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/

Advertisements
Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy, Romance

Too Many “Sparks” in Your Romance May Set Fire to Your Marriage

Emily frame
Photo by Holly Robinson at http://www.hrobphotos.blogspot.com/

WARNING:  If you are a raging Nicholas Sparks loyalist and can’t wait for the next book or movie to come out, then you will likely feel defensive and misunderstood if you read this post.  Continue at your own risk.

I believe in the concept of keeping romance alive in marriage (apologies to those who think marriage has nothing to do with romance—in my marriage, it does).  However, I’m something of a romance curmudgeon when it comes to the silver screen.

Recently, my husband and I were trying to find a movie to attend, and for lack of options decided to go see Nicholas Sparks’ new movie, The Best of Me.  I’m always somewhat resistant to Sparks’ movies because they so often seem schmaltzy and formulaic, and filled with delusions of destiny.  I TRIED to read one of his romance books.  Once.  (Confession—not a fan of the traditional romance genre).

As I exited the theater, my husband asked me if I liked the movie, and I told him I felt annoyed.  The premise is that a man and woman who dated twenty years previously met up together again, and of course immediately felt fueled by fate as they had a brief sexual fling, declared their true love for each other, and painfully separated so he could return to his mediocre lonely life, and she could return to her predictably distant and colorless marriage.

The message:  It is burdensome to keep your commitments and do the right thing.  You are sad.  You might as well curl up in a fetal position now.  Oh, and you just passed up your chance at true love…Loser… Lonely loser.

Then, the movie shifted.  I won’t COMPLETELY spoil the movie, but SPOILER ALERT and BIG SURPRISE, she divorces her husband.  In the brief scene with her son post-divorce, he seems perfectly well adjusted to the fact that his mother and father have ended their nearly 20-year marriage, and she is of course happier than ever, pursuing a new career which will undoubtedly lead her back to “true love.”

As a marriage therapist, I felt sick inside.  Since it is easier than ever to reignite former romances and to communicate clandestinely through technology with someone outside of the relationship, there seems to be an endless stream of people damaging or ending their marriages in order to pursue new or former romantic relationships to chase what they think is “true love.”

What the movie did not show was any emotional pain experienced by the son when his parents divorced after their long marriage.  Nor did it portray the real grief, pain and loneliness many if not most endure after a divorce, or after the end of the romantic affair that imploded the marriage.  That, my friends, is much more realistic.

At this point (especially for the Sparks fans), you may find yourself saying, “Settle down, lady…it’s a fiction romance movie, not a documentary on human relationships.”  I know.  I get it.  However, I get very worried about how “true love” is portrayed in these romances, because the truth is, it affects viewers and their relationships.

If we define true love,  by the very real dopamine-induced twitterpation experienced early in a romantic connection which inevitably diminishes over time as relationships become more predictable and secure, then it might be easy to feel like our long-term relationships aren’t “true” at all, and we are missing out.  This is more dangerous when that feeling is used as a measuring stick for what is genuine.  There is a very real physiological response in a new, exciting relationship, or in a secret affair, and people regularly mistakenly believe this feeling means that the relationship is somehow more legitimate than the long-term one which may seem prosaic in comparison.  Over time, the long-term partner can even be viewed as the enemy, preventing “real happiness.”

There have been actual reports of people ending their marriages after watching some of Sparks’ movies, because they felt so disillusioned in their comparatively boring committed relationships.

Interestingly, Sparks is still in a long-term relationship, married to the woman he met in college, and raising a family of five children.  That is undoubtedly not easy, even for someone with steady cash flow from writing fantasy romance scripts.  He seems like a very committed family man.  If I could conduct an interview, I might ask him about how he reconciles his fantasy romance tales with the realism in his own life.  I’m guessing Sparks knows how to fuel a real-life romance, and the formula is different than in his stories.

I began wondering what I, as a couples therapist,  would include in a really good true love romance, were I to write one (which I am certain will never happen)….one in which the partners have set up a life together, complete with children.  Just for fun, I used “romance,” as an acronym.

A really good romance should include:

R for reality:  As in real life.  Like when your entire family begins vomiting in the middle of the night, and you and your husband both have somewhere to go the following morning, and you stay up all night cleaning up truckloads of vomit, and scrubbing the carpet, and you are cranky, and stinky…oh, and the mortgage was due yesterday and…..well, you get it.

O for obstacle:  As in unemployment.  As in chronic or devastating mental or physical illness.  As in your preschoolers deciding while you are nursing a baby that it would be a good idea to mix the rice, flour and sugar bins together, put some of the mixture in the dishwasher, and then top it off with just the right amount of maple syrup for good measure, and you found out 15 minutes before you are supposed to have your baby at the doctor.  As in your kids discovering that if you stomp on Christmas lights while they are still screwed into the string, on your garage floor, it makes a really cool popping, crunchity sound, so they must stomp on ALL of them on ALL of the strings—even the ones stored in the Christmas boxes on the shelf—rendering them useless and leaving miniscule shards of glass strewn about which, like the demon glitter, will find their way into your house months after evading the Shop-Vac…I could go on…

M for Memory:  Memory is always being constructed, and has everything to do with the narrative we tell ourselves.  People who want to stay married tell their marriage story with the positive things at the forefront.   Like, do I want to remember the time my husband and I had one car and he left me standing in the freezing cold because he forgot to come get me, pre-cell phone days, or do I want to remember the time I had been out of town and walked into my room and there were dozens of floral bouquets everywhere?  Be careful of entertaining narratives that someone else was your true love—brains remember things better (or worse) than they were.  Memories are also notoriously inaccurate and more fluid than most people want to admit.

A for Attitude:  Whether you focus on the positive or negative elements of your relationship is completely within your control.  I can focus on the fact that my husband can step over a clean basket of clothes that needs to be brought up stairs and folded, for a seemingly indefinite amount of time (since I gave up on the experiment after 5 days) instead of picking it up and folding it himself, or I can focus on the fact that my husband never complained about a wife who asked him to please bring that basket of clothes up the stairs and fold it after it sat there for 5 days.

N for Negotiation:  Negotiation is ongoing and necessary for romance to work out.  Like when your husband wants to go to a Nicholas Sparks movie, but you really want to go see that action film (patience, dear reader…I threw that in to see if my husband is really reading my blog posts like he says).

C for Commitment:  This is the most important variable in long-term relationship durability, and is necessary with any romance.  C is also for “children,” who benefit from having parents who they can tell are in love, or who can distract you from your couple relationship because they are dependent on you for their survival.  They are also guaranteed to make you both laugh and cry.

E for Effort:  A good romance requires work, plain and simple, and it’s not always rainbows and unicorns.  Once, when I had small children, I was feeling resentful because my husband was traveling for business, and I didn’t like the way I was feeling about him, mostly because I was envious that he was able to go to the bathroom by himself.  I tried to think of what I could do for him, and I remembered the pile of shirts that needed missing buttons replaced, which I had successfully hidden underneath my more interesting  sewing projects so that he would forget about them.  I got them out and put buttons on 8 shirts and surprised him with them when he got home.  Seeing how appreciative he was made me happy.  Romantic indeed.

Please, enjoy romance, but get your education about romance outside of Hollywood.

I’m not a Nicholas Sparks hater.  I actually did finish and enjoy, Three Weeks with my Brother, an autobiographical memoir which was actually quite interesting.  I just don’t love his romances.

I did recently see Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which looked a whole lot more like my life than the Sparks romance.  My husband reminded me that I had given him the book while we were engaged when he was having a bad day, and told him it was my most favorite children’s book of all time.  I had forgotten.  The fact that he remembered, however, made it romantic.

If you are hankering for that romantic film, pick up The Princess Bride.  It will make you laugh, unless you have no sense of humor at all, in which case you might want to consult a doctor…or a therapist…or a humor whisperer, I guess.

My favorite line in the movie is when the disguised Wesley said, “Life is pain, highness.  Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

Now, that’s a romance!

Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

Thumb Kiss and Live Appily Ever After?

romantimatic 2
Image provided with permission courtesty of romantimatic.com

For thirty years, I have been collecting couples’ games, decks of cards with couples’ questions, couples’ journals and basically any product I could get my hands on that might spark couple connection.  Lately I have been investigating couples’ apps.  My son, who knows I have an affinity for the whimsical, suggested I download the “Couples” app so my husband and I could “thumb-kiss,” (yes, that’s a thing….I have now officially thumb-kissed with my husband simultaneously on our iphones).

While I was investigating, I came across an app called “Romantimatic,” which will provide reminders to reach out to that special someone at certain times that you program into the system, with choices for pre-written or original texts.

Then, what caught my eye was a sentence I recognized because I had written it.  The sellers of Romantimatic quoted my research related to texting from the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, by asserting that “Texting to express affection was associated with higher reported partner attachment for both men and women.”

Well, okay.

So, can these new-fangled love apps improve your love connection?

It depends.

These apps provide another tool for behavioral manifestations of feelings about our romantic partners.  They can certainly contribute to a positive environment in the relationship.  In our chaotic lives of perpetual time crunch, they may even help you stop to smell roses.  I have even suggested them to extremely busy clients whose partners feel neglected.

However, couples are very sensitive to authenticity when tools like these are used.  In other words, if you think your partner is using this to placate you, or if it is replacing more intimate forms of contact, it’s not only going to be useless, but probably counter-productive.  Another potential risk is that a partner could end up feeling smothered, if harangued into its use.

So, for those of you saying “No duh,” I feel like I need to point out that people are often so desperate in their desire to connect in their relationships that they start looking for any mechanism to help them do it.  I see people every day looking for the “magic wand,” to fix the relationship.  They think that if they just find the “right communication skill,” or “right words,” or “right love language,” then everything will be solved (and don’t get me started on your trying to tell me what “color,” your spouse needs to be in order to connect…that’s another post entirely).

There is nothing that specific or tangible that exists to fix a relationship.  The real wand is authenticity in emotional responsiveness.  If you already think your partner accepts you and will be there for you if you really need him or her, then apps can actually be a novel and fun way to connect.  Thumb kiss to your heart’s content.   However, if your relationship is distressed, the apps aren’t going to fix it, and can even be experienced paradoxically as mocking, if there is enough vitriol between you.

So, if the idea appeals to you and you at least kind of like your significant other, download away and you will likely enhance an already satisfactory relationship.  Just don’t expect it to fix a highly distressed one.

While the apps are also kind of cute, I still haven’t found any that can replace my husband’s simple texts throughout the day, sometimes filled with rebus images that I have to solve.  So far, nothing compares to getting a text that says, “You are my dream girl,” or “Ur my DG,” especially if he inserts a little emoticon sheep for “ewe,” instead of “You.”  Adorable.

But then, maybe I would receive that text more frequently if he was using “Romantimatic.”

In the meantime, if you see a good deal on one of Cupid’s original arrows, let me know, because I’m in the market.  When that shows up on an app, I’m in.