Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Best Christmas Gift Ever!

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I hope that you will take a moment to consider the best gift that you can give to your children…even if they are grown. That gift is a loving, caring relationship with your partner.

Think of all the time you spend to provide your children with activities that will enrich their lives. These may include music lessons, sports, tutoring, trips to the zoo or museum. Yet, your children can still be left wanting.

Children want the security of knowing that their parents marriage is a bond of love that will last. Consider what you can do as a couple to give your children this gift that literally lasts a lifetime.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

What is the Canary in the Coal Mine for Marriage? Three Signals That Should Not Be Ignored!

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A canary was taken into mines to provide a warning of danger to the miners – if the canary died the miners were also in danger. What are the signs that your marriage is in danger?

Divorce and the detachment that leads to divorce does not happen all at once. Instead, marriages die gradually. The typical couple will wait many years before seeking help. During this time, they ignore clear signals that their marriage is in trouble. Once they come for counseling, they have built so much resentment and so many barriers that reconnection becomes an extremely difficult task.

So let’s examine some common signals of a deteriorating relationship that should not be ignored.

Emotional Distancing: Emotional distancing often begins early in the marriage. When you began dating there was a mutual attraction and a desire to establish a future together. You were each motivated to show you cared and wanted a future together. After marriage, or perhaps even before, the concern about the future of the relationship fades with the belief that you will be together forever.

At the same time you believe that you have a partner for life, one or both of you find that the relationship is not living up to your expectations. This triggers tension that was not present in the past. The tension comes from one or both of you trying to change your partner.

It is common for a couple’s emotional disconnect to be traced back to earliest disagreements that left each partner feeling uncared for. The woman feels her partner distancing as a result of the tension while the man feels overwhelmed by the woman’s emotional plea for change. Both interpret the distance as a sign of their partner’s lack of caring.

Emotional distance crumbles the security of the relationship. When your partner is no longer viewed as caring, then he or she becomes a potential source of pain, which leads to physical distancing.

Physical Distancing: How many pictures have you seen of animals of all species cuddling? We are attracted to these pictures because they reflect a need for touch that we share with all of the animal world. When your relationship becomes physically distant, then you are going without a basic need.

A smile, a gentle touch and time spent holding one another provides comfort and caring. Men are often more comfortable expressing their love through physical expression rather than emotions. Without physical connection, couples describe their relationship as being like roommates or siblings.

Sexual Distancing: Too often couples think of their sexual relationship only in terms of intercourse. Yet when you think back to first exploring sex, you’ll recall how even holding hands was a sensual pleasure. Couples need to experience sensual as well as sexual pleasure.

Many couples continue having regular intercourse but find that it becomes routine and fails to help them connect. This is because they have lost the pleasure of sensual seduction. Sensual seduction ignites passion through stimulating a variety of senses – touch, smell, hearing before trying to stimulate the sexual organs.

Passion can have a healing effect. Daily tension can drain away and in its place comes a feeling of closeness and well-being.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Creating Boundaries to Protect Your Marriage

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Marriages need protection! Marriages have enemies that will undermine the fragile connection between husband and wife. You protect your home from unwanted intruders. Do you protect your marriage from harm or do you ignore dangers until the damage has been done?

Most of your activities…even your friends can be divided into those who are friendly to your marriage, neutral, or unfriendly to your marriage. An activity or friendship can be good for you but not good for your marriage.

“I need to have time with my buddies.”

“I feel better when I spend time alone.”

“I need time to decompress by watching my TV shows.”

All activities that are good for you are not good for your marriage.

Take time to do this exercise: Make a list of the people with whom you spend the most time and the activities you do the most. Beside each person and activity place a plus sign, a zero or a negative sign for those activities that are marriage-friendly, neutral or unfriendly to your marriage.

For instance, a girlfriend that speaks poorly of her marriage and encourages “girl-time” versus couple activities may be considered marriage unfriendly. Golf could be neutral if your husband comes home energized and enthused to be with you or marriage unfriendly if he comes home and sleeps off the several beers he consumed during his outing.

Marriage friendly activities and friends are those which encourage you to maintain and improve your connection with your spouse.

After you complete this inventory, ask yourself whether you have allowed too many enemies of your marriage to enter your lifestyle. Or have you developed too few marriage-friendly activities and relationships? What activities could you add which would likely create a stronger bond in your relationship?

It is not always the big blows that bring down a marriage, often a marriage dies from “a thousand paper cuts.” How many couples wake up to find that one or both have lost their emotional, physical and sexual connection only because they have failed to nurture their marriage?

Perhaps your relationship needs more marriage-friendly activities or fewer marriage-unfriendly activities. Take time to discuss your inventory with your partner and ask him or her to also complete the exercise. You will probably find out that you disagree on what activities are friendly and unfriendly to your relationship.

Instead of arguing about this, listen to your partner’s complaints and take time to assess the cost to your marriage before you defend the activity or relationship. Make it clear to your partner that you want to protect your relationship!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Don’t Tell Me Who I Am!

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We don’t like to be told who we are. Sometimes we define our partner aggressively – “You’re lazy.”, “You’re a bitch.”, or “You’re worthless.” Generally we are more subtle – “I don’t feel you love me”, “You’re not the man I married.”, or “You’d rather be with your girlfriends than me.” Regardless of how subtle or truthful the statement, we do not like to be told who we are.

Labeling your partner’s personality or character will inevitably trigger a protest, a counterattack and emotional distance. So why do we do it? Labels are a way of trying to get our partner to examine his or her behavior in the hope that insight will bring change.

So how can you give your partner feedback that is less likely to lead to defensiveness and more likely to motivate him or her to respond to your concerns?

First, talk about yourself, not your partner. If your partner does or says something hurtful, talk about your hurt instead of your partner’s behavior. Keep the focus on you. Challenge your partner to care about your views, feelings and desires instead of reacting to your judgment of him or her.

Instead of: “You’re mean.”

Say: “I’m feeling really hurt. Your words really hurt me.”

Instead of: “You don’t care about me.”

Say: “I feel really distant from you. I need to know that you care about me.”

Stop and ask yourself, “How can I restate my anger, frustration, hurt, or disappointment by telling my partner about my view, feelings and desires for our relationship?’

Second, try to get your partner to talk about him or herself. Counselors are adept at getting their clients to look at themselves by having them talk about themselves. If your partner is a workaholic have him or her talk about what their job means to them, what is the reward and how does he or she measure the cost?

Challenging a person to change their view brings on defenses, whereas most people like to talk about themselves. Even if your partner’s view seems way out of the norm, try to not react judgmentally. Instead, ask your partner to tell you more and you will often see how he or she will soften their position simply by talking about it.

At the same time, you will be building a stronger bond because you are spending time in a more pleasant conversation than when you have argued in the past.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Don’t Tell Me What to Do!

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We really, really don’t like to be told what to do. Imagine your partner telling you to change your wardrobe in some small way – changing the color of your nails or not wearing that belt again. Admit it, even though it’s a small request, your reaction is to resist it. Come to think of it, we learn to say no before we learn to say yes!

Resistance is even greater when we ask our partner to make larger changes or greater sacrifices. We simply do not like to be told what to do. So how can you ever get your partner to change for you? Try to remember back to a time when your partner made a change or sacrifice for you. What was different then?

I’m guessing that you recalled a time when you were each giving abundantly to each other. You trusted that your partner cared for you and it felt good to express that caring in return – even by making changes or sacrificing something you wanted. What has changed?

Requests for change no longer occur in the context of a caring relationship, they now sound like demands couched in disapproval. Love becomes conditional as demands feel cold – I’ll do this only if you do that. Chore lists are divided, bank accounts separated, and a chill of emotional separation covers discussions of change.

The only way to recover the spirit of openness to change that you once had is to recover the trust and caring that was once present in your relationship. Instead of thinking about how your partner could improve, think about a small effort you could make to express caring to your partner. Improve your listening skills, speak in a softer more vulnerable way, or reach out to softly touch your partner. Notice the effect that this small action has on your own feelings. Do you feel warmer or does this feel dangerous?

If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable, perhaps this is a sign of how disconnected you have become as a couple. Perhaps it is time to confront the disconnection and begin rebuilding the connection that was once there. It is unrealistic to think you can achieve this overnight, but you can begin today.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dating Your Wife or Husband

I’m amused when I ask couples if they date and they look at me and say, “You mean each other?”

Of course I mean do they date each other, but the term dating throws them. Dating seems like something single couples do.

Which leads me to the purpose of dating. Dating serves several purposes including:

  • an opportunity for a mutually enjoyable time together
  • an opportunity to make your partner feel special
  • an opportunity to create passion
  • an opportunity to connect as friends
  • an opportunity to say, “I want to be with you today and tomorrow”

I could go on, but hopefully you get the point, that dating applies equally to married couples. Yet, when I interview couples who have lost connection, one thing I notice is their tendency to neglect their dating life. By neglect I mean that they either do not date at all or they fall into the rut of having the same date over and over – typically a movie or dinner (or both).

What Makes a Good Date?

A good date feels special. Women often complain that their husbands only go on a date if they make all of the arrangements. Then the husband goes along but his attitude shows no enthusiasm for the date. To make the date feel special, each partner must participate in planning and arranging for making the night (or weekend) special.

A good date takes into account each’s preferred activities. Some folks like to be active and others are looking for something restful. Some folks like to learn something while others want to be entertained through escaping the reality of everyday life. Some are outgoing and like to be with groups while others want time to spend just with their partner. Look for dates that speak to each of you or alternate activities to show sensitivity to each of your preferences.

Remember when you first started dating and how you actually thought about the impression you were making on each other. You wanted to make a good impression so that your partner would know that you were interested in him or her. A good date makes a good impression. Women show delight in the time spent together and men make an effort to treat the woman as someone who is interesting and valuable in his life.

Inevitably when I ask a woman what makes a good date, she will say she wants a time for connection, but the man tends to focus on what she wants to do. The woman needs emotional connection, which translates into her sharing her views, feelings and desires while her partner shows interest and demonstrates that her views, feelings and desires are important.

Men have a more difficult time sharing what they want from a date. Physical and sexual closeness often is a desire, but when prompted, most men will admit that they want their partner to show she is delighted with the time together. It might sound corny but men enjoy it when the woman is excited with the date.

I hope that this prompts you to think about how you can be a better date because dating is one important thing you can do to maintain your connection with your partner.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Does True Love Last?

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If I questioned everyone who is marrying today whether they feel emotionally, physically and sexually connected they would say, “Sure.” If I went further and asked them if they expected to remain connected over the next thirty years, the vast majority would say, “Yes!”

These couples believe that their connection will last because they have found the love of their life, their soul mate, the person that God has sent them…their one true love. While the sentiment is sweet, the logic of this optimism is lacking.

The truth is that a couple marrying today is very, very unlikely to maintain an emotional, physical and sexual connection over the next thirty years. First, they have nearly a 50% chance of divorcing – a sure sign of disconnection.

But among those who would remain married for the long haul, many will stay married only for the sake of their children’s well-being, financial entrapment, religious commitment or simply because the marriage they have is less frightening than the prospect of becoming divorced—even as they are have lost their emotional, physical and sexual connection.

The evidence is overwhelming that the connection we have at marriage is extremely fragile, yet we treat it as though it is lasting. For instance, after couples get married, we know that their behavior changes, generally giving less to the relationship. Husbands and wives nurture the relationship less, spend less time “courting” and more time arguing about how their expectations are unmet in the marriage.

Love can last, but the key is not finding your “one true love.” The key to a long-lasting relationship is commitment. My initial blog post described elements of a commitment. Underlying this commitment is the understanding that our connection is fragile and we must make an effort every day to nurture that connection or join the majority who have lost theirs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Three Reasons To and Not To Text Your Partner

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Our phones have become an essential part of our lives. For many, texting is a preferred way of communicating, much like instant messaging and emailing replaced telephone calls for delivering a message.

Texting provides couples with an opportunity to connect much more frequently than when only phone calls were available. Texting is efficient and doesn’t  require each of you to be available at the same time. Here are three ideas for communicating through texting that can enhance your connection.

  1. Just as leaving love notes around your home can be a pleasant surprise, texts can serve the same purpose. Leaving very brief messages of love can be a reminder that you are thinking about your spouse and that the relationship is a priority.
  2. Texting can be useful for reassuring your partner of your whereabouts or when you will be home. This can show consideration and help planning for time together.
  3. Texting can be a way of flirting. Just as a physical touch can trigger strong sexual responses, so can flirtatious texts trigger a similar response.

Unfortunately, many couples use texting when they should be talking to one another. Here are three examples of the misuse of texting.

  1. Remember that texting cannot convey complicated emotions. Don’t try to express your feelings through texting because you will fail to deliver the complete message. Research tells us that the nonverbal element is more important than the verbal component of the message and texts omit the nonverbal element completely! If you text your feelings, your partner will place his or her own sound to your words and your voice will be lost.
  2. Don’t use texting to convey ideas, views or desires that cannot be expressed in a few sentences. Anyone who has written for electronic media will tell you that folks speed read and only grasp a small portion of your message. Can you tell me the three useful means for texting without looking back?…I didn’t think so…see my point.
  3. Never have an argument through texting. Again, you will lose the essential nonverbal element that is conveyed through tone of voice, facial expression and posture. If your partner tries to initiate a disagreement or takes up an argument from the past, simply reschedule the discussions by texting, “Let’s talk about this at home tonight.” Be careful to reschedule the discussion and to follow through so that your partner doesn’t feel blown off.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Why Complaining to Your Partner Doesn’t Bring About Change

man woman arguing

When you complain to your partner you expect your partner to listen and respond. Yet typically this is not what happens. Why is it that your partner resists responding to your complaints?

Here are three reasons why complaints are not heeded:

First, complaints are often taken as criticism. The tone of voice is harsh and the focus of the criticism is one’s partner. Criticism automatically places one on the defensive. Instead of hearing a call to change, the criticized partner hears a message that he or she has fallen short or is a disappointment. This triggers a defense of one’s self-worth not a willingness to change.

Second, we don’t like to be told what to do! Complaints can be a not-so-subtle message, “Do what I say.” This is typically met with passive resistance – “You can’t tell me what to do.” The interaction quickly ends up much like a parent and a teenager arguing over the teen cleaning up his or her room – a power struggle over seemingly simple tasks (i.e. put your socks in the hamper).

Third, complaints are really register with your partner as a complaint about the cost of living with the partner rather than a call to change. If you were to pay $65,000 for a new automobile, you may well be entitled to complain about how much the car costs. However, the car salesman is likely to be rests assured that you believe that the car is worth the price.

Similarly, when you complain to your partner, he or she can see this as you complaining about the cost of being in the relationship rather than a call to change. Teenagers listen to their parents complain about their messy rooms secure in their place in the family regardless of how messy the room is.

For these three reasons, and probably others, complaints tend to be an ineffective means of eliciting change. I have written previously on developing a cooperative relationship in which each partner responds out of mutually caring rather than arm-twisting to get what you want.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Is Your Marriage Counselor Competent?

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Dr. William J. Doherty of the University of Minnesota recently presented a talk in which he described characteristics of what he described as an “incompetent couples therapist.” Here is his list with my comments.

Failing to actively structure sessions. The couples therapist must be able to control the direction of the conversation. Couples are prone to defend themselves while attacking their partner. The skilled therapist will guide couples to addressing relationship issues rather than allowing personal attacks.

Not moving beyond clarifying issues to specific ways couples can change. Couples need to be able to leave the therapist’s office with specific efforts that each partner can contribute toward making a emotional and physical connection during the next few days. Couples can expect change to be gradual but it must be observable. Each partner must see effort from their mate.

Failing to connect with both partners. Relationships are circular. The therapist must help couples to recognize that they each have a stake in each barrier between them and in each step toward improving their connection.

Failing to move quickly when commitment and divorce are on the table. Partners can respond quickly and destructively when they learn that their partner’s commitment has become uncertain. The therapist must intervene quickly to normalize the crisis and encourage good decision making. Therapists can further harm the marriage by attempting to manipulate the outcome (save the marriage) instead of helping the couple through a healthy decision-making process.

Giving up on the relationship when the therapist feels hopeless or lacks the ability to help. Momentary feelings on the part of the partners or the therapist are poor predictors of the outcome of couples counseling. I have learned that minor changes can bring unrealistically strong feelings of hope for the relationship and that being stuck can lead the couple to unrealistically conclude the relationship will never be satisfying. That is why I encourage couples to consider marriage counseling to be a three-month process before it can be assessed as a success or failure.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Does Good Sex Lead to More Sex? It Depends on Whether You Are a Man or a Woman.

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The couple is basking in the afterglow of lovemaking. Both have felt sexually and emotionally fulfilled. They discuss how this was a pleasant experience.

Several days later the man feels sure that his partner will agree to have sex that evening. He wants to recreate the wonderful connection of just a few evenings before and approaches her with an offer for more lovemaking. However, he is surprised and hurt because she is not only unenthusiastic, but is absolutely unwilling.

He feels rejected and cannot understand why his partner would not want to repeat what was such an enjoyable encounter for both of them. He knows her pleasure was real – why would you not want more of a good thing?

A man sees the sexual relationship as a specific pleasurable experience which helps him escape from other tensions in his life, including tensions in his relationship with his wife. The better the sexual encounter, the better to shut out those tensions!

A woman sees sex in a different context. The sexual experience is a part of and an expression of the relationship. Good relationships create the grounds for good sex.

Women are more likely to connect their sexual desire to their experience in the relationship as a whole. A woman who has a great night of sex followed by a few frustrating, emotionally distant days with her partner is more likely to feel sexually distant despite the recent pleasant sexual experience.

Men can use sex as a way to connect despite tensions in the relationship, whereas women need to talk out the tension. Men use sex to let go of tension, whereas tension interferes with women’s sexual desire.

A man should not be surprised that his partner resists a sexual encounter if there has been tension in their relationship. But he can still pursue sex.

The proper pursuit of sex would be through discussing the issues leading to the tension, offering reassurance of his commitment to work through the problems and offering physical contact free of an effort to elicit sexual arousal.

If you are thinking that your partner would say, “That sounds like too much work for sex,” then you have a more serious relationship problem.

When a woman feels emotionally and physically secure, she is more likely to be receptive to sexual advances, regardless of how great the last sexual encounter was.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Commitment to Marriage Counseling

    Kim Leatherdale

    I enjoy Kim Leatherdale’s, LPC, ATR-BC, NCC  blog, Creating Rewarding Relationships

    In a recent post she lists some of the signs of a lack of commitment to couples counseling. I think this is an excellent list and hope you will also check out her signs of commitment to couples therapy.

  • Not doing your "homework" between sessions
  • Only thinking about and processing the issues while you are in session
  • Avoiding true participation in session and keeping everything "light"
  • Trying to run the therapy yourself by determining what you "can" and "can't" talk about
  • Being a sporadic visitor to counseling
  • Hiding information from your counselor
  • Undermining counseling by picking fights, minimizing what the counselor teaches, and bad behaviors
  • Being a "yes man" - saying yes to what your counselor teaches and then not doing it
  • Refusing to make behavioral changes
  • Being disrespectful of the counseling directly or indirectly when not there
  • Blaming (overtly or covertly) your partner for everything
  • Not allowing your couples' counselor to speak to your individual therapist
  • Dropping out of therapy without processing the end with your counselor

A lack of commitment can reflect one partner’s power being the deciding force in seeking therapy. Take time to agree on seeking therapy, even if this means delaying choosing a therapist.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Making a Good First Impression at Home

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I recall my father coming home from work each night with a frown on his face. Was he unhappy to be home? No, I believe that he was lost in thought as he parked his car in the carport. Yet, the frown made an impression on me. I chose to keep a distance until I learned that he was in a good mood.

Now picture yourself entering your home after work. What message do you send?  Do you greet your mate with a smile that communicates, “I’m glad to see you” or do you communicate another message?

When you meet someone new, you make an impression in the first minute. Knowing this, you make an effort to appear friendly by smiling, making eye contact and turning your body toward this stranger. Do you make the same effort upon greeting your mate? Your body language, your tone of voice and your focus can communicate that your partner is a valuable part of your life. Conversely, ignoring your partner and diving into the mail or the television can send the opposite message.

A smile and greeting can set the tone for the evening. Make an effort to communicate your partner’s value by greeting him or her with a smile and make an effort to connect emotionally and physically before moving on to other tasks.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Get What You Want From Your Spouse

MP900449042Scientists have discovered that we are wired for empathy. Our brains can observe another’s experience – imagine a bug crawling on someone’s arm – as though it is are own experience.

When you tell me you are grieving the loss of a loved one, my brain help’s me experience your loss even if I have not lost a loved one myself. I am able to imagine how it would feel to lose a loved one.

So what does this have to do with getting what you want from your partner? You can use the brain’s ability to empathize to your advantage in your relationship. But first you must examine how you approach your partner when you want something.

Let’s say that you want your partner to regularly wash the car. What approach would you take to get your partner to comply with your wish? Would you badger your partner, promise to reward him or her, or explode in anger after a period of waiting for the car to come home bright and shiny?

The best way to motivate your partner is to generate empathy for your desire for a clean car. Your challenge is to present your desire in a manner that asks for empathy.

One method would be to contrast your feelings when the car is dirty versus when it is clean, “I feel tense when the car is dirty. I feel that it projects the image that I am a slob; but when the car is clean, I feel confident and that I am projecting a positive image!”

You may be tempted to establish rules of conduct for your relationship – such as, call me if you are going to be more than 15 minutes late. The problem with such rules is that your partner will be tempted to argue about the rule rather than appreciating the feelings that generated the rule. It is better to suggest to your partner, “I know that I worry too much, but when you are late, my mind rushes to all of the awful things that could have led to your being late. If you just call or text me, then I’ll be able to worry less.”

By challenging your partner to empathize, you are also challenging him or her to actively care about you. By asking your partner to show caring for your views and feelings, you avoid debating whether your request is reasonable. You can even say, “I know this isn’t reasonable, but it is really important to me!” This allows your partner to determine whether you are worth caring for in this particular way.

You must realize that caring does not mean that you get everything you want. Empathy is a two-way street. Start today to sharpen your skills by listening for your partner’s views, feelings and desires. Show your partner that you are motivated to care for him or her.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

I Wish I had Your Marriage

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How many times have you observed another couple and thought, “I wish I had her (or his) marriage.” From what you observe, it appears that the couple have the type of relationship you imagined you would have with your partner. But now that seems out of reach.

Comparing your relationship to another’s is a sign of dissatisfaction in your relationship, but comparison shopping is only reinforces your dissatisfaction.  Much better is to ask yourself, “If my marriage were to be like their marriage, how would it be different?” Then ask, “What can I do to bring improvement to my relationship with my partner.”

Pain can cause you to search for an escape. In marriage, this escape comes in the belief that another partner would love you the way you deserve. Yet, those who remarry are more likely to divorce again than those who marry for the first time.

Make an effort to attract your partner’s willingness to join you in addressing your relationship, but how can you address this issue with your partner.

If you approach him or her with your dissatisfaction and urge him or her to change, I can practically guarantee you will receive a defensive response. Instead share your feelings and desires. Saying, “I feel distant from you and I want us to be close. How can we improve our relationship?” is more likely to get results because you are not blaming your partner and you are taking responsibility for your part in improving the relationship.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Marriage Counseling Drug Tested

MC900441806Itsah Improbable, M.D. announced that he has successfully completed the first round of testing of a new drug that may help save marriages in the future.

Dr. Improbable noted that the drug should be taken by both partners but has also been tested by administering it to just one partner. “We are getting results with one partner taking the drug, but the results are more robust when each partner is administered the drug.”

When asked how the drug works, Dr. Improbable stated that the mechanism of action was unclear, but that the drug’s benefit was in increasing the partner’s patience. Results of studies to date have demonstrated through self-report and observation of couple’s interaction that couples taking this drug are statistically more likely to respond with patience than those given a placebo.

Follow-up studies have found that couples who remain on this drug for a year are less likely to divorce in a one-year follow-up study. “We attribute this to the couple being better able to address issues by being more accepting and less aggressive toward each other, but further research is necessary to more clearly understand why these marriages are surviving at a greater rate” explains Improbable.

Reaction to this research has been mixed. The business community has already been eagerly anticipating the initial stock offering from the parent company, Fantastic Science. Meanwhile, some psychologists question whether marital problems can actually be solved with a pill.