Your phone is probably never far from you. It keeps you connected to the office, to your kids, to what’s going on in the world. If you’re stressed, it’s there with a relaxing game or some cute puppy photos in your Instagram feed. It’s your partner in daily life — and that’s a problem.
As helpful as our phones are, technology can also be a source of tension in a relationship. According to one study, couples with high technology use reported more conflict and lower relationship satisfaction. The study even indicated that when one partner spends a lot of time using the phone, the other partner can feel more depressed. Another study echoes those findings. It concluded that people who describe their partners as dependent on their cell phones are less satisfied with their relationships.
Why do mobile phones have such a powerful effect? We can find the answer to this question in past research about what makes relationships succeed or fail.
It’s All About ‘Bids’
I’ve written many times in this blog about the work of John Gottman, who has extensively studied the behavior of married couples. One thing Dr. Gottman observed is that we all make “bids” for connection in our relationships. A bid is “any attempt from one partner to another for attention, affirmation, affection or any other positive connection.” When spouses respond to each other’s bids, they make deposits in the emotional bank account of their marriage. This is important, Gottman says, because successful couples have 20 positive deposits for every “withdrawal,” or negative interaction, in their relationship. If you and your husband regularly respond to each other’s bids for connection, you’re 88 percent more likely to stay married.
So where do our phones come in? As you’re probably all too aware, phones are powerful distractions. You don’t even have to be using your phone for it to steal your attention. When your focus is on your phone screen, you’re less aware of the world around you — and the people around you. That means you’re less likely to even notice your spouse’s bids, let alone respond to them. As a result, he may feel rejected, even if you didn’t intend to hurt his feelings.
How to Reclaim Your Relationship
If you’re worried that your phones are coming between you and your husband, what’s the solution? Admittedly, this isn’t an easy question. In just a couple of decades since they first became widely used, cell phones are now an inescapable part of life. But while you can’t get rid of your cell phone (and probably don’t even want to), you can change the way you relate to it so that it doesn’t detract from your marriage and other important relationships.
Above all, make it a priority to spend more time being truly present with each other. Now this doesn’t mean you have to book a two-week vacation at a remote beach resort without cell phone service. I’m talking about steps that are much more realistic. For example, put away phones when you and your husband reconnect with each other after work. Share a meal together while your phones are in the other room. Or when you are using your phone, take a moment to send a sweet note, rather than the grocery list. These may seem like little steps, but they can make a big difference in your marriage.
Finally, I want to leave you with an article from Thrive Global that really stayed with me. In it, psychotherapist Katherine Schafler cites the four questions that Maya Angelou believed we are unconsciously asking each other all the time:
Do you see me?
Do you care that I’m here?
Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
Can I tell that I’m special to you by the way that you look at me?
Angelou’s questions poignantly articulate an essential truth: We all need to be seen, to be affirmed, to be valued. We all need attention, reassurance and connection with each other. When you half-listen to your husband while you scroll through your Facebook feed, how are you answering these questions? And what are the answers you’re receiving from him if he’s checking headlines or email while you’re talking?
Don’t let the technology that keeps you plugged into the world rob you of true human connection. Always make connection a priority to keep your marriage strong. For more practical advice about maintaining your marriage amid our hectic, busy lives, check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.