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Articles from June 2013

June 27, 2013

A Third Alternative in the Bedroom

A while back, a reader asked for some perspectives on her sex life with her husband. Not exactly my area of expertise, I thought, but as I read her story, I realized it wasn't sex that was the problem. Let me share her tale but preserve her privacy.

She wrote:

I was wondering what your opinion is on exploring sexually within marriage. I am interested in [some more adventurous practices]. However, my husband is not as open. He is indifferent and thinks, 'If it ain't broke, why fix it?' Other times, he worries that he is not enough.

We are strictly monogamous and happy that way. I am satisfied with our time in the bedroom but would like the freedom to explore further. Actually, it is much like our taste in food. He is a meat and potatoes guy, whereas I like to try new dishes.

I know that I am ultimately responsible for fulfilling my own needs and desires, but I would love for him to join me. Some activities require a partner.

In the past, we have tried discussing this in therapy, but it is simply too embarrassing and got us nowhere.

Here is my answer, which has nothing to do with my opinion of steak and potatoes or anything else. My opinion has nothing to do with them enjoying their marriage. It would serve only to make one of them more certain their side of a disagreement is the right one. And that would make it harder to find something better that they agree on. I wrote her:

Whenever you have a difference of opinion, I suggest looking for a Third Alternative.

The process for looking for one should avoid any hint that your husband is "not enough," because it's not a debate over which approach is better. It rejects the two alternatives you disagree over and looks for a third one that gives you both what you need.

And this means you need to learn what he needs. What does he see as at risk if you try something new? It seems likely something is at risk if he views it as fixing something that's not broke, which suggests you cannot easily go back to what works now if this doesn't.

What does he value about his meat and potatoes approach to sex? Don't assume you know. Ask, and ask with a desire to find a way to give him this as well as what you're looking for. Is it the near-certainty of his orgasm? His feeling of mastery or competence at something he's done many times? How easily or quickly he can bring you to orgasm?

What parts of your idea of trying something new seem at least interesting to him? What would be a good surprise for him if it turned out?

What does he fear or expect could go wrong with the sex or your relationship?

Now talk about your answers to the same questions. What parts of your current sex life do you value? What appeals to you about trying something new? What do you fear or expect could go wrong if you don't try something new?

Then write up a list of specs for a new variety of sex that would give both of you pleasure and protect both of you from what worries you. Make the specs about the two of you and your marriage, not about any particular approach.

For example, if you were doing this with your meals, I would suggest you avoid items like "must include steak" and instead include things like "should provide a strong but not spicy flavor, should take a while to chew, should cost less than $10 a pound." And then, since you're not stuck on getting these from steak, you can freely add things like "should be heart-healthy" or "should be slightly sweet."

If you find things in your list that seem to be impossible to have simultaneously, get more specific about what you mean. Is it something you want all the time or some of the time or just once? Is it something you want to give, to get, or both?

Sit with your list for a few days. Let it sink in. Decide if it's really what you both want for yourself and for your spouse. Imagine what it would feel like to get everything on the list that matters to you and still be able to give your spouse everything that matters to him or her. Talk about what you will do if it's working for one of you but not the other, to relieve any fear of the unknown.

When the list feels real, start brainstorming things that would meet all your specs. Do some research into what's available. Maybe watch videos of others having sex to see what might fit your list. Maybe pay a sex therapist to read over your list and suggest ideas. Talk about how to sequence what you will try and how often you will try it. Then take some baby steps. A day after each thing you try, check how well it matched your list of specs and each of you give it 0 to 5 stars in a private journal. Take some time to savor the ones you both enjoy, whether new ones or ones from the past.

Without sharing any of the details, I hope you will let me know if you find your Third Alternative and change things up for you without ruining them for him.

And she did, three months later:

We are in a much better place in and out of the bedroom.

I took your advice and tried to determine what I was seeking instead of insisting on how. I acknowledge the ways that he fulfills my needs, which ultimately were either being desired or intimacy, so sexual activities are not the only way. I suppose there is a third category, being curiosity, and we have been able to include some aspects just for fun.

I saw that his preferred approach ensured orgasms for both of us. You hit the nail on the head with that one. We found ways to accomplish this, while also including new methods. While we have had kinky occasions, I feel less of a desire, since I see those core needs met in so many other ways.

I think we are ever evolving, and the trick is to adapt harmoniously. I'm so very thankful that you were able to guide me through this time in our relationship. If we do find another time where something is lacking, we now have the tools to approach that in a healthier and more productive way.

Thank you

Finding Third Alternatives is such a powerful approach to disagreements. It just melts away anger and frustration. If this brave couple can use it to resolve a disagreement they couldn't bear to discuss with their therapist, imagine all the ways you can use it in your marriage to stop hurting each other and start having more fun.

You get what you want (although not necessarily the first thing that came to mind) while giving your mate "the moon and the stars." And all it takes is to recognize the two options you are debating don't work for the two of you but are far from the only ways to get what you each want.

I would love to hear about any Third Alternatives you two discover. Remember, if you are reading this by email, to click through to the blog to respond.

June 22, 2013

Mother-in-Law / Daughter-in-Law Conflicts

It's not easy being a daughter-in-law. Just ask mine. I think she was terrified of me when we met, because we come from different cultures, different countries, and different religions. These days, though, we get along pretty well in spite of all that, a good deal better than I got along with my mother-in-law at first.

And though you would think being a daughter-in-law first would help you succeed as a mother-in-law, it doesn't, because it's different relationship between different people, thrown together with only one thing in common, your love for the guy she married.

Psychotherapist Deanna Brann, Ph.D., has just written a very helpful book for women in both predicaments, Reluctantly Related: Secrets to Getting Along with Your Mother-in-Law or Daughter-in-Law., and the publisher kindly sent me a review copy.

It's the book she wanted to read when her own relationship with her daughter-in-law got rather unpleasant, despite all her professional training. She did some more research, checked in with a bunch of mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and wrote it for everyone else wanting a bit of help.

Her book helps explain where things go wrong. More importantly, it offers tools for getting them back on track: tools for daughters-in-law, tools for mothers-in-law, and advice for both on husbands caught in the middle or overanalyzing problems between their mothers and their wives.

I'll admit I was uncomfortable at first with her having us classify our mother-in-law as like Comfortable Carla, Mothering Margaret, Off-the-Wall Wanda, or Uncertain Sara -- or our daughter-in-law as Confident Connie, Doubting Donna, Weird Wendy, or Transitioned Tracy. In the end, though, I was delighted that it allowed her to tailor the advice and tools for the person we're dealing with and the issues most likely to arise between us.

Read it before your next family get-together!

June 18, 2013

I Would but I Can't

I would pick up those things from the pharmacy, but I can't, because I get home after the pharmacy closes.

That was my version of the truth in the last two months of my first marriage. We needed them, at least once a week. I believed my long commute and frequent late hours meant my husband should pick them up. He didn't. I felt put-upon when I did without and had to up early and waited in the long lines on Saturday mornings. Resentment grew. Our relationship withered.

After he died and I became a single mom, I discovered other ways to solve the problem. Move the prescriptions to a pharmacy near where I ate lunch or to one that delivers. Leave early when necessary and let go of my devoted worker image. Dump the commute by promising to change employers if we did not move our field office closer to my (and my employees') homes.

What I thought was a fact turned out to be a choice. My annoyance at my husband was of my own making. I never even checked in with him to find out what he believed he was capable of. I just expected he would do it because I believed I could not.

I would clean up the dog's vomit, but I can't do it without adding more of my own.

It's one thing if your spouse volunteers to take on a task for you and feels loving and appreciated while doing it. It's quite another if your spouse feels stuck with it just because you cannot come up with a way to mask the smell or get it off the sofa without feeling the slime or looking at the bits and pieces.

Expectations, other than the one you were promised--that you will be loved, are premeditated resentments.

I would go with you to your sister's wedding (or your Aunt Jo's Fourth of July barbecue), but I can't because I am expected to work in my family's business that day.

It's awful when we fall for our own stories, because if we cannot see the choices we make, we cannot feel the pain our spouses feel when we don't choose them or what matters to them.

We expect them to understand. And they usually do, when we really have no choice. But one of the blessings of marriage is having a partner who sees right through our self-defeating beliefs. So we hurt them when we lie to ourselves.

I will fix the leaky toilet, but I can't do it this weekend.

Sometimes will is worse than would. You put your name on a chore and then postpone it week after week. You choose the appreciation you get for assuming the chore, and you dissuade your spouse from doing anything to prevent his or her resentment when it's still leaky a month later.

Resentment is a marriage killer, and it grows from unmet expectations.

June 16, 2013

I Love You, But I Am No Longer In Love With You

I have been writing up a storm in response to questions posted recently on an April 2012 blog post of mine: One Last Stand Before Divorce. I hope you will pay a visit if you're wondering about "I love you" vs. "I am in love with you." Also if you are separated and hoping to get back together again or on the verge of separating.

It's next to impossible to feel "in love" with someone you resent. But if you love them, it's well worth working on the resentments and on micro-moments of positivity resonance.

June 13, 2013

Marriage and Alcohol

Alcohol relaxes us. This can be a great thing for your marriage if you're anxious about something that might go badly at work tomorrow. You'll be more ready for quality time together or some much needed physical touch.

If it relaxes you so much that you forget to pick up your spouse at the airport, it can make a mess of things.

Alcohol also reduces our inhibitions. This is wonderful when it lets you get naked with your beloved. Or when it lets you dance in public with a life partner who loves to dance.

But when it reduces your inhibitions about using your intimate knowledge of a partner's vulnerabilities to get what you want through cruel words, it shuts off future intimacy.

And when it affects your inhibitions about hurling the TV across the room in anger at the man or woman you promised to love and cherish, it permanently harms your relationship even if the TV misses, even if the anger is warranted.

Should it lower your inhibitions about raping or hurting your partner when he or she refuses sex, you introduce terror into your relationship, terror that will return every time you initiate sex or have a drink to relax yourself.

When you take a drink again after such an event, knowing it lowers your inhibitions enough to do any of these things to someone you love, you automatically qualify as an alcoholic, an alcohol addict. It is irrelevant what you drink or how much you drink. This awful disease has its grip on you.

Alcoholism is called a disease because it follows a predictable path of harming your body and your relationships. For most people, the only way to stop it is to stop drinking and build a support system to get you through all the good and bad situations that trigger your taking a drink.

If you want to enjoy being married, please seek help as soon as you cross this line of unhealthy lowered inhibitions. No apology, no explanation, no excuse will fix your marriage or protect your wellbeing until you do. Please see a doctor, see a counselor, join AA, or do all three right away.

If you are married to someone who has crossed this line, please understand that you cannot make this decision for them, and their inhibitions are not coming back until they make it. You must protect yourself to protect the relationship and your spouse from this disease. Don't take on the role of therapist. Don't take on the role of reputation-protector or secret-keeper. Take on the role of body guard and get yourself to safety. Whether or not you forgive your mate. Al-Anon offers help from others who have been through this.

June 7, 2013

How Not to Ruin a Great Gift

I received this note recently from a reader of this blog. She gave me permission to share it with you.

The income from their small start-up business has taken a dip recently. They are blowing through savings faster than they would like, and things get rather tense at times for them, as they do for many of us.

Another great 'assume love' story....for mother's day my husband bought me a couple of big fluffy blue towels...I was pretty embarrassed opening them in front of my folks...and kinda quietly 'fuming' on the way home.

But then I thought of the 'assume love patty magic', and in my sweetest voice I said, "Honey, that was so sweet of you to get me those nice towels..."

He reaches over and says, "I want you to have the very best. I'm really trying to provide great things for you."

Sigh.

What can I say, thanks again!

There is a very good chance your spouse also tries hard to show you how much you are loved--even when you accidentally interpret this as embarrassing. You can assume your amygdala knows best, or you can assume love and do a double-check before you ruin a great gift.

June 4, 2013

Praise Makes Us Brave

Barbara Sher, author of I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was and several other wonderful books, says this frequently.

Praise makes us brave.

Want to nudge your partner to tackle a big project or make a challenging change? Praise gives a much bigger nudge than criticism does.

Oh, how I have to remind myself of this, often in mid-criticism. I give myself a pat on the back for remembering and changing course.

Want your partner to praise you more and criticize you less? Ask for it. Avoid implying your mate ought to fix a deficiency. Instead, praise some of the other ways he or she has met your needs and lifted you up. People who don't normally praise probably don't feel comfortable dishing it out. It will take a stretch for your mate. But praise makes us brave.

June 2, 2013

A Different Sort of Marriage Book

I must thank wonderful Amna Ahmad for a brief post on her Facebook page a couple weeks ago, the day before my birthday. It read:

My favorite definition of art has always been Tolstoy's: art is infection.

I am utterly infected by this book. I'm reading it, I can't breathe, I feel sick, I can't stop reading.

So I bought Wave as my birthday gift to myself and read it in gulps, stopping only to breathe again. The blurb for this memoir begins:

On the morning of December 26, 2004, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, Sonali Deraniyagala lost her parents, her husband, and her two young sons in the tsunami she miraculously survived.

That pretty much sums up the opening chapter, if you can somehow imagine what it is like to be packing for your return to your job as an economics professor in London, saying goodbye to your friend from California who has also been visiting family in Sri Lanka and enjoying a farewell stay at the beach when you must suddenly run for your lives with no time even to bang on your parents' hotel room door.

I won't spoil the rest of that breathless and awful chapter, but it is the rest that may well inform your marriage, as well as your relationship with your kids and your parents. It takes place in Colombo, London, and New York over seven years of Sonali putting the pieces back together. And it is, indeed, infectious, an awful and uplifting and oh so difficult journey through what she can bear to remember of life before that awful day.

I laughed with self-recognition at what she said to her dead husband about haunting the Dutch couple. I think you may, too. Her take on the report cover her father-in-law found is a definite Assume Love moment.

This is a memoir. It is not intended to help your marriage in any way. And yet, every new perspective does help. And this one is infectious. It is not just something to thing about; it affects every part of you. So I am adding it to my recommended reading for anyone in a life partnership or marriage or choosing a partner for one.

Let me know if you read it, too. I love comments.

The Author

Patty Newbold is a widow who got it right the second time...

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