Couples, Love, marriage, Romance

Rejuvenating the Magic of Those Three Little Words

48470551 - comic bubble heart i love you pop art retro styleSee if you can finish this sentence: I love you, but I’m not…………

Right…I love you, but I’m not in love with you.

It’s probably no surprise that I hear this sentence all the time in couples therapy. It’s not my favorite thing to hear, because I know it’s what people say when they aren’t “feeling it,” for their spouses, and they want to “feel it,” to stay married.

The Good News and the Bad News About Marriage Today

Long-term romantic relationships are a salad of chemistry, passion, friendship, emotional connection, expectations, commitment, forgiveness, acceptance, effort, benevolence, support and security, among other things……sprinkled with pain and joy.

Eli Finkel, a researcher at Northwestern University who is releasing a book next month titled The All or Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, has pointed out that people in western cultures expect more from their marriages than ever. Higher expectations aren’t all bad. Finkel reports that right now, it seems that we have the best marriages and the worst marriages. In other words, people in average marriages are reporting lower marital happiness and stability than in times past, but the best marriages are linked with higher marital quality and individual well-being than before.

Basically, spouses today want the whole enchilada. We are more social disconnected than ever and rely on our spouses to fill roles that may previously have been filled by other people. We are connected to higher numbers of people more quickly maybe, but in a way that I call a mile wide and an inch deep…..the relationships are less meaningful, or at least serve different functions. That’s why in marriage most people want a best friend, a passionate partner, an economic supporter, and, Finkel reports, someone to help us self-actualize. We want our partners to help us achieve our highest individual psychological needs. Read more about it here.

Now, take all those expectations, wrap them in a red heart-shaped package called “love,” and you have a marriage therapist’s worst nightmare.

We Need Better Words for Love

The English language is sorely lacking in nuanced definitions of love. We use that word to express affection for any person, place or thing. We love our spouses, we love our children, we love our dogs, we love our houses, and we love our cars. Even French, la langue d’amour, is limited in expression. If we don’t have good ways to acknowledge and language the nuances of love, there is a more room for personal interpretation and judgment….and disappointment.

Several other languages, such as Sanskrit and Persian, offer scores of terms to describe specific types of love. My favorite set of words are those available in Arabic, which includes terms for various states and relationship stages. My limited understanding is that the construction of the language, structured with common roots, allows for words to be linked, which can increase nuance. Love can be expressed in distinctive stages and states, including attraction, amusement, passion, preoccupation, infatuation, adulation, heartburn, longing, excruciating pain, submissiveness, friendliness, unification, fervor, and madness.

There are additional expressions for romantic affection as well. I was fascinated with Ya’aburnee, which apparently means “you bury me,” and alludes to the hope that one die before one’s lover, because life would be too painful without them. So tragically romantic!

It’s interesting to me that such rich descriptions of love in exist in cultures where arranged marriage happens at a higher rate than western cultures. It makes me wonder about how we interpret “love.” In English, love is essentially a language monomial, defined by four letters, but a language polynomial when it comes to all the varied applications. Preoccupation, infatuation and adulation suggest something quite different from unification, and if all of those states were explicitly under the “love,” umbrella in English, people may not be as disappointed when feelings shift long-term.

Even though love is complex, we can influence our long-term feelings

The reason I’m droning on about this is that largely, whether one is “in love,” or not has to do with subjective interpretation, and is influenced by expectations. In other words, we don’t “fall out of love,” with our kids. We may not always have warm fuzzies toward them, but most of us recognize a sense of commitment and obligation which then fuel us to actions to increase love toward our offspring. We are proactive in managing our negative feelings toward them in order to be available, stable attachment figures.

It’s only in romantic love that we use the term “falling,” which implies a sense of helplessness about who we love, or for how long. However, we can use the same heuristic in marriage that we use in parenting, by searching for actions to influence our feelings.

Over the long-term, the reality is that marital satisfaction waxes and wanes. There are behaviors that can influence any of the expectations for love. Even physical attraction can be influenced by engaging in various activities in marriage. The way we talk to ourselves about our partners also influence our feelings. We may not “feel it,” in immediate large shifts, but we can certainly encourage growth over time. Another little Arabic love language fun fact is that the word “hubb,” for love comes from the same root as the word “seed,” implying growth potential.

As Easy as an Internet Search

In an internet’s search amount of time, you can find myriad ideas for activities designed to increase love toward a spouse. In fact, this blog is full of them. Imagine if people spent as much time researching that as they do for pornography….

“I Love You” is Still Powerful

Even though the English language is limited, don’t underestimate the power of the three little words.

When my husband and I got married, we used to go to my father-in-law’s brother and wife’s home for Sunday dinner. He was a retired, shrewd Hollywood attorney who had retained his sharp wit. One night, his wife decided to advise all of the newlyweds at her home about how to stay married long-term. She said, “Now kids, this is important for staying married: Every single day, when my husband and I wake up, he says those three little words…every….single….day…….and what are those three words, honey?” she nodded at her husband. On queue, with a mischievous grin, he started, “Go to…”

“OH HUSH!” his wife blurted, sparing us from his expletive, “You know that’s not it.” She turned back to us, “He says, ‘I love you,’ every single day, and it’s a reminder that we value our marriage. You remember that. Don’t ever forget to tell each other you love each other often.” We nodded as we stifled our laughter.

Since “love,” is so general in English, and “I love you,” can become so stale so quickly, it might be fun to look up alternative terms in foreign languages and see if you can share you feelings with more precision. I already texted one Japanese term to my husband today that doesn’t translate directly to English.

“I Love You,” as the Ultimate Reassurance

Over the years, my husband and I have had the opportunity to experience many stressful life events together. In fact, we had a lot of practice with stress during our first year of marriage. I had a complete meltdown at one point, certain that I had ruined my life and created an enduring mess for myself and him by association. I was sobbing about everything that was alarming me. I went on and on and on while my husband just listened. It was verbal vomiting at its worst. Looking back, he must have been totally freaked out, but he just sat with me. He said nothing.

When my tirade (cryrade) was over and he didn’t respond, I asked, “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated “Well?” and he answered, “Well?” and I repeated, “Well?” Silence. Then, he took my chin in his hand and looked in my eyes and said, “Well, I still love you. I will always love you,” Which made me cry all over again for his enduring kindness. For some reason, even though all my problems weren’t solved, it was adequately comforting, and I felt reassured that everything would be ok.

He has repeated the same comforting words at various time points in our marriage when I have been at the end of my rope for one reason or another.

It’s one of the constants I can always count on if I’m beyond distressed.

And as a constant, “Love,” in the English language works just fine.

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

 

 

 

Couples, marriage

What About Those Annoying Habits? Loving the Muddy Side of Long-Term Relationships

mudYears ago, I hung my favorite quote by Mary Engelbreit in my kitchen where I could see it often. It reads, “If you pray for rain, be prepared to deal with some mud.”

I remembered this quote when I was reading through a recent mixed methods research study on long-term relationships, conducted by the Economic & Social Research Council in the UK. They surveyed 4494 people who identified as being in a long-term relationship. One of the open-ended questions they answered was what they liked the best and least in their long-term relationships?

What’s the best part of long-term relationships?

People reported pleasures of shared humor and laughter being one of the best aspects of a long-term relationship.

One of the worst parts was:

Conversely, ANNOYING HABITS were identified as an ongoing source of daily irritation and one of the least liked aspects in a long-term bond.

Every Relationship has Mud

No long-term relationship is absent of annoying habits. I hear about them all the time, and it’s amazing how many people complain about the same things.

Just for fun (and apparently because of some hidden masochistic streak), I asked my husband what my annoying habits are after thirty years of marriage. The conversation went like this:

Him: I don’t know.

Me: Everyone has them. For starters, you have that sneeze immodulation disorder (my pet term for his outrageous nasal outbursts)…which I hate and which I still think you do on purpose to bug me since no normal person sneezes that way (reflected exactly in this short clip—no kidding, this could be my bedroom).

Him: You’re exaggerating. I don’t sneeze that loud.

Me: If breaking the sound barrier isn’t loud. It’s just like when you suddenly crush a plastic bottle in your hand, which I also think you purposely do to startle me.

Him: Is there a quiet way to crush a plastic bottle? I’m just doing my part to save the planet.

Me: Anyway—what do I do that bugs you?

Him: Why do I feel like I’m being set up?

Me: You’re not. I just want to write a post about annoying habits because they’re in every marriage. OK, here’s what I put for you, besides your alarming trumpet sneezes and bottle squeezes:

Not wiping the counters when you do dishes

Leaving dirty dishes in a sink right next to an empty dishwasher

Folding the towels in fourths instead of thirds so they won’t fit in the closet

Not replacing the toilet paper when it’s used up

Leaving cupboard doors open

Leaving drawers open

Him: I don’t do that—it’s the kids.

Me: Well, it has gotten better. Still, for most of our marriage, our bathroom has looked like the scene from the movie “Date Night,” where she runs into the bathroom and right into the open drawers. I’m not finished:

Leaving the gas tank on empty (since he has some sick need for competing with himself in the game of “How many miles can we drive on fumes today?” Which has provided us with several editions of “Prayer-assisted coasting into gas stations”).

Walking in the house and putting your stuff on my pristine countertop

Squeezing the toothpaste from the middle of the tube

Him: I don’t do that anymore.

Me: Well, I wouldn’t know, since I had to get my own tube and hide it.

Him: Look! (Opens bathroom drawer and retrieves toothpaste tube which is indeed rolled from the bottom)

Me: Nice! I apologize. Maybe we have graduated to a single tube…continuing:

Hanging your coat on the stair banister instead of the closet 6 feet away

Leaving your shoes out on the floor instead of the closet 18 inches away

Him: I don’t leave the toilet seat up anymore

Me: True. I haven’t splash-fallen into the toilet in the middle of the night in years. I give you full credit for changing that annoying habit. That’s most of them. Just so you know, there are a lot I left off the list that other wives commonly complain about. OK, so what are my annoying habits?

Him: I seriously can’t think of any…

Me: I know! You’re annoyed when I use your razor.

Him: Oh yeah, I do hate that.

Me: What else? Come on, this is your chance.

Him: Umm…I really can’t think of anything.

Me: What about my parking in the garage? (I found out about this when I pulled into the garage one day and my 3 year-old son blabbed, “Dad says you’re a bad parker.”) You complain that I park in your space and don’t leave you enough room to open your car door.

Him: I guess. I don’t really see that as an annoying habit, though.

Me: It is! Especially since I don’t try that hard to change it even though I know it’s annoying. Plus, I’ve never had good spatial aptitude. What else?

Him: Honey, I honestly can’t think of any annoying habits.

Me: What about me asking you these questions? Don’t you find that annoying?

Him: Umm….Yes? I don’t know what you want from me.

Me: Really? So is it safe to say that my biggest annoying habit is getting annoyed by your annoying habits? And then complaining about them?

Him: Yeah, pretty much.

Me: Well,if it makes you feel better, I don’t complain about your loud chewing—that’s the kids. I don’t complain about your snoring, either.

Him: No, you just hit me in the middle of the night to roll over.

Me: Whatever it takes so that more than one of us can get some sleep.

That conversation with my husband instigated some self-reflection on my part. I was shamed by the fact that I had such a long trivial list, designed to make my life more convenient, while he struggled to identify anything. I like things orderly, but I am not a clean freak by any stretch of the imagination.

But then I remembered a time when my son came up from the basement and invited, “Mom, we want you to come downstairs and see what we have been doing, but here’s the thing: Please don’t come down and start telling us to shut any doors or cupboards or tell us to pick stuff up off the floor. We just want you to see what we are doing.” Oh. I did do that. All the time.

My anxiety level in a messy room was hurting my relationships, even if I didn’t qualify for a clinical diagnosis. No wonder my husband was the favorite parent. He could just “BE,” with my kids, without trying to control the surroundings. I envied him.

Looking on the Engelbreit Side

Almost every annoying habit has a flip side. My husband tolerates chaos better than I, and may not have an eye for tidiness, but he has also never criticized me for not meeting his expectations, around the house or otherwise. If I berate myself for my own inadequacies, he tells me I’m awesome and to stop it.

Another of Mary Engelbreit’s quotes is applicable here. She said, “If you don’t like something change it; if you can’t change it, change the way you think about it.” Classic CBT. Beautiful artwork and sound psychological advice in one.

It’s easy to slap a negative character label on a spouse who isn’t meeting expectations. The ones I hear the most are “lazy,” and “selfish.”  Annoying habits can feel like a purposeful affront, designed to frustrate. That’s rarely the case. Most of the time, they are unintentional and a consequence of busy daily living.

So, instead of thinking, “Why is he such a slob?” it might be more helpful to think, “What do I need to change about myself or my thinking so this doesn’t bother me so much?”

You can only change yourself anyway.

The other day I got a photo text from my husband. It was a picture of my dirty clothes sitting on top of the hamper. I knew he didn’t care if I left my clothes there, but he was nailing me for my blatant hypocrisy. “I deserved that,” I pondered, remembering the week before when I exaggerated a demonstration of opening the lid to the hamper and dumping the clothes inside, “Voilà,” emphasizing that the required force was less than that required to lift one’s fancy bike into a suburban.

As I viewed the photo, I could picture being at home when he gleefully discovered my negligence. He would have made a joke about it, unlike myself, who would have expressed annoyance. Again.

Wow. I really am annoying. I need to work on that.

Reference:

Enduring love? Couple relationships in the 21st century: Survey findings report by Gabb, J., Klett-Davies, M., Fink, J., & Thomae, M. (2013). The Open University and Economic Social and research council, UK, retrieved at: http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/enduringlove/sites/www.open.ac.uk.researchprojects.enduringlove/files/files/final_survey_report.pdf

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

 

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Can This 7 minute Intervention Really Save your Marriage?

38774765 - closeup of couple making heart shape with handsHow happy you are in your marriage is bound to affect you for better or worse. Marital quality is highly correlated with various facets of mental and physical health. High marital quality can benefit individual health while conversely, poor marital quality can actually generate health risk. Keeping this in mind, knowing how to preserve and improve marital quality has important implications for general health and well-being.

A few years ago, a study was released purporting that a brief intervention could halt a decline in marital quality. Eli Finkel, the study’s first author, explains the study and intervention at a Tedx Talk here.

Finkel makes the point that while marital quality is important, it unfortunately tends to naturally decline over time in marriage. He headed up a study in which 120 couples were recruited and assessed for various aspects of marital quality and marital conflict at successive time points.

After 12 months, half of the couples were assigned to participate in a brief 7 minute conflict reappraisal intervention while a control group of the other half of the couples were not. This intervention was assigned to the same groups at months 16 and 20 of the study, meaning that the couples in the intervention group had completed the 7 minute assignment three times for a total of 21 minutes in 8 months.

Interestingly, at the end of the first year of the study, BOTH groups of couples exhibited a DECLINE in MARITAL QUALITY.

However, at the end of two years, the couples who had participated in the intervention STOPPED their DECLINE in marital quality. This decline seemed to be mediated by reducing negative emotions like anger, which accompany conflict-related distress. In contrast, the control group who weren’t exposed to the intervention continued their decline in marital quality.

This is a somewhat compelling finding, considering the simplicity of the intervention. After writing a fact-based summary related to a disagreement they had during the previous 4 months, couples were given three questions to answer. Here are the three questions the intervention group responded to for 7 minutes, three different times, 4 months apart (Finkel, et al., 2013):

  1. Think about the specific disagreement that you just wrote about having with your partner. Think about this disagreement with your partner from the perspective of a neutral third party who wants the best for all involved; a person who sees things from a neutral point of view. How might this person think about the disagreement? How might he or she find the good that could come from it?
  2. Some people find it helpful to take this third-party perspective during their interactions with their romantic partner. However, almost everybody finds it challenging to take this third-party perspective at all times. In your relationship with your partner, what obstacles do you face in trying to take this third-partner perspective, especially when you’re having a disagreement with your partner?
  3. Despite the obstacles to taking a third-party perspective, people can be successful in doing so. Over the next 4 months, please try your best to take this third-party perspective during interactions with your partner, especially during disagreements. How might you be most successful in taking this perspective in your interactions with your partner over the next 4 months? How might taking this perspective help you make the best of disagreements in your relationship?

It’s important to note that the intervention did seem to halt a decline in marital quality but couples didn’t restore previous levels of marital quality. The trajectory did seem to shift from negative to positive, but it’s uncertain about how the intervention might have further impact over a longer period of time.

Why would an intervention this simple work?

The study authors point to the decrease in conflict-related distress as a likely mediator. I have some additional ideas for why an intervention this simple might have a statistically significant impact:

  1. Behavioral interventions can slow people down. One of the ways couples spin out in conflict is through rapid escalation. Emotions flare so quickly that couples get flooded and compromise problem-solving skills through reactivity. An intervention requiring a written response to specific instructions necessitates slowing down enough to access executive functioning.
  2. The intervention was completed while emotions weren’t escalated. This study demonstrates promise for repairing conflict after couples have successfully regulated their emotions, through a time-out, for example.
  3. This intervention provided a template for repair. Some couples might calm down and regulate their emotions, but they are uncertain about how to approach an area of conflict to achieve resolution later. The instructions provided here were explicit enough to guide couples toward resolution without too much specificity.
  4. Any positive and intentional marital intervention can potentially improve your marriage, just by shifting your attention to the relationship. Some studies have even shown that just by making an appointment with a marriage counselor, many people report increased marital satisfaction. Sometimes believing that you are working toward marital improvement provides hope that improves perception of the marriage.
  5. Knowing that your partner is engaging with you in this intervention primes cooperation and good will. Just by participating in this exercise, couples are sending a message about willingness to be conciliatory. There is an implicit message that “I’m doing this because you matter to me,” which increases marital security and opens couples up to more flexibility.

Would a marriage therapist try this intervention?

I can only answer for myself. I’m skeptical of behavioral interventions, because in my experience, when conflict escalates, emotions are high, couples are in panic mode and reactive and therefore unlikely to follow a set of behavioral guidelines or “fair fighting,” rules. Also, couples rarely respond in the textbook manner so neatly laid out in example case illustrations or video demonstrations. Most of the time, those presented responses are so uncommon and over-simplified that they are laughable.

However, I was intrigued by the longitudinal effect over the 8-month period during which couples completed the intervention, so I talked my husband into doing it with me. I must admit, that after answering the questions myself in written form for 7 minutes, I had a more cooperative spirit. If nothing else, it did increase my willingness to be collaborative instead of clinging to my own opinion. In fact, it entirely changed our previously conflicted conversation. Emotion wasn’t entirely absent, but much more regulated, and we reached resolution faster…and we still kind of liked each other at the end.

This study of course came with important limitations in sample size and the usual problems with quantifying a qualitative construct.

However, considering the promising impact on marital quality, it might just be worth 7…or even 21…minutes of your time.

Reference:

A Brief Intervention to Promote Conflict Reappraisal Preserves Marital Quality Over Time (2013) by Finkel, E. J., Slotter, E. B., Luchies, L. B., Walton, G. M., & Gross, J. J. in Psychological Science, 24(8), 1595-1601. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612474938

Photo credit: Copyright: rido / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage

Safety First in Marriage: Why it’s Necessary for Building Trust and Intimacy

16592637 - saving love marriage relationship 3d concept - heart on lifebuoyIf anyone asks my husband what I do for a living, he will say, “She makes people cry.”

While that’s an over-simplified misconception which he declares for shock value, there is a minuscule grain of truth in his response. That’s because I am generally trying to help couples have new emotional experiences with each other which build SAFETY and TRUST. When people express vulnerable emotions, and receive empathic responses in return, it’s a recipe for trustworthy intimacy. It’s safe. It promotes higher marital adjustment.

Research confirms that in close romantic relationships, support and caregiving elicits trust and security in relationships. Feeling nurtured and cared for is a critical component of stable, well-functioning intimate relationships. The world is stressful. If people have dependable partners to turn to for empathic support when life gets burdensome, they have increased well-being. In other words, the marriage can be a safe haven from the perils of the outside world.

In addition, it’s that type of safe environment that provides fertile ground for exploring and introducing novelty and play and passion…unpredictability within a predictable setting.

When I am supervising therapists in training, I am often asked whether a case is conducive to marriage therapy. My first question is usually, “Can you help them make the marriage safe enough so the partners can reliably reach for and receive emotional responsiveness.” Any barriers to that pattern of marital safety will keep the couple disconnected.

Here are some common elements that disrupt intimate safety in marriage:

  1. A partner reaches for support and gets a negative or neutral response instead. This could happen for different reasons. Sometimes partners miss emotional bids for support. Sometimes partners are ambiguous in their reaches for support. Some partners are uncomfortable with emotions and become paralyzed in the face of emotional need. The lack of empathic support may be intentional or unintentional, but will limit the possibility of future reaches and subsequent safe intimacy either way.
  2. A partner attempts to offer support but feels unsuccessful at having a soothing impact. This can also happen for a few reasons. If a partner expects emotional expression to stop and it doesn’t, he/she might perceive a lack of skills to comfort a partner, not realizing that sometimes comforting a partner might mean that the expression of emotional pain may continue. Sometimes, a partner offers comfort and it is openly rejected, which will also create withdrawal from future supportive actions.
  3. Ongoing ambivalence or equivocation. Partners who can’t make up their minds about whether they want to remain in the marriage and work on it or not, or who continually switch back and forth, are not safe. The unpredictability prevents any chance of risk for emotional intimacy.
  4. Addictions. People in addiction are generally turning to something outside of the marriage for comfort, and substances alter their behaviors in a way that makes them unpredictable, and therefore unsafe. A period of sobriety and predictability is required before any safe marital intimacy can develop.
  5. Affairs. Obviously, if your partner is turning to someone else, he/she is unsafe, and even emotional affairs will prevent emotional bonding within the marriage.
  6. Abuse. Abuse is scary and dangerous. Abusive partners often underestimate how dramatically they can destroy safety with one abusive episode.
  7. Past betrayals. A marriage can be made safe from past betrayals, but it’s much slower and more difficult. Also, if the betrayals are buried and ignored, they will still be present and will prevent closeness. They must be addressed in very specific ways to rebuild trust and safety.
  8. Threatening divorce. Sometimes partners threaten divorce as a way to send a strong message about how much they want change; however, threatening divorce is like holding a gun to a partner’s head and saying, “Make a move, and I’ll shoot.” People who threaten divorce often don’t realize how damaging it can be to overall safety.
  9. Turning to others for support. Sometimes if a spouse turns to outside family or friends, it can make the marital environment dangerous because it feels like the spouse is prioritizing those people higher. In other words, in a moment of high emotional need, the spouse may be more supportive of friends or family instead.
  10. Hostile emotions. Some people are so wounded that they have trouble expressing hurt, fear or other emotional pain because it’s too vulnerable, so the pain comes out as hostile anger. Anger is a distancing emotion. Even therapists have difficulty moving toward anger…it’s one of the hardest emotions for therapists in training to manage. Part of creating safety in marriage is helping partners regulate and express emotion in a way that they elicit empathic responses. Some people say, “Am I not entitled to my anger?” I answer, “Of course. You can have any emotion you want, and you may deserve to be angry; however, it’s an emotion that naturally pushes people away. It’s hard to be with. In fact, if I yelled at you right now, you would either leave or want to leave. You can choose anger, but you are decreasing your possibilities for gaining the understanding you really need.”
  11. Deception. Any. Lying or hiding is untrustworthy and can wipe out any previously accumulated safety in general, but if there is any history of deception or infidelity, it’s worse. I tell spouses, “It doesn’t matter how small the deception is…if you say you’re going to turn right and then you turn left, you immediately become as dangerous as when the betrayal was discovered. If you continue to lie, you will continue to place the marriage back at square one for healing, regardless of intent.
  12. Any unpredictable behavior. Even in predominantly safe marriages, anything too unexpected can throw partners off and make them question the relationship. This will vary according to relationship history and individual trust levels.

I can’t over-estimate how important predictability is for marital safety. Even seemingly minor deviations from the norm can feel threatening. If a partner feels like a stranger somehow, the safety in the relationship comes into question.

Here’s an example of how quickly something small but unknown can feel threatening. My husband is one of the most predictable people on the planet. Our marriage is layered with his trademark fidelity and affirmations of interest in me as his spouse. However, I can still remember a moment back in 1992 (see, I remember the year) when I was instantaneously thrown off balance.

We had been finishing the basement in our first home, and while I was unpacking a box for his new basement office, I pulled out a CD I hadn’t seen before. It was the soundtrack from the movie, Beaches, which had been released in 1989. The CD wasn’t mine. I remember sitting there, staring at it, realizing that it must be my husband’s. “I’m married to a man who has a Bette Midler CD,” I thought, “and I didn’t even know this about him. How could I not know my husband likes Bette Midler enough to buy a CD?” To this day, I can remember the uneasy feeling it gave me. I marched up the stairs, CD in hand, and began peppering him with inquiries:

Me: Is this yours? (holding up the CD)

Him: (glancing up) Yeah, why?

Me: When did you buy it?

Him: I don’t remember…a few months ago, I guess.

Me: Why?

Him: Why what?

Me: Why did you buy it? (sounding like I needed a flashlight to accessorize my interrogation)

Him: Because I liked a song on it. (staring curiously at my descent down the rabbit hole)

Me: What song?

Him: The one about a hero.

Me: Wind Beneath My Wings?

Him: Yeah, that one.

Me: Since when?

Him: Since when what?

Me: Since when do you like that song?

Him: Umm….I don’t know…since I heard it…am I in trouble for something?

Me: I just had no idea that you liked that song enough to buy an entire CD. How did I not know that about you?

Him: Honey. I like the song. I bought the CD. I listened to it in the car. Is that a crime? Do I need your permission to buy a CD and listen to it?

Me: I don’t care that you bought the CD. I just don’t know why you didn’t even tell me you liked that song…enough to buy an actual CD.

Him: I didn’t even think about it. I’m not sure why this is upsetting to you. How many CDs have you purchased without telling me…and I haven’t complained? And why do I feel like I’m on trial?

Me: Yeah, but you KNOW that about me. You know I like music. You never buy CDs, and you never listen to anything but the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

Him: OK, well, I bought one. Now you know. I’m still not sure why you’re freaking out.

Me: Because it’s like I’m married to a stranger. What else don’t I know?

See how quickly I got thrown off? I really did have a strong emotional reaction, because it was so outside of his norm to display any real preference for music. To be honest, music was a raw spot in our relationship. Our music tastes were more different than alike. If I’m being honest, it kind of hurt me that he didn’t share one of his preferences with me. It was as if a part of him was unknown, which made me wonder what else was unknown, even though he had a history of being so reliable. It sounds so silly, but if anyone was the wild card in our relationship, it was I. He was so predictable to me that even this small discovery felt disorienting.

I have had a handful of clients who, with no prompting from me, have shared nearly identical incidents in their own marriages, when they found music they didn’t know their spouses liked. They described the same feeling of wondering if there was more they didn’t know…all because they found out something about a spouse’s preference that was previously unknown. It’s just human nature that if something feels unpredictable in a romantic, intimate relationship, it can feel scary.

People who grew up without reliable, safe attachment figures can have a harder time trusting even predictable partners, because they don’t have models for safe attachment. Sometimes those people need explicit education about what safe, reliable responsiveness looks like, so they can recognize and appreciate it.

If you are struggling with emotional intimacy in your marriage, a good place to start is to ask your partner whether he/she feels safe in the marriage, and if not, ask what you can do that would help build safety.

In summary, the real answer to the question about what I do for a living is that I teach couples SAFETY FIRST.

References:

A Safe Haven: An Attachment Theory Perspective on Support Seeking and Caregiving in Intimate Relationships (2000) by Collins, N. L & Feeney, B. C. in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78(6), 1053-1073.

Emotional Skillfulness in Marriage: Intimacy as a Mediator of the Relationship Between Emotional Skillfulness and Marital Satisfaction (2005) by Cordova, J. V., Gee, C. B. & Warren, L. Z. in Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 218-235.

Photo credit: Copyright: koya79 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, Marriage and Family Therapy

When Jack Sprat and His Wife Go to Couples Therapy: Body Weight as a Problem in Marriage

couple weightOne day, pregnant with my second child, I went shopping for maternity clothes. I was feeling nauseous and suddenly experienced the familiar lightheaded dizzy feeling which accompanied all my pregnancies.  Afraid that I would pass out, I dropped down on the floor in the aisle of clothes, obscured from view.  A married couple walked up a few aisles over. The wife began questioning her husband about apparel and he reacted with indifference, communicating that he didn’t really want to be there. “That’s why I’m here by myself,” I thought, since my husband considers shopping a form of torture.

The wife was somewhat heavyset, and her spouse appeared to be average weight.  While considering different outfits, she suddenly pointed, “Oh, we can look over there in the “petites,” section.  His back was turned, so I couldn’t see his face, but I could absolutely hear the disdain in his voice.  His one-word response was a jab, “Petites?”  His contempt spewed his intended message, which was, “Aren’t you too fat for the ‘petites’ section, Fatty?” She paused a moment and snapped monosyllabically, “Short!” which throbbed, “Petite means short, Dummy, and by the way, I know I’m overweight—you don’t need to keep reminding me about it! Jerk!”

I remember sitting there, fighting nausea, thinking, “I can’t imagine my husband talking to me like that, even if I did fight weight gain.” I knew if anything, this man’s negative message would only heighten her shame and anxiety, likely driving her more toward food as comfort, which is verified by research.

Empirical studies of mixed-weight marriages show that they are at risk for higher levels of conflict. Weight can create sexual and emotional distance. Occasionally, I have a mixed weight couple in therapy in which the average weight partner expresses dissatisfaction with the heavier partner’s weight.  Sometimes it’s about health, but a lot of the time it can impact physical attraction.  Rarely, however, is weight the only presenting concern.  It’s usually just one of a myriad of complaints, but it’s a highly visible one, complex, and challenging in therapy.

For a while now, my husband and I have been answering couple questions in an app called “Happy Couple.”  This was one of my questions last week:

Steve pulls on jeans and finds that he can no longer zip them up.  How do you react?

A. Give subtle hints when he goes for second helping at dinner

B. Dole out a diet mandate

C. Probably wouldn’t be so into sex

D. Shrug it off and tell him to buy a new pair

Any guesses about my answer?  Definitely “D.” In fact, I was asked this question anonymously at a marriage presentation last year and I explained why I recommend the answer be “D.” Or, I might add an option “E,” for “Reassure him that you love him and ask how you can be supportive.”

Here’s why the other responses won’t work:

  1. Your partner doesn’t need a reminder that he/she is overweight. I guarantee that the broader culture is already reinforcing that message.
  2. Threatening a partner only increases anxiety and shuts people down. It’s the opposite of motivating.
  3. Attempting to control a diet makes it your problem, and if you have ownership of your spouse’s weight, your spouse cannot own it and be autonomous in developing healthier habits.
  4. Humiliating or shaming a partner also increases anxiety and hiding behavior.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that weight gain can create fear about attraction to a partner, or fear for a partner’s health. In my marriage, my husband has always put on weight easier than I do, even though he always exercised more consistently than I while I was having babies. His weight generally fluctuates between 10-20 pounds with external stressors. It bothers him a lot and me not so much. While it has never affected my attraction to him (I simply see the person I married, and I always thought he was good-looking), I have occasionally worried about his health, given his father’s history with heart surgeries.

I know 100% that I cannot control what he does and if I tried he’d feel criticized and resentful. I also know it bothers him and he’s always hyper-aware and working on it, and the last thing he needs is a spouse to make him feel worse.  In fact, throughout our marriage, I have frequently joked that the “teenage girl,” persona is showing up, because he will complain about how fat he is, and I almost never notice if he’s putting on weight. “When did you turn into a 14 year-old girl and what have you done with my husband?” I’ve mused. I think it’s the obsessive cyclist part of him.

So, how do you handle it when a spouse is overweight and it’s scaring you because you are worried about their health or worried about your physical relationship, or that you’ll never be united?

  1. Ask how you can be a support person. Once my husband tore a ligament in his foot which shut down his exercise for months. He was also working full-time, in full-time MBA school, and being a father to 7 children. He was cranky about it and complained about his weight constantly. I finally reassured, “I want you to know that your weight gain isn’t bothering me—I don’t notice–but you keep talking about it, so it’s bothering you. Do you want me to do something differently to help you?”  I had been trying to make dinner healthy, but I have always despised eating breakfast and usually skip it, so I’m really lacking in that area, and he lunched with his work buddies. We decided if I made up healthy snacks, it would help him stay on track with his eating.
  2. Model behaviors. I’m not going to pretend that I’m a nutrition expert, but I know enough to impact the food choices in my home, and my family takes a lot of cues from what I purchase, eat and prepare.
  3. Understand and respect differences. Cooked spinach and chard with lemon were my sometimes comfort foods growing up. While pregnant with my third child, I planted a garden with a bunch of chard and decided I would serve it to my family without telling my husband because he hates cooked spinach, so I didn’t want the protest. When he showed up, I started serving the kids with my sales job, “Look, daddy, this is the chard we grew, just like Grandpa Cluff—we’re eating it with lemon.  It’s yummy, right daddy?” I put a forkful in his mouth, winking at him to play along.  He did. He ate the serving on his plate with a smile and extolled its health benefits to our sons. I thought I had him sold. Then, he approached me while I was doing dishes, bent down and calmly whispered in my ear, “By the way, that was the most vile, disgusting thing I have ever had to eat; I choked it down because I knew you wanted the example for the boys, but if you ever serve that to me again, my serving is going right in the trash.” OK. Fair enough. I won’t make him eat cooked greens, beets, or cucumbers soaked in vinegar as long as I don’t have to eat melted cheese.
  4. Find a physical activity to enjoy together. My husband is a cyclist and I’m a runner. We don’t usually exercise together, but we do like hiking and tennis, which count. Find something you both like. There’s always walking.
  5. Identify whether the problem is really the weight or something deeper. Usually weight becomes symbolic of dissatisfaction coming from other areas of the marriage. Are there previous relationship injuries or conflicts to address?
  6. If the sexual relationship is impacted, try focusing on other forms of physical affection first. Because weight and attraction and sex are intertwined, I’m not going to pretend like sexual connection won’t be affected. However, couples get hyper-focused on orgasm. Sometimes slowing down and increasing sensuality first can increase sexual desire and/or performance.
  7. Focus on other characteristics you like about your spouse. I know this sounds trite, but it can shape your level of support. When my spouse gains weight, I really rarely notice, because I like HIM–I just like him for who he is, not for weight changes.

In mixed weight marriages, studies verify that many partners try to regulate their spouses’ eating behaviors. A rule of thumb in addressing weight issues is to approach it with positive influences. Negative influences (criticism, nagging, shaming, lecturing, threatening, punishing, stonewalling, withholding) only make the problem worse.

Weight can become like a separate entity in the marriage, either dividing or uniting the spouses.  Think teamwork. If my husband is inspired by a certain program, because the structure gives him scaffolding, I will use the recipes in the program, as long as they’re consistent with the basics and simplicity I think are foundational to a healthy life style. The only way to address weight without compromising the marital relationship is to gain unity—the couple against the weight challenge.

Maybe that’s why Jack Sprat just helped his wife lick the platter clean.

References:

Romantic Relationships and Eating Regulation: An Investigation of Partners’ Attempts to Control Each Others’ Eating Behaviors by Markey, C. M., Gomel, J. N. & Markey, P. M. (2008) in Journal of Health Psychology, 13(3), 422-432.

The Meaning of Weight in Marriage: A Phenomenological Investigation of Relational Factors Involved in Obesity by Ledyard, M. L. & Morrison, N. C. (2008) in Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy, 7(3), 230-247.

“You’re Going to Eat That?” Relationship Processes and Conflict Among Mixed-Weight Couples by Burke, T. J., Randall, A. K., Corkery, S. A., Young, V. J., & Butler, E. A. (2012) in Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 29(8), 1109-1130.

Photo credit: Copyright: mukhina1 / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

10 Tips for Riding the Rollercoaster of “Me to We” During the First Year of Marriage

24736329 - teenage couple on roller coasterRight after my husband and I got married, I talked him into going to a dance on our university campus. I was sitting on his lap with my arms around his neck when a co-ed approached and remarked, “It’s so nice to see a happily married couple who still love each other.” I remember thinking, “Uh…It’s not like we’ve been married for five years…we’ve been married for about five minutes…and you have no idea what my marriage is like from observing me in one limited context, but…ok, if that makes you feel happy….”

I was uncomfortable with her observation because while I WAS happy, I was also struggling with an array of conflicting emotions.

There is a cultural expectation that engagements and marriages will be singularly happy events, devoid of uncertainty, sadness and fear. In part, that expectation is why so many people suffer in silence and don’t seek resources for help during these stages. They can feel shameful if they aren’t blissfully happy. The colliding emotions often generate anxiety about whether the marriage was the right decision.

Possibly more often than not, the transition to marriage precipitates an onslaught of competing emotions. There can be elation, relief and contentment simultaneously with grief, sadness and fear. Newlyweds can experience disenfranchised grief, or grief around something that isn’t acknowledged because people expect you to be happy. However, with all the required changes in the life cycle shift, grief and loss, with other concomitant uncomfortable emotions should be expected.

Many couples cruise into married love problem free, which is great, but couples routinely struggle in unique ways during this transitional life stage. As a marriage therapist who sees many couples surprised by the difficulties inherent to married life, I want to acknowledge expected barriers in adjusting from a “Me to We,” paradigm.

Some  emotionally-laden challenges that regularly impact the transition into marriage include:

  1. Negotiating a joint identity. It can feel out of control to be connected to another individual impacting your life and potentially your identity. I still remember 29 years ago how frustrated I was when my husband was late or forgot something he said he would do. The main message I got growing up in my family was “Be reliable.” Lateness was unacceptable and if you said you would do something, you moved heaven and earth to do it—it was a “so let it be written, so let it be done” household. The End. My parents weren’t dictators, but they were both Depression Era, first-born, parentified children, and led by example. My husband was confused at my reactions when he made us 15 minutes late somewhere, or when he said he would do something and then forgot. It messed with my identity of being on time and responsible. “Good people” weren’t late nor forgetful. I figured that he didn’t care about me enough to be on time or work harder to remember. On the flip side, he couldn’t understand my level of frustration, I think because so much of his identity was linked to his adaptability, patience, and presence. In his mind, “good people” didn’t get upset over something like a spouse’s tardiness. Over the years, I’ve become more accepting of his habits, and he has tried to be more on time to adapt to my slightly obsessive qualities, but finding that middle place for a couple identity was challenging.
  2. Loss of individual identity. People often sacrifice important parts of themselves for the marriage. I absolutely don’t think I gave up my identity, but there were parts I struggled with. I didn’t love switching my last name when so much of my life had been associated with my father’s name, whom I adored.  I was a “Cluff,” not a “Schade,” and to tell you the truth, 30 years later, I still identify strongly with my maiden name.
  3. Adjusting to couple process. This sounds general, but what I’m referring to here is the fact that individual decision-making changes. Instead of doing what you want to do when you want to do it, marriage requires a commitment to collaborating and cooperating, thinking of the marriage partnership instead of oneself.
  4. Integrating with in-laws. It is true that in-laws are an everyday conflict area in marriage. As the youngest of six children, with all married siblings, my family had plenty of time to get used to in-laws. I thought the family process would be similar in my husband’s family. In short, he was the golden boy, the oldest and the first to get married, and it was nothing like the integration of in-laws in my family. This is an area where it’s probably best to have no expectations. I see many couples with various types of in-law problems. Because of that, my main goal as a mother-in-law is to just support my daughters-in-law in a way they want to be supported without being critical or intrusive nor completely disinterested, and to just love them; and since I have three of the best daughters-in-law on the planet, that has been so easy.
  5. Negotiating finances. Many couples can struggle here because of previous debt or dissimilar spending habits. Combining finances is fraught with stress for many if not most couples.
  6. Negotiating household routines. Even though this may seem trivial, when the transition is already stressful, things like squeezing the toothpaste from the middle (I get it—my entire life, my father hammered home that toothpaste tubes are to be neatly rolled from the bottom), failing to install a new roll of toilet paper, folding the towels in halves instead of in thirds, etc. can just highlight differences and exacerbate frustration.
  7. Friendsickness. This is a term often applied to college students who move away from a network of friends. This can also come up in marriage when people miss their old social networks. I can remember experiencing a great deal of pain and loss over my old social networks, because friendships shift after you get married. I didn’t have the same access to my single college friends, and “friendsickness,” is an accurately descriptive term—it became what I believe is a type of ambiguous loss.
  8. Adapting to new social norms and expectations. In short, “adulting,” on steroids.
  9. Creating new boundaries with families-of-origin. Neither my husband nor I have intrusive or controlling families, so we didn’t have to work hard to set boundaries, but many couples must learn how to set boundaries in systems with previous enmeshment. I did, however, feel differently about how I could approach my parents after marriage because I was supposed to “put on my big girl panties.”  When I was struggling, I couldn’t call them because I didn’t want to create worry; I knew my father would be distressed if he thought that I was even slightly unhappy. Also, the protocol in my family was to do your duty and shut up about it—there’s no question that you just do what you’re “supposed to do,” so I didn’t think there was any point talking about it. My parents wouldn’t have chastised me, but I knew they would worry and feel helpless to help me.
  10. Integrating rituals and traditions from two separate families. Because rituals and traditions are deeply infused with meaning, deciding how to enact holidays and other celebrations can be somewhat complex and potentially conflictual.

The phenomena described here about grief and loss with marriage transition are processes I’ve witnessed with other married couples as well as experienced myself. For the whole first year of my marriage I was engulfed in a heavy cloud of sadness related to my losses. That just elicited confusion and guilt, because I was supposed to be happy, wasn’t I?

I still dearly loved my husband, was physically attracted to him, viewed him as one of the best humans on the planet, felt lucky to be married to him, admired him, and believed he was an awesome choice for me long-term. I can safely say I still feel the same way about him, because he is truly wonderful.

But I still felt loss, grief and sadness in the transition. Then, on top of feeling abnormal and broken, I felt shame because my feelings were directly wounding my husband, who is at heart a kind, gentle and highly likable person.  Every time he saw me cry, he felt terrible and perceived that I must not love him, so I withdrew from him to protect him from my sadness, which just increased my loneliness. He had no idea what to do with me. This sounds so dramatic, but I honestly felt like a part of me was dying. I tried to hide my suffering from him unsuccessfully.

I went through stages of sadness, confusion, shame, fear and depression until I finally just went numb.  I regularly went through the motions of life robotically, feeling nothing. I can remember believing I just could just stop feeling and detach from my emotions entirely.  I hadn’t previously experienced this kind of emotional pain, requiring such extreme measures.

As part of my emotional withdrawal to avoid hurting him, I completely threw myself into school and became obsessive about getting the highest score in all my classes, telling myself it’s what I had to do to get into graduate school. In addition to matriculating full-time, I took two different jobs, began a volunteer shift at a women’s shelter, and started a pre-professional organization on campus. I kept myself too busy to feel anything. It was my way of having control over something when my emotions and life felt so out of control. I never did feel like I could talk to anyone about it, which I don’t think was helpful. This is the type of situation where therapy might be really helpful, when the outside world doesn’t know what to do with your pain. In marriage, it’s also best to go to therapy sooner rather than later. I’m hoping anyone can possibly be helped from my disclosure to know that if they are experiencing any of these things in the newlywed stage, they aren’t alone.

Knowing that mixed emotions are likely the norm with marital transition, here are some things you can do to smooth the passage:

  1. Make a study of marriage. Read recommended books. Listen to podcasts. My husband and I routinely listened to audio recordings for marital improvement because it was my chosen profession. It normalized our stress and taught us strategies to improve our communication and negotiation. I couldn’t pay my husband to read a marriage book, but he might listen to one on audio.
  2. Seek out humor. Laughter really does make so many painful things manageable. I realize many people are more serious than I and probably don’t see the need or see it as silly, but for many people, just finding ways to share laughter can be bonding.
  3. Expect and allow grieving. Of course, you’re going to miss things from your single life! Acknowledge that almost any life transition with gains comes with some losses of leaving another stage behind.
  4. Connect with old friends. Actively seek out safe past connections to help alleviate losses.
  5. Make time for individual self-care. Transitions are inherently stressful, so actively do things to increase comfort. Get a massage. Participate in a hobby.
  6. Actively make new friends as a couple. One way of acknowledging gains is to make new married friends. Invite them over to play games.
  7. Create your own new traditions and rituals. For our first Christmas, my husband and I were so busy with finals that we didn’t have time to buy a tree until two days before Christmas, and literally found one for a dollar. I quickly handmade a bunch of inexpensive ornaments with materials around the house. It was cheap and ugly, but it was ours.
  8. Practice active acceptance. This implies owning your situation for all the conflicting parts it offers, which overlaps with grieving. It’s ok to desire acceptance and not feel it right away. Acceptance might need to happen repeatedly—think of it as a process more than an outcome.
  9. Exercise patience with yourself and your spouse. Expect it to take time to integrate all the emotions that come with transition.
  10. Master a metamorphosis mentality. Marriage really is a metamorphosis, so think in terms of how you want to shape the change together.

Remember that struggling with the transition to marriage isn’t predictive of future happiness. Sometimes couples think that early struggles mean they never should have been together and they are doomed for relationship disaster. One couple I saw years ago laughingly reminded me that when they were expressing hopelessness that their early years of marital struggle meant they were doomed, I said, “I’m sorry, I just can’t join with you in your catastrophic narrative.” Somehow that was validating that they could still create a marriage free of problem saturation. It’s true. In the absence of ongoing affairs, abuse or addictions, you can likely shift your narrative for the future.

In other words, you can influence the engineering of your own roller coaster ride.

Make it a good one!

Photo credit: Copyright: inkebeville / 123RF Stock Photo

Couples, marriage

How Did We Get Here in our Marriage? When Past Pain Comes Alive in the Present and How to Fix it

33470896 - worried couple sitting on sofa arguing about billsDoug and Janice* were in an argument about the laundry.  Doug was looking for a pair of pants he had hoped had been washed when his wife threw in a load while he was at work.  His disappointment was perceived by his wife as criticism, and she thought of all the times her housework wasn’t up to his standards.  As the argument escalated, she finally yelled, “Well, I guess you should have divorced me and married Diane instead—I’ll bet she never lets any clothes get dirty at her house.  The two of you could have lived in your OCD paradise together where the laundry basket never gets full and where no one ever laughs!  That way, at least you wouldn’t be on my case all the time.”

Diane had been Doug’s co-worker during the second year of his marriage.  He had a 6-month emotional affair with her which was discovered by Janice while she was pregnant with their first child.  Janice found an exchange of emails in which they had both been talking about wishing they could leave their spouses for each other.  To top it all off, Janice remembered word for word what Doug had written to Diane about Janice’s substandard housekeeping skills.

Even though it was 15 years ago, it seemed to him like Janice brought her up every time they were in any type of argument.  He pushed back, “There you go again, changing the subject when you don’t want to take any responsibility for your own actions.  What does Diane have to do with anything?  Besides, you haven’t loved me from the moment we got married—why do you think I started a relationship with someone else in the first place?  How convenient for you that I made a mistake you can just beat me over the head with any time you want to justify rejecting me!”

When they recited the conflict to me, Doug said, “We have got to find a way to move past this.  Any time anything gets hard, she uses this woman as an excuse to punish me so she can do whatever she wants.  This has to stop!  I was 25 years old.  I can’t change the past, and nothing I have done ever since counts for anything.  I will go to my grave with her punishing me about it.  Honestly, sometimes I think it would have been easier if I had divorced her back then and married Diane.  At least I knew Diane loved me.  My wife has never really loved me and all she  wants to do is inflict suffering.”  She reacted with anger, “Are you kidding me?  All I want to do is inflict suffering?  Do you have any idea how much suffering you inflicted on me when you told another women you wished you could be married to her?”

This conversation was nothing I hadn’t heard in some variation thousands of times.  It was clear to me that both partners had generated a deep well of pain for each other during their 15-year marriage.  Janice had no idea how to heal after feeling so hurt and betrayed by her husband.  She felt like she could never completely trust him again.  As a result, she kept herself at a distance from him and threw herself into her children’s lives and kept busy with PTA and church responsibilities.  He felt helpless to ever make her trust him again, so he felt increasingly lonely and rejected.  As he grew more bitter, he did become more critical, which just reinforced to her that he was not safe and that he would never really accept or love her.

If you are having a moment of conflict in your marriage and suddenly you or your partner remembers or brings up something from the past, shifting the conversation entirely and leaving you helpless and hopeless in a sea of emotion, then you may have an unresolved attachment injury.  Attachment injuries happen when the attachment security in a relationship is damaged.  In short, they are moments when a partner shifts from being a safe ally to a dangerous threat.

In these moments, a spouse shifts from “I know my spouse and can count on him/her to have my back,” to “I have no idea who you are anymore, and I’m not sure you really care about me.”

An affair is an obvious attachment injury of betrayal, in which someone else is chosen above the spouse, and a pattern of deception has made the spouse dangerous and unpredictable.  Even though major injuries keep couples wounded and disconnected, I have found that depending on the circumstance and how people make meaning out of things, smaller injuries can happen in many different ways as well, leaving raw spots.  Here are some typical examples:

  1. A woman has a high level of emotional need for reassurance and comfort after having a miscarriage, but her husband acts indifferently because he has no idea how to help her and feels flooded himself by the emotion but has no tools to express it, so he walks away when she starts crying.
  2. A woman’s mother dies and she gets very depressed, and her husband minimizes the loss and says, “People have parents die.  It’s part of life.  They don’t let it stop them—why are you having such a hard time with it?”
  3. A husband is struggling with premature ejaculation and his wife tells him that he is the worst sexual partner she has ever had.
  4. A husband finds out that his wife has charged up $20,000 on credit cards she has been hiding from him.
  5. A husband tells his wife that maybe he wouldn’t struggle with erectile dysfunction if she had a breast augmentation.
  6. A wife tells her husband that she should have married his brother because he’s better looking and makes more money.

Significant betrayals can be traumatic in marriage and can generate strong emotions and flashbacks. Even smaller injuries can leave behind raw spots that can elicit emotional reactivity in the present.  If an injured partner gets emotionally overwhelmed and the offending partner can’t be reassuring, or if the injured partner can’t accept the other partner’s attempts, the relationship stays dangerous, or becomes even more dangerous.

If every argument devolves into past incidences, you might need to target those specific incidences for healing.  Here are some ways for a partner who injured another (even if it was unintentional) to start the healing process.

  1. Instead of getting defensive that your intent is misinterpreted and arguing about whether it is really an injury, shift to a perspective that if your spouse is still hurting over something, it really is a potential bonding opportunity. The expression of pain is a potentially connecting experience if handled well.
  2. Be prepared to feel shame if your partner talks about something you did to hurt/him or her.  Deal with the shame by describing that it’s painful to hear because of sorrow, shame or regret.  Process research shows that REPEATED expressions of shame and sorrow are key in healing.
  3. Recognize that repetition is one of the only ways to build up a solid foundation. If your partner needs reassurance a thousand times, see it like adding a brick to a secure foundation.  The need for repetition doesn’t mean you’re comforting incorrectly.
  4. If you think your partner should be over it, or if you thought your partner was over it, say something like, “Wow—if that is still coming up for you, it must have been more painful than I realized…can you tell me more about how and when you get triggered?”
  5. Express your sorrow and your desire to want to fix it, and even if you can’t fix it right away, affirm that you are present and want to show that you want things to be better. For example, “Is there anything I can do right now?  If not, I am so sorry and I want to help you heal any way I can.”
  6. Offer your own narrative for how you think/feel in a way that might prevent you from engaging in the same hurtful behavior. You can describe how you set boundaries differently, or what specifically you love about your partner, or how you see the relationship differently now.
  7. If your partner seems unresponsive, ask if what you are doing is helping or affirm that you will be available when he/she is ready. Like, “Does it help if I just sit next to you?  If you want me to go away, know that I’ll be in the next room or a phone call away if you need me.”

In general, looking for ways to prevent attachment injuries may be the most efficient.  Emotional responsiveness is the key.

When I had my 6th child, I got very anxious in the hospital thinking about going home to a house filled with 5 children, 4 of whom were very active boys.  My husband brought them to see me in the hospital and within 5 minutes of their climbing all over the place, opening and shutting every cupboard door and drawer, and flipping every possible switch in my hospital room, I hissed through gritted teeth, under my breath, “GET.  THEM.  OUT.  OF.  HERE.”  They were so overwhelming.  My husband remained his good-natured self and had them all give kisses and wave goodbye before he left.  I called him at 2 a.m., after my anxiety escalated thinking about going home and being mother to 6 young children under the age of 12–and again, it’s the combination of boys (and all their friends) that really did me in—four boys first was such a handful every single minute of every single day—just go observe a cub scout den meeting for 10 minutes.

I called him on the phone, and as soon as he answered, I whispered so the nurses couldn’t hear me, “Steve—I can’t come home.”  He whispered back, “Why, honey?”  I answered, “I can’t have 6 children.  I can’t do it.  It’s too much.”  He didn’t blow me off, criticize me for feeling afraid, or minimize my anxiety.  He comforted me with, “Honey, it’s ok.  You’ll be ok.  I’ll help you and we’ll get it figured out.”  He stayed on the phone with me for as long as I needed until I felt calmer and reassured.  Because he was so responsive, I didn’t have to be so anxious, because I knew if I needed him, he would be available to me.

Creating predictable responsiveness is the key to not just managing but healing past triggers.  If you find yourself getting triggered to past pain, know that it can be intentionally healed, and a secure foundation can become the story of the marriage.

*Names and details have been changed to protect privacy.  Any resemblance to a real couple is coincidental

photo credit: Copyright: stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo