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Articles from May 2013

May 29, 2013

Strengthen Your Marriage for the Kids

Got alerted to some interesting new research from the University of Illinois today, thanks to HealthDay. Between the ages of 4 1/2 and 6 1/2, your kids are learning to focus and persist at frustrating tasks. If they learn well, school is a lot easier. So is the rest of life, in my experience.

Depressed fathers tend to withdraw. If they are depressed when their kids are this age, the kids have a harder time developing this life-easing character strength, UNLESS...

Their dad has a high level of emotional intimacy with his wife.

So, dad, please Assume Love, Expect Love, and Find Third Alternatives now.

More on this study by Jennifer M. Engle and Nancy L. McElwain via press release and the journal Developmental Psychology.

May 27, 2013

What's Bothering You?

Is there something really bothering you about your husband, wife, or life partner? Maybe enough that you're wondering why you should stay together?

Do you feel deprived of romance?

Are you sure your mate has no respect for who you are and what you do?

Is this a second marriage where your mate just cannot get along with your teen?

Do you long for the sort of sex life others seem to enjoy?

Are you now the sole breadwinner through no choice of your own?

Do all the chores seem to belong to you, even though both of you work?

Are you reeling from discovering your mate had an affair?

Or are you just tired of being yelled at or argued with?

A little thought experiment for you: imagine your mate's doctor just informed the two of you that your spouse or life partner has contracted an awful new infection. There is no cure yet, but you are in little to no danger of catching it.

Of those who have contracted this infection, eight out of every ten have died within a week and needed hospitalization for their last 24 to 48 hours. The other two out of ten have recovered. So far, there is no way to predict who is likely to make it.

Sit with this for a bit. How would you spend the next week? Will you stay and care for your spouse? Take time off from work? Let any other responsibilities slide? Do anything special together?

Your needs won't change. What will you do during this week about the one that has been bothering you so much?

If your mate dies, what will become of this problem? Will it go away? Get easier to deal with? Or get worse?

Not knowing what the outcome of the infection will be, will you expect your partner to do anything for you while it is still possible? Or will you forget your own needs to meet his or hers? If he or she survives, will you expect a payback for this week? Or does it seem like giving will be its own reward?

Which outcome do you hope for? Do you look forward to getting out of your marriage so easily and with all the assets instead of divorcing? Or are you hoping to be one of the 20% of couples who go on dealing with their problems?

Someone is knocking loudly and urgently on the door to the doctor's office. Are you two holding hands? In each other's arms? Sitting apart, stunned? The man at the door pulls the doctor out into the hall.

Someone mixed up the blood work. Your mate is fine. Someone else is going to go through all this, not you two. You may resume your marriage.

Or you just might want to make a few changes in it, if you are just a bit clearer now about what really matters to you.

May 26, 2013

Be Happy?

There is an interesting discussion on right now about divorce vs. staying married for the kids. Lydia, who launched it, lays out many of the typical outcomes for the children involved. I suspect you've seen all of them in other families.

Adesh offers a very popular viewpoint these days:

Marry to be happy, divorce to be happy.

You should be happy no matter what.

Being happy gives you all the strength to look after your child well.

The problem is, he's wrong. The statistics show yours odds of being happy and strong are actually better sticking with the marriage.

But not if the marriage is like the one Carolyn describes: abuse, depression, stress-induced illness, everyone walking on eggshells, kids harming themselves to relieve the anxiety.

Scot opens his comment as I would:

I feel like there's a false dilemma here. In other words, I think the two choices you're presenting (break up and be miserable, or stay together and be miserable) are not the only two options.

This is, in fact, why I write this blog. Once I started believing that staying together with the man I loved (and could trust to be kind to me and our son) would make me miserable, I spent all my time gathering evidence to prove I was right and plotting my escape.

Then he died while I was at work one day, and I discovered 95% of what was making me miserable had nothing to do with him, because it was all still a problem with him gone. My misery had all been based on my expectation that he should rescue me from it, so I would not need to do the hard work of fixing it myself. Once he was dead, I did the hard work.

As I lifted each giant beam off my overburdened self, I thought about what life with him would be like with that gone, and I missed him fiercely. One of the hardest was when I threw off the commute that took up so much of my time. I found my new office so near the one where he had worked that we could have walked to lunch together on sunny days. Because of where the old one was, we argued over who would pick up the dry cleaning and prescriptions or renew the car registrations.

I had been so sure he was being the unreasonable one. Walking to lunch together! With no babysitter money. And getting home early even after running those errands myself. I denied us both all of that.

Without those arguments and resentment, I imagine the landscaping and decorating of our new home, which finally got done after he died, would have seemed a lot less of an ordeal, too.

And what if I had figured out back then that I could learn to dance even if he did not want to take lessons with me? I had no idea how many other people were looking for dance partners with no relationship strings attached. Blaming him for my inaction on that dream got in the way of all our other weekend fun.

Be happy? It's pretty much an inside job, unless you live in an environment where you fear being beaten or killed. It's something you must do for yourself. Ending your relationship with the person you expected would do it for you won't make it any easier.

May 25, 2013

Is My Spouse Really Not Interested in My Day?

If you often feel ignored by your husband or wife, it might be because you married someone for whom curiosity feels wrong.

Curiosity is one of the 24 character strengths studied in the Values in Action (VIA) study. This means a large panel of psychologists, historians, sociologists, philosophers, and other researchers found it to be valued across most cultures throughout recorded history around the globe.

It's a good thing. We honor explorers. We praise those who invented the things we now cannot live without and the scientists who discovered things we're so glad to know. We may take a while to come around, but we know it is the curious among our artists that keep the arts moving forward.

But curiosity competes with other current American values, like our cherished right to privacy. Many of us hear "keep your nose out of other people's business" throughout our childhoods. It competes with being a team player. Teams stick to what works for the team and don't go "looking for trouble." It also competes with our concern for our children's safety, so we tell them "curiosity killed the cat." Not just an animal with one life like us, but one with nine lives!

So, depending on the balance of messages in your mate's childhood, you may be married to someone with little curiosity, either in general or for other people's business. I am. And that's fine, unless you grew up in a home where interest in what you've been up to or what you're feeling was a way of showing love.

Falling in love seems to make everyone curious about the new person in their lives. But for those who are not very curious or who have been repeatedly chastised for their curiosity, it can fade pretty quickly. You may not miss it until something else makes you fear love is fading. Before you buy your own story about your spouse's feelings, do a quick check for other evidence of general or people-specific curiosity.

If you are married to someone who is not very curious, then not asking about your day, even when you had something big expected today, is not evidence anything's wrong with your marriage or your spouse.

When you have an interesting story you're dying to tell, try an upbeat "ask me about my day" or "ask me how I feel about this" instead of waiting in agony to be asked. Because it's quite likely you are still loved, just by someone who approaches loves a bit differently than you do.

How about you? How curious are you about your spouse's day? Do you wish your husband or wife was more curious about yours?

May 12, 2013

Learn Marriage from the Experts

Here are some of the experts whose work influences my thinking and my behavior.

John Gottman - He's a well-regarded psychologist who researches what's different about marriages that survive and marriages that end in divorce. Two big takeaways.

First, the ratio of positive to negative interactions between spouses is 5:1 or greater in successful marriages. Interactions include our words, our body language, and our facial expressions. Fighting, teasing, and defending your boundaries are indeed OK in a marriage, but only when outweighed by smiles, kind words, gentle touches, enthusiastic agreement, kisses, hugs, and other good stuff.

Second, there are four horsemen of divorce. If they ride into town, get help right away. They are Criticism (of your mate's character or personality), Contempt (insults, name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mocking), Defensiveness (acting like a victim, justified in your critical or contemptuous response to what you don't like), and Stonewalling (stony silence, icy distance, the silent treatment, changing the subject).

Shelly Gable - She's a well-regarded positive psychologist whose research shows it matters more what we do when a spouse is capitalizing (sharing good news) than looking for sympathy.

There are four possible capitalization responses: active-constructive, passive-constructive, active-destructive, and passive-destructive. Active-constructive responses lead to strong marriages.

The constructive part means you focus in your initial response on the upside of the good news and ignore any possible downside. Sure, winning the lottery may bring moochers out of the woodwork and getting on the bestseller list could make it harder to eat out anonymously, and getting a promotion might require more overtime, but now is not the time for that discussion. It is also not the time for discussing when you will get fed or what a bad day you had or some good news of yours from your childhood.

The active part means you give it more than a passing, "That's great." You join in telling the story of this good news. You recall the hard work that led to it or label it a well-deserved turn of events. You ask questions about how your spouse wants to celebrate or what good things will come from this.

Harriet Lerner - She's not a researcher, but her analogy in The Dance of Anger thirty-some years ago struck a chord with so many of us for so long that it's well worth paying attention to.

Your initial attempts at a change in your marriage are likely to be met the same as a new step in a dance. Without even being aware of it, your spouse may try to lead you back to the familiar and expected steps, and more than once. Give a strong signal that you will be trying a new step and keep trying until it feels comfortable to your spouse, even if it means being led back to the old one a few times.

Gary Chapman - He's a preacher who observed that we don't all regard the same things as signs of love. This leads us to misinterpret our spouse's actions or to get poor reactions to our best attempts at being loving.

He named Five Love Languages that seem to cover most of our misunderstandings, and millions of us have shared them and his books about them with others. The languages are Receiving Gifts, Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Acts of Service, and Quality Time. If your spouse speaks a different one from you, it's time to learn more about it.

Emerson Eggerichs - He's another preacher, and I must admit I did not buy his advice at first. He backed it up not with research but with Bible verses I thought were taken out of context. And then I heard him speak. In a room of 2,000 marriage educators, half men and half women, all well-trained in what makes marriage work and what does not.

The 1,000 men in that room were my research sample. Hearing their response to his questions opened my eyes. Since then, I have seen brain research backing it up. To men (unless you mess with their testosterone and estrogen levels), feeling loved means feeling respected, not cherished. And just as women who stop feeling cherished often lose respect for their men, men who stop feeling respected lose every romantic impulse. Eggerichs calls this stepping on each other's air hoses, because we behave frantically when we feel we have lost the love we need to live.

The takeaway: If you feel you are losing your wife's respect, cherish her anyway. And if you feel you are no longer cherished by your husband, give him your respect anyway. Because your partner goes into panicky survival mode when you don't.


Gottman's Four Horsemen (Criticism, Contempt, Defensiveness, and Stonewalling) convince us we are no longer respected or cherished, even when Chapman's Words, Gifts, Acts of Service, Physical Touch, and Quality Time try to say otherwise. Gable's Active-Constructive responses show respect and speak the Love Languages of both Quality Time and Words of Affirmation. Defensiveness (one of the Four Horsemen) is all about trying to lead the Dance of Anger back to the old, familiar steps. And I don't know about you, but I get such a thrill from dancing with anyone whose body language feedback is positive five times as often as it says I goofed up that I will try my best to follow any change in the steps.

Today would have been my 40th wedding anniversary if my first husband had lived -- and if I had not foolishly believed divorce was the only alternative to the resentments in our marriage. I am so thrilled that you had the good sense to look for alternatives and glad you found this blog. May all your anniversaries be filled with awe at how well you two function together and how thoroughly you are known, accepted, respected, and cherished by your spouse.

May 10, 2013

I Just Want to Feel Needed

If your marriage is going downhill because you don't feel needed, maybe you can stop it.

Remember to Expect Love from your partner in marriage. In other words, don't expect other things and thereby overlook the love you long for.

For example, some folks profess their love with words like "I cannot live without you." And they mean it. Or they believe they do: death by broken heart is actually rather rare. But the important thing to remember here is that these are the words of someone who loves with words. The generous person who loves with gifts or the helpful person who loves by helping won't feel loving saying such a thing, even if they feel they need you.

And they will stop doing their thing if it isn't working because you are waiting for these words.

So, maybe you don't want such over-the-top words. What you want is a little gratitude for all you do. This expectation is still a bit of premeditated resentment if gratitude is difficult for your spouse or if you two are locked in a competition to be the more helpful one. For you to feel needed, your spouse must feel needy, no? Maybe what he or she most needs is some relief from that feeling.

Maybe by now you're yelling at me through your computer or smart phone. You don't need the words. You don't need a fancy thank you. What you need is some sign you are needed, some hint you are not disposable, some guarantee you are doing enough to prevent your husband or wife from walking out the door, some inkling that all the effort you are putting in will not be for naught.

And I feel for you. I've been there. It's scary. It's awful. It's vulnerable.

And the only way out is to come, ever so slowly, to the realization that it is an impossible wish that is eating you alive.

No matter how great a husband or wife you are, there is no way to be good enough to guarantee your love will never be rejected. No way.

You must learn to love without this guarantee.

You are needed. Your money, your decorating savvy, your bug squashing, your laundry washing, your incredible sex moves may be needed. But the one thing you can be certain your spouse needs from you is your love.

And you cannot truly love while you are telling yourself you are not needed just because your mate has not announced you are.

Welcome to vulnerable, the place where the best marriages happen.

Our Marriage is None of Your Business

I love the TV show Scandal. In it, the President of the United States is having a longstanding and very steamy affair with the show's main character, Olivia Pope, one of many scandals the title refers to.

Last night, the President addressed a news conference called after his wife announced she and their child had moved out of the White House because he is having an affair. He opened with this: "My marriage is none of your damn business!"

For all the crazy plots these folks have laid on us, this is the first line to get an audible scoff from me.

Because it is. And not just a President's marriage. Every marriage. Marriage is about our relationship to our community, our religious fellowship, our state, and our nation and not just our relationship with each other.

We The People would not give the First Date a platform for world-changing actions nor a budget. These go only to a spouse.

We won't let your cohabiting partner continue receiving your Social Security checks after you die. They go back into the pot for others. We won't cut you a break on the choice between risking perjury and risking loss of shared income if you move in with a criminal, but we will if you publicly marry that same criminal.

In most states, our courts will not help you lay claim to assets from the job your lover works while you care for the house and kids. But if you marry, we will. And we'll toss in a special income tax break for the year your spouse dies. And let you spread your shared income over the two of you in determining which tax bracket you fall in.

Why? Because, for one, marrying significantly reduces the odds your offspring will become a burden on the rest of us. It reduces how much you two will cost Medicare in your old age. It increases the odds you will have income to pay taxes on if you become disabled. And it decreases the chance you will spread or need financial help for treating a sexually transmitted disease. We benefit, so you two benefit.

Married men are statistically more likely to show up for work and perform their jobs well, too. This gives married men a better shot at landing a job than unmarried men.

But there is a downside for the rest of us. When we offer you benefits for marrying, we encourage secrecy when you violate your vows. If you rule a nation, guard our secrets, protect us, or work for any of us, your desire for secrecy could easily compromise our interests.

And this is why your marriage is very much our business, Mr. Made-for-TV President. If you want a more private life, turn down the package of benefits we offer for marrying before you break those vows.

The Author

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

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