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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.

Tips on Speaking the 5 Love Languages

With Valentine’s Day near, it’s a good time to talk about the work of The 5 Love Languages by author Dr. Gary Chapman.

Chapman’s book has sold millions of copies, and with good reason. His 5 Love Languages framework is a helpful way of understanding how you and your spouse express and feel love. The idea is that once you know which Love Language each of you speaks, you will be more effective at making each other feel loved.

Let’s take a quick look at each of Chapman’s Love Languages.

1. Words of Affirmation

If this is your Love Language, it’s extra-important to you to hear your partner say that you are loved and appreciated. Really, though, who couldn’t use a few more kind words and compliments? Remembering to express appreciation or to praise each other builds up goodwill in your marriage. Your words of affirmation don’t have to be elaborate or flowery. The important thing is to share them when they come to you. Of course, if this is the Love Language for either of you, be more deliberate about expressing loving compliments or bragging about your spouse to others.

2. Acts of Service

Some people show their love by doing things for the people they care about. Traditional husbands often speak this Love Language, but their message may be missed if their spouse speaks a different Love Language. For instance, your husband may be doing things for you, but you may not feel loved until he compliments you or gives you gifts. Of course, this can go the other way too. You may be the one whose always bending over backward to take care of your husband and end up feeling unloved if he does not help you around the house without being asked.

3. Receiving Gifts

There is a strong emphasis on giving gifts in our society, and days like Valentine’s Day often place tremendous pressure on husbands to find the right gift. If  this is your Love Language and you have your hopes set on a particular gift, be sure to speak up. It’s much more effective to be direct with your husband about what you want instead of dropping hints or assuming he should “just know” what you like. Remember, he wants to make you happy, so he’s not likely to get his feelings hurt if you point him toward the gifts that make you feel treasured. Your directness will spare you unnecessary disappointment.

4. Quality Time

So how are you supposed to speak this Love Language when both of you are crazy-busy? One way is by offering undivided attention when you can. Even something as simple as acknowledging each other with a warm hello when you get home goes a long way. That being said, if this is the primary Love Language for either one of you, you must make spending regular quality time together a high priority.

5. Physical Touch

Humans need loving touch. It helps us feel safe with each other. Some people need more touch than others, so if that’s the case with you or your spouse, look for ways to be physically expressive with your love. Perhaps add a kiss and a hug to that post-work greeting or hold hands when you’re sitting on the couch. Remember, though, that touch isn’t always synonymous with sex. It’s not uncommon for parents to go through sex droughts because of a lack of time or privacy, but expressing physical affection can keep the fires burning till you can get back in the groove.

Talking with your husband about your respective Love Languages can open up new intimacy in your marriage. Take an online quiz and discover which Love Languages the two of you speak! Apply what you learn, and see how it draws the two of you closer.

Why You Should Unplug from Technology Sometimes

being

You might have seen this humorous bit of wisdom in your social media feeds:

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes. Including you. – Anne Lamott

There’s a lot to be said for those wise words. Give yourself breaks from the technology that seems to overtake our lives sometimes. It’s one of the healthiest things you can do for yourself and for your relationships.

Doing vs. Being

We live in a culture of busyness. Nothing demonstrates that more than our connection to our devices. We always seem to be scanning for new emails, texts and social media posts – a constant stream of information and things to do.

Living this way, though, makes it difficult to thrive.

Our brains function in two modes. The first one is doing. When we’re in doing mode, we’re focused on our goals, or we’re thinking about something that’s already happened. We’re either planning the future or reflecting on the past in some way.

The other mode is being. In being mode, we’re fully present and engaged with what’s right in front of us. Perhaps that’s feeling invigorated by a morning run or having a pleasant, intimate moment with your spouse.

The Problem with being Stuck

The technology we’re surrounded by these days makes it easy to get stuck in doing mode. The brain loves new information and it’s now possible to have a constant stream of it, day or night. It can be extremely difficult to unplug from this constant stimulation.

However, one of the inevitable problems when we spend too much time in doing mode is becoming emotionally off balance. Our brains need stimulation, but also rest and restoration.

Imagine your brain is like a snow globe. Too much doing leaves your brain feeling like the snow globe has been shaken up. It’s difficult to see clearly what’s going on in your life. You’ll make worse decisions, be emotionally more reactive, and be much harder to connect with.

We need to spend time in being mode to bring our brains back into balance. But a lot of us have the tendency to just keep pushing harder and harder, doing one thing after another. And our ever-present technology makes that even easier. Times we might have been forced to take a break in the past (for example, commuting or standing in line) we now fill with even more doing.

This just isn’t a sustainable way to live.

Shift Modes

We have to fight our tendency to think that things will be better if we can just do more. In fact, the opposite is true. If your life is feeling out of whack right now, I’m willing to bet it’s not because of the things you need to do. Instead, you’re probably craving more time just to be.

Make a list of things that pull you into the state of feeling present and engaged. Some common activities that can get us back into being mode are listening to music, exercising or moving in other ways, praying, meditating or deep breathing. Art, engaging a loved hobby, or being in nature can also help bring us into the present.

But if the thought of adding one more activity (even beneficial ones like these) to your day makes your head spin, you can turn anything you already do into one that mentally restores you. When you’re eating, put down your phone, pull yourself into the present, and actually taste your food. When you’re walking from your car to your office, refrain from checking your email, take a deep breath, and just notice the world around you.

Experiment some with unplugging this week. As you spend more time in being mode, you should feel emotionally steadier and less stressed. And you’ll probably also notice that you’re more present for the important people in your life.

Is This the Marriage You Wanted?

Is this the marriage you wanted? I know that’s a blunt question. But take a moment to be really honest with yourself.

If your relationship isn’t what you want it to be, what are you doing about it?

Because there are things you can do.

It’s easy to buy into the common idea that if your partner were your true soul mate, he would instinctively fill all of your needs. That simple expectation can set your relationship up for trouble by putting you into a passive role in your marriage.

The reality is that you have some ability to shape your marriage. As I’ve said before, there is no neutral in a relationship. You’re either building up your marriage or tearing it down. Take an active role in your relationship to help it grow into one that meets your needs.

Even if your marriage does feel perfect right now, don’t assume it doesn’t need daily maintenance. Marriages can change for the better or for the worse depending on your everyday actions.

Here are just a few ideas for actively getting — or keeping — your marriage on track. You can find many more in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

  • Take care of yourself first. If you’re trying to work on your relationship while you feel personally depleted, you’re not going to get too far. When you’re perpetually tired and stressed, you lose some key relationship skills, like patience and being a good listener. Take a few extra self-care steps this week, whether that means catching some extra sleep or making time for things that bring you joy. You’ll feel better and your relationship will benefit.
  • Make marriage maintenance a daily habit. You don’t need a whole different life (you know, one with more time, money or distance from your in-laws) to have a better marriage. Instead, remember that you can improve your relationship just by being a little more mindful in moments you share every day. Put away your phones when you talk. Remember to say thank-you. Add more affectionate touch. And make sure conflict always stays in the respectful zone.
  • Create a marriage-friendly lifestyle. You’re probably juggling lots of different priorities — and all of them feel urgent. Your relationship can get lost in the shuffle. Take a look at how you spend your time. Are there activities or obligations you can let go of in order to devote more time to you marriage and other things that really matter?

Your marriage is always a work in progress. What small steps can you take this week to move it closer to where you want it to be?

The Year of No

The Year of No

 

Are you looking for a New Year’s resolution? I have a powerful one for you.

All it involves is saying a single two-letter word. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. At least not at first. Here it is:

Say NO. A lot.

The very idea of making “no” a bigger part of your vocabulary might unsettle you. I’ve seen that many women tend to feel very uncomfortable around this one little word. For some of us, saying no feels almost like an act of aggression.

Here’s the thing, though. None of us — no matter how capable and generous we are — can say yes all the time. Every time you say yes to one thing, you’re saying no to something else at the same time. Yes and no are like flip sides of the same coin.

So you have to get very deliberate. What are the important things in your life that you always want to say yes to? Maybe it’s having weekends free for your family, or enough time for the yoga classes that make your body and spirit strong. When you know what your yeses are, it gets easier to say no to other things.

It’s wise to start small when you’re learning to say no. You don’t have to leap right into a face-to-face announcement to your mom that you’re not spending Christmas Day at her house like you usually do. Pick a request that’s a little less emotionally loaded first — like turning down a telemarketer that wants just a few minutes of your time to make a pitch (“Thank you so much, but I’m not interested. Goodbye.”) And give yourself permission to take the easy way out. Say no by text. Or just don’t speak up first at a meeting when volunteers are being recruited.

Even then, you might feel guilty about saying no.This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. Sometimes guilt is helpful, but sometimes it’s just a sign that part of you is uncomfortable and resisting change.If you can, just keep taking small steps, and you will find this kind of guilt tends to dissolve over time.

Saying no more frequently eventually opens up a sense of freedom. You can free yourself from time-wasting, meaningless activities, and use your time to do what you love with the people you love. You can free up space to take better care of yourself, whether that means sleeping and exercising more or delving back into a long-neglected hobby.

“No” might not feel natural for you at first. But it’s an essential word to master. So what will you say no to in 2017?

 

The Gift of Directness

gift of directness

I’ll be upfront with you: One of the best gifts you can give yourself and your husband this time of year is being direct.

Kind directness keeps the lines of communication open in your marriage. It keeps resentments from taking root. It helps make sure you’re both operating from the same set of expectations.

Yet being direct is hard for many women. Why is that? Why are we so uncomfortable asking for what we need or telling others what’s going on with us?

A lot of it has to do with how women have been raised in our culture. You may have been taught to anticipate everyone else’s needs — your husband’s, your kids’, your boss’s. And I bet you’re very good at it. You probably know the subtle signs that your husband is ready to leave a party, or that your daughter could use some extra encouragement before her semester exams.

Because we’re so adept at reading others and knowing what they need, I think we feel a little disappointed when we have to come out and say the things that we think others, especially our husbands, should have figured out on their own. I’ve heard a version of this sentiment from women many times: “I don’t want to have to tell him. He should just know.” It’s as if getting what they want has less value if their husbands don’t intuit it.

Some of us have also been taught that it’s somehow rude to communicate directly. Maybe, for example, you’ve gone on at length about how busy you are at work in hopes that your husband will offer to take on more gift shopping or holiday travel prep. Dropping hints might work with other people who are fluent in indirect communication. But it may just go right over your husband’s head.

Wouldn’t it be easier just to ask? Most husbands relish the chance to make their wives happy. And they’d appreciate more information on how to do that. He doesn’t care about you any less just because you have to come right out and tell him the gifts you’d like or that you’d rather stay home more this holiday season instead of traveling. In fact, he’d be thrilled to know.

This holiday season, look for opportunities to be more direct. See how it feels and how others react. If you’re still a little uncomfortable, that’s OK. You’re learning something new. Keep practicing. It really does get easier.