Archive for April, 2012
Do we really need pre-marriage counseling? The short answer is a resounding YES. Getting married without pre-marriage prep is like starting a business or any important venture without preparing. Half of all marriages end in divorce and only half of those that endure are truly happy in the long run. Many happy engaged couples assume that they won’t be contributing to these statistics. Some mistakenly believe that having lived together or known each other for a long time will prepare them for marriage. Surprisingly, research shows that cohabiting couples have no better chance at marriage success than others. If you just wing it and count on your luck and romantic attachment to make your marriage a success, your odds are only one in four. There is another way.
Most couples just don’t realize that good, skill-based pre-marriage education can reduce the risk of divorce by up to thirty percent and lead to a significantly happier marriage, according to marriage research. It can also reduce the stress of the pre-wedding period. Just a little effort now can make your odds a whole lot better over the long run. You want to do everything you can to ensure that your dreams of a great marriage and a great life are
Pre-marriage preparation is based on the reality that it’s important to strengthen your relationship and prepare constructively for future challenges and conflicts that everyone will inevitably face at some point in their marriage, now while you have so much fresh positive energy in your relationship. Don’t stick your head in the sand. The research shows that there is a window of opportunity during the year before the wedding and the six months or so after when couples get the optimum benefit from marriage preparation. Later, under stress, negative habits and relationship patterns may become established and be much harder to resolve.
Couples now face more demands and have fewer supports than ever before. The typical complex marriage – managing two careers while rearing children really requires that couples have very strong, well-established abilities to communicate, resolve issues, maintain mutuality and set goals. Without this foundation, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by stress and time pressures. Problems can intrude much more easily than most couples realize. As much as it’s important to come to terms with unrealistically positive expectations, those who grew up with divorced or unhappily married parents may find that they have unacknowledged and unexplored expectations that their marriage, too, may become unhappy. Marriage preparation functions as an immunization that boosts your capacity to handle potential difficulties. Couples need every advantage to succeed in today’s marriages.
What to Look For in Pre-Marriage Preparation
Here’s a concise list of seven relationship skill and knowledge areas that research has shown to contribute to the success and endurance of marriage:
· Personalities and families-of-origin
· Conflict resolution
· Intimacy and sexuality
· Long-term goals
Narcissistic people are very fearful of not being well regarded by others, and they therefore attempt to control others’ behavior and viewpoints in order to protect their self-esteem. The underlying dynamic of narcissism is a deep, usually unconscious, sense of oneself as dangerously inadequate and vulnerable to blame and rejection. There are many behaviors that can stem from narcissistic concerns, such as immersion in one’s own affairs to the exclusion of others, an inability to empathize with other’s experience, interpersonal rigidity, an insistence that one’s opinions and values are “right,” and a tendency to be easily offended and take things personally.
To some extent we are a narcissistic society. Many Americans are controlling, blaming, self-absorbed, intolerant of others’ views. As a society we are unaware of other’s needs and of the effects of our collect behavior on the members of society. Our narcissistic culture requires that others see us as we wish to be seen. For example, many parents demand certain behavior from their children because they see the children as extensions of themselves, and need the children to represent them in the world in ways that meet the parents’ emotional needs. Let’s take a narcissistic father who is a lawyer demands that his son, who had always been treated as the “favorite” in the family, enters the legal profession as well. When the son chooses another career, the father rejects and ridicules him.
Narcissistic traits in society lead people to be very intrusive in some ways, and entirely neglectful in others. And people are punished if they do not respond adequately to society’s expectations. This punishment may take a variety of forms, including shame, angry outbursts, blame, guilt, emotional withdrawal, and criticism. Whatever form it takes, the purpose of the punishment is to enforce compliance with society’s narcissistic needs.
The image I often keep in mind regarding narcissism, is that the narcissist needs to be in spotlight, and every one else serves as audience. The narcissist is on stage, performing, and needing attention, appreciation, support, praise, reassurance, and encouragement, and the other person’s role is to provide these things. So people only get approval and rewarded when they perform well in their role, but, otherwise, they are corrected and punished.
There are three common types of responses to narcissism: identification, compliance, and rebellion. Identification is the imitation of society’s narcissistic standards, which may be required in order to maintain a sense of connection with the world around you. In regard to narcissistic parents, the child must exhibit the same qualities, values, feelings, and behavior which the parent employs to defend his or her self-esteem. For example, a parent who is a bully may not only bully his child, but may require that the child become a bully as well. A parent whose self-esteem depends on his or her child’s academic achievement may require that the child also be academically oriented. Thus the child is given value (or devalued) in relation to his or her accomplishments in this area.
Identification is a response of a person seeing society as a representative of himself or herself, and is the price of remaining connectedness with it. It results in people becoming narcissistic themselves. Compliance refers to a person becoming the approving audience sought by society. A person is complying with society’s needs by being the counterpart the culture seeks. Rebellion refers to the state of fighting to not accept the dictates of society by behaving in opposition to them. An example of this behavior is that of an intelligent child who does poorly in school in response to his parent’s need that he be a high achiever. The critical issue here is that the child is unconsciously attempting to not submit to the parent’s definition of him despite his inner compulsion to comply with the parent’s needs. He therefore acts in a self defeating manner in order to try to maintain a sense of independence. (If the pressure for compliance had not been internalized, the child would be free to be successful despite the parent’s tendency to co-opt his achievements.)
All of us are narcissistic to varying degrees. When our self-esteem varies in relation to how others think and feel about us, we are experiencing a narcissistic vulnerability. When we feel guilty or anxious because we fear that we are not meeting someone else’s needs or expectations, we are being narcissistic. These ordinary experiences are problematic the more they interfere with our ability to be successful and enjoy our lives. It is often helpful in overcoming narcissistic anxieties to realize that the other person’s behavior is a result of their own views and experience, is not a reflection on oneself, and one’s self esteem does not have to be affected by their behavior. For narcissistic people, who experience strong feelings of guilt and blame, recognizing that they are not responsible for another’s experience is a great relief. It is important for people with narcissistic problems to come to believe that they have intrinsic value, independent of their accomplishments or what others may think of them.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
My name is Francesa, and I am a screamer.
Admitting this to you feels as though I’m revealing a dark family secret. Yelling isn’t really done anymore. It’s retro, like leaving your kids in the car while you pop in the corner store for milk. There was a time when raising your voice was considered okay for parents to do, but now screaming is the new spanking.
Social stigma aside, raising my voice to my kids makes me feel bad. I’ll hear myself shout at my sons, Conrad, 6, and Dashiell, 3, “WHY CAN’T YOU LISTEN? PUT YOUR LEGOS IN THE BIN OR I’LL THROW THEM OUT!” and remember a clip from Supernanny that showed a little boy alone in his room after being chewed out by his mom. He was looking away from the camera, crying, feeling overwhelmed. Every time they’d show the sad-kid shot, I was always on that child’s side. “God, that mom is so out of control,” I’d think. But by 7 p.m. the next evening, I’d be starring in my own reality show.
I had to stop. This wasn’t the tone I wanted to have in my house anymore. The universe must have heard my plea because that very Monday, as I unpacked Dashiell’s backpack, I found a flyer that read: “Parent Workshop this Thursday: How to Master Positive Discipline Strategies.” I signed up the next morning.
On the night of the workshop, held at the Montclair Community Pre-K, in Montclair, NJ, the classroom was packed with desperate parents. Patty Dow, the therapist conducting the workshop, kicked off the session by asking, “Who yelled at their kids this week?” Everyone raised their hand. Then she asked, “Who thinks it’s working?” No one raised their hand. Patty nodded and explained that as parents, it’s only human to get angry when our child grinds play dough into our wall-to-wall carpeting. But showing how we cope with our anger and our displeasure is one of the most effective ways to teach a child, she pointed out. If you scare her by screaming, or insult her with judgments or sarcasm, her energy goes into defending herself instead of learning from her mistake.
Patty then asked us for examples from our own lives of when we screamed and regretted it. I was anxious for results, so I spoke up first. I explained that my morning routine with the boys was becoming worse by the day. Knowing that the kids are slow to get out of the house, I prepare for their dawdling the night before by laying out their clothes, getting their lunch boxes ready, and hanging their coats and backpacks on hooks near the doorway.
All the boys have to do is Velcro their sneakers, slip on a sweatshirt, and grab a backpack. But can they do that? No way. They whine and stall. They wrestle in the doorway. They throw their Crocs at each other. They ignore my initially friendly requests to stop roughhousing. And the less they listen, the more agitated I become until I shout, “Why must you make the morning so hard? Can’t you boys be helpers and do anything?” The result: Conrad bursts into tears and screams back, “When you yell at me in the morning, it makes me feel yucky all day.” It’s only 8:30 p.m., and we’re all exhausted.
Patty asked me what was missing from my well-planned routine. “An au pair,” I responded glibly. The crowd laughed, but she didn’t. “What’s missing is teaching your children a sense of responsibility. There are no consequences to their actions. You’re yelling at them because they won’t do anything for themselves. But you do everything for them, so how will they ever feel confident enough to try?” she asked.
Her solution: I needed to help my children solve their own problems by using descriptive language to get them to behave. This just means using words that have no value judgments attached; you simply describe what you see. For instance, instead of saying “Why must you make the morning so hard?” I could say “I see two boys who need to put on their shoes and their coats.” It’s a subtle shift from blaming to emphasizing what I need them to do. Such a simple change!
As the evening progressed and more of us revealed our screaming sins, Patty helped us cook up plenty of other ways to quit our hollering habits. Two hours later, I had so many unique solutions, I couldn’t wait for my kids to misbehave.
WHISPER SOFTLY — BUT SERIOUSLY
Luckily, I didn’t have to wait long. When I came back from the workshop, my husband, David, was getting the boys out of the tub, and they were in the throes of their pre-bedtime hyperactive hijinks. Dashiell had just tried to bite Conrad’s behind, and in return, Conrad was trying to give Dash a purple nurple. Neither was actually brushing his teeth as much as banging and strumming the toothbrush in his mouth like a musical instrument. I walked into the bathroom and David turned to me and said, “Whatever you just learned, put it to work.”
I was actually excited to experiment. To break the frenetic vibe, I tried the whispering tip one mom swore by when her kids were climbing the walls: I leaned down, put my head between theirs, and in my most serious whisper I said, “You two need to brush your teeth while I sing ‘Frère Jacques’ right now.” I sang in a deep, conspiring whisper, and they were so surprised that they tilted their heads in to listen and brushed for the whole song, nearly two minutes. I was thrilled by my immediate results. I wanted to run downstairs and tell David, but instead, I kept my voice low and described what I needed them to do next: “Now go put on your pajamas and pick out a book you both like.” Watching them behave so well, I realized that by whispering and using descriptive language (instead of my usual “No story!” threat), they tuned me in — not out. My voice was soft, but they got the message loud and clear.
TAKE A 15-MINUTE BREATHER
Because I work from home, I’m usually eager to see the kids after hearing them play all afternoon. But as soon as I step my foot into the kitchen, the boys are all over me, and I find myself trying to ask them about their day while making dinner and responding to last-minute e-mails on my phone. They sense that I’m distracted, so they become rambunctious to get my attention. Their strategy works — but I end up yelling. Apparently, I’m not the only one who struggles with the transition from work to home. At the workshop, one mom explained that this time of day is usually her prime scream time because she hasn’t had a second for herself. Her trick: Unbeknownst to her children, she lets herself in a side door and sneaks upstairs to shower and eat a protein bar. The kids don’t notice that she’s home, and that 15-minute pocket allows her to regroup. It’s not just kids, after all, who have a hard time switching gears. So Patty suggested we all try to give ourselves a sliver of time to reflect on what we really need, or what we are really feeling, before reacting to our children. When we do, we might be surprised to find out we are hungry or stressed — or perhaps feeling bad because of something small but significant, like not having called our mother. Reflecting for just a moment frees you to be present with your kids.
The next afternoon, I knew rushing downstairs would lead to yelling. I was already frazzled from a deadline-driven day: My story was late. A source was MIA. And my sitter asked to leave early. So at 5 p.m. I let her know she could leave at 5:15. Then I gave myself 15 minutes. I tracked down my source. I e-mailed my editor to ask for an extension. I even took a quick shower. This little time-out helped me feel more organized and in control. And that helped me go downstairs and be a mommy equivalent of a push-me-pull-me without wanting to pull my hair out.
ACT YOUR AGE, NOT YOUR SHOE SIZE
Saturday is the day we get a reprieve from our typical fire-drill-like mornings. Yet whenever we break with routine, the kids act up. And on this particular weekend morning after the workshop, Dashiell was in rare form. I was reading a Bionicle comic to Conrad, and for no reason other than feeling bored and left out, Dashiell took one of Conrad’s fairly elaborate Lego creations op the shelf and dropped it on the floor. Conrad shrieked and burst into tears. Normally, I would scream at Dashiell, “Why are you so mean that you must break your brother’s things!” Or I’d just let loose a flat-out “Bad Dashiell!” as if he were a naughty puppy. But I woke up anticipating a moment like this, and now it was time to prove I could turn our family tension around.
I looked at Dashiell and said, “What are you, three years old?” to remind myself that, after all, my son is only 3. Labeling your child by his age has a magical way of giving you instant perspective — reminding you that, no, he doesn’t get it. Dashiell was 3. He felt jealous. If I’d been living on earth for only 36 months, when I got mad, I would break things, too. “What are you, three?” stopped me from escalating the situation to where I was shouting and he was having a tantrum. It’s been so effective that my husband and I both use it now. And the real beauty is that it can work for any age: Your kid is skateboarding without his helmet! What are you, 9? Your daughter got her lip pierced! What are you, 16?
During the workshop, I was so impressed with the idea of using descriptive language instead of threats that I kept imagining scenarios where I could try it. Perhaps I’d discover the boys had decided to finger-paint the playroom floor. Instead of saying “Who was the genius who thought it was time to paint my floor blue?” I would say “I see a huge mess of finger paints on the floor, and it makes me infuriated that you didn’t use the table. Get rags and clean it up.”
But descriptive language is not the most spontaneous form of speech, and it didn’t come naturally to me. I needed an incentive, so I made myself a Descriptive Language Star Chart. Every day that I was able to use it consistently, I would give myself a sticker. At the end of the week, if I had more than six, I’d give myself a reward (a yoga workshop, sleeping in late).
At first, it was tiring to be on descriptive-language alert, waiting to pounce on a misdemeanor with a flat and accurate description of what I saw. When Dashiell jumped into the tub from the edge, splashing me in a tsunami of water and nearly cracking his skull, I shouted, “What are you, nuts?” then recovered with, “Sweetie, when I see you jump like that, it scares me, and the water splashes everywhere. Get a towel and dry the floor.” But the more I did it, the easier it became. When Conrad kicked his brother in the back for knocking over his block castle, I was able to turn to him swiftly and, in a whisper, say, “I see a boy expressing himself with his body when he should use words, and it makes me upset.” After a week, I had seven sparkling stickers. The following Saturday, Dashiell woke up just as the sun was coming up, and I nudged my husband to get up with him. I had earned my right to sleep in, and I had the stickers to prove it.
What’s PMs Got to Do with It?
Let’s face it: Even with all these tricks and techniques, there are certain days of the month when nothing seems to work. I noticed that my yelling and sulking were much more acute the days before my period, and it was making everyone unhappy. At a checkup with my ob-gyn, I told him that my PMs was getting so intense that I was considering checking into a hotel the week before! I needed a solution that had a shot at working. My doctor suggested I take Sarafem, a very low dose of an antidepressant, fluoxetine, that you take only the two weeks before your period. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea of medicating my problems away. But when the stress of shuttling the boys to school in the morning left me crying in the parking lot after dropping them off, I realized I needed some help.
I called my doctor back and asked for a trial prescription.
Three months later, I’m here to evangelize about how I’ve become a better wife and mother through chemistry. Don’t worry — this is not a Stepfordian lobotomy, where I walk around the house saying “That’s nice, dear” and “More homemade biscuits, dear?” and “Would you like me to seduce you now, dear?”
No, my husband, David, can attest to the fact that it’s not like that at all. I haven’t gained weight. My sex drive hasn’t changed. I sleep normally. I still understand nuance and irony, and I can even feel bitter if I want to. But what’s gone is the dark spot on my heart: that angry place where I’d go from zero to sixty after asking the boys for the third time to stop hitting each other. When David says something like “Gosh, we’re low on groceries,” I no longer take it as a personal insult that I can’t get anything done fast enough. There’s an emotional cushion to buffer the everyday situations that could set off an anger spell, and the screaming switch that used to go all the way up to 11 now goes only as high as 6. I’m grateful to have figured out how to turn down the volume of my mood swings. I’ve even stopped feeling ashamed about having to take a pill, because Sarafem, in combination with my newly learned techniques, has put an end to the screaming, full stop. And I’ll take happiness over hollering any day.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
“It actually brought tears to my eyes,” wrote one mom. “I know I’m not alone, but to see some of my exact feelings on the page allowed me to let go of some of the anger.”
Another mother, who called herself BNA’s mom, wrote, “I’m so grateful for the ‘Mad at Dad’ article. I felt like the worst person in the world. My husband is one who can sit and watch TV but can’t hear his son asking him to play with him while standing at his dad’s feet… Thanks for letting me know I’m not the only one.”
We struck a nerve with our “Mad at Dad” story, which talked about the surprising and regular anger many women feel toward their husbands for not sharing the family-life load. Based on a nationally representative survey of 1,000 moms, the story lit up the blogosphere and also got picked up by The New York Times, Salon, The Huffington Post, and the Associated Press, among many other places. And hundreds of parents — moms and dads alike — vented and shared their opinions and frustrations on Parenting.com. (A note to those involved pops out there, like Sportswriter Dad, who chimed in that “I can braid hair and wipe butts with the best of them… I can do the chores and stay in tune to my kids’ wants”: We’re not mad at you.)
It’s a tough world out there for moms. We’re surrounded by Judgy McJudgersons who jump down our throats if our kids have a meltdown in the cereal aisle, and if the thank-you notes don’t get written, we’re the ones who are viewed as disorganized — not our husbands. Many of us are trying to keep it all together while holding down outside jobs, as well.
Is it really any wonder, then, that we sometimes feel crushed by the expectations, both our own and others’? When we don’t get equal partners in the domestic trenches, the anger that results can sink our once-thriving relationships. It’s one of the most common problems that Bonnie Eaker Weil, Ph.D., a New York family therapist and author of Make Up, Don’t Break Up, sees in her practice.
“I’m finding a lot more women burned out,” she says. “Two thirds of all women work outside the home and usually spend an additional thirty hours per week on childcare and housekeeping and that’s lowballing it. That’s why they’re so angry.”
It can be a real danger to a marriage. You’ve seen the wear and tear kids put on a couch. They can do the same thing to your relationship. In fact, as many as 70 percent of partnerships start to nose-dive when kids enter the picture, Weil says. So how do we make things better? While you can’t make a guy wake up and notice that the bathroom lightbulb’s been burned out for three weeks, there is hope. We’ve got a five-step program that can help defuse a variety of flash points and make your marriage a happier partnership.
Step One: Raise Your Expectations
Even if you didn’t negotiate an ironclad prenuptial agreement that he, too, shall scrub the gooey remains of dinner out of the kitchen sink, you can rewrite the rules of your marriage. Experts say it comes down, in part, to expectations.
First, recognize that equality is an attainable goal, says Francine M. Deutsch, a professor of psychology at Mount Holyoke College and author of Halving It All: How Equally Shared Parenting Works. “As much as you see written about how the norm is that women do more,” she says, “there is a significant number of couples who truly share the work of the home.”
Women need to expect (and demand) an equal partnership. There’s a message that fathers who pitch in are somehow special. Isn’t she such a lucky woman to have a guy like that? we say.
While it’s important to respect the pressure that men are under to provide for their families (even though most moms also work outside the home and many are the main breadwinners, too), we need to view a fifty-fifty partnership as a choice a couple makes together.
Regardless of whether you both hold jobs outside the home or one partner stays at home, you need to “establish the principle that the work at home is just as valuable, just as hard, and just as worthy of time off as the work outside the home,” Deutsch says.
If Dad isn’t quite acknowledging that managing a family and a home is actual work, you might take a page from Freaky Friday and swap roles, says Weil. For stay-at-home moms, “the man doesn’t get it most of the time,” she says. “He really thinks that you’re taking naps and relaxing all day.” And for working moms who, say, handle daycare dropoffs, dads often just see shorter work hours. Weil asks the moms she treats to leave the kids with their dad the whole day — and leave everything to him, including meals. Erin Martin, a Seattle mom interviewed for our February story, tried this on two different weekends, with amusing, if not amazing, results.
Both times that she went out of town, her husband either hired a sitter to “give him a break” or called in her mom for backup. Afterward, when the whole family was together for a week on vacation, he told her he had a much better idea of what her life was like. “He was much more appreciative of me,” she says. And now he understands why she’s so tired when he comes home from work, and why she’s likely to snap at what seems like a trivial thing.
Once he’s walked in your shoes, you can come up with a plan for managing your life together.
Step Three: Divide and Conquer
The best way for both partners to correct the unequal division of labor (and understand it, if the Freaky Friday switcheroo didn’t drive home the point) is to put it in writing. Start by each making a list of everything you’re doing on behalf of the family and the time it takes to do it. This includes bill paying, cleaning, shopping, organizing, taking the kids to the doctor’s office, filling out their permission slips, helping with homework, RSVPing to birthday parties, wrapping gifts… it’s going to be a long list.
And it will be eye-opening. Both of you will see, in black and white, just how much you’re managing. You might also realize he’s doing some things you hadn’t recognized. Just as likely, though, he’s going to see that there’s more he can contribute.
Ask yourself, too, whether you’re doing some things that don’t need to be done, like striving for a House Beautiful standard when House Adequate is fine. Liesel Anderson, a Santa Cruz, CA, mom, settled for that when her daughter was a preschooler and her son was a colicky infant. Her husband was working 12-hour days, and she felt like she was shoveling a mountain with a spatula. “It hit me, as I was rubbing fingerprints off the fridge handle at eleven o’clock on a Tuesday night, that I had to let some things go.”
A word of advice: Seeing the hideous imbalance on paper will likely reignite your anger and frustration. As you work together to even out the division of labor, try to stay positive, even though it may be challenging. You want to feel like you’re solving things together instead of having dump-on-Dad time, says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., author of Peer Marriage and dozens of other books on relationships.
Once you’ve completed your lists, start discussing who should do what and when. As you reallocate responsibilities, keep in mind each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but don’t be limited by them, advises Weil. Just because he’s never been great at planning a week’s worth of meals for the grocery-store run doesn’t mean he can’t learn.
Then convert those responsibilities into a weekly schedule. Need help? Consider using a free online calendar like the ones at Google, Windows Live, or Cozi.com to manage tasks, activities, and shopping lists. Agree that you will both look at the schedule every night to see what needs to be done the next day.
For best results, all the experts stress the importance of affection and positive reinforcement. Weil is a big fan of combining talks about the daily schedule with a hug or a kiss. Not only does this remind both of you that you’re sharing these responsibilities as a team, but the physical contact also gets the endorphins flowing, which will help you associate family-care tasks with a pleasurable dopamine high!
Having a formalized plan hopefully will mean that one partner (okay, you) doesn’t need to nag the other to do his share of the workload, which is, of course, a common source of stress. “The more you can build the sharing into your schedule, the less it becomes a contentious issue,” says Amy Vachon, who with her husband, Marc, wrote the forthcoming Equally Shared Parenting: Rewriting the Rules for a New Generation of Parents. She and Marc alternate chores like picking up their two kids from school and making dinner on weeknights.
Another tip: When it comes to housework, keep an eye out for the chores that are hot spots. Most couples end up arguing about the same few trouble areas, says Amy Vachon. If you can isolate and tackle these problems — like how frequently the bathroom needs to be cleaned, or who is going to buy the dog food — both of you will make huge gains.
Step Four: Lower Your Standards
If you’ve been in charge of many aspects of your home and your child’s life, you’re naturally going to be more competent at things like the schedule,says Amy Vachon. You’ll need to let go of some of that turf.
This can be the hardest part for a mom who’s been in the driver’s seat for a while. Your husband isn’t going to do everything to your exact specifications. Just because we’re fanatics about dust-free baseboards doesn’t mean our husbands have to be. And just because we never feed a baby pureed spinach for breakfast doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Anderson, the Santa Cruz mom, had to let go of her “control freak” ways when her husband took the sugar-free peanut butter she’d purchased and used it to make sandwiches — with marshmallow fluff.
“It was something the kids called a ‘daddy sandwich,’” she says. “It’s become one of those ‘legend in our family’ things, and it’s a treat — not an everyday thing — but a Fluffernutter sandwich is not going to ruin my kids.”
As you work with your new schedule, try to appreciate the small steps forward when you can, like when he does the laundry without being asked. “If he didn’t fold the clothes, try to be happy that he washed the clothes,” says Weil. Yes, it’s frustrating when everything isn’t done the way you would do it. But is your relationship really worth less than neatly folded laundry?
Sometimes, experts say, being happy with the effort leads to greater feelings of happiness overall. “Fighting can leave you feeling really worn out,” Weil says.
And if your partner does something mind-numbingly stupid, like forgetting to feed the kids, resist the urge to blow up and seize control. When you do this, you make your husband feel incompetent, says Schwartz. You also train him to expect that you’ll cover for him.
“You really have to stand back and talk about it in a calm way, not necessarily when it’s happening in the heat of anger,” adds Deutsch.
The bottom line: Involve your husband as your partner, not your employee. Ultimately, this is a gift to your children, says Marc Vachon. “Moms and dads are different, but they both need to be equally valued,” he says.
Step Five: See What You Can Learn From Him
Moms are mighty machines of awesomeness in the ways we multitask: We can fill out school forms, stir pasta, and keep the baby’s fingers out of the cat’s eyes all at the same time. Many men, however, seem unable — or unwilling — to do more than one thing at once. Ask him to watch the kids after breakfast and he will. But the dirty dishes may still be sitting on the kitchen table when you return.
Fact is, though, that doing ten things at once may be overrated at home. “It can mean that you’re not in the moment with your kids as much,” says Marc Vachon. “It’s useful to multitask, but it’s also useful not to multitask.”
Another lesson we can take from Dad’s playbook: Find time not to do any “tasking” at all. In our original survey, 50 percent of moms reported that their husbands got more time for themselves than they did. Given free time when, say, the baby is napping, many moms are more likely to use that time to load the dishwasher, while dads might use it to surf the web or check the score of the game.
At the advice of her marriage counselor, Martin, the Seattle mom, started designating a quitting time each day. Even if it’s as late as 9 p.m., having a stopping point to her workday has done wonders for her happiness and her relationship. She can pick up a book, chat with her husband, watch a movie with him, or do whatever she wants without feeling guilty — almost.
“It’s been really great,” she says, “even if it’s hard not to feel guilty. But my husband doesn’t feel guilty when he wants to read and there’s laundry to do, so I’m trying to enjoy myself.”
Another mom from our February story, Lucy King of Franklin, TN, has started taking walks by herself after dinner while her husband tidies up the kitchen and watches the kids. “This is really helpful,” she says, “especially when I have both boys home all day and they fight constantly.”
It’s critical to have time to do things that make you happy. You can’t leave your needs out of the equation, and it’s difficult to take care of yourself if all of your time is spent taking care of your home and family.
In the long run, everyone is happier when dads contribute more — even dads. In her interviews with 150 couples for her book, Deutsch found that the men who’d made the compromises required for a fifty-fifty parenting split were more satisfied at home.
“Every single one of them felt there had been this incredible payoff,” she says. “There were huge benefits for the parents and the kids.” Not the least of which is a mom who isn’t angry all the time.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
This week’s Chicagoan: Aaron Karmin, anger-management therapist By Anne Ford
‘A lot of people think that in an anger-management session, we’re gonna pass the drum around and have a men’s retreat thing. Or that it’ll be like driver’s ed, where they can sit there watching videos. That’s not what I’m about. I get people to take some ownership over the consequences of their choices. To understand that there is a basic thing called ‘It’s not fair.’
“Respect is the foundation of my approach. If somebody’s being disrespectful toward me, I can still maintain my composure. It’s impossible to argue with somebody when you agree with them. That’s my Jedi mind trick.
“I work with people who are homeless, people who are coming out of the Department of Corrections. I have judges, I have attorneys, people who are living very high-profile lifestyles. I’ve worked with people who are elderly. “Oh, he’s a nice old man.” No, he’s bitter and angry.
Depression, you can kind of hide. Anger—you hear it, you see it. Everybody knows when somebody’s angry. ‘Oh God, this guy hit his wife, or he was throwing things at his kids.’ You can’t help but say, ‘You need to do something about that.’
“I’m in an office downtown, and the doorman knows I do anger management. One time a client’s coming up, and I get a call from the doorman, which is unusual, and he’s like, ‘Aaron, there’s a client coming up.’ I say, ‘You never call me—is there something I should know?’ And he says, ‘He’s coming up with a baseball bat.’
“So my client walks in. He’s swinging the bat over his shoulder. I say, ‘What’s up with the bat?’ He says, ‘Oh, there was a Ron Santos signing at Borders, and look! Ron Santos signed my baseball bat.’
“If you have a rush of emotional energy, write. I wouldn’t pound a pillow. I had one client who was literally a Hells Angel. He was like, ‘I’m not going to write. I don’t have a pad or a pen.’ I said, ‘Fine, here’s a pad, here’s a pen.’
“He came in next week, and on every single page of the pad, both sides of the paper, he had written, ‘You stupid motherfucker shithead. You stupid motherfucker shithead.’ I said, ‘How did you feel?’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t want to punch anybody this week.’ I said, ‘Here’s another pad. Here’s another pen.’”Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
31% of moms say their husbands don’t help with the chores — in fact, they generate more.
Lucy King is a former executive turned stay-at-home mom in Franklin, TN. Her much-loved husband leaves his dirty dishes in the sink, even though the dishwasher is empty, and can walk right by a basket of laundry without thinking to take it to the washing machine.
“It’s like being pecked to death by a chicken,” she says. “I call these silly little things the pecks that are nothing, but when they keep happening, they drive you crazy. I think, ‘I shouldn’t have to tell you I need this.’ “
Malbrough, who also stays home with her daughter, says her husband leaves all the housework to her — even though he works two weeks on and two weeks off as a cementer’s assistant. “He said that’s my job,” she says. “Since we’ve been married, he has cooked twice that I can remember. He doesn’t know how to operate the dishwasher. He’s never vacuumed.”
Many moms complain they do more family work outside the house, too. One in five moms says her husband finds time for his own errands, like taking his shirts to the dry cleaner, but doesn’t manage to fit in such family ones as going to the supermarket.
Traci Magee of Oak Ridge, TN, has a 6-year-old daughter and a job as a school librarian. Her husband assumes that because her workday ends earlier, she can do all the errands — even though he has no idea of the sort of maneuvering that takes, especially with a kid in tow.
“Right now, his car needs to go into the shop,” she says. “Somehow, I’m supposed to be the person who figures out how to get that done. I don’t think he understands the logistics of getting a child somewhere, taking her to daycare, planning ahead for all the things that come up.” Often, she says, she isn’t home until 6 P.M. — and he’s already there. “A woman’s expected to be able to wear fifteen hats,” she says. “And it’s very time-consuming and tiring.”
33% of moms say their husbands aren’t shouldering equal responsibility and are less concerned than they are about their children’s basic needs, like nutrition and clothing — a number that rises to 41 percent for those with three or more kids. What these moms wish: that their husbands acted more like partners — especially when it comes to the nitty-gritty.
Andrea, a mom of three who lives on Long Island, NY, comes home from work to find her husband has let the kids snack at 5 P.M. instead of giving them a real dinner, though she’s repeatedly asked him to just go ahead and feed them. Or he has tried to feed them but has served something they won’t eat, like a “bloody wedge of meat on a plate” with no side dishes. Then, after the kids have brushed their teeth for bedtime, they complain of hunger (“Of course they’re hungry!”), so he gives them more snacks. “And then who has to oversee the rebrushing of teeth while my husband is off watching TV? I do.”
Terry’s husband, she says, never thinks about what the kids should be eating when he does the grocery shopping. “I cannot remember once — not once — that my husband bought fresh fruit or vegetables, let alone prepared them, for our three children. Now that I think of it, I don’t think he’s ever spontaneously bought any frozen vegetables, either.”
Nearly one third of moms complain that parenthood has changed their lives more than their husbands’. We carry so much of this life-altering responsibility in our heads: the doctors’ appointments, the shoe sizes, the details about the kids’ friends. Many dads wouldn’t even think to buy valentines for the class, for example, or know when it’s time to sign kids up for the pre-camp physical, or that curriculum night is next Thursday at 7:30 and you need to hire a sitter and bring a nut-free vegetarian appetizer that can be eaten without a fork. Even moms who work full-time take it upon themselves to store all this data in our already overstuffed heads. We’re the walking, talking encyclopedias of family life, while dads tend to be more like brochures.
It’s no wonder that more than one in four moms feels like she spends more mental energy on parenting than dads do. Meanwhile, the thing that would help — some time off — seems like it disproportionately goes to dads.
50% of moms tell us their husbands get more time for themselves. Brandi Morgan, a mother of two boys in Bandera, TX, feels her anger spike “when I’ve had sleepless nights staying up nursing the baby, and I’m up early cleaning after last night’s dinner and trying to have a moment to breathe by myself, and my husband, by his own choice, gets up early and spends a lot of time at the gym,” she says.
Jessica, a stay-at-home mom of two who lives in New Jersey, is angry that her husband, a mortgage broker who works 11-hour days, manages to carve out one weekend day for his passion — his work as an independent music producer. The other day is “family day.” If Jessica is lucky, she gets an hour or two off a week. “I sometimes want to get in the car and just drive and not have to worry about the kids,” she says.
The lack of time off is a huge issue for the moms carrying the most anger. Over 60 percent of the moms who get mad weekly — and almost three-quarters of those who are angry every day — feel this way.
One thing that can complicate it is the different ways some moms and dads choose to spend their time. Moms tend not to let themselves slack off when there are chores to be done.
Erin Martin of Seattle remembers the Saturday morning she spent rushing making football-shaped sandwiches for her son’s sixth-birthday party. Her husband, meanwhile, was goofing around on the computer, oblivious that he could be pitching in.
This sort of thing happens all the time — she’s taking care of the kids or the house or something else for the family, and he’s taking care of himself. “I used to think he did it on purpose and it would make me much angrier,” she says. “Now, I think it doesn’t dawn on him. Guys are just better at compartmentalizing.”
Over time, all these feelings — from annoyance to outright rage — can be hard on a marriage.
“Anger is corrosive,” says Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., the mother of two grown children and a University of Washington sociologist who’s studied couples’ dynamics for decades. “It’s like a termite that starts to reproduce more termites. If you never get rid of the termites, one day you’re going to lean on a wall and it’s going to crumble underneath your weight.”
Anger can also erupt in unexpected ways, Schwartz says. A mom might blow her stack because her husband forgot to turn off the light switch. He’ll think she’s crazy because it’s just a light switch. But it means so much more.
Lucy King, the former executive who gave it up to be a full-time mom, was so mad she couldn’t even talk to her husband because of…a coffeepot.
“I said something might be wrong with the coffeepot. He gave me this funny look like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ” What set her off was the look, which felt like a failure of her husband to support her.
“I used to manage 400 employees,” she says. “I have a master’s degree. I was a pretty high-ranking executive. And he questions me about this little stuff! It’s hard.”
Anger is worth paying attention to.
If you’re chronically at the boiling point, it could be damaging to your health.
When you’re mad, your body floods with adrenaline. If you’re often angry, you might lose your ability to produce a hormone that blunts adrenaline’s worst effects. You can also weaken your heart, harden your arteries, raise your cholesterol, damage your kidneys and liver, and put yourself at risk for depression or anxiety. It’s no wonder that some scientists consider chronic anger more likely to kill you prematurely than smoking or obesity.
Redford Williams, M.D., director of the Behavioral Medicine Research Center at Duke University, is blunt about it. “Anger kills,” he says. “It’s not just that it can damage your heart — which it does — but it’s also been found in epidemiological studies to identify people who are more likely to have a heart attack or drop dead from any cause.” Great. We’re not only mad because we’re carrying our family’s weight, it’s going to kill us.
60% of moms don’t tell their friends what they’re going through, or they make light of it.
This is particularly surprising, since our mom friends — who’d understand better than anyone — could be a great source of support. “When we make jokes about it, it’s one way of talking about it without admitting to ourselves that it’s really bad,” Schwartz says.
We should talk to each other — and be more honest about the depth of our feelings. There’s great comfort in knowing you’re not alone, you’re not unreasonable, you’re not crazy. If it’s uncomfortable to do that with a friend face-to-face — whether you’re worried about being judged or feel it’s disloyal to your husband — then, hey, find some online friends to commiserate with.
The ones we also really need to talk to, however, are our husbands. The fact that so many moms are mad, and that so many of the complaints are similar, is significant. And maybe that can give all of us moms — who love our husbands but wish they’d just be…more like us — the push to make some changes, to delegate more and demand more for ourselves. Anger can be debilitating — but it can also be motivating.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 3 so far )
My husband and I just celebrated our tenth wedding anniversary. I’d say we have a great marriage. There’s no one I trust more, no one else I’d rather talk to, and no one who makes me laugh harder.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t get furious at him from time to time.
Once, when I was dangling at the end of my rope, I insisted he go to the doctor for a hearing test. I was quite certain the man was deaf. How else, for instance, could he have taken my grandma’s books to Goodwill instead of the antique-book dealer, as I’d asked when he was cleaning out the basement?
Just as I’d gotten used to the idea of the man I love with hearing aids, the news came in from the doctor. My husband’s ears work fine. Better than mine, actually.
I know I’m not the only one who gets Mad at Dad. Whenever I see the phone number of a certain close friend on the caller ID, I know she needs my understanding ear because her husband has dropped a wad of cash on electronics while telling her she can’t have someone in every other week to help clean, or because he let the kids eat junk food and play video games while she was running errands, and now they’re glassy-eyed and glued to the ceiling. Meanwhile, his whiskers are in the sink and his boxers are on the floor, making her feel like she’s married to nothing more than a hairy man-child.
These are the kinds of things we see parodied on TV sitcoms, where bumbling husbands get laughs for feeding the kids frosting sandwiches and sending them to school in scuba gear. These are the kinds of things we moan and groan about when we get together with our other mom friends, often playing our irritations for laughs. Honestly, though, it’s not that funny. None of us signed up to live in a sitcom.
Life for women may be better in many ways than it’s ever been, but we’re far from whistling show tunes. According to Parenting‘s nationally representative survey of more than 1,000 mothers on MomConnection, an online panel of moms, the majority of us confess to feeling anger at surprising levels. We love our husbands — but we’re mad that we spend more mental energy on the details of parenting. We’re mad that having children has turned our lives upside down much more than theirs. We’re mad that these guys, who can manage businesses or keep track of thousands of pieces of sports trivia, can be clueless when it comes to what our kids are eating and what supplies they need for school. And more than anything else, we’re mad that they get more time to themselves than we do.
46% of moms get irate with their husbands once a week or more. Those with kids younger than 1 are even more likely to be mad that often (54 percent). About half of the moms describe their anger as intense but passing; 1 in 10 say it’s “deep and long-lasting.”
Bridget Malbrough, who lives in Houma, LA, says she feels angry “the majority of the time.” She and her husband have been married for four years, though they separated temporarily after the birth of their daughter, who’s now 1.
Her husband doesn’t seem to pay attention to or understand his daughter’s basic needs, says Malbrough – for instance, that babies need a lot of sleep. He recently came home from a shift at work at 8:00 in the morning, when Malbrough and her daughter were still snoozing. They’d been up late the night before, and both mom and baby were zonked.
“He just decides he’s going to wake everyone in the house up,” Malbrough says. “He doesn’t think she needs to sleep as much as she does.” And, she adds, not only does he violate the universal “never wake a sleeping baby” rule, but once their daughter’s awake, she’s the one who has to tend to her.
Many moms — 44 percent — are peeved that dads often don’t notice what needs to be done around the house or with the kids (it jumps to 54 percent for moms with three-plus children). We hate that we have to tell them what needs to be done, that they can step over a basket of laundry on their way to find the remote control.
Erin Niumata, a New Yorker and a mother of one, has a husband who’s handy with a vacuum because he hates to see debris on the carpet. But he’s oblivious to other things — he never remembers to clean the bathtub, for example, even though she’s asked countless times and can’t do it herself because of a back injury.
“I hate nagging,” she says. “If he asks me to do something, it’s done. But if something doesn’t matter to him, why should he bother? He’d never forget to TiVo something he wanted to watch, mind you.”
Terry, another New York mom with three kids and a full-time job, gets irate every morning during the mad rush to get the family out the door to daycare, school, and work. “I’m making breakfast, getting dressed, and screaming at everyone to get ready — while he’s at the computer,” she says. “He always hops-to when I ask him, but it bugs me that he doesn’t just pitch in and help on his own. I have to ask every damn day.”
Lots of moms — 40 percent — are also angry that their husbands seem clueless about the best way to take care of kids. We know we didn’t marry buffoons. We married smart men who can fix cars and garbage disposals, men who empty mousetraps without getting the heebie-jeebies, men who can keep track of their fantasy football trades. So why can’t they remember to put kids in coats and mittens before sending them off to school? Why do they give the baby a bottle right before we come home, all bursting and ready to nurse?
“My husband is sometimes lax when it comes to keeping an eye on the kids,” says Sarah, the mom of a toddler and preschooler in New Jersey. “No one’s ever gotten hurt, but once I came home and found that my toddler’s brand-new — expensive! — rug was covered in marker. It was clear he’d left them on their own for a while, with markers. I was furious. I’m still furious.”
40% of moms are mad that Dad can’t multitask. And the more kids they have, the madder they are: 46 percent of moms with three-plus kids are irked by this.
As mothers, we think nothing of stirring a pot of noodles while setting up a refrigerator-repair appointment, sorting mail, and helping a child with his weekly spelling words. And it annoys us when our husbands act put-upon or overwhelmed when we want them to handle a couple of things at once. The dinner hour tends to be especially trying. Randi Maerz, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Keokuk, IA, says she’s repeatedly asked her husband to watch their daughters, 4 and 2, while she’s cooking, if only to keep them safe.
Instead, he comes home with a list of things he plans to do around the house. He gets to focus on one thing at a time, whether it’s changing his clothes or doing touch-up painting on the house. Meanwhile, she’s trying to cook with human leg warmers clinging to her shins.
“His priorities always come first,” Maerz says. “He’s got to accomplish them before he can focus on helping me with the kids.” She likes how he takes on house projects, but his inability to acknowledge her needs and his unwillingness to multitask irritate her every day.
Lisa, a mom of two who lives in the suburbs of New York, knows the feeling.
After a full day at work, she can be cooking dinner, helping with homework, and taking notes for a PTA meeting while her husband is in the family room with their preschooler. She’ll ask him to sort through magazines to be recycled while he’s there, and he’ll claim he can’t because he’s watching their kid.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
I have a pretty good marriage. It could be better. There are things about my husband that drive me crazy. Last spring he cut apart a frozen pig’s head with his compound miter saw in our basement. He needed the head to fit into a pot so that he could make pork stock. I’m no saint of a spouse, either. I hate French kissing, compulsively disagree and fake sleep when Dan vomits in the middle of the night. Dan also once threatened to punch my brother at a family reunion at a lodge in Maine. But in general we do O.K.
The idea of trying to improve our union came to me one night in bed. I’ve never really believed that you just marry one day at the altar or before a justice of the peace. I believe that you become married — truly married — slowly, over time, through all the road-rage incidents and precolonoscopy enemas, all the small and large moments that you never expected to happen and certainly didn’t plan to endure. But then you do: you endure. And as I lay there, I started wondering why I wasn’t applying myself to the project of being a spouse. My marriage was good, utterly central to my existence, yet in no other important aspect of my life was I so laissez-faire. Like most of my peers, I applied myself to school, friendship, work, health and, ad nauseam, raising my children. But in this critical area, marriage, we had all turned away. I wanted to understand why. I wanted not to accept this. Dan, too, had worked tirelessly — some might say obsessively — at skill acquisition. Over the nine years of our marriage, he taught himself to be a master carpenter and a master chef. He was now reading Soviet-era weight-training manuals in order to transform his 41-year-old body into that of a Marine. Yet he shared the seemingly widespread aversion to the very idea of marriage improvement. Why such passivity? What did we all fear?
That night, the image that came to mind, which I shared with Dan, was that I had been viewing our marriage like the waves on the ocean, a fact of life, determined by the sandbars below, shaped by fate and the universe, not by me. And this, suddenly, seemed ridiculous. I am not a fatalistic person. In my 20s I even believed that people made their own luck. Part of the luck I believed I made arrived in the form of Dan himself, a charming, handsome surfer and writer I met three days after I moved to San Francisco. Eleven years later we had two kids, two jobs, a house, a tenant, a huge extended family — what Nikos Kazantzakis described in “Zorba the Greek” as “the full catastrophe.” We were going to be careless about how our union worked out?
So I decided to apply myself to my marriage, to work at improving ours now, while it felt strong. Our children, two girls who are now 4 and 7, were no longer desperately needy; our careers had stabilized; we had survived gutting our own house. Viewed darkly, you could say that I feared stasis; more positively, that I had energy for Dan once again. From the myriad psychology books that quickly stacked up on my desk, I learned that my concept was sound, if a bit unusual. The average couple is unhappy six years before first attending therapy, at which point, according to “The Science of Clinical Psychology,” the marital therapist’s job is “less like an emergency-room physician who is called upon to set a fracture that happened a few hours ago and more like a general practitioner who is asked to treat a patient who broke his or her leg several months ago and then continued to hobble around on it; we have to attend not only to the broken bone but also to the swelling and bruising, the sore hip and foot and the infection that ensued.”
Still, Dan was not 100 percent enthusiastic, at least at first. He feared — not mistakenly, it turns out — that marriage is not great terrain for overachievers. He met my ocean analogy with the veiled threat of California ranch-hand wisdom: if you’re going to poke around the bushes, you’d best be prepared to scare out some snakes.
A quick bit of background: Dan and I married on July 1, 2000, in Olema, Calif. I wore a white dress. Dan was 32; I was 30. We vowed to have and to hold, to love and to cherish in sickness and in health, etc. We were optimistic, cocky and vague about the concept of marriage. We never discussed, or considered discussing, why we were getting married or what a good marriage would mean. It all seemed obvious. I loved Dan; I loved how I felt with him. Ergo I wanted to be his wife.
During the first nine years of our marriage — that is, until we tried to improve it — Dan and I thought little about our expectations and even less about our parents’ marriages, both of which have lasted more than 40 years. Our families had set very different examples of how a marriage could be good. Dan was raised in Berkeley, Calif., by VW-bus-driving lefties who were so utterly committed to their own romance that Dan sometimes felt left out. Each meal and each sunset was the most exquisite. When girls refused to talk to Dan in high school, his mother told him they were just too intimidated by his incredible good looks. My parents’ marriage, meanwhile, resembled nothing so much as a small business. They raised their three children in Wellesley, Mass., where civic life was so tidy that kids held bake sales at the town dump. All conjugal affection took place out of sight. “You’re a good Do Bee” was considered high praise.
After our wedding, with some money from a boom-time book advance, we bought a run-down house in San Francisco. We assumed that our big problems would be money (or lack thereof; we’re both freelance writers) and religion (I’m Jewish; Dan’s Christian). Neither turned out to be true. We built — or more accurately fell — into a 21st-century companionate marriage. But Dan and I were not just economic partners, lovers, (soon enough) co-parents and best friends. We were also each other’s co-workers, editors and primary readers. Both working from home, our lives resembled a D-list version of Joan Didion’s and John Gregory Dunne’s, whose days, according to Didion, “were filled with the sound of each other’s voices” — except with what I can only assume is a much more egregious lack of boundaries. We lost steam 95 percent of the way through our D.I.Y. home remodeling and, as a result, have no master-bathroom door.
But how to start? What would a better marriage look like? More happiness? Intimacy? Stability? Laughter? Fewer fights? A smoother partnership? More intriguing conversation? More excellent sex? Our goal and how to reach it were strangely unclear. We all know what marriage is: a legal commitment between two people. But a good marriage? For guidance I turned to the standard assessments. The Locke-Wallace Marital Adjustment Test instructs spouses, among other things, to rank themselves along the “always agree” to “always disagree” continuum on matters ranging from recreation to in-laws. This struck me as scattershot and beside the point. For all the endless talk about marriage — who should have the right to be in one, whether the declining numbers of married-parent households are hurting America’s children — we don’t know much about what makes a marriage satisfying or how to keep one that way. John Gottman, in his Love Lab in Seattle, claims that he can analyze a conversation between spouses and predict with 94 percent accuracy whether that couple will divorce over the course of six years. But many academics say that Gottman’s powers of prophecy are overblown, that he can’t truly predict if a couple will split. Those not selling books, workshops or counseling admit to knowing surprisingly little. Harry Reis, a professor of psychology at the University of Rochester, likens our current understanding of “relationship science” to the Buddhist parable of the blind men and the elephant. One blind man “feels the tusk, inferring that elephants are hard and sharp-edged, like a blade. Another touches the soft, flexible ear, concluding that elephants are supple, resembling felt. A third imagines massive strength from grasping the pillar-like structure of the leg. The perspective of each person touching the elephant is valid, as far as it goes. . . .” But no one understands the whole beast.
Dan and I decided to dive in, trusting that the terms of our better marriage and the yardstick by which to measure those terms would emerge along the way. It seemed safest to start in private, so we began our putative improving with Harville Hendrix’s Oprah-sanctioned self-help best seller, “Getting the Love You Want.” I let Dan pick the first exercise. It seemed only sporting. I assumed he would choose “positive flooding,” which includes making a list of all the qualities you wish your partner would praise you for but never does and then sitting in a chair as your spouse walks circles around you, reading that list in an increasingly loud and emphatic voice. (I was terrible at giving Dan compliments, even though he craved them; I sided with the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who writes that in marriage “the long applause becomes baffling.”) But instead Dan chose “reromanticizing.” In hindsight, no surprise — Dan’s parents were dreamy and passionate.
Step 1: Complete this sentence in as many ways as possible: “I feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”
Dan quickly jotted down “submit to kissing, clean the kitchen, tell me I look studly.”
“Let’s try for 10,” I said.
“Ten!” Dan said, teasing but serious, one of our most common modes of conversation. “You can think of 10?”
In “Intimate Terrorism: The Crisis of Love in an Age of Disillusion,” the psychologist Michael Vincent Miller describes marriage as mocking our “fondest dreams,” because the institution is not the wellspring of love we imagine it to be. Instead it’s an environment of scarcity, it’s “a barbaric competition over whose needs get met”; it’s “two people trying to make a go of it on emotional and psychological supplies that are only sufficient for one.” And true enough, with “Getting the Love You Want” splayed on our bed, I began seeing Dan as my adversary, the person against whom I was negotiating the terms of our lives. I remembered well, but not fondly, this feeling from early in our marriage, when nearly everything was still up for grabs: Where would we live? How much money was enough? What algorithm would determine who would watch the baby and who would go to the gym? Recently those questions had settled, and our marriage felt better for it. But now the competitive mind-set came roaring back, as I reasoned, unconsciously anyway, that any changes we made would either be toward Dan’s vision of marriage and away from mine or the other way around. Admitting too much satisfaction seemed tantamount to ceding the upper hand. So I held my ground. I, too, failed to think of 10 things Dan did that made me feel loved. “O.K.,” I said, “let’s quit after 8.”
Step 2: Recall the romantic stage of your relationship. Complete this sentence: “I used to feel loved and cared about when you. . . .”
Dan made one of those circles with a line through it on his paper, symbolizing, he ribbed, “the null set.” Then he grabbed my list. “ ‘Looked giddy to come through the door and see me,’ ” Dan read. “Are you kidding me? You don’t even see me when you come through the door. It’s like you’re blind and deaf to everyone but the kids.”
I thought I had avoided becoming one of those mothers who transferred all of her romantic energy from her husband to her children. Apparently I failed. But Dan, in my view, hadn’t mastered the spouse-parent balance, either, only his problem was the opposite: at times he ignored the kids. While reromanticizing, I asked him, testily, “Do you really think a 6-2, 200-pound man who works at home with his wife needs to compete with his small children for their mother’s attention before those children leave for school?” Great. Now we were having a fight. Dan retreated to the bathroom to check his progress on his six-pack. My doubts set in. This was the fear, right? You set out to improve your marriage; it implodes. What if my good marriage was not floating atop a sea of goodness, adrift but fairly stable when pushed? What if my good marriage was teetering on a precipice and any change would mean a toppling, a crashing down?
Much of the commentary on modern marriage is frankly terrifying. Miller describes “the marital ghetto” — the marital ghetto? — as “the human equivalent of a balanced aquarium, where the fish and the plants manage to live indefinitely off each other’s waste products.” Perhaps we’d been striving in raising children and not in marriage because child-rearing is a dictatorship and marriage is a democracy. The children do not get to vote on the direction of the relationship, on which sleep-training or discipline philosophy they like best. But with a spouse, particularly a contemporary American spouse, equality is foundational, assumed. A friend had recently told me that he thought I was the boss in my marriage. Did I really want to negotiate my marriage anew and risk losing that power? From the bathroom, Dan asked, “Do you really think this project is a good idea?”
I realized that my favorite books about marriage — Calvin Trillin’s “About Alice” and Joan Didion’s “Year of Magical Thinking” — included one spouse who was dead.
Still, one Saturday last spring, we drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to Mill Valley to attend a marriage-education class. In academic circles, marriage education is known as a “prevention” program, an implicit admission that by the time most couples get to the subsequent program — therapy — it’s too late. The classes, sadly, have all the intellectual glamour of driver’s ed. But they’re based on the optimistic idea that you can learn to be better at marriage. As Bernard G. Guerney Jr., a clinical psychologist, family therapist and the godfather of the marriage-education movement, wrote in his 1977 book “Relationship Enhancement,” unless an unhappily married spouse “is suffering a biochemical deficiency or imbalance, he is no more sick than someone who wants to play tennis and does not know how, and the professional is no more providing ‘therapy’ or ‘curing’ his or her client than a tennis coach is ‘curing’ his clients.”
We enrolled in a 16-hour, two-Saturday course called “Mastering the Mysteries of Love.” The classes teach students how to have “skilled conversations” or rather, I should say, how to stop having the let’s-see-who-rhetorically-wins skirmishes that were standard in our house. A skilled conversation is an exercise in forced empathy. One person starts by describing his or her feelings. The other person then validates those feelings, repeating them back nearly verbatim.
Midmorning, with the gongs of the supposedly soothing spa music crashing in the background, Dan and I retreated to a couch with a template for having a skilled conversation about a “small disagreement.” Among our most longstanding fights was how much energy and money should go into Dan’s cooking. Shortly after our first child, Hannah, was born, Dan and I started having the same conversation every night: do you want to cook dinner or look after the kid? He always picked cook, I always picked kid, and now, seven years later, Dan was an excellent, compulsive and profligate chef. We spent far more money on food than we did on our mortgage. Sure, we ate well. Very well. Our refrigerator held, depending on the season: homemade gravlax, Strauss organic milk, salt-packed anchovies, little gem lettuces, preserved Meyer lemons, imported Parmesan, mozzarella and goat cheese, baby leeks, green garlic, Blue Bottle coffee ($18 a pound), supergroovy pastured eggs. On a ho-hum weeknight Dan might make me pan-roasted salmon with truffled polenta in a Madeira shallot reduction. But this was only a partial joy. Dan’s cooking enabled him to hide out in plain sight; he was home but busy — What? I’m cooking dinner! — for hours every evening. During this time I was left to attend to our increasingly hungry, tired and frantic children and to worry about money. That was our division of labor: Dan cooked, I tended finances. Because of the cooking, in part, we saved little for retirement and nothing for our children’s college educations.
I garnered no sympathy from our friends. Still, Dan’s cooking and the chaos it created drove me mad, a position I expressed by leaving whole pigeons untouched on my plate. Dan, meanwhile, entrenched and retaliated, slipping crispy fried pigs’ ears into my salads and making preposterously indulgent weekday breakfasts, the girls upending flour bowls and competing for Dad’s attention as he made them crepes with grapes and Champagne sauce at 6:45 a.m. I knew Dan’s cooking and his obsessions in general were mechanisms to bind his anxiety, attempts to bring order to an unruly mind. Without an outlet, Dan tended toward depression, and his depression vented as anger. In his early 20s, he learned the trick of focusing and applying himself, at nearly all times, so his energy would not, as he put it, “turn bad.” I respected this, even appreciated it, in theory. But I struggled with the specifics. Dan cooked, because he needed to cook, blitzing through one cookbook after another, putting little check marks next to every recipe. He was not cooking for me, not for the girls. Yet now in our marriage class, following the skilled-conversation template, the emotional distance between us on this issue seemed to collapse. I said, then Dan mirrored back to me, “The chaos is really upsetting, and you’d like to find a way to maintain more peace and calm in our home.” Then Dan said, and I mirrored to him: “Food is a truly important part of family. For you it’s health and pleasure bound together, and it lets you express and pursue the life you want to live three times a day.”
That afternoon, as we talked in this stilted, earnest style — covering such esteemed topics as backrubs and stray socks, the utter banalities of married life — I felt a trapdoor crack open in our marriage. According to a widely accepted model, intimacy begins when one person expresses revealing feelings, builds when the listener responds with support and empathy and is achieved when the discloser hears these things and feels understood, validated and cared for. This is not news. It’s not even advice. Offering a married couple this model is like informing an obese person that he should eat less and move more. But in the days and nights that followed that course, our intimacy grew. We had never considered our verbal jousting to be protecting uncomfortable feelings. Clearly it was. Back home, that first irony-free evening, I found myself telling Dan a raft of antiheroic stories about my childhood, stories I’d never told him, I realized, because I felt insecure. They were tales about suburban bat mitzvahs and the pedal pushers I wore to them, anecdotes from a conventional East Coast world our marriage eschewed. Without the ironclad guarantee of empathy, I had felt that they might go over poorly, especially alongside Dan’s epics of a glorious youth spent playing Frisbee in Berkeley’s Tilden Park.
For the next few weeks, even our sex was more intimate, more open and trusting. Then I found myself recoiling. As if I were obeying Newton’s third law of motion, I had an innate equal and opposite reaction to our newfound intimacy, to living our lives, as the saccharine marriage-improvement phrase goes, as we instead of as me. I loved the idea of digging out of my emotional bunker and going over to Dan’s to live with him. And I liked being there, for a while. But Dan has a bigger, flashier personality than I do. I feared, in our intimacy, I might be subsumed. As many women had, I read in fascinated horror, a few years back, about a Buddhist couple who took vows never to be parted by more than 15 feet. They inhaled and exhaled in unison while doing yoga, walked each other to writing desks when inspiration struck in the middle of the night. “It is very intimate,” the male partner explained. That vision of intimacy as a chain-link leash filled me with dread. Yes, I loved the emotional security of knowing that if I said, “I’m upset,” Dan would repeat back, “You’re upset.” But while such command empathy was comforting to a point, it felt unsustainable, even cloying.
Some days, following intimate nights, I’d walk up to our kitchen from our bedroom below and want to pretend it didn’t happen. Dan would caress the small of my back. I’d squirm away. I knew older couples who slept in separate bedrooms, an arrangement that unsettled me as a newlywed but now struck me as a sound approach to running the chute between intimacy and autonomy over the course of 50 years. Yet Dan and I weren’t going to stop sharing a room — for one thing, we lacked the space. So while working to improve our marriage, I found myself pushing my husband away. I had started our project assuming the more closeness, the better. But that wasn’t turning out to be true, at least for me.
A few weeks later we drove through San Francisco to the tony Laurel Village neighborhood from our house in Bernal Heights for some psychoanalytic couple’s therapy. En route we discussed not shaking the bushes of our union too hard. Dan had just flown home from London where he was working on a story about Fergus Henderson, a chef who defines half a pig’s head as “a perfect romantic supper for two.” Henderson has Parkinson’s but told Dan he stopped reading about the disease, because in his experience “the more I know, the more symptoms I have.” Following suit, we thought it best to stick to dissecting the good parts of our marriage and how to improve them, as marriage can bring out people’s worst. Even those who are tolerant, wise and giving are often short and rude to their mates. I had always winced at the opening of Chekov’s “Lady With the Dog.” The narrator describes the protagonist’s wife as “a tall, erect woman with dark eyebrows, staid and dignified.” Then he gives us her husband’s view: “he secretly considered her unintelligent, narrow, inelegant, was afraid of her and did not like to be at home.” How much did we really want to share?
A word here about psychoanalytic reasoning: I’ve never been a big fan. I’ve long favored the fake-it-till-you-make-it approach to life. Why turn over the rocks of your history just to see what’s underneath? In marriage therapy, this fear makes particular sense, because the therapy carries not only the threat of learning things about yourself that you might prefer not to know but also the hazard of saying things to your spouse that are better left unsaid, as well as hearing things from your spouse that you might prefer not to hear. Some in the field are outwardly critical of most marriage therapy; among them is William J. Doherty, a psychologist and the director of the Marriage and Family Therapy Program at the University of Minnesota, who writes, “If you talk to a therapist in the United States about problems in your marriage, I believe that you stand a good risk of harming your marriage.” The science behind marital counseling is also less precise than you might imagine. In clinical trials, among the most effective protocols is Integrative Behavioral Couple Therapy, an unabashed mash-up of two schools of thought. Couples work on “change-oriented strategies,” trying to find ways to remedy each other’s complaints. They also do “acceptance work,” trying to learn to love the relationships as is.
Holly Gordon, our reed-thin psychoanalyst, did not think much of our plan. “To get the most out of your time here we need to talk about some dissatisfaction or problem, something you’re trying to improve,” she instructed, closing a double set of soundproof doors. So we settled into airing some well-rehearsed gripes — the time Dan came to the hospital to visit me and four-pound, premature Hannah, and all he could talk about was the San Francisco building code. (He’d torn the front stairs off our house and kept rebuilding them and ripping them off again, fearing they were imperfect.) The time Dan proposed a trade: he would clean up more, he swore he would, if I would just French-kiss him spontaneously once a day; I gave up first. (I found the forced affection claustrophobic. I was also still stung, I later realized, by critical comments Dan had made about my kissing style before we were engaged.) These were many-times-told tales, and as such we both felt inured to their dark content. We used them to avoid committing what Doherty calls “therapist-induced marital suicide.” We did not want therapy to set a pick for our divorce.
So instead of speaking our harshest truths, for six weeks running Dan and I pursued the lesser offense of making the other sound crazy. Holly cooperated, too, offering feedback that we used to confirm our sense that the other was neurotic. Some weeks Dan took it in the teeth; others, I did. At home, Dan and I had been following a de facto acceptance strategy. He even convinced me that the best response to his lecturing me, again, about conjugate-periodization strength training was for me to say, “Oh, you lovable, obsessive man, you!” and walk away. But Holly took a fix-it, or at least diagnose-it, approach. This is another major complaint about marital therapy: mental-health professionals find mental-health problems. All of a sudden you’re married to a narcissistic personality disorder; who wants to stick around for that? One day Holly ended our session with this synopsis: “On the first count, you find Dan unavailable because he’s not relating to you. He’s just using you as a sounding board. But on the other hand he feels he can’t reach you either. He wants you to accept his affection and praise, but those attentions make you feel smothered, and that makes him feel alone.” I still believed our marriage was good. But I felt that Holly had reduced it to an unappealing, perhaps unfixable conundrum. Would her vote of little confidence hurt or help?
I did start watching my reactions when Dan told me that I looked beautiful. Did he mean it? What did he want from me? I would try to accept the compliment graciously, even offer one in return. But the endless therapy required to become less neurotic generally seemed outside the scope of this project. I felt confident we could build a better marriage, less so that our individual personalities would change. Marital therapy, to me, seemed akin to chemo: helpful but toxic. Leaving Holly’s office one day, Dan, ever valiant, made a strong play to titrate how much negative feedback we let in. “Do they spray shrink powder in these places,” he asked, “to make them extra depressing?”
Monogamy is one of the most basic concepts of modern marriage. It is also its most confounding. In psychoanalytic thought, the template for monogamy is forged in infancy, a baby with its mother. Marriage is considered to be a mainline back to this relationship, its direct heir. But there is a crucial problem: as infants we are monogamous with our mothers, but our mothers are not monogamous with us. That first monogamy — that template — is much less pure than we allow. “So when we think about monogamy, we think about it as though we are still children and not adults as well,” Adam Phillips notes. This was true for us. On our wedding day, Dan and I performed that elaborate charade: I walked down the aisle with my father. I left him to join my husband. We all shed what we told ourselves were tears of joy. Dan and I promised to forsake all others, and sexually we had. But we had not shed all attachments, naturally, and as we waded further into our project the question of allegiances became more pressing. Was our monogamy from the child’s or the mother’s perspective? Did my love for Dan — must my love for Dan — always come first?
This all came pouring out last summer in the worst fight of our marriage. At the time, we were at my parents’ house, an hour northeast of San Francisco. More than food, more than child-rearing, we fought about weekends — in particular, how many summer weekends to spend up there. I liked the place: out of the fog, free grandparental day care; the kids could swim. Dan loathed it, describing the locale as “that totally sterile golf community in which your mother feeds our kids popsicles for breakfast and I’m forbidden to cook.”
For the past few years I dismissed Dan’s complaints by saying, “Fine, don’t go.” I told myself this was justified, if not altruistic: I was taking our girls; Dan could do what he wanted with his free time. But underneath lay a tangle of subtext. Dan wished he spent even more time with his own parents, who were quite private. I felt an outsize obligation toward mine, because they moved to the Bay Area to be closer to us. We’d had some skilled conversations, which helped a bit, as I now knew those weekends with his in-laws made Dan feel alienated and left out of our family decision-making. Yet at root we fought because the issue rubbed a weak point in our marriage, in our monogamy: I didn’t want to see my devotion to my parents as an infidelity to Dan. To him, it was.
That June weekend my folks weren’t home, we’d gone up with friends, but Dan hated the place more than ever. Saturday morning I woke up early, went for a run and came back to find Dan on a small AstroTurf putting green with the girls, ranting about how he hated all the houses that looked the same, with tinted windows blocking the natural light; the golf course that obliterated the landscape and all the jerks that played golf on it. The next day was Father’s Day. I took the girls to do errands with what I thought were the best of intentions, but I was so angered by Dan’s relentless crabbiness that I failed to buy a gift. The final insult came Sunday afternoon as we packed to go home. I informed Dan that I told my mother that she could bring the girls back up the following weekend. Dan erupted in rage. “Those are my actual children. Why do you insist on treating me like I’m some potted plant? I, too, get to decide what happens in this family. Do I need to tell you to tell your mother, ‘O.K., Mom, I’m not allowed to make any plans for our children without getting permission from my husband?’ Do I need to be telling you, ‘I’m sorry, little girl, I make the plans in this family, and I’ll tell you what to tell your mother about where my children are going?’ ”
I stiffened and said, “Of course not.”
“How far are you going to let this go?” Dan kept screaming. “Are you willing to get divorced so you can keep spending weekends with your mom?”
This was the first time in our marriage either of us had ever invoked divorce.
The following Thursday, as we entered Holly’s office, I still felt certain she would side with me: Dan needed to get over his holier-than-thou Berkeley hang-ups. Sure, golf communities are snobbish, but family is much more important. Especially my family, right now — my parents had moved from Massachusetts to California to be near their grandchildren, for God’s sake. And besides, I dealt more with the kids, and I let Dan run amok in the kitchen. So I got this.
Holly, who’d thrown out her back and was reclining in a lawn chair in front of the couch she used for psychoanalytic clients, did not think much of my reasoning. “It sounds like you’ve created these little enclaves of rationalizations: ‘I give on all these other fronts, so I’m entitled not to give on this one.’ ”
She was right. I felt entitled.
“But that does pose a problem — for Dan. Because he feels he’s really not taken into account.”
Dan brightened. “Just as you were talking there, I was having all these fears come up again. I have a real fear of being an appendage in that family, and that Liz’s real family is her and her mother, and I was just a sperm donor. That it would be really fine if I disappeared. Nothing much would change.”
“Really?” I asked. I knew some of the ways I betrayed Dan with the girls. As they grew older we found ourselves forming cross-generation allegiances. Hannah, our elder, and I would wish Dan wasn’t so chronically messy and emotionally florid. Audrey, our younger, would promise to be Dan’s perfect companion; she would do the things I wouldn’t do: climb huge overhanging rock crags, eat whole fried smelt. But I understood less well why there was a conflict with my parents. I often spent 21 hours a day with Dan. When my mother called, I frequently didn’t answer the phone.
I could not believe Dan thought my primary relationship was with my mother. I needed to know if he felt that way generally or just on these weekends. Dan declared the distinction moot: any rupture in our monogamy weakened the whole. I wondered if improving my marriage had to mean cutting myself off from the world? I wanted to gain strength from my marriage — that was increasingly clear. In many ways I did. Dan had faith in me, and that helped me have faith in myself. But clearly I owed Dan a debt of constancy and consideration. Our marriage needed to be a place to gain strength for him too.
Near the end of our session, Holly asked what I thought would happen if I let go of my rationalizations, if I accepted a fuller monogamy. I said I would feel vulnerable, “like a beating heart with no rib cage.”
“So there’s a feeling that if you take Dan into account, he’s going to take it all away, or you’re going to have to give yourself over to him?”
“Yes,” I said. “I imagine I’m going to be squashed.”
Holly sat up in her lawn chair. “We’re going to have to stop for the day.”
Since the beginning of this project, Dan had been waiting for one thing: sex therapy. And I have good and bad news on this front: improving the sex in our marriage was much easier than you might guess, and the process of doing so made us want to throw up.
Here again we began with books. In “Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time,” Stephen A. Mitchell, a psychoanalyst, presents a strong case for the idea that those thoughts you might have about your spouse or your sex life being predictable or boring — that’s just an “elaborate fantasy,” a reflection of your need to see your partner as safe and knowable, so you don’t have to freak out over the possibility that he could veer off in an unforeseen direction, away from you.
Inspired by Mitchell, I decided to try a thought exercise: to think, while we were making love, that Dan was not predictable in the least. Before this, Dan and I were having regular sex, in every sense: a couple of times a week, not terribly inventive. As in many areas of our lives, we’d found a stable point that well enough satisfied our desires, and we just stayed there. But now I imagined Dan as a free actor, capable of doing anything at any time and paradoxically, by telling myself I did not know what to expect, I wanted to move toward him, to uncover the mystery. For years, of course, I felt I knew Dan well, worried that lessening the little distance between us could lead to collapse. Now I was having the same sweaty feelings I had in my 20s, when I would let my psyche ooze into that of a new lover at the start of an affair.
This was great, right? A better marriage meant more passionate sex, this went without saying. But by now I noticed a pattern: improving my marriage in one area often caused problems in another. More intimacy meant less autonomy. More passion meant less stability. I spent a lot of time feeling bad about this, particularly the fact that better sex made me retreat. There’s a school of thought that views sex as a metaphor for marriage. Its proponents write rational-minded books like Patricia Love and Jo Robinson’s “Hot Monogamy,” in which they argue, “When couples share their thoughts and emotions freely throughout the day, they create between them a high degree of trust and emotional connection, which gives them the freedom to explore their sexuality more fully.” But there’s this opposing school: sex — even sex in marriage — requires barriers and uncertainty, and we are fools to imagine otherwise. “Romantic love, at the start of this century, is cause for embarrassment,” Cristina Nehring moans in “A Vindication of Love: Reclaiming Romance for the Twenty-First Century.” She berates the conventional marital set-up: two spouses, one house, one bedroom. She’s aghast at those who strive for equality. “It is precisely equality that destroys our libidos, equality that bores men and women alike.” I can only imagine what scorn she’d feel for hypercompanionate idiots like us.
Still, I agreed with Nehring’s argument that we need “to rediscover the right to impose distances, the right to remain strangers.” Could my postcoital flitting away be a means to re-establish erotic distance? An appealing thought but not the whole truth. My relationship with Dan started on rocky footing. When we met, Dan was working through the aftershocks of a torrid affair with an emotionally sadistic, sexually self-aggrandizing woman. She said mean things to him; he said mean things to me (“Why do you kiss like that?”). Not a perfect foundation for a marriage. Nor was the fact that Dan spent the early years of ours writing an erotic bildungsroman about this nightmare ex-girlfriend, the novel at one point ballooning to 500 pages and including references to everyone he’d ever slept with. Even after the book was published, I never quite shook the feeling that my role in Dan’s life was to be the steady, vanilla lay. We never discussed this. We just had a strenuously normal sex, year after year after year.
Then one day at my desk I started reading “The Multi-Orgasmic Couple: Sexual Secrets Every Couple Should Know.” I sent Dan an e-mail message entitled “Nine Taoists Thrusts.”
Page 123, from the seventh-century physician Li T’ung-hsuan Tzu:
1. Strike left and right as a brave general breaking through the enemy ranks.
2. Rise and suddenly plunge like a wild horse bucking through a mountain stream.
3. Push and pull out like a flock of seagulls playing on the waves.
4. Use deep thrusts and shallow teasing strokes, like a sparrow plucking pieces of rice.
5. Make shallow and then deeper thrusts in steady succession.
6. Push in slowly as a snake entering its hole.
7. Charge quickly like a frightened mouse running into its hole.
8. Hover and then strike like an eagle catching an elusive hare.
9. Rise up and then plunge down low like a great sailboat in a wild wind.
This e-mail was partly in response to one Dan sent me a few months earlier, just to see how much he could tweak my type-A sensibility. It was entitled “Strength Benchmarks for Women” and indicated that I should be able to do 10 pull-ups, 20 bar dips, front squat and bench press my body weight and dead lift one and a half times my body weight. Upon receiving the thrust e-mail, Dan ran up to my office in the attic from his in the basement and asked which thrust sounded best. This was a departure for us — after I felt rebuffed in some early attempts to make use of some kitschy erotic wedding presents, we settled into our safe, narrow little bowling alley of a sex life.
Now, high above noisy Franklin Street, in the office of our therapist, Betsy Kassoff, our issues came pouring out. (We chose to see a psychologist who worked on sexuality, because we weren’t contending with physical dysfunction.) Dan began with an exhaustive history. “When I was 15 years old I was dating a girl. . . .” I can’t tell you how monumentally tired I was of hearing about Dan’s ex-girlfriends. Could we please never discuss this again? “We had this completely psychologically sadistic thing that was incredibly disturbing to me. . . . Every few years I’d have a relationship that mirrored that one, and then I had the bull moose of these relationships. It was like sticking my finger in the electrical socket of my own unconscious.”
Betsy, who had a touch as deft as Bill Clinton at a barbecue, just said, “Wow.”
Dan and I had talked around the edges of this before — the trauma of the bull moose, our romance’s unpleasant start. But by the time either of us had any clarity on the matter, we were desperate to pack it away. Strange, now, what relief we felt in opening that rank old hamper. Betsy could not have said more than 50 words before Dan paused, and I jumped in.
Remember that searing detail from the Eliot Spitzer scandal: that he had sex in his socks? Way worse stuff came out. Like how Dan and I hadn’t been talking to each other while having sex. And not making eye contact either. “And what about the darker, more aggressive side of sexuality you talked about in your earlier relationships?” Betsy asked Dan. “Would you say it’s been more difficult to bring those parts of yourself to this relationship?”
Betsy worked gently and efficiently, a nurse undressing a wound. I confessed my craving but also my worry that we could not be sexually aggressive without conjuring the bull moose. Dan swore — eagerly — that this was not the case. The layers of our erotic life kept pulling back. I allowed that I felt hemmed in by our excessively regular sex life and annoyed that, in the context of our marriage, Dan supposedly had an important sexual history while I had none. Dan then admitted his fantasies about my past lovers, his fear that they had accessed parts of me that were walled off from him. How, nine years into our marriage, could our sex life still be under the thumbs of exes we no longer talked to or even desired? The thought made me angry and nauseated.
Fifty minutes later, Dan and I stumbled down onto the street, wrung out and dazed. Then we went home and solved the problem, at least at first. I hate to sound all Ayelet Waldman here, trumpeting her steamy sex life with Michael Chabon, but we had excellent sex. We were terrified not to. Yet once we proved to ourselves that we weren’t fools to be married — that we could have as charged an erotic life with each other as we had with others before — the backslide began. This time, the retreat was painful and abrupt. One day Dan found a box of old snapshots in the basement and brought it upstairs, thinking he’d show his old self to our daughters. The cache turned out to include pictures I saved of ex-boyfriends, photos Dan proceeded to fling, to the girls’ great amusement, across the room.
“Remind me again why you invited so many ex-lovers to our wedding?” Dan e-mailed me at 6 the following morning — neither of us could sleep. “Also, at the time, you had told me that you’d never slept with two of them. It only emerged later over time that you had. So what was going on there? Not completely ready to relinquish the past? Immaturity? Self-protection? Are you enjoying having a sexual history, too?”
In his novel “Before She Met Me,” Julian Barnes explores the rabid jealousy we feel for spouses’ former lovers, as if we expect our partners to have lived in anticipation of meeting us. This jealousy, Barnes writes, comes “in rushes, in sudden, intimate bursts that winded you.” It then lingers on “unwanted, resented.” This was our experience. The inquisition continued for days. Why had I not told Dan I’d slept with _______? I lied 11 years earlier for the weakest of reasons: I lacked the presence of mind to tell Dan the truth, that I did not yet think he had a right to know all the details of my sex life before him. But now Dan was my husband, my full catastrophe. He allowed this reckless poking into all corners of our marriage. He even stopped seeing me as predictable and tame, and the old lie hurt. “This is the central trust issue in a marriage,” Dan said the next day as he made me lunch. “Can I trust you when you tell me you haven’t slept with somebody else?”
The following weekend: jealousy again (or was it an attempt to fuel our eroticism with tension?). I said yes a bit too forcefully when Dan asked if I’d noticed a well-muscled young man at the pool. Dan was allowing for my sexual free agency, granting me my full humanity. We lived, raised children, worked and slept together. Now we needed to gouge out a gap to bridge, an erotic synapse to cross. It was exhausting. “That guy did the epitome of bad-values hypertrophy training” — vanity weight lifting, in Dan’s estimation, just to get buff. “You’re like a guy admitting he likes fake boobs. And he had chicken legs. Did you notice that, too?”
What is a good marriage? How good is good enough? Ultimately each philosophy of what makes a good marriage felt like a four-fingered glove. The passion apologists placed no stock in the pleasures of home. The communication gurus ignored life history. I came to view the project as a giant attempt to throw everything out of the messy closet that was our life and put it back in a way that resembled an ad for the Container Store. Not everything fit. It never would. We could tidy up any given area and more quickly and easily than we anticipated. But despite ongoing sessions with endless professionals, we couldn’t keep the entirety of our marriage shipshape at once.
Still, night after night, I’d slide into bed next to Dan. He often slept in a white T-shirt and white boxer briefs, a white-cased pillow wrapped over his head to block out my reading light, his toppled stacks of cookbooks and workout manuals strewn on the floor. He looked like a baby, fresh and full of promise. In psychiatry, the term “good-enough mother” describes the parent who loves her child well enough for him to grow into an emotionally healthy adult. The goal is mental health, defined as the fortitude and flexibility to live one’s own life — not happiness. This is a crucial distinction. Similarly the “good-enough marriage” is characterized by its capacity to allow spouses to keep growing, to afford them the strength and bravery required to face the world.
In the end, I settled on this vision of marriage, felt the logic of applying myself to it. Maybe the perversity we all feel in the idea of striving at marriage — the reason so few of us do it — stems from a misapprehension of the proper goal. In the early years, we take our marriages to be vehicles for wish fulfillment: we get the mate, maybe even a house, an end to loneliness, some kids. But to keep expecting our marriages to fulfill our desires — to bring us the unending happiness or passion or intimacy or stability we crave — and to measure our unions by their capacity to satisfy those longings, is naïve, even demeaning. Of course we strain against marriage; it’s a bound canvas, a yoke. Over the months Dan and I applied ourselves to our marriage, we struggled, we bridled, we jockeyed for position. Dan grew enraged at me; I pulled away from him. I learned things about myself and my relationship with Dan I had worked hard not to know. But as I watched Dan sleep — his beef-heart recipe earmarked, his power lift planned — I felt more committed than ever. I also felt our project could begin in earnest: we could demand of ourselves, and each other, the courage and patience to grow.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
Most humans have experienced rejection, humiliation, unfairness, or the loss of a loved one. Many have had terrible trauma, abuse, accidents, or illness. These harsh experiences can lead to negative thought patterns or habits that cause unnecessary, ongoing pain. These patterns are negative thought circuits that lock you into destructive ways of responding to the world. Some examples of this type of negative thinking are: “I am ugly, bad, guilty, and worthless. I am a helpless, weak, inadequate loser. I cannot change. I am doomed to suffer. I deserve punishment. I will never be able to get out of this problem. I can’t beat this habit. No matter what progress I make, something will come along to take it away.” In response to life events, such negative attitudes emerge from the unconscious rapidly, automatically, and habitually. They often manifest in relentless repetitions referred to as ruminations or obsessions. The mind can get stuck in ruminations for minutes, hours, days, weeks, and longer. Some deeply embedded patterns and habits can extend their influence over a lifetime.
Your brain activity changes when negative memories are immediately recalled. For example, researchers have showed volunteers positive and negative pictures while they recorded the electrical activity of the participants’ brains. The positive pictures were designed to give the volunteers pleasant feelings — pictures of a Ferrari or a pizza, for example. The negative pictures produced unpleasant feelings, like a mutilated face or a dead cat. They found that the volunteers’ brains had more activity when they looked at negative pictures. Several different kinds of studies have shown the same thing. In other words, your brain reacts more intensely to negative than positive events. This probably doesn’t surprise you, although you might never have considered the implications of it.
Coming from a completely different angle, other researchers discovered something along the same lines. They found that when your mind isn’t engaged in anything in particular, it tends to drift randomly. Thoughts of all kinds stream through an idle mind. But eventually, in its random meandering, the mind will think of something negative, and then what happens? It sticks. Your mind stops meandering and sticks on the negative thought because negative thoughts fixate attention with more stickiness than positive or neutral thoughts. You get caught in the worried or angry thought, and it doesn’t pass by like a neutral thought might. You naturally give the threatening information extra attention. That is one way pessimism can worm its way into your mind. Another way reality functions as if it had a negative bias is that the brain seeks evidence to confirm rather than to disconfirm. So as soon as one of these pessimistic, cynical, or defeatist beliefs start to form, your mind starts looking for evidence that you’re right, and the belief starts to coalesce and harden into a firm belief — a firm, mistaken, unnecessarily negative view of the world — a view that makes you less effective at dealing with the world (especially other people), makes you feel bad more often, and a view that actually harms your health. Reality’s quicksand has caught another victim.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( 1 so far )
It’s easy to destroy. It’s easy to allow all kinds of negative thought run rampant within your mind. It’s also just as easy to consciously turn the table, and transform the flip side of the negative comment you have made about yourself. It only takes conscious awareness, and practice. If you never played tennis, and went on the court for the first time, I would wager to say that you might not have a game that would take you to the national tennis championship. It takes practice, and a lot of practice at that! If anyone puts you down, in any manner, in any way, it is not about you! It is about the other person’s perceptions! Now, if you put yourself down, then somewhere along the line you bought into the false belief that if only you were such and such, then you would be worthy. If only you had this or that, then you would feel whole and complete. Guess what? Such and such and this and that will never make you feel worthy, whole and complete. Because once you attain whatever “it” is, your mind would find yet another reason to feel worthy, and the vicious cycle would go on.
The same is true of your view of Self. If you have placed a certain criteria to feel worthy, then you have placed a lie into your mind. If you are overweight, and put yourself down because of it. Your self-respect has taken a beating here. You can’t respect anyone so “stupid” as to let this disaster happen, who failed to see it coming, who failed to take appropriate remedial action, who didn’t even know what that might have been and it’s too late now. Your anger at yourself is turning into poison in your veins. The problem is not the offender’s behavior, the problem is your immature, non-rational reaction to it. He is not the problem, you are. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as Pogo used to say in the cartoons. It was the combination of anger, stress and negative attitudes in a context of self-doubt, worthlessness, and inferiority that did you in. Each of these components of your problem needs to be identified properly and put in a manageable perspective.
When a problem frustrates you, you should either do something constructive about it or learn to accept it. Negative thinking leads to exaggerated emotions and keeps you from feeling calm and content to confronting problems in constructive ways. Instead of seeing problems as normal, tolerable, manageable, challenges to overcome, people with habits of negative thinking often overreact and blow things out of proportion. Negative thoughts continually create bad feelings and cause insecurity or anger over present and future events.
Lets say you get a phone call and your told you have been rejected for another potential job. You feel worthless; you feel it is hopeless; that you will never find a job. Your worry about how your gonna pay you bills and provide for your family. You feel worthless and inadequate. Yet when your operating out of this emotional thinking you, if you feel stupid or adequate, then you must be stupid and adequate. If you feel like a failure, then you must be a failure. The problem with emotional thinking is that you cannot separate how you feel from who you are.Read Full Post | Make a Comment ( None so far )
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