Let Your Husband Love You: And Be Yourself

Express yourself, or quietly suppress and let your man love you:  a Victorian false dichotomy.  It’s human to feel like crap, because parenthood is tough, tough stuff.   In my clinical opinion, the last thing a woman needs who is battling feelings of self-worth and exhaustion, authentically displaying it to her husband is to “suck up your pride, your anger, your frustration, and your crazy.”  

I recommend authenticity and processing.  And depending on the situation, therapy.   Irritability and feelings of worthlessness, along with not enjoying the things you used to enjoy (like, sex or spending time with your partner) are hallmark symptoms of depression and/or anxiety.  A counselor can help appropriately diagnose and get you the help you need to feel better end enjoy your relationships more.    Perhaps, if the original post brought up a ton of guilt or shame, considering scheduling an appointment with a counselor.  At the very least, I recommend processing your feelings about the post with an empathic friend or your partner.   You’re not alone. It’s normal to want to be real in your own home and the thought of sucking it up and pretending everything’s coming up roses feels either:  a) exhausting, b) anxiety provoking, c) guilt-inducing.

A counselor can also help process how current relational dynamics are working/not working for you.

To be specific, this post seems to highlight how very black and white division of labor between home and career just doesn’t work for so many.  It will work for some, I acknowledge that, but far too often after a few years of this set-up something’s gotta give:  and all too often its the wife who “sucks it up.”  Usually men work toward their careers, women work at home.  This is not the kind of post to argue which is better for men and women:  only the individual can decide that (P.S.  End Mommy Wars!).   I’m only here to gently suggest that reassessment at some point between the couple on how to help each other (whether it’s doing more housework or meal preparation together, husbands taking the *entire* evening/night shift–rather than a 1-2 hour “break” for mom, supporting mom if she really wants to go back to school or work outside the home) is beneficial.

So I talked a little about processing above (with your partner and perhaps a counselor).  Let me just end a little on a note of authenticity.  First, my own:  I completely resonated with her exhaustion with my 2 babies 18 months apart.  Some won’t though, and that deserves mention.  Men and women who have carved out work and home in different ways won’t relate much at all, and that should be acknowledged.   Given that caveat,  I personally can very much relate to how smelling like vomit, being climbed all over all day can be soul-crushing.  Of course I haven’t believed my husband when he compliments me.  And yes, I could say “thank you” more often.  But there’s nothing wrong with speaking your mind, with processing how you’re REALLY feeling. Lots of women have been trained since they were children to keep words and actions in pretty-mode.  I imagine the author of this article did, too, as highlighted in her comments:  “Dude, I so get it. It was such an eye opener for ME when I stepped outside of myself and saw what my man comes home to sometimes. Not pretty.”   I totally did it when I was younger.  In college, I remember dating some guy who even said after a few months, “you know, I wish you’d express more how you were really feeling–I want you to vent, express, be REAL with me.”  And I did, and I married him, dear reader.  Best decision I’ve ever made.

I emphatically and unequivocally support being yourself, expressing yourself.   Let your partner love you AND be real.  It’s not an either/or, folks.   Personally, I don’t want to be adored/pedestaled.   I prefer to be loved, as myself–exactly the way I am, feelings and all.

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Research-Based Tools for a Healthy Relationship

I first heard about Dr. John Gottman’s decades of research and his “Love Laboratory”  as an undergraduate.  My mentor, the smartest woman I knew (who had 2 Ph.D.’s–one in clinical psychology, the other in neuroscience) referred me to his book and expressed her admiration for his meticulous research.   It’s the best work I’ve seen on relationship studies, and I highly recommend his book “7 Prinicples for Making a Relationship Work.”  (It sounds hokey and self-help-y, but it really isn’t).   He works out of the University of Washington and literally had a “Love Lab” where he watched couples and monitored their brain activity, heart rate, sweat flow, blood pressure and immune function, and then followed them annually to check in on how they’re doing. He and his wife are a modern-day “Masters of Sex” for the relationship world, for those of you following that series on Showtime now.  For anyone short on cash at the moment to get it used on amazon, here’s a good summary of the 7 Principles by Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.:

1. “Enhance your love maps.” Love is in the details. That is, happy couples are very much familiar with their partner’s world. According to Gottman, these couples have “a richly detailed love map — my term for that part of your brain where you store all the relevant information about your partner’s life.” You know everything from your partner’s favorite movies to what’s currently stressing them out to some of their life dreams, and they know yours.

2. “Nurture your fondness and admiration.” Happy couples respect each other and have a general positive view of each other. Gottman says that fondness and admiration are two of the most important elements in a satisfying and long-term relationship. If these elements are completely missing, the marriage can’t be saved.

Gottman includes a helpful activity to remind couples of the partner they fell in love with called “I appreciate.” He suggests readers list three or more of their partner’s positive characteristics along with an incident that illustrates each quality. Then read your lists to each other.

3. “Turn toward each other instead of away.” Romance isn’t a Caribbean cruise, an expensive meal or a lavish gift. Rather, romance lives and thrives in the everyday, little things. According to Gottman, “[Real-life romance] is kept alive each time you let your spouse know he or she is valued during the grind of everyday life.”

For instance, romance is leaving an encouraging voicemail for your spouse when you know he’s having a bad day, Gottman says. Or romance is running late but taking a few minutes to listen to your wife’s bad dream and saying that you’ll discuss it later (instead of saying “I don’t have time”).

Gottman acknowledges that this might seem humdrum, but turning toward each other in these ways is the basis for connection and passion. Couples that turn toward each other have more in their “emotional bank account.” Gottman says that this account distinguishes happy marriages from miserable ones. Happy couples have more goodwill and positivity stored in their bank accounts, so when rough times hit, their emotional savings cushion conflicts and stressors.

4. “Let your partner influence you.” Happy couples are a team that considers each other’s perspective and feelings. They make decisions together and search out common ground. Letting your partner influence you isn’t about having one person hold the reins; it’s about honoring and respecting both people in the relationship.

5. “Solve your solvable problems.” Gottman says that there are two types of marital problems: conflicts that can be resolved and perpetual problems that can’t. It’s important for couples to determine which ones are which.

Sometimes, though, telling the difference can be tricky. According to Gottman, “One way to identify solvable problems is that they seem less painful, gut-wrenching, or intense than perpetual, gridlocked ones.” Solvable problems are situational, and there’s no underlying conflict.

Gottman devised a five-step model for resolving these conflicts:

  • In step 1, soften your startup, which simply means starting the conversation without criticism or contempt.
  • In step 2, make and receive “repair attempts.” Gottman defines repair attempts as any action or statement that deescalates tension.
  • In step 3, soothe yourself and then your partner. When you feel yourself getting heated during a conversation, let your partner know that you’re overwhelmed and take a 20-minute break. (That’s how long it takes for your body to calm down.) Then you might try closing your eyes, taking slow, deep breaths, relaxing your muscles and visualizing a calm place. After you’ve calmed down, you might help soothe your partner. Ask each other what’s most comforting and do that.
  • In step 4, compromise. The above steps prime couples for compromise because they create positivity, Gottman says. When conflicts arise, it’s important to take your partner’s thoughts and feelings into consideration. Here, Gottman includes a valuable exercise to help couples find common ground. He suggests that each partner draw two circles: a smaller one inside a larger one. In the smaller circle, make a list of your nonnegotiable points. In the bigger one, make a list of what you can compromise on. Share them with each other and look for common ground. Consider what you agree on, what your common goals and feelings are and how you can accomplish these goals.
  • In step 5, remember to be tolerant of each other’s faults. Gottman says that compromise is impossible until you can accept your partner’s flaws and get over the “if onlies.” (You know the ones: “If only he was this” “If only she was that.”)

6. “Overcome gridlock.” Gottman says that the goal with perpetual problems is for couples to “move from gridlock to dialogue.” What usually underlies gridlock is unfulfilled dreams. “Gridlock is a sign that you have dreams for your life that aren’t being addressed or respected by each other,” Gottman writes. Happy couples believe in the importance of helping each other realize their dreams.

So the first step in overcoming gridlock is to determine the dream or dreams that are causing your conflict. The next steps include talking to each other about your dreams, taking a break (since some of these talks can get stressful) and making peace with the problem.

“The goal is to ‘declaw’ the issue, to try to remove the hurt so the problem stops being a source of great pain,” Gottman writes.

7. “Create shared meaning.” “Marriage isn’t just about raising kids, splitting chores, and making love. It can also have a spiritual dimension that has to do with creating an inner life together — a culture rich with rituals, and an appreciation for your roles and goals that link you, that lead you to understand what it means to be a part of the family you have become,” Gottman says.

And that’s what it means to develop shared meaning. Happy couples create a family culture that includes both of their dreams. In being open to each other’s perspectives and opinions, happy couples naturally come together.

“Marriage Isn’t for You.” Really?

by Dr. Kristy Money Straubhaar

Marriage advice is everywhere.  Well meaning parents, friends, and blogs all seem to have a simple yet profound solution on how to get ‘er done.   I’ve noticed this advice usually falls into one of two camps:  The key to a successful relationship is  A) Altruism (complete selflessness), or B) Self-fulfillment.    The recent blog “Marriage Isn’t for You” is a good example of the altruism argument: stop trying to make yourself happy and only focus on making your partner happy.   But then, doesn’t that make you happy?  And if it doesn’t, maybe you’re not trying hard enough?  Or still being too selfish?   So try harder!  Sacrifice more!  Until you lose yourself…but how does one then find that self again?   Many have spun in circles thinking about selfishness and selflessness as the only possible motives for why we do good to others:  “Well, if I am doing something for someone else, that’s altruistic. Yea!!   And yet, as I’m doing it, I feel better, so aren’t I at the root just being selfish? How can I ever truly be selfless?  Does true selflessness exist?  Are we all self-serving hedonists at the core?  Ack!”

I think a lot of said head-spinning comes from the nature of these two states:  altruism and hedonism.   We tend to think about them as mutually exclusive opposites, and then we pit them against each other to see which is more important.  We think that to understand, we need to isolate one or the other and do it perfectly! Or die trying — go big or go home, right?  One wins, the other loses.   Our natural desire for order, control, and predictability makes that approach sound like a good idea.  The problem is, it doesn’t work in the long run. It’s a false dichotomy.  A competitive approach for reconciling opposites often leads to heated debate, and over many years of marriage…it leaves us wanting.

Say you just got married, and you had been advised by your mom that marriage isn’t about you, it’s about your spouse, and you feel altruism is a worthy goal so you spend your lifetime subsuming your own ideas/wishes/desires/dreams and instead go with whatever your spouse wants.  Sure, that may work for a year or so…but in the long run?  Can we say, burnout?  To say nothing of a profound loss of identity, possible resentment, and perhaps even the spouse wondering, what happened to the strong, opinionated, defined person I married?

Say your dad told you before you got married you need to look out for #1 (yourself) above all, and in doing so you’ll be a better partner because you’re strong and fulfilled, and your spouse will never want to stray because you’re self-confident and self-assured.   Nice principle, but in practice it’s easy to see how the partner might want a bit more give-and-take over the years —  not to mention how deferring to your every opinion/preference will get super-old.

So, what’s the magic answer?  Which is it, selflessness or self-interest?  Cue ageless debate and headspinning.   Here’s what I learned in my Ph.D. program on the two seemingly opposed forces of self vs. other interest in relationships:

You can’t set one against the other, so forget the competition between the two.  Stop trying to figure out what comes first, whether giving leads to happiness or happiness leads to giving.  Altruism and hedonism have always existed and they shouldn’t be considered separate–rather, they are always in relation to one another.   Each side has an incomplete part of the truth, and need each other side (see: yin-yang).    Likewise, people talk about men and women as opposites:  but from an eternal coexistence standpoint, the more powerful qualities lie in their connections, inter-relatedness, and similarities, rather than their differences.  Masculine and feminine traits exist in everyone!  Why then do we focus so much only on the differences?  A need for order and simplicity, I suppose.

Altruism isn’t sustainable long-term.  You can’t draw from an empty glass. Neither is unbridled narcissism.  So, there’s got to be a way for the two to interact.    When both ideas are considered together, each idea (selflessness and self-interest) becomes complete.   It’s not an either/or, but a both/and situation.

Embracing opposition is essential to the human condition.  It provides depth and richness.   We need to feel the pressure of ongoing and simultaneous pushing/pulling.   It’s comfortable to quickly eliminate choices and never return to them, espcially if the advice sounds simple and nice and something you you’ve been taught you “should” do (i.e. your purpose in life is to give everything to your spouse, not think about your needs, only theirs…so much potential for abuse there).

Embrace the conflicts of opinion and interest!  You can learn about each other, watch the interplay of personality (in a both/and scenario), incorporate what you learned from the other.  Paradoxically, each self retains individual qualities, yet that synergy makes something new.   Check competition in favor of cooperation.

OK, what does that look like in real life, in therapy?  Good question:  Abandon agenda and outcomes in therapy.   Understand you’re doing something extremely difficult (marriage!), delay immediate gratification, be capable of dealing in uncertainties about how your future will look without all the answers.   Give up attempts for rules and control.   One of my clinical supervisors once asked me what I thought the most intolerable emotion was. Anger?  Sadness?  …Helplessness.  Most of us will go to great lengths to avoid feeling out of control, not having the answers on-hand.  Not being able to fix things right away.

Self-interest pulls for the familiar, the known, the controllable. Altruism pulls for adjustment to the other only.  Understand there are no quick solutions, and seek new learning, even from the opposite arguments.  Each partner must accept appropriate responsibility for their stuff (it won’t work if one partner always deflects blame, or the other always accepts said blame).  Rather than defensiveness,  both partners need to extremely vulnerable.  Neither  victim nor martyr, both come to the table early and empty-handed.    Both partners go first:  how’s that for a mind-bending paradox?

It’s scary, doing this.  It’s super vulnerable.  And it won’t work if one of you falls into martyr role.  The details of how this would work require a whole lot of trial and error, and are unique to each partnership.    With competing demands, is easy to fall into either dominance or submissiveness.   Then an argument about abstract principles (“Why are you so selfish all the time?!”  “Why do you always spend money on XXXX?”).  What’s most important is the feelings and experiences  (“I’m feeling trampled on here,”  “This morning I didn’t want to get out of bed because I’m really dreading your mom’s visit”).

Criticism, content, and sarcasm often come from ego defense.   Submission, conflict avoidance, and stonewalling tend to come from ego abandonment.   Neither will work in the long run in an partnership.   Mutual vulnerability is so much harder to do.  I wish I could say I’ve mastered this.  But I haven’t.

A partnership needs altruism AND it needs self-preservation/self-interest.  Without the latter, neglect and abuse can run rampant.  We’re talking real and intense lived experiences here: fights over  sex, money, in-laws, work.  It’s not a matter of if these fights will occur, but when.  There’s no simple solution, no spouse can have complete control or take the assumed position of decider or martyr.  Engage with your spouse.   There will be benefits and losses.   One side or the other will be infringed upon at some point, no doubt, but don’t stop communicating, being vulnerable, being yourself.

Marriage isn’t all for you, it isn’t all for your spouse.  It’s a partnership committed to each other, themselves , and the relationship.   And from a stance that once seemed mutually exclusive, beautiful new ideas emerge.

*A million thanks to Dr. Robert Gleave and countless hours of discussion he spent with us  in practicum.

Kristy

Socks Painted into Walls and Offending

“But I didn’t mean to be offensive” can be a common refrain both in person and online.  While well-meaning, it does not help the situation, as it often comes from a position of defensiveness and privilege.  It’s very important to unpack your privilege (whether it’s white privilege, class privilege, male privilege, or subtler privileges like never having a miscarriage, infertility, a mental illness, or family conflict) before coming to the relationship or discussion table.

Not being aware you’ve said something offensive is, in fact, a sign of said privilege.  Which is why it helps so much to recognize what happened, learn from it, and try again.   It’s not a time to act defensively.  Emphasis on action.  Because let’s face it, feelings happen whether we want them to or not, you can’t control how you’re going to feel.  It’s pretty normal/natural that you might feel defensive, guilty, embarrassed, maybe even a little angry when someone calls you out on your privilege.    Let the feelings wash through you, be mindful of them, but don’t act on them with defensive words, behavior, or blaming the other person for making you uncomfortable.  Please continue to remember that you are coming from a place of privilege, and it’s understandable you weren’t aware of it at first but it is not their job (as you are in the position of power) to make you feel better about the situation. That power is in the hands of the one with the most privilege, and it’s work-through-able.  Deep breathing, personal reflection, and reframing this experience–not as failure, but as a way to learn to be more vulnerable and open with another, and to celebrate someone was willing to do that too–are all helpful ways to get through.

Lastly, on to socks:  I had a friend who shared how she was running late to a session of a religious ceremony that required particular clothing.   Painters had finished her entire house the day before.   She went to her built-in drawers to get the particular white socks needed for this occasion, but couldn’t find the thin slot to pull them out with.  Hers was a very old house and these drawers had been painted over before, and this was it’s last hurrah–they wouldn’t budge the thick coats of paint worked like glue.    So she left without them.

In the dressing room before the religious session, she noticed others looking at her funny.  She knew not a single person could have imagined why she wasn’t wearing the proper footwear, even if they had suspicions:  no one could have guessed her socks were painted into a wall.   Everyone gets socks painted into our walls once in a while, it wasn’t their fault, so it’s so important to tread softly about particular pain/experiences others are going through that gets easily blindsighted.  Doing so may prevent a “I didn’t mean to offend you!” moment, and even if it doesn’t hopefully one can understand the hurt the other person received (from the miscommunication) without any defensiveness needed to escalate the conversation.  Even, “I’m so sorry, I can see how that hurt you,” (period.) can go a long way.  Respectfully asking, “please tell me more about your experience with X,” if you know the person well can go even further.  And through mutual empathy, the possibilities of relationship growth are phenomenal.

Relational-Cultural Therapy and Empathy

The psychological framework with which I feel is particularly sensitive to women’s issues is Relational Cultural Theory, developed by Dr. Judith Jordan.  In her own words, “Mainstream western psychological theories generally depict human development as moving from dependence to independence. In contrast, relational–cultural therapy is built on the premise that, throughout the lifespan, human beings grow through and toward connection, and that we need connections to flourish, even to stay alive. This theory views isolation as a major source of suffering for people, at both a personal and cultural level.

The goal of therapy is to deepen the therapeutic relationship and, ultimately, the client’s relationships outside of therapy. Therapy focuses on a client’s relational images—positive or negative expectations created by past relationships that in turn influence present and future relationships. Negative relational images often cause disconnection between people, so the relational–cultural therapist seeks to decrease the effect of these negative images and help the client to become more connected with others.

The theory behind this approach centers around positive interpersonal factors such as growth-fostering relationships and mutual empathy as well as cultural factors that facilitate validation and empowerment for marginalized populations. The approach seeks to reduce sources of individual isolation and social injustice, such as racism, classism, and homophobia, which contribute to chronic disconnection.”

I strongly believe in healing through mutual empathy (on an individual as well as group/societal level), and so Relational-Cultural Theory (RCT) along with Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) techniques, inform my clinical worldview and approach to change.