Category Archives: Tips for Couples

Stand Up Against Self-Bullying

I don’t have much time for reading in this season of my life. I’m a full time professor for a doctoral psychology training program. I have a wife and three kiddos that I spend time with any chance I get. I enjoy seeing clients and supervising pre-licensed clinicians one evening a week. All told, there’s not a lot of wiggle room in my schedule. So I don’t read books. I listen (grateful shout out to my library apps: Libby and Hoopla!).

“12 Rules for Life”

During my commute a couple weeks ago I was listening to a book by a Canadian psychologist and professor named Jordan Peterson called 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos. Dr. Peterson is considered a bit of a controversial figure by many. He has been involved in some political mix ups in recent years, but that’s not what I’m interested in writing about. While I know that many folks out there disagree with some of his political stances, theories about society, etc., I have to admire that he tends to say exactly what he believes to be true.

In an age where being politically correct at the expense of personal honesty and integrity is commonplace, Dr. Peterson says what he is thinking…backlash be damned. In 12 Rules for Life, Dr. Peterson digs into (among many other issues) the concept of standing up for yourself against bullies. More specifically, he says, “It is not virtuous to be victimized by a bully even if that bully is oneself” (p. 59).

Enemies, Foreign and Domestic

This statement reminds me of the “Oath of Enlistment” taken upon joining a branch of the United States armed forces. In this oath, a pledge is made to “…defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” This oath is not taken lightly, and much sacrifice is required of them who make it.

Let’s consider Dr. Peterson’s quote in light of the above pledge. To accept victimization from a bully is to, in a way, validate the purpose and message of that bully. To not stand and fight is to acknowledge one’s own inferiority or powerlessness. It perpetuates the negative message you tell yourself and the world. Many of us would sooner stand up against a stranger for the mistreatment of a stray dog than we would stand up against an acquaintance for mistreating ourselves. What does that say about us? Are we not more important than dogs? (I know some of you may disagree with me and say “Dogs are people too.” That’s fine and I know you get a lot out of your relationships with your animals. I just would caution you against replacing higher order, mutually challenging human attachment relationships with animal relationships).

Standing Up is Risky!

That said, to stand and fight also involves risk. Not only physical risk, but emotional and social risk as well. What if you lose the fight? What if you end up getting hurt or looking foolish? A thousand things can go wrong. But some things, important things, may go right. 

This concept would be a great discussion for another article, but the real thing I want to focus on here is not bullying by an outsider (foreign). I want us to consider self-bullying (domestic). How many times do we hear a message from someone else, some terrible assessment of our character, our identity, perhaps our very existence (“The world would be better off without you!”), only to turn around and internalize that message? How often do we absorb criticism from others and then levy that same criticism against ourselves?

Self-Bullying

There is nothing “virtuous” about self-hate, self-loathing, and self-pity. They aren’t helpful. They don’t fix your problems, your relationships, or your mood. Sure, they may garner you some attention, but probably not the kind you really want. Being self-deprecating can be funny. Many a professional comedian has made a living with self-hating jokes. But you’re probably not a professional comedian. And many of them aren’t that happy despite having a socially acceptable outlet for their self-bullying.

All self-victimization will likely bring you is depression and awkward relationships in which your loved ones take pity on you, but do not enjoy your company as much as they could if you were healthier. Staying in a terrible relationship without setting some boundaries and speaking up for your desires and needs does nobody any good. Neither of you grows. At least not in a positive direction.

Both Parties Should Be Strong

Relationships tend to be healthier when all parties involved are strong. But all elements of the relationship need not be equitable at all times for a relationship to remain strong. What matters is that there is an understanding that each party may go through seasons of greater than usual need, and the other picks up the slack. When this season extends beyond what was originally intended, however, the relationship terms may need to be discussed and possibly renegotiated to ensure a greater degree of equality in support of each party, even if that support looks different than it used to.

Exceptions to the Rule

Accommodations may need to be made for serious injuries, illnesses, sudden changes in employment, particularly busy seasons at work, birth of a new child, hospice care for a parent, etc. All of these things, however, should never result in the benefit of one party through victimization of the other. Successful relationships involve mutual decision-making, gratitude, sacrifice, challenge, tension, and growth.

Next Steps

There is no place for self-victimization in a healthy relationship. If you find yourself in this place in a relationship, it’s time to have some hard conversations with yourself, your friends, your partner, your parents, your boss, and maybe a therapist.

Take stock. Assess whether in each of your relationships you are valued appropriately. Ensure that anywhere you are not appropriately valued and treated that you are not playing a role in your own mistreatment. To the degree that you are, it’s time to do something different.

Will YOU Stand Up For YOU?

I can’t tell you exactly what your next step is because I don’t know your exact situation, the social, physical, and legal risks involved, etc. What I can tell you is that while depression sometimes resolves on its own, failing relationships and self-victimization seldom do. For something to be different, somebody needs to do something different. Maybe that someone is you! What or who is your next step?

Robert2

Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 949-478-0665 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

 

 

Mirror photo credit: Min An

Does Your Spouse Have A Love Accent?

Lisa and Chaz have been in couples therapy with me for several sessions, and Chaz is starting to finally hear what Lisa has been trying to tell him for years. Chaz almost always dismisses Lisa’s feelings without realizing it. It’s only natural for him. He is, in Lisa’s words, “an avoider.” He usually protects himself from conflict by pretending everything’s ok, minimizing problems and feelings, and “getting some space.” But now, for the first time in their 9 years of marriage, he’s making an intentional effort to “speak Lisa’s language.” The only problem…Lisa feels really weird about it and is having a hard time enjoying the change.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Chaz and Lisa’s story is one that is told in my therapy office time after time. Even a good change, one that you’ve specifically asked for, can feel awkward when you’re used to things going a certain way. One of the many reasons it’s difficult for Lisa to take in the good that Chaz is offering, is that there is not a foundation of trust and security to stand on when they have meaningful conversations.

History comes rushing back the minute Chaz says any of a number of “trigger phrases” that have become all too common over the years. Lisa has wanted to have children, but is afraid to have them with Chaz, because she’s not sure she wants them to experience the same dismissed and unwanted feelings she so often feels with Chaz.

Lisa easily gets emotionally flooded and reacts disproportionally to several triggers in their marriage. In response, Chaz then becomes flooded and runs for the hills (the mancave, the back yard, really anywhere without a flooded wife to deal with). He doesn’t know how to access and manage his own feelings, let alone those of an angry wife (who is really more hurt than anything). One of the most difficult things early in therapy for couples like Lisa and Chaz, is hearing that I don’t have any magic therapist ninja tricks that will make it all better.

What’s “The Secret Solution?”

I can tell you from experience with plenty of couples over the years that there is no secret sauce, no magic phrase, no “3 quick steps to marital happiness” that ANY therapist can offer Chaz and Lisa that will make things right. Sure, there are some processes–sometimes quick, more often slow– that can bring a great deal of healing to the relationship, but they tend to be more about rebuilding trust and security than about having just the right words to say in a given situation.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve offered a “perfect phrase” to a spouse, only to have them be utterly clueless about how and when to deliver it. Even when I’m sitting there gently telling them, “Now is the time. Say the line!” there’s a blank stare, or they deliver another dismissive, defensive comment, explanation, or accusation.

“We need to communicate better”

Bottom line, it’s not really about communication skills. Yes, communication matters a great deal in any relationship. But you can still have a wonderful marriage with a terrible communicator whom you know will always be there for you, who has your back, who assumes the good in you, and, maybe above all else, wants you more than s/he needs you. It’s good to be wanted, and knowing your partner’s heart helps ease the pain of their relational failures.

Say “Thank you!”

So the next time you have a moment where your spouse has FINALLY tried to do the thing you’ve been asking them to do (the dishes, planning a date, saying I love you, initiating physical intimacy, making the bed, or whatever!) try to say “Thank you!” before you question their motivation.

“He’s just doing it now because you told him to.”

While there’s always a chance it may a manipulation tactic, there’s also a decent chance that somewhere deep down your spouse loves you and is motivated by wanting to please you. So what if they’re terrible at it? So what if they fumble the words or sound like C-3PO from Star Wars when they try to say something romantic? So what if they just want to have sex because you asked for it? So what if they only did the dishes because you complained about it last week? If they’re checking a box on your list after so long of ignoring the list altogether, praise the progress! Don’t dismiss a good faith effort.

“This is painfully awkward!”

It may not have been a great effort, and it may not have looked at all natural. It’s probably not. Remember, they need practice! Reward their effort by saying thank you and letting them know that it matters to you that they made an effort.

Accents Can Be Sexy! (Or At Least So Awkward They’re Cute)

They’re trying to speak your language for the first time in a long time. If you’ve been speaking different love languages (or maybe not speaking much at all!), there’s a good chance your spouse is going to “have an accent” for a while as they learn to speak your language.

Try to give your spouse some time, maybe a little forgiveness or grace (give undeserved good things, withhold deserved bad consequences), and consider offering a 2nd, 14th, or 957th chance. Then try to find the good intention in the awkward delivery. Even though they’re speaking with an accent, it’s still your language. Remember, it’s not about communication skills, but whether they are trying to create a safe space for you to be you, and they shouldn’t have to be perfect to let you know that you matter a great deal to them.

Chaz and Lisa are not real clients, but everything about their story is real and true, and comes straight out of my counseling office. Every word is something I’ve heard countless times from frustrated, angry, sad, and hopeless couples. And I’ve also seen every one of those problems overcome by two people in a room who wanted something different and who were willing to endure some awkward, accented love-speak from each other as they learn to be with each other in new ways.

Is Your Marriage Too Far Gone?

I’m a big believer that any marriage can be saved if both people really want it to happen. I don’t say this lightly. I just say it knowing that many couples have fought through some terrible things together and came out better on the other side. Again, there’s no magic elixir to be had, but by doing the arduous and often painful (at first) work of learning to trust and support each other in new ways, it’s possible.

Be Realistic About Your Healing Time Frame

If your marriage is a dumpster fire, it’s not going to get solved overnight, so don’t put that pressure on yourself or your spouse. But consider some of the advice above (all based in solid marriage research by leading experts in the field), and pack your bag for a journey together. Whether it’s at a marriage conference, a retreat, reading a good marriage book together and talking seriously about the questions the author asks, or calling up a psychologist like me, I hope you’ll give your relationship a fighting chance. Sometimes even the awkward moments can be fun, if we’re willing to make the choice to see them that way.

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Dr. Robert Pate is a licensed Clinical Psychologist (PSY27089) practicing in Orange County, California. For more information about Dr. Pate’s practice, call 949-478-0665 or visit www.cavfamilytherapy.com.

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.