Tag Archives: stress

Involuntary Celibacy in Marriage

20790930 - close-up of couple's feet sleeping on bed in bedroomMost people get married with the expectation that they will have a sexual relationship.  Yet, it can become one of the most challenging aspects of a long-term marriage.  About half of all Americans report having experienced some type of sexual dysfunction.  Negotiating an ongoing sexual relationship is rather complex.  It includes questions about who initiates contact, how often sex happens, when and where it happens, and what behaviors are desired and accepted in the couple’s repertoire.  Obviously, if couple communication is strained, navigating this area becomes more challenging.

Sex researcher and clinician Barry McCarthy points out in his trainings that couples who report having satisfactory sex lives claim that it only makes up about 15-20% of their overall relationship happiness, but couples reporting low satisfaction with their sex lives estimate that it accounts for 50-70% of the overall relationship satisfaction (which is usually dissatisfaction).  In other words, if the sexual relationship is not going well, it’s going to take up a lot of space between the couple.

When I heard that the term “Sexless marriage,” was one of the most popular Google searches related to marriage, I wasn’t at all surprised.  Clinically, I see many couples who fall into this category, and it creates an environment of distress for both partners in the marriage.  Even though I hear “sex therapists,” (who don’t always have training in managing couple dynamics) make the point that a lot of couples can be emotionally disconnected and have “great sex,” I see those couples far less frequently than couples who feel completely emotionally disconnected or unsafe, and the sex is symptomatic of other things going on in the relationship.  I estimate the ratio of couples who have good sex while emotionally disconnected at about 1:20 of the couples I see at best.  Marital quality and sexual quality do have a high level of covariance and are probably recursive, meaning that a good overall marriage contributes to good sex, which also contributes to an overall good marriage, and vice versa.

Gaining reliable data about couples’ sexual relationships is nearly impossible because people who are willing to answer questions about sex are already going to be different than those who refuse (thus affecting the sample), people lie in surveys, and sex is such a broad and complex topic that it is measured differently across studies and is very subjective.

What is a “Sexless Marriage”

Even defining terms for a sexless marriage is difficult.  The most quantifiable definition with which I am familiar is “fewer than 10 times a year.”  However, if couples are having sex less frequently than this but are both happy with the amount of sex they are having, “sexless marriage,” is inaccurate.  I have seen couples who have sex this infrequently and are ok with it.

Another limitation is defining what couples consider “sex.”  Most people agree that traditional intercourse is sex, but an inclusion of other erotic exchanges could also be considered sex.  I have also had couples who are not able to have traditional intercourse but engage in other sexual encounters and don’t consider the marriage “sexless.”  It varies from couple to couple.  Ultimately, the partner decides if the marriage is “sexless.”

Sexual Desire Discrepancy 

The most common sexual clinical presentation is low sexual desire.  This becomes more complex in the context of a romantic relationship where one partner has higher desire.  The term “Sexual desire discrepancy,” or “SDD,” is used to describe this mismatch in a couple presentation.  Couples with SDD are more likely to have relationship conflict, less stability and fewer positive communication interactions.  Because the sexual relationship is so entwined with the interpersonal relationship, it makes sense to treat it in the couple context.

Involuntary Celibacy

When one partner wants sex and one doesn’t, sometimes sexual interaction can dry up completely between the couple.  It’s not uncommon to see couples in which one is desiring sex, but the other partner will not or cannot engage in the sexual relationship.  This creates a situation of ongoing “involuntary celibacy,” for the partner desiring sex.  Many individuals in long-term marriages live in this state indefinitely, albeit unhappily.  These are individuals who are resigned to having no sexual activity, but who answer “yes,” when asked if they would like to return to sexual activity.

Researchers studying the phenomenon defined it as desiring but being unable to have sexual contact with a partner for at least 6 months.  Their definition of sexual contact was any pleasurable interpersonal and physical interaction of a sexual or erotic nature, not limited to intercourse.  It is not uncommon for me to see couples in which a partner has been living in a state of involuntary celibacy for years. Again, the number of months is not as important as whether the person self-identifies as involuntarily celibate.

Both Genders

Despite the stereotype that men end up as involuntarily celibate more often because it is assumed that they have higher sex drives, I see many women in this situation as well.  Historically, I have seen more involuntarily celibate husbands, but I have definitely seen an increase in involuntarily celibate females over the last decade.  It’s also common that as some men age and face health challenges, they not infrequently withdraw from sexual activity if sexual performance is affected.

Types of Involuntary Celibacy

The course toward involuntary celibacy is different for every couple.  Here are four main types:

  1. Slowed over time—Most couples fall into this category.  These couples start out sexually active and diminish over time.  They can’t always identify when or why they stopped sex completely.  Common reasons are a combination of variables, including a partner’s lack of interest, trauma, relationship problems, changed physical appearances, chronic addictions, physical or mental illness, or affairs.
  1. Stopped abruptly—These couples started out sexually active and stopped because of some precipitating event, such as pregnancy, illness, infidelity or another intrusive stressor.
  1. Little sexual activity ever—These couples report that sex was always somewhat difficult from the beginning. I see this presentation nearly as commonly as the first type.  Sometimes couples desire but have not been able to consummate the relationship.  The main reason given for this type is that it was never very rewarding for one or both partners.  This can be related to some type of sexual dysfunction, sexual trauma, inhibition and shame, physical barriers, early relationship pregnancy, or other early relationship struggles.
  1. No clear pattern—This is a combination of starts and stops at different times in the marriage for various reasons, with the sexual relationship being compounded by other problems.

Common Reasons (or a Combination) for Involuntary Celibacy

 These are common in the research as well as in my practice:

  1. Lack of interest by one partner
  2. Relationship problems and stressors
  3. Concern over physical appearance
  4. Addiction
  5. Physical or mental illness or disability
  6. Medications—common ones I see are SSRI anti-depressants and blood pressure medications, but medications should only EVER be altered under the advisement of the managing medical physician.
  7. Sexual trauma
  8. Time demands
  9. Aging (although people in good health generally remain sexually active)
  10. Infidelity
  11. Pregnancy/childbirth
  12. Low Sexual Desire
  13. Sexual dysfunction
  14. Habituation to lack of novelty
  15. Guilt or conflict with religious beliefs

Consequences of Sexual Inactivity 

Even though I realize that in many situations, a partner who decides that the marriage will be celibate is doing so out of a real or perceived inability to be sexual, the involuntarily celibate partner generally suffers greatly.  In worst case scenarios, low desire partners are purposely withholding or dismissive of a partner’s desire to be sexual, which I think is particularly cruel in a relationship assuming lifelong fidelity.  Additionally, it’s inappropriate to attach a religious banner to one’s low sexual desire, implying that the other partner is too “carnal,” or “devilish,” or generally “bad,” for wanting sex.  That’s complete nonsense and to advance that notion is misplaced, self-righteous, and inaccurate.  Refusing to get help  and requiring that a partner remain  celibate but monogamous without any hope for improvement is just a different type of betrayal .

Each relationship and individual will be different, but common consequences of involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Lower relationship quality
  2. Increased extra-marital sexual activity
  3. Decreased mental health—e.g. depression, low self-esteem, low self-worth, feelings of rejection and sexual and emotional frustration, decreased focus and concentration.

Why do People Stay? 

Again, these reasons are varied and case-specific, but common reasons are:

  1. Nonsexual benefits—Some people enjoy the close friendship, despite the lack of sex.
  2. Lack of alternatives—Some people think they can’t do better elsewhere.
  3. Financial constraints—Some people simply can’t afford to end the relationship.
  4. Investment in relationship—People who have invested time, money and other resources into a family are often unwilling to walk away from it, despite the distress, or don’t want to upset the children.
  5. Social prescriptions—In short, “What will the Joneses think?”
  6. Religious or moral imperatives—Some people see their marital relationships as having spiritual significance and don’t want to make the wrong choice by leaving.

Common Coping Strategies

Common ways of dealing with involuntary celibacy are:

  1. Channel energy elsewhere—Many people report putting time and energy into hobbies or other social relationships.
  2. Compartmentalizing—Some people become very skilled at walling off the sexual part of themselves. I have had clients describe how they completely avoid anything that might access any kind of sexuality—in essence they describe becoming almost asexual so they don’t have to feel the pain of ongoing sexual rejection.
  3. Therapy—Some individuals seek help in therapy, often for the resulting depression from living in this state long-term.
  4. Other sexual outlets—It’s not uncommon to see an increase in activities like masturbation, cybersex, or fantasy, or even seeking out alternative partners.
  5. Resignation—Some people give up entirely and capitulate to the partner barring sex.

If you are in an involuntarily celibate marriage and are unhappy, you are not alone, and there is treatment.  I am convinced that most people have no idea how many other couples are not having sex.  They think it’s just them, and there is so much shame and pain around it that they don’t get help.  The partner who doesn’t want sex often feels hopeless and broken and feels shame as much as the other partner feels the consequences of rejection.  These can be dark and dismal marriages, and if that describes your situation, consider possible change.

What to look for:  Most people have no idea where to get help.  I have a caveat about “sex therapists.”  Except for one state, this is a certification, not a licensed nor monitored profession.  Like anything else in therapy, training and background are so varied that you can tell very little from someone’s license.  In my experience, while there are some cases in which simple sexual interventions can address very specific problems, most cases are so complex and entwined with the emotional relationship, that I would only ever send my own children to someone HIGHLY specialized in couples’ treatment with POSSIBLY an additional background in sex therapy training.  In most cases, I would look for an LMFT who specializes in couples’ treatment, because sex therapy is at least part of the training for this profession.  The couples’ treatment part would be more important to me than the “sex therapy,” part, simply because in my experience, having taught human sexuality at the university level, having supervised marriage therapy students, and having studied sex therapy in detail, the sexual mechanics are far too simplistic for most complex couples’ cases.  The emotional aspects of a relationship are more nuanced and challenging to shift, and are inextricably linked with sex most of the time.

A lot of marriage therapists aren’t going to spend their time and money paying for a “sex therapist,” certification, simply because they don’t need to, so the designation is limited in usefulness.  I have seen many disappointing cases of sex therapists treating couples, who have no idea what they are doing; consumers don’t know how to tell the difference. Being a “sex therapist,” does not make someone a couples’ therapist.

Sex is a couples’ bonding activity. We are born to connect, and the hormones released in sexual exchanges are glue to a long-term monogamous relationship.  It’s worth fighting for.

Lastly, don’t feel embarrassed.  If you are struggling sexually, again, I promise you are not alone.

References:

The Decision to Remain in an Involuntarily Celibate Relationship by Donnelly, D. A. and Burgess, E. O. (2008). Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(2), 519-535.

Using Emotionally Focused Therapy to Treat Sexual Desire Discrepancy in Couples by Girard, A. & Woolley, S. (2016).  Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/0092623X.2016.1263703

Photo credit: Copyright: andreypopov / 123RF Stock Photo

Any Abuse in Marriage is Unacceptable. The End.

screenshot-2017-02-26-20-42-02I told my son I was writing a blog post about intimate partner violence, and he informed me that he had just developed an anti-domestic violence campaign ad as part of his advertising portfolio which can be viewed here.  The above photo is part of it, illustrating that things can look perfect on the outside but be chaotic within.  I might be biased, but I think he nailed it.  He and his team actually made the series of cross stitches themselves, which I find impressive, having completed a few myself.

This topic makes me sad, but it’s necessary to address.  I would much rather be writing one of my usual light, self-indulgent posts.  However, I want to be clear that any abuse is unacceptable.  I worry most about the abuse that doesn’t leave visible marks.

My first exposure to therapeutic services occurred in the context of domestic violence when I was a volunteer in a women’s shelter before I ever started graduate school in the late 80’s.  I’m old enough to remember when Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology was studying abused women and coined the term “learned helplessness,” to describe people in abusive situations.  Domestic violence was one of my early areas of research interest.  About a decade later, I led therapeutic programs for court-ordered domestic violence perpetrators.

Over the years, I have been amazed at how similar so many abusive situations look across the board.  Now commonly referred to as intimate partner violence (IPV), I still worry about the number of individuals who endure ongoing manipulative control from domineering partners.  They either don’t know how, don’t think they can, or believe they don’t deserve to get out.  Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you are being abused.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) supplies a standard definition of IPV.  Basically, intimate partner violence occurs in the context of a couple attachment relationship.  It includes any physical, sexual, and psychological aggression toward one’s partner.  It occurs across economic and educational levels.  Fundamentally, it is characterized by one partner exerting control over the other continually.

“He doesn’t hit me.”  That’s a common phrase I have heard from women over the years who are in psychologically abusive situations, but don’t think they have the right to leave because there is no physical aggression.  There is plenty of research indicating that emotional and/or verbal abuse can be just or more damaging than physical abuse.   People put up with it too long because it is insidious and sometimes difficult to identify.  No one deserves to be in a relationship where basic human dignity is repeatedly threatened.

Some of the common reasons why people stay in unhealthy IPV situations are that they are embarrassed, they don’t want to break up their families, they don’t know how to leave, they don’t trust anyone to help, or they are afraid they can’t survive alone.  Often, the controlling partner makes the other partner feel crazy, so they don’t have confidence that what they are experiencing is really abuse.

Here are some common characteristics of abusive partners, and it’s important to realize that they can be very charismatic and charming in public and when they aren’t being abusive.  That’s one reason why they get away with it:

  1. They isolate their partners from seeing family and friends.
  2. They control all of the finances.
  3. They make threats.
  4. They throw things in an argument, which often escalates into physical violence which includes but is not limited to pushing, shoving, kicking, slapping, punching, biting, scratching, pinching, choking, burning or hair-pulling.  This is criminal behavior and should NOT BE TOLERATED UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES.
  5. They keep partners from leaving, using any means necessary, such as hiding the car keys, locking a partner in a room, use physical force to restrain partner, etc.
  6. They make ongoing accusations against partners, driven by jealousy and possessiveness.
  7. They humiliate, ridicule, or embarrass their partners in front of other people.
  8. They demand that their high, rigid expectations be met and basically throw tantrums when they aren’t.
  9. They can be sexually coercive.
  10. They engage in a cyclical pattern in which tension builds, they aggress on their partners and then have a “honeymoon period,” in which they apologize and are extra conciliatory until the tension builds up again.  This is precisely why so many people stay.  They think because the abuser is being charming now that the abuse won’t happen again.

Leaving an abusive situation isn’t easy.  It’s common for abusers to become more aggressive when their partners try to leave.  In extreme circumstances, this is the point at which a partner is at risk for being murdered.

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence has an entire section on their website dedicated to teaching victims how to get help, including how to prepare to leave and create a safety plan.  If you or someone you know is in this situation, please access this resource.

Men are also victims of IPV but are often embarrassed to access any resources.  Here is a fact sheet about male victims of IPV.

On several occasions, I have counseled with women who realized they were in abusive situations and left but went back.  I sometimes ask, “Where did you learn that you deserve to be treated like that?” Often, they can identify abusive patterns they experienced in their homes, but not always.  Sometimes part of the shame is knowing that they shouldn’t be treated like that, but they feel stuck.  For anyone in an abusive situation contemplating leaving, an important question I ask is “What do you want your daughters to learn about how they deserve to be treated by their husbands and what do you want your sons to learn about how to treat their wives?”

Even though many competent and educated women and men end up being victims of IPV, it’s hard for me to imagine putting up with it.  Realize that abusive patterns aren’t acceptable.  Some people just think it’s a normal part of a relationship.  It is not.  I literally never heard my father use a four-letter word, much less direct one aggressively at my mother.  I don’t even remember him raising his voice at her, and I can’t imagine him throwing anything or getting physical.  I don’t remember him criticizing her ever about who she was.  My parents had normal levels of conflict, but there was a strong foundation of basic respect.  If we children sassed my mother, he always stood up for her and told us to be respectful.  That was my baseline expectation for marriage, and my husband has been a lot like my father.  We often marry people that are like our parents.  You do not have to accept abuse as part of an intimate relationship.  If it was modeled for you, break the chain.

If you are a member of a religiously conservative congregation and your marriage has religious importance, abuse is still unacceptable.  I shudder when I hear of any ecclesiastical leaders minimizing abuse.  My father led ecclesiastical congregations from age 29 until his death, in administrative and spiritual capacities, and he had no tolerance for any kind of abuse.

I have a sister 14 years older than I who was in an emotionally abusive first marriage, and my father encouraged her to leave and she was divorced before they had their second wedding anniversary.  Fortunately, because she got out, she was able to marry again to someone much kinder.  My sister is literally one of the nicest, most generous, guileless people I know.  She’s one of those people that you wonder, “Are you for real?” because she is so giving (not sure how we can share DNA).  Sometimes those individuals attract abusers because they can get away with it.  Her life would be completely different today had she stayed in her first marriage.  It’s likely that staying would have worn down her self-esteem, which would have been terrible because she is brilliant.  Instead, she is spending her retirement years with her spouse traveling, going on cross-country Harley adventures, skiing, and working on getting her pilot’s license (I wish I were that cool).

My heart is heavy as I write this because I know that even though resources are available, many people still won’t get help, but I can at least know that I made this information available.  Please know that you can call a shelter and get protection, therapy, basic needs and support to access community resources.  There is no reason to stay in an abusive situation now.  There are more resources than ever.

Resources:

The National Domestic Violence Hotline

The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence Homepage

CDC Intimate Partner Violence Prevention

APA Intimate Partner Violence Page

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) 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

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

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

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

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

Act I:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  Yes?

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

Him:  I’m eating my snack.

Me:  You’re eating your snack where?

Him:  In the car.

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

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

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

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

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

Him:  (Yawns)  Great.  Perfect.

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

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

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

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

2 minutes later:

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

Him:  (Yawns): Oh yaaay!

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

Him: Huh?

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

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

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

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

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

Him: (Yawns–follows)

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

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

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

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

Act III: 20 minutes later

Scene: Standing by the cosmetics aisle

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

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

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

Him:  Honey you’re silly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Act IV: At the register

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

Me:  You’re ridiculous.

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

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

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

Me:  The carnival is worse than the circus.

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

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

Photo credit: Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stocking’>stocking / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Improving Marriage by Building a House of Memories

40809334 - girl holding instant photo of young happy coupleSince many popular songs address romantic relationships, I often recognize common themes that show up in couples therapy.  Earlier this year, I began listening to House of Memories by Panic! At The Disco because it was congruent with my general preference for minor scales and chords, or as my husband calls it, my “brooding dark side.”

The opening lyrics immediately caught my attention.  Lead singer Brendon Urie croons, “If you’re a lover you should know, the lonely moments just get lonelier, the longer you’re in love, than if you were alone.”  Consistently, couples report that being with a partner and feeling alone is lonelier than actually being alone.

I view this lonely feeling as a huge risk factor in marriage, because it is these moments, just as House of Memories, suggests, when people float back in their minds to previous relationships which they imagine as more satisfying than the present lonely relationships. Because it’s so easy to connect with past relationship partners through technology, the risk factor of loneliness in marriage is likely more threatening to relationship stability than in the past.

As the song progresses, the chorus repeats, “Baby, we built this house on memories, take my picture now, shake it ‘til you see it, and when your fantasies become your legacy, promise me a place in your house of memories.”  I believe the song is suggesting that an individual wants to be remembered with fondness by a past lover, and is somehow hinting that the memories are associated with a more powerful connection than a present relationship.

Unfortunately, many people experience life by living in the past instead of intentionally generating ongoing memories in the present.  Memories in relationships matter because they are related to perceptions of the present relationship and to future happiness and stability.  Memories of the past are also shaped by the present emotional environment in a relationship.

We can influence our emotions and hope for the future by strategically accessing specific memories and generating new ones.  Here are some ways to maximize the power of marital memories to influence future happiness and stability.

  1. Recall and revisit the moment you fell in love. I like to tell my husband that I fell in love with him because I fell in love with his father (but not in a creepy way).  My husband had invited me skiing with him, his father and a bunch of male friends over President’s Day weekend.  As the day progressed, my husband was trying to coax me down a black diamond hill of moguls which I knew exceeded my skill level.  His father volunteered, “You go with your friends and I will stay with her.”  He accompanied me down the slopes, skiing to the bottom of a hill and waiting for me at various points while I skied down at my pace.  This was the first time I met him, and I was embarrassed that he had to wait for me.  Eventually, I said, “I’m really sorry you got stuck with me,” and he warmly replied, “Oh, it’s ok.  I prefer taking a slower pace down the mountain anyway.”  I knew my father-in-law, who highly identifies with his Norwegian ski roots, was just trying to make me feel better, but he was an incredibly safe and warm person.  I thought to myself, “If Steve is anything like his father, he will be a great husband.”  This event was a tipping point in our relationship, and I remember it every February, when we celebrate Valentine’s Day with a ski date.
  1. Identify a past struggle you have overcome together.  Speaking of my father-in-law, a difficult event for my husband and me occurred when he suffered a head injury in a cycling accident.  While my father-in-law was in a coma for weeks, I think I cried more than I ever had previously in my life, because he had always been so kind to me.  My husband considered his father his best friend and was understandably devastated.  When he finally came out of his coma, he recognized that he had a relationship with my husband, but when my husband asked if he knew who I was, he smiled and said, “I don’t know who she is, but she’s really really cute.” I was so happy to have my father-in-law back.  We recall how we counted on each other emotionally and spiritually during this time, and we are so glad that he’s still around.
  1. Look at photos of key happy moments.  Our present feelings can be influenced by the recollection of memories.  Sometimes viewing photos of key moments, like a child’s birth or a favorite vacation can elicit positive hopeful feelings.  Looking at one of my children’s scrapbooks is a powerful source of happiness for me.
  1. Spend money on experiences instead of things. Recent happiness research suggests that people get more bang for their buck in happy memories from experiences rather than things.  I can elicit immediate happy feelings from remembering a time when I was overwhelmed with 5 small children and my husband surprised me by driving me to the airport for a spontaneous trip to Monterey, Carmel and Bug Sur in California. He knew I loved the California coast from my childhood experiences and wanted to recreate that for me.

As the song House of Memories suggests, our fantasies do become our legacies, but we can continually shape those fantasies by focusing on positive memories in our core relationships.

References:

How a couple views their past predicts the future: Predicting divorce from an oral history interview by Buehlman, K.T., Gottman, J.M., & Katz, L.F. (1991) Journal of Family Psychology, 5(3-4), 295-318. 

Revision in memories of relationship development: Do biases persist over time? by Frye, N.E. and Karney, B.R. (2004). Personal Relationships, 11, 79-97.

Photo credit: Copyright: radub85 / 123RF Stock Photo

Before Starting or Continuing your Extramarital Affair, Do This First

49639937 - teenage boy standing between parents who are ignoring each otherI am probably going to ruffle some feathers with this post, and I may not even sound very compassionate, but I have had a somewhat upsetting month from a therapy standpoint.  That’s saying a lot, considering the emotional challenges I face with people on a daily basis.  I feel a responsibility to address this topic.

Infidelity cases are a very typical presentation for a marriage therapist.  Considering the hours of therapy and supervision I have completed, I can easily say I have seen hundreds of these cases.  With an increase in ways to perpetuate infidelity through technological means, I’m not anticipating the phenomenon slowing down any time soon.

The emotions are always very painful.  It’s hard to sit with the emotions and not feel a great deal of compassion for the victims.  I am highly motivated to assist couples in healing severe betrayals, and I have high belief that marriages can heal and be stronger than before, despite the deep and unpredictable emotions.

However, something that is even harder than sitting with the pain of a betrayed spouse is sitting in front of an adolescent who has discovered that his or her parent had an affair.  Watching a teenager try not to cry while explaining the impact of a parent’s infidelity is heart-wrenching.  I have seen several of these cases in the last month, and the devastation heaped on children is inestimable.

Our culture encourages individual “fulfillment,” and downplays the real impact of marital dissolution on children—otherwise you might feel incapacitating guilt and shame about your betrayal—and we wouldn’t want that.  Aren’t you meant to be “happy,” after all?

Most teens find out by accident.  In worse cases, they are the ones that discover the affair and either feel responsible to hold the secret or feel guilty about blowing their families apart with the disclosure.

Here are common symptoms I anecdotally witness in teens and children who are exposed to a parent’s betrayals and related marital distress:

  1. Episodes of enduring worry and anxiety with associated panic attacks; in short, the children are TERRIFIED of what will happen to them and to their families.
  2. Increased nightmares
  3. Intense grief and anger about the conflict and/or dissolution that follows a marital betrayal; clients routinely explain that their parents’ infidelities had a relatively traumatic impact that changed their lives.
  4. Lost focus at school and difficulty maintaining academic success
  5. Depression
  6. Self-harming behaviors
  7. Increased substance use
  8. Decreased confidence about eventually maintaining long-term relationships
  9. A feeling of personal betrayal and rejection; they perceive that the parent was in many ways choosing the affair partner over them and their family, i.e. “He/she cares more about (the affair partner) than about me and our family.”
  10. Unpredictable crying episodes
  11. Increased aggression and externalizing behavior
  12. Insomnia
  13. An increase in stomach distress and other types of somatization
  14. Parentification; in an attempt to reduce stress in the marital system, they will increase roles of caretaking and comforting younger siblings.
  15. Disconnection from their own emotional needs because they don’t want to add more stress to the family system
  16. Generalized distrust in people and future love relationships
  17. Embarrassment, guilt and shame and feelings of unloveability
  18. Increased sexual promiscuity

That’s for starters.

Even if children don’t know explicitly about the affair, affairs have a direct impact on children.  Spouses who are having affairs are less emotionally and physically available to their children.  In short, infidelity has a very real and devastating impact on everyone in the family.

So, before beginning or continuing your extramarital affair, sit your children or and/or your affair partner’s children down and say, “Just so you know, I’m about to SHATTER your world.  You’re going to be really sick, sad, fearful, rejected and just absolutely devastated for an unknown period of time.  You’re going to lose confidence in pursuing your own relationships, but I really, really, really want to pursue this dopamine rush I get when I’m around this person who’s not your mom (or dad).  I really like how it feels.”

Some of you are thinking, “Oh, I could never do that.”

Right.

Your marriage is not just about you, or even just about you and your spouse.

Seriously—just stop it.

Photo Credit: Copyright: highwaystarz / 123RF Stock Photo

In Sickness and in Health: Finding a Balance when Illness Strikes

couple hospital

**I got my husband’s permission to share about his particular illness.

There are many ways illness can affect a marriage.  Some couples deal with lifelong conditions such as diabetes.  Some are faced with a reality of chronic and often degenerative disease.  Many are surprised with acute catastrophic illness.  In just about every case, both partners are impacted by the illness, and together the couple must find a way to restore some kind of relational homeostasis.

A strong marital relationship can be a huge benefit in dealing with these types of stressors, even though it’s normal for couples to feel overwhelmed by medical challenges, and adjusting can be difficult.  A while ago, I was involved in a research project coding data for a study about how diabetes impacts marriage.  I read participants’ responses firsthand, and it was touching to see how many people saw themselves as being “in it together,” which seemed to enhance their coping abilities.

About two years ago, I was in the laundry room and heard my husband calling my name from our bedroom at the other end of the house.  I walked in and found him fighting tears as he explained, “The pain is so bad I can’t stand up out of bed.  Can you help me?”  He had discovered the day before that the pain that had recently flared up in various places in his body was a condition he inherited from his father called ankylosing spondylitis, which is an inflammatory disease affecting the spine and many joints.  He had always known he was a carrier, but he had managed to reach the age of 48 without a previous severe flare-up.

I had literally never seen my husband in so much pain.  I can probably count the number of days my husband has missed work for illness over the last three decades on two hands.   He has also been very active and involved with exercise and sports.  I knew this was serious, because it was so atypical of him.  It was hard to watch him in so much pain and not be able to help him.  I had no idea how long he would be suffering, or how well he would recover.  This particular illness can be very unpredictable.  I had to assist him in and out of bed until the medication he took calmed down the inflammation so he could return to normal activity.

After the inflammation dimished, the doctor prescribed a medication to suppress his immune system.  He hated it.  It made him tired, nauseous and grouchy (I know, ladies…sounds like pregnancy).  He was definitely not himself.  After a few months, he refused to take it anymore and decided to target his symptoms with a more careful diet and exercise.

While all of this was happening, I recall feeling helpless and afraid.  These were two feelings many of my couples explained they felt when dealing with a spouse’s illness.  The feelings only intensify the more serious the illness.

While I in no way wish to minimize the pain and stress many conditions cause, I am offering a few reminders for how couples can facilitate coping with these situations.  It’s common for the feelings of helplessness to become so pervasive that couples become paralyzed from taking any proactive measures, which only exacerbates the feelings of helplessness.  There are small things couples can do to cope, even if the condition never goes away.

Tips:

  1. Talk about the illness.  What losses have you experienced since the illness appeared?  What is the hardest part for each of you?  What do you still appreciate about each other?
  2. Focus on what you can do. It’s so easy for partners to notice what they can’t do that they used to be able to do before illness struck, and with that realization, grief often clouds their views.  While my husband was down with AS, our lives slowed down for a while, and it was actually nice to be able to sit and talk about things we usually didn’t make time for, or to lie in bed and watch a movie together, which is something we rarely do.
  3. Create boundaries around the illness. Part of the problem with many illnesses is that they are so pervasive and take up so much space in the relationship, because they literally never go away.  They are like unwanted houseguests that have taken up permanent residence.  Have regular periods of time in which you don’t talk about the illness, but instead have a different topic of conversation.  If the illness is unpredictable enough that you can’t find an hour of time, take five minutes.  The importance here lies in the proactive component, to exercise what power you do have over the illness.
  4. Appreciate and celebrate what you do have together. Share positive memories.  Share feelings of appreciation.  Be proactively positive.
  5. Share specific needs. This goes for BOTH partners.  Since the sick partner often has obvious needs, the other partner doesn’t feel like they can ask for anything from the sick partner, but there are always ways to get needs addressed, even if in small ways.  Partners can ask for verbal reassurances, written expressions, or even a hug.
  6. Seek outside support. This is perhaps the hardest for couples who don’t want to burden other people.  However, illness is a HUGE stressor in marriage.  It is so helpful to have outside social support to help in small ways.  When my husband was down, I remember asking my friend to pick up items for me from the grocery store while she was there, which alleviated part of the burden.  If you feel housebound, find an online support group.  Talk to people.

There is research supporting the notion that couples who are “relationship-focused,” adjust to illnesses with less distress than other couples.  These are couples who see the regular care and maintenance of the relationship as essential as the care of the individual.  They constantly seek information and put forth effort to repair and improve the relationship.  It’s a way of sealing a boundary around the marriage despite tragedy.  It’s one of those “us against the dragon,” scenarios.

About 12 years ago, my father-in-law, in his early 60’s (which looks very young to me as I stare 50 right in the face), fell on his bike without a helmet and suffered a traumatic brain injury that resulted in a severe stroke and required the removal of damaged brain tissue.  It was a miracle that he ever recovered enough to speak and have a conversation.  He is very functional and capable and works in his yard a lot, but he was permanently altered.  His personality is quite different than it was before the accident.  Over the last 12 years, I have watched my mother-in-law, who is a very patient person, exercise extreme patience and kindness with him.  Even though I know this must have been tremendously hard for her, she doesn’t complain about her losses, possibly in part because she was so glad she didn’t lose him entirely.  They can’t travel like they had planned, and can’t do some of the things they had wanted to do because of his cognitive limitations, but they visit their grandchildren and find joy in other activities.  She has been an excellent of example of supporting a partner in illness.

Illness can strike at any time, but it doesn’t necessarily have to destroy the relationship.  Exercise your power…in health AND in sickness.