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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”:

 

What are You Tired of Tolerating in Your Marriage?

Your husband is great. Really. Well, except for a few little things.

But, now that you think about it, these “little” things are actually weighing on you. They might be habits like these:

  • He seems oblivious to housework, and you’re tired and stressed from trying to take care of it all.
  • He overspends, and while you’re not headed for bankruptcy, it’s slowing your progress toward the financial goals you both agreed upon.
  • He habitually runs late, which frustrates you and embarrasses you when you’re going somewhere together.

We can describe these kinds of issues in a marriage as tolerations. They’re somewhere between the minor quirks or annoyances you can easily shrug off and major problems like infidelity or addiction. Because they’re not deal-breakers, sometimes we hesitate to discuss them. Airing your concerns might seem like making a big deal out of a relatively minor issue. In the rest of this article, I’ll explain why the opposite is true, and I’ll tell you the most effective way to approach your tolerations.

Why Do We Tolerate?

First, though, let’s look some of the other reasons we often avoid talking about our tolerations. Which of the following are true for you?

  • You’re a perfectionist. You think should be able to push through or put up with anything. But all of us have physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual limits.
  • You have low self-worth. And you think you must make constant sacrifices to keep your relationship.
  • You’re conflict-averse. You fear conflict, or you think that it doesn’t happen in “good” marriages. Many people cope with difficult, or even merely uncomfortable, situations by avoiding them.
  • You’re tired of trying. In her book Hold Me Tight: Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, Dr. Sue Johnson describes a common pattern in marriage. You criticize and demand connection; he gets defensive and withdraws. Eventually, you give up and withdraw, too, leaving both of you distant and resentful.

The Cost of Toleration

If you’re tolerating in the name of being a “good wife,” know that this mindset isn’t actually helping your marriage. A toleration is like a stone in your shoe. It will annoy you, adding to your stress and depleting your energy – energy that could be going toward making your relationship more alive and authentic.

You may also think that you’re helping your marriage by not making mountains out of molehills. But that’s not what happens. Instead, unaddressed tolerations can spiral into major issues. The scope of the problem might grow. For example, the overspending might worsen so that you’re now missing house payments. Or the feelings you’ve held in might explode, and you end up having the very thing you tried to avoid: a hurtful, relationship-damaging confrontation.

Stop Tolerating and Start Communicating

It’s a lot healthier to address small tolerations before they become big problems. But I know this can feel like a big, scary step if you’re not used to communicating openly and directly. Here are few things to remember that will help make things easier.

  • Conflict is normal. All couples have points of disagreement or annoyance. Despite what it might seem like from your social media feeds, no one has a perfect relationship or is in synch with her partner 100 percent of the time.
  • Conflict is healthy. The amount of conflict in a marriage isn’t an indicator of how healthy it is. It’s all in how the couple handles that conflict. Respectfully working together on addressing tolerations is a way to make your bond stronger.
  • Directness is loving. Believe it or not, many men are unclear on how to please their wives. Your own husband almost certainly wants you to be happy, but he can’t read your mind. You’re helping him by telling him what’s important to you.
  • Timing is key. It’s kinder and more effective to bring up your tolerations when you aren’t irritated, tired or stressed. This is one reason why it’s best to have these discussions before your emotions get unmanageable.
  • Openness doesn’t have to be hurtful. Are you hesitant to talk about your tolerations because you don’t want to hurt your husband’s feelings? Remember to focus on the behavior rather than the person. There’s a big difference between “I’m feeling stressed because you regularly exceed the personal shopping budgets we agreed on for ourselves” and “I can’t believe you went shopping again! You’re so irresponsible!”

This week, think about what you’re ready to stop tolerating and how you can work together with your husband to address what’s bothering you. My book Strong Women, Strong Love can give you some additional strategies on communication and healthy conflict.

How Attachment Styles Affect Your Marriage

Is insecurity or withdrawal — by you, your husband or both of you — an issue in your marriage? Today, I’ll give you some insight into what might be going on. I’ll explore different attachment styles and how they play into your relationships.

Your family is actually the very first place you learn about relationships. The experiences you have with your caregivers have a strong influence over how you relate to other people in your life. Understanding your particular style of connecting helps you see what strengths and vulnerabilities you bring to your marriage.

What Is Your Attachment Style?

If you’re lucky, your early caregivers were loving, responsive, and reliable. If so, you learned that you can trust people and developed a secure attachment style. You’re probably comfortable with emotional intimacy and depending on others, which, as you can imagine, makes it easier to be in a relationship. About 60 percent of people have this attachment style.

But what if your parents or caregivers weren’t so consistent? Maybe they were there for you sometimes, but other times were physically or emotionally unavailable when you needed them. These experiences can lead to an ambivalent/anxious attachment style. It’s characterized by feeling unsure whether someone will actually love you and worried that they may leave. People who are clingy or very sensitive to rejection often have this style.

Children of parents who were regularly unavailable or unresponsive can develop an avoidant attachment style. They learn to take care of themselves at a very young age. This independence can cause them to have trouble seeking emotional closeness with others. A person with this style may seem like an aloof or uncaring partner.

Finally, there’s the disorganized attachment style. It can arise in children who suffer abuse or neglect, or whose parents frighten them because of their own unresolved trauma. These children grow up to become adults who struggle with trusting others, managing their emotions and even feeling safe at all.

In reading the descriptions of the different attachment styles, you probably have a sense now of what your own might be. This quiz can also help you pinpoint your attachment style.

Working With Your Attachment Style

If both you and your husband have a secure attachment style, that’s great news for your marriage. You have a sound foundation for weathering a relationship’s normal ups and downs.

But if one of you doesn’t have a secure attachment style now, that hardly means your marriage is doomed. It’s possible to shift your attachment style. If you happen to have found a secure partner, that may help you to eventually develop a secure connection too.

The most challenging situation is when both of you have insecure attachment styles. It’s common, for example, for ambivalent/anxious and avoidant people to couple up — and drive each other crazy. One will cling, and the other will try to get away. Just understanding where each of you is coming from can be helpful. But you may need to seek counseling to protect your marriage and to develop healthier ways of relating.

If you’re looking for more insights to help you better understand how your attachment style affects your marriage, I highly recommend Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find – and Keep – Love by Amir Levine, MD and Rachel Heller, MA.

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.