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Check Your Relationship Health

 

There are two times in a marriage when couples are most likely to split. The first comes around the seven-year mark. The second comes at around 12 years. Whether or not you’re near one of those milestones, it’s always good to monitor your relationship health. Here are a few tips to guide you through a marriage checkup.

Managing Conflicts

In the seven-year danger zone, splits happen because of conflicts. Not surprisingly, this time frame is when many couples are starting a family and dealing with all of the associated stresses. The warning sign in this time period isn’t how often you fight. It’s whether you fight the right way.

Specifically, look at whether your conflicts are characterized by Dr. John Gottman‘s “Four Horsemen.” Gottman gave these behaviors such a dramatic name because their constant presence in a marriage strongly predicts which couples will divorce.

The Horsemen are:

  1. Defensiveness
  2. Criticism
  3. Stonewalling
  4. Contempt

If you don’t like the behaviors you’re bringing to conflicts with your husband, you might need to cut yourself a break and focus on self-care. When we’re stressed (as most of us seem to be constantly), we get more controlling, rigid and judgmental in our relationships with others.

Staying Close

At 12 years, couples tend to split because they’re becoming alienated from each other. Again, our stressed and busy lives play a role. It can be tricky to nurture your relationship amid everything else you’re juggling, but it’s vital.

To keep your bond strong, consider questions like these.

  • Is the amount of physical intimacy in your relationship satisfying for both of you? Your physical relationship strengthens your emotional relationship.
  • Do you treat each other with the same consideration that you’d treat good friends?
  • Do you take advantage of opportunities to show love and appreciation — such as greeting each other warmly after your work days?
  • Do you practice deep listening (making eye contact, summarizing what the other said, etc.) with each other?
  • Are you curious about each other? In other words, do you ask yourself questions like “He seems tense. I wonder what’s going on with him?” instead of leaping to conclusions?

Whether you’ve been married one year or 50 years, look through this blog for more tips and insights to improve the health of your marriage. Although your relationship may feel fine right now, doing a regular checkup can be an important part of keeping things on track.

Is Talking to Your Ex on Facebook OK?

Even amid all the political bickering these days, Facebook can be a pretty romantic place. We’ve all read stories of people who knew each other in high school and even earlier reconnecting on the site and finding lasting relationships. When the reunited lovebirds are single before finding each other again, these stories make our hearts flutter. But if you’re married, talking to your ex on Facebook can be a little more complicated.

Social Media and Emotional Affairs

If you’re tempted to look up an old love, ask yourself what’s motivating you. Maybe your marriage is happy and you’d just like to know how your ex’s life turned out and wish him happy birthday every year. But if your marriage is struggling and you’re thinking about how perfect your old love was, now isn’t the time for a trip down memory lane with him.

Talking to your ex can put you at risk for an emotional affair — especially when you’re spending your energy reconnecting with your ex on social media, instead of with your husband in real life. It’s easy to idealize your ex on Facebook because we tend to present only the most positive parts of our lives on social medica. And when you’re typing on a screen, instead of talking face to face, you can lose your sense of what crosses the line from friendship into something more.

A piece of advice I gave in my blog article about emotional affairs also applies here. If you wouldn’t want your husband seeing the Facebook messages between you and your ex, your contact with your ex might be bad for your marriage. Now I’m not saying that your social media accounts have to be a completely open book for your husband. Or that his should be for you, for that matter. You both deserve some privacy and trust. But that trust comes with a responsibility to act in a way that doesn’t threaten your marriage.

Cultivate Intimacy at Home, Not Online

Another red flag? Talking to your ex about things you aren’t discussing with your husband. Your husband can’t be, and shouldn’t be, your only emotional outlet. But if you find it easier to be emotionally intimate with your ex on Facebook than with your husband, that’s a sign to focus on your marriage and your real-life social network, not your old acquaintance.

To head off any issues with social media use, I recommend that you and your husband be a part of each other’s social networks. After all, it’s easier to drift into trouble with your ex on Facebook if your husband is not on the network and doesn’t see you interacting with him. Being proactive about keeping your marriage strong also lessens any online temptations. You’ll find lots of tools to work on your relationship in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. Of course, you can also follow Strong Women Strong Love on Facebook.

When You’re Not in the Mood for Sex

You know that look in his eyes or that certain touch. He’s feeling amorous. But you’re just not in the mood for sex. Everyone feels like saying no to sex sometimes. But it’s important to do it in a way that respects your partner’s feelings and that maintains the overall health of your relationship.

Some Myths About Sex and Marriage

It might ease your mind to know that there are some common misperceptions about sex and marriage. The big one is that there’s some “magic number” — the amount of sex you’re supposed to be having. That’s not just true. The number of times you have sex in any week, month or year isn’t important. What is important? That both of you are satisfied with the amount of sex you are having. Frequency of sex varies a lot among happy couples.

We also tend to have a very limited definition of what sexuality can be in a relationship. If you aren’t doing “the deed,” it doesn’t mean that your marriage isn’t sexual. A sexual connection is about more than intercourse. It can also mean holding hands, feeling an emotional bond, making loving contact or sending sexy texts. At times in a marriage where intercourse naturally wanes — such as after the birth of a child — it’s good to have this expanded vocabulary of sexual acts to draw on to keep your bond strong.

Be Honest about the Underlying Cause

Sexuality is an important part of your marriage. If your desire is misaligned with your husband’s, start by looking for possible causes.

There could be a physical reason you’re just not in the mood for sex lately. Health issues, medications, hormonal changes, aging … they can all put a damper on your libido. Consider getting a checkup if you suspect a physical cause for your lack of sexual desire.

Your lack of desire might also have an emotional component. You might be bringing some other issues into the bedroom. If, say, you’re super-resentful that he doesn’t do more around the house, it’s hard to feel too frisky. It’s important to deal directly with the problem that’s dampening your desire.

Or you could just be plain exhausted by the frantic pace of our lives today, so you stop having sex as often. Unfortunately, the less frequently you have sex, the less likely you are to want it (use it or lose it). If your sex life has fizzled out because you’re busy and tired, try scheduling some time to get intimate when you’re not so worn out. This doesn’t sound very romantic, but it actually works.

If You Do Need to Say No to Sex

When you do turn your husband down, communicate what’s going on with you. For example, “I’m exhausted after these past two days at work” or “I just can’t stop thinking about my mom’s illness right now.” He needs to know that he’s not the reason you’re not in the mood for sex. It’s also helpful to suggest another time the two of you can possibly connect sexually.

Taking a pass on sex will feel a lot less charged if your husband isn’t the only one who ever initiates it. If he’s always the one who has to risk rejection, he could just stop asking. Make the first move sometimes.

Consider Saying ‘Yes’

Sometimes you really, really are not in the mood for sex. When it’s just not happening for you, don’t hesitate to say no. But sometimes your mood might be more “eh” than “no.” Or maybe you know that you tend to get more into things once sex gets started. If that’s the case, consider giving him the thumbs-up. But this should not become the pattern in your relationship.

For more advice like this, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love. I wrote it to help busy couples enhance both physical and emotional intimacy.

Should You Stay Together for the Kids?

It’s a crossroads that countless couples have encountered: Their marriage has become unhappy and unsatisfying. But they fear hurting their children by divorcing.

Should you stay in your marriage for the kids, or end it? Both choices are painful. Which one is better?

Each couple has to ultimately decide what’s right for them and their family. But I do believe there’s a wise way couples can approach this life-altering decision.

A caveat before I go on: This advice is for people in unhappy marriages, not relationships that are marked by abuse and aggression. If you’re in a situation like this, please seek professional help.

Have You Given Your Marriage a Real Chance?

For most unhappy couples, the decision about ending a marriage when kids are involved isn’t so clear-cut. You may long for an escape from your marriage, but you also know the stakes are high for both you and your children. A divorce can complicate all your lives for years. And no matter what you decide, you and your husband will still have to co-parent.

Because divorce is a serious decision, it’s not one that you should rush into. Especially since some studies have shown that a good percentage of people who divorce end up regretting their decision.

That’s why my advice to most couples on the brink is to make sure that they’ve done everything they can to save their marriage before calling it quits.

Using the Research on Marriage to Help You

If you’re intent on working on your marriage, there’s very good news. Research has given us clear insight about what makes marriages succeed or fail. If you are determined to give your relationship a chance, you can be smart and focused in your approach. If you’re both willing to put in the work — reading books, getting therapy, going to marriage workshops — you have a better chance than ever of salvaging your relationship.

Have you educated yourself about what makes a marriage work? Do you know about the four horsemen and the best predictor of divorce? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you have some work to do.

As a parent, if you do divorce, you want to be able to honestly tell your kids that you did everything you could to try to make the marriage work.

Sadly, not every marriage can be rescued. If that’s the case for you and your husband, you’ll at least have the peace of knowing you were thoughtful in making the decision to divorce, and that it is really the better option for you. You’ll move forward with fewer “what ifs” and regrets. And the efforts you put in should help the two of you with your post-divorce relationship as co-parents to your kids.

If you are looking for ways to work on your marriage, I want to point you toward my book Strong Women, Strong Love. I wrote it to help busy couples nurture their marriage amid their stressed and demanding lives. If you’re ready to seek couples therapy, seek recommendations from people you trust, consult your insurer’s director of providers or browse Psychology Today‘s listing of therapists in your area.

Beware of Emotional Affairs

You have a great friend at the office. You enjoy working with him and sometimes you even grab lunch together. He’s funny, considerate and easy to talk to. So easy to talk to, in fact, that you find yourself sharing things with him that you don’t share with your husband.

You’re in dangerous territory.

Emotional infidelity can be a stepping stone to a full-blown affair. And even if it doesn’t turn into one, it can still damage your marriage.

When Does a Friendship Cross the Line into an Emotional Affair?
It’s fine, of course, to have friends outside your marriage, but it’s important to know the difference between a friendship and an emotional affair.

One of the first signs you might be engaging in emotional infidelity is that you’re talking with your friend about things you don’t discuss with your husband. The following questions can also help you determine whether you might be crossing the line. Ask yourself:

  1. Would you talk with your friend about the same things if your husband were present?
  2. If your husband doesn’t know your friend, would you feel comfortable introducing them? If not, why not?
  3. Can you honestly say that you don’t have any feelings other than friendship for this person?
  4. Are the two of you communicating secretly, either on the phone or in person? Why?

Worried that you might be drifting into an emotional affair? You can take a quiz on the website of Dr. Shirley Glass, an expert on the topic, to see if your friendship has become an emotional affair : Just Friends or Emotional Affair Quiz.

The Cost of Emotional Infidelity
One common reason that people commit emotional infidelity is because they feel an emotional disconnection from their spouse. Addressing that sense of loneliness or estrangement is hard work. It can seem easier to avoid issues between you and your husband and distract yourself with attention from someone outside your marriage — all the while rationalizing that it “doesn’t count” because it’s not physical.

But it does count. An emotional affair can be a slippery slope to a physical affair. But even if the relationship never becomes physical, it still harms your marriage because of the secrecy and betrayal that is often involved.

People who find out about their spouse’s emotional affair may feel just as devastated as those who find out their partner is having a physical affair. In fact, some would even argue that emotional betrayal is worse than physical infidelity. Sometimes it can hurt more to find out your spouse is physically present, but deeply emotionally connected to someone else.

Putting the Brakes on an Emotional Affair
Lots of aspects of our lives today make us vulnerable to emotional affairs. Working long hours can lead to more closeness with your “work husband” than your real husband. And Facebook puts old flames at our fingertips.

If you are having an emotional affair, consider it a signal that you need to put your marriage front and center again. Ask yourself what’s driving you to look outside of your relationship to get your needs met, and see if you can address that problem directly. If it’s that you don’t feel good about yourself, get some counseling and work on yourself. If you’ve become resentful of your husband and feel distant from him, work on your marriage.

You can find more advice on the factors that lead to infidelity in my book Strong Women, Strong Love. Don’t wait to address this critical issue in your marriage.