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Strong Marriages Have Strong Boundaries

“Boundaries” isn’t the most romantic word, is it?

Or at least it’s not the first word that comes to mind when you think about the qualities of a successful marriage. Talking about boundaries doesn’t get us as starry-eyed as talking about love, passion and devotion.

But boundaries are essential. A recent article called “What Are Healthy Boundaries To Set In Relationships? 15 People Reveal Their Wisest Guidelines” got me thinking about the different kinds of boundaries we can set in our marriages and why they’re so beneficial.

Boundaries around Your Individuality

Is your whole life about your marriage and family? Is your husband your only source of emotional support? Do you neglect your health, your basic needs or the hobbies and interests you had before you got married? Then you need some healthier boundaries around your sense of self.

Maintaining a strong sense of yourself isn’t selfish. Neither is tending to your own needs on a regular basis. The reality is that nurturing your independence makes you a better partner. You take pressure off your husband because you’re not looking to him to fulfill all of your needs.

Having a life outside your marriage can also bring fresh energy into your marriage by giving you other experiences to share with your spouse besides the household chores. Your separateness also sends a strong message about how much you value yourself – and that can make you much more attractive to your husband. You may even lower the chances one of you will have an affair. Psychotherapist and bestselling author Esther Perel believes that many people stray from their marriages because they are trying to recapture a part of themselves they lost by getting married.

Boundaries around Privacy

True love doesn’t necessarily equal being a completely open book. You and your husband can have very different boundaries around privacy.

For example, let’s say both you and your husband were married before. You feel comfortable talking freely about your ex with your husband. No detail is off limits. On the other hand, your husband is more reticent in talking about his previous marriage. He does share information that’s relevant to your relationship – like how his ex’s overspending affects his behaviors around money in your relationship. But overall he keeps most things about his first marriage private.

Your approach may baffle him, and vice-versa. But neither of you is necessarily wrong. The important thing is that you can each maintain the privacy boundaries that feel healthy to you and that you understand and respect each other’s boundaries.

Boundaries around Behavior

Every marriage has rules about off-limits behaviors, whether those rules are spoken or not. Almost all of us would agree that having sex with other people and physically or emotionally abusing your spouse are clear boundary violations in a marriage.

But beyond these common rules, there are some other, lesser-known boundaries that are critical to a healthy marriage. Specifically, fighting dirty and openly disrespectful behavior should be unacceptable in your marriage. Displaying contempt  is one of the top warning signs that your relationship is headed for divorce. Tolerating disrespect in any form will ultimately damage your relationship, so it is vital you put some clear boundaries around it.

Other behavior boundaries in marriage are important to negotiate. For example, different couples might set different boundaries around social media use. You may need to discuss how you feel about each of you having friends of the opposite sex. You may even have boundaries you want to set around how often you have sex or how household responsibilities are shared.

It’s essential to talk about what the boundaries are in your marriage and to make sure that you’re both playing from the same rule book.

This week, take some time to think about the boundaries in your marriage. Are there any boundaries you want to change? Are there boundaries that you and your husband need to communicate more about?

You can get more useful insights on boundaries and other ways to keep your marriage healthy in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Take Time for Joy This Summer

This blog can get heavy. We talk about serious issues in marriage. Things like affairs, infertility and separation.

Not today, though.

Today I just want you to find a way to lighten things up.

The weight of all our daily tasks and worries can wear us down — even when we think that they’re no big deal. Have you ever read the “How heavy is your glass of water?” story. The point of it is that we all have to put down our burdens sometimes.

Now that we’re in the heart of summer, maybe there’s some extra space for you to do this. If the pace of your work life and family life is a little slower right now, don’t rush to fill that freed-up time with things from your to-do list. Your world won’t fall apart if you take a break from being responsible and mature. Really.

What does lightening up look like? Go on an impromptu vacation or staycation. The next time the kids want to have an adventure or just hang out, put down your phone and join in. Goof around with your husband. Remember how fun it was to be silly together? (If not, the video with this post is a good refresher course.)

Giving yourself a break from the routine stress we are all under will help keep your marriage healthy. You’ll also reconnect with a side of yourself you may have forgotten.

You — and your marriage, and your family — need joy. Don’t put it off.

How Your Brain Reveals Your Love Story

It might not sound romantic, but Helen Fisher has love down to a science.

Fisher is a biological anthropologist and a scientific advisor to Match.com. She and her fellow researchers have spent a lot of time using MRI scanners to look at the brains of people in love.

While all of Fisher’s work is fascinating, her findings about people in long-term relationships who report that they’re still in love are especially intriguing. We usually think of new love as the most exciting and swoon-worthy. But the brains of Fisher’s subjects — mostly n their 50’s and married an average of 21 years— clearly showed their passion still burning.

“Psychologists maintain that the dizzying feeling of intense romantic love lasts only about 18 months to—at best—three years. Yet the brains of these middle-aged men and women showed much the same activity as those of young lovers, individuals who had been intensely in love an average of only seven months,” Fisher writes in O Magazine.

What’s keeping their love alive? And what can the rest of us learn from Fisher’s findings?

Does Your Brain Wear Rose-Colored Glasses?

Because our brains are wired to keep us alive, we naturally tend to look for the negative in order to quickly spot anything potentially risky or dangerous. Unfortunately, this thinking bias can cause problems in our relationships if we’re not careful.

Fisher found that longtime lovers have reduced activity in the part of the brain that skews negative, which suggests that they’ve honed their ability to see the positives in their partner.

“Men and women who continue to maintain that their partner is attractive, funny, kind and ideal for them in just about every way remain content with each other,” Fisher writes. “Perhaps this form of self-deception is a gift from nature, enabling us to triumph over the rough spots and the changes in our relationships.”

Does your brain need some training to accentuate the positive? Make an extra effort to notice the good things that your husband does and to remind yourself of all the reasons you fell in love with him in the first place.

(A quick note here: In no way is Fisher suggesting that you overlook serious issues, like abuse.)

How Active Are Your Mirror Neurons?

Another interesting thing about the brains of Fisher’s subjects was the higher activity of the mirror neurons which are nerve cells linked with empathy. That’s not surprising. We all long to feel heard and understood in our relationships.

Unfortunately, life gets so busy and draining sometimes that it depletes our ability to be empathic with others. To improve your ability to put yourself in your partner’s shoes, there are a couple of exercises you can try. First, there’s the “marriage hack” that takes only 21 minutes per year. You can also work through the 36 questions that build closeness (which you may have seen featured in The New York Times).

Are You Caring For Yourself?

Finally, Fisher’s subjects showed notable activity in the brain regions associated with controlling emotions. Again, this makes a lot of sense. As I’ve written before, respect is the often-overlooked ingredient in lasting love. And it’s a lot easier to be respectful with your partner when your emotions don’t feel out of control.

If you do lash out at your husband frequently, take a look at the rest of your life. I’m betting that you’re pushing yourself hard and may not even realize the pressures you face. To get a better handle on your emotions, look at the factors that put you at risk for “flipping your lid” and engage in more self-care. As women, we’re often taught that tending to our own needs is selfish. But the truth is we can’t be there for others with love and respect if we don’t care for ourselves.

Be sure to take a few minutes to watch Fisher’s full TED Talk. I think you’ll come away with a fresh appreciation of the power and wonder of love. And for a guide to writing your own lasting love story, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love

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.

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”: