical health and financial benefits.  They are likely to have better sex lives.  Children raised in those environments also experience the same benefits and greater opportunities for academic achievement.  Research is indicating that after children are raised, many marital relationships start becoming like they were during “La La Land” courtship.  Keep in mind, though, that in contrast, a highly distressed marriage can be deleterious for well-being.

Here are some tips for surviving “Blah Blah Land” to get to the other side where “La La Land” is alive and well.

  1. Accept that feelings of love normally wax and wane in long-term relationships. If you wake up next to your partner thinking, “Really?  This is my life?” it doesn’t mean that you are doomed.  It means you are uncomfortable in that moment.
  2. Refuse to be boring. I started marriage knowing that I was going to be a marriage therapist.  I have always put a lot of effort into my marriage because I wanted a marriage that stayed fresh.  Fortunately, my husband has been on board, because it takes two people.  The internet is full of ideas.  Check out the dating divas for a plethora of options.  Be spontaneous.  Be unpredictable.
  3. Have something to look forward to. Research indicates that planning and looking forward to something can be more satisfying than the event itself.  I try to always have a future event or trip planned for my husband and me.
  4. Try something new together. Anything—new food, a new activity, new restaurant, etc.
  5. Realize that today is not forever. If anyone understands the monotony of the daily grind of raising children, it is I.  I don’t even try to explain to people what it was like to have 7 children under the age of 14, with 5 boys, and a husband working full-time and in MBA school.  I had periods of time when I had to do a lot of self-talk just to keep from ending up in a fetal position in the closet.  A few times, I was in the fetal position in the closet, hoping no one would find me.  FYI—They ALWAYS find you (Just ask this mom with quadruplets who tried to get 30 seconds alone).
  6. Don’t ignore the sexual relationship. This is a sensitive topic, but I believe it’s worth doing what it takes to prioritize physical affection.  If you need therapy because of past trauma, make that a priority.  Don’t deny yourself the ability to have a bonded and satisfying sex life.
  7. Write down what you would miss if your spouse were gone. I have always known that if I weren’t married to my husband, I would never stop missing him.
  8. Make a “year’s worth of new things” calendar (See 2, 3 and 4 above).  It only takes 12 things.  You can do it!
  9. Ask your partner why he/she still loves you and tell him/her why you love him/her. I asked my husband this a few weeks ago and his answer was, “It’s 100% your mind,” which put me into a laughing fit.  “Is that some kind of fat joke?” I challenged, and he said, “No.  I like the way you think.”  If I hadn’t asked, I wouldn’t have that reassurance to carry around with me.  Thinking about it brings me joy.
  10. Laugh, laugh, laugh. Anyway, anyhow.  This isn’t always automatic.  It takes effort.
  11. Different person, different problems.  Sometimes it’s tempting to think that if you were with a different partner, you wouldn’t have problems, but the fact is that when you marry a person, you marry a set of problems.  Sometimes people who remarry wish they had the old set of problems back.
  12. Don’t buy into the myth of soul-mateism.  In the words of Gary Chapman, “Soul mates tend to be crafted, not found.”  I can say comfortably that my husband feels like my “soulmate,” but I also know that I have worked very hard to make it that way.  John Gottman asserts that, “There are tens of thousands of people out there that anyone could be happily married to.”  I believe that.

I was still feeling a little melancholy about the movie’s ending when I walked into our kitchen and my son sensed that I was not in the best mood.  He said, “Uh oh.  Mom’s in a bad mood.  OK Google, play ‘Eaten by the Monster of Love,’ by Sparks.”  Immediately, our Google Home blasted the upbeat, electronic, bubble gum, everything-you-love-to-hate-about-80’s-music, song.  I was assaulted with echoes of “Don’t let it get me, ow.”  “How appropriate,” I thought, but it did have a cheering effect.  I’m at the stage in my life where I can actually see “La La Land,” on the horizon.

In the game of long-term love, effort matters.  Refuse to be boring.  You will up your happiness quotient.

I Predict.  (A little something for my Sparks fans)

Reference: The Science of Marriage (2017). Edited by Nancy Gibbs.  Time Magazine Special Edition.  Published by Time, Inc., New York.

Photo credit: Copyright: gllphotography / 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

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

7 Gift Ideas for Maintaining Couple Connection

Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo
Copyright: halfpoint / 123RF Stock Photo

I often have couples ask me why it seems so difficult to maintain connection even after they have had deeply bonding moments together, and I usually answer, “Life.”  Daily demands come from many sources such as children, careers and community, and compete with a marital relationship for attention.  Unfortunately, the marriage is often the first thing to be sacrificed.  Couples who succeed at not only maintaining but deepening connection don’t get there by accident.  They are the ones who are intentional in their habits to work on the marriage.

There is an undocumented rumor that marriage therapists “have the worst marriages,” because their expectations are so high that they are never happy.  This might be perpetuated from the fact that many people become marriage therapists AFTER their bad marriages or divorces as a way to understand them better and prevent future disasters.  I’m not sure, but  I heard Dr. John Gottman once dispel this myth and said that actually marriage therapists often have pretty good marriages because it is so important to them that they continue to work at it.  I honestly believe this is probably more often the case.

It is true that I have high expectations for marriage, but it is also true that my experiences as a therapist have helped me become more adaptable and flexible in many ways.  I am always working at it, and I think I actually have a pretty great marriage (which admittedly might also have something to do with the fact that my husband is very accepting and easy to live with), despite the fact that I have marital challenges just like everybody else.  In fact, I honestly believe challenges I have endured have allowed me to have more compassion and understanding for my clients.

With Christmas right around the corner, I decided to compile a list of some of my favorite products for maintaining secure attachment in marriage.  Thank heavens marriage therapy is well past the days of batakas, when couples were encouraged to act out their emotional aggressions on each other (see: http://www.childtherapytoys.com/store/product9092.html).  Now, there are many items available for enhancing marital connection in a healthy way.   I have tested out many of them, and some of them are still on my bucket list.  If nothing else, here are some ideas:

Note:  I have no affiliation in any way with any of these sellers and can’t endorse trade with any individual websites.

  1. Conversation cards: There are many manufacturers of decks of cards with questions designed to spark conversation and ultimately more connection between married people (I must have a dozen different versions – my poor husband!) You don’t need to buy a deck – you could just make a jar with your own questions, but if you are feeling unimaginative, a good place to start is the classic “Ungame, Couples Edition,” found at http://www.ungame.com/
  2. Couple journal: Again, there are many, many versions of couple journals (and again, I have at least a dozen), but the idea is to access and share memories, dreams, thoughts, etc., as a way to create connection.  Even if you don’t write anything down, but just have a conversation using the journal prompts, I believe it can help.  One example is the 12 ways to say I love you journal, found at: http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/12-ways-to-say-i-love-you-journal
  3. Couple’s letter book set: In a day and age when we don’t write actual letters anymore, this product possesses vintage appeal.  I’ve always wanted actual love letters from my husband, since we never carried on a long-distance romance.  It’s sort of like the couple journals, but in a different format.  It can be found at: http://www.uncommongoods.com/product/couples-letter-book-set?utm_medium=cpc&utm_source=google&country=US&adpos=1o1&creative=32545578777&device=c&matchtype=&network=g&gclid=CMi-xJXrwcICFYWUfgod0hEAbw
  4. Rituals of connection/Opportunity cards: Drs. John and Julie Gottman have been marketing products for several years related to their research-inspired “Sound Marital House,” theory of marriage. Gottman sells several decks of cards designed to inspire friendship and ongoing connection.  I like these cards because they help couples become more intentional in their marital relationships: http://www.gottman.com/shop/open-endedrituals-of-connection-cards/
  5. Workbook: Unlike the previous products, a workbook for couples usually comes with specific goals and tasks based on a theoretical perspective for couple change. The one I prefer is An Emotionally Focused Workbook for Couples: The Two of Us by Veronica Kallos-Lily and Jennifer Fitzgerald.  Even though it is designed as a supplement to couples therapy, it can help couples identify negative patterns and the emotional meaning behind them in their own marriages.  I absolutely would NOT recommend this without therapy to any couples that are moderately to highly distressed; I would recommend therapy instead.  This can be found at many book retailers, but the Amazon link is: http://www.amazon.com/An-Emotionally-Focused-Workbook-Couples/dp/041574248X
  6. Date jar: Marriage therapists are always pushing marital dating, and I’m no exception. Increasing novelty in dating by trying new things together can actually help improve marital satisfaction (as documented in a study with a control group at a New York University several years ago).  There are examples all over the internet to make one yourself, with tons of ideas, but there is also one available for purchase at: http://www.notonthehighstreet.com/thegreengables/product/the-date-jar
  7. Products for promoting physical affection: Non-sexual, physical affection often drops off in marriage, which is unfortunate, because it helps couples stay connected. For Valentine’s Day one year, I hand knit my husband a “smitten,” which is one mitten couples wear together while holding hands, so we could take walks outside with it.  If you’re not the knitting type, there are several available for purchase at Etsy.  Here are a few: https://www.etsy.com/shop/lovedriven and https://www.etsy.com/listing/83821487/new-handknit-heart-shaped-mitten-for?ref=sr_gallery_32&ga_search_query=smitten+mittens&ga_search_type=all&ga_view_type=gallery.  Another item I haven’t tried, but looks intriguing is the “Cuddling pillow,” with a groove for arms to prevent the arm from getting numb.  I have no idea if it works, but if you are cuddling long enough to cut off the circulation, I have no objections.  If you do have circulation problems, though, you may want to check with your doctor before trying this out.  This product is available at: http://www.armadillow.com/index.php

While compiling this list, I came across a fake product, which I actually thought had promise.  The “no-phone,” found at: http://foolishgadgets.com/201412/nophone-helps-you-wean-off-your-smartphone-addiction/ is a substitute for the modern smartphone, and when substituted can actually allow the owner to, “…finally have real conversations in person with another human being physically over dinner.”  Now there’s a product that I can really get behind for increasing couple connection!  The would-be manufacturers are communication geniuses.  Sadly, this is not available for purchase – but I am seriously thinking of making my own…it can’t be any harder than a hand-knit “smitten,” after all.

Merry Christmas of Couple Connectivity!

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, Gratitude, marriage, Romance

5 Easy Ways to Improve Your Marital Fortune with Gratitude

fortune cookie
Copyright: mybaitshop / 123RF Stock Photo

Theres’ something I love about Chinese restaurants, besides the fact that they are open on Thanksgiving if I feel too lazy to cook (That’s a joke–for my readers who have expressed dismay that I would desecrate the American holiday thusly).  Even though I have become more cynical over the years, I have to admit that I still get a thrill over the expectation of opening a new fortune cookie.  I think it’s the possible irony I might uncover, or the spot-on insights that make you glance over your shoulder like you’re being watched (or maybe that’s just the paranoia talking).  It might be the fact that it reminds me of my childhood and fun memories of visiting China Town, even if fortune cookies are really an American tradition.  No matter the outcome, it’s an end-of-the-meal ritual that my husband and I look forward to completing any time we go out for Chinese.

I have kept a few of our previously uncovered “fortunes,” for their amusing, pithy statements.

I still remember when I laughed out loud as I read the piece of paper that said, “You are always entertaining and delightful,” to my husband and added, “Wow, honey….it knows me,” with sarcasm,  and my husband answered, “Yes, it does,” without sarcasm, because he was being kind.  When I taped it on the bathroom mirror and said, “Just so you’ll remember this when you’re mad at me,” he left it up, because that’s the kind of husband he is.

Once, when he opened one that read, “A photo doesn’t capture your charm,” I wondered out loud if someone back in the kitchen had purposely prepared that one for him, because it was so true.  I hung it up next to mine.

Yet another fortune is associated with a memory of my husband laughing a little too loudly when he read the printed words from my cookie out loud, “Be willing to admit that you may be wrong.  You’re only human.”  Well, they can’t all be winners.

A few nights ago, my husband walked in with a fortune cookie and announced that he had been saving it since lunch that day to open it up with me.  When he broke it open, we both started laughing because it was empty.  “Well, that’s either a really bad sign, or a really good sign,” I said, “I guess we get to design our own fortune.”  There is actually a lot of truth in that statement, and I believe experiencing good fortune starts with gratitude.

Gratitude has been a popular subject of happiness research in the last decade, and its protective mental and even physical health benefits are widely reported.  As a therapist, I have encouraged many clients to actively identify, label and record daily sources of gratitude.  What may be less frequently studied, however, are the overt benefits of gratitude in relationships.  Gratitude is actually one important pathway to relationship enhancement.

It makes sense that expressing appreciation in marriage would either be associated with higher marital satisfaction, or would increase positive feelings in the recipient.  This is true, and in both cross-sectional and longitudinal research, there seems to be a robust recursive relationship between expressing gratitude and marital happiness.

What is more compelling to me is the couples research showing that the person who expresses gratitude is benefitted as much or more than the person receiving expressions of gratitude.  In longitudinal studies, there is a difference between cases in which partners just identify partner appreciation but don’t express it, and those who do express it.  In short, expressing gratitude not only increases positive feelings but commitment to a relationship for the person who expressed the gratitude. 

In other words, expressing gratitude (unless you are being sarcastic and fake and a complete jerk the rest of the time) will help YOU feel better about your relationship.

The more you express appreciation, the more likely you are to invest in a relationship, and the more likely your spouse will feel better and increase their responsiveness to you.  Increased responsiveness helps build relationship security. 

So, can I leap to the conclusion that the more you express gratitude to your spouse (without smothering him/her), the less likely you are to end up in my office?  I don’t know definitively, but I can safely posit the notion.

Here are 5 simple ways to express gratitude:

  1. Make a list of qualities you appreciate and verbalize them to your spouse. I have on occasion had couples complete this task in a marital therapy session, and most of the time, the energy in the room literally shifts.  There is something powerful about both hearing what your spouse appreciates about you in general and in remembering and expressing what you appreciate about your spouse.
  2. Leave a note.   Anytime.  Anywhere.
  3. Notice small sacrifices and verbalize them. Emphasis on the word small.  Sometimes after grandiose gestures we focus more on how our actions are returned.  Keeping score is a marriage killer.
  4. Tell your kids in front of your spouse. I’m always preaching about telling your kids how amazing your spouse is; I stole this from my husband because he’s so good at it.  I wrote a post about this on my blog.
  5. Get creative. Write expressions of gratitude on a note and put it in a fortune cookie.  Write it in the top of the peanut butter jar with a toothpick (my husband has totally done that).  Write a note on the bathroom mirror with lipstick.  Write a note on the shower with soap.  Write a note on the car window or windshield with markers.  Write a note in the dust on the counter (maybe pre-emptively thanking your spouse for dusting?).  Find a song that expresses gratitude and play it.  If you want a throwback to junior high, write it in the palms of your hands (what, you didn’t do that in junior high?) Be fun!

Gratitude helps you identify the fortune that has been right in front of you the whole time.  It is a powerful tool in strengthening couple relationships for both parties.

In the spirit of the Thanksgiving season, it would be fun to start a couple’s gratitude journal, in which you both write down for each other things you appreciated about him/her that day.  My husband and I have done it.  It is really fun, and takes so little time.

Just in case my husband can’t think of anything to write about me that day, I have reminded him that as a prompt, he can start with, “You are always entertaining and delightful,”  which is still taped up in my room.  By the way, I am GRATEFUL that he has had the sense of humor to leave it on display.  I better go tell him.

To read abstracts of a few relevant research articles, you can click here: http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2010/03/01/0956797610364003.abstract

http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/psp/103/2/257/