Couples, Couples Therapy, Love, marriage

One Simple Thing You Can do to Protect Your Marriage

54955635 - woman checking her mobile phone while embracing a man at home

I was on a hike with another couple a few nights ago, and the husband asked me to identify the number one thing I would tell people to keep their marriages strong.  I’m not usually asked to reduce marital tips down to one dimension, but I was intrigued by the challenge.  I thought for a minute and realized I had a definite answer, informed by the cases I have had over the last 5 years.

“I would say,” I replied, “To realize that when you are texting someone, you are in essence entering a private room with that person.”  I’m expanding on the image here.  The room has no windows.  The social response is in real time, so it is as if you are right next to the person having an actual conversation.  If you text daily, you are entering that room daily.  If you text on and off all day long, you are in that room most of the day.  Everyday.

I see a lot of infidelity cases.  One hundred percent of them in the last few years  accelerated development through texting.  In most cases, a romantic interest did not precede the texting relationship.  Most of them started in a benign way between co-workers, church members working together on projects, neighbors and best friends of the couple.  Here’s the typical developmental course (IMHO):

  1. Begin texting to communicate practical information.
  2. Increase frequency of texting, still to communicate practical information.
  3. Add a joke to your text, making it more conversational in nature.
  4. Get a response to your joke, and continue the playful banter.
  5. Feel a positive chemical boost after a text exchange.
  6. Find yourself checking your phone to see if the person texted.
  7. Realize that you are starting to look forward to getting texts from that person.
  8. Tell yourself that since you aren’t seeing that person face-to-face, you are fine and not being disloyal to your spouse.
  9. Increase casual and playful texting.
  10. Shift from playful banter to deeper emotional disclosures.
  11. Experience an increase in the euphoric chemical boost.
  12. Find yourself hiding your phone from your spouse, because you don’t want the texts to be “misinterpreted.”  (ALERT: Tipping Point)
  13. Continue to tell yourself that nothing is going to happen, because you still aren’t in this person’s physical presence, so you are still in control.
  14. Realize you have an emotional yearning for this individual.
  15. As you increase the need to hide your texts, begin to see your spouse as the enemy.
  16. Find yourself disconnecting from your spouse to find a place to text this person more often and privately.
  17. Hide more.
  18. Declare your deepest feelings and yearnings for this person and plan to meet in a private location.
  19. Engage in physical affection.
  20. Bam!
  21. Feel as if you have “fallen,” in love with this person and want him/her more than your spouse.
  22. Tell yourself this is your true love connection…otherwise you wouldn’t have “fallen,” in love, and you wouldn’t have these feelings.
  23. See your spouse as the one thing standing between you and true love and happiness.
  24. Destabilize your family.
  25. Make an appointment with me.

This may sound harsh to some readers…definitely to those who see themselves somewhere on this continuum.  I’m not changing my story.  If you would not repeatedly enter a private room with someone without a window where someone can see in, frequently enough that you start to share feelings with someone that you wouldn’t share with your spouse, don’t do it on a cell phone.

Here’s one more thing that should not surprise you:  If your texting partner is an old boyfriend or girlfriend, you can expect to immediately resurrect the same emotions you felt when you were dating that person.  You will exaggerate all the good memories you had and minimize the negative memories you had from that relationship.  That’s not unique.  Your texting affair is not unique, and the effect is as if you are on drugs.  I’ve written this before, and I stand by it.

Lastly, realize that no matter how great you think your marriage is, this can happen to you.  It is the failure to be watchful and set boundaries that gets people into trouble.  If you think you could never end up having an affair, you’re kidding yourself—FWIW.

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

 

 

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Couples, Couples Therapy, marriage, Marriage and Family Therapy

Good Fences Make Good Marriages: Setting Boundaries in a Technological Age

couple and fence

As an undergraduate student, I was introduced to a poem written by Joseph Malins in 1895, in which he essentially describes the sensibilities of building fences at the top of a cliff in order to prevent falls requiring an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff.  It is a poem about prevention.  As a marriage therapist, I would add that in order to avoid disaster, one of the most important components of a marriage is building and maintaining a good fence.

The Biggest Threat to Marriage Today

If I were asked what the biggest threat to marriage is today, I would say digital technology, realizing it is a broad and controversial answer.  I don’t want to be misunderstood.  Technology is not inherently bad.  I enjoy all of the conveniences of reading email on my phone, communicating instantly with anyone I want from just about anywhere in the world, and finding information immediately.

However, the most common cases I see in couples therapy right now are those in which: 1) pornography use is hurting the marriage (accessed most often now through technology), and those in which 2) emotional affairs are hurting the marriage (most often perpetuated through technology).  Both of these presentations existed before the internet, but they are exponentially more common than they were prior to 1992, when I graduated with a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy.

In short, technology can expose marriages to more intrusive forces.  There is so much more availability to corrosive materials and to relationships with people outside the marriage, that people who want to stay in committed relationships need to realize the risks and set intentional boundaries in a boundless world. 

This applies to both spouses.  I would say that clinically I see more men using pornography and more women having emotional affairs, but there are women who use pornography excessively, and there are definitely men having emotional affairs.  I might see more women show up in therapy for emotional affairs because they are perhaps more emotionally invested than their male technological affair partners, but that’s just one guess; I have seen men who are deeply embedded in emotional affairs, ready to dump their marriages to chase the alternative digital connections.

The Problem with Pornography

Wendy Maltz, co-author of The Porn Trap, is another therapist who has been a witness to how technology has disrupted marriages with pornography.  She admitted that early in her career, she had sometimes recommended pornography use for couples wanting to address sexual concerns in their marriage, such as low sexual desire.  However, she confessed that after her clients began accessing pornography on the internet in a broad and immediate way, she realized how potentially harmful it was.

She pointed out that most internet pornography invites the user to have a relationship with it (the computer porn), rather than with their partners.  In this way, it was actually diminishing rather than enhancing her couples’ sexual relationships.  Additionally, many spouses feel betrayed and violated by their spouses’ porn use and experience it as an infidelity.  In fact, in many cases, the porn becomes preferable to the spouse, entirely fracturing the committed relationship.  It can diminish sexual performance and sexual quality as well.  She wrote her book in part to clarify the reversal of her opinion in the age of technology, and to try to mitigate some of the effects of pornography.  I agree with her observations about how internet pornography is negatively impacting marriages.

The Trouble with Emotional Affairs and Technology

Besides porn, I see a HUGE problem with emotional affairs maintained through digital technology.  I remember the very first time a couple came in and the issue was related to cell phone texting.  The wife had her old boyfriend’s cell phone number programmed into her cell phone from when she was dating him a few years earlier.  After she was married, when she was unhappy with her husband, she would text her old boyfriend.  She didn’t see the harm in just finding out how he was doing.  The problem was that over time, she began texting him more and more, and since texting is such an immediate form of communication, she had access to him 24/7.  I recall recognizing in that moment the reality that technological access had profoundly shifted the playing field for boundaries in  marriages.   The natural boundaries that existed when I got married that prevented association with previous love interests had disappeared.   I accurately predicted that many more marriages would be affected by this lack of boundaries.

Texting is a low investment but  high response form of communicating, meaning that it takes very little effort to respond to someone with texting, but it can be perceived as highly responsive.  The couple began exchanging texts essentially all day long, and that relationship started to become more real to her than her daily interactions with her husband, which were often colored by the daily stressors and realities of life.  In many ways her real life partner couldn’t compete with the seeming emotional responsiveness of her texting boyfriend.

As she disclosed her complaints about her husband, her old boyfriend “validated her feelings,” that she didn’t deserve to be treated like that, and he shallowly declared that he would “never treat her that way.”  He continued to look like the hero by doing essentially nothing but moving his fingers, while her husband was trying to meet the demands of real-life experiences that inevitably arise when you live with someone.  The comparison was unfair.

The emotions experienced in these low-investment, high response relationships are very real.  People also emotionally disclose faster and more deeply with technology than with face-to-face interaction, so the relationships are often characterized by high emotional sharing, and the result is that the people involved experience heightened emotional closeness.  The emotions are linked with physiological responses, some of which are very rewarding and powerful.  People in emotional affairs experience a dopamine rush just like people in physical affairs, and they become confused by the experiences.  Because the emotions are real, the relationships feel “real,” even though they are in fact extremely limited in nature.

Most emotional affairs are relationship fragments—users are in essence taking the best part of the romantic relationship without having to invest or sacrifice like they would to maintain a real long-term committed relationship.  When people pursue dopamine-induced emotional affairs over their real relationships, the real relationships become casualties.  Let’s say the partner then pursues the emotional affair by developing a real relationship with that person.  Over time it becomes as predictably mundane as the original relationship (usually after about 18 months to 2 years).  This is often when a new emotional affair is started and the whole cycle repeats, damaging people in the process.

Your Affair is not Unique

As you read this from an outside perspective, I have no doubt that you can see the problem.  However, when people are caught up in emotional affairs, they think their emotions mean that their relationships are “special.”  Even though I point out to people repeatedly that their affairs are not unique from the other hundreds of affairs I have seen in my practice, they don’t believe me.  That’s because they are feeling such powerful emotions.  Sometimes they also mistakenly think they aren’t harming the marriage if they aren’t meeting with the affair partner in ongoing face-to-face contact.  Ongoing emotional affairs are in many ways more challenging than in dealing with pornography in a marriage.  I have seen women openly expressing true love and the desire to run off with an old boyfriend on Facebook while criticizing their husbands for looking at online pornography, which I find confusing and hypocritical.

Many people cling to their emotional affairs and refuse to set boundaries.  Many are dishonest about how much the distant but powerful contact with others is hurting the marriage.  Many unfairly expect their spouses to be ok with their casual contact with potential affair partners because they “aren’t seeing them in person, so what’s the big deal?”

In the example cited above with the cell phone texting, I asked the wife if she had any boundaries about texting other men.  She defensively inquired, “Are you telling me that I have to stop texting my old boyfriend completely even if I know that I’m not going to start a real relationship with him?”  I responded, “Neither I nor anyone else can tell you that you have to do anything.  However, if your spouse says it is hurting him, and you knowingly engage in behavior that you know is hurting your spouse, it is unreasonable to expect that this won’t chip away at the relationship over time, so you are putting your marriage at risk.  The question is, ‘Do you want to put your marriage at risk for divorce or not?’”  Sometimes also I have to point this out when a husband thinks his wife should just be okay with his pornography use.

You Must Set Boundaries to Preserve the Marriage

If you want to build a long-term, high quality and stable relationship, build a sturdy fence.  Protect your relationship.  No one can make you.  You can hide just about anything in this day and age at some level, but if you are, you are injuring yourself and your relationship the most.  Set boundaries intentionally.  In short, if you are engaged in a conversation you wouldn’t want your spouse reading over your shoulder (commonly texting, Facebook, chat rooms, messaging capabilities through your online game, etc.), you are making your relationship vulnerable to eventual decay. It’s a risky choice.

Remember, if you build a fence around your relationship now, you are less likely to need an ambulance later. 

References:

An Ambulance Down in the Valley, poem by Joseph Malins (1895).

The Pornography Trap: The Essential Guide to Overcoming Problems Caused by Pornography by Wendy Maltz and Larry Maltz (2009), William Morrow Paperbacks.

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

What Siri, Your Spouse and You Have in Common—Or as Siri Would Say, “With Serious Pouch in Chew Having Calm On”

texting

I was with my daughter at a youth event the other night when I received a text from my husband that made me laugh out loud.  He texted, “Your speech texting is the worst……or should I say, your pee testing is the works.”  I immediately reread the text I had previously sent which Siri interpreted as, “One of the ports people supposed to come?”   I think it was supposed to be, “When are the porch people supposed to come?” (in reference to repairing  our porch…not the people inhabiting the porch).

I have developed a bad habit of texting with speech recognition because it is so much faster and more efficient, but in my rush I rarely proofread and even if I do, since I know in the original meaning of what I want to say, I think my family members will be able to decipher my cryptic messages.  Somehow I haven’t learned that if Siri doesn’t know what I’m trying to communicate, it is unlikely that they will know either.  I resist playback audio messages because they are easier for my family to ignore.  Typing just takes too darn long.  Apparently, proofreading does as well.  In the end, if my messages can’t be interpreted then they aren’t efficient at all.

One of my favorite examples is from last October when I voice texted, “I got your dad a Pharaoh hat to wear for Halloween,” and the message read, “I got your dad a feral cat to wear for Halloween.”  My children are constantly telling me (usually in capital letters) to “STOP USING YOUR VOICE RECOGNITION MOM!!!!” Or “MOM!  PROOFREAD OR STOP!  SERIOUSLY!!!!”  (“Siri-ously?” is my sometimes response).  To make his point, my son texted me, “You moist hyped cat,” (I know…eww) to demonstrate that he knew from reading my previously sent message that I “voice typed that.”  I was tempted to type “Your neutered attempt,” for “You knew what I meant.”

The main problem is that I mistakenly think my family is going to know what I meant because it is so clear to me.  It occurred to me later that I observe a similar process A LOT between couples when they are verbally communicating.  The person sending the message knows exactly what they are trying to say, but when it passes through the filter of the person receiving the message, something entirely different can be heard.  I realize that this is Communication 101, but I think it worth revisiting because it continues to be a huge problem between couples, particularly because feeling understood is such a crucial component of couple connection (maybe that will be the alliterative title of my next couple presentation).

I can be sitting in a room and watch a spouse say something, igniting a partner into a flurry of defensiveness.  I’ll say, “Hold on.  What just happened?  What did you just hear?”  Often, the partner will repeat back something entirely different than what the person said.  On many occasions, I have said, “OK, I did not just hear those words and I was sitting right here, but I know that somehow you did hear those words, so please help me understand what this reminds you of in your past interactions?”  Then, my clients can provide me information explaining why they heard it differently, which usually includes their previous experiences with the partner.  They in essence add complex layers of meaning to the primary message, largely driven by the past.

Here’s an example of something that might typically be said in therapy, and it is not gender specific.  This same conversation could occur from wife to husband:

Husband:  It’s not that I don’t care about you or about us.  I just don’t want to bring anything up about our relationship because I’m afraid it will turn into a 4-hour conversation and I’ll say everything wrong end up feeling crappy at the end of it anyway, so I avoid talking to you about that stuff.

Wife:  So you’re saying it’s all my fault that we have a bad marriage?  You’re basically saying that because I’m a witch then you can’t be bothered to talk to me.

This is usually followed up by a litany of attacks on the other person’s character with a counter-attack strategy by the spouse as well as lots of solid evidence from the past supporting each partner’s position thrown out for good measure (Phew).  None of it, however, is at all useful for building connection.

Besides interpreting messages, our brains are excellent at recognizing potential threat based on our knowledge and past experiences in order to protect us from actual threat, and painful interactions with a partner are just that…threatening.  Our brains instantly recognize and warn us before we even have the cognitive awareness that this is happening…any marriage therapist can attest to this.  It’s the same fight or flight process you experience in everyday life.

For example, I often run in the foothills.  On three occasions, I have had an immediate startle response to perceived threat in which I recoiled and my heart started racing and I jumped in a different direction to avoid the stimulus.  Why?  Because my brain thought I saw a snake in the path.  I say “my brain,” because I reacted before I even realized why.  It was automatic.  On one occasion, the “snake,” was a dark piece of rope in the path, once it was a piece of tree branch, and once (my personal favorite), it was a snake skin left behind by a calculating snake, no doubt determined to frighten runners as payback for encroaching on his territory.

Couple interactions can be so similar.  When you are married to someone, you interact with them in habitual and sometimes painful ways, so your brain recognizes potential threat and mobilizes your body to protect itself, which is the fight or flight response, also referred to as “fight, freeze, or flee.”  Couples will do just that…fight or freeze or flight…or some variation of that.  People seem to have alarm bells go off in their heads, warning them of their spouses.  A message seems to scream, “Danger.  You have been hurt before so protect yourself.  This person can harm you.”  It is lightning fast….faster than you realize it is happening.  When this reactivity occurs with your attachment partner, it can be quite an emotionally laden event.

This is, at least in part, why one thing can be said but we hear something else.  There is also the ongoing pesky problem that people just have templates of recall and experience that are entirely unique from each other, so when you say the word, “dog,” I might think , “terrier,” and my husband might think, “black lab,” and yet we don’t take the time to check in and clarify differences.

So what do you do about it?  If this were texting, it may be as simple as proofreading (except not really, because then you have to deal with the absence of nonverbal cues…sometimes I have to add instructions to my text, i.e. “to be read in irritated voice…you left your stinky, nasty socks out on the floor again”).  At least if it is written out, you can see it and then just blame Siri for messing up what you meant to say, but it’s not that easy, because you may not know what your spouse even heard based on what you said.

Here are a few reminders for dealing with the mind meld challenge:

  1. Realize that your partner is not a mind reader. Be as clear as possible.  It is unfair and uncharitable to expect your partner to just know something in the absence of a clear message.
  2. Realize that almost always, even when you are trying to be very clear, your spouse has a filter and will hear something differently than how you said it. Expect it.  Check in on it from time to time.  Laugh about it.  People say they know this, but they continually act surprised when their spouses interpret something differently.  Why?  Because it is so hard to imagine that other people experience the same event so differently.  Once many years ago, I made an offhand comment about trying to figure out how to make our grocery budget work, because we had a very set grocery budget, and what my husband heard was, “You are not a good provider.”  It made me sad to know that’s what he thought I thought, when I was not thinking that at all…I was in fact questioning my own strategy in making the budget work.  It is so difficult to get outside of oneself.
  3. Realize that your brain is always searching for and reacting to potential threat. Your brain will automatically search for similarities and link present events to past experiences.  You must be open to the possibility that your spouse really may be seeing or trying it differently this time (especially if that has been made explicit).
  4. Slow down and practice mindfulness during the conversation. Watch yourself for reactivity and breathe and then clarify gently meaning in the present.
  5. Lower your voice and talk softer on purpose. The natural tendency is to speed up and get louder.  Purposely talk softer and slower.  It helps for staying mindful.
  6. Repeat back what you thought you heard. Even though this can be useful, I resist teaching specific “communication skills,” because too much of the time they are more problematic than useful.  They can be used ironically, they can be hard to remember, your partner can criticize your execution of the skill, and they just seem gimmicky to me.  I prefer a more organic process, but it really can be helpful sometimes to say, “So is this what you meant?”  Just stay slow and soft (but only if you don’t want to end up in a fight).
  7. Most importantly, KEEP TRYING! Repetition matters A LOT!  Couples who work at it really do get better, but sometimes it can take a long time.  I have couples work at it who took a year or two to really improve and solidify their patterns.  People in general just give up too darn fast.

Here’s an idea.  Before you talk to you spouse, try Siri’s voice recognition, speak paragraphically, and see how inaccurately Siri interprets the message.  This may remind you to be more patient with your spouse.

Remember, Shakespeare said, “The course of true love never did run smooth,”  or, in the words of 21st century poet, Siri, “The cursive two loves ever did young soothe.”  Figure that one out!

Adolescence, Family, Humor, Parenting, Parenting Teenagers

This is Your Brain on Parenting

lazy parenting
Copyright: haywiremedia / 123RF Stock Photo

Here is an actual text exchange that occurred between my teenage daughter and me the other night.  I’d spent the entire evening seeing clients and was coming home exhausted.  As soon as I walked in the door, my phone buzzed.  Here’s how the text conversation proceeded:

Her: Can I get a gym pass please?

Me: How much?  Ask dad.

Her: xx per month, but I think it’s more up front to register.

Me: K

Her: So I can?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?!

Me: Ask dad

Her: Will you?  He says he doesn’t have time to talk about it, but if it’s you he will because he likes you more.

Me:    😦

Her: *read in British accent*  Mother, please, you are my only hope

Me: Well—since you wrote it with a British accent and everything sounds better with a British accent….

Her:      🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Her (30 minutes later, after she knew my husband had come in to talk to me, but not about her gym membership): What did the beast say….BFG….Big Friendly Giant?

[I’m typing my response while saying out loud to husband…”Watch this…she’s going to freak out.”]

Me: He said, “No,” but with a British accent

 Her (within seconds): Not friendly anymore, he’s the BRMLTMTAOKG BIG RUDE MEAN LOVES (son’s name) MORE THAN ANY OTHER KID GIANT

Me:  Am I supposed to read that in a British accent?

Her: You don’t read it in any accent because I’m going depressed and not talking to anyone since dad hates me

Me: So should I find you a British therapist?

Before I proceed, lest you judge me for being flippant, I should point out that my daughter does not have a history of depression or suicidality, so I was pretty sure she was joking.  My kids all enjoy dangling psychobabble in front of me to see if I’ll take the bait.

My laziness in this short transcript exists in my immediate and not unusual response to “Ask dad,” especially in this instance in which I believed my daughter should already know that I am the “gymnastics, dance, music, theater” parent and my husband is the “sports, scouts, gym membership” parent.  Besides that, my kids all know I’m the “bad cop,” and my husband is “good cop.”   Sheesh!  Hadn’t she lived in this household for 16 years already?  She was in clear violation of an implicit standard.

However, this was really about the fact that I didn’t want to put forth the energy to deal with it and was clearly trying to make it my husband’s problem instead.  The fact is, I just didn’t want to think about one more thing.

This exchange probably sounds familiar.  In fact, I can’t count how many times when I have said, “Ask dad,” my kids will say, “I did.  He said to ask you,” and I have the audacity to be annoyed that he was beating me to the punch.  Plus, he’s way better at avoidance than I am, largely due to my impatience for unresolved concerns, so he can usually win at that game.

I have to admit that I know better.  This is not the stuff you learn in parenting classes, folks.  I have researched many, many parenting programs.  I had to write my own parenting program to graduate with my bachelor’s degree and I don’t remember including, “When your child asks your permission for something, immediately tell them to ask the other parent.”

If I were following my own parenting advice, I would say something mature and intelligent like, “This sounds really important to you.  Let me discuss this with your father, and when we have made a unified decision, I will let you know, and we can figure out the details about cost, payment, etc.  We might be able to help you out, but you will be expected to contribute…” blah blah blah.

So why didn’t I?  The words take up less than a paragraph.  It would have been less than a minute of my time.

The answer lies in three words: Parental Brain Fry.

We get tired.  I wasn’t in the mood to deal with any emotion if she didn’t like my answer.  Plus, I didn’t want to have to decide on the fly and then regret my decision later.

Bottom line:  I just didn’t WANT to deal with it.

Welcome to the messy world of parenting.  We’re tired.  Our kids are younger and more energetic than we are.  In the world of parenting, the most predictable feature is unpredictability, which is why most parenting programs are so theoretically elegant and so executably clumsy.  Many parenting programs read like recipes where one of the ingredients is “children,” but there is little acknowledgment that each child brings individual temperament, preferences, and responses to the equation.  It’s like adding a different spice to the recipe every time, so you’re never quite sure what you’re going to get.

So, when it comes to riding the parenting roller coaster, we are inevitably going to have those crazy moments when we really just want to hand off the parenting torch for a while.  That’s normal.  We will all engage in lazy parenting.  Cultivating a sense of humor can help you with the ride and sometimes preserve a precarious relationship with teens.  It also helps to spend as much time as you can engaging in positive ways to buffer yourself against the storms of adolescence, so that when you are exhausted, your missteps won’t completely derail the bond you have created.  After all, parental brain fry is quite common – even in Britain.