Tag Archives: better relationships

You Can Keep that Loving Feeling—Even after 20 Years of Marriage

Remember that old ad, “This is your brain on drugs?” Well, now scientists have a way of showing us, “This is your brain on love.”

Ever wonder what your brain looks like after 20 years of marriage? The news is heartening. At least it is for some couples, who claim to remain “over the moon” about each other for decades past the honeymoon phase.

Researchers at Stony Brook University in New York compared the fMRI brain scans of people newly in love with those who claimed to still be in love after decades. Both groups—newly in love and long-term marrieds (married an average of 21 years) who claim to be still madly in love—showed activity in the dopamine-rich areas of the brain when they thought about or viewed images of their partner. The reward center part of the brains was very active; this is the same center that lights up for cocaine addicts when they use the drug.

Even more interesting is where the brain scans differed. The long-in-love brains showed no activity among areas commonly associated with anxiety and fear. “Individuals in long-term relationships may experience the excitement, sexual attraction, engagement, and intensity associated with romantic love, “ says study co-author Bianco Acevedo. “But they report pining, anxiety, intrusive thinking far less than individuals newly in love.”

Instead of activating the anxiety areas of the brain, the long-marrieds had more active brain areas that were associated with pleasure and pain relief. (I’ve shared other research that showed touch from a loved one can reduce one’s pain. Read Need a Pain Reliever? Try Love. ) These pleasure centers are the same areas that become active when we eat good food or use certain substances, such as morphine. The long-term lovers’ brains also showed more activity related to brain regions associated with maternal love.

The news may not be positive for some couples, says the study’s other co-author, Arthur Aron, who says some couples don’t want to hear that others have a steady, unyielding passion for one another. “Nobody wants to hear about couples doing better than they are. We all like to believe we’re the best.”

On the other hand, engaged and married couples, as well as marriage therapists, should understand that it is very possible for many couples to retain that passion, and not just be content companions. How can they do that? Aron’s other research suggests the most successful couples are the ones that help one another engage in self-expansion—something we discussed in the recent post Is the Happy Marriage the ‘Me’ Marriage? Aron also says couples who were still in love reported more frequent sex, adjusted for age.

See the Time Magazine article here that describes the study.

Do you think most married couples would show very different brain scans than the ones self-selected in the study as having the same passion as those newly in love? Where do you think research should tread next in this area?

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Improve Sexual Sparks with Better Body Image

“Keeping the Sparks Alive” Series Post 2

Couples face many obstacles to maintaining sexual compatibility and satisfaction. Some find the challenges too daunting and give up on this vital part of marriage, because they believe their spouse will never understand their needs and desires.

However, there are many resources that can help you each see things a little more as your partner does, giving you a glimpse at what it takes to improve your intimacy. Many obstacles seem out of your control, but in fact, you can do a lot to encourage your spouse. For example, if your spouse suffers from a poor body image, this can put a wet blanket on your sex lives.

It’s interesting that research shows most men have a very positive body image—even when they’ve gained a little weight over the years. Women, on the other hand, overwhelmingly obsess about every dimple and compare the shape of their hips and breasts to the world’s top supermodels. A constant barrage of media advertising “perfect” bodies and “how to achieve the perfect body” exacerbates the problem. The fact that many women bear children and have subsequent body changes is also a factor. However, the issue of negative body image can affect both men and women.

Case in point, Scott Means at Journey to Surrender did a terrific post recently on Shame and Intimacy in Physical Appearance. He writes about the shame he felt with his body image battle as he turned 50 and had gained some extra weight. It was the first time he had felt shame with regard to his appearance, and it impacted him every time he looked in the mirror. He didn’t want to undress in front of his wife, and he thought about it when they were intimate.

Scott concluded that his negative self-image was negatively impacting his marriage and suggested that individuals with self-image problems are less able to receive affection, may even doubt their spouse’s love, will be less bold sexually, and will have less interest in sex. In the worst cases, the person may give up on their appearance or lose interest in sex altogether.

I thought it was a brave post, because no one wants to admit they have insecurities. I also wanted to share it because we rarely hear this kind of honesty from men. On the other hand, I would bet the vast majority of female readers have a number of body-image issues with which they struggle.

Better Body Image

I know many of you have New Year’s resolutions to “get in shape” or “lose weight.” By all means, stick to your health plans as long as they are not obsessive. However, your size and shape should not determine how you value yourself and how you interact with the love of your life.

Why is it that some people who aren’t the best looking according to our cultural standards can feel great about their bodies, while others that look fabulous suffer from insecurities? The reason is that sex appeal and feeling sexy are 90% attitude and 10% appearance, according to Scott. He adds, “Confidence, a positive outlook and a healthy sense of self-worth can easily overshadow any perceived physical flaws you may have. Remind yourself about your best features and the things your spouse most admires. Choose to focus on these things. Believe in your inherent beauty as a person. Accept at face value the praises and admiration of your spouse …”

Dr. Patricia Love in Hot Monogamy reminds us that individuals report passion is much more important in a lover than a hot body. Lacking passion and interest in sex is a turn-off. Most spouses care much less about the shape of the body than about how their partner responds to them. Giving full attention, showing enjoyment, showing interest in sex—these are all things that heat things up and keep them hot.

Dr. Love suggests you give honest praise to your partner regularly about the things you like about their body, and about the things you value in them as a lover. These comments can substantially improve your partner’s body image and self-image as an intimate partner.

If your partner struggles with body image, please do not tell them they need to get in shape. Encourage healthy habits, but express your love and desire regardless. You may want to read my past post Loving a Woman’s Body. Also, Scott’s popular post The Body-Image Battle offers a Christian perspective on this issue to help men encourage their wives.

“If you want to fan the flames of sexual intimacy, think of yourself as the hot woman or man you want to be and act as if you are. You will be amazed at the difference it will make,” says Scott.

Do you believe body image—either by your or your spouse—affects the quality of your intimacy? Do you feel self-confident, or do you struggle with your feelings about your physical appearance? If you have overcome body-image problems, how did you do so? Are you open with your spouse about your struggles? Is your partner demeaning about your appearance? How do you handle it?

Sexy Links:

OK, since you’ve read this far, you’re not embarrassed to read discussions about sex. Which is good, because Julie Sibert doesn’t mince words in this article for The Generous Husband, Why Your Wife Thinks Sex is Gross. It might open your eyes about how sex can be more mutually enjoyable, messy and all. Julie’s blog, Intimacy in Marriage, “Encourages Christian women toward healthy sexual intimacy.”

Simple Marriage is now enrolling couples and individuals in the Blow Up My Marriage course. Check it out. Corey Allan, PhD, offers weekly online workshops that have a unique perspective.

Thanks to Paul Byerly of The Generous Husband for naming Marriage Gems a 2010 Hot Marriage Blog!

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Detecting a Virus in Your Marriage

Last weekend, my computer succumbed to a nasty virus picked up at a rogue recipe web site. (That’s what I get for baking.) When the fake security pop-up appeared, I immediately knew I was in trouble, but it was too late. The more I tried to rid myself of it, the worse the problem became, as the virus duplicated itself and became more entrenched. I disconnected the tower and gave it to a professional, because winning the war against the evil virus developers (and they are evil) wasn’t as critical as preserving what was important to me.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we received blatant pop-ups in our lives every time our marriage faced risk? Sometimes one or both partners is sadly unaware of the drifting that is going on in a marriage. One of them is surprised months or years later to be served with divorce papers. The fact is, if we’re not working to improve our marriages, we are all drifting southward.

It might help if warning lights blared over our heads when we were in trouble; for example:

  • When we haven’t made time for a date night in six months, and one or both partners is feeling bored in the marriage.
  • If a wife meets an attractive new coworker for lunch, then doesn’t even share that with her spouse because she felt a spark and doesn’t want her husband to be jealous.
  • When a husband feels neglected because his wife focuses all his or her attention on the children.
  • You argue regularly about money, or the decision-making power that money represents.
  • If one or both partners is feeling sexually dissatisfied, but isn’t willing to discuss the issues honestly, because they doubt things can be improved.
  • A spouse doesn’t feel loved or respected in the marriage (even if the partner thinks he or she is showing love/respect).
  • One partner believes the other isn’t trustworthy. It’s just a feeling.
  • A wife daydreams about an ex, then connects with him on Facebook.
  • Someone your spouse says is “just a friend” seems to be overly friendly to your mate—and not to you.
  • A husband invests all his energy at work then is too tired to engage with his wife.
  • Either partner wonders, “What if I had made another choice?”

If warning signs were going off, would you understand the urgency to disconnect and focus on the problem? Would you turn to a professional if the problem was just getting worse instead of better? Would you be able to communicate the urgency to your partner?

We have to rely on our own instincts (until someone develops an app for identifying marital risk). It seems when things start going south, problems often gain momentum. Maybe one partner starts complaining to family or coworkers. He or she spends more time with friends outside the marriage or on the Internet looking for escape. The spouses go to bed at different times, avoiding even the chance of intimacy. They pour themselves into work or the kids. It’s the virus duplicating itself, becoming more entrenched in the marriage. If you don’t give it your full attention, it can eradicate even the good parts of the marriage.

The best defense is a good offense. Do the regular virus checks, in the form of very open communication. Make time daily to connect with your spouse about topics other than children, chores and errands. Speak up if there’s someone you aren’t comfortable being around your partner or family. Respect your spouse’s feelings on perceived risks, because s/he is your life partner. Invest in having fun and building memories and experiences together—because you have to build something worth protecting.

What are the biggest marital viruses you see? Do you ever see any warning signs? Is it easier to see the warning signs in other people’s marriages?

Photo credit:  ©Aloysius Patrimonio/PhotoXpress.com

Stand On Your Own Two Feet for a Balanced Marriage

So many of us think that marriage means being able to constantly lean on one another, supporting each other in good times and bad. But that picture may be a bit faulty. Imagine two people leaning forward and holding one another up. The problem with this approach, says marital therapist Corey Allen, PhD, is that its success is dependent on the other’s actions to balance the relationship. If one slips up, the other feels it and blames his/her partner for the error.

In an excellent “Marriage Manifesto,” Corey (blogger extraordinaire at Simple Marriage) explains the importance of each partner standing on his or her own two feet. It’s not that you shouldn’t be ready and willing to support your partner or catch them if they’re falling. Instead, we need to be responsible for our own contributions to life and to marriage.  I highly recommend you read the manifesto; there’s a wealth of advice explained simply. Here’s a snippet:

“When a person shows up in their intimate relationship, takes responsibility for setting the tone for himself or herself, and takes the lead for their life with love and integrity, both them and their partner have the greatest opportunity to experience what they both most deeply desire,” explains Corey.

So, how do you stand on your own two feet?

  • Be honest and transparent.
  • Learn how to be 100% present.
  • Set healthy boundaries.
  • Create a great life for yourself.
  • Begin to do what is challenging rather than what is expedient.

An example of how I might support myself better is by attending to my own physical and psychological needs. I would allow time for exercise and for the enjoyment of a good book or a walk outside. I might ask my husband to run an errand for me instead of pretending he is the reason I am stressed and out of time. I would work on fulfilling my own dreams instead of blaming my partner for stifling them. These activities make me a more attractive partner and one who can bring more love and positivity to the relationship. Being self-balanced also allows me to better support my partner when needed.

Corey goes on to explain what it means to be grown up in your marriage. I’ve read some interesting discussion in marriage forums lately (see ProjectM) about what growing up means today and whether it’s required for a great marriage and a successful life.

I appreciate that Corey explains what being grown up in a relationship means and what it doesn’t mean. It involves having a strong sense of self, but it also allows a stronger relationship with your partner. It doesn’t mean you have to do things your way, or that you need your space because you’re seeking independence. There’s no fear in being mature in love. Corey says, “When you have solid core beliefs and values, you can adapt and change without losing your identity.”

It may take courage and effort, but you can lead your relationship to a new plain where each of you is self-fulfilled, and you are able to better fulfill one another in love. The bonus is that when each of you is standing straight and tall, you can become much closer.

How do you picture your current relationship—leaning forward and holding one another up, or standing solidly on your own two feet while holding hands?

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5 Things Pets Teach Us About Marriage

You wonder sometimes about the projects psychologists take on, but Suzanne B. Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP, a clinical psychologist at Long Island University explored our relationship with pets and what they can teach us about our romantic relationships. She shared her tips for PsychCentral.

Unconditional Love
We can learn quite a lot from our interactions with our pets about how we can improve our interactions with our spouses. Phillips says our lack of expectation for our pets makes a big difference in how we prepare for interactions with them. People often describe pets as offering unconditional love, but she explains the reality is far from that. Pets require a great deal of time, attention, food and care. They often damage our possessions and make messes, but we accept their flaws because of our devotion for them. While we often don’t love one another completely unconditionally, accept your partner for his or her flaws out of love.

The first thing we do is greet our pets with a happy, animated voice, and usually an affectionate pat. I admit the greeting I give my pet is probably far more animated than my hubby receives. Consider a friendlier greeting for your spouse with a kiss or some sort of affectionate touch.

Holding Grudges
Even when our pet eats our socks or soils the floor, we don’t stay mad at them, at least not for long. Try to get past your grievances without holding a grudge against your partner or bringing up past hurts.

We usually accept our pets for their unique personalities, even when they are quirky or embarrassing. Our spouse would be so lucky to have such a lack of judgment.

Assuming the Best
Phillips says there is a natural tendency to forgive our pets for their wrongdoings. We would do well to remember our spouses also rarely intend to upset us. Give them the benefit of the doubt their intentions are good.

We’ve heard the research that pets can improve our health, but perhaps it’s true from these examples that they can also help our relationships. What have you learned from your pet about love? Why are we so much quicker to forgive our pets than our spouses?

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We All Married the Wrong Person

Couples in crisis often reach the point where they decide they are just two poorly matched people. This precedes the decision to leave the relationship and go in search of that “right person.” Unfortunately, the odds of a successful marriage go down for each attempt at a new marriage. Psychiatrist and author of The Secrets of Happily Married Men and The Secrets of Happily Married Women and The Secrets of Happy Families, Scott Haltzman, MD, says in truth, they are correct; we all married the wrong person. I found his comments from TV interviews so intriguing that I requested an interview with him to delve into the topic.

Dr. Haltzman says even if we think we know a person well when we marry them, we are temporarily blinded by our love, which tends to minimize or ignore attributes that would make the relationship complicated or downright difficult. In addition, both individuals bring different expectations to the marriage, and we change individually and as a couple over time. No one gets a guarantee of marrying the right person, says Dr. Haltzman, so you should assume you married the wrong person. That doesn’t mean your marriage can’t be successful, however.

“Most of us spend a lot of time filtering through possible mates in hopes that we will end up with the right match. Some people believe it’s an issue of finding a soul mate … the one true partner. Whether or not you enter into marriage believing your partner is THE one, you certainly believe he or she is A right person for you,” says Dr. Haltzman.

He explains that if the success of a marriage were based on making the right choice, then those who carefully chose a good match would continue to sustain positive feelings the majority of the time, and over a long period. The theory would be proven correct that choosing well leads to success.  “But the divorce rate in and of itself stands as a great testament to the fallacy of that theory,” says Dr. Haltzman. Even the couples who remain married don’t describe themselves as completely happy with each other, he adds, but rather committed to one another.

“If we believe we must find the right person to marry, then the course of our marriage becomes a constant test to see if we were correct in that choice,” says Dr. Haltzman, adding that today’s culture does not support standing by our promises. Instead, he says we receive the repeated message, “You deserve the best.” These attitudes contribute to marital dissatisfaction, he says.

Dr.  Haltzman shared some research with me about the negative effects in our consumer society of having too many choices—which may lead to increased expectations and lower satisfaction. A book called The Choice Paradox by Barry Schwartz shares research that flies in the face of conventional wisdom. (I will have another post about this topic soon, because there is much insight to glean.) I’ll cut to the chase and reveal that people are happier with the choices they make when there are relatively few choices from which to choose. With too many choices, we can become overburdened and regretful and constantly question our decision. Today, individuals may feel they have many choices of mates, and fear lost opportunities with potential “right” partners. This may happen even after a person is married, as he or she questions the decision to marry with each bump in the road.

“My basic philosophy is we have to start with the premise when we choose our partner that we aren’t choosing with all the knowledge and information about them,” says Dr. Haltzman. “However, outside of the extreme scenarios of domestic violence, chronic substance abuse, or the inability to remain sexually faithful—which are good arguments for marrying the wrong person on a huge scale, and where it is unhealthy or unsafe to remain married—we need to say, ‘This is the person I chose, and I need to find a way to develop a sense of closeness with this person for who he or she really is and not how I fantasize them to be.’”

That choice to work on the relationship can lead to a more profound, meaningful experience together. Dr. Haltzman offers the following tips to help us reconnect or improve our bond:

  • Respect your mate for his/her positive qualities, even when they have some important negative ones.
  • Be the right person, instead of looking for the right person.
  • Be a loving person, instead of waiting to get love.
  • Be considerate instead of waiting to receive consideration.

To underscore the last couple of points, Dr. Haltzman says many people will put only so much effort into a relationship, then say, “I’ve done enough.” But very few of us will do that with our children. “Instead, we say despite their flaws, we wouldn’t want anyone else; yet, our kids can be much more of a pain in the ass than our spouses.”

Finally, he advises, “Have the attitude that this is the person you are going to spend the rest of your life with, so you must find a way to make it work instead of always looking for the back door.”

For more information on Dr. Haltzman or his books, visit DrScott.com or 365Reasons.com. Many thanks to Dr. Haltzman for sharing his time, wisdom and advice.

Read More on Marrying the Wrong Person. (A new post to continue the discussion and share insights.)

Lori Lowe is the author of First Kiss to Lasting Bliss: Hope & Inspiration for Your Marriage.  Find it on Amazon.com or in your favorite e-book format.

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How to Practice Being a Better Partner—5 Tips

“There is nothing worth doing that doesn’t require practice, and having a good marriage is one of them,” says Harriet Lerner, PhD, bestselling author and marriage expert. “One can practice choosing happiness over the need to be right or always win an argument. One can practice playfulness, generosity, and openness. One can practice calming things down and warming them up even when the other person is being a big jerk.”

Dr. Lerner’s advice is spot on. We have the power to control our response, even when our partner is acting badly—especially when our partner is acting badly. That doesn’t mean we allow ourselves to be mistreated, but we can choose to practice behaviors that bless our marriage rather than curse it.

Consider the effort you put forth to improve in your career or hobbies, or in your parenting (where we all fail every once in a while). Yet, we expect our marriages to continue humming along without much effort at improving our skills or attitudes. I know I need some fine-tuning on a regular basis, particularly on choosing to remain positive despite the normal obstacles in life.

In her essay in Creating a Marriage You’ll Love, Dr. Lerner adds to the above advice, saying you may get tired of doing more of the work in your marriage, but since you can’t control your mate, it’s up to you if you want to see improvements in your relationship. “And if you want a recipe for divorce, just wait for the other person to change first.”

Here are some concrete pointers she advises you to practice:

1.  Practice pure listening—with an open heart and with your full attention, and without becoming defensive.

2.  Stay self-focused. This means you aren’t focused on “fixing” your spouse, but rather you are open to how you can contribute to a better life together. You can change without blaming yourself or your partner.

3.  Bite your tongue. You don’t have to share everything that bothers you every minute of the day. Use timing and tact to communicate important matters.

4.  Apologize, even if you’re not fully to blame. “I’m sorry for my part of the problem,” may be a good way to move forward.

5.  Use positive feedback, praise, and compliments very liberally. Remember Dr. Gottman’s 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments.

Start today by focusing on just one behavior on this list that you think could help you the most. Once you have incorporated that, add another. When you respond angrily or start to act nit-picky, just start again (and apologize if necessary). Practice makes perfect.

Which of these areas is hardest for you to implement? Do you find yourself wishing you could change one thing about your spouse, or focused on trying to change yourself?