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Articles from March 2014

March 30, 2014

If Your Husband is Oblivious to How Unhappy You Are

When you're unhappy, it hurts even more to realize your husband does not notice. Eventually, you may begin withdrawing from the relationship, hoping for a response or perhaps just some time to think. Eventually, you might start thinking about separation or divorce.

You may think you're headed for an amicable divorce. By the time you tell him you're ready for one, he's likely to surprise you by crying that he's loves you more than anything, can't believe you're leaving, and does not want you to go.

While this might have been exactly what you wanted at the beginning of this awful downhill slide, it comes as totally unexpected and quite possibly unwelcome once your heart is done mourning the death of your relationship and ready to move on.

If any of this very common story sounds familiar, here are some things you ought to know to handle it a little better.

First, men generally don't monitor the health of a relationship as often as women do once a woman has said, "I do." If you don't mention your unhappiness, it's likely to go unnoticed.

Second, beyond any leftover childhood attachment issues, your husband has a body in which testosterone pushes and oxytocin pulls. When you cut back on physical contact, he releases less oxytocin, weakening the bond between you, the trust, and the ease of communicating.

Third, you probably measure how much you are loved by how much you get of your particular one of Gary Chapman's Five Love Languages. But there is no guarantee you and your husband share the same Love Language. If you cut back on the things that signal love to you as a way to clue him into your disappointment, he might not notice.

So, speak up about your unhappiness. But before you conclude your unhappiness has anything to do with your husband, try this:


  • Ask yourself what it is you want him to do differently.

  • Ask yourself why you want this, what do you need or want. Often it's a neater home, more money, a companion for branching out into a new sport or hobby, or fewer responsibilities.

  • Ask yourself how else you might get this if your husband won't or can't provide it -- or if you were to divorce.

  • In a calm moment when you have his attention, tell your husband what you need or want, without accusing him of failing you. Instead, ask his help in thinking of ways to get it or to get around the obstacles to your ideas for getting it without his help.

This way, you sidestep the natural human instinct to defend oneself and tap into the natural human instincts to solve problems and help those you love.

March 26, 2014

Assume Love and Save the Day

Yesterday was one of those days for me. Nothing seemed to go right. I lost all my self-confidence. I couldn't think of anything to write about for you. And, as usually happens when I lose my self-confidence, I invented things my husband ought to do to save me from my misery. (At least now I deal with them right away before sharing them or letting them rot into resentment.)

So it was pretty neat to get not one but two emails last night from others whose bad days were turned around when they Assumed Love.

One learned about a business expense her husband had committed them to, even though money's been really tight lately. She was livid! How could he do this? Was he stupid? Careless? But she stopped herself and asked what might possibly lead this caring, wise man to not only do this but keep it from her until now. She quickly deduced not telling her meant he was embarrassed by it, so he already recognized it was foolish. No need to announce it.

The calendar trick did the rest. When did this happen and what else was happening at the same time (or at the same time in some prior, important year)? Bingo! He made the decision on the day their bank account hit bottom. And he didn't make it to spend money but to bring in money, which it had done, although not as much as he had hoped. He made an embarrassing snap decision while his wife was unavailable. And since the move wasn't in his personal best interests, it was clear to her he did it to protect his family.

Because she Assumed Love and looked for the rest of the story, she was able to come across as thankful and forgiving instead of angry. And you can guess how big a difference that makes to the quality of their otherwise pretty great marriage.

The email from the second gal really nailed the value of Assuming Love. She was at the doctor's office, horribly sick. She was so sick, in fact, that she had to grab the doctor's waiting room wastebasket and vomit in it. They had been waiting so long. Her patience was worn thin. And then, for some inexplicable reason, her husband, seated beside her, yelled at her over some little thing.

Yelling is not something he does much of, which is good, because she's had enough earlier experience with yelling escalating to abuse to have a hair-trigger reaction to it.

But once before, when he yelled at her and she Assumed Love, she connected it to a great worry on his part. So when he did it in the doctor's waiting room and she Assumed Love again, the connection between her condition and his voice was pretty darn clear. And nothing to worry about.

Maybe even comforting.

I'll bet her lizard brain (where all our hair-trigger reactions reside) is scratching its little lizard head.

Her husband has no clue just how bad his day could have gotten. And she did not lose her support through a really dreadful wait for relief.

It's still amazing to me a little technique like Assume Love can save the day (and maybe even the marriage). It's powerful. If you haven't tried it yet, your next opportunity will probably show up soon. Let me know how it works for you.

March 12, 2014

Why Be Married? For the Stress Relief

Some very surprising research results were reported last month. They offered some pretty strong evidence of a real difference between marriage and living together. And it doesn't come from the marriage license or the religious ceremony. It comes from thinking of yourselves as married.

The research was reported at the 2014 annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Austin, Texas. Psychologist Jim Coan of the University of Virginia headed up the study.

This was a follow-up to replicate and expand on earlier findings that holding a husband's hand during a stressful experiment kept a woman's hypothalamus (the brain structure that regulates many of the symptoms of stress) calmer than holding a stranger's hand or no hand does.

A changing signal displayed inside the fMRI scanner indicated no threat of a shock or a 20% chance of a shock to create the stress.

The follow-up included a lot more couples, both married and living together, including 26 same-sex couples. In Virginia, same-sex marriage is illegal, so they were asked whether they thought of themselves as married or living together. And this time both males and females got a chance at being threatened while holding their partner's hand, a stranger's hand, or no one's hand.

The finding that completely surprised Jim Doan? Holding the hand of someone a person is married to or thinks of as their spouse has a stress-reducing effect on the hypothalamus not available to those who hold a cohabiting partner's or stranger's hand as they face a stressful situation.

The hypothalamus is tiny. It produces the hormones that tell the pituitary gland what hormones to release. Among its many wonders, the hypothalamus controls your body temperature, your sleep cycles, your thirst and hunger, your blood pressure, and your heart rate. It also controls the oxytocin (for trust and bonding), dopamine (for your brain's reward system), and vasopressin (controlling your water retention and blood vessel constriction) in your body.

If you face pain, surgery, chemo, or radiation, holding the hand of someone you feel married to can relieve a lot of the stress that comes with it. Yet another surprising reason to enjoy being married.

March 7, 2014

Man Up and Grab a Broom

Sometimes I am just astounded at what passes for helpful advice regarding marriage. In yesterday's The Globe and Mail from Toronto, their advice columnist answered a letter from a woman married 35 years and on the verge of retirement. She wrote:

At dinner the other night he said, "I can hardly wait to retire." With that I said: "Me too. I am tired of doing all of the house work myself." He was shocked. Any advice?

The male columnist's advice?

Basically, I think your husband needs to man up, grab a broom, and join the 21st century. Yes, I said man up...

Explain to him if he thinks you're going to do the cooking and cleaning while he golfs, he can fuhgedaboudit.

They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, but if he loves you, if he's worthy of you, he'll get up on his hind legs and grab a dishtowel.

If you ever get advice that starts with "if he loves you..." put in your earphones and turn up the music!

This is not about love. It's about chores.

If his idea of retirement includes you doing the chores you've done for years and yours includes cutting your chores in half, an ultimatum is not what you need. You need a Third Alternative.

The woman asking the question, much wiser apparently than the columnist, offered one to her husband. She wrote, "He told me hiring someone to help clean our house is not an option."

Rather than announcing a disagreement and proposing Third Alternatives, a much more effective strategy is to jump the net and start by agreeing with what your spouse wants.

He said, "I can hardly wait to retire." She turned this expression of hope and happy anticipation into a disagreement and an implied criticism of him when she said, "I am tired of doing all of the house work myself."

This is what marriage lab researcher John Gottman calls a "harsh startup." She hasn't opened a discussion. She has launched a complaint. Following it with "man up" or "if you loved me..." would take their relationship further in the wrong direction.

Here's a script that might work better:

She: I'm looking forward to it, too. You've worked hard for so many years, and you've built up some nice savings for retirement. You deserve to take it easy."

He: Thanks, hon.

She: I want you to have it easy in your retirement, and I want the same for myself, but it's not as easy to retire from cooking, cleaning, and doing the laundry, which make up the bulk of my work each week. Can we make some time to talk about ways I can cut back, too?

He: Sure. I'll try to think up a few.

She: Think we can talk about it this Saturday, after lunch?

He: Okay.

On Saturday, each of them could rate how important each chore is to them, how they feel about doing it, and what might reduce the need for the ones both of them dislike. And they could do it with the goal of getting her load down to the point where she's comfortable, not with the impossible goal of getting his share up to the point where they both feel the split is fair.

With this opening, she's done four things:


  1. She's offered what researcher Shelly Gable calls an Active Constructive response to his delight in what's going to happen soon. Gable's research suggests this is even more important to marital happiness than being there to support your spouse through bad news.

  2. She's avoided an unhealthy harsh startup to a discussion. She's asking for what she wants without accusing him of being unfair to her even before she sees how he handles the situation. This keeps his blood pressure and defensiveness lower, and his creativity and trust greater.

  3. She's put them both on the same side of the net. Her needs are not his losses. They are problems to solve with a valued partner.

  4. She's opened the door to learning more about, and even changing, his picture of retirement without pretending her picture doesn't matter or matters more than his.

Every transition in life requires updating our relationship with each other. We get to choose whether our working assumption going in is that we are still loved by a good person who gets a kick out of showing love or that we're in a zero-sum game with a competitor.

March 5, 2014

How Boring is Your Marriage?

Sometimes, marriages get boring. Your interactions are all routine and without thought. You're both just trying to get through the day. You may even go days without eating together or having sex or saying more than "please pass the salt."

It's never a good idea to ignore a boring marriage. Almost any excitement from outside your marriage -- a flirtatious member of the opposite sex, a single friend who is jealous of your spouse, a new hobby that excludes your mate, an addiction in the making, or rewards for over-investing in your work -- can gain a foothold a lot more easily when things get boring.

Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, reports a good deal of research showing how to change a habit that's doing you no good. First, you figure out the behavior you want to change and what it gets you or promises to get you. Then you figure out what triggers it. You substitute a different behavior that will get you more of what you want, and you practice watching for the trigger and replacing the old behavior with the new one.

If you've ever switched from candy bars to carrots when the 4 pm slump hits you, you know how this is done. And you know it takes weeks of being conscious of what you're doing before the carrots become your new habit.

So, say your spouse gets tired before you do most nights, and you've made a habit of watching a late TV show. When you arrive in the bedroom, you would need to wake your spouse to have sex, and that's not as much fun as it was before you became parents or added 80-minute commutes to your lives, so you just go to sleep. And your sex life withers away.

Your trigger is the timing of the TV show. Your desired result is entertainment, but you also want more intimacy and more orgasms. So you swap the behavior. You record the show and head to bed when your spouse does. Then you watch the show later that night or earlier on another night. New habit. Less boredom.

Or maybe you come home from work and check your email while your spouse cooks dinner. Your trigger is coming home from work. Your desired result is efficient use of your time, but instead, you're watching the latest cat video from a friend or adding unpaid overtime to your work day while losing the most important connection in your life. So you swap the email catch-up for a hug for the cook, interest in what's cooking, maybe even some impromptu dancing while the pasta boils or while you set the table. Or you wait until your spouse leaves for yoga class to check those emails, and you set a timer, because you're after more efficiency, not the illusion of useful activity.

Is every weekend pretty much the same set of chores and hobbies? How about marking off the first one each month on your calendar for doing something different with your spouse or the whole family? Novelty increases the odds of feeling the emotion of love, and it's that emotion that keeps up the "in love" feeling while your investment in the relationship and commitment to each other keeps up the "I love you" feeling.

Help out your fellow Assume Love readers. What habits have you changed to keep your marriage interesting and full-contact? Tell us about them in the comments. (If you receive this by email, or you're reading it on a page full of posts, click on the title to get to the online comments form.) Help stamp out boring marriages!

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

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