What they don’t tell you about child rearing and mental health–and why they should

May is mental health awareness month, and I’m excited announce a series of guest posts from marriage experts. Each week will feature a new guest post on a certain subject of mental health in marriage.

I’m kicking off the campaign by talking about the importance of talking about mental health–specifically when it comes to child rearing. I’m using a great TED talk lecture given by Babble.com co-founders Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman.

Americans are strong, independent, creative and adventurous. At the same time, we’re not very good when it comes to talking about our feelings, our challenges, and our struggles. Child rearing is one of those areas. As any parent knows, raising kids is hard. It takes its tole on our bodies and our minds. Yet when it comes to talking about our mental health challenges as parents, there are still taboos that hold us back. This lack of communication makes us doubt our ourselves…if it seems so easy for everyone else, why is it so hard for me? What’s wrong with me? Am I a bad parent? Am I a bad person? These doubts and anxieties whirl around inside us, growing on themselves and eating away at our self esteem and happiness.

It takes a lot of guts to get up and talk about your own difficulties with child rearing. Luckily, we’re seeing more and more of this as mental health taboos are broken and the “strong and silent” expectations of our culture shift towards one of sharing and mutual support. Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman are two brave pioneers. In December 2010, the couple gave a TED talk about the parenting-discussion taboos they’ve faced versus the realities of child rearing. They break the silence and tell us why it is so important to talk about these things with each other.

Taboo #1: You can’t say you didn’t fall in love with your baby the moment you saw him.

While this may be true for some parents, it should not be the expectation. Rufus points out he felt deep affection and awe for the little newborn in his arms, but not deep, enduring love like the love he felt for his wife at that moment. Love is what has grown over time and is the way he feels about his son now. The problem, Rufus says, is that we tend to think about love in binary: we are either in love or not in love. The truth is, love is a process; it grows and fluctuates constantly. This is as true for your spouse as for your children. You are not going to feel blissful, all-encompassing love at all times.

Taboo #2: You can’t talk about how lonely having a baby can be.

Alisa loved being pregnant. During this time, she notes, women are doted over with visits and wishes and love. Same for the moments in the hospital and right after the birth of the new baby. Then, all of a sudden, it’s just you and the infant. No one had mentioned that she would feel isolated and lonely. Why didn’t her sister–who had three children of her own–warn her? “I’ll never forget this–she said: ‘It’s just not something you want to say to a woman who’s having a baby for the first time.'” Postpartum depression and general loneliness is a huge and common burden for new moms. And it’s not “weakness”: it’s because what you are going through is hard! Knowing this can help mothers prepare and safeguard their mental health. After all, the baby is important, and so are you.

Taboo #3: You can’t talk about your miscarriage.

Having a miscarriage can be a devastating experience. During the talk, Alisa bravely shares the story of her miscarriage. Miscarriage is an invisible loss, she observes, there’s not much community support or closure that comes from any other kind of death. In addition to depression, she felt shame and embarrassment at “failing to do what she was genetically engineered to do,” and worried about the future of her marriage. After talking a bit with other women, she found that miscarriages were amazingly common in her community. Stories from friends and co-workers came out of the woodwork. In reality, miscarriage is not uncommon at all: 15-20% of all pregnancies end in miscarriage. Tragically, 74% of women believe that the miscarriage was “partly their fault.” This silent suffering and sense of shame prevents women from reaching out and receiving the mental health support they need.

Taboo #4: You can’t say your “average happiness” has declined since having a child.

Child rearing is amazing and magical and every bit of it is an utter joy. My children are my greatest joy. They are bundles of joy. Yet studies interviewing parents show that average happiness does indeed plummet with the birth of a child. Somehow, it’s not OK for us to admit that. Alisa and Rufus give a possible compromise explanation: before having children–in our late 20s–we settle into a nice, comfortable way of life with little that jars us our of our routine. At this point our average happiness is mellow and steady. After children, it runs up and down like a roller coaster. Yes, child rearing brings some of the most difficult and challenging times of your life–at moments, you will certainly be less happy that you were without children. And it’s OK to admit that! At the same time, parenting also rockets you into amazing moments of pure bliss and joy that you also wouldn’t have experienced without children. It’s just…different than pre-baby. It’s up and down and all over the place. It’s life.


As they conclude “Candor and brutal honesty is important for making us all better parents.” Sharing your difficulties as well as joys is key to airing out and addressing problems before they take a toll on your mental health (and marriage). This week, I challenge you to share a secret about your child rearing experience with a friend–something you feel you are alone in or slightly ashamed of as a parent. You might be surprised to hear that he/she feels the exact same way…

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 abcNews.com 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 abcNews.com (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.)

Why do men cheat?

Anthony Weiner: rich, confident, powerful, newly married…and, of course, he’s having an affair! Weiner seems to have it all, but like so many other men, still engages in infidelity. Why do men cheat? A new study sheds light on the surprising reasons, and differences, in why men and women cheat.

Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington recently conducted a study of 900 men and women to find out what leads people into affairs. Older studies pointed to marital status, income or employment as key elements of infidelity, but the new study found other characteristics, such as sexual excitability and unhappiness in relationships, and other marriage problems are significantly more important. And despite the multitude of public scandals involving men, it turns out that women and men are cheating at roughly the same rates. Back in the 1990s a study showed that only 10-15% of women reported being unfaithful. The latest survey reported 19% of women and 23% of men cheated at some point in a relationship. The question is no longer just “why do men cheat,” but “why do people cheat?”

A common reason for infidelity in both sexes was concerns over sexual performance. The researchers suggested that cheaters might feel less inhibited with someone who does not know them well. A new partner may have fewer expectations and be a relief from the tensions that have been building over time with a husband or wife. Beyond that, the answer to why do men cheat is slightly different that why women cheat. “Women who reported not being happy in a relationship and feeling that their partner didn’t hold similar sexual beliefs were more likely to be unfaithful. For men, one of the biggest factors that led to cheating was sexual excitability,” read the abcNews.com article.

So why are women cheating so much more than they used to? Part of it may be how the question was asked. In the news study, researchers did not define infidelity, leaving it up to the interviewees to decide what was cheating in their personal circumstances. The previous study may have been worded differently, perhaps with more narrow categories, which lead to a lower response rate.

It all comes down to proximity — who you’re interacting with and how often —  says Power of Two founder Dr. Susan Heitler, who is quoted in the article.  Dr. Heitler mentioned that the growing number of women in the workforce allows them to make more male social connections outside of the family:

[There’s] too much time working closely together, in private spaces, taking a break and talking about personal matters, and also travel which makes too much time away from the spouse and from the restraints of normal family routines.

The internet and text messaging also allow previously isolated wives from making friendly social connections with other men and contacting old flames. Unfortunately, many of these casual social relationships can turn into something more….

 

Why do men cheat? For the same reasons women do… Read the abcNews.com article here.

 

Dr. Heitler on commuting and your marriage for ABCnews.com

Does distance truly make the heart grow fonder? Not when it comes to commuting.

A recent Swedish study has shown that a marriage in which one spouse spends 45 minutes or more on the road was 40 percent more likely to end in divorce than one in which both partners worked closer to home. While that dream home and dream job may tempt you go the distance, make sure you discuss how to  communicate with your spouse about problems that arise and maintain intimacy during your long hours apart. Power of Two founder Dr. Heitler was recently quoted in an article on the subject for ABCnews.com. “For commuting couples, every minute that they’re together is so valuable,” says Dr. Heitler. “They can least afford to have poor communication skills.”

Check out the whole story and Dr. Heitler’s comments here.

 

Psych Central just posted an article about communication pitfalls featuring Power of Two founder Dr. Susan Heitler.

Here’s the top 5 pitfalls list.

  1. Not knowing the rules
  2. Aiming for compromise
  3. Playing pin the tail on the donkey
  4. Letting escalating emotions take over
  5. Thinking that marriage is like walking

Got you curious? Here’s the article. http://psychcentral.com/lib/2011/5-communication-pitfalls-and-pointers-for-couples/

Want the good news?  You can learn how to communicate like a pro with a Power of Two Online membership.

Interview with Dr. Heitler

Dr. Heitler answers all your questions:

Conflict Resolution and Marriage
Heitler takes on Gottman’s Unresolvable Problems
Hot Buttons: Geography and Religion
Changing the Argument Cycle
Sharing Therapist Reactions in Couples Work
Saving Marriages
What to do with Secrets in Couples Work?
Heitler’s Husband and Tennis Coach Teach Her Some Things
Heitler’s Hats!
Still Having Fun

source: http://www.psychotherapy.net/interview/Susan_Heitler