Dear Complacent Husband,

Imagine that you purchase your dream car at age 28 but are told that you have to drive it for 50 years. Period. No buts. Driving any other car in this lifetime is non-negotiable. This couple and caris your dream car and the thought of it is so intoxicating you don’t think about the distant future.

You decide it would be really wise to invest in some preventative maintenance. “Don’t take it for granted!” your parents warn you. After all, 50 years is a long, long time. You’d probably have a file where you kept a record of your caretaking and you would create reminders so that nothing fell through the cracks. The thought of wear-and-tear would be on your mind every time you drove it. There would be rules! No riding the brakes! Don’t gun the engine. Avoid potholes! No abuse of any kind.

You would be fanatical about oil changes. You would panic if it made a strange noise. It would be parked in a garage. Avoiding wear and tear would be your new focus in life because this car has to last.

Do you see where I’m going with this? We swear in front of God and Family ‘til death do us part, let me repeat that for emphasis, ‘til DEATH do us part while knowing full well that marital break-downs are not only a real possibility but very common. A coin’s toss chance of success. Yet within the first year we begin engaging in the corrosive behaviors that lead to wear and tear on the relationship.

According to researcher Dr. John Gottman, author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, there are a few high risk behaviors that have been shown in marriage research to be especially corrosive and predictors of divorce. Consider these to be the worst form of wear and tear you can subject your relationship to.

    1. Failure to accept influence (a complaint, opinion or suggestion) from your wife sounds like this. Wife, “Can you slow down and be more careful? You’re making me nervous!” Husband, “I know what I’m doing. I got this.”  The message that your wife gets is that you don’t value her feelings or ideas.  This behavior is much more corrosive than you realize and is frequently a kneejerk reaction by men.
    2. Criticism sounds like this, “Why are you eating that when your supposed to be trying to lose weight? You have zero self-control.” Criticism attacks a person’s character as opposed to issuing a legitimate complaint about a particular behavior.
    3. Stonewalling looks like this. A stone wall. Stony silence. Poker face. Silent treatment. Appearance of not caring.
    4. Contempt sounds like this, “You don’t give a shit about anybody but yourself! You are absolutely worthless.” Contempt is criticism’s sadistic cousin. The intent is to inflict pain.  This is the most corrosive of them all.
    5. Defensiveness sounds like this. Wife, “I need you to help more with the kids tonight.” Husband, “I help with them every night! Of course, I’ll never be as perfect as you!”
    6. Harsh Opening Line when communicating complaints. It sounds like this, “Why in the hell did you park in the middle of the driveway? What’s wrong with you?”  Think twice before you issue a complaint.  Soften your tone and your words.

Wear and tear should be carefully avoided as much as possible. But what would a good preventative maintenance schedule look like?

Daily. Treat your wife like a great friend. Hang out. Be attentive. Make her laugh. Engage in light-hearted teasing. Share funny stories. Be respectful. Be helpful. Crack each other up.

Weekly. Protect Date Night. Do not ever cancel this standing appointment and if you must, reschedule for the same week.  Make this alone time together a top priority. No kids. No double dating. You enjoyed one another enough to propose, go out and remind yourself of why you chose her.

Have sex. I know I don’t have to tell you that. If she is less than willing, find out why. Be curious, understanding and sincere. Don’t sound angry or offer solutions; ask her for suggestions. Then do what she says. When Mama’s happy, everybody’s happy.

Monthly. Have a State of the Union meeting over brunch and Bloody Marys. Talk specifically about the health of your relationship. Are you happy? Feeling neglected? Any lingering resentments? Rate yourselves on how you are doing on the above 6 deadly behaviors.

Double-dates. Have some fun with another couple you both enjoy. Seeing your wife relaxed and enjoying herself will remind you of how likeable she really is.

Socialize as a family. If you have kids, engage with other families. Couples who have strong bonds to a community are shown to have higher marital satisfaction.

Read this blog post.  Repeat.  Send it to a buddy and save a marriage.

5 Mistakes that Doom Second Marriages

shutterstock_47090221Marriage is a serious challenge when only two people are involved. Add children from a previous marriage, ex-spouses and other family members and you’ve got a marriage full of landmines just waiting to explode.  But we’re romantics and we love love so we enter this minefield with rose-colored glasses hopeful about new beginnings. Few enter with caution and preparation. Then you begin to incorporate one another’s children into this newly blended family. You may not have anticipated that we are neurologically hard-wired to attach and bond to our biological offspring, but not to our beloved new spouse’s children. The flaws in his children are glaring and intolerable. Without attachment hardwired, we have very limited patience with his children and might view them as spoiled while our own biological children are viewed through a softer lens. Being critical of your mate’s children is akin to poking the inner mama bear or papa bear and the claws may come out in defense of the cubs. This negativity eventually starts to erode affection and respect. Without these two critical components of a relationship, the marriage is doomed. And worse, children often are the collateral damage of this dynamic.

One in three children are currently living in a family with a step-parent. Fortunately, we now have decades of data to draw from and have determined factors that contribute to the success, or the failure, of blended families and second marriages. One of the top researchers in this field, Dr. Patricia Papernow, conducted research with blended families as well as working with them in her therapy practice. She describes five major challenges that step-families face.

  1.  You complain to him that you are an “outsider” when his kids are around. Your new spouse will have habits, rituals or inside jokes with his kids that may leave you feeling left out.  Do not take this personally.  Allow them to keep their traditions that are meaningful to them.  Recognize that kids will naturally want to have their parent all to themselves. You will gain lots of brownie points with your new husband by doing this.
  2. You fail to show compassion and patience for children who are struggling with loss, loyalty issues and life changes they are not developmentally prepared for.   Give kids plenty of time and space to adjust to the changes that they never signed up for.
  3. You are rigid and inflexible with your preferred parenting styleBe open to your new spouse’s way of parenting.  Complaining, nagging or being self-righteous will eventually turn him against you.
  4. You fail to recognize that merging two different family micro-cultures, traditions (think holidays), disciplinary beliefs and values must be approached with flexibility, sensitivity and humility.
  5. You allow the ex-spouse to get under your skin.  Do not harp on the flaws of the ex-wife.  He knows them and doesn’t want to be reminded of them ad-nauseum.  He may even see it as failure on his part because he chose her.  Take the high road at every opportunity so he will be reminded of why he picked you and not her.

Couples enter this new territory without a navigation system. Innocent wrong turns become wounds that heal slowly and bring on feelings of resentment or hopelessness. Most families wait years before seeking the help of a family therapist trained to help them navigate these tricky relationship dynamics. And many never seek help at all. Second marriages fail 67% of the time according to recent statistical data. The difficult terrain of step-families contributes to this high failure rate.

Below are more Do’s and Don’ts that many families had to learn the hard way:

  • Do NOT try to force new step-family members to spend time together to learn to just “get along”.
  • DO encourage one-on-one time to allow new relationships to grow organically.
  • Do NOT take it personally that your new step-child isn’t warming up to you or is flat-out hostile.
  • DO remember that all relationships take time to form and “liking” you may feel disloyal to their biological parent. Furthermore, they probably feel they now have to compete with you for their parent’s attention. You are the adult. Enough said.
  • Do NOT discipline your new spouse’s children.
  • DO collaborate with your spouse, but leave all discipline up to the biological parent.
  • Do NOT criticize, name call or speak contemptuously of your partner’s children to your partner. You will trigger the papa bear or the mama bear and it will not end well for you.
  • DO discuss behavior that is dangerous, destructive or violates society’s rules, but learn to let go of behaviors that are merely annoying. Remind yourself that you lack the hard wiring to see this child through a kinder, more loving lens.
  • Do NOT ask your spouse to spend less time with his children because you are feeling neglected. If he feels forced to choose, resentment toward you will grow.
  • DO ask your partner to carve out quality time for the health of the marriage, but not at the expense of his children.
  • Do NOT express jealousy toward the ex-spouse. They are divorced for a reason.
  • DO seek individual counseling to get to the root of your jealous feelings and to find strategies for managing them before they become a cancer in the relationship.
  • DO remember that your children (biological and step) will one day grow up and leave. Make sure the marriage that is left behind has not been corroded past the point of recovery.
  • DO seek marriage or family counseling to learn best practices, to process difficult feelings and to get unstuck when necessary.

Dear Critical Wife,

critical wifeGirl, I know how frustrated you are. Your husband has shut down or checked out. The more you try to talk to him, the further into himself he retreats. You tell yourself that he doesn’t care and wonder how he can be so cold or callous. Trying to resolve issues feels impossible because you can’t manage to have a conversation without it leading to explosive anger or complete silence. I want to share with you what I’ve learned about men. Including my own husband. Men perceive complaints as criticism. We feel like we are merely sharing feelings, bringing up a legitimate issue/request but their perception is that we are pointing out their flaws. Most women are expressive and more verbal than men. Because we “share” our feelings more, we inadvertently complain more. We tell them the ways in which they are inadequate or not good enough. We compare them to someone else’s husband. We ask for them to know what we need and want through mindreading. After a while, they grow weary of hearing about how they have disappointed us, again. Their resentment begins to build. When we try to reach out, they growl. This in turn gives us something new to complain about, his growling. I understand that women are trying to simply express concerns and get needs met. The problem is that if we are not careful about how we start the conversation, our tone of voice or our timing, there is a very good chance he will feel attacked. Through centuries of evolutionary hardwiring, most men respond to being attacked with a counterattack. This may come in the form of counter-criticism, angry defensiveness or storming off. They have an intense physiological response which leads to the activation of the fight or flight response. Understandably, this makes them difficult to deal with at precisely the moment we are trying to communicate. Our desire for communication and closeness has been replaced with hurt and anger when they lash out at us. Many men have an inner Rambo you do not want to go to war with because he will fight to the death. During these intense fights, the relationship can become deeply wounded and it may take days or even weeks for you to recover. In his book, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail, researcher Dr. John Gottman explains that one characteristic he discovered common to marriages that ended in divorce was something he called “harsh start-up”. He also discovered that this was almost uniquely a female phenomenon. A harsh-start up is approaching your husband in a way that makes him feel attacked. If we know this behavior is highly correlated to divorce then we have to be much more aware of how we are being perceived. How do we do this?

  1. Ask your husband if you make him feel like an inadequate husband when you complain. Be curious and really listen with an open heart.
  2. You may have no idea how much you are actually complaining. Just because you think it, doesn’t mean you have to say it. Bite your tongue. Tell yourself that his affection for you and the health of the relationship is infinitely more important than whether or not he put the measuring cup back in the right spot. Decide to just let go of most of your complaints.
  3. If the complaint you have is going to lead to ongoing resentment or damage to the relationship, then by all means discuss it. But utilize what you learned about “harsh-start up”. Body language is very important. Soften your expression and voice. Slow down your speech. Do not use absolutes like “never” or “always”. Instead of telling him what’s wrong, ask him for what you want. It sounds like this, “I could really use more help putting kids to bed. I’m so tired I feel like I’m being impatient with them. Do you think you could help me with this?” He may not respond with enthusiasm, but he’ll help. If he doesn’t help, have him read Dear Clueless Husband.
  4. If the conversation starts to go sideways, take a break but don’t give up. If the two of you cannot seem to resolve it without hurting one another, seek the help of a professional marriage therapist.
  5. Create a rule for yourself using a 2:1 ratio. For every complaint, give him two acknowledgments. Not at the same time (which feels fake and forced) but as a general rule. Eventually your Goodwill Bank Account will be so flush that he will receive complaints without being defensive.

What Couples Just Don’t Get

shutterstock_119778490 Those of us that check the “married” box often hear the refrain, “Marriage is hard work”.   But not many people can tell you what that means. Why is it hard work? Long hours? Low pay? Having to work next to someone who can at times be insanely irritating? What exactly is it that makes it so hard to remain, day after day, in a loving relationship? Simple. We are human. And humans are emotional messes. Couples often ask me for a “toolkit” of skills they can use to improve communication, grow closer or have a better sex life. My advice is try the bookstore. It is full of hundreds of useful books, including my Bible of marriage therapy by researcher John Gottman, Why Marriages Succeed or Fail. But you won’t read it, I tell them. And if you do, you won’t use the information that Gottman shares. Why? Because you are human and humans are messy! We are the only members of the animal kingdom to experience intense emotion. And our emotions are often outside of our control. You can have the best set of marital tools out there but when emotion takes over, you simply won’t use them. Emotions are often irrational and the use of tools requires one to be able to stay reasonable and sane. So the hard work of marriage is remembering that you are responsible for your emotions and how they drive your behavior. “But she makes me so angry,” a frustrated husband will tell me. “She pushes all of my buttons!” Indeed she does. But they are your buttons, therefore your responsibility. She should be sensitive and handle your buttons with care, but her buttons won’t always let her. So before we can whip out the toolkit and problem solve like two civilized human beings, we must first learn how to manage our buttons.

  1. Dig deep and determine what your buttons are and how you got them.
  2. Take full responsibility for your buttons. You own them.
  3. Explain to your partner why that button is so raw, tender or volatile. Share the hurt behind these buttons and the painful emotions they elicit.
  4. Ask your partner to be the secondary caretaker of these buttons now that they understand the pain behind your buttons. This is called love. It’s a verb.
  5. When you feel intense emotions beginning to flood your system, take a break. Agree in advance that you will take a 30 minute time-out the moment one of you becomes flooded.
  6. Sit quietly or take a walk until you feel calm. Reflect on what specifically triggered you. Was it something she said, or the way you interpreted it?
  7. When you feel ready, share your reflections with your spouse, taking care not to push her buttons. But if you do (and you will), remind yourselves it’s inevitable and forgive quickly.
  8. Remember that your spouse is a messy human with buttons that were formed in childhood or in prior relationships. Cut him or her some slack. Choose compassion and curiosity over judgment and passive-aggressive punishment.

And when you just can’t get out of your own way, go see a talented marriage therapist because marriage is hard work.

Dear Unfaithful Husband,

shutterstock_191371637You got caught. The two worlds you’ve been living in have come crashing together. Your wife is a wreck. Her mind is now contaminated and her anxiety and anger consumes her. She feels crazy and she is making you feel crazy. You were unprepared for her intense agony. You are wondering if she will ever be able to forgive you, move on and stop asking relentless questions.   The short answer is that this depends almost entirely on you and how you behave from this point forward. Though intense, her response is a normal reaction to trauma. Yes, trauma. The foundation of her life – her husband and intact family – has been threatened and her mind will react accordingly. Her blind faith in you has been shattered and she will need time to process and grieve this loss. If you want to spare her further agony, follow the below steps.

  1. Research the symptoms of Post Infidelity Stress Syndrome. This is what your wife is experiencing 24 hours a day. You need to be empathic, supportive and patient during her recovery. There is a direct correlation between how empathic you are to her thoughts and feelings and how quickly her symptoms will lessen in frequency and intensity.
  2. Find a licensed marriage counselor with experience in affair recovery. Do not put this off. The sooner you have a professional to shepherd you through this recovery process, the sooner you can get on with your lives.
  3. Apologize, apologize and apologize some more. Do not underestimate the power of hearing “I’m so sorry”. Every time she hears you say these words, she hears your remorse and she feels safer. In the early stages, her emotional safety is your number one priority.
  4. Be patient with her endless probing. Her mind is reeling and trying to make sense of this agonizing experience. She will have hundreds and hundreds of questions. Answer them directly. The more direct and honest you are, the faster she will be able to regain trust. If you deflect, hesitate, get defensive, try to move on too quickly or resist in any way, she will believe that you still have something to hide. Remember, her emotional safety is your top priority.
  5. Be an open book. Offer to share all of your passwords, provide unlimited access to your phone or computer and never, ever react defensively when she asks for information.
  6. Reassure her that she is wanted and desirable. She previously believed that she was special and irreplaceable. Her mind is torturing her with, “What does she offer him that I don’t?”  Now she feels she has competition for your affection. She’s hyper aware of all of her perceived deficiencies. Choosing another woman shakes the very core of her self-esteem. Make sure she knows you would marry her all over again.
  7. Be patient with the process. The path to recovery is not a straight line. You will have ups and downs, setbacks and gains. You may feel like newlyweds one moment and ready to throw in the towel the next. Be patient with your wife and be patient with her recovery. Never forget who is responsible for the depth of her wound.
  8. Don’t miss this opportunity. Times of great suffering and vulnerability are opportunities for emotional connection. Emotional connection is what binds us together and protects the marriage. Maybe the loss of emotional connection was a contributing factor to the affair. Don’t let the pain and turmoil drive you apart – use it to grow closer than you’ve ever been. Recommit to a new marriage. Write new vows. And choose to live happily ever after.

Six Simple Steps to Finding a GREAT Couples Therapist

marriage-counselingChoosing a therapist can be daunting but it doesn’t have to be if you follow these six steps.

  1. Ask a trusted friend to ask their trusted friends on your behalf without sharing your identity. Don’t be afraid to admit you need help. Most couples end up seeking help at some point in their marriage.
  2. Use an on-line therapist directory such as www.marriagefriendlytherapists.com, www.goodtherapy.org or www.psychologytoday.com. Enter your zip code to begin searching for someone near you. Cast a wide net and search within a reasonable driving radius.   Read the profiles and listen to your gut. If a therapist seems interesting, go straight to their website. Most therapists now have individualized websites that give you a lot of insight into their personality and therapeutic style.
  3. Don’t be cheap. This is not an area where you want price to be your deciding factor. At the same time, therapists who charge more are not necessarily better. Choose the best possible fit and then accept that their expertise has tremendous value to you, so expect to pay for that.
  4. Google the name of the therapist. Are there reviews on Healthgrades? Or Yelp? Most people are reluctant to provide on-line reviews unless anonymity is guaranteed, however, some will.
  5. Do not assume that more experience or more education automatically means superior skill. Of course, these are factors to consider along with many others, but therapists with decades under their belts may be utilizing outdated treatment methods. And of course, they should be licensed by your state.
  6. Call the therapist and share a little bit about why you are seeking therapy. Ask them how much experience they have working with couples and if they have specialized training for helping couples. You should hang up from this phone call feeling confident that this professional can help. Contact three or more and then go with your gut. If your first choice ends up being the wrong fit, try not to be discouraged. Immediately make an appointment with your second choice.

Dear Angry Husband

shutterstock_73575268I know that you have gotten a raw deal in life when it comes to the expression of emotions. I know that from as early as your toddler days you started to hear “man up!” And if you expressed vulnerable emotions such as hurt feelings, fear of rejection, feeling unloved or inferior, you were looked at as weak or pathetic. Of course when you saw women express these feelings people were understanding so you began to suspect that these sorts of feelings were feminine and certainly not masculine. You saw men who expressed these feelings become a target of ridicule so this reinforced what you already suspected. I know that you learned very early in life that you had to be tough. Male role models were tough and tough got respect. Then in high school you learned that tough also got the girl. The nice guys got rejected.   I also know the heavy price you have had to pay for always having to hide or suppress vulnerability but by adulthood you pretty much have it figured out. You can express these feelings as long as it looks like anger to the outside world. Deep down, you know it’s hurt. Or fear. Then you tie the knot and you learn that marriage is an emotional minefield. And worse, your wife expects (or demands) that you stop being so angry and start sharing your feelings with her. Of course, you are sharing your feelings but not in the way she wants. She sees anger as a weakness, not a strength. She thinks it’s simple and cannot understand that for you, it’s not. You tell yourself that she is overreacting. That she is too sensitive. That you really didn’t mean those angry things you said. That she needs to stop taking things so personally and just calm down. You even say you are sorry. Your frustration with her leads to more anger and then to shutting down. This becomes a pattern. For years.

Slowly, your wife becomes less affectionate and less interested in sex, which makes you angrier and pushes her further away. You retreat inside of yourself and the angry thoughts and feelings spiral inside of your head. Your anger feels completely justified but you’re stuck. Attempts to communicate with your wife only seem to make things worse. Maybe your wife has been throwing the phrase “anger management” at you, which just makes you angrier. Maybe she wants you to get some counseling or go with her to marriage therapy but this idea seems useless.

If you do agree to come into my office, and I hope you do, this is what I will tell you. Anger is destructive to a marriage, but I wonder if you know just how destructive? People describe anger as being poisonous, toxic or corrosive and warn us about the harmful effects it can have on your health. What I want you to know is how toxic it is to your marriage – especially if you are married to someone who is passive or hates confrontation. I frequently explain to men that when you are very angry, your wife’s brain registers you as a threat. You are bigger, louder and stronger. When her fight or flight instinct kicks in, it becomes almost impossible for her to think clearly or to hear the message behind your anger. You are no longer her husband but are now a predator. She will either fight back or run away. But she won’t hear the hurt or fear behind the mask of your anger. Years of exposure to your anger will lead to her becoming numb and detached.   This is her mind’s way of protecting her. But this is the important part so please listen clearly. When she becomes numb to your anger, she becomes numb to positive feelings as well. She can no longer feel love. Or respect. Or affection. Without these, marriage feels meaningless. She becomes increasingly lonely until one day she finds someone who makes her feel safe. Or she leaves. And you are left alone with your anger.