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One Foolproof Way to Make the Holidays Happier

holidays

This time of year, you’ll see plenty of articles about how to have the happiest holiday season ever. You’ll find no shortage of advice on how to deck your halls, craft handmade gifts, start beloved traditions and dazzle at parties.

That’s all well and good, but I want to make things much simpler for you. Today I’m going to share with you one tip that could make this the least stressful holiday season you’ve ever had. It’s free. It doesn’t require crafting or cooking skills. It works no matter which holidays you observe. And it doesn’t have an expiration date. In fact, I hope you use it well after the last New Year’s celebrations have wrapped up.

What’s my magical tip?

When people get on your nerves, assume that they’re not doing it on purpose.

Trust me, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try out this mental shift in the coming weeks. What if you stopped assuming things like this?

  • Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you because he doesn’t value your time.
  • Your friend posts pictures of her perfect decorations and gift-wrapping to make others feel inferior.
  • Your brother is always late to gatherings because he’s trying to tick you off.
  • Your mom only picks at the holiday meals you prepare because your cooking isn’t fancy enough for her.

The truth is, we’re all pretty self-involved. We don’t think very much about the ramifications our actions have on others. Unless a person has shown you before that he’s malicious (in which case you’ve got a whole other issue going on), it’s more likely that he just doesn’t know how he’s affecting you.

When you assume someone is being clueless instead of downright nasty, the whole situation suddenly feels a great deal lighter. You let go of resentments and start seeing constructive solutions.

Getting Past Assumptions

Since this blog focuses on how to strengthen your marriage, I would especially encourage you to stop assuming your husband has bad intentions when he does something that disappoints or irritates you.

The holiday season can be a time of high expectations, so it’s prime time for assuming the worst!

Let’s go back to an example from above:

Your husband leaves all gift shopping to you.

 You’ve been assuming you know the reason for this behavior. You’re absolutely certain that it’s because he doesn’t value your time, so he’s intentionally passing the gift shopping off to you.

But what else could be behind his behavior?

  • Maybe he thinks you love gift shopping.
  • Maybe he believes you think he’s terrible at choosing gifts.
  • Maybe his own mom did the shopping for their family and he just assumes that’s how all families do it.
  • Maybe he doesn’t realize how long it takes and that it affects your schedule that much.

It’s also possible he really doesn’t value your time, but it’s important to be sure that’s the case before you work off that negative assumption.

Sometimes it’s easier to start by assuming your husband isn’t doing anything to you on purpose and just letting him know how his actions affect you. That could sound like:

With both our families growing, we’re gift shopping for more people now. Taking care of it all is leaving me pretty stressed. You’d be helping me a lot if we could start dividing up the gift list.

As an experiment this week, pay attention when your husband or anyone else pushes your buttons. Notice whether you automatically assume the worst about their behavior. If you do, try replacing that assumption with the belief that the other person isn’t trying to hurt you. How does that make you feel? Let me know how this mental shift works for you during the holiday season and beyond.

Connection is Always the First Step

connection first

I’m a big fan of psychiatrist Daniel Siegel. You may remember a past blog post where I shared some of Siegel’s advice about what to do when you “flip your lid.”

Today, I want to talk about another strategy from Siegel. You may have heard of his Connect and Redirect method in the context of parenting. But the ideas behind it can strengthen your marriage (or any other relationship, for that matter).

The key thing to remember about Connect and Redirect is that any interaction will be more fruitful and satisfying if you take a moment to establish emotional connection before launching into what you need.

In our marriages, though, we often forget this step. Because we’re all so busy, it seems easier just to “cut to the chase.” We also tend to take those we’re closest to for granted and be much more abrupt and less tactful with them than we are with other people.

But taking that extra moment to build connection pays off. It helps your spouse get into the mental space where he can truly hear what you’re saying and engage with you.

Make Connection a Habit

Establishing connection doesn’t take long and it’s not complicated. Loving touch and positive eye contact go a long way. So does acknowledging what’s going on with your husband before you bring up the topic you want to discuss. You don’t have to reserve this communication technique for big, important discussions. It’s just as handy when you’re dealing with the routine concerns of family life.

Compare these two interactions:

  • Your husband arrives home clearly still stressed from work or his commute. You shout from the kitchen, “The cable’s out again – what are we going to do about this?”
  • Your husband arrives home looking stressed. You greet him with a quick hug and kiss and ask what’s up. He says traffic was much heavier than usual during his drive home. “Ugh! Frustrating!” you commiserate. “When you’ve had a chance to unwind a little, I want to talk to you about maybe changing cable providers.”

In the second interaction, you’re letting your husband know that he’s cared for and that he doesn’t have to put his defenses up. You’re making it easier for the two of you to work together for a solution to the cable issue.

As I said earlier, sometimes we have to be deliberate in giving our spouses the same consideration we automatically show our friends. If you know this area is a trouble spot for you, you may want to remind yourself to frame things with your husband the same way you would if you were talking with a friend. If, for example, you needed to reschedule your weekend trip with a friend, you’d probably take a minute to check in on her life and see if it’s a good time to talk before you told her about the change in plans. But you might be tempted to skip those “niceties” with your husband.

Remember, though, that we all need reminders that the people we care about care about us in return. When we get them, we show up more fully and give more generously. The time you invest in nurturing that feeling of connection is well worth it.

 

Turning the Scariest Moment of the Day into the Best One

scary moment

How do you and your spouse reconnect at the end of the day? Are you eager to see each other, or are you tense and afraid, not sure what kind of reception you’ll get?

Some people steel themselves for a daily litany of complaints from their spouse. Maybe they’re the target themselves, or they just have to listen to a lot of vitriol about their spouse’s job. Others might dread discovering the latest thing their spouse has messed up: He probably won’t bring in the trash can from outside. And, I bet he forgot to pay that bill I reminded him about AGAIN this morning!

Those first few minutes when you see each other again at the end of the workday set the tone for your whole evening. If you’re feeling trepidation, instead of anticipation, it’s worthwhile to put some energy into making this time of day more positive.

What Goes Wrong after Work

The circumstances of our busy lives set us up to be snippy and even confrontational as we end our workday and start our evening at home. As I write in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, it’s not your imagination: Our lives really are getting more stressful and demanding.

And we have less of a buffer between our family life and our life outside the home. Commuting has never been fun, but at least it used to serve as kind of a decompression zone between home and work, where we were free of the demands of both. Today, if you use mass transit or carpool, you’re probably trying to squeeze in a few work tasks during your commute. If you drive yourself, chances are you’re answering calls from the office or checking emails and texts at traffic lights.

That all sets you up to still be caught up in the day’s dramas and demands when you get home each night. And it makes harder to really “see” your spouse and show up for each other.

Set the Tone for the Evening

Here’s some advice for getting the evening off to a good start. Concentrate on making the first moment that you see your husband after work a really positive one. Just for that moment, put aside any resentment and stress that are lingering from the day and focus on initiating a connection with him. This can make a real difference in how the two of you interact the rest of the evening. It might feel like extra effort at first, but it will quickly become a habit.

Making this shift is a lot easier if you practice some self-care before you get home. Stress makes us defensive and zaps our communication skills, so think about how you can use your own commute to calm and replenish yourself after your day. You could practice breathing exercises or swap out talk radio for music that makes you happy. You may be able to set your phone so that it automatically disables calling or texting while you’re driving.

Coming home and reconnecting with your husband can be something to look forward to instead of dreading. How can you be more intentional about your post-work time this week?

Complaining Doesn’t Work — Here’s What Does

criticism

A criticism is just a really bad way of making a request … so just make the request. ~Diane Sawyer

There’s a great deal of wisdom in that quote from journalist Diane Sawyer. And I’m betting that wisdom played a role in her happy, 26-year marriage with director Mike Nichols.

As a psychologist, I’ve seen many relationships where the opposite is going on. Couples get stuck in a frustrating — and stereotypical — pattern. The wife points out something that’s wrong, hoping her husband will address it. He doesn’t. So, she complains some more. He withdraws, telling her to back off. Met such a reaction, her initial complaints sometimes escalate into full-blown criticism: “I don’t know why I’m even married to you.You never do anything around here!”

If this sounds familiar, don’t beat yourself up. The fact that you’re being upfront and asking for what you need in your marriage is great. Keep talking about what’s on your mind, but try the communications tweak I’m about to show you. I think you’ll see better results.

How Men Process Complaints

Before we talk about how to be more effective in your communication with your husband, I think it would be helpful to understand why you’re getting a negative reaction from your spouse in the first place.

For the most part with men, pointing out what’s wrong usually will not get you anywhere, no matter how often or loudly you say it. (Women may not be so receptive either!)

Think about your goal when you complain to your husband about something he’s doing (or not doing!). You probably just want him to change a certain behavior or deal with a particular situation, right?

But because of the way most men are raised, chances are he’s interpreting what you say in ways you don’t intend. Men grow up hearing they must be competent, independent, and do a good job of taking care of their loved ones. They’re taught not to ask for help, so they may not understand why you keep asking them for little things. Because of these messages, men will often react to complaints with irritation or defensiveness, jumping to the incorrect conclusion that you’re just trying to tell them they’re inadequate or failing.

An example: You say, “I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?” In your mind, this remark is about meal-planning — nothing more. But what he might hear is, “You let me down. You’re failing as a husband.”

Another aspect of how men often get socialized in the U.S. comes into play in how they react to complaints. Renowned communication expert Dr. Deborah Tannen’s research shows that in general women communicate to connect, while men typically talk to establish their status. Speaking broadly, men tend to pay much more attention to hierarchy than we do as women.

For example, you tell your spouse, “Honey, the trash can is overflowing again!” You just want him to take care of the trash. That’s it. You’re not trying to establish yourself as the dominant one in the relationship, right? In fact, you usually assume that the two of you are co-equal members of the same team, and that nothing you say changes that. However, he may be very sensitive to any phrasing that could seem like you’re trying to “boss” him around or convey that you’re better than him. If he thinks that’s what’s happening, he’s much more likely to be defensive and will get to the trash when he feels like it, not necessarily when you ask.

Turn Complaints Into Requests

Like Diane Sawyer, I believe that a direct request beats pointing out what’s not working any day. And there’s a way to make requests that spurs your husband to action and builds positive feelings in your marriage.

What’s important is how you phrase the request.

Right now, you might be feeling a little frustrated. Maybe you’re wondering why you have to do all this work to be heard. Or you’re questioning why he doesn’t just address your complaints so you can both quit worrying about them.

I understand. Things would be a whole lot easier if he just “got it.” But waiting for that to happen isn’t the best way to get your needs met, so focus on how you can be most effective in your relationship.

I suggest that you make a direct request for what you need, but make sure you include the following information:

  1. What you need from your husband and
  2. How his action will benefit you.

Instead of feeling like he’s failing you, or that you’re bossing him around, he’ll feel that he’s succeeding at his favorite role: the competent guy who makes your life better.

Let’s go back to the earlier example of a typical complaint:

“I’m sick of always being the one who plans dinner. Why can’t you do it sometimes?”

You could voice the same need in a very different way:

“Honey, I know it’s worked for us for a long time to have me be the one who takes care of dinner. But since I changed jobs, this has gotten a lot harder for me. You’d really be helping to get my stress level down if we came up with a plan to share dinner duty.”

Do you see how your husband might be more receptive to the request vs. the complaint? Don’t forget to voice appreciation if your husband responds positively to your request, as you would with anyone else.

This week, think about something that you frequently complain about in your marriage and try this communication technique instead. Let me know how it goes!

If you and your husband are interested in learning more about gender and communication, check out Deborah Tannen’s books, You Just Don’t Understand: Men and Women in Communication or That’s Not What I Meant, You’ll also find many more ideas about understanding and connecting with your husband in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Protecting Your Marriage When Money Is Tight

Money

Money problems are a common source of stress for American families. Consider just a few statistics:

Unfortunately, couples with ongoing financial difficulties tend to take their anxiety out on each other. As I wrote in my book Strong Women, Strong Love, research shows that couples under high stress for extended periods magnify the negatives in their relationship and have trouble remembering the positives. They get defensive and anger more quickly at each other’s faults. No matter how well they usually communicate with each other, they have trouble drawing on those relationship skills because they’re overwhelmed.

Whether you’re dealing with credit card debt, lost income after a layoff, a large emergency expense or ongoing difficulties making ends meet, it’s important to protect your relationship from the stress caused by financial problems. Here are a few steps you can start implementing right now.

  • Realize it’s normal to feel fearful during a money crisis, and be aware that fear changes how you think and behave. For example, if you fear what might happen if your husband doesn’t find another job soon, you might start micromanaging his job search, even if that’s not how you usually act in your relationship.
  • When you’re stressed about money, it’s more important than ever to maintain habits that help you stay calm. This supports your own health and wellbeing, and it helps you stay connected with your partner when the going gets tough. A couple of things that help many people get to a calmer place when they’re stressed are deep-breathing exercises and mindfulness practices to stay in the moment instead of spiraling into worries about the future.
  • Remind yourself that this is a temporary situation. When you’re very stressed about money, you might feel overwhelmed and hopeless and have trouble seeing possibilities for change.
  • Collaborate with your partner to find solutions. Work as a team to plot how you’ll get a new job, start tackling your debt or pay off that surprise bill. You’ll maintain, and maybe even deepen, the sense of trust and respect in your relationship.

If you aren’t going through money troubles right now, talk with each other about how you can prepare for a rainy day. What would you do if one of you lost your job? Can you change your saving or spending habits now so that you’ll be in better shape if a crisis does hit? These conversations might not be the most fun way to spend your time, but they’ll protect your financial health and the health of your marriage in the long run.

What Does being a Strong Woman Really Mean?

 

strength

 

Sometimes, I hear from angry readers who don’t believe I’m supporting women being strong. Their words have a common theme:

Why should I do my part to make the marriage better when my husband isn’t doing his? Why are you telling me to be respectful and patient when he doesn’t deserve it? Why should I appreciate him when he doesn’t appreciate me?

I get the feeling these readers think I am urging them to be a doormat. But that’s not the case. After all, the name of this blog, and my book, is Strong Women, Strong Love.

The kind of strength I am talking about is broader than the type most revered in our culture.

In the U.S., we tend to celebrate those who are fiercely independent, firm and unstoppable — who take a stand and won’t ever back down. That’s what we usually think of as real strength.

But there’s another kind of strength, too. One that’s more valued in the East. Think about the willow tree and how it stands strong in the storm because of its tremendous flexibility. Or, the power of water, even as it follows every bend and curve of the river bank.

Both kinds of strength, being determined and being flexible, have value. We do face circumstances that require us to stand firm. But we also face times when we’d be better served by calling on our openness and adaptability.

Keep being a strong woman, but consider expanding your definition of what it means to be strong.

If you can call on both kinds of strength — being firm and being flexible — you’ll be better able to cope with the ups and downs of both your relationship and life as a whole.

Do Parents Have to be Less Happy?

You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”

But that not may be the case.

First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.

It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.

So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?

First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:

They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.

Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:

  1. Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
  2. Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
  3. Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
  4. Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.

The ‘Last Resort’ to Save Your Marriage?

michele weiner davis quote

I recently had the opportunity to hear author and marriage therapist Michele Weiner-Davis speak.

Weiner-Davis is the author of Divorce Busting, among other books. As you can tell from that book title, the heart of her approach is about helping couples avoid divorce if at all possible.

I think her work is interesting and useful. One of Weiner-Davis’ resources that I’ve been sharing with my clients is The Last Resort Technique. It’s something you should read immediately if you feel that your marriage is in serious jeopardy. Weiner-Davis defines this as your husband filing for or definitively asking for divorce, being separated from each other, or still living together, but with little to do with each other.

The steps in the Last Resort checklist align with advice and strategies I’ve written about here in this blog and in my book, Strong Women, Strong Love.

Call off the Chase

As a first step to saving your marriage, Weiner-Davis advises “stop the chase.” That means no calls, buying gifts, etc.

In a past blog post on handling a separation, I wrote about why this strategy works:

If your husband does actually leave the house, don’t pressure him to come back. Allow him to experience the reality of what divorce from you would mean. … Give him space to understand your importance in his life. It’s possible he’s not interested in reconciliation and will eventually want a divorce. It’s also possible that if he truly experiences a separation, he’ll eventually start missing you and the life you have built together.

I’ve also written about how research has shown that a pattern of chasing isn’t good for marriages:

In technical terms, the pattern in which one spouse wants to confront the issue and the other withdraws from such a discussion is the pursuer/distancer pattern. E. Mavis Hetherington’s landmark study of 1,400 divorced individuals found that couples who routinely related this way had the highest risk of ending up divorced.

Rediscover Yourself

The second step of the Last Resort Technique is “Get a life.” Feeling depressed and desperate when your marriage is on the brink is natural, Weiner-Davis writes. But, she says, it’s important to “remember who you really are.” In other words, you’re much more than your response to the current crisis in your life. You’re a whole person, not the “jilted wife” or whatever demeaning label you might be applying to yourself.

Weiner-Davis recommends doing things to get back in touch with yourself, such as deepening your faith, reconnecting with old friends or pursuing a new interest or hobby.

Earlier this year, I wrote about the importance of maintaining a strong sense of self no matter what’s going on in your marriage:

It’s about engaging in what truly makes you feel alive, showing up as yourself, and drawing a line when others don’t respect you. It’s being playful, confident, and engaged in your own life. As therapist Esther Perel has so eloquently noted, distance, space, and mystery stoke the fires of attraction. Be yourself, enjoy doing your own thing, and you’ll amp up the attraction in your relationship. If you’re not convinced, ask yourself how attracted you would be to your husband if he was really needy and had no life outside you! Not much, I bet.

Weiner-Davis makes no guarantees that the Last Resort Technique will save your marriage, but she writes that “it works often enough for you to be eager to give it a shot.” And, she adds, “even if your marriage doesn’t improve … your mental health will.”

If you’re interested in learning more about Michele Weiner-Davis’ Last Resort Technique, consider her new online course, The Last Resort Technique.

For a Better Marriage, Get Curious

curious

Do you know much about your husband’s past? What challenges did he overcome before he met you? What’s going on at his job that he hasn’t told you about?

Finding out the answers to questions like these is hardly a trivial pursuit.

Getting curious about each other is one of the most powerful things you can do in a relationship.

You may remember one of my earlier blog articles about questions that can make people fall in love. That post was focused on building intimacy. This week, I want to look instead at how curiosity can be a tool for cultivating compassion and understanding to work through trouble spots in a relationship.

We’re pretty good at realizing the stories behind our own behaviors. You may be aware, for example, that you’re hesitant to speak your mind because your mother never supported you when you did, or that you’re working more lately because your boss hinted about cutbacks, and you want to make sure your job is safe.

But we’re not as good at realizing there are stories behind other people’s behaviors, too. When your husband gets defensive at your asking him to take care of the dishes while you deal with the kids, your first reaction might be to assume he’s just lazy or that he doesn’t care about the imbalance of housework in your relationship. That’s what we’d guess based on the fundamental attribution error, a natural bias we all have to assume someone else’s actions are because of their personality, not circumstances.

You might be right, but it’s also possible there’s something from his past, or something happening in his life right now, that’s driving this behavior. Getting curious about that story is much more effective than slapping a label like “slob” on him.

Let’s be clear: Finding out the real story isn’t a free pass to get out of doing the dishes. Instead, it gives you a better sense of what’s truly going on with him so that the two of you can work out this dispute in a kinder, more effective way. And it’s a reminder that your husband is a whole, complex person, not just the behavior that’s pushing your buttons in this moment.

This week, look for times when you make assumptions about why your husband does something, and then push yourself to get inquisitive about what’s really behind his actions. Also notice when he reads you inaccurately and see if you can help him come to a better understand of your life stories too.

Improve Your Boundaries to Improve Your Marriage

Take a few minutes today to watch this video on boundaries from researcher and author Brené Brown. It could make a big difference in your marriage.

You’re probably most familiar with Brown’s insights on vulnerability. In this video, she explores a topic that at first seems the opposite of vulnerability: boundaries. But as she makes clear, vulnerability — as well as empathy, compassion and generosity — can’t exist without healthy boundaries.

So much of what she discusses in this video is applicable to marriage. Some of the key takeaways:

  • Boundaries are what’s OK with you and what’s not, so it’s important to define them.
  • We often have trouble setting or expressing boundaries out of a fear that people won’t like us if we do.
  • Because of this discomfort, we often let people get away with behaviors that aren’t OK with us, and end up feeling “hateful and resentful,” Brown says.
  • Although it may not be intuitive, having clear boundaries will allow you to be more empathic, compassionate and generous in your relationships.

Directly (and lovingly) expressing your boundaries isn’t demanding or bossy. It’s one of the healthiest and most responsible things you can do for your marriage. And, as we’ve talked about before on this blog, it’s just as important to be clear and firm when your husband crosses one of your boundaries in order to maintain respect in your relationship.

After you watch the Brené Brown video, take some time to think about what your boundaries currently are and where you need them to be. This could be especially interesting if you’ve never defined them for yourself before. Consider whether you feel hesitant to express your boundaries and, if so, why that’s the case. Finally, try to picture how you would feel and act with more defined boundaries and how that shift could actually benefit your marriage.

Remember Brown’s BIG question: What Boundaries need to be in place for you to be in Integrity and make the most Generous assumptions about others?

As you define your boundaries clearly and start to feel less resentful, you may find that like Brene Brown, you’re not as sweet as you used to be, but you’re far more loving.