Want a good marriage? Don’t call your spouse a “Ball and Chain”

Thanks to Stu and Lisa Gray of the Stupendous Marriage Show for turning me on to this topic! Check out their podcast for some smart commentary.

Negative stereotypes about marriage are so pervasive in our society that it is almost impossible to escape them. Name almost any TV show with married couples and you’ll find at least one example of the “ball and chain” metaphor. Marriage is the end of fun. It is the end of sex. It means constant bickering and being tied to someone who you can’t stand for the rest of your life.

Media and popular culture certainly perpetuate these damaging stereotypes, and, at the same time, we are all just as guilty ourselves. Every time we complain about or badmouth our spouses to others, we perpetuate marriage stereotypes and hurt our own marriages. Continue reading Want a good marriage? Don’t call your spouse a “Ball and Chain”

5 myths about addiction and chemical dependency

Uncontrolled, damaging addiction or chemical dependency is one of the top reasons to leave your spouse. At the same time, many spouses work together to successfully overcome alcohol, drug and gambling problems. Finding the strength, patience and understanding to help you or your spouse beat an addiction takes un-learning a lot of commonly accepted facts about addiction.

Psychologist and researcher Dr. Adi Jaffe is spurred on by his own experience with methamphetamine to study how addiction happens and how the government, hospitals, and loved ones can help addicts truly overcome their demons. In an article for CNN.com Dr. Jaffe highlights how certain “addiction myths”–often pounded into our heads as teenagers to scare us away from drugs–are misleading and counterproductive. Continue reading 5 myths about addiction and chemical dependency

The secret to communication skills is not in your words

For all of us who spend time carefully picking out our words: it turns out words are the least important element of face-to-face conversations. Communication skills are not so much what we say, as how we say it. In fact, our words barely register in the listeners brain. This doesn’t mean that the words aren’t important; rather it’s how we successfully set the stage for those words that determine how and whether they are heard. “Effective communication is based on trust, and if we don’t trust the speaker, we’re not going to listen to their words,” writes Huffington Post bloggers Mark Waldman and Andrew Newberg on their new book, Communication Strategies.

So what are the most important communication skills to establish trust?

1.  Gentle eye contact

“Gentle eye contact increases trustworthiness and encourages future cooperation, and a happy gaze will increase emotional trust,” write the authors. The most important of communication skills is to maintain eye contact–while avoiding staring, which comes across as aggressive can make others feel uncomfortable.

2.  Kind facial expression

The subtle facial expressions that cue others in on our emotions are largely unconscious. People can pick up on faked smiles and will react with suspicion. Try putting yourself in a kind, happy frame of mind first. Your inner state will glow through and make others more receptive to your words.

3.  Warm tone of voice

If your tone of voice doesn’t match what you are saying, your listener will experience confusion. This can weaken trust, communication and cooperation. Speak in low, slow tones to communicate your compassion.

4.  Expressive hand and body gestures

Speech evolved from hand gestures, and much of our comprehension is still linked to visually drawing or acting out our words with our hands. Gesticulating is also key among communication skills as it signals animation and involvement in the conversation.

5.  Relaxed disposition

Your stressed body language will tell your listener that something is off and trigger defensiveness. A defensive mind is the hardest to persuade. Relax and try calming exercises such as taking three deep breaths if you start to feel too worked up.

Communication skills
Communication skills are only 10% what you say and 90% how you say it.

6.  Slow speech rate

“Slow speech rates will increase the ability for the listener to comprehend what you are saying, and this is true for both young and older adults,” writes Waldman. “Slower speaking will also deepen that person’s respect for you.”

7.  Brevity

A listeners brain can only recall about 10 seconds of dialog. Try speaking in short bursts with only one or two points at a time. This will lead to what Power of Two calls “Braided dialog,” when both speakers work together to intertwine their thoughts and increase comprehension and mutually satisfying outcomes.

8.  The words themselves

Last but certainly not least are your words. Now that you’ve set up the emotional and physical tone for the conversation, your spouse is ready to listen to and absorb what you have to say. Make sure you’re saying the right thing! PO2 has a some communication in marriage tips such as how to approach sensitive subjects and avoid hidden negativity in your conversations. Check ’em out!

Announcing our partnership with Ladies Home Journal!

I am thrilled to announce the soft launch of a partnership with Ladies Home Journal magazine! Dr. Heitler has been a contributor to the popular “Can this marriage be saved” column for years. As LHJ is going through transition with that feature, they reached out to Power of Two Online as a partner. Instead of just answering specific marriage counseling questions of a few women each week, Ladies Home Journal readers are now being offered Power of Two Online–where each individual is given the power to save a marriage.

Power of Two Online was founded in 2005 by a federal grant from the Department of Health and Human Services with curriculum based on the writings of mother-daughter therapist team Dr. Susan Heitler and Dr. Abigail Hirsch. PO2 offers a unique skills-based approach to marriage counseling online, combining worksheets, multimedia interactive games and videos, and more. Torque Interactive Media designed the PO2 coaching platform to let users communicate with a real live marriage coach (usually Dr. Hirsch herself), resulting in a degree of personalization and intimacy seldom found in online marriage education. Dr. Hirsch is excited to announce that a Marriage Resources Education study proving the efficacy Power of Two was recently published in the Journal of Family Psychology.

Over the next few months LHJ will be promoting the partnership with online ads, editorials and tweets. You can check out our customized Ladies Home Journal landing page. This partnership is a wonderful opportunity to spread marriage health and empowerment. The Ladies Home Journal has a readership of over 11.6 million, 7 million of which are married. The magazine’s interactive online companion, www.lhj.com, has 1.8 million unique visitors and 20 million page views each month.

Happier marriages mean happier, healthier people. Why not sign up today? It’s never to late to start your happily-ever-after!

Top 5 marriage stories of the week: Parenting tips

Last week it seemed like everyone was blogging about parenting tips! This review features articles on everything from cooking with kids to being a better kid-in-law to your in-laws. Here are my five favorite articles from across the marriage and family blogosphere!

How to be a better in-law

Via Good Therapy (http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/mother-father-in-law-0504126/)

When you get married, you not only get a spouse but a whole new set of parents. Many a proverb has harped on the difficulty of dealing with in-laws. Here is some practical and do-able advice for treating your in-laws with respect, resolving differences, and being a good in-law yourself. For more on this, check out Dr. Heitler’s PO2 podcast about dealing with relatives.

Shawn Stockman Of Boyz II Men And Wife Sharonda Discuss Having A Son With Autism

Via Black and Married With Kids (http://blackandmarriedwithkids.com/2012/05/shawn-stockman-of-boyz-ii-men-and-wife-sharonda-discuss-having-a-son-with-autism/)

Shawn Stockman and Sharonda have a frank and open dialog about the challenges they face in parenting their youngest son. While autism is increasingly visible in the media (and increasingly diagnosed in our children), talking about mental disorders is still a taboo–especially when admitting how difficult they can be to deal with. Props to the celebrity couple for being a public voice for families with autism!


Cooking with your kids teaches more than recipes

via Jenny Ellis on the Family Focus Blog (http://familyfocusblog.com/cooking-with-your-kids-teaches-more-than-recipes/)

Preparing food and eating together is a chance to bond with your children and teach them the ways of the world. The kitchen is a microcosm of life. Jenny Ellis shares parenting tips and explains how cooking together provides kids with lessons in safety, math, following directions, and a healthy appreciation for food.

Wisdom of Dog #4

Via Project Happily Ever After (http://www.projecthappilyeverafter.com/2012/05/wisdom-of-dog-4/)
Ok, so this isn’t directly parenting tips, but lord we all know raising a puppy and raising kids aren’t too different. Alisa Bowman at Project Happily Ever After has a series of pictures of dogs with captions that start out funny and turn philosophical. This one muses on the dual nature of reality. Like the puppy, our children invent toys out of things that weren’t meant to be toys, and destroy things in the process. At the same time, their ability to see things creatively and differently from the norm is a good lesson in life for us parents.

Why So Many Studies About Parents And Happiness Are Wrong

via Lisa Belkin on Huffington post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/lisa-belkin/parenting-and-happiness_b_1497687.html)

There have been a barrage of conflicting studies published this month about whether or not parents are more miserable than non-parents. Lisa Belkin finally puts her foot down in the well argued and insightful essay. Her conclusion: “Does being a parent make you less happy? Some days. And on others it makes you delirious with joy.”

Teaching the skills for saving a relationship–in high school

Last November I wrote about the Divorce Reform Coalition. The aim of this movement is to revamp our no-fault divorce laws. Before divorcing, couples would be required to undergo marriage counseling (funded by the state) and wait for an 8-month “cooling off” period. This is in hopes of saving a relationship that doesn’t have any major dangers and could benefit from therapy. The movement has been picking up steam lately, and publicity.

Last week, Huffington Post contributor Pauline Gains wrote an article criticizing the Divorce Reform Movement’s proposal. Gains’ complaint is that mandating therapy won’t do any good in saving a relationship that is done for.

To [mandatory counseling], I say: Really? Making it harder to divorce will convince those who have fallen head over heels with the secretary, who can’t agree on anything, or who are just plain incompatible, that they should stay married?

And to that argument, I say: You’re right. There are some situations where a couple is better off divorced (read “should I get a divorce?” to find out more). Some relationships are, for better of for worse, over. Counseling will not make these people love each other again, stop abusing each other, or repair the deep emotional wounds that have broken their union.

Gains’ mistake is that these marriages are not the ones that marriage reform advocates are targeting. In fact, extreme and irreconcilable marital problems make up only a small fraction of all reported reasons for divorce.

It’s the little things that make a great marriage, and it’s the little things that are the leading cause of divorce. The most commonly cited reasons for divorce are: lack of communication, difficulty resolving conflicts, feeling distant or “out of love”, and disagreement over finances. Of course when you’re marriage is experiencing these problems, it can feel like it’s the end. At the same time, all these issues have the potential to be resolved via counseling.

Contrary to Gains’ belief, saving a relationship is possible in most situations. You can learn the skills to communicate, increase positivity and make mutually satisfying decisions. This is the foundation for Power of Two online program. It’s supported by numerous studies and years of data that show counseling has a significant impact in marital happiness (a new study just came out Tuesday!).

Of course, instead of having to work on saving a relationship, it’s always better to learn solid marriage skills before you start having problems! In the second half of her article, Gains makes this very proposal: “Instead of trying to fix miserable marriages, why not try to teach people how not to be miserably married in the first place?” She proposes that all high school students take a course in Family Systems as a graduation requirement. Family Systems is a college class taught by psychiatrist and family therapist Murray Bowen. The ideal curriculum would teach students psychology of relationships, problem-solving and common pitfalls, and how to navigate their own thoughts and feelings with those of others.

I think this is a great idea. We teach elementary students “life skills” classes where they learn how to be active listeners, share and get along with each other. The goal is to prepare them to be functional members of their class. Why does this formal social education end there? Childhood through teenagerdom is where we learn the foundations of how to interact with others. Teaching a course on psychology, relationships, conflict resolution and emotional intelligence would be invaluable for young adults for all their future relationships, romantic and otherwise.

I think we should take this idea very seriously. What do you think?

Laugh your way to a better marriage!

It turns out you really can laugh your way to a better marriage. A new study highlighted on abcNews.com reveals that relationships benefit when wives regularly let their husbands know when they are feeling happy. While open communication about problems is a key part of good marriage problem solving, it is equally important to let your spouse know when things are going well.

The findings “suggest that men may be more satisfied in their relationships when they can accurately read their partners’ positive emotions, while women’s relationship satisfaction may uniquely benefit when they can accurately read their partners’ negative emotions.” Both partners benefit when the other can accurately read their unhappiness or distress.

So why do women like to know when their husbands are unhappy and men like to know when their wives are happy? Dr. Heitler, who was interviewed for the article, believes that it has to do with the fact that most women get a feeling of satisfaction from nurturing and “fixing” emotional problems. Men tend to absorb the emotions of their spouse.

“We get a serotonin fix from it, a spurt of well-being from having been nurturing in that way,” said Heitler.  ”On the other hand, men find that happiness in knowing their woman is happy. It goes with the saying, ‘happy wife, happy life.’”

These findings provide some food for thought about repairing marriages. Many couples seek out couples counseling because the joy in their marriage has withered. They believe that there are certain problems that, once worked through, will allow their marriage to blossom. While solving the cause negative emotions is important for marriage repair, consciously introducing more positive emotions is equally essential. Marriages are fixed by addition of the positive as well as subtraction of the negative. Expressing positivity is an important part of how to rekindle a relationship and you might even laugh your way to a better marriage. Let your spouse know when things are working–that happiness will provide fuel for your relationship to grow.

Read the whole article at abcNews.com

Homeless family resources make a world of difference

As cost of living rises while income doesn’t, and many low-wage employees find their jobs replaced by machines or oversees workers, homelessness has become a terrible reality for many families. Thankfully, homeless family resources such as shelters and job seeking programs can provide a vital lifeline to let these families get back on their feet. Many cultures take the winter holidays to think about charity and helping our communities, and this inspired me to share this heart-breaking and amazing short documentary about the families at the YWCA shelter in Columbus, OH.

The documentary starts with some pretty scary statistics. In 2009, the shelter board allocated around $5,000  to overflow homeless family resources. In the summer of 2011, they needed nearly one million dollars to provide overflow care. In July 2010, the shelter was forced to turn away 119 families that came for aid because they didn’t have the space to serve them. This past summer, that number jumped to 1,000 seeking aid that couldn’t be accommodated. And 60% of these families needing shelter are new to the homeless resource system.

The video then focuses on two families living in the shelter. The first are Andrew and April and their three kids. While both parents are still working, the family lost their home when Andrew’s higher paying job went over seas. Then we meet Keishauna, who lost her job and after marriage problems found herself a single mom of a young girl after 10 years of marriage. We follow Keishauna as she searches for a new job and an apartment that will lease to her.

I usually feel like homelessness is so far away from me. I had a real wake up call after an article in the SF Chronicle that stated more and more families–everyday families like myself and my neighbors–are winding up homeless. In fact, the Chronicle reported that there are 2,200 homeless children in the San Francisco public school system, 400 more than just last year. Chances are, your child knows and is friends with a kid who is homeless or on the brink of homelessness.

As the documentary says, “To raise a family with nothing, not even a home, takes immeasurable strength.” I amazed at the families shown in this video, especially Keishauna as she stays strong and supportive for her daughter and continues to smile through all her misfortunes. Check out this well-made documentary and please consider donating clothes, furniture, toys, and any other useful used items from your house to your local shelter. If you are struggling yourself, I encourage you to explore the homeless family resources available at your local shelter. You’ll find wonderful, kind people and lots of job and home hunting help to give you a lifeline. Visit http://www.familyhomelessness.org/ for information and directories.


Marriage help online for your long distance love

With many therapists and psychology experts now writing blogs (including our own Dr. Susan Heitler on Psychology Today) there is a full and growing pool of marriage help online. Dr. Terri Orbuch, who writes regularly for Huffington Post, published a great article yesterday about how to maintain a healthy relationship while separated from your spouse. There are many reasons happily married couples might be separated. One or both spouses may be deployed in the military; an employer may send one away for a contracted period of time; one may choose to go live with a special needs family member in order to provide care. Orbuch focuses on the idea that in challenging economic times such as this one couples are often split up as one spouse takes a far off job to support the family. This will provide many new challenges for a marriage, but with the marriage help online available such as Orbuch’s advice, there is no reason you can’t still have a great relationship.

There are even some good things about being separated for a brief while. You’ll have time to focus on your own plans and needs which can often get lost while living intimately with another person. This can be time for personal exploration and growth. It’s also true that distance makes the hearth grow fonder, or at least more appreciative. Having your spouse absent can be a reminder of all the good things about him or her that you take for granted. Your moments together will seem more precious. Plus, after all that time apart your reunions can inspire extra passion in the bedroom and perhaps reignite a sluggish sex life.

Many of Orbuch’s recommendations focus on how to communicate with your spouse. Before you leave, be sure to sit down and work out the parameters of the separation. Talk openly about your concerns, desires, and needs. Making sure you are both on the same page will make facing all other problems much easier, and prevent many from arising.

Orbuch encourages spouses to keep up a frequent and regular flow of communication. Skype, text, email, write or call each other at least once every day. Share the details of your day from frustrations at work to the great restaurant you found down the street from your sublet. Sharing as much as you can will help you feel connected to each other’s lives. Orbuch especially recommends talking openly and honestly about the people you meet and hang out with while away. This is important for how to deal with jealousy. Leaving details out will only leave room for your spouse to guess and imagine situations. Even if everything is innocent, it’s better not to let worries creep in.

Last but I think most importantly, Orbech says to continue to make plans together and schedule visits. Just because you are living apart doesn’t mean you can’t still dream, plan, and live your lives in tandem towards your mutual goals.

Stopping arguing doesn’t necessarily stop divorce

A new study from Ohio State University is challenging long-help assumptions about marital happiness, arguing, and how to stop divorce. Married couples are often assumed to start out relatively blissful and then dissolve into bickering and fighting. However, it turns out that a couple’s level of fighting and happiness are both stable factors over the course of a relationship. Researches identified three types of marriages among 2,000 married couples over two decades: low-conflict, (16% of participants); moderate-conflict, (60%); and high-conflict (22%). They found that these groups stayed more or less consistent over the 20 year study.

Interestingly, the study found that the frequency of argument did not necessarily predict how happy or unhappy a couples was. Rather, levels of positivity, intimacy, and resolution skills were more important. In other words, a marriage that had disagreements did not mean misery, and a marriage devoid of conflict did not necessarily stop divorce.

Certain couples were designated as “volatile,” meaning they had high conflict but also mid to high happiness ratings. These couples may have disagreements often, but I’m guessing they are strong on other skill areas such as resolution and intimacy. After all, it is inevitable that you and your spouse will be at odds about things; the key is knowing how to deal with that without causing hurt feelings.

The most divorce prone group was described as “hostile”. Interestingly, it didn’t matter whether or not these couples argued much–they were miserable. Hostility is a pattern of negativity that can take many forms. Dr. Heitler and I have talked before about how toxic even small bits of negativity can be. Habits that are all not outright forms of conflict–such as sarcasm, put-downs, avoidance, the silent treatment, and passive-aggressive acts–can be just as tragically damaging to a marriage. According to the study, these are the danger signs to watch out for the most in your relationship.

This study brings up some very good advice for thinking about marriage. Marriage is a huge decision–it is a commitment for life. Chances are you are marrying your loved one because you intend that relationship to last and stop divorce. Take a good long look at how you interact as a couple now. Although you both will continue to change and grow as people, this right now is the basis for how you will interact for life. It is especially important to look for warning signs of abuse and control in your relationship. Does your fiance do things that make you seriously uncomfortable? These behaviors will NOT disappear after you wed. This is the time to seriously evaluate if you want to be legally, emotionally and spiritually bound together.

At the same time, I firmly believe any relationship is open to change with the right tools and dedication. I would be interested to see the statistics for relationship counseling among these subjects. Did any of them try couples counseling or marriage enrichment to improve their marriage? While this study shows even “hi-conflict” marriages can be happy, I would argue that if couples made the switch to low conflict, they could be even happier. Conflict takes up time and energy that could instead be put towards building a loving and supportive marriage. Real transformation can be accomplished with skill based learning and practice. We all have the ability to change our habits if we truly dedicate ourselves to the task. So don’t just settle for the marriage you have if you feel it could be better. Go out and chase your happily-ever-after!