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.

Marriage communication for awkward topics

Many cultures describe marriage as two people becoming “one flesh.” It’s true–after living together with someone for years, sharing a bathroom, dinner table and bed, the emotional and physical boundaries between you seem to dissolve. You feel like you know your spouse’s body like you know your own. Unfortunately, sometimes your spouse’s (or your own) body can be a source of…displeasure. Farting, snoring, burping, body odor…all bodies do these things. It’s part of being human! And you’re supposed to love your spouse no matter what, right? But what happens when these things start to really impact your marriage? The key is, once again, good marriage communication.

Let’s look a scenario with several possible solutions.

Matt and Lisa have been married for years, and as they have gotten older Matt has put on a lot of weight that has developed some major gastrointestinal problems from his eating. Lisa finds herself really put off by the odors and weight gain, and guilty that she no longer finds him as attractive as she used to. How can she voice her concerns without making Matt defensive?

1. The “Good news Bad news” technique:
“Matt, I love you so much. That’s the good news.  At the same time, I’ve had a problem lately. I am so turned on by the strong male physique you’ve always had.  At the same time, since you’ve rounded out, I find I’m less turned on, and I’m concerned about your health.  How are you feeling about the extra pounds you’ve put on?”
2. Focus on your part in the problem, then offer what you can do to rectify your error:
“Matt, I have to tell you that I feel just terrible about something. I see the extra belly you’ve put on over the past months, and I feel responsible for that.  I used to admire how you’d exercise after work.  I’m afraid I’ve discouraged that habit because I’m really into cooking.  While I appreciate that you come home earlier and skip the exercise to enjoy the food, I think I’ve led you down a problematic path.  Then because I love to linger with you over dinners, I’m probably tempting you to take seconds and thirds. What can I do to help you keep your healthy habits?”
3. Make it a couple issue that you’ve both tripped into:
“Matt, I read that people tend to put on weight after they are married and I’m afraid we have fit into that pattern.  I’ve put on two pounds.  How many have you put on since the wedding?  …..  It’s a real problem for me actually because I feel more sexual when I’m thinner, and react more sexually to you when you are about 10 pounds less than  now….What’s your reaction to our weight gain?  I’d love to start exercising more, like maybe walking after dinner.  Would you be willing to walk with me?  Or maybe, since winter is coming, we could buy exercise equipment.  I’d love to work out with you before we go to bed at night.  How would you feel about that?”
These are just three suggestions for ways to approach sensitive topics. Keep in mind these marriage communication principles for keeping the dialogue as unthreatening as possible:
  • Talk about yourself–your concerns, your reactions, your contribution to the problem.  Ask about the other–his/her feelings and thoughts.
  • Good questions begin with How and What.
  • Say what you are willing to do to help solve the problem.  Ask what he/she is willing to do.
I’d love to have your input. Ever had a moment where a well-meant comment ended in a huge argument? What about an example of when it worked? Which of the above techniques do you think is best?

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 Psychologytoday.com.

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!

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 abcNews.com 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.”

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.


How to Make a Relationship Last – Clean Up Distressing Incidents With Double Apologies

Dr. Heitler shared with us an email she recently sent to a couple she sees in couples counseling (names have been changed).   Her letter explains how to make a relationship last by clearing upsets with two-person apologies that convert mistakes into learning moments.


Greetings Jack and Jill,

After our session I continued to think about your marriage problems.  It occurred to me that it might be helpful for me to share my thoughts.

First, to Jill, I was struck during the marriage counseling session by your lovely newfound sense of calm.  You never appeared to be building up the head of steam that so often in the past has put you at risk for anger eruptions.  Bravo!

Second, to Jack, I felt your palpable increase in warmth toward Jill.  Bravo!  The affection you showed toward Jill indicate that you are really getting the idea of how to make a relationship last by giving forth positivity in words, tone of voice, smiles, and more.

Both of these shifts—toward staying more calm and toward sharing more positive feelings, seemed to me to be very positive directional changes.   Communication in marriage with calm and affectionate talking is a key predictor of marriage success.

At the same time, I was surprised, Jill, that you seemed unable to reciprocate Jack’s warmth with more relaxed, positive attitudes toward him.  My surprise prompted the thought I want to share with you now.

If I recall correctly, one of you had briefly mentioned that Jill’s apology midweek for an anger outburst, and her accompanying decision to stop “doing anger,” has been helpful for both of you.   At the same time, I am wondering if Jill’s blockage in being able to respond in kind to Jack’s increased affection has something to do with a missing piece in your recent mutual apology sequence.

An effective apology can be like a surgery.  After an upsetting incident that has caused significant emotional pain, a full apology can remove the pain and therefore play a vital role in how to make a relationship last.

Two features strike me about what needs to be included in the surgery-like apology procedures that enable couples to remove bad feelings that might otherwise grow like malignancies after upsetting incidents.

1) An apology needs to go all the way. That means it needs to go all the way from the first “I’m sorry” to the point of learning how to prevent a similar upset.  As I think I said in my book The Power of Two, to fully clean up distressed feelings an apology needs to include:

  1. Specificity: “I’m sorry about my ______.” That is, specify exactly what you did that you see now was mistaken.
  2. Non-intentionality: “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
  3. Clarification:  What was your miss – the mistake, misperception, misunderstanding, miscommunication, mishap, etc?  “I can see now that I mis_______ that _______.”
  4. Learning: What will you do differently next time to prevent a similar mishap from occurring again?  “In the future I will _____________when___________ .”

Jill, you did a great job of covering all four of these steps when you told Jack, “I’m so sorry about my anger outburst.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.  I can see now that I misunderstood what you were telling me.  I was feeling so fragile after my trip that I misperceived your attempt to be welcoming as some kind of warning.  Next time I’m feeling hypersensitive I need to trust your love instead of leaping to conclusions about what you’re actually saying.”

2) Apologies tend to feel lopsided unless they are what I call Double Apologies.

Jack, you voiced appreciation for Jill’s apology, which was helpful.

What was missing though was reciprocation with a parallel apology of your own.  “Jill,  I’m sorry that I didn’t reassure you with a welcome-back hug before I went on to tell you about the problems I’d had when you were away.  I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.  Next time you return from a trip I’ll know to give more time to showing you how happy I am to see you again before I start telling you about the problems I had when you were away.”

Mistakes can create hurt and resentment.  By contrast, when both parties each verbalize what they themselves seem to have contributed to an upset, the bad feelings get cleaned up.  Double apologies thus enable couples to turn moments of upset or dissension into opportunities for growth, learning, and enhanced positive feelings.

Jack, how would you feel about sharing with Jill insights about your mistake in the upset and what you might do differently in the future?

Jill, if Jack does his part to make this a double-apology process, and that releases again your affection for Jack, wow.  That’s how to make a relationship last even though from time to time everyone makes mistakes.

Meanwhile, have a good week.

Dr. Heitler

Why We Apologize Too Much, and How to Stop

See Dr. Susan Heitler quoted in Fitness Magazine.


… People who grew up with critical, demanding parents or bullying siblings frequently apologize as a way to placate others and avoid confrontation. “Early in life, they discovered that expressing regret, whether they agreed with the criticism or not, caused the other person to calm down, and they’ve continued this behavior as they’ve gotten older,” explains Susan Heitler, PhD, a psychologist in Denver and coauthor of The Power of Two Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, 2003). Women who fall into this category often say “I’m sorry” to stop or prevent an argument with their partner. But by habitually jumping in with an apology, they set themselves up to be the one at fault. “If you’re the only one taking responsibility, it reinforces the idea that when things go wrong, you are the bad guy,” says Heitler.

Read the full article here: http://www.fitnessmagazine.com/health/spirit/your-best-you/why-we-apologize-too-much-and-how-to-stop/?page=2