Sunday, December 14, 2008

Even Santa Can Have A Marriage Crisis

When you or your partner question you commitment to your marriage, you feel as though your situation is abnormal. You feel ashamed or guilty for you or your partner's uncertain commitment to the marriage. Yet a crisis in a marriage is actually more common than you may think.

Often my clients find that when they open up to others about their marriage crisis, that other family members and friends share stories of uncertain times in their marriage.

A crisis reflects both dissatisfaction with the marriage and the opportunity for a new, improved relationship. I liken a marriage crisis to the stock market. When stocks are overpriced, then stock prices are prone to sharp drops. These sharp changes are described as market corrections.

Similarly, a crisis in your marriage can signal the need for a correction in the relationship. With the crisis comes greater willingness to examine how the relationship has been negotiated. Has one partner been too passive and allowed their spouse to largely define the relationship. Has one been too aggressive negotiating for what he or she wants. Either way, the marriage becomes an unequal partnership defined by one partner rather than each.

A crisis can trigger a renegotiation of the relationship that offers the opportunity to compromise what each partner wants in order to create a mutually satisfying relationship.

Perhaps Santa must make up for devoting so much time to work prior to Christmas. Mrs. Claus needs the opportunity to redefine their relationship so that they can spend more time together and reassess their priorities. Santa may need to devote more time to letting Mrs. Claus know how important she is in his life.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Killing Your Spouse (or How to Save Your Partner’s Life)

USDA Food PyramidImage via Wikipedia · If your partner is obese, you are more likely to be obese.

· If your partner does not quit smoking, then you are less likely to be successful in quitting.

· If your partner has heart disease, then you are more at risk for heart disease.

So if you want to kill your spouse, the best route short of prison, appears to be to take on an unhealthy lifestyle. Your unhealthy lifestyle is likely to encourage the same lifestyle for your spouse, increasing his or her chance for a premature death.

On the other hand, your lifestyle choices can not only benefit you but also your mate. By making changes in your health habits, you can extend your life and that of your spouse. What is the best way to make sure that your partner joins you in healthy change?

Discuss the Health Benefits You are Striving For

Research has shown that focusing on positive outcomes with clear health benefits can motivate change. Tell your partner what you wish to accomplish. Avoid pushing you partner to adopt the same goals. If he or she is not prepared to adopt these goals, then such a push is unlikely to be successful.

Discuss Potential Stumbling Blocks and Enlist Your Partner’s Help

It is beneficial to anticipate obstacles to change. This is not negative thinking, because you are also considering ways to avoid or overcome such obstacles. By enlisting your partner’s cooperation in this effort, you will motivate your partner to consider the effort necessary for change. Indirect suggestion that change is possible is more powerful that full frontal assault on your partner’s resistance to change.

Encourage Your Partner to Verbalize Objections to Change

When your partner suggests that attempts to change are likely to be fruitless, it is tempting to argue that change is possible. Instead, listen to your partner and show acceptance for his or her viewpoint. Clarify your mate’s views and the reasoning underlying these views. Accepting his or her views as legitimate will not encourage your partner’s negative thinking, it will actually soften such thinking. Arguing for your view will create polarization, a hardening of one’s position.

Ultimately, the most powerful force for change will be your success in change. If you stop smoking, then your behavior will demonstrate that stopping smoking is possible. Regular exercise will yield results that will demonstrate the benefits rather than simply talking about them.

Your effort to improve your behavior will not necessarily result in your partner’s change, but you can rest assured that you have done your best to be a positive influence on your partner’s health.

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Friday, October 24, 2008

Blaming Yourself for Your Partner’s Distance

“If I was sexier, slimmer, smarter, wealthier, etc., etc. my partner would remain devoted to me forever.” This sounds unreasonable, yet this is the reasoning many adopt when their partner’s commitment to the marriage becomes uncertain. Why do folks tend to examine their faults and assume unnecessary blame when their partner distances?

At times the distance you experience in your marriage is a signal. It signals that the relationship has become dissatisfying for your spouse and the distance is really a way of communicating a desire for change. If you are willing to examine your contribution to the relationship problems, then you can inject hope that the relationship can improve. A typical example is a husband who becomes too devoted to his job or a wife who becomes consumed with mothering, each neglecting to care for the marriage while they nurture their career and children.

But even when their spouse is involved in an affair, a rejected partner can question what he or she has done (or failed to do) to cause the distance in the marriage. Even when the distancing partner says, “It’s not you, it’s me” the rejected partner will continue to search for something they have done that caused their partner’s distance.

Our instincts make us sensitive to pain, so we can preserve our lives by avoiding the causes of pain in our lives. If we become sick, we consider what we ate that caused our illness. This desire to control our environment in order to avoid pain can lead to self-blame for things outside our control. It feels better to focus on something that is in your control than to accept that your pain cannot be avoided.

Your partner’s commitment to the marriage is not something you earn or can manipulate. Commitment is a choice. Committed spouses choose to work on their marriage.

Avoid holding yourself irrationally responsible for your partner’s lack of commitment to the marriage. Remember that you can contribute to improving your relationship with your partner only if there is a mutual commitment to working on the relationship. It is fine to consider ways that to show that the relationship can be improved, but blaming yourself for your partner’s distance will only lead to diminished self-worth and make you less attractive as a partner.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Using Sex and God to Save Your Marriage

What one thing can you do to save your marriage when you fear losing your partner? This question reflects on your fear and the desperate desire to turn your distancing partner around. After you have recovered from the shock of hearing, “I’m not sure I love you anymore” you are likely to start to grasp for anything that will end the crisis.

Just as a family member may turn to God to bargain for sparing a dying loved one, you may turn to God to bargain for your marriage to survive. Or you may take matters into your own hand to bargain more directly for the survival of your marriage.

Vanessa describes her reaction to her husband’s distancing from the marriage, “I became so focused on saving my marriage that I could think of little else. Even my children took a back seat to the marriage. I sought out every avenue to let my husband know that I wanted to be married to him. I ignored my hurt and worked to be kind, I tried to start conversations and show interest in him, and I pursued sex like never before!”

Unfortunately, Vanessa’s efforts did not and will not work. This is because she is not protecting her self-worth in the relationship. She is saying, “I’ll give everything and I expect nothing in return.” This communicates that you want the relationship at all cost—not a message you want to deliver. You don’t want a relationship in which you are diminished and do not receive in proportion to what you give. You deserve a partner that values you and wants to give to you just as you want to give to him.

You can preserve your marriage and offer a message of self-worth. Turn to God for strength not for magic, you will need strength to weather this storm. You want to preserve yourself as well as your marriage.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Magical Thinking During a Marital Crisis: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

Remember "Step on a crack and break your mother's back."? This childhood game represented the magical thinking of a child. A child exaggerates their impact on the world, in this case his or her mother's health.

During a marital crisis, you can also be susceptible to magical thinking. In this case, the magical thinking is driven by a desperate desire to end the pain of the crisis in your relationship. You say if I do ______ , then I will restore my relationship with my spouse. Examples are:

  • If I am unconditionally loving, he will draw close to me once again.

  • If she sees what it is like to have to pay her own way, then she will end this separation.

  • If I take every opportunity to show my love, then he will know that nobody will love him the way that I love him.

  • If she realizes that I will fight her for custody of the children, then she will end her affair once and for all.

If your partner is ambivalent about his or her commitment to the marriage, it is highly unlikely that any effort on your part will end the ambivalence. Threats can actually create more motivation to survive apart from you. Efforts to show love without expecting to receive love in return can diminish you in your partner's eyes. You appear to be throwing yourself at your partner without regard to your self-worth.

Ann Landers, the popular advice columnist used the expression, "Wake up and smell the coffee." to suggest that the reader needed to come to grips with the reality of the situation. Magical thinking results from your struggle to accept how serious the crisis in your relationship is.

Be gentle with yourself, but accept that there is no easy, quick solution to a marriage crisis. Understand that the crisis is not an emergency and that time is necessary to encourage good decision making. Give yourself the gift of time so that you can more completely absorb the reality of the distance between you and your partner.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Why Men Cheat - Oprah Show

The Oprah Show featured an author discussing his findings on why men cheat. The most important finding is that men typically choose to cheat for emotional rather than sexual needs. They don't seek out a hot, younger woman, but rather "fall into" an emotional affair that becomes sexual.

The affair begins by meeting the man's need for admiration, someone who looks up to him and shows interest. They interviewed several men who had cheated and each admitted that the affair was not something they did out of strength but out of weakness. They felt that their relationship with their wife was not meeting their emotional needs.

From my experience, their weakness is passivity. If you have emotional needs that are unmet in the marriage, then you ought to be able to address this with your wife in a very forceful manner. She has to be aware of her husband's emotional needs in order to address the ways she is falling short. If the husband does confront the wife, it is important for her to focus on defending the relationship instead of defending herself.

It is OK to fall short in meeting your partner's needs, but it is not OK to not care if you fall short. Defending yourself communicates a lack of caring about your partner. The husband must be mature enough to know that he will not always get his needs met. Realistically, women have more things pulling on them for attention than ever before, so the husband must know that his wife does care but give her "permission" to fall short (just as he will fall short in meeting her needs).

The man who chooses to have an overlapping relationship will have his needs met at a terribly high price. He will place himself in a position to make a decision about his marriage and his lover simultaneously. This places him in a position to make emotional decisions that are often regretted.

Men must be strong enough to maintain a commitment to the marriage. Commitment does not mean that you remain married, but that you continue to confront the shortcomings of the marriage until you determine that the relationship cannot be satisfying. Failing to confront the shortcomings of the relationship through an overlapping relationship leads to emotional decision making and pain for many who are affected by your decisions.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Minimizing the Effects of Shock During a Marital Crisis

Learning that your marriage could end is overwhelming. When your body is seriously injured , it can go into shock in order to preserve your vital organs. Psychological shock serves a similar purpose. Your ability to process information becomes muted. You feel as though you are on automatic pilot; it is a struggle to do the basic tasks of life.

Psychological shock helps you to absorb reality slowly. Information seeps into your awareness instead of flooding you with more information than you can handle.

The following guidelines are to help you understand your response:

  • Understand that your reaction is normal and not a sign of emotional disturbance.

  • Avoid trying to make any important decisions while you are in this state.

  • Reduce stimulation by "quieting" your environment. For instance, you may temporarily need time away from parenting responsiblities.

  • Seek social support from family and friends. Do not seek this support from your partner.

  • Focus on basic self-care activities like sleep, eating well, and simple activities. Reduce your expectations of yourself!

  • Avoid telling yourself that your are depressed or suffering from a mental disturbance.

  • Reassure yourself that your reaction is normal and you will recover your normal mood.

  • Remind yourself that a marriage crisis is not an emergency. Let your partner know that you are not ready to make any important decisions at this time.

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Sunday, August 17, 2008

Marital Crisis versus marital problems: What is the Difference?

One couple explain to their marriage counselor that they are having difficulty connecting; they feel distant, like roomates. They each state their displeasure with their marriage. They have thought about divorce, but would like to work to restore the relationship they once both enjoyed.

Another couple has similar complaints. They agree that their relationship is mutually dissatisfying, that they have been distant - echoing that they feel more like roomates than an intimate couple. However, the husband is uncertain about his commitment to the marriage. He has spent much time thinking about divorce. He finds himself torn, divorce has the possibility of hope for a happier future, yet he fears the consequences, particularly for his children. Yet, the marriage feels like a never-ending sentence of unhappiness, with no possiblity of release.

These couples may have similar complaints about their marriage, but there is a crucial difference, only one couple has a mutual commitment to working to improve the marriage. Marriage counseling requires a mutual effort to build intimacy. If the therapist encourages the first couple to develop skills to reconnect, then the couple will likely work together and be successful.

However, the second couple will be unlikely to experience similar success when presented with the same treatment plan. The second husband is uncertain in his commitment and such effort to build intimacy will feel as though he is being pushed to do something he is uncertain he wants. A push to become closer to his wife will feel like someone pushing him off a high-dive diving board. Not only will he not want to jump off the board, his initial response will be to resist the push.

The uncertain husband's wife and therapist must give the husband time to decide to work on the marriage. The wife's willingness to cooperate in healthy decision making and her understanding her husband's painful position can actually attract him to recommit to the marriage. Pushing the husband for a commitment can have the opposite effect, particularly when emotions become hostile.

I term the first couple as experiencing marital problems, albeit serious, long-standing problems. The second couple are experiencing a marital crisis. The response necessary and the goals for each situation is different. The difference is crucial and can make a lifetime of difference.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

What is a Marriage Crisis?

A marriage crisis occurs when one or both partner's commitment to the marriage becomes uncertain. A marriage crisis is different from marital problems, which confront two committed partners. With With one partner's commitment uncertain, the path to restoring the relationship is quite different than anything you'll find in most "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" type books. Responding as though your partner is still committed to the relationship can actually deepen the crisis, rather than alleviating it.

A crisis in a marriage is different from a marriage headed to divorce. A crisis in the relationship can be a point at which the marriage improves, depending on how the crisis is managed. Intense, overwhelming emotions are normal in a marriage crisis, but acting on these emotions can spell danger, often leading to decisions you'll later regret. Trying desperately to hold onto the marriage - or completely torching it in an impulsive "take that!" approach--via emotional outbursts, spending sprees or sexually destructive behavior, can lead to self-harm and harm to the marriage.

A marriage headed to divorce is motivated by hopelessness, the belief that the marriage cannot be satisfying. A marriage crisis is characterized by ambivalence, strongly competing emotions and desires. Ambivalence is different from confusion. Confusion can be resolved with additional information, but ambivalence is a tougher nut to crack. That's why the ambivalent spouse appears to be stuck on a fence, trying to decide on which side lies happiness and satisfaction. As one side starts to feel more attractive, there's a counterbalancing tug in the other direction as doubts dim what once was attractive. The fear of coming to regret whatever decision is made can be paralyzing. Stress builds as the fence becomes a more and more uncomfortable place to be, while a clear choice remains out of reach.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

How Can I Get My Partner to Communicate?

I was recently asked by a woman the best way to get her husband to communicate. This is important since couples must communicate in order to meet each other's needs. Also, such sharing can lead to intimacy or closeness, which in turn increases caring. Caring is the only motivation we have for placing someone else's needs above our own.

This woman indicated she had pursued her husband's self-disclosure, but he was resistant. She wisely noted that she did not want him to see her as critical or nagging.

I think the best way to "bring out" a man is by being vulnerable with your feelings, saying, "I feel distant or I feel lonely even when you are close." If he says he doesn't care how you feel, then you've got a bigger problem than communication. If he cares, he will try to figure out how to repair the chasm between you.

Being vulnerable means that your tone is soft, without a hint of aggression. Being vulnerable also means that you are sharing your view and your feelings, not describing his failure to communicate.

Despite being vulnerable, some men will still respond defensively. It is important to respond, "I'm sorry you feel attacked, what is it I said that caused you to feel I was criticizing you?" After he sites the implied criticism, you can redirect him to your feelings. Keep the focus on your feelings and your desire for him to respond out of caring, not pressure to perform.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Anger or Intimacy in Marriage

Sally had gone through the same scenario many times. Bill would say he was going to play golf or go hunting on Saturday, and Sally would feel hurt that he did not want to spend time with her. But her response would be to simply say, "Fine," then go off in a huff of anger.

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. recently wrote a piece that I enjoyed on anger ( Here is my reaction to this blog in which he describes why we get angry instead of being vulnerable with our feelings.

Dr. Seltzer writes, "Yet feeling too detached from our partner can also revivify old attachment wounds and fears, so at times the dance changes and the distancer becomes the pursuer. The main point here is that anger, however unconsciously, can be employed in a variety of ways to regulate vulnerability in committed relationships." This is accurate, but I would say that the partner may be controlling tension in both situations - being angry or pursuing afterwards.

If you are angry you don't have to be vulnerable. You also don't necessarily have to be vulnerable when pursuing your partner. You can pursue through flowers, sex, a night on the town, etc. In working with couples, I teach partners to communicate their vulnerable feelings instead of "covering" them up with anger.

Intimacy requires the ability to be vulnerable in the context of your pain. You must be able to tell your partner that you are hurting. Many find it much easier to express anger or frustration than to admit pain. Simply expressing vulnerable feelings is extremely uncomfortable for many folks. They feel more powerful expressing anger. I teach that they are better able to get what they want if they can learn to express their feelings in a vulnerable tone.

The problem with anger is that it inhibits intimacy in relationships and makes negotiating the relationship colder. Intimacy builds when you can let your partner know what you need and your partner recognizes your feelings and needs. If you have a caring partner, he or she will warm to your needs and become less selfish in negotiating the relationship.

Sally decided to take a different approach, she said, "I understand that you enjoy golf and hunting, but I need to know that you also enjoy spending time with me. I don't want to keep you from those things you enjoy, but I need to know that you want to spend time with me." Bill responded, "You always bitch about my taking time for myself. I deserve some time with my friends; I'm not doing anything wrong." Instead of taking the "bait", Sally simply repeated her message in a soft tone of voice. Bill walked away.

The next weekend, Bill made it a point to spend time with Sally and she made it a point to show delight in their time spent together. She also noticed that on subsequent weekends Bill would talk to her about his plans and let her know that he was trying to balance his desires for sports and her.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Stop Letting Others Control You Through Guilt

Allowing others to use guilt can result in your losing the ability to get what you want in relationships - it gives others power to define the relationship the way they want. Guilt can be expressed through:

1. "The Freeze" or "Silent Treatment"

Creating emotional tension to have one’s way in a relationship.

2. "Good Guy vs. Bad Guy"

The controller interprets his or her motives positively and suggests that you will go along or be labeled negatively.

3. “If You Love Me”

Some guilt inducers try to get their way by suggesting any denial of their desires indicates that you do not love or care about them.

4. “Everyone Is Doing It”

This effort suggests that popular opinion or expert’s advice sides with the individual’s desires. You are foolish if you do not agree with the majority opinion.

You must change your beliefs:
  • Stop telling yourself that giving in is no big thing.
  • Stop believing that what you want is bad or wrong.
  • Stop believing that you don’t have a right to an opinion, or that your point of view is less legitimate than someone else’s.
  • Stop trying to please the guilt manipulator.
  • Stop giving away your power.
  • Stop letting the guilt inducer dictate who you are and how you should feel.

Also change your response:
Let the person know that you understand their feelings and desires (Use listening skills.), but maintain your right to your desires.

Decide whether your desires are desirable and therefore open to compromise or whether they are something you do not want to do without, hence nonnegotiable. Stick to your guns - let your no mean no!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Why Your Spouse Won't Cooperate

Jane wants Paul to shampoo the carpets. She knows it is a tough job and that he has procrastinated. She decides to do several nice things for him to motivate him to clean the carpeting. She makes him his favorite pie, she suggests he relax and watch Thursday night football and she is more affectionate and loving in general. Paul recognizes that he is receiving more that his usual share of “goodies” from his wife. Then he realizes why. On Friday she reminds him of the carpet-cleaning chore he has been putting off. Paul is now faced with a decision.

How should he respond? He is unlikely to be motivated by his wife if he believes he does not owe her anything in return for the goodies she has offered him. For instance he may feel he is finally receiving his due amount of appreciation for what he has already contributed to the relationship. Or he may feel that he contributes plenty through his effort on the job and through other chores.

On the other hand, Paul is more likely to be motivated by his Jane’s efforts if she appears to be acting out a gesture of goodwill. If he sees his wife as being kind, then he is more likely to be motivated to reciprocate. The husband will see this as a gesture of goodwill if he experiences the positive things his wife has done as part of a bigger pattern of giving. He will be motivated if he believes that she will continue to give to him in the future. In other words, the husband is likely to be motivated to clean the carpet if he believes that his effort will result in further rewards in the future and not as an effort to manipulate him to do an unpleasant task.

When you were dating, you had confidence in receiving rewards from your partner. These rewards took many forms. It was a pleasure to receive a compliment, a certain touch, a look of admiration, or a willingness to go the extra mile just to spend time together. When you gave to your partner, you had faith that you would receive as much as you gave.

Do you have faith that there are numerous rewards to be had from nurturing a relationship with your spouse?

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Negotiating a Relationship

Remember when you were dating your partner and you let your partner know how much you valued the relationship and that you wanted a future together? Why does this so often change after marriage? After committing to marriage, you "have" your partner but you must still negotiate what type of marriage you are going to have. This does not mean a general discussion regarding your values. Rather, you must negotiate everything from where the cereal is stored, to how you parent your children.

What causes these negotiations to become harsh and filled with tension compared to how easy it was to compromise when you were dating? You can have control or you can have relationship, but you can't have both. A spouse that values getting their way more than relationship will be able to be more harsh in negotiating than a spouse that places a priority on building closeness. The control-minded partner will have more power to define the marriage but, in the long run, will establish a dissatisfying marriage that does not reflect each's desires.

Negotiations that place a priority on relationship are characterized by mutual understanding and caring. If you put energy into listening to your partner's views, feelings, and desires, then it will be much easier to compromise your own desires. "My way" you will give in to "our way."

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Mission of this blog.

Many blogs set out to offer random thoughts about a variety of subjects. The mission of this blog is to offer information on relationships that can aid you in negotiating (I know this isn't a very romantic term) a mutually satisfying relationship. Also, I want to help you understand that relationships can survive periods when you or your partner becomes dissatisfied and uncertain of your commitment to the relationship.

This brings me to my initial offerring - what is a commitment to a relationship? Commitment is not measured in feelings. Rather, commitment is measured in willingness to work toward a mutually satisfying relationship. There is an argument to be made for many important elements of commitment, but I will highlight four. First is availability. Individual pursuits must be balanced with making your relationship a priority. Not only must you be physically present, but also emotionally available to your spouse. Men and women have different emotional needs at different times, but both need their mate to express emotions through words and actions.

The second element of commitment is a willingness to share yoursef. It is common to hold back important parts of yourself to others, but you feel closest to those whom you reveal the most. Your partner should know you best because you have been able to be open to him or her more than with anyone else. Think about those friends and family members to whom you have revealed your typically hidden self. Chances are that those relationships contained the third element of commitment, acceptance.

You feel accepted when your mate is able to understand your feelings, is able to "walk a mile in your moccasins" and resists judging you. Acceptance is not the same as agreeing with you, just that your partner makes the effort to understand you and values your right to your views, feelings and desires.

The final element is a shared responsibility for relationship problems. Couples typically come into my office with the hope that I will appreciate their suffering in their marriage and that I will convince their partner to change. This approach never leads to change, only a pattern of defensiveness. Couples must find mutual solutions to problems. The only solutions that work are ones in which each partner is able to see a role for themselves in bringing about change.

Take a moment to assess whether you offer these four elements to your partner and whether you, in turn, receive them. If not, take time to have discussions with your partner that focus on giving and receiving these elements. You will find that the relationship will become more enjoyable and that you will find each other more attractive.