In Negative Times, Add Some Positivity to Your Marriage

Have you noticed how easy it is to spend your entire day under a cloud of negativity?

There is no shortage of upsetting headlines in the news. If you dare to read the online comments of news stories, the degree of negativity and rudeness can be mind boggling! Turn to your social media feeds and there are complaints and criticism everywhere.

Even at work, how many times a day do you and your colleagues “vent” about what’s wrong?

All that negativity takes its toll and can spill over into your marriage. It’s hard to turn off the habit of fault finding and looking for problems, even when you’re with people you care the most about.

Spouses can be especially easy targets for such negativity. But for the health of your marriage, it’s important to, as the old song says, accentuate the positive.

Here’s what can help:

1.  Intentionally Build a Positive Space. 
Your marriage can be a fortress of optimism that helps you cope with the sea of negativity around you. But building a marriage like this requires being deliberate and focused. It’s too easy to fall into negativity, so you have to repeatedly choose to be positive. If you can do this, you will find the upbeat nature of your relationship invaluable to your well being.

Marriage research  reveals that couples with the strongest marriages have about 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Even when there is conflict in these marriages, the ratio is still five positives for every negative. For struggling marriages, on the other hand, the number is closer to 0.8 positives for every negative. Keep these numbers in mind if you want the type of marriage that will buffer you from outside pessimism.

2.  Take Care of Yourself.
When you’re stressed and really busy, getting to that positive place isn’t easy. That’s because a stressed brain is hardwired to look for what’s wrong. Studies have shown that under heavy stress, couples have more difficulty seeing the positives in their relationship and usually magnify anything negative that is happening. This is just one important reason to take a break to mitigate your stress. When you’re calmer, you’ll be able to see your spouse more accurately. Take some time for you, so that your time together will be more constructive.

3.  Notice the Good Things.
To counteract the strong tendency to focus on the negative, make an extra effort to notice what’s working well in your relationship and talk about it. Most people are starving to be noticed and appreciated, and your husband is no exception.

What are your best moments with him? Which of his qualities make you feel grateful you’re married to him? Have you told him any of this recently?

Pay special attention to the end of the day when the two of you reconnect. It’s easy to turn this crucial time into a gripe session. But think about how much better it would be if you shared some good news and expressed how glad you are to see each other instead.

You may not have any control over what happens in politics or national and world affairs, but you can take steps toward positivity that make a real difference in your marriage. Give the ideas in this article a try. And if you’d like to discover more strategies like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Harshness vs. Loving Firmness

“There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”

 ~Terry Real

Why You Should Diversify Your Relationship Portfolio

You probably know about the importance of diversifying when it comes to your finances. You understand, for example, that it’s unwise to have all of your money invested in the stock of one company.

But diversification is also important to keep in mind for your marriage. I was reminded of this truth while listening to a recent NPR Hidden Brain segment with Shankar Vedantam. He spoke with Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, about how our rising expectations of marriage can create problems in our relationships.

Here’s how Finkel explains it. Before you got married, you likely turned to a wider circle of people to fill your different needs as a person. For example, you had fun nights out with your neighbors, you talked about your goals with your favorite colleagues, you kept fit with your yoga class and you confided in your best friend from college. If you still have that variety of people in your life, pat yourself on the back. What tends to happen when we marry, though, is that our circles shrink. The perception has built up in our culture that your spouse should be able to be everything to you since he’s your “soul mate.”

We haven’t always thought about marriage in such exalted terms. If you read my blog post about psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, Finkel’s ideas might remind you of hers. Perel writes:

We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.

We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

This all puts a lot of pressure on our marriages. And, sadly, it can even set you up for added heartbreak if you lose a spouse to divorce or death. Kristi Williams, an Ohio State University sociologist and editor of The Journal of Marriage and Family, believes that many of the problems divorced or widowed people suffer are because they over-relied on their spouse.

You will be happier and your marriage will be healthier if you can diversify your relationship portfolio. Here are a couple of ideas to try.

It’s easy to forget one of the most important relationships — the one you have with yourself. If you feel that you’ve lost some of who you are since you’ve been married, start making it a priority to be yourself and value yourself. Do your own thing sometimes. Take a class in something you’re interested in, even if it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want to join you. Revisit the dreams and interests you’ve been neglecting. You’ll feel more engaged and alive, which — bonus! — makes you more attractive to your husband.

You can also start rekindling some of the relationships you’ve let slide to the back burner. Elaine Cheung of Northwestern University has found that having a larger array of relationships to help you manage all the emotions of life makes you happier. And when you have additional emotional support sources besides your husband, you’re more likely to appreciate the unique role he does play in your life.

For more ideas like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It’s a comprehensive guide to caring for your marriage and yourself.

10 Essential Truths About Apologies in Marriage

In my last post, I talked about the importance of repair in your relationship. All couples go through conflicts, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings, and it’s very important to resolve them.

One of the tools you need in your relationship repair kit is the ability to give and accept an apology. Apologies are so important that renowned psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner devoted an entire book to the subject: Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. This book is required reading for strengthening your marriage, not to mention all the other relationships in your life.

Adapted from Lerner’s work, here are 10 essential things you should know about apologies:

  1. Apologizing well requires listening deeply to the person you hurt. Your apology should begin by fully understanding their feelings and experience, no matter how difficult they are for you to hear.
  2. A good apology also requires taking responsibility. A hurt person wants you to carry some of the pain of the situation with him. She also needs assurances that the same situation won’t happen again.
  3. A bad apology can make things worse than no apology at all.
  4. Common mistakes people make when apologizing include: making excuses, over-explaining, blaming the other person for your mistake, and bringing up things the other person did wrong in the past.
  5. A consistent failure to apologize harms a relationship, even if things are otherwise good. When both partners have the ability to apologize, the relationship is stronger and healthier.
  6. An apology doesn’t have to be the last word on a situation. Think of it as opening the door to future communication.
  7. In situations where the hurt runs very deep, an apology isn’t a one-time event. At these times, you must commit to ongoing listening and repair of your relationship.
  8. Apologizing when you’ve caused deep harm requires a strong sense of your own self-worth. Without it, you’re more likely to be defensive by doing things like minimizing, rationalizing and denying the pain you have caused.
  9. If your partner fails to apologize to you, that’s typically an indication of his low self-worth, not that he doesn’t love you.
  10. You don’t have to rush to forgiveness after an apology. In fact, doing so can cut short your healing process. Forgiveness also doesn’t have to be total for your relationship to move past the issue.

I encourage you to be quick to offer sincere apologies to your husband. Also, be receptive to his sincere efforts to make amends. If either partner’s failure to apologize is a trouble spot in your marriage, make it a priority to explore Lerner’s work together.

Why Your Marriage Needs Regular Repairs

All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.

That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.

Choose the Right Tools

You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).

Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”

A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:

  • Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
  • Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
  • Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
  • Using humor or trying to lighten things up.

The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.

Maintenance Is Important Too

Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.

It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.

To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.

  • Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
  • Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
  • Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
  • And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.

In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Terry Real: ‘I Side With the Woman’

In my last blog post, on emotional labor, I cited the work of renowned couple’s therapist, speaker and author Terry Real. Real’s work is important, and it has the potential to change your marriage, so I wanted to tell you more about him.

A great starting point is the post “The Awful Truth: Most Men Are Just Not Raised to be Intimate” on Real’s website. It’s a case study about his work with a couple during a two-day therapy session aimed at saving their marriage.

This is an intense read. The couple, Peter and Jenn, struggle with problems that affect many marriages. Their early passion for each other has fizzled. She’s tired of trying to build intimacy, while Peter seems incapable of it. He feels she’s undercutting his authority with their children, while she worries about his toxic temper, especially with their son. To top it all off, Peter has also been unfaithful.

Take a few moments to read and reflect on this case study. As you do, here are a few key points I especially want you to take to heart.

  1. In our culture, we still raise boys to be “hard, logical, independent and stoic,” as Real says. This creates men who are “emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.” Real points out something else important here: Men who were raised this way are the norm, not an aberration, especially when we look at older generations.
  2. It might be easy to interpret Real’s work as man-bashing, but that’s not accurate. He emphasizes that men struggle with intimacy not because they’re bad people, but because of the way they were raised and cultural messages. Real believes that, with hard work and bravery, men can change what they bring to relationships. He’s been through such a transformation himself.
  3. Real is not saying that women are perfect. In this case study, he’s clear that Jenn has her own issues to address, but that the most urgent need is for Peter to make changes.
  4. Real believes that what looks like men’s fear of intimacy is really the fear of subjugation. “Many men read emotional receptivity as an invitation to be run over,” Real says. This comes from raising men with an overemphasis on being strong and competitive.
  5. Nurturing and understanding, whether from their partners or through therapy, won’t change men like Peter. Instead, Real believes such men need to “feel proportionately ashamed for (their) bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto (their) essential worth as an imperfect human being.” Appropriate shame isn’t spending the rest of your days in obsessive self-loathing. It’s about realizing who you have hurt and doing your best to make amends.

Real breaks from the common practice of the therapist not taking sides. “I side with the woman,” Real says. Again, he’s not against the man. He just believes that “business as usual” in therapy doesn’t work. This is because the skills and expectations men and women bring to a relationship can be extremely different.

If you’d like to delve further into Real’s work, there’s a great archive of articles on his website. You may also want to check out recent media coverage of Real in Forbes and AlterNet. To further your understanding of how your relationship is affected by the way you were both raised, enjoy this complimentary chapter on gender expectations from Strong Women, Strong Love.

Women, Men and Emotional Labor

You and your husband may have discussed (or argued about) how you divvy up household chores and responsibilities. But have you ever talked about how the two of you divide the emotional labor that’s necessary to keep your relationship and your family functioning?

The term “emotional labor” has gotten a lot of buzz in the past few years, but it’s not new. Academics have been looking at the concept for decades. Inequity in who performs emotional labor is an issue in the workplace, in social situations and at home. But, since this is a blog about marriage, today I’m going to focus on emotional labor as it affects our domestic relationships.

Defining Emotional Labor

So what does emotional labor encompass? Writer Suzannah Weiss defines it this way:

Emotional labor is the exertion of energy for the purpose of addressing people’s feelings, making people comfortable, or living up to social expectations. It’s called “emotional labor” because it ends up using – and often draining – our emotional resources.

Of course, we all perform emotional labor in our relationships. The reason it’s such a hot-button topic, though, is that emotional labor at home disproportionately falls on women.

Emotional labor looks different in different households. But here are a few examples that might feel familiar to you:

  • Your husband may be happy to go to parent-teacher conferences and other school events with you. But you’re the one who is primarily responsible for nurturing and meeting the emotional needs of your kids on a daily basis. You talk to them about conflicts with friends. It falls on you to make sure their birthday celebrations special. When you can, you volunteer at school so you will be seen as a good mother.
  • Somehow it’s fallen on you to remember and send birthday/sympathy/graduation cards and gifts — even for his side of the family.
  • You habitually monitor and manage your husband’s emotions, doing what you can to keep the peace.
  • When you have guests, you’re anticipating their needs so they have a good visit. He simply enjoys himself.
  • While your husband does chip in at home, you’re the one who’s constantly thinking ahead: We need to go ahead and book our vacation to get the best rates … If we want to host dinner on Saturday, we have to pick up groceries and clean up before then … If we want to sell the house next summer, we should start fixing it up now … Your mom is having trouble getting around. Let’s find someone to help her with chores.

Again, no one is saying that you shouldn’t perform tasks like these — or even enjoy performing them. The problem is that if you’re doing all of this type of work in your marriage, you’re going to end up depleted. That isn’t good for your health or the health of your relationship. When you’re exhausted and stressed, you’re likely to become resentful with your husband. And he may have no idea why.

Sharing the Emotional Load

Every couple could benefit from thinking and talking more about emotional labor. Try these ideas and insights to get started:

  • First, realize that the emotional labor you do really is work. If you’re feeling tired and frazzled, it could be the constant emotional pressure you feel as you try to tend to everyone’s needs. Don’t wait until you explode. Ask for what you need from your partner.
  • You may undervalue emotional labor because you’ve always prioritized other people’s emotional needs before your own. It’s important to acknowledge that constantly trying to keep others happy can be burdensome. It’s okay to put your needs first at times.
  • Just because you’re better at emotional labor than your husband, doesn’t mean it should always fall on you. As writer Rose Hackman points out in The Guardian, we’d never accept this line of reasoning when it comes to, say, cleaning.
  • If your husband isn’t taking on the emotional labor in your relationship, that doesn’t mean he’s a bad or incompetent person. Family therapist, speaker and author Terry Real reminds us of a disappointing truth: Almost universally, men don’t grow up learning how to be intimate partners. But that doesn’t mean they can’t become more skilled at emotional labor. Your marriage will certainly be stronger if you and your husband can learn how to share the job of nurturing and tending to the emotional needs of your loved ones and each other.

If this article has resonated with you, you and your husband may want to read my book Strong Women, Strong Love together. It’s a practical guide to maintaining a strong marriage amid our busy lives.

What a Chinese Finger Trap Can Teach You About Marriage

With Valentine’s Day coming up, are you looking for a romantic gift for your husband? I’ve got an unconventional idea for you.

Pick up a Chinese Finger Trap. Remember this tricky little toy from when you were a kid? If you do, chances are you also remember that the way out of the trap is counterintuitive. Once you have your fingers in the trap, pulling hard in opposite directions to get them out won’t work. The trap loosens only when you relax and gently slide your fingers out.

That’s actually a great metaphor for the relationship patterns we can find ourselves stuck in. You know how it goes: One partner habitually does something and the other always has the same knee-jerk reaction. The same old back-and-forth leads to the same old fights.

Just as with the finger trap, the only way to escape relationship traps is to pause before you engage in your familiar, instinctive reactions. Relax and ease into doing something different. Breaking the automatic pattern, gives you the power to make a deliberate choice about what you want to do next.

The Chinese Finger Trap may not seem like the most romantic gift, but it can be a gentle visual reminder of the power of being thoughtful and calm in your relationship, rather than fighting furiously when your buttons are pushed.

Want to learn more about breaking out of relationship traps? You may enjoy my past blog articles on chasing and complaining, two common destructive patterns that can also keep you trapped.

 

 

Esther Perel and ‘The State of Affairs’

If you haven’t experienced Esther Perel’s work yourself yet, you’ve probably heard someone you know talk about it — and likely express some very strong feelings.

Perel is a psychotherapist and a bestselling author. Her 2006 book, Mating in Captivity, touched off a flurry of discussions and debates about eroticism and desire in long-term relationships. Her most recent book, The State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity is perhaps even more provocative. In it, she offers insights and advice about infidelity that challenge many of the assumptions of our culture.

So what’s all the fuss about? Here are a few of the key ideas that Perel promotes.

1. Affairs aren’t about What We Think

We tend to assume that extramarital affairs are all about lust — that the straying partner is driven by desire for another person. But Perel believes there’s often something deeper going on: An unfaithful spouse is actually sometimes seeking a lost part of herself or himself. As she said in a recent interview on NPR:

When you pick a partner, you pick a story, and that story becomes the life you live. … And sometimes you realize, after years of living those parts of you, that there are other parts of you that have virtually disappeared. The woman disappeared behind the mother. The man disappeared behind the caregiver. The sensual person disappeared behind the responsible person.

And there is an expression of longing and yearning. Longing for connection, for intensity, for a sense of “aliveness,” which is really the word that many people all over the world would tell me when they are having an affair. They don’t talk about sex and excitement and titillation, actually. … What they say is they feel alive — as in vibrant, vital; as in a reclaiming of something that had gotten lost.

 When the desire for lost or forgotten parts of ourselves collides with social media, infidelity can be the result, Perel says. Facebook and other social networks mean we can stay in touch with people from different eras of our lives — people who remember those “lost selves” we yearn to rediscover.

2. Affairs are More Painful Than Ever

Infidelity has been around as long as marriage has, but it feels even more devastating today because of our contemporary views on relationships, Perel says.

In the past, we had different expectations about marriage, Perel believes. It was more of a pragmatic alliance. But Western couples today want more from their unions. She writes:

We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.

 We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.

Somehow, we’ve gotten the idea that our spouses should be our primary source of validation, community and companionship. We expect one person to provide everything we once got from our extended families, our communities, our houses of worship. As our worlds get smaller, infidelity feels like a larger betrayal.

3. Marriages Can Survive Infidelity

 While she doesn’t downplay the pain of infidelity, Perel doesn’t believe that an affair should automatically lead to the end of a marriage. The crisis of infidelity can drive couples to talk more honestly about who they are and what they need from the relationship. Of course, though, it’s much easier and less painful to have these conversations before cheating happens in a relationship!

Whether you agree with Perel’s ideas or not, consider what you can learn from them. One valuable takeaway is to remember to cultivate yourself and your own interests, both for your own wellbeing and the health of your marriage.

I invite you to explore Perel’s work further through the videos and links I’ve shared in this article. You can also enjoy her TED talk: “Rethinking infidelity…a talk for anyone who has ever loved”:

 

Are You Thinking About a ‘Gray Divorce?’

Among Americans age 50 and older, the divorce rate has roughly doubled since the 1990s. This phenomenon of decades-old marriages dissolving even has a trendy name: “gray divorce.”

In a way, the rise of gray divorce isn’t surprising. We live longer lives than people of generations past. That’s more years to tend to a relationship. Or, as so often happens, to fail to tend to it. Life has a way of handing us other priorities that make it harder to focus on our marriages. As a result, couples grow apart or even become resentful.

If this is something you’re experiencing, maybe you’re wondering what life might be like outside your marriage — and the thought leaves you both nervous and intrigued. There’s a lot to consider, so let’s talk through some of the things that might be on your mind.

Can Your Marriage Be Saved?

Of course, the answer to this question depends on your relationship. But, in general, I would say that if you and your husband still share friendship and a sense of respect, then you have a chance of resurrecting your relationship. As I wrote in a previous article on respect and marriage:

In long-term relationships, it’s quite normal for feelings of love and passion to wax and wane over time. If partners have maintained a deep respect for each other, in time, these feelings can be rekindled. However, when there is a serious breakdown of respect, relationships inevitably end up deeply troubled.

The Fallout

Divorce will affect every aspect of your life. Even though your kids are grown, a divorce will still alter your family dynamics. Then there’s the financial aspect. According to Forbes, gray divorce “deals a heavier financial blow than divorces that happen earlier in life.” That’s especially true for women. Mulling the logistical realities of post-marriage life may or may not prompt you to give your relationship another chance. But whether you stay or go, the possible financial or family challenges of a gray divorce merit your thoughtful attention.

Do You Even Know Each Other Anymore?

You might be mulling a gray divorce if you feel that your husband isn’t the same person you married. And there’s a degree of truth to that. Life has probably changed both of you in some important ways. Do you know why your husband is the person he is today? Does he understand what has made you who you are? Longtime partners can assume they have each other all figured out. Before you write off your marriage, consider engaging each other with more curiosity. Remember, too, that the qualities that initially attracted you to each other are probably still present. You just have to remind yourself to notice and appreciate them.

You’re Craving Change

Another common reason for seeking a gray divorce is feeling stuck or stagnant in your marriage. You may feel that your relationship has no room for growth and adventure. That may indeed be true in some marriages. Before you make any big decisions, though, I believe it’s worth a try to reinvigorate your relationship. It’s natural for passionate love to ebb, especially in long relationships. But you can stoke the fires by adding variety to your relationship. Travel to a new place or learn something new together. If your husband is slow to get on board, go ahead and pursue your own interests. The new energy you bring to the relationship could bring him around.

You Want More Romance

And — let’s be frank — more or better sex. If you lack sizzle with your husband, the idea of new partners can feel tantalizing. But if you haven’t dated in a long time, you may have forgotten that it’s also a lot of work! Chances are you won’t immediately find a magical person with all the passion your husband lacks. Also remember that you may not need to leave your marriage to rekindle the sense of romance in your life. If you follow the advice above to get to know each other again and introduce more novelty into your relationship, passion should also start to reappear. (And if you suspect that health problems have interfered with your sexual connection, seek treatment.)

Can Your History Overcome Your Problems?

One of the most compelling reasons to stay in your marriage might be all of your shared experiences, which might include raising children together, weathering your parents’ illnesses or deaths and coping with your own health crises. Writing your story together can be a powerful exercise that highlights the meaning of the life you’ve shard.

If you decide to stay, remember that your relationship will always need maintenance and tending, no matter how long you’ve been together. You can never just set it to “cruise control”! My book Strong Women, Strong Love has strategies that can help.