Archive for the ‘Relationships/Marriage’ Category

According to Gottman, a prominent marriage researcher and therapist, “in healthy, stable relationships couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative one.” (If Only I Had Known, 166)

What’s your marital ratio? 5:1 actually seems pretty low to me. It would be interesting to keep a chart, even for a day, and figure out your own ratio. If it’s worse than 5:1, get thee to a counselor!

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“Interestingly, major surveys of the practices of ‘family’ therapists…have found that whole families make up only about one-third of ‘family’ clinicians’ work, and that couple problems constitute the presenting problem in almost two-thirds of their cases.” (Clinical Casebook of Couple Therapy, 1)

This reminded me how easy it is to obscure marital problems with the complications and chaos of stepfamily dynamics. How many stepmoms have you seen blame the children or the biological mother for her unhappiness, when her husband is really the one who needs to step up and make the family work? My hunch is that, in most troubled stepfamilies, the marriage is the entity that needs the overhaul.

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Though there are lots of different methodologies, and every case is different, most couple therapy tends to be short-term—around 12 sessions. If you have a partner reluctant to incur the financial and temporal cost of therapy, this could be motivating news!

If there’s been infidelity, however, therapy instantly swells to a year or longer. (You might want to remind your partner of that fact, too!)


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My couple therapy professor claims that thousands of studies have been done on what makes a successful marriage, and they all point to two things and two things only:

1) Respect for each other


2) A sense of humor

When couples have no respect or appreciation for each other, when they don’t have a sense of humor about their life together, the relationship tanks.

It makes sense to me. A relationship without respect and humor would be depressing indeed. On the other hand, it doesn’t mean that relationships that have these two magic components can’t also be unsatisfying. You can be respected, you can laugh, and still be flaming peeved about other things.

If these findings are true, though, it would be interesting to use them as a litmus test in marriage counseling. Like if you see a couple with nothing but contempt for each other, you could just tell them to save their money for the divorce! Okay, I’m joking. Therapists would never do or say that. But it does make me wonder whether couples who descend to those levels can ever climb back out.

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This quarter I am taking a class in couple counseling—a course that has, so far anyway, convinced me that there are few things more difficult than doing couple counseling. I honestly don’t know if I am up to the challenge.

Yet this experience has been juxtaposed with the single most significant development in my marriage since approximately 2004: my own recently-terminated course of couple therapy, in which my husband graciously agreed to have our own child.

Is he thrilled out of his socks? No. But in about three months’ time, he went from adamant naysayer to willing father-again. He’s doing it because he loves me, and he wants me to be happy. He’s doing it because his desire for my fulfillment is stronger than his fear.

I finally have the marriage I knew was in there somewhere. All these years, there’s been this blight on our relationship, the proverbial elephant upending the couch and shattering the china. It was hard to make sense of a marriage that worked so very well until I broached the one subject that most couples take for granted.

Even more important, perhaps, we’ve had to talk a lot about what we want, and don’t want, for our future. We’ve had to make it concrete.

It would be magic to be able to do this for other couples, to turn terror and agony into intimacy and growth. I don’t know if I have what it takes.

But I’m a believer. Whether or not I’m blessed with a child of my own, counseling has bridged our marital chasm. I’ll always have therapy—and my husband’s courage—to thank.

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According to my couple therapy professor, three things change a relationship permanently: children, infidelity, and domestic violence.

I don’t dispute the claim. I can see how all of those would indeed change a relationship forever. But I have to wonder where that leaves people who begin a relationship with children already in it. It’s almost like we experience that same kid-transition that everyone else does—only we have to face it right at the beginning, years earlier than couples who start without kids. We go through that permanent change without ever having experienced the stage that comes before!

I know this is a sad realization for many childless stepparents. They mourn not having any carefree years before children. They know they can never have that just-us-two life that so many others take for granted.

Yet there’s probably a positive in this, too. I imagine that, when we childless stepparents have kids of our own, the marital transition is less earth-shattering than it would be if there were no kids at all. After all, we’re used to sacrificing, shuffling around our lives, and making time for our marriages in the midst of hectic life. We know what it takes to make a relationship work with kids in the picture.

(One last note. It’s funny how the assumption still seems to be that most people meet, get married, and have children—in that order. All we hear about in the media is how blended families are now outnumbering first families, but in my classes I definitely get the feeling that no one would mention stepfamilies if I didn’t. And this is amongst ever-sensitive therapists at a very highly regarded school! Nuclear families are always discussed as though they are the vast majority. So either the statistics about stepfamilies are just wrong, or my professors don’t find it necessary to discuss our peculiar plight. I just don’t know.)

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Well, I’m pretty excited that school has started again and I can start to bring you heaps of interesting material from my studies. This quarter I’m studying couple counseling (does that sound weird to anyone? “couple’s counseling” sounds better to my ear), so I’m sure there will be lots of relevant stuff I can share.

My professor, who’s been a marriage counselor for a looong time, told us that therapists almost always like one member of a couple better than the other. And that the person they tend to like—at least in a heterosexual relationship—is the woman. Why? Because regardless of the therapist’s own gender, s/he is usually adept at communication and navigating emotions, just like women tend to be. Thus the therapist is more likely to connect with the woman.

Of course, this is just one man’s experience—and his point to us students is that we need to work around these biases—but I couldn’t help but wonder whether my current couple counselor prefers me to my husband. He’s done a great job of not seeming biased, but I will admit it gives me a little kick to think that he might be siding with me all along. Hee hee.

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When I listen to other childless stepmoms talk or write about their partners, one emotion that repeatedly and palpably emerges is longing: longing for more attention, more focus, more time, more status, more love. Many failings we may have, but a lack of passion and commitment is not one of them. Stepmoms are, no question, women who love their husbands.

It stands out. I rarely hear women with biological children, or even women without any children, ache for and crave their men the way childless stepmoms do.

It’s hard to hear all that pain. It’s hard not to want to shake these guys and show them how they are hurting these wonderful women who love them so very much. Can’t you look away from yourself or your kids just a little bit less, I want to say, and give your wife just a little bit more?

But then I got to wondering if there’s a (peculiar) silver lining in all this. Maybe the longing actually keeps the marital magic alive.

Stick with me. In regular, garden-variety relationships, the passion starts to fade after about two years—or so they say. But when the relationship involves some kind of deprivation—such as in illicit relationships, when the couple’s time and freedom are constrained—that cooling can be pushed back indefinitely. I wonder if the imbalances inherent in a stepfamily relationship create that same deprivation loop that keeps the partners passionate about each other long after a more traditional couple would be going through the motions.

I realize that none of this says very splendid things about human nature. But if these are the trajectories of most romantic relationships—and I am told they are, though I will explore this in much greater detail in my future studies—perhaps there is something to be said for longing after all. I think, if I had the choice, I would rather yearn for my husband than take him for granted. Is it possible that living in a stepfamily helps keep us on the passionate side of this critical continuum?

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As we all (sadly) know, second and third marriages are much more likely to end in divorce than first ones. And we know—and can guess—many of the reasons. The presence of children before marriage, even if they are the couple’s own, increases the likelihood that the relationship will dissolve.

I could spend a year enumerating all the reasons this might be, but I want to talk about a theory of intimacy and how it applies to stepfamily marriages. I think it sheds some light on one of the reasons that these relationships can go south so fast.

To condense a billion pages into a paragraph, the theory goes that when a couple gets together, they focus on all the glorious aspects of their relationship—all the things they want to see. They ignore, or diminish the importance of, the less delightful components, the ones that undermine their compatibility.

But, of course, time goes on and the cracks start to appear. The unsavory stew starts to leak out. And the pair realizes they have real differences, that this amazing feeling of “I feel like I’ve known you my whole life” and “I feel so loved and accepted by you” no longer seems quite so true. The relationship, then, can end. Or it can continue, with both people starting to hide those portions of themselves that the other person doesn’t share or accept.

I’ve seen this happen in my own self, in my own marriage, and it’s a scary thing. This person loves me, but he doesn’t like that—so I won’t talk about it because I don’t want to lose him. The trouble is, the more we hide, the less we truly feel loved and valued and accepted. The relationship starts to feel unsupportive, rote, and hollow, and our satisfaction diminishes.

In a first marriage, or a marriage involving no children, this process tends to unfold over some years. But here’s where I think stepfamily relationships are different: we face these confrontations much more quickly. Consider the stepfather who realizes within weeks that he really doesn’t enjoy spending time with his stepchildren. Consider the stepmother whose efforts to correct her stepson’s behavior are met with defensiveness and excuses by her husband. Many stepparents quickly learn that certain topics are totally off-limits with their spouses, no matter how gently they are broached, and the squelching of the self—that suffering in silence and not feeling accepted—begins post-haste.

I’m still struggling through this myself, so I certainly don’t have any magic answers, but I believe with my whole heart that true intimacy and relationship satisfaction come from the knowledge that one is truly loved and accepted, even in the face of disagreement. Finding a way to communicate one’s authentic self—and to accept our partner’s authentic self—seems to be what the challenge of marriage is really about. In stepfamilies, the truths can be uglier and more dangerous than we scarcely know how to face or express. But without that freedom to be genuine, to be accepted for who we are, what are love and commitment really worth?

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It’s a common complaint among virtually all stepparents I know: “He complains about his ex to me, but won’t ever say anything to her face.”

Yeah, I’ve been there too—about a million times. Overall our two households have an amicable relationship, but I think it’s well nigh impossible to share parenting duties without some intrusions and annoyances creeping in. And when they creep, you can bet your bottom dollar that my husband is going to be bitching to me rather than asking his ex to change her ways.

We stepparents tend to see this pattern as an issue of respect and priority. By letting the ex get away with something, he’s sending the message that she’s more important than my feelings and frustrations. By complaining to me rather than resolving the issue with her, he’s acting like her behavior is somehow sacred, something that both of us just have to accept. And by giving me the tantrum and her the mature response, he’s ultimately treating her with more respect.

Well, all that might still be true. But I read something recently that made me see this pattern in another light.

In Getting the Love You Want, marriage therapist Dr. Harville Hendrix claims that we tend to display our worst behavior to those we trust the most. Why? Because that’s what we did as babies:

We didn’t pinpoint our discomfort by putting it into words. We simply opened our mouths and screamed. And it didn’t take us long to learn that, that louder we screamed, the quicker they came. The success of this tactic was turned into an “imprint,” a part of our stored memory about how to get the world to respond to our needs: “When you are frustrated, provoke the people around you. Be as unpleasant as possible until someone comes to your rescue.” (Kindle version 1782)

So by giving us their raw emotions, our partners may be treating us with the ultimate trust—sending the message that we are the ones who can provide that emotional support, the only ones who can “rescue” them.

I know. In the heat of frustration, this interpretation doesn’t necessarily make the pattern any more satisfactory. The ex, after all, is still getting away with something—and I’m still left peeved. But I now look at my husband’s treatment of his ex in a gentler light. Keeping the peace with her is a matter of necessity; telling me the truth is a matter of trust. Rather than sending the message that I’m less important, he may actually be showing me just how important I am.

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