Divorce Is Contagious — But You Can Inoculate Your Marriage Against It

You might be worried about the flu and other physical ailments that start circulating this time of year. But a contagion of a very different kind was the subject of a recent story in the Chicago Tribune.

The Tribune took a look at how divorce can spread through social circles. It cites a study that found you’re 75 percent more likely to get a divorce yourself if a friend has divorced. Even a friend of a friend getting a divorce raises your own chance of divorcing by 33 percent.

Why does this happen? In the article, relationship expert Helen Fisher says friends’ divorces prompt us to reassess the condition of our own marriages.

Just as physically ill people are hit harder by sicknesses like the flu, your marriage can also suffer from a weakened “immune system.” When your marriage is compromised, you may find yourself fantasizing about leaving, especially if a close friend has already taken that step.

Here are a few tips so you won’t unintentionally fall victim to the divorce contagion. It’s all about strengthening the health of the emotional connection between you and your spouse.

Take Care of Yourself

It’s hard to emotionally connect with anyone when you are running yourself ragged. Sleeping enough, eating well and managing stress make it more likely you will have the bandwidth to connect with your partner. Don’t forget to also make space for the people and activities you deeply enjoy. If you’ve been neglecting hobbies and interests, take some time to renew your passions. Have you lost touch with a dear friend? Reach out today. This can keep you from feeling that you’ve “lost yourself” — and that you need to leave your marriage to find yourself again.

Get Deliberate About Being Positive

Research shows that marriages stay strong when spouses share far more positive interactions than negative ones. But when we’re busy and stressed (which, for most of us, is always!), it’s easier to notice all the negatives. This week, try to intentionally look for and tell your husband how much you appreciate his good qualities. Be affectionate, playful, and compassionate to increase the positive even more. Keeping your  “emotional bank account” full with positives prevents it from being overdrawn in difficult times.

Seize Every Moment

Juggling the responsibilities of adulthood can make it hard for you and your husband to even “se” each other. When we focus exclusively on what we need to get done, and not on our partners, that intimate connection frays, little by little. You don’t need a two-week romantic vacation to rekindle your intimacy. (Although I’m very much in favor of taking one if you can!) Instead, take advantage of the small moments in your day — like when you both come home after work — to connect.  Investing even a little bit of time each day strengthens your relationship. Check out the Gottman Institute blog for a great resource on this topic:  “6 Hours a Week to a Better Relationship.”

The reality of contagious divorce is alarming, but it also serves as a powerful reminder to take care of your relationship. If you’d like a total “wellness guide” for your marriage, I invite you to check out my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Workaholic Husband? Here’s How to Protect Your Relationship

Being married to a workaholic can make you feel like the third wheel in your own relationship. If your husband’s job seems to consume all of his attention, that’s not good for your marriage, his health or your health. Today I want to share some advice on how to get things back to a more balanced place. Of course, if you’re the workaholic in your marriage, the information here applies to you too.

What Makes Someone a Workaholic?

All of us in the U.S., men and women, are working a lot these days. Some analyses have even found that maintaining the same standard of living requires working more hours than it used to. This financial pressure can certainly be one reason your husband works so much.

And then there’s the impact of technology on our work. Our image of a workaholic used to be someone who burned the midnight oil at the office. But now — thanks to smartphones and laptops — work can follow us anywhere. Your husband might actually spend more time at home than his father did, but be working more hours.

With these new technologies come new expectations about what being a dedicated employee means. In some fields, workers are “always on,” responding to work communications during evenings, weekends and even vacations. The weight of those expectations drives workaholic tendencies.

Researchers Lieke ten Brummelhuis and Nancy P. Rothbard found that there’s a difference between being a workaholic and simply working long hours. Workaholics are constantly connected to their work, obsessing about it and even feeling guilty when not working. They don’t take regular physical or mental breaks from working.

Workaholic Habits Take a Heavy Toll

Rothbard and ten Brummelhuis also found that workaholics suffer both physically and emotionally. They reported having more health problems and were at higher risk for metabolic syndrome. They experienced more insomnia, emotional exhaustion, and feelings of depression than employees who worked long hours but did not have the same workaholic tendencies.

A new study out of Virginia Tech sounds the alarm that a worker’s significant other and family also suffer ill effects when the expectation to work is constant. The researchers state that “‘flexible work boundaries’ often turn into ‘work without boundaries,’ compromising an employee’s and their family’s health and well-being.”

Work vs. Relationships

Not surprisingly, an excessive focus on work harms your relationship too. In the Virginia Tech study, partners of employees who feel the pressure to always be available for work report that the quality of their relationship suffers.

If your husband is a workaholic, his long hours and the constant intrusion of his work on your life are probably stressing both of you out. And when you’re in a state of constant stress, It is much harder to connect with each other. You have more trouble seeing the positive aspects of your relationship and tend to magnify the negative ones. You become more reactive and defensive. “Little things” could push you right over the edge.

Resentment can also be a problem, especially if you are also working full time. Women still typically take on more domestic responsibilities, and that’s probably even more true in your house if your husband is preoccupied with work. As I talked about in my last post, the mental load  of being the household and family manager is exhausting. You might also feel angry if there’s an unspoken assumption that his job is the “important” one and that you should curtail the development of your own career to pick up his slack at home.

Working Together on Change

For all of these reasons, your husband’s workaholic habits just aren’t sustainable. But I also realize that he’s unlikely to suddenly start leaving the office and switching of his work email at 5 p.m. every day. So what’s the realistic solution?

First, start a conversation with your husband about how much of the pressure on him is external and how much is internal. Workaholics can put more expectations on themselves than any boss ever would. He may have grown up with the idea that “the most important thing for a man to do is work hard and be a good provider for his family — even if this means he can’t spend as much time with them.” And he might even assume you believe the same thing.

Talk more deeply about the gender expectations you both grew up with. The revelations might surprise you both. You may be assuming that he works a lot because he enjoys it more than participating in family life. But he might feel that he’s doing the most loving thing for your family.

You can support your husband’s career and also insist that there be some boundaries with work. Discuss with him the considerable amount of research indicating that being a workaholic actually decreases his productivity. If he’s highly driven to do his best at work, he may be surprised to learn that having more downtime will make him more effective on the job.

The two of you can experiment with balancing work and your personal life differently. For example, what happens if he stops checking work email after 8 p.m. for a week? Does he really miss anything? Is he better rested, less stressed and more productive? Use the information you gather to guide future decision making, always negotiating for an arrangement that supports your relationship.

For more help with navigating your busy lives, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.

Is Your Phone Ruining Your Marriage?

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:

  1. Do you see me?
  2. Do you care that I’m here?
  3. Am I enough for you, or do you need me to be better in some way?
  4. 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.

‘I’d Spend More Time Being, Not Doing’

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.

What were your thoughts watching this video? Let me know in the comments or connect with me on Facebook to continue the conversation.

In Negative Times, Add Some Positivity to Your Marriage

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s what can help:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Terry Real: ‘I Side With the Woman’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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