“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

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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.

These are the Lines of a Story

Personal Essay by Mary Martin Wiens

Throughout my twenties and thirties, I was able to gain and lose pounds with the best of them. But, I was always proud that the front part of my belly stayed flat and muscled…a nod to the thousands of sit ups I did as a gymnast when I was a girl. But, having babies, particularly the twins, changed my flat belly forever. Like someone who has lost a hundred pounds, the skin does not go back again. My stomach hangs low. I can gather my belly in my hands, moving and shaping it like the sweetbread dough I make with my mother at Christmas. And then there are the stretch marks covering the whole front of my midsection. They are a hundred rivulets of red rain streaming down a window, pooling at the sill of my C-section scar in half-inch wide scars that look, to me, like burns.

When I blow dry my hair after a shower, I look at my body in the mirror, and the familiar internal conversation begins. First there is the still present feeling of surprise. That’s me? Then comes the uncontrollable feeling of disgust constricting my throat. But on its heels the thought: wait a minute, these scars are sacred, they represent one of the most significant stories within my story, something I don’t want to forget, and there, right there is evidence of my own rebirth into something more. But I hardly take a breath before my hands are moving to my stomach to stretch it out flat and make it look like a long-gone me. If I could just change this one part…

About 6 months ago, a moment of pure grace happened to me in the middle of one of these internal push-pulls. I was drying my hair and my 3-year-old son, Ben, walked into the bathroom. He played with the lipsticks in the drawer, he asked about my eye make-up remover, and then he looked at me appraisingly and said, “Your belly is funny.” It all began to rise in me: the initial feelings of body shame so deeply programmed in me by my culture, the thoughts I want to feel about the sacredness of my body, and a memory of playing in the leaves with Steve and the boys last fall. We were tickling and rolling in the leaves and one of the boys tickles me and says, “Daddy’s belly is hard and yours is squishy.”  “Yes,” I said, “That is right.” But, I had thought: I don’t think I want to play tickle again.

This time, my 3-year-old son is standing in front of me, saying, “Your belly is funny,” and the magic happens. I stood in a place where all the times of my life were present—past, future, and this boy standing in front of me now. Images and sensations of those I love flashed through my mind. I experienced the warmth of Steve’s broad back against mine in bed and the pleasure of recognizing his gait 200 hundred yards before his face comes into focus. I saw the scar under my father’s eye where the horse kicked him. I saw the reading glasses perched on my sister’s distinct elegant English nose as she holds her pen in her long straight fingers making bold careful shapes. And, I saw my own mother putting on make-up after a shower with a towel wrapped around her head while I played with herlipsticks. The curve of her hips, the dough of her soft belly and the silken freckles and cream tone of her skin is beautiful beyond measure. And I understood something.

We journey from a seed in our mother’s womb until we are planted in the grave with ever-changing bodies. Time scratches out its passage across my looks and the looks of all those I love. All our lives, our bodies manifest evidence of an existence marked by gains and losses. We gain and lose pounds, muscle, bruises, teeth, and hair. We lose elasticity and gain wrinkles. We gain scars. Our bodies process and carry our experiences, not without complaint, but with an unfailing perseverance that is worthy of both gratitude and honor. And one of the very great privileges of this life is to cherish the bodies of those I love through all their gains and losses for as long as I get to have them. We do not get to have those we love forever.  In that final losing, every turn of the head and expression of the face becomes poignantly precious.  So, may I have eyes to see them now.

My sister, who hates finding hair in her sink, in her food, on her body to an almost phobic degree told me a story from the time she walked her dear friend through the months of a fast moving terminal cancer. When the time came for her friend to get her last haircut, my sister was there. She stood close, touching her friend’s shoulders and head, catching strands of falling hair in her hands, letting it lay all over her clothes. Goodbye beautiful hair that I have loved on the head of my dear friend. I will not miss this moment.

So, in the moment when Ben stood in front of me and the magic happened, I spoke not what I should, not what I wished to believe, but what I deeply felt for once to be true. “Is my belly kind of squishy? Kind of soft?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. “Do you see these red roads on my belly? Are you curious about those?” I ask. “Yes!” he says. “Do you want to know what those feel like?”  I ask. “Yes!” he says. Then I take his little finger and trace it along one of my stretch marks and ask, “Do you know what these are?” “No.” he says. “These are the lines of a story. Do you know what the story is about?” “What?” he asks.  “These lines tell the story of Isaac and Ben and Elijah. They tell about how you grew inside me and how I stretched to make room for you because I was so glad you would be my boy. Aren’t they beautiful?” “Yes!” he answered.

The healing in this story is not that I have wholly accepted my body or that I will never again attempt to change it. It is that now when rejection rises in me against my body—how it looks, how it feels—I have a fuller answer. I can call up the sounds, smells, movements, scars, wrinkles, and dimples of my dear ones and look at myself through the lens of that incomparable beauty. This gives me access to a programming deeper than my culture that reminds me that my being here in this world in a body matters. The touch of my hand on a shoulder, my hug, the soothing sound of my voice, and the warmth in my eyes are irreplaceable to those who carry me in their hearts. Our physical presence here matters, no matter its shape.

And so, sweet Ben, my desire for you goes far beyond that which I have caught myself striving for in the looking glass. Here it is: May you have the great gift of intimately knowing and loving the body of another through all the changes of life and having your body known and loved from head to toe, in return. And someday, when you stand in front of the mirror with your chosen one, and she is trying to lift her breasts back into place…or you are looking in the mirror and trying to flatten your own belly into a younger shape…remember what I am teaching you now. It is the stories and the cherishing that make us beautiful. May you catch each falling moment in your hands and kiss it as it goes.

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Women and Self-Blame for Infertility

Article by Pamela Madsen, 2012

I have watched women assume all responsibility for conception for over 20 years in my role as President and Executive Director for RESOLVE NYC, as the Founder of The American Fertility Association and now in my role as a private fertility coach. I also remember what it was like when I was trying to conceive my own children. It was all about me. I was no different than all of the thousands of women I have talked to for years.

For many women, the decision to get pregnant can take on a life of its own. It was so affirming to see what I know to be true, represented in a new survey conducted for SpermCheck® Fertility. 42% of those who conceived say they became obsessed with getting pregnant once they started trying. Yet just 10% say their partner shared this obsession.

Approximately 7 million couples will experience conception issues and about 50% of these infertility problems will be directly attributed to the male, according to John C. Herr, Ph.D., director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Research in Contraceptive and Reproductive Health; most male infertility problems are mainly due to low sperm count, he adds.

Yet women are typically the ones to take action when conception is slow to happen, often undergoing a battery of sometimes invasive and typically costly testing. While analyzing the male’s sperm count is considered a key first step by infertility specialists – less than one-fifth of men (17%) ever get tested for their sperm count, according to the SpermCheck survey. And just 23% of the women surveyed in the SpermCheck survey who are currently pregnant or who have conceived a child said their partner did everything he could to get himself as healthy as possible before they started trying to conceive.

I think a part of this fear, is that there are a percentage of women (validated through the SpermCheck survey) that fear that their partner will leave them if they don’t get pregnant. Somehow, the assumption is that getting pregnant is her responsibility.

While there is absolutely nothing to be self-conscious about, many men are often reluctant or embarrassed to go to their healthcare provider to take a sperm count test, even if it means that their partner might take it upon herself to start having herself tested and in some cases begin taking fertility treatments.

The SpermCheck survey found that 8 out of 10 women (83%) trying to or planning to conceive say their partner assumes he is fertile, and 43% say their partner would like to know for sure that his sperm count is normal. A much higher number, more than two thirds of women surveyed (67%) say they would like to know their partner’s sperm count is normal when they start trying to get pregnant.

The following are highlights of this survey:

Fertility worries:

A little less than half (44%) of those trying/planning to conceive are worried that when they actually want to conceive, they won’t be able to because they tried hard for years to avoid pregnancy.

More than half (59%) of those trying/planning to conceive say they won’t tell people they are trying to get pregnant in case it doesn’t happen.

Almost half (49%) of women who took longer than expected to conceive indicated their significant other was not eager to have his sperm count tested.

23% of women who have conceived/trying to conceive would not seek advice or testing for their significant other if it was taking longer than expected to get pregnant.

More than a quarter (27%) of those trying/planning to conceive are embarrassed to discuss fertility with friends and family, and a similar number, 23%, say their partner is uncomfortable discussing male fertility issues.

So, if you are a woman trying to conceive with a man—please know that it’s really not all about you and you are not alone in feeling like it is! When it comes to baby making, it really does take two! Talk about it with your partner, he is way more receptive than you might think. And please—get his sperm count tested before you being any fertility treatment!

Got questions? Ask the Center!

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.

Welcome

This is a safe space for women.  I have a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, in 2010-2011 I was a post-doctoral fellow at Clinical and Support Options, a community mental health in the serene Pioneer Valley of MA.  My dissertation focused on suicide prevention, my honors thesis on Jungian applications to group psychotherapy for women.   My emphasis in study and clinical work is centered in women’s issues.  I want to provide resources, reflection, and hope for women going through a diversity of life issues, from infertility,  loss, anxiety during pregnancy, coping with trauma, depression, finding meaning, career/individual/family balancing, sexuality, body image, transition to parenthood, and relationships.