Hitch Fix – My Relationship Blog

relationshipHey There! You’ve landed on Hitch Fix, my relationship blog. If you’ve come here before you can skip the intro and go straight to the latest blog post below. If not, read on!

I am Anne Barker, owner and couples therapist at Barker Therapy Arts. I specialize in working with couples on all manner of relationship issues. In my both my writing and my therapy work I try to be mindful that I am, by virtue of being a freakishly imperfect human being, just as vulnerable to the same kinds of relationship worries, distress, confusions and mistakes as those my clients experience.

Knowing this (on some days with what feels like 110% certainty), I try to write both of my blogs (check out Out Of My Mind – My Blog About Everything Else) from a we’re-all-in-this-together kind of place, even as I also pass along and teach best-practice relationship information and strategies. Enjoy the posts and feel free to comment as you go along. We’re all in this together, remember?

Keep in mind, however, that the purpose of this blog is to inform and encourage (and sometimes, hopefully, entertain!), not to diagnose or treat, or to replace human-to-human psychotherapy or relationship advice. If you feel you and your partner could benefit from the latter, don’t hesitate to seek out an experienced couples therapist (like me!).

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It’s Time To Get Real In Your Relationship

Get real“I don’t like how I behave when I’m with my partner.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“I’ve sacrificed too much in this relationship.”

In my work with couples, I’ve heard so many people say these words, or something very much like them.

You may remember that I’ve written in an earlier post that being willing to compromise, accept influence and, ultimately, change your part of a pattern that’s not working are all important intentions to bring to any committed partnership.

I still stand by that advice. Work in progress that I am, I may not always follow it, but I definitely still stand by it. In a relationship it’s always important to be willing to give, even sometimes to give in.

But just as relationally important as this willingness to compromise is our willingness to share our true thoughts, feelings and needs openly – in short, our willingness to be our authentic self, even if that self seems at odds with our partner’s.

Because the act of hiding our needs, goals, and values doesn’t build intimacy; it builds resentment and emotional distance.

Living, as we do, in a world that is not always tolerant of difference or discomfort, we’ve developed a lot of ways to avoid authenticity in relationship.

Here are three I encounter a lot, both in my work and, yes, in my contributions to my own relationship:

Saying Yes When We Mean No

The longing to be liked and the desire for approval – both are common human needs, and both can lead us to say “yes” when we really mean “no.”

Similarly, worry about hurting someone else’s feelings, can also lead us to default to agreeableness, sometimes pathologically so. It’s hard to get real when being real might result in someone else being really sad.

These worries – about what others might think of us, or how they might feel after experiencing our “no” – can tempt us to be dishonest or unclear about how we really feel, what we really want or don’t want. Afraid that our partner won’t react well to a true expression of our needs, we become afraid to delineate what’s okay and what isn’t. Afraid to decline a request, or speak up about a wrong.

Get realThe truth is that “no” does not mean “I don’t like you” or “I don’t care about you.” Nor does it mean “you’re wrong” or “we’re so different that we can’t be a we.”

No just means no. As in, “No thanks, I don’t want to do that” or “No, I’m not especially fond of that” or “No, I don’t agree with you there.”

No is not a repudiation of the other person; it’s just a healthy boundary for you, as Brene Brown so eloquently explains in this video.

Pretending Everything Is Okay

We’ve all been in a position where it felt right to “take one for the team” in our relationship, a time when we’ve put our own needs on hold for the good of the order.

Perhaps we’ve looked past our partner’s critical complaint and responded instead to the request or longing embedded in their harsh words. Or maybe we’ve agreed to take over as primary parent for a while so our partner could get some much-needed rest, even though we were pretty shredded ourselves.

We are definitely called to give of ourselves in relationship. But we should only give in this way if we can do so with true generosity of spirit. If we give more – or more often – than we feel we should, if we fail to let our partner know that we now need something from them, if we hold back our hurts, frustrations or needs from our partner, we create the perfect conditions under which resentment and distance can take hold.

Sure, it’s hard to tell our partner we’re unhappy with some aspect of our relationship. Most of us don’t want to hurt each other, and it’s possible – likely, even – that the ensuing conversation will be uncomfortable for both of us. And, worse, there’s always the possibility that our honest sharing of our concerns might not result in our partner accommodating them. Sharing something hard can feel pretty risky.

But it’s precisely in this authentic sharing of the hard stuff – our hurts, our unmet needs, our disappointments and frustrations – that we find real intimacy and connection in relationship. Because talking about problems usually leads to talking about goals, fears and dreams. In this way, we can use “conflict as a catalyst for closeness,” as Kyle Benson of the Gottman Institute says.

get realKeeping Our Dreams A Secret

So that brings us to dreams.

Maybe we think our partner won’t understand our dreams (maybe we don’t totally understand them yet ourselves). Maybe we’re worried about how our goals will clash with their goals. Maybe we’re keeping our true desires under wraps so that we don’t have to engage in the hard work or risk-taking that is necessary to explore them.

Whatever the reason, it’s a mistake to keep our dreams and goals a secret from our partner.

They are a part of our deepest selves, our striving for our calling and purpose, and need to be shared so that our partner can truly know us. Otherwise they only know a façade of us, a paper cutout of who we are, not the real thing.

– – – – – – – – – –

I get it. It’s hard to be on the giving end of an expression of self that clashes with, or feels like a rejection of, our partner.

It’s no picnic on the receiving end either.

Whether it’s an “I don’t want to” or a “I don’t agree with you” or a “Things are not okay for me,” – whatever the form, and even if it’s followed by a positive statement of what our partner believes or prefers instead, we often hear it as a slamming door, a rejection of both our own soul and the “weness” of our partnership.

But the fullest expression of love always includes an offering of authenticity.

As the philosopher Alain De Botton wisely warns us:

“It is precisely when we hear little from our partner which frightens, shocks, or sickens us that we should begin to be concerned, for this may be the surest sign that we are being gently lied to or shielded from the other’s imagination, whether out of kindness or from a touching fear of losing our love.”

So put on your big kid panties and get real with your partner. Say “No” when you need to. Say, “Everything’s not okay” if it’s not. Finally voice your dreams out loud.

Do all of this with love, of course, but for sure just do it. You’ll know who you are, you’ll offer your partner a chance to truly know you, and you’ll be well on your way to true intimacy in relationship.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

What about you? Do you struggle with authenticity in your relationship like I do? Let’s talk about it!

And, if this post got you thinking, you might also like these: Me Too or Feeling Bad About Feeling Bad.

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You Go First: Heroic Relationship Change

relationship changeDo you know the number one killer of relationship change and growth in my practice? It’s when both partners say, in some fashion: “I’ll change when he/she changes.”

Think about this for a minute. What’s the likely outcome of this situation?

You got it. Sitting around waiting for your partner to change can only lead to a stalemate, which is a trap for both you and your partner, not to mention your relationship.

Moving forward simply isn’t possible if both of you are digging in your heels.

Moreover, when you decline to change unless your partner goes first, what you’re really saying is that they are more at fault than you. You’re also saying that your partner is the real problem, rather than the main problem being the crazy-making communication/behavior samba the two of you keep dancing together.

The truth is that almost every conflict encountered in a relationships occurs in a dynamic in which both partners are, in some way, part of a destructive pattern.

So it’s hugely important to acknowledge our part in any pattern that’s not working and then try to find a way to change some aspect of our contribution, independent of our partner’s movement toward change.

I know. It’s scary to be the one to go first. We’re afraid, aren’t we? Afraid we’ll do all of the giving and changing and then be taken advantage of (we might). Afraid our partner will disappoint us (they might).

But real connection, intimacy and relationship change doesn’t happen without someone, usually two someones, taking a risk or two.

“But what about them?” you ask. “Don’t they have a responsibility here too?

Of course they do. You’re not required to do all of the changing. Just your part.

The ultimate goal is for both of you to change, because it takes two people working hard to make a relationship work. But one of you has to go first. And it truly only takes one person to initiate, and then stimulate, significant relationship change.

And seriously – what has all of that trying to get your partner to change (or waiting around for them to change) done for you lately? Not much, right? Because here’s the sticky truth: you can’t change your partner, even by waiting them out. You are the only person you can change.

relationship changeSo . . . you may have to do some mental gymnastics to get in a frame of mind in which going first feels possible. For starters, you’re going to need to shift from focusing on “what’s fair” or “who’s right” to asking “what can I do?” or “what might work?”

You’re going to need to be flexible, creative, strategic and pragmatic. And you’re going to need to gird your loins against your fear of being vulnerable, the real possibility of disappointment, and your own inevitable impatience.

If you can do all of this, you will likely see one of two outcomes:

  • Your partner steps up and meets you halfway. Your change sparks change in your partner and opens up the possibility for real relationship transformation, a virtual cascade of change (a “change” reaction, if you will).
  • Your partner chooses to not change. Yep, that definitely happens sometimes. In this case, you may have some hard decisions to make, but you will be able to move forward to whatever is next knowing you did all you could. And you can feel good about having insisted on trying to be your best self in the relationship.

I know this feels like a lot of pressure, And, frankly, it really doesn’t matter which one of you initiates the relationship change. But someone has to. And you’re the one who’s reading this post, so I guess you’re up.

Take a deep breath, gird your loins, and go first already.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

Leave us a comment below to share your relationship change success story. Or, if you’re interested in reading more about change in relationship, check out this post on the way a relationship changes over time, and this one on the importance of honoring emptiness during the change process.

Finally, if you and your partner are ready for some relationship change, drop me a line and I’ll help you get started.

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The Gift Of A Long-Term Partnership

partnershipSo I was on my way home from an educational conference, waiting in line at the Starbucks in the North Satellite terminal at SEA-TAC.

The food area – in fact the entire terminal – was quite crowded, and the long Starbucks line was packed with customers on their way to and from who-knows-where. Various levels of travel anxiety were palpable in the air.

After a surprisingly short wait (you go, baristas!), I worked my way down to that coveted “next in line” status and waited patiently behind the customers currently completing their transactions.

As I was waiting, a youngish man in a sharp suit moved quickly to one of the registers in front of me as the previous customer moved away. I immediately blew an internal gasket, thinking “The nerve! Who does he think he is, butting in line? We’re all in a hurry here” (G-rated version). Then, after only a millisecond of thought as to where this might lead, I tapped the man on the shoulder spoke up.

Me (irate and biting): “Excuse me, but that’s pretty rude. I hope your plane is leaving . . . like . . . NOW for you to feel you can just slide in here ahead of me.”

Him (shrugging his shoulders and adopting a defensive tone): “She (pointing to the barista at his register who seemed only mildly aware of our conversation) pointed at me to come forward. And, yes, my flight is leaving right now.”

Me (unimpressed with his explanation): “Even so, it would’ve been polite to gesture to me and defer to my place in line. Thanks a lot.”

Him (dismissively): “I didn’t see you, okay?” and (disingenuously), “Sorry.”

Me (fairly reeking with contempt): “Fine. Thanks for apologizing at least.”

The young man then proceeded to complete his transaction and then . . . wait for it . . . gave the barista a five dollar bill, gestured for me to come forward, and told her to put his money toward “whatever she would like” (“she” meaning me). He then turned to me, looked me straight in the eyes, and apologized again. And this time he really seemed to mean it.

At this point I should be feeling pretty vindicated right? After all, I stood up for myself, and doing so had led to this man checking his own behavior. Score one for the social police!

But here’s the thing. While he was completing his order, I had noticed that I had actually been standing in the wrong place (behind a customer at one of the registers, but no longer in the general line). And so the baristas had continued to overlook me, gesturing for each next person in the real line to move forward while I waited behind this one, slow customer.

Embarrassed, by both my mistake and the man’s sincerity (it’s hard to keep feeling justifiably angry when the other guy is doing the right thing and it turns out you’re the one who’s been an asshat), I declined his gift, noting my mistake. But the man insisted, apologized again, and moved off to wait for his coffee.

I somehow managed to thank the man and complete my order, and then got very serious at the coffee fixins station so I wouldn’t have to meet his gaze as we both waited for our coffee. Awkward doesn’t describe it. I was embarrassed and ashamed, and wanted very badly for a crack in the floor to open up and suck me in.

And I suddenly missed my husband.

Why? Because not only would he NOT have jumped right to blame and criticism in this situation (that’s just the way he rolls), but I also would have been less likely to do so in his presence.

You see, the proximity of my husband’s calm demeanor would have reminded me that there was another – less impulsive, less righteously indignant – way of looking at the situation, and another way of responding that might have left more room for the moment of grace that eventually occurred.

That might have helped me behave a little less like an asshat.

partnershipThe truth is, my husband and I both influence each other in positive ways. He softens my rough edges, and I rough his up a bit. And in doing these things, we each call the other to be a better person.

Bam. The gift of a long-term, partnership.

Thank you, sweetie.

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Finding Shared Meaning In Holiday Conflict

shared meaningI wanted the multi-colored lights. I didn’t want to discuss it; I just desperately wanted multi-colored lights on the tree. In my family, we always used multi-colored lights. And strung popcorn-cranberry chains. And placed an angel on the top. I couldn’t imagine a Christmas tree without these things, all symbols of my family’s celebration of Christmas.

My husband, in an uncharacteristically unaccommodating move, was pushing for blue and green. Blue and green? Who has blue and green lights on their tree? And no chains? And a star on top? Jeez.

So, on the occasion of our first real Christmas together, we had an argument. We didn’t yell or say mean things or anything like that. At least I don’t remember that we did. We just tried very hard to persuade each other that our idea was the better one. And then we simply, silently didn’t budge from our positions. For days.

It used to be that the only strategies relationship therapists offered were those related to communication. We thought that if couples could just communicate more effectively, they would then be able to go back home, solve their problems and live happily ever after.

But Dr. John Gottman discovered through his extensive research on couples (both those in crisis and those doing well) that there are a few other areas that may need a bit of work when a relationship is going off the tracks. Things like building and maintaining a strong friendship, updating our knowledge of each other, promoting an overall positive perspective, supporting each other’s life goals and creating shared meaning.

It’s that last one that my husband and I were struggling with that Christmas.

What we didn’t quite understand at the time is that a committed partnership is not just about raising children, managing a household, making love and building up a retirement fund. In the most satisfying long-term relationships, it turns out, couples go way beyond achieving those tasks to a place where they are able to create an entirely new culture together, one built on a common understanding of shared goals, values, symbols and rituals of connection.

shared meaningThe creation of and appreciation for this culture, this shared identity, then promotes an understanding of who they are as a family, not just two individuals amicably living their lives alongside each other.

Taking on the task of creating shared meaning doesn’t mean we have to see eye to eye on everything – I will never understand why my husband likes to eat his dinner with a dessert fork, nor will I ever share his affinity for Yankee Candles (he’s completely obsessed with them) – but it does mean we find ways to mesh and merge when we can, while also honoring each other’s individual dreams and values.

As Gottman notes in The 7 Principles For Making Marriage Work, the more shared meaning we can build . . . the richer our relationship, the stronger our friendship, and the deeper our well of positive sentiment (the well we draw from when we are embroiled in conflict up to our eyeballs).

In the end, my husband got his blue and green lights – something about how they reminded him of Christmases with his mom when she was alive (she died when he was 15; I simply couldn’t compete).

But you know what? After almost 30 years of blue and green, I’m glad I compromised. Because the lights are lovely . . . stunning, even.

But there’s also this:

The presence of the blue and green lights on our tree has taken its place as one of the many symbols of our family’s unique celebration of Christmas.

The story of how the blue and green won out, which we tell almost every Christmas, is a story that embodies our shared value of the importance of compromise and sacrifice in relationship.

The act of decorating the tree, and telling the story of the lights (and the story about the preacher ornament that lost his Bible and one of his arms; too long a story to tell here) is a ritual of connection we have with each other and our now adult children and their partners, a connection we strengthen every time we gather to place the ornaments and enjoy eggnog, hot toddies and, of course, all the stories.

shared meaningThe holiday season, regardless of which holiday you celebrate, offers us many opportunities to build shared meaning (aka, many strife-filled situations). My encouragement to you is to use each potential area of conflict – which family to visit and for how long, which lights to string, for whom we buy presents (does the dog get one?) and so on – as a means to solidify the symbols, rituals and values that contribute to your understanding of who you are as a family.

Oh, and, in case you were wondering, I got my angel on top.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #6: The Kids Come First

kids come firstI don’t know how to type out the sound that the “You’re wrong!” buzzer makes on a game show (your creative suggestions are welcome in the comments below), but if I did, I would have started out this blog with that sound.

If I could go to every wedding in the country and whisper one piece of advice in the ear of everyone about to take their vows, I would say this thing: “take care of yourself first.”

I know, I know. This seems counterintuitive. Or selfish. Or just plain wrong. Aren’t we supposed to put our partners first? And when our children are born, aren’t we supposed to look after their needs before our own?

In a word . . . NO.

Hear me out.

Although the idea sounds really commendable at first glance, I’ve found that when someone routinely “puts the kids first” it usually results in one of two potentially disastrous consequences in their marriage.

1. Their Well Dries Up
Many of my clients enter therapy completely exhausted and depleted. This is often because they’ve given too much of themselves to the world without minding their own shop. They’ve given too much to their partner, their boss, their coworkers, their friends and, yes, too much to their children. They’ve given away so much time and energy that they don’t have enough of either to care for themselves, and they are spent.

And unfortunately, when someone has sacrificed for others for so long without filling their own well, they have usually built up a HUGE wall of resentment toward the people they have been serving. So these exhausted and depleted clients are also often REALLY ANGRY as well.

But isn’t it important for us to be willing to sacrifice for, and compromise with, others? Especially those closest to us? Sure, I’ll give you that, and I’ll also give you an extra point for paying attention to one my previous relationship posts.

I just have two important caveats:

  • If we don’t make a point of filling our own well first, we run the risk of not having enough inside to give to others. (Cue the familiar example of the airlines’ instruction to put on our own oxygen mask before helping our children with theirs.)
  • Sacrifice isn’t really all that great unless it’s given willingly, without regret or resentment. If we hold a grudge for all the ways in which we’ve given to another person, or expect a quid pro quo arrangement, then we’re not giving freely of ourselves. Our “gift” comes with a price.

To be able to truly give without resentment or expecting something in return, we have to fill our own well first (with good self care), and then give from the well with a true spirit of goodwill.

kids come first2. Their Partner Is A Stranger To Them
Many couples come to my office emotionally disengaged, virtual strangers to each other because haven’t kept up. They haven’t kept up because they’ve put all their focus, time and energy on their children.

As a mom of two now grown children, I actually COMPLETELY understand how this happens. We rightly feel a responsibility to and for our children, these creatures that are born completely helpless and dependent on us to survive. And are they demanding or what?

So it’s easy to see how, at the end of a day of chasing around a toddler, driving around a teenager and/or helping a school age child with new math (or some combination of the above), we often find we don’t have any time or energy left for ourselves, much less our partners.

But this situation is deadly for our marriage and, ultimately, for our children. Because it takes time and attention, and intention, to keep a marriage vital, all things we can’t give if we’re constantly putting our marriage relationship on the back burner. And if we let our partnership deteriorate, how can it support the incredible amount of work necessary to raise our children well?

A strong, intimate partnership grows strong, emotionally healthy children.

So, what to do? I suggest THIS . . .

kids come firstFirst, take care of YOU
Personal self care must come first. If you don’t take care of yourself, who will? And whose responsibility is this anyway? Not your children’s, that’s for sure. And definitely not your partner’s. So tag, you’re it.

There’s a difference between selfish and self care. It’s not selfish to put yourself first. On the contrary, it’s the responsible thing to do. It’s actually more selfish to let your well dry up and not have enough for yourself or your family.

And it’s really selfish to sacrifice so often and completely that you build up resentment toward others.

So sign up for that yoga class, schedule a massage or just go for a walk in the park while the rest of the family does the dishes. It doesn’t so much matter what you do, as long as it fills your well in some way.

Then, once your well is full, you’ll have plenty to give to your loved ones.

Second, take care of YOUR PARTNER
Care for the relationship must come next, because only a healthy relationship can fully support all of its members, including the kiddos.

“The greatest gift you can give to somebody is your own personal development. I used to say, ‘If you will take care of me, I will take care of you.’ Now I say, ‘I will take care of me for you, if you will take care of you for me.’”
 Jim Rohn, Business Philosopher

(I have no idea what a “business philosopher” is, but Jim can call himself whatever he likes if he keeps this kind of wisdom coming.)

So make time for your partner. Touch base meaningfully at the beginning and end of your workday. Enforce a strict bedtime for the kids so that you have some couple time in the evening. Engage a sitter for a weekly date night so that the two of you can get out into the world and talk about it. Keep your love maps (the understanding you have of your partner’s inner world) updated.

If you’re relationship is strong, you will both be a great position to support your children’s growth and wellbeing. And it’s not just me saying this; so does the research on healthy marriages.

Finally, take care of YOUR CHILDREN
Once we have taken care of our own business, we are in a much better place to care for children. We will take more joy from our interactions with them; we will have much more patience when they are challenging, and we will have much more energy to keep up with their joys and needs.

kids come firstMoreover, when our relationship is in good shape, we are offering our children the gift of a household in which the adults work and play well together, a household of relative calm and moments of clear joy at being together. We are modeling what a strong, joyful relationship looks like.

And – a parenting bonus! – when we engage in good, responsible self care habits for ourselves, we are modeling these same habits for them as well. And so, hopefully, the healthy cycle continues . . .

Now, what are your challenges in taking care of yourself, taking care of each other? And what have you done in these areas that has worked for you and that you could share with the rest of us? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

 

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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #5: We Can’t Survive An Affair

affairOkay, we’re gonna take on a big topic here, so gird your loins.

Reliable statistics on affairs are understandably hard to come by (would YOU tell that truth on a survey?), but most point to the rate of infidelity having remained pretty constant over last two decades – around 21% for married men and between 10-15% for married women.

A conservative estimate is that one third of all marriages will experience infidelity at some point over the course of the relationship.

So. This is happening.

And it looks like it’s happening both in marriages that are in trouble in other ways and in those that are mostly okay. A study by biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher found that 56 percent of men and 34 percent of women who’d had affairs claimed to be “happy” or “very happy” in their marriages.

So not only are affairs happening, folks, but it seems likely that we might not always be able to predict when and where. That’s a little scary, I think.

Feedback I’ve received lately reveals that most of you agree that the work of keeping a relationship strong is not for the faint of heart. And many of you also seem to believe, as I do, that strong, healthy partnerships can overcome a myriad of relationship problems – some pesky, some more significant – and arrive on the other side of the healing journey even healthier and stronger than before.

But what about a marriage that has been rocked by an affair? What do you do if your partner has betrayed your trust in this highly intimate, extremely hurtful way? What then?

I expect many of us would feel quite morally justified in ending a relationship in which our partner had been unfaithful, and I expect many more of us would support, even applaud, a friend or family member who took this definitive step.

After all, we’re pretty quick to vilify people who choose to remain in a marriage after an affair. Look at Beyonce after Lemonade, or Hillary Clinton after Monica Lewinsky, et al.

Now, there are more than a few unattractive forces at work in the feelings we have about these cases (moral superiority and judgment, victim shaming . . . ), but I think that, at the heart of it all, when we insist that these women shouldn’t have stayed with their partner, what we are really saying is that, putting ourselves in their shoes, we can’t imagine how WE could have decided to stay.

affairIn the end, we just don’t hold out much hope, or tolerance, for a relationship in which there has been such a betrayal. We really believe, on some level, that we can’t survive an affair.

If you’re someone who feels this way, I can’t say that I blame you. Because a partner engaging in an affair – whether emotional, physical or both – has got to be one of the most devastating experiences a person can go through. And even if a marriage could survive an affair, could the resulting relationship ever be truly fulfilling? How does a relationship recover from something like that? It makes sense that we default to throwing in the towel.

But here’s the thing. The research turns out to be in favor of the ones who stay.

The surprising reality is that most marriages recover from an affair. Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego researcher, surveyed 1,083 people and found 76% of those whose spouses had affairs were still married and living with the spouse.

Now that figure may be a bit high, as respondents were self-selecting visitors to Vaughan’s affair resources website. But affair recovery estimates from a sampling of marriage therapists are in the 30-80% range, which puts the likelihood of recovery from an affair right in line with recovery from other relationship problems (the current divorce rate is estimated to be around 40-50%).

And still more research supports the conclusion that an affair does not have to be a deal-breaker. In the older couples studied by relationship researcher Karl Pillemer, “A single episode of infidelity was not considered to be an automatic end” to the relationship.

So what do these couples know that we don’t?

Well, are you sitting down?

The truly mind-blowing reality is that many couples who’ve successfully recovered from an affair actually experience their relationship as closer and more satisfying than it was before. Moreover, some outcome studies even indicate that couples who save their marriage after infidelity report the highest satisfaction levels of their mutual history. For these couples, as Esther Perel notes: “. . . the affair becomes a transformational experience and catalyst for renewal and change.”

“Well, hey!” you say, “Why don’t we ever hear about these success stories?” Okay . . . seriously . . . would you tell this story to your friends? Yeah, me neither.

But the reality is that the effect of an affair on a marriage doesn’t have to be negative; it can, and often is, either neutral or positive. And as is often the case, the defining factor is the strength of the couple’s commitment to work on the issue together and remain in the marriage.

So. There’s hope. A lot of hope, actually. But if you’re someone who’s experienced infidelity in your marriage, what exactly do you do? How do you even begin to work on this issue?

First, find a good couples therapist. As Alexander Dumas wisely notes, “The bonds of wedlock are so heavy that it takes two to carry them, sometimes three.”

Second, settle in for the long haul. Because healing from something like this takes time. It can take several months just to get over the initial shock of the revelation of an affair, and full recovery and healing can sometimes take several years.

Third, commit to engaging in the following difficult tasks as you move toward healing and hope:

If you were the unfaithful partner, you must be prepared to:

  • End the affair with conviction and finality – Cut off contact with affair partner completely and get rid of any physical reminders of the infidelity (mementos, furniture, etc.)
  • Offer complete transparency – To counteract your previous secret-keeping and hiding, offer openness, accountability and honesty. This will help your partner learn to trust again.
  • Help your partner check up on you by offering passwords to all social media accounts and personal communication devices and programs as well as a report of all unavoidable encounters with your affair partner.
  • Show extreme empathy, understanding and validation of your partner’s strong emotions – They’re hard to take, but it’s you’re job to hold them as your partner works to recover from the betrayal trauma they feel.
  • Be willing to answer a myriad of questions about your affair in order to satisfy your partner’s need to understand the meaning of the relationship.
  • Strengthen your interpersonal boundaries – make changes in type of behaviors that led to the infidelity.

If you were the deceived partner, you must be prepared to:

  • Refrain from making rash decisions – Experts advise you to wait at least three months to even ask yourself whether you feel like staying or leaving, because it takes that long for the initial trauma response to subside.
  • Take responsibility for stabilizing your system – Practice extreme self-care and self-soothing, and learn to tolerate strong feelings without needing to act on them.
  • Limit your questions, at first – Know the difference between the questions you really want to hear the answers to versus those that you just want the right to ask.
  • Work to understand the meaning of the affair to your partner – what was going on with him/her and your relationship that made it possible for the affair to happen (individual and relationship vulnerabilities).
  • Forgive – this will probably not feel possible right away, but work to do it eventually.
  • Decide to trust – Your partner’s transparency and emotional support will help with this, but end the end the decision to trust or not is up to you. Remember, trust is belief in things you can’t know or see, so you’ll eventually need to stop depending on that access to your partner’s social media accounts.

affairAnd together, you both must eventually:

  • Mend the trauma wounds – the affair partner can, and should, help with this healing
  • Promote good will and positive relationship experiences – your relationship is (and always was) more than the affair; explore and strengthen its other facets.
  • Recommit to the marriage – Make a conscious, deliberate decision to stay with our relationship – now is the time to prove you really meant it when you said “for better or for worse.”
  • Build “Relationship B” – Take care of any issues that made the relationship vulnerable to an affair (emotional/physical disconnect, trouble communicating around conflict) so that the relationship that comes after the affair is stronger and healthier than the one that came before.

I know I’m forever saying that relationships are hard work, but this . . . this work is REALLY hard. Relationship Boot Camp hard.

So, yes. Hard work. But, again, (say it with me now) it’s hard work that is totally, completely, worth it.

Because although I can’t promise you that if you do these things your relationship will survive an affair, I can promise you that following these steps will give your relationship the best chance it has.

And I can also promise you that if you do these things and your marriage recovers, your relationship can actually do more than survive . . . It can THRIVE.

– – – – – – – – – – –

Please contribute a comment below if this post has you thinking about this issue in a different way. And for those of you who are personally experiencing the pain of infidelity right now, I hope you will reach out to me here for more information on finding wise counsel to help you on this difficult journey. I may not be the right person for you, but I promise to help you find that person if I can.

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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #4: The Right Relationship Should Be Easy

Relationships Should Be EasyCautionary Tale #1
The couple had been married for many years, and their long relationship had witnessed and supported several geographical moves, the raising of five awesome children and two career changes.

Despite the longevity, dependability (and productivity!) of their relationship, however, both partners no longer felt emotionally connected to each other or believed they had much of anything in common. And, yes (sigh), they both felt they were “growing apart.”

They were coming to me in a last ditch effort to try to save their marriage, but neither partner had much hope they could recapture the feelings of love and connection both remembered from their early years.

As I usually do during the assessment interview, I asked this couple a few questions about their beginning – how they got to know each other, what they did for fun then, what times they remember as being especially awesome.

This couple had lots of good answers here. Among other things, they spoke of weekly dates, pinging each other with texts throughout the day, taking long hikes in the woods near their home on the weekends, and surprising each other with frequent “just because” gifts.

“And which of these things do you continue to do today?” I asked.

“Well . . . none of them, actually. We’re just too busy.”

Hmm.

Cautionary Tale #2
Some time ago, I had been seeing a couple for several months of pretty intensive marriage therapy and we were meeting once again after a bit of a break.

Relationships Should Be EasyNo crises were brewing, but both partners expressed frustration regarding a recent (and, now, repeated) experience of emotional distance, and noted some built-up (built up as in “ready to explode”) tensions around some more or less perpetual areas of conflict (yes, there is such a thing, but it’s not a deal-breaker; more about that in other post).

I asked the usual questions about their use of the various strategies and tools introduced and practiced in our previous sessions:

  • How are your daily check-ins going?
  • Have you been noticing and sharing feelings of fondness and admiration?
  • Have you intimated conversations about any perceived tensions?
  • Have you offer, and responded positively to, bids for connection?

Their response? Crickets.

Well then.

Cautionary Tale #3
A husband and wife had just returned from a two-week vacation in the mountains where, without the usual social and professional to-dos to impede them, they were able to reconnect with each other in all the ways couples do when they finally “get away.”

This trip came just in time, it turns out. The truth was that this couple had been really missing each other during a summer of unusual busyness – missing as in having trouble connecting in an emotional, intellectual or (euphemism alert) intimate way.

Missing each other in the way that leads to one person taking the time and energy to cook an entire (delicious) dinner from scratch, only to find out that the other person wouldn’t be home for dinner that night due to ANOTHER work commitment, one that had been on his calendar for MONTHS but about which the first person had absolutely NO knowledge because they hadn’t sat down to update calendars in FOREVER.

Wait. Um, was that my outside voice?

Okay, you got me. Like that inattentive shoemaker, I might be a teensy bit inconsistent in practicing what I preach.

—————–

So the right relationship should be easy? Are you kidding me?

The opposite, actually, is true.

Karl Pillemer says it best in this Time article about his research into happily married couples: “Marriage is like a discipline” and “A discipline is not reaching one happy endpoint.”

What I think he means here is that there is no pill, app or easy button that will ensure the strength and longevity of our committed partnerships. Also, and more importantly, the goal can’t be to arrive at a “tah dah!” point in a relationship and then coast for the rest. If a relationship is right, it will still take a lot of hard work to keep it that way.

The kind of hard work that involves:

  • Staying current on what’s important to our partner (updating our Love Maps)
  • Continually noticing and expressing our feelings of fondness and admiration
  • Monitoring our communication so that we maintain a positive perspective and treat each other with respect
  • Connecting at the beginning, middle and end of the day in small, but important ways
  • Taking the time to know what our partner needs to feel loved and giving that to them
  • And (note to self) updating those calendars

By the way, the first five of those tasks are actually all proven by research to be integral to the healthy upkeep of a long-term committed relationship, so it’s not just me saying this. (I’m certain that sixth one is important too, but I don’t have the research to add to my cred here.)

So the hard truth (I know, I know, I’m forever hawking the hard truths) is that relationships take work, work that we – like Dorothy Gale and Luke Skywalker on their respective quests – have always had, will always have, the power to accomplish in our day-to-day-life together.

Relationships Should Be EasyWe don’t need a vacation from the rest of life to make this happen. We just need to create the intention to put this important task on our already-stuffed-to-the-gills to-do lists. And then we need to just DO the thing. Over and over and over again.

But we get lazy, don’t we? Sloppy. We skip out on that daily update or kiss. We forget to acknowledge a kindness. We neglect to update our love maps. And our calendars.

And then we find ourselves trying to make up for our negligence with a quick trip to the mountains, a fancy gift, or a couples counseling session.

Or we suddenly (or not so suddenly, it turns out) find we are facing the prospect of divorce.

Frankly, in these days of no-fault, low-cost divorce, breaking up is often easier than doing the hard work of maintaining a strong relationship. And, what’s more, living alone can often feel less personally taxing than making space in your life for another person.

But what is easier is not usually what is most rewarding, right? (With the exception of Kraft Mac-and Cheese. Or a Starbucks Vente Mocha Lattes. Or watching an episode of So You Think You Can Dance. Dammit. Well, you know what I mean.)

But truly, the rewards of being a part of a long-term, committed relationship are real and plenty. As I’ve written in a different post:

  • We grow to be our best selves in relationship, not alone.
  • A mature relationship can tolerate powerful independence and individuality.
  • So many more interesting and fulfilling things are possible in a relationship in which deep trust and     connection have been established over time.

Another finding from Pillemer’s study: “Couples who have made it all the way later into life have found it to be a peak experience, a sublime experience to be together . . . Everybody – 100% – said at one point that the long marriage was the best thing in their lives.”

All of this is worth the work, people. But it is work, indeed.

Happily, it is work you won’t regret because you can be confident that it will lead to the flourishing of the relationship that you knew was right to begin with.


Please share your “hard work” relationship stories in a comment below. We will all benefit from the exchange!

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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #3: The First Years Are The Best

first yearsMy husband and I recently visited my alma mater for my 30th reunion. (Yes, that says 30th, and I assure you that I am as shocked by that high number as I hope you are.)

Now, it just so happens that he and I actually met each other at this institution. So while on campus, in addition to connecting with alums and attending various reunion parades and dinners, we also made a point of visiting the places dear to us because of their connection to early relationship memories:

The lake that was the site of our first long talk and luscious first kiss,

The paths we walked arm in arm as we moved from library to dining hall to dorm,

My senior dorm room where we spent countless hours talking, studying and . . . doing other things.

And as we visited these places . . . we remembered.

We remembered those earliest years of our relationship, years awash in the giddiness of our “in love” feelings and our tentative anticipation of an exciting future together.

If you’ve been in a similar situation, you know how easy it is to wax nostalgic about the early years of a relationship, and to long to experience that fresh sense of excitement all over again.

And you know, also, how easy it can be to decide that the more mature version of this relationship in which you now find yourself is woefully lacking when compared to its younger self, and to believe because of this that those first years were the best years.

I’m going to give you three reasons to believe otherwise:

first years1) There is no early rush of excitement and possibility that can compare to what really becomes possible in a relationship when a deep trust has been established over time.

In a relationship that is heading in the right direction, trust is built over time through a million small decisions and events. We offer a positive response to our partner’s bid for connection, we work hard to engage in respectful communication, we care that there is a fair resolution to the inevitable problems that arise between two different people who’ve chosen to spend their lives together. All of this.

And then something magical happens. This building of trust over time leads to an increased openness to both expressing and nurturing vulnerability, which in turn offers our partnership opportunities for deeper emotional connection, a more challenging intellectual discourse and – big bonus! – more robust and creative sexual exploration.

All of these things are less likely to flourish in a new relationship in which both are holding a bit back, waiting for that sense of trust to develop.

2) We grow best in relationship, not alone.

So, I’m not gonna lie. There are real benefits to living alone. A few of my favorites:

  • I can binge watch stored So You Think You Can Dance episodes.
  • I can sleep without the interruptions of a snoring or restless bed partner.
  • I can indulge in my workaholism to my heart’s content.
  • I can play air guitar in my tighty-whities like Tom Cruise in Risky Business.

Okay, so I don’t actually do that last one. But I could if I wanted to!

But here’s the thing: I like the opportunity to express my “meness” to its fullness every now and then, but the truth is that I am a better person in my relationship with my husband than I would be if I were single.

This is because relationships – with their inevitable push and pull of likes, dislikes, needs, wants and alternative viewpoints – encourage you to grow, challenge you to change, to see the other side and accept influence from something besides your own echo chamber.

A viewpoint or need expressed by your partner is hard to ignore or dismiss because it comes from someone you love very much and with whom you share things like secrets, sinks, values, the TV remote, and the bed.

3) A mature relationship can tolerate powerful independence and individuality.

When we are falling in love with someone we are in the business of BONDING. In this space, there is a hormonal pull to find all the ways in which we are alike, find all the interests we share, “become one” with the other.

This is the right goal of a young relationship, but if we hold on to it for too long, we run the risk of losing ourselves in this miasma of oneness.

As a relationship matures, as time together is logged and trust is built, it can offer both partners space in which to explore their own self once again.

first yearsWe can ask for and receive enriching spaces in our togetherness (to borrow a concept from Rabindranath Tagore) in which we can hang out with the old gang, ask for “me time,” explore a new career or take solo vacations.

We can even find the space and time to play air guitar in our underwear.

So take heart. With time and trust, the best is truly yet to come.

– – – – – – – – – – –

If you’re in a long-term relationship, what do you remember about those early years? And how has your relationship changed since then? Or if you’re in the early stages of a committed partnership, or have yet to find a long-term partner, how do you hope your relationship will evolve over time? Please consider sharing your stories below.

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Marriage Myth-Busters Myth #2: Compatibility Is Key

compatibilityBirds of a feather flock together.

Well that may be true in the avian world but, sadly, it doesn’t always work out that way in the land of long-term, committed relationships.

Okay, I’ll give you this: it may be true that, in our search for That One Right Person, we do end up gravitating toward potential partners that are more like us than not. That just makes sense.

But under this innocent and very understandable preference for perceived compatibility lies the equally innocent, and somewhat dangerous, belief that this compatibility will protect our marriage from eventual demise. Dangerous because it’s not true.

Think about it. Doesn’t everyone know a couple that is divorcing because they’ve “grown apart?”

Exactly.

But what causes this growing apart feeling? And why does it feel so insurmountable and incompatible with long-term love? I’m hoping the myths I’ve noted below (helpfully bolded) will shed some light on these questions.

First of all, the person who shares our every value and interest truly doesn’t exist. We know this, don’t we? And yet we keep hoping, and searching.

A friend of mine has an actual checklist (yes, written on paper) of qualities her eventual mate must have in order for her to even consider going on more than one date with him. Perhaps not surprisingly, she is still single.

But sometimes it happens, doesn’t it? Sometimes THIS happens:

“We are so much alike.”
“I’ve found my soul mate.”
“We like all the same things!”

And then we’re all in.

But not so fast.

Because despite our certainty in this moment that we have found our perfect soul mate, this sense of perfect compatibility often turns out to be only an illusion of sameness.

If you doubt this, consider how honest you were about your shadow side the last time you were getting to know someone. What little dark details did you leave out of those initial rounds of storytelling and baring of souls? Personally, I work really hard to keep a lot of that nasty stuff hidden. And, yes – even from my partner (whom I really believe loves me no matter what, by the way).

Even more important (and unnerving), few of us have much insight into our own complexities, much less about those of another person. Most of us, to quote Alain De Botton, have “the sincere impression that we are really quite easy to live with,” when the truth is that we generally have some pretty ragged and annoying edges.

So even if we really do try to bare all to a potential mate, we obviously can’t be honest about facets of ourselves about which we lack awareness, which means that the information we share with each other in that “getting to know you” phase (which can last a lifetime, in my experience) is . . . well . . . suspect.

compatibilityAlso, and this is really unfortunate, the sense of alikeness or compatibility we feel for someone is often organized around our mutual brokenness. If this is true, then we are often looking to recreate, within our committed relationships, patterns and dynamics from our childhood that may not work very well in the adult world, and so can’t necessarily be counted on to save the day when things get rough.

Here’s the good news (I always have good news!):

More important than the interests and values we share (which, truth be told, can change over time – and actually should change if we want to be evolving humans, but that’s another blog post) is the way in which we relate to each other as we engage in these interests and live out these values.

Couples can and do fight (sometimes destructively) in all kinds of situations – even at Disneyland, on a trip to Italy or while training for a marathon. What becomes truly important as a relationship progresses – and is predictive of relationship longevity, according to relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman – is the way a couple interacts while pursuing our interests and values, shared or not.

Case in point:

  • One couple shares a fondness for the Christmas holiday but always fights over the proper decoration of the Christmas tree.
  • A second Christmas-loving but aesthetically-different couple decides to decorate one side of their tree in multi-colored ornaments and the other side all in bisque, thus avoiding a yearly argument. (This really happened, and this same couple owns two coffee makers set to brew each morning – one that makes a strong brew for him, and one that brews it lighter for her. Genius!)

De Botton has this couple’s wisdom in mind when he observes that “the person who is best suited to us is not the person who shares our every taste . . . but the person who can negotiate differences in taste intelligently – the person who is good at disagreement.”

Consider James Carville (lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign) and Mary Matalin (Deputy Campaign Chief to George H.W. Bush), married with two children. These two are polar opposites politically, but (according a 2014 CBS News interview) live peacefully within and around their ideological differences. They say they are more likely to argue about pets than politics.

compatibility“Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition,” writes De Botton (can you tell I love this guy?).

And this earned compatibility – one built on countless moments of yearning to understand, respectfully disagreeing, loving the differences, and moving toward compromise – is one that will go the distance.

Please take some time to share your compatibility stories below, and feel free to check out this Hitch Fix post for more marriage myth-busting!

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Marriage Myth Busters Myth #1: Falling In Love Is Enough

falling in loveThis “falling in love” myth is the Disney promise, right? The one we cut our romantic teeth on when we were young.

It goes something like this:

There is a One True Love out there for everyone, so I will find mine and, after falling in love with each other (obviously) and outsmarting the modern-day equivalent of a wicked witch or two, we will live happily every after in wedded bliss.

 

I have good news and bad news here.

First the bad news . . .

I hate to break it to all of you romantics out there (because I’m a member of the tribe), but the truth is there are several special someones, multiple True Loves, out there for each of us. In fact, you will likely feel that same “falling in love” feeling with more than one person in your lifetime. (This will be a little startling if you’re married to a different person when it happens.)

Because it’s all about the biology, baby. Hormones and neurotransmitters.

Dr. Julie Holland, a psychiatrist in private practice in New York City, puts it this way in her book Moody Bitches: “Falling in love is the neural mechanism of mate selection.”

Super romantic, right?

But she’s spot on. Attraction is as much a physical process as an emotional one. As Holland goes on to explain, multiple neurotransmitters and hormones (like dopamine, norepinephrine, oxytocin and testosterone) all collude in the beginning of a relationship to create both the sensation of initial attraction and that euphoric “falling in love” feeling.

But eventually, as Holland notes, the chemistry of attraction changes over time, becoming calmer and less intense, because “the reward circuitry isn’t firing, and the frontal lobes are fully online, so rational thought wins out over emotional upheaval, due to normalized serotonin levels.”

Which is science-speak for “I’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.”

So, wait. There are actually tons of people out there that you could be happily married to, and your initial passion will most likely eventually wane, regardless of which handsome prince or beautiful princess you choose. So what’s the good news?

Falling in loveIt’s this. Once we have chosen a One True Love, we are given the delightful opportunity to choose this same person again and again and again. And it’s this rechoosing – this reclaiming of our love day after day, spat after spat, through sleepless baby nights and meno/manopausal changes – that is, in and of itself, True Love at work.

And this True Love is the type of love that doesn’t depend on, and so is not at the mercy of, high dopamine and norepinephrine levels.

So the falling in love part is easy. It’s the staying in love part that takes work.

In the end, long-term committed love is, as Stephen Covey coined and John Mayer croons, a verb. Not an emotional state. A verb that will, in fact, conquer all.

(By the way, another marriage myth is that the first years are the best. I’ll bust that myth in a future post!)

All of you happily married (or committed) people out there – let us know in your comments below all the ways you’ve rechosen your partner over time. And check out a few more of my Hitch Fix blog posts if you’re interested in reading about both the challenges and awesome gifts of long-term committed partnerships.

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