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May 12, 2015

Think an Affair Can Improve Your Marriage?

The folks at Your Tango recently claimed Sometimes Cheating Can Actually HELP Your Marriage. But they offered no data suggesting it ever has done so.

Instead, they referred to a 2009 blog post by Michael J. Formica, M.S., M.A., Ed.M., a board certified counselor in Pennsylvania.

With no data at all, Formica mused that a person might improve his or her marriage by recognizing he or she was in or moving toward an affair.

This, in my experience, is a thought that occurs to an awful lot of people as they contemplate an affair -- or soon after succumbing to temptation.

Oh yes, my marriage will be better if I just get some more interesting sex. Or have someone to really listen to me. Or can have sex at work as well as home. Or find a hobby to fill all the time between those rare moments when we can be together.

Baloney! The only way back to love is through love.

Lies drive you further apart. Broken vows damage your will to be the better man or woman your spouse imagines you to be.

Being listened to by someone else won't repair the loss of intimate communication with your spouse.

Routine, boring sex doesn't become more enjoyable or endearing with a dash of excitement on the side.

Spending even less time together doesn't restore the love you used to feel for each other.

Finding ways to tolerate an unhappy marriage does not benefit the two of you or your children.

The emotion of love requires daily sharing of positive emotional experiences. Check out Barbara Frederickson's Love 2.0 research for the evidence.

The commitment of love involves thinking of yourself as part of an "us," not as an individual independently maximizing your own happiness, as shown by Caryl Rusbult's and others' research.

Research by Rusbult and others shows positive illusion and positive sentiment override are important to your spouse's commitment to you, and you put them on the line with an affair.

John Gottman's research shows that the ratio of positive to negative interactions is vitally important to remaining a couple. It's 5:1 or better while discussing disagreements and 20:1 or better in ordinary conversation for those in stable, happy relationships.

How do you manage 20:1 when you're working to keep your secrets or comparing your two separate lives during an affair?

You can also turn to Barbara Frederickson's Positivity Ratio research to see that for you to flourish, you need 3 times as many positive emotions as negative ones. If you find them with your lover, how do you find your way back to finding just as many with your spouse?

How do you find another 3 positive emotions for every flush of embarrassment over cheating or fear of being found out?

The only way back to love with your spouse is through love -- through more moments of shared positive emotions, through more positive interactions or fewer negative ones, through more positive emotions or fewer negative ones.

If you want those, find some Third Alternatives for the things you disagree on, not third parties to your relationship. That rationalization that stepping outside your marriage can improve it is a fantasy not supported by research into what really works.

May 10, 2015

A Wonderfully Creative Third Alternative

"You're cheating on me!"
"No, I'm not! Don't hit me! I'm not cheating on you!"
"You're leaving the house twice a day now. And staying out too long. How dare you? You're driving me to drink and to protect myself."
"You're an abuser! I'm going to my mother's house and filing abuse charges."

You'll never guess their Third Alternative to clear up their heated disagreement about what she was doing.

Read it here.

It's not easy to get clear of the details of a disagreement to identify a solution that pleases both of you. Sometimes it takes real creativity.

April 24, 2015

Career Tradeoffs are Never a Given for Two-Career Couples

Today, someone shared with me that her #1 fear is this: I will risk my relationship with my fiancé to benefit my career -- or that I will take tradeoffs in my career to benefit my fiancé's career and be bitter later.

So many of us have been trained well in techniques to help us choose between Thing 1 and Thing 2, which is fine when you're by your lonesome. But once you are part of a life partnership, you need to learn to toss out Thing 1 and Thing 2 the moment you discover you each prefer a different one. Learn to look for the Third Alternative.

To find it, you must be honest about what you like and dislike about the two options life just set in front of you and you must be curious about what your spouse likes and dislikes about them. You must jump the fence and say, "I want you to have what you like and to avoid what you dislike about these, but I can't give it to you with Thing 1 or Thing 2. Let's find a Third Alternative together. I promise not to argue for any option you don't like at least as much as the one you like now. We'll just keep looking until we're both happy."

It almost always works, because we are seldom trying to avoid the same thing our spouse seeks. Both may come as a package with Thing 1 or Thing 2, but there is a Thing 3 and even a Thing 4 that will please both of us.

For example, right after he opens a local business in Nashville, she's offered a medical residency in Las Vegas. "Local business in Nashville" has lots of things to like, dislike, or not care about. So does "medical residency in Las Vegas."

Both he and she may actually be indifferent to the location, but if they believe these are their only two options, they'll start talking up the location where their preferred next move is located, making it harder to find the Third Alternative that works for both of them.

The truly rewarding thing about the Las Vegas offer might be the opportunity to work with someone on the faculty there, someone who is actually in the process of moving to a med school closer to Nashville.

The truly rewarding thing about the residency offer might be the income it provides to pay off student loans and buy a second car. An investor for the business or a two-year stint learning about start-ups as a salaried employee for the business owner might take care of this and actually allow the med school grad the preferred opportunity to take a short-term research job or get a business or pharmacology degree before starting a residency in a specialty that doesn't feel quite right yet.

And they could both choose a third city with a better market for the start-up and a lot more residency positions. Here, they could build a joint platform from which both of them can move up in the their careers -- and by delaying the crazy hours of a medical resident, they could together become part of the music, art, spinning, or boating scene there, so they don't end up living their lives in career-defined silos.

April 11, 2015

Marriage Doesn't Work Anymore?

The challenges identified by divorced relationship columnist Anthony D'Ambrosio in The Asbury Park Press and reprinted in USA Today this week are really not very different from the challenges earlier generations have faced.

Learn to deal with them, and you can enjoy being married, even now.

Challenge #1: When we're bombarded with "half-naked" photos online and compare our spouse or ourselves to them, it's difficult to have a good sex life with the person you married.

When they were the new thing, pinup girls, Marilyn Monroe, Playboy bunnies, Chippendale dancers, rock 'n roll bands, Madonna, supermodels, and Fabio were just as ego-deflating and libido-crushing for those who paid more attention to these images than to the great number of overweight, short, gravel-voiced, and nerdy people having great sex lives with their spouses. On average, married people have always had more sex than singles do.

Solution: More real intimacy, the sort where you allow yourself to be vulnerable so you can be accepted for who you really are. Being accepted is a total turn-on and the only reason you care how your body compares to the ones in these photos. If you do not let yourself see the beautiful and erogenous aspects of your mate's body, face, and soul, you miss out on intimacy.

Challenge #2: We have too much college debt and too little income to buy a home, and it drives us apart. "Forget going to dinner, you have to pay the mortgage....Vacations? Not happening."

Uh huh. It's true. You're not going to be wealthy or even well-off when you start out. You might not live in half a bungalow like my parents did or in half a trailer home like a relative my age did, but that's only because one or both of you got college degrees, along with many years of loan payments unless you're in that small fraction who go to college on someone else's money.

Solution: Create traditions to mark special occasions and to take a break from your normal work. Couples with their own traditions actually last longer. You start by looking for Third Alternatives, and when you find one that suits you both, you savor it and repeat it and you create a tradition. If money becomes a point of contention, you might also check out

Challenge #3: We have only the illusion of connection because 95% of our personal conversations take place through technology.

And in the past, married couples had only the illusion of connection if they worked such long hours at the office or in the mine or on a tractor that they came home only to sleep. Telecommuting? Home-based businesses that actually made money? Opportunities to connect that only became possible with technology. In the past, couples decried their lack of connection when one opened the newspaper in front of the other at the breakfast table.

Solution: Find yourself an app that reminds you to write your spouse a love note every night for the next 40 years. Or one that reminds you to take your spouse's hand and go out to look at the stars or take a walk in the park. A healthy marriage needs a ratio of at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction with your husband or wife. While you're tracking your steps or your calories on your smart watch, track that. And as the number of household, car maintenance, and parenting duties mounts, remember that the communications that count are the ones where you celebrate your spouse's wins and the ones where you share a smile, a belly laugh, an "oooooh ahhhhhhh," a drawn breath, or deep joy.

Challenge #4: Social media makes us all celebrities, and we put feeling loved in second place behind getting attention.

Social media may be the latest medium, but the problem is ages old. When I was growing up, it was called "keeping up with the Joneses" -- projecting a false image or buying what we don't need. Now that we can do it with a cell phone and some free photo editing software, at least it need not add to those financial challenges.

Solution: Choose your Joneses carefully. Share with people who will cheer a happy marriage, respect for each other, and joint effort toward your goals, and avoid those who play the "Tell Me My Spouse is Awful" game. And Expect Love, not any particular signs of it. Don't allow social media or anything else leave you expecting what others have instead of all that your spouse offers.

Challenge #5: Thanks to social media, we keep nothing private and step outside those shared special moments with our spouses to post a photo or text about it to a bunch of not-so-important friends and acquaintances.

Gossip has always been with us and has always included our wives and husbands. We've always invited outsiders into our relationships, telling our "how dare he" or "how dumb was that" stories to seatmates on a plane and those waiting on line at a store. And since the invention of photography, we've stepped outside the moment to capture it for others. Nothing new, but still harmful to a marriage.

Solution: Boundaries matter. When you share the negatives in your relationship, others care nothing for your relationship and usually know nothing of its happier times. They want your approval, so they agree with your initial version of what happened, instead of inviting you to Assume Love or encouraging you to let of expectations that make you resent your spouse. And if you forget this unhappy moment during the good ones that follow, these people will likely remind you the next time you complain. Share the positives. Those are what you need to be reminded of.

And remember the newly quantified importance of savoring good moments and being present in "micro-moments of shared positivity." When you're tempted to record the moment with a photo or a tweet, first savor it with your mate. Then take the photo that will let you savor it again with your wife or husband and personally savor the "micro-moment of shared positivity" with your beloved spouse as you share your photos with friends.

Hats off to you for being the sort of person who seeks to understand how to deal with the marriage stressors Anthony D'Ambrosio has once again noted. None of them means we can't enjoy being married.

March 29, 2015

Shame on You! The Folly of Shaming a Spouse

If you've read this blog for a while, you know I have no desire to help you win Best Husband or Best Wife of the Year awards. All I want is for you to enjoy being married. And this is not going to happen by shaming your husband or wife.

Shaming a young dog works pretty well. The dog will recognize you as the Alpha in the house, look down at the floor with an impressive look of penitence, and do almost anything to avoid a repeat of your shaming tone or pointing finger. You get your way and you'll still have a great relationship.

This does not work with the man or woman in your life. If you manage to get your way, you screw up the relationship. And yet lots of us give it a try when we're sure we're right and our spouses are wrong.

"What sort of jackass can't remember his anniversary?"

"Are you stupid? You said you would pick up the Beggin' Strips for Fifi today, and here you stand without them."

"Your browser history shows 6 different porn sites. How could you do this to me? I don't want a degenerate like you sharing my bed!"

"Don't be such a loser. March right into your boss's office tomorrow and demand that raise you deserve! And get your feet off the coffee table while I'm talking to you."

"Oh, good grief. How can you be afraid to visit your father in the hospital? He's sick!"

"And once again you forgot the trash goes out on Wednesday night."

Respect is the very foundation of a loving relationship for most men. It's not possible to feel ashamed and respected at the same time. Don't expect to feel cherished or desired or loved by a man who does not feel you respect him.

Anger is the usual response to unfair behavior, and appointing yourself the one who decides what's right and wrong or treating an honest mistake as an intentional act is usually perceived as unfair behavior. Those "micro-moments of positivity resonance" that make us feel "in love" get squelched by anger.

That 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions needed to sustain a healthy relationship takes a big hit when you add shaming to whatever it was that upset you.

And this is the big one. Shame backfires. It doesn't work the way guilt does. Brené Brown describes the difference this way:
Guilt: I'm sorry. I made a mistake.
Shame: I'm sorry. I am a mistake.

When people recognize they failed to treat you the way they intended to treat you (usually, in a marriage, with kindness, generosity, and top priority), they feel guilt. And the guilt drives them make amends and repair the relationship.

When you try to force them to feel guilt, and especially when you attack their character in doing so, they feel shame. Shame does not lead to making amends or repairing relationships. It leads to anxiety, drinking, addiction, eating disorders, and narcissism. None of these will help you enjoy being married.

So, what can you do instead?

First, you can Assume Love. You can momentarily set aside your knee-jerk version of what happened to consider other explanations for the upsetting behavior, explanations consistent with a version of your spouse as someone who still loves you dearly and still possesses all of the wonderful character strengths you fell in love with. This often works, because you know a lot more about your spouse's life and how his or her mind works than you can possibly recall while you're upset. Sometimes this will reveal to you that there is no guilt for your spouse to own.

Second, you can share your dismay with respect and caring and own it as your own expectation, not some rule your spouse must obey. When done this way, without any shame, it may lead to feelings of guilt and attempts to repair your relationship. Or it may be the start of a Third Alternative to address your different ideas of what's right.

"Our anniversary is really important to me. Celebrating it is a way of honoring what's good and right between us. I'm sad that you forgot it is today."

"I was expecting you would pick up the Beggin' Strips for Fifi today. Having them on hand is important to me. Would you be willing to pick some up or to hold down the fort while I do?"

"I love you and I respect the man you are, and I want to want you, but when you visit porn sites, it is a huge turnoff for me."

"I'm worried a lot about money lately, and I keep thinking you deserve a lot more for the hard work that you do, which would be an easy solution to my worries. It would help to hear from you what stands in the way of you getting paid more."

"Is there anything that would make it easier to visit your father in the hospital? Could we bring photos or a game? Or maybe I could go and set up a Skype session between the two of you? You are such a caring daughter and so important to him."

"Wednesday nights don't seem to be good nights for taking out trash for you. Want to trade a chore?"

These approaches won't get you very far with your Jack Russell Terrier, but they can make a big difference in whether you enjoy being married even when your spouse disappoints or angers you.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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