Materialism and your marriage are not compatable

Two noteworthy things happened today regarding marriage and money. One made me smile, the other made me think. The two are connected in a wonderful way.

First, today was the wedding of Bhutan’s charming young king Wangchuck to his longtime girlfriend, Jetsun Pema, a commoner. Not much was said about the bride in the SF Chronicle article, except that the king desired a queen who was “a good human being as well as unwavering in her commitment to the people and the country.” He found all that in his sweet fiance.

In addition to this being a heartwarming union, the following caught my eye:

Wangchuck’s father, the country’s revered fourth king, introduced to the world the philosophy of Gross National Happiness, the idea that spiritual and mental well-being matter as much as money, and that material gain should not come at the expense of the environment or culture.

I started thinking about how Gross National Happiness could be connected to marriage. The plot began to thicken after I read today’s Second Noteworthy Thing….

Today reported that couples who are focused on earning and spending money tend to have significantly less happy marriages. A Brigham Young University study found that “materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity. Materialism was also linked to less effective communication, higher levels of negative conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and less marriage stability.”

There are several possible explanations for the findings. Firstly, materialism may be the indicator of a slew of other problems, such as childhood neglect, low self-esteem, or compulsions, that are the real root of marriage problems. Materialistic traits have also been found to go hand-in-hand with a whole host of problematic  behaviors. “People who are materialistic tend to be narcissistic and concerned with impressing people,” said Dr. Heitler, interviewed for the article.”They have a tendency to be anxious, depressed, have relatively poor relationship skills and have low self-esteem. These qualities in turn can cause marital problems.”

On the other hand, it could simply be that an individual’s obsession with keeping up with the Joneses leaves him little time to work on his marriage.

Financial stability is important in keeping a marriage strong and happy. However, studies have shown that once individuals get beyond the amount of money needed to keep them secure and free, happiness does not continue to increase with higher income or more “stuff”. In fact, more assets and belongings actually increase stress. So back to Bhutan and the idea of Gross National Happiness. I agree that happiness and wellbeing are far more important than what you spend. I challenge you to start thinking about your Gross Domestic Happiness just like any other asset. It is just as–if not more– important as your finances. Check in on the account once an a while. Do you need to invest a little more? Knowing how to communicate in a relationship is essential for this.

I wish King Wangchuck and Queen Jetsun Pema a long and happy marriage. I hope the national values instilled by Wangchuck’s father will help keep the destructiveness of materialism far from their home and the homes of Bhutan’s citizens.


What are you fighting for?

Dr. Heitler’s Psychology Today post just came out and has almost immediately been listed as an “essential read.” Her topic is protest. She starts off talking about the political battles being fought around the world right now, especially the “Arab Spring” and the Occupy Wall Street protests. She then focuses down on our own personal battles. We end up much happier, she notes, when we are able to fight for something instead of just against something.

The power of positivity is one of my favorite subjects. There’s something to be said for not being too optimistic or naive. At the same time, more and more scientific studies come out that show being negative and anxious increases your chances of everything from headaches to heart attacks. If you believe bad things happen to you, they often do. If you believe good things happen to you, they often will.

I think scholars and leaders throughout history have touched on this subject. The Christian teachings of Jesus famously ask followers to always hold hope, faith, and love in their hearts…and so do teachings of Islam, Buddhism and Judaism and Hinduism. I can’t think of any belief system whose main tenants are for followers to be constantly fearful, pessimistic, and morose (this may occur among some sects but…well, I don’t want to get into that argument). The main message from all spheres of science and faith is that to attain happiness you must first embrace a positive mindset.

So back to protests. In her article, Dr. Heitler talks about the difference between today’s protests and the protests of the 60s she remembers. The 60s protests and the era in general had an atmosphere of joy and optimism. The protesters weren’t just against war or racism, they stood for peace, equality, and free expression. Much of todays politics and protest, in contrast, is about demonstrating against something and expressing shame, anger, guilt, and outrage. While strong negative emotions can be important motivators, it’s equally essential to have something good and tangible you are working towards. As Dr. Heitler asks, if you don’t have an identifiable goal, how are you going to get there?

It’s the same with your marriage problems as it is with a political idea. It’s much easier to find points of agreement when you talk about the things you like instead of focusing on what you don’t want or don’t like about the other person’s position. Chances are both of you have similar desires, and by being flexible you can find overlapping solutions to reach your goals. Getting stuck on what you don’t want is like pushing, while talking about what you would like is pulling. You can push against each other all you want, or you can band together to pull towards your common goals. This ends in mutually satisfying solutions.

Dr. Heitler’s article has made me think a lot about how the skills we teach in relationship counseling are incredibly important in all our interactions with fellow humans (for more see this post on PO2 in the workplace). I’d be interested to hear what you think.

More couples learning how to stop divorce

A Minnesota study sited in USA today has shed new light on the way couples think about separation and how to stop divorce. While divorce rates remain high in the United States, more and more couples are pulling back from the brink of divorce and reconsidering reconciliation. Indecision and uncertainty are common in struggling marriages, even among couples that have already filed for divorce. Divorce rates have fallen 7% since 2008 and researchers found that a quarter of Minnesotan couples filing for divorce were interested in reconciliation.

Part of the reason for many marriage problems—the tough economic times—is also one of the factors in keeping couples together. While a bad marriage may seem like the worst possible situation, the consequences of divorce are often much more unpleasant. The costs of hiring a divorce lawyer, splitting up assets, and loosing combined income are making couples think harder about how to stop divorce. Divorce also has longer term consequences for your physical and mental health, and is especially hard on any children involved. Many couples view relationship counseling as “a last resort,” says Dr. Heitler. “It’s radically cheaper emotionally, as well as financially, to fix the marriage than to declare it dead,” she says.

Times are tough right now, which makes it all the more important to stick together, learn the skills to act as a strong, supportive unit, and work to help your family thrive. Know that your not alone in having doubts about your marriage. Marriage is tough! Iris Krasnow, author of The Secret Lives of Wives: Women Share What It Really Takes to Stay Married interviewed hundreds of women and found that “splitting up crosses people’s minds more than I imagined.” In addition, “those on second marriages were not any happier than they were in their first. Many times, you’re trading in one set of problems for another.”

All the more reason to thoroughly examine your reasons for divorce.

Marriage is a “very high-skilled activity,” Dr. Heitler advises. “If your marriage is failing, make the assumption your skill set is insufficient.” Most important is to take an open and critical look at what you yourself can do to help the marriage instead of focusing on your spouse’s shortcomings. Dr. Heitler advises couples to be creative about new ways to be a better marriage partner. If both spouses “will each take personal responsibility and focus on their own skills upgrade, the whole picture turns around. Even one person can turn the marriage around,” she says.

Check out the graph of common divorce reasons below. Do you feel any of these biting away at your relationship? Only three of those categories cannot be fixed, or at least improved, with solid marriage counseling. See our information page on “Reasons for divorce” for the low-down on when you should stay and when you should separate.

How marriage can make you rich – by Dr. Heitler

Did you know that people in happy marriages tend to make and save more money than single people? And money isn’t the only wealth of marriage. A good marriage means a happier, longer, healthier life. Divorce, on the other hand, usually leads to financial difficulties as well as unhappiness (of course, some separations are to the benefit of all involved). Dr. Heitler has written a great post about the wealth benefits of marriage that includes a quick check-in list so you can see if your marriage is on track.
1. Fun! How much actual fun time do you have in your marriage?

2. Appreciation. Don’t take your spouse for granted.

3. Sex. “Great sex can’t make a bad marriage good, but it’s essential to a happy marriage.”

4. Novelty. Have adventures, shake things up, try new things!

5. Making up. How do you heal after disagreements?

Check out the full details at

Dr. Heitler runs a weekly blog on a variety of topics at Psychology Today. Take a look at here other posts, and get summaries of them here at the PO2 Blog!

Making marriage work by doing the dishes

For most of human history, people have lived in societies where what you do and how you do it was largely determined by your birth. One of the most enduring roles has been gender. No matter what your status (peasant or royalty) In almost every culture, women have been the managers of the interior world, while men work outside the home to provide it with resources. Making marriage work was less about happiness and more about the ability to fend of starvation, keep a roof over your head, and have lots and lots of babies. Luckily, times have changed, the business of staying alive is easier, and both men and women have many options for what to do with their lives and how to order their home life.

Women who take advantage of this and pursue careers in addition to having a family often find themselves between a rock and hard place. Managing a household alone is tough! After all, there are professionals—nannies, accountants, designers, plumbers, and personal assistants—who keep full time jobs doing just one fraction of what it takes to run a home. Plus, this whole women working thing has been uncharted territory. There are no guidelines on how to divvy up housework between spouses. This has lead to frustration, exhaustion and all sorts of marriage problems.

The good news is it seems like we’re entering a new phase where, slowly, couples are making marriage work by redefining household roles. Dan Seaborn of the Dover Post has written about a new study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor. According to this 2010 survey, husbands and wives are spending about the same amount of time doing chores, especially in marriages where both work full time. That’s pretty darn impressive!

“In another study by the Pew Research Center in 2007, 62 percent of couples surveyed said sharing household chores was the third most important ingredient in a successful marriage after faithfulness and sex ––  I’m glad sex rates higher than chores!”

I agree.

Seaborn also has a lot of great advice on making marriage work with smart chore sharing. First off, setting good patterns of behavior is always easier than changing old ones. “Couples really need to make a plan for how this gets done, instead of making assumptions. It should be one of the first things a newly married couple discusses before patterns are established.”

Second, he suggests setting mutual definitions of what a chore means. Is clearing the table just putting the dishes on the counter, or is it putting them in the dishwasher and wiping down the table? Does doing the laundry involve folding and putting the clothes away? How much time should be spent on which activity? Communicate clearly about your expectations, and don’t hesitate to speak up about your frustrations in a tactful manner.

Part of the joys of marriage is knowing that you have someone there for you, a partner to go through life with and to give you the help and support you need. I have a hunch that taking care of the house together will be good for marriage. When you work together on a project, you feel closer and more intimate. It may seem like a mess at times, but make sure you take moments to step back and appreciate all you have created together.

On inspiration and saving marriage

I recently came across an interesting blog post by psychologist Jim Taylor for the San Francisco chronicle. The article isn’t directly about saving marriage, but bear with me—it will tie in later!

Jim takes a good, hard, fresh look at inspiration. What inspires us? Where does inspiration come from? How do we hold on to it?

Americans idolize inspirational thinkers, teachers, leaders and gurus. We look for inspiration everywhere but are often hoodwinked by the multi-billion dollar “Inspirational-industrial complex.” Yep, there’s a whole industry focused on making money by making you feel good for a little while. Inspiration speakers, books and movies…they leave us feeling charged with positive energy and ready to take on our challenges. At the same time, we are “hoodwinked” because this feeling is fleeting. As Jim points out, we often wake up the next day feeling empty and frustrated. Where did that glowing sense of inspiration go? We may even feel guilty for not acting on that sense of indignation or drive. We end up feeling worse, not better, and far from actually acting on the inspiration.


Jim then makes a great point: effective, lasting inspiration can only come from inside us. Outside forces cannot inject real inspiration into you. It doesn’t belong to you. Like a candle, it provides warmth and clarity from the outside, but as soon as that outside influence is gone, it’s warmth fades.

This doesn’t mean that all inspiration figures are bunk. Jim writes, “what makes the great inspirations so, well, inspirational is their ability to help others find their own personal inspiration every day.” A truly inspirational figure is someone who ignites the tinder of ideas, beliefs, and desires that are already inside you. This internal fire is self-sustaining and drives real action.

So what does this all have to do with saving marriage? Part of that multi-billion dollar “inspiration-industrial complex” is focused on broken relationships. Self-help gurus each claim that their workshops hold the key to saving marriage. Books claim to change your life and inspire you to new love. Maybe you just saw a movie that depicts a couple’s reconciliation, and you feel inspired to work on your own marriage.

All these outlets make money off of making you feel better. Of course, feeling better is a good thing! At the same time, you want to make sure that the change is permanent and sustainable—in Jim’s words, “truly inspirational.” A good resource for saving marriage should not just throw information, happy examples, and advice at you. It should work within you to make solid, recognizable changes in your behavior and outlook. When seeking out couples counseling, make sure that your therapist or program inspires and gives you clear steps for real change in your life. The power to change your marriage has to come from within—from a determination to change old habits and transform your relationship.

Weight, women, men and relationships

Dr. Susan Heitler recently appeared on ABC News with Diane Sawyer to discuss a new study from Ohio State University.  The study found that changes in your relationship—specifically, marriage and divorce—can cause unhealthy changes in your weight. Previous studies on women, men and relationships have shown that marriage causes weight gain, and divorce causes weight loss. This new research reveals details about the effects and shows that divorce actually leads to weight gain.

Women tend to gain weight after marriage, while the combination of men and relationships is more complicated. Men gain less weight than women, and sometimes become healthier. This may be because women start taking on the responsibilities of running the household, including raising children, and find less time to take care of their health. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to participate in healthful behaviors such as doctors’ check-ups and better eating once they are no longer bachelors.

Divorce also leads to increased Body Bass Index (BMI). For men and relationships, divorce means the undoing of the health benefits of marriage and they may fall into old bad habits of singledom.

marriage and divorce can lead to weight gain
marriage and divorce can lead to weight gain

Dr. Heitler noted for the article that both events are times of immense life change and extreme emotions. Emotional exhaustion and stress may make it difficult to muster up the energy to be physically active. In addition, emotional eating may kick in. Depression, for example, is common after divorce. “There’s an impulse to self-soothe with food combined with a drop in self-control that comes with depression or grieving,” Heitler said. “People will think, ‘Not only do I feel like eating a candy bar, but I just don’t have the will power to say no.'”

Eating out of joy is also emotional eating. Newlywed couples may find themselves celebrating, sharing more meals together, and reflecting the happiness of their union in food. Men and relationships may also influence women to eat more like their husbands in terms of quantity and kind.

The solution? Pay attention to your body. Don’t let your focus on your health slip during emotional times of transition, says dietitian Keri Glassman. “Be aware and be mindful of all the different lifestyle factors going on for you at the time.”

Hollywood endings and the effects of divorce on children

Ever notice how Hollywood movies always end in divorce reconciliation? Two recent releases, “Mr. Popper’s Penguins” and “Stupid Crazy Love,” have this as their underlying theme. In both movies, estranged spouses reunite after they work out their differences and realize they’re still in love. No relationship problem seems too big for Hollywood to overcome. On Tuesday brought up an interesting conversation of the pros and cons of the fairy-tale happy ending and the effects of divorce on children.

So called “comedies of remarriage” have been around since the 1930s, but the most famous and influential is The Parent Trap (1961), which has been remade several times. Interestingly, most of these movies cater to children and perhaps reflect the growing normalcy of divorce in children’s live. The effects of divorce on children are difficult, and many often long for parents to get back together. According to psychology professor Christy Buchanan of Wakeforest University, this type of fantasy wish fulfillment can be dangerous. “It’s not unusual for kids to have fantasies of reconciliation,” she says, ”So to the extent that Hollywood perpetuates the notion that this can happen for kids who are experiencing this type of longing, that could be difficult for families.”

In other words, it creates false hope and false expectations that can make the experience of divorce even harder on children. Remarriage after divorce is extremely rare and often ends in another divorce. By focusing on nostalgia, these stories worsen the effects of divorce on children by preventing kids and families from moving on and accepting change as a potentially good thing.

At the same time, other psychologists and experts disagree. “Hollywood is about fantasy and happy endings, and the downside of disappointment is more than offset by the uplift of hope,” says psychologist and author Dr. Robert Epstein. There’s nothing wrong with a little escape into a fairy-tale ending, he argues. Children are smart, and can separate reality from fantasy.

So what’s the alternative to reconciliation fantasies? Some movies have gotten it right. “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993), for example, shows a divorced couple negotiating their new situation and a father (Robbin Williams) making a concerted—and hilarious—effort to remain a part of his children’s lives. This more accurately reflects the possible positive outcome of a divorce situation.

Power of Two strives to prevent divorce in marriages that can be saved with a little be bit of TLC, lots of dedication, and skill building. We believe a healthy marriage is a positive and beneficial thing for everyone.  At the same time, whether or not a divorce has occurred, what’s important is to show parents treating each other respectfully and lovingly. (Best of all, treating everyone with love and respect). Movies that show couples working through their differences and setting a positive example for their children–whatever their relationship–are good! Knowing that mom and dad still like each other despite their reasons for divorce, and are happy to be part of their kids’ lives, will help lessen the negative effects of divorce on children.

When it comes to intimacy in marriage, Men need cuddling, and lots of it!

Last week we talked about some surprising findings about sexual satisfaction in long-married couples. Today is part two of this post series.

Last week Dr. Susan Heitler was interviewed by for an article on a new study by the Kinsey Institute. In addition to sexual satisfaction, this study covered intimacy in marriage and relationship satisfaction in couples who were in decades-long marriages.

The results? It still just keeps getter better.

Rather than growing bored and frustrated with their spouses after decades of marriage, men and women around their 25th anniversary showed just the opposite. Couples reported being incredibly happy!

Unhappiness in marriage is often not due to irreconcilable differences, says Dr. Heilter, and one shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that the marriage should end just because it’s not smooth sailing. “If too many interactions are frustrating or irritating, it’s best for couples to clean up their act with a skills upgrade rather than invite a goodbye from their partner.” Relationship traits such as: knowing how to communicate with your spouse, how to deal with jealousy, being able to have interesting conversations together, keeping the emotional tone in the household calm, being supportive and positive… are all skills you can learn!

A big part of this is keeping the relationship loving, and that’s where intimacy in marriage comes in. According to the study, non-sexual physical intimacy such as kissing, cuddling, and caressing became more important over time for men than for women. Men look to this behavior as a sign of a great relationship. Women valued intimacy highly, too, more so because it led to a greater enjoyment and frequency of sex.

Prior research has shown that as people age, men focus more on general relationship satisfaction and women … increasingly value the sexual aspects of the relationship,” Dr. Heitler says. This may be because women tend to hit their sexual peak later than men, especially after the stress of child-rearing is over. “Men may become less concerned about sex because they are feeling spontaneously aroused less frequently with age. They still like sex, but they feel less desperate for it than in their younger years.”

Affection and intimacy in marriage–sexual and non-sexual–are what makes couples in decades long relationships more satisfied and happy than common stereotypes would have us believe.

In my clinical practice I see at all ages that couples who touch and hug with more frequency tend to feel more loved and loving.  It’s a circular relationship.  More touching yields more feelings of love, that in turn create more touching, and more loving feelings…..  That’s how in relationships, “the rich get richer.”  More positive interactions–both physical touch, smiles, listening, “I agree…”, appreciation– beget more loving.

So grow your intimacy in marriage–go ahead and be all lovey-dovey! Little unique ways of showing love can bond you two, like a special way you hold hands, or a certain pat on the cheek. How do you tend to express affection in your relationship?

Older marriage? Better sex!

A new study from the Kinsey Institute has some surprising findings about sex and intimacy as relationships age. The researchers interviewed 1,000 mid-life or older couples from across the U.S. who had been together for an average of 25 years. Dr. Susan Heitler was asked to weigh in on the findings for (Read that article here here).

Good news: sex just keeps getting better!

One myth busted by the study is that partners grow bored after years of sex with the same person. “In fact, satisfaction with their sexual lives seemed to grow over the years, particularly for women, but overall for both genders,” Dr, Heitler says. “Turns out that long-term monogamy seems to be good for enjoying ever-more-gratifying sex.”

Women’s satisfaction tends to dip during the stressful years of raising children. However, once children have moved out, their enjoyment of sex rockets even above men’s in multiple decade relationships. “My clinical experience corroborates this–it’s as if women in their fifties are especially delighted to discover how fun and gratifying sex can be–a discovery that men are more likely to have discovered with delight when they are younger.”

Sexual intimacy is crucial to a healthy relationship. “Good sex won’t make a great marriage, but insufficient sexual gratification can create problems,” Dr. Susan cautions. If sex becomes too infrequent, it can build irritability and frustration in one or both partners. If a couple does not seek sexless marriage help, the relationship will become distant and the risk of an affair increases. Unfortunately, sexual functioning usually takes a hit as we age. Difficulties with sexual desire, erections/arousal, and orgasm seem to discourage men the worst, whereas women take the blow a little easier. Some of these problems can be the result of procedures such as elective prostate surgery. This is especially difficult as a woman may be hitting the peak of her sexual enjoyment right around the time a man’s sexual performance may be suffering from age or surgery.

At the same time, Dr. Susan is confident that you can have a great sex life no matter what by simply knowing how to communicate with your spouse.

In my clinical experience, the key is how well the couple can talk over these problems. If sexual functioning problems develop and the partners clam up instead of talking with each other about the changes and how they each are adapting to them, that can spell trouble ahead.

In other words, keep your dialogue and minds open to ways to adapt to the changes.

Again, sex isn’t the end-all of a relationship. Our next post will continue this series with surprising insights into relationship satisfaction and non-sexual intimacy. Check back soon!

(If you want more on attitudes towards sex and aging, I suggest this great article.)