Category Archives: Tips for Couples

Get Out of the Bleachers, and Into Love!

I was in session a while back with a client when he said something that I immediately wrote down after our session. He had been working through personal, family, social, and romantic relationships, and eventually started seeing himself and others in very different ways than has been the case most of his life. The results have been tremendous, and it’s never been more evident than when he said the following, speaking of the truth he’s learned about his own relationships.

“If you aren’t yourself in a relationship, you end up watching your false self get all the love, while the real you is still alone and watching from the bleachers.”

People Like Shiny Stuff Until They Realize It’s Fake

What if you found out your beautiful diamond ring was a fake? You probably wouldn’t think it was quite as amazing anymore. But if you knew all along it was a cubic zirconium and just wanted it to look pretty, whatever it was made of, you’d feel better about it.

For those of you who aren’t into diamond rings, think of it this way…You’re looking to buy a home.  You have an idea of what you’re looking for, and you search Zillow day and night looking for the home of your dreams. You end up buying what looks like the perfect home, but your inspector misses a few important things that the seller did not disclose, and you end up having to make costly repairs a couple years after taking ownership of the home. Yikes! Nobody likes being on the wrong end of a bait and switch deal! But if you knew about the needed repairs up front, you could have still bought the home (probably at a lower price) and moved in knowing it was going to be a journey to fully turn it into the home of your dreams.

Don’t Bait and Switch Your Partner

Unfortunately, this is how many people end up feeling in their relationships. You date someone and put your best foot forward for weeks, months, or years. You put up with behaviors you have no desire to tolerate in the long term. You let your physical boundaries get pushed around. You say yes when you want to say no. You do all of these things because you want the relationship to continue. You accept your partner’s flaws without sharing your own. You make sure to show off your best qualities and try to minimize your weaknesses, avoiding any chances that they’ll see the real you and head for the hills. You tell yourself, “If I don’t complain, maybe they’ll stick around longer than the last person.”

Then you get married, let your hair down, let your flaws show, start naming all your complaints, and your partner, rightfully so, is not pleased. What happened to the woman who couldn’t get enough of him in the bedroom? What happened to the guy who loved staying home for candle light dinner and a romantic comedy? Why don’t you go on dates anymore? Where did this temper come from?

When partners finally feel safe (often after marriage contracts get signed), they tend to let their true colors show. Sometimes all at once, sometimes gradually. But safety in commitment tends to breed authenticity, for better or worse.

The problem comes when we think we got something that we didn’t. We feel tricked, misled, cheated. Better to just be who we are from the beginning!

Be Loved For Who You Are

Remember, if you are authentic and show as much of your true self as possible at all times, when you get love in return, it’s for the real you. It’s not for the fake self that you put out there to meet the other person’s expectations. Wouldn’t you rather be loved for who you are? Someone who truly cares about you (not just what you can do for them) will accept you as you are and walk with you as you continue to grow.

You never end up with the same person you married, even if you never get divorced. We all change over the years as we learn about ourselves, the world, and our partners. You won’t stay the same. Neither will they. We are molded by our experiences and by those we surround ourselves with. Expect change, and help it to be in a positive direction. Be authentically you, knowing that how that looks may change over the years. As long as you stay authentic, your partner will get to go along for the ride with you as you grow together.

How’s Your Authenticity?

If this seems pretty daunting, you’re not alone. I help people all the time in my practice to work through the things that are holding them back from being authentic in their relationships. Fears, insecurities, old hurts, and the like all get in the way of people experiencing amazing and authentic relationships. If this sounds like you, it might be helpful to talk to someone who can help you work through any barriers to authentic relationships you might be experiencing.

It’s hard to be loved for who you are if your partner doesn’t really know the real you. A good place to start is taking a good look in the mirror and figuring out whether the person you see is the person your friends, family, and romantic partner see as well. Then you can decide whether you want to do things differently to be more authentic, get out of the bleachers, and get in the game!

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

You Didn’t Marry Your Parents (They’re Hiding in Your Suitcase)

You’ve probably heard the age-old line about how we all tend to marry our mother/father in some way. Maybe your mom was bossy/demanding, and you’re starting to notice that your wife can be pretty controlling and you never measure up. Maybe you had your dad wrapped around your little finger and you picked a husband who does everything you ask, but doesn’t seem to have any ideas of his own, and now you’re feeling bored.

The problem with these kinds of relationship dynamics is that they’re great at first. We love to feel comfortable in relationships, so we often end up dating and marrying people who make us feel things we’ve felt before. We seek what we know. And once we get comfortable, it’s hard to change things, even if it’s for the better!

Comfort in Discomfort

I can’t recall where I first heard this, but I can’t tell you how many times it rings true with my clients: “People tend to stay the same until the status quo becomes more painful or scary than trying something new.”

What this means for our adult relationships is that we likely had a particular way that we felt in our early relationships that we’ve carried into our romantic relationships. The feelings are not always good or bad. They can be anything- fear, comfort, apprehension, security, longing, inadequacy, etc.

Let’s take fear as an example. If your relationship with one or more of your parents consistently involved fear, you likely try to avoid fear at all costs. You may settle for someone less than ideal simply because s/he is not overtly threatening. Maybe your fear leads you to avoid being truly vulnerable, no matter how sensitive, gentle, and inviting your partner is around you. Maybe you take a more active approach and your fear has led you to be controlling in relationships, making sure that you manage minute details of the relationship (e.g. your partner’s schedule, their messaging habits, their social life, etc.). Whatever the behavioral response, it’s important to recognize where it may be coming from.

Emptying Your Suitcase

We all carry around a relationship suitcase from childhood. The trick here is to recognize what feelings or patterns you’ve carried around in your adult relationships, and be intentional about seeking something different and healthier. Staying present with your partner is a great first step. If you think you can trust them to be on your side and to be invested in improving the quality of your relationship, however poor your combined communication skills might be, ask them to monitor some behaviors for you.

Tell them about the old family baggage you found in your relationship suitcase, and that you’re trying to get rid of it for the sake of your relationship. Tell them the ways that you are trying to improve/adapt/change, and ask them to gently bring it to your attention when you start sliding into old habits. I tell all of my therapy couples that it’s important for them to start letting go of their history and start telling a new story. This requires forgiveness, eventually, and a good way to start down that road is to focus on personal humility and collaborative problem solving around these suitcase issues in the present moment.

No Shaming Allowed

When they call your attention to a problem behavior, they should only bring it to your attention, not judge you. There should be a collaborative feel to the whole process. No shaming allowed (by either of you). This is an opportunity to come together over a shared goal: having the most amazing relationship you can! The things you share in a vulnerable conversation are not allowed to be used as ammunition in future disagreements.

For that matter, past hurts/flaws are unhealthy forms of ammunition as well (again, history is a dangerous weapon!). Heck, if we’re calling it ammunition, let’s just put down our relationship guns and work together. Each of you should think of your job as being whatever your partner needs at any given time, and the work gets a lot simpler. If your focus tends to be on each others’ needs, negativity tends to diminish.

Suitcases Can Show Up Anywhere

Our family suitcase baggage can show up anywhere, but we tend to unpack most of our baggage with the people we’re closest with. This is often our spouse and our children. You might not notice it, but you probably have some similar relationship dynamics with your children as you do with your partner. Some of these may be good/helpful/healthy, and some might need some work.

If it’s a pretty mild problem, there’s a chance that you might be mainly responding to a recent difficult situation, and the problem may resolve once the situation changes. If not, and you happen to notice some unhealthy/unhelpful patterns in any of your important relationships, it’s time to do something about it.
Depending on how severe the problem is, you might just want to talk to a friend about it, or you might want to find a book, podcast, workbook, or perhaps more blogs like this one to give you some basic pointers. I recommend just about anything written by John Gottman that deals with successful relationships (e.g. What Makes Love Last?). For those looking for a religious/Christian perspective on healthy marriage, I recommend Tim Keller’s, The Meaning of Marriage.

Will This Go Away On Its Own?

The reality is, however, that most relationship patterns don’t tend to go away unless we do something intentional about them. If the problem is severe enough, meaning that it’s having a significant impact in some major area of life functioning (work, marriage, friendships, parenting, finances, self-care), it may be important to reach out for some professional assistance.

If you think you might need professional help, that’s okay! No matter where you live, there are trained professionals who can help you through the change process. Try to think of therapy as an investment in not only you, but in your relationships and your future happiness.

If you haven’t noticed what’s in your suitcase, it’s probably sitting in your closet waiting for you to open it. Your loved ones probably already have a good idea of what’s in it. If you’re feeling brave, you might just ask them about it! Whatever you decide to do, do something. Who is going to be your first text/email/call? It’s never too late to start having better relationships, and you might as well start now!

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Tuning Your Relationship Radio

My first car was a beige 1985 Ford tempo. Yeah…I know. Pretty bold choice, right? Well, my grandparents gave it to me and it was the best (and only) free car I’ve ever had. For a teenage driver with a job making 4 bucks an hour, that was exactly the kind of car I needed! The clutch was mostly burned out, and the brakes ended up going out one day, and it didn’t have a digital radio until I bought one at Best buy with the money I made from my job at The Disney Store (where we wore long sleeve denim uniform shirts…and yes, we knew how cool we looked). But it had everything I needed.

The original radio in my beige tempo had a tape deck and dial that you would to turn to tune into the particular station you wanted to listen to. It’s the knob on the right in the picture above. For any millennials and beyond reading this, the way that radios used to work was that there was not a button to tune to a very particular frequency a specific frequency, but rather there were knobs that you would turn that would approximate a signal. They didn’t click with each station you passed like the knobs in our cars today. If you wanted to listen to 102.7 you would to turn the knob until you got close and then use your ear to find the best signal possible. To get the best listening experience you had to pay close attention to the sound coming from your radio and finely-tune your actions to best attune to the station.

Radios and Relationships

In my work with couples over the past 14 years I’ve found that relationships are a lot like the radio in my old Tempo. If we don’t listen closely, and finely tune our actions according to what we hear, we tend to experience a lot of unpleasant static. Attunement is the term for this concept that social scientists use when they study relationships. Attunement essentially is your ability to “tune in” to your partner’s feelings, thoughts, and experience of a situation. Our partners have thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that, if we pay attention, can give us helpful information about what they need and how we can respond.

How Can I Get Better At Tuning In?

If you tune in closely to your partner’s signal you’ll see those helpful hints they provide. If, however, you don’t tune in to the station, or at least get close, there’s going to be a lot of static. You won’t clearly hear the music that they’re playing for you. Some couples therapists talk about relationships as being a dance, with feelings often being considered the music of the dance. Your job as a partner in a relationship is to tune in to the music of the dance, the feelings. You need to get your radio dial tuned as finely as possible to the music coming from your partner’s station so that you can best respond.

If you are tuned to a different station, distracted by your phone, or thinking about work, your kids, or a “to-do” list, you can’t be paying close attention to the signal that your partner is sending you. You’re going to miss what they’re trying to tell you. You might hear the unpleasant corrective words, and miss the good intention behind them.

Do I Have To Be Tuned In Perfectly?

Sometimes you might tune in to the station but you might be a little off. You might not have gotten your dial perfectly fixed on their signal. And that’s okay. Sometimes you might misinterpret something. Your job in those moments is not necessarily to fix what was wrong but just to tune in more closely. Be curious about what led them to send out the signal you heard. Recalibrate your radio by humbly asking questions before making statements. The next time your partner speaks strongly about something, commit to tuning in to their signal so that you can respond in a more helpful way, even if they trigger an upset feeling in you.

Partners in successful relationships are not about brute force, blunt communication. Successful partners communicate with nuance, and are willing to recalibrate their attunement to meet their partner’s needs.

But My Partner Is Such A Terrible Communicator!

If you find yourself hearing only static in a relationship, try not to blame your partner too much. The static is not what was meant to be heard, at least not initially. Some people learn to send out static, instead of a clear signal, because it’s scary for them to be truly known. It can feel vulnerable or scary for them to be seen, heard and understood by others. They have often been hurt by others. It can be hard for them to send out a clear signal without someone first being closely attuned to them and accepting them as they are. Sometimes their partner is able to help them work through this; other times, it can be helpful to involve someone with training and experience with relationship attunement.

What Should I Do Next?

Attunement isn’t everything in relationships, but it is vitally important. If you feel like your radio dial isn’t quite tuned to your partner’s station, or if you feel like there’s a lot of static in your relationships, it might be time to talk to someone about it. The best person to talk to about the static in any relationship is often the other person in that relationship. Make sure to engage them with humility and curiosity so as not to put them on defense right away. If you’re not sure how to do that, it might help to talk with someone else first.

A good friend can often lend perspective on tough relationships. Or you might want to talk with a therapist trained to “listen between the lines” and see the nuanced processes impacting your relationships. Or, if your partner is willing, it’s often even more helpful to talk to someone together, so you both can tune in more closely to each other. Whatever you choose to do, do something. The music won’t change in it’s own. Someone has to turn the dial.

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Would You Take the Plunge?

In a harrowing scene from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry is drowning under the ice in a frozen lake when his friend, Ron, appears out of nowhere to save him. Ron enters the freezing cold, dangerous water to rescue his best friend from near certain death. Would we do the same for someone we love? Probably, but there’s more to consider in both Harry’s story and in our own relationships.

Let’s suppose it’s a comfortable, sunny Saturday in early September. You’re feeling warm, but not overheated. You’ve got your swimsuit on, no place to go the rest of the day, and, for the sake of argument, you enjoy swimming. Unfortunately, you’re not sure whether your pool heater has been running the past few days. Would you jump in the pool without first testing the water temperature with your toe or checking the thermometer? Probably not. Now let’s imagine it’s the same sunny day, and your two year old daughter, who can’t swim, has just fallen in the pool. Still want to test the water temperature first? Or are you jumping in regardless?

Why Do I Have To Be Uncomfortable??

Though we may not always want to be in the water, especially if the water is uncomfortable, some situations dictate that we leap without looking. Marriage is a lot like the second scenario. It shouldn’t matter how warm or cold the pool is. It shouldn’t matter how stressed or sad or angry a situation might make you. Your commitment to your future spouse needs to be such that you are ready to jump in the pool no matter the temperature.

One of the truly difficult things about this metaphor is that although many of us would be willing to jump in the pool to save our child or spouse, we become less willing when there is not an imminent crisis. If we’re honest, many of us would waver in our agreement to STAY in the pool for an extended period if no one were drowning. Are we willing to not only GET uncomfortable, but STAY uncomfortable for as long as it takes? (This is the constant struggle of non-profits- most of us are happy to post our support on social media or make a donation in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, but then we return to our normal, comfortable lives and forget about the needs around us).

It’s Not About You Anymore

Knowing you may never be as happy as you’d like and still choosing to stay in the pool is true commitment. If you’re thinking about getting married, think about whether you are committed to your partner enough to not only dive in the pool to save them, but stay in the pool to sustain them, whatever the cost to you personally. Marriage is not about your own comfort and happiness. It’s about your spouse’s comfort and happiness. The day you say “I do,” your life is no longer your own. If you’re not ready for that level of commitment, marriage may not yet be for you.

Risks of Living Together Before Engagement

This is why research has shown that pre-engagement cohabitation (living together), but not simply pre-marital cohabitation is linked to poorer marital outcomes: commitment matters in marriage! Living together (in a mostly married state/situation) without truly committing to each other in either a marital contract or a promise to soon enter one (engagement), gives the behavioral appearance of commitment without thoughtful, intentional commitment. Those whose relationships gradually evolve toward marriage in this “one thing leads to another” pattern report “lower marital satisfaction, dedication, and confidence as well as more negative communication and greater potential for divorce than those who cohabited only after engagement” (Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009, even after controlling for things like age, income, education, and religiousness). Some researchers call this approach to the enormous decision to get married, “sliding, rather than deciding” (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006). (It should be noted here as well that some researchers have found that those who only cohabitate with their future (first/only) spouse are less likely to report the above negative marital outcomes than those who live with other romantic partners before their eventual spouse).

Marriage Changes Everything

Or at least it should. This is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Entering a marriage covenant changes everything about your relationship. Yes, many things will look largely the same, but the underlying motivation in a successful marriage relationship is different than it ever could have been before marriage, or at least engagement. Before the marriage, either party can simply walk away with no real lasting consequences. This necessarily has implications for many aspects of the relationship (e.g. sexual interactions, sharing your truest hopes and fears, providing constructive criticism, etc.).

In a marriage, each member of the couple has now agreed to put the other first, “forsaking all others,” “in sickness and in health,” and in so many other ways. Before you “take the plunge,” take some time to consider your level of commitment. The pool can be a great place to relax on a warm summer day, but your spouse WILL need you to take an extended swim in a frozen lake on some frigid January morning. Probably more than once. If you and your spouse are committed to each other and the relationship, the sacrifice of completing these chilly swims may be very unpleasant, but will be well worth the effort in the long run.

 

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

 

Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The pre-engagement cohabitation effect: A replication and extension of previous findings. Journal of Family Psychology, 23, 107–111.

Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sliding vs. deciding: Inertia and the premarital cohabitation effect. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Family Studies, 55, 499 –509.

There’s No Such Thing As Soulmates!

Will I ever find THE ONE?

If you’re looking for an article to give you some hope that there’s that one person out there that’s destined to be the love of your life, you should probably stop reading now. My goal here is to help you understand how there is simply no one out there who is your “one.” But not only that, I hope to empower you to get out there and find A one and MAKE them your one. Fairy tales don’t exist, and there’s no prince charming, damsel in distress, love at first sight, or any other Disney princess nonsense going on in the real world. (To be fair to Disney, their movies have generally played to the mainstream cultural mood of America in some ways, and they’ve made moves toward more egalitarian, even power-female, plots in recent “princess” films.).

We’ve got great physical chemistry…

If you’ve been searching for “the one” for a while with no luck, it’s probably because love (at least lasting love) is not about luck, serendipity, fortune, or destiny. According to the majority of the scholarly research available on couples, it’s about commitment, trust, and sacrifice. It’s also not about physical intimacy. If the physical “chemistry” happens to be good from the start, great. But let me emphasize that physical chemistry is something that can be worked on and improved far more easily than personality issues and worldview conflicts (differences in the personal value lenses through which we see and interpret the world around us).

Passion in Paris, or consistent commitment?

What we are often led to believe by Hollywood, and ABC’s “The Bachelor,” is that near death experiences and passionate physical encounters are the main ingredients of great love. But what Hollywood often fails to portray in these epic romances is the depth of devotion and sacrifice required to maintain that chemistry over the long term. Even the 90’s NBC sitcom, “Friends,” takes a humorous approach to the subject, and largely equates soulmates to someone attractive with whom you share primary interests.

Most of the “love at first sight” stories fail to show the complex and nuanced process of growing together over several years. In entertainment romances, love is seldom earned by working at building and maintaining a friendship based on trust and mutual self-less action. Instead, one partner covers the bedroom in a thousand rose petals, sells a business and moves across the country, plans a romantic weekend in Paris, etc., and the characters “fall” for each other. These sweeping gestures and fancy vacations lead to passionate emotional connection that has little chance of lasting without the key ingredient of commitment.

Should marriage be so difficult?

I recently heard a marriage therapist say, “If your marriage is difficult, you’re doing it wrong.” I think I understand where they were coming from, but I would hate to sugar coat anything about marriage. It’s hard work. No, it shouldn’t always be difficult, but there will be difficult moments. There should be fun, and it should outweigh the bad times, but most of our daily lives together are not epic, harrowing, dramatic, exciting, or anything else that many people look for in soulmate love. Much of life is ordinary and detail-oriented. It’s meal-planning, budgeting, working, raising children, scheduling, etc. The business of daily life.

If you need constant excitement in your relationship, you’re likely heading for a break-up. No relationship can offer constant fun. If you start to say to yourself, or your partner, “We never have any fun anymore,” that’s okay! Talk about it! Ask for what you need and want. Discuss what you’re willing to sacrifice to make positive changes to the relationship. Show your partner what you’re willing to give up in the schedule to make time for new adventures. For example, how willing are you to help your partner with their daily tasks to make their life easier and create availability in their schedule for the fun time you crave?

Soulmates are not found. They are made.

You pick a person, just about any person, and as long as there is mutual commitment to trust and sacrifice for each other, the relationship has a great chance of surviving and thriving for the long haul. We all grow and change together. The soulmate you find today may be somewhat different in a year, and possibly very different in ten years.

What if s/he changes over time?

Few people change dramatically overnight. Growth takes time, and what matters is growing together. You might find your soulmate at the grocery store, or at a club, church, school, or office. You just won’t know it’s them yet. Even if you feel a strong connection right away, this is short-term emotional excitement. This represents attraction, aroused interest, novelty, and curiosity, but not love. Find a person you like now, and help them to grow over time, loving and sacrificing for them to help them reach their full potential as a person and partner. As they do the same for you, they solidify their place as your soulmate.

I love him/her, but it feels like it’s not working anymore…

If you’re already in a committed relationship and it’s not feeling like a soulmate situation, this doesn’t mean you picked the wrong person. It means you’ve both got some work ahead of you to become the soulmate each other deserves. Relationships are a team game, and you have to play WITH and FOR your teammate. You’re bound to lose the game of love when you start playing only for yourself. Be the partner you want your partner to become. You can’t change them. You can only change yourself, and appeal to their love for you in requesting that they also make some changes. Show love and ask for it in return. Be open about your needs and desires. And when they follow through, even on the small things, give them credit!

Should we just tough it out?

If it’s still difficult, get help. Talk to a psychologist, a therapist, a pastor, or maybe for starters, a happy long-term couple that you know and trust. Relationships are not meant to be lived in isolation, but in supportive community. If your partner changes, you’ll probably need to make changes as well. You can’t find a soulmate. But you can be one, and help your partner become one too.

 

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Should I get a Prenup?

In the 2001 film, Ocean’s 11, George Clooney’s character, Danny Ocean, attempts not only to pull off one of the greatest casino heists in Las Vegas history, but also to win back the heart of his ex-wife, Tess (played by the fabulous Julia Roberts). It just so happens that the casino owner has been romantically involved with Tess, and it’s looking somewhat serious.

Part of Ocean’s scheme involves having Tess observe a conversation between Ocean and the casino owner following the heist. Ocean essentially tells the casino owner he can help find the guys who robbed the casino, and all he would have to do is give up Tess. As Tess watches from a hijacked video feed in another room, the casino owner agrees to Ocean’s proposal. Tess decides that she’s not interested in love that comes with a price tag, even one that is over $100 million, and leaves the relationship immediately. (Cue chants of “You go girl!”)

I’ve yet to come across a person who is excited about pouring themselves wholly and vulnerably  into a marriage relationship knowing that their partner values a particular item or dollar amount more than the relationship. It’s just not a recipe for great love. And yet, many Americans who might support Tess’ move still think about their own relationships more like the casino owner.

Obtaining legal counsel

Now, before I say anything further, let me be clear that I am not a legal expert. I’ve got lawyers in my family that I consult for these kinds of things, and hopefully you’ll consult one if this topic has been on your mind. Here is some info from divorcenet.com that provides the basics of prenuptual / premarital agreements in California (where I practice). Laws may be different where you live, but it’s something to get you started. That said, I can speak to the relational issues at stake here with confidence, so buckle up, and lets talk about PRENUPs!

 

A little history

Unfortunately, the last 50 or so years have seen tremendous rise in the divorce rates in America. The traditional view of marriage as a bond that requires and deserves consistent effort seems to have faded into the mist in the wake of the “me generation.” The American values of dedication and sacrifice pervaded the pre-boomer generations following multiple wars and the great depression. This all seemed to change as America entered a time of prosperity and self-indulgence. Even with the shift toward pursuit of self and temporary turn-ons, people still tend to get married more than not, even if it is later in life for many (after pursuing careers, exciting but temporary relationships, etc.). The irony here is that as we’ve sought to please ourselves above all others, we’ve lost the art of relational sacrifice and end up suffering in our most important relationships.

The prenup as a response to divorce rates

One “solution” many couples turn to in light of this increasing statistical likelihood of divorce is a prenuptual agreement. This agreement can take many forms and can specify a number of ways that things like personal property and financial assets can be divided in the event of marital dissolution. This is all well and good if the couple does not plan to stay together forever. If we’re honest, many marriages these days are less about lifelong commitment to the person, and more about infatuation with a current feeling.

What you think about marriage matters

Probably the most important consideration when it comes to a prenup is your personal philosophy of marriage. What does it mean to get hitched? Originally, it meant tying a horse to a wagon, it’s charge and burden. Later it came to mean getting married. In both cases, the idea is that one thing is tied to another, ideally with the intention that one cannot separate itself from the other without great cause or effort. After all, what good is tying your horse to a wagon if it can stop pulling whenever it hits an uphill road or simply gets tired!? This also rings true with marriage. This is why your marriage cannot simply be about how you feel about your partner right now. It’s a commitment to them even if (when) your feelings change in the future.

When we say “I love you” to someone, it often means “I enjoy the way you make me feel.” When we say, “I can’t imagine my life without you,” it often means, “I hope I always feel this excited, passionate, and happy.” Some friends told me recently about a wedding they attended where the bride and groom eschewed more traditional vows in favor of exchanging compliments. This probably made most of their loved ones in attendance say things like, “Aww, how sweet!” and “You can tell they are so in love with each other!” Unfortunately, saying nice things to build each other up is only a small fraction of the original purpose of a marriage. What you think of the remaining tasks of a spouse are vitally important as you consider a marriage and/or a prenup.

The meaning of marriage

Marriage’s original intent, for better or worse, was to bind people together legally, emotionally, physically, spiritually, financially, and in all other ways, forever (or at least “until death parts us”). Marriage is not supposed to be convenient. In fact, it is most effective at it’s original purposes (creating a secure family environment for the bettering of each spouse, possibly the raising of children, and serving the community) when there is some healthy tension. People don’t grow without experiencing tension!

A good spouse should not always make you happy, but should also challenge you, hone you, and grow you. If you’re looking to always be happy, marriage isn’t for you! But if you’re looking for a partner in life whom you can trust and rely upon, no matter what, then you might think about making a lifelong commitment to someone. Done right, marriage can bring lasting security and joy, which is not about a feeling in any given moment, but a way of experiencing life.

If your philosophy of marriage includes these more traditional ideas and practices, I would encourage you to consider the relational message a prenuptual agreement sends to your future mate. And I say “future mate” because until you have been bound together (hitched) legally in marriage, there’s no security for either of you, and really no reason for your partner to be fully vulnerable with you. No matter how long you’ve been dating or even living together, there’s always the option of leaving, with no notice and possibly few strings attached.

The benefit and costs of a prenup

Nowadays we have “no fault divorce,” an oxymoron if ever I heard one. In light of this reality, a prenuptual agreement is essentially a way to protect yourself from your future spouse. It guarantees that when you split up, you’re not left high and dry. And protect you it will, but that protection comes with a price higher than your attorney’s fees. A prenuptual agreement indicates to your fiancee, in legally binding terms, that there is a price on your love, an amount you are not willing to sacrifice to be fully theirs. It also signals that you are entering the marriage believing that there’s a decent chance it may end in some way other than the death of one or both spouses. Though I’ve never been in the military, I imagine committed marriage to be similar to a soldier squaring himself with the fact that he may die defending his country and the soldier next to him, and still making the choice to run toward the sounds of danger. You may lose in your marriage, and you may lose big, but committing to vulnerably take that risk is the only way to have truly great love.

What if I’m a lot more well-off than my fiancee?

Some will certainly argue that a prenup allows the wealthier spouse to have peace of mind that their partner is not marrying them just to get at their money. To that I simply say, if your marriage is not built on trust and commitment, it’s not likely to be very successful anyway, and yes, you’re probably going to need that prenup. Neither you, nor your partner, will ever feel secure as a husband or wife until you both are willing to give up everything for the other and fully commit. If they maliciously deceive you, that says more about them than you. Does that get your money back? No. But the complete vulnerability it takes to trust your spouse is the very foundation of a healthy marriage.

Can’t I just keep one foot out the door to be safe?

Prenuptual agreements reflect a more modern view of marriage, and frankly, one that has likely contributed to the rise in divorce rates. If you enter the marriage with even one toe out the door, you’re not fully committed to your spouse. Why, then, should they fully commit to you, put your needs first, and make sacrifices for you (the things most of us vowed to do on our wedding day)? (see Hokey Pokey marriages for more on this).

So should I get a prenup or not?

All told, if your philosophy of marriage tells you that marriage is simply a way to legally change your social status to “in a relationship,” or marriage just feels like “the logical next step,” consult your family law attorney and look into possibly getting yourself a prenuptual agreement. The stats say there’s a 50/50 chance you’re going to need it.

If, however, your philosophy of marriage tells you that marriage is a covenant between two people who not only like each other, but also commit to loving the other when they don’t deserve it, are unable or unwilling to give love in return, when life is just hard, when you haven’t talked for a while or haven’t had sex in three months, or one of you is depressed or physically ill and needing endless care and attention, then I urge you to think otherwise. Officially, I need to say you should consult an attorney as this has not only relational but financial/legal ramifications. That said, there is much more at stake with a prenup than just your money. Your vulnerability and secure attachment to your future spouse are on the line as well.

Vows are not something to take lightly. If you don’t really mean them, exchange compliments instead. It’s still nice, and it may more accurately represent the meaning of your ceremony. Are you looking to spend a lifetime getting to know someone as they grow, change, and fail? Or are you just looking to have an expensive party, dress up, and go on a nice vacation? It really is that simple. If you commit to the former, the remaining details shouldn’t matter. As Tess showed us in Ocean’s 11, nobody likes to learn there’s a price on their love, whatever the sacrifice.

 

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

Are you a marriage consumer?

One of the leading causes of death for marriages is consumerism. We get so caught up in consuming our spouse that we lose track of what it means to serve them. We forget the original vows we told each other, and we start thinking about ourselves first.

When my wife and I got married, we exchanged vows and promised each other the following: I want you in my life, to have and to hold, for richer and poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others (i.e. don’t be intimate with other people!), as long as we both shall live, as long as you meet all my needs first.

Okay, maybe not that last part. But isn’t that what we end up doing all too often in our relationships? We start out with the rose colored glasses on, thinking only of our partner’s happiness and security. We give of our time, energy, and affection regardless of how tired we are or how much we are looking forward to doing something else at the time. Our partners know they are our top priority. But then things change.

We get into routines. We get busy. Maybe we have kids. Few things can get in the way of a couple’s relationship more than those adorable little bundles of joy. In fact, research tells us that often the lowest point in terms of satisfaction in most marriages is in the child-rearing years. But it doesn’t have to be as bad as we often let it get.

What’s the problem here? It’s not actually the kids. It’s not the number of hours you or your spouse are working. It’s not money. Granted, those things can often be difficult to deal with. But what I remind many of my couples is that there are plenty of marriages out there where both partners are happy and their situation is objectively more despairingly difficult than most couples’ situations. So what is different for those happy couples? What is the problem, really?

What I’ve learned from reading the scientific literature on relationships and from the couples I’ve worked with, is that the biggest problem facing married couples is not what stressors are in their lives, but whether they face them together. Are you and your partner connected in such a way that you both feel safe and secure in the marriage no matter what happens outside of your relationship?

If you lost a job, a home, a child, would your relationship survive? Would you draw each other closer in that time of need? Would you reach for one another? When one of you is tired and having a difficult time meeting the other’s needs, does the other understandingly pick up the slack? Or is there resentment? Bitterness? Frustration and withdrawal?

If happiness in your marriage is based on consuming your spouse like a product, you’re in for a disappointing and lonely time when you and/or your partner hit a rough patch in life. If you’ve secretly added the “as long as you meet all my needs first” section to your vows, it’s going to be hard to do your part in the relationship when they are unable to fulfill theirs.

The bottom line is that we cannot be consumers of our marriages. We must instead be investors in our marriages. We must be entrepreneurs and constantly invest, sometimes in new and creative ways, in our marriages.

This may not be easy for you, especially if this is not what was modeled in your home growing up. But what needs to happen is for you and your spouse to begin to truly live up to your vows to put each other first. Even when it’s not fun or easy. In sickness and in health. When money is overflowing and when you’re scraping pennies for mac-n-cheese dinners. When you’re happy and when you’re not. There are no contingencies in successful marriages.

To be successful in this, you need to cultivate the safety and security that are the foundation of healthy communication. Consuming your spouse only puts pressure on them and drains them. Investing in their happiness, their success, and their emotional health puts them in a much better position to be able to meet your needs. Be an investor in your marriage, not a consumer of it.

 

Robert2 Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 657-200-8080 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.