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Articles from January 2019

January 21, 2019

Feeling Distant? Use Biology to Get Closer Again

The human body is well-designed for two functions much needed in our evolutionary past. The first is self-preservation: fight, flee, or freeze. We could be attacked at almost any moment, and only those who survived passed down their genes. The second is tend and befriend. To survive as a human, our ancestors had to cooperate with other humans to eat, to clothe themselves, to build homes, and to build up a larger body of knowledge than any one of us could keep in our head.

A spouse you feel distant from is a threat to your well-being. Your amygdalae sense this and will rattle your nerves to get your attention. But they won't remind you that you feel distant because your tend-and-befriend instincts have gotten a bit lazy with the one person who vowed to stay close for life.

Get them going again. Put your mirror neurons to work by simply looking into your mate's eyes for a few long minutes. This brings even total strangers closer together, triggering empathy and stimulating the vagus nerve, which both relaxes us and makes most of our organs work a little better.

Don't stare into your spouse's eyes in an unnerving way. Do it over dinner or while you're making love or even while you're chopping the salad together. Just turn to look at your spouse, soften your face, and take a fresh look at those eyes. If your spouse holds your gaze, give it 3 to 5 minutes. You'll feel the difference in your body, maybe even a warming sensation around your heart. But recognize that your spouse may be so surprised by this that it feels a bit weird. If he or she turns away, try again in a day or two. Don't take it as rejection.

Want another way to get those mirror neurons working again? Put on some music and invite your husband or wife to dance with you for a few bars. Use your outstretched hand or a hug to initiate your request.

And other to get a nice kick to your vagus nerve through those mirror neurons is to invite your spouse to tell you about an emotional event and listen intently and inquisitively. After a few minutes, your brains get in sync, and you'll feel the same emotions at the same time. Feels great.

You may need to be ready to drop everything when your spouse walks in the door complaining or unloading difficult news. That's when you know they have a story to tell. It's worth it to set everything else aside and invite a full telling.

Won't hurt if you gaze into his or her eyes during the telling, either.

One more way to close that distance gap: get the oxytocin flowing. Oxytocin makes us more trusting (although not when something shady is going on), and it feels great. Some things that get it flowing: orgasm, stroking the arms, touching, kissing.

If you listen to the explanations people give for their extramarital affairs, except for the ones who like the adrenaline kick of evading detection and the ones who no longer value their marriages, what leads them astray is a craving for touching or someone who listens or the accidental but strong attraction to someone they dance with or who stares into their eyes. You can be that person for your spouse. In fact, you probably vowed to be that person for your spouse.

January 14, 2019

Pursuing Your Dreams and Growing While Married

It's so easy to get caught up in fears that if you pursue spiritual growth, start that business you've always dreamed of, get that graduate degree in your 50s, or take up an adventurous hobby, it will tank your marriage.

Before we start on this great new adventure, we fear obstruction. Once we find our way around the imaginary or real obstacles, we fear growing apart if our spouse doesn't drop everything and join us. If we keep going beyond this, we fear we're growing so much that we'll lose respect or interest for our partners.

Some of us, the ones with great imaginations, can run through all three of these fears in the first hour after we come up with a dream to pursue.

And if we don't pursue the dream, the fear can wreck the marriage much more surely than if we do pursue it.

Don't let it stop you. Pursue your dream. Treat obstruction as caring, and share your joy at going after you dream. Make new friends who share your passion for the real work of your new dream, friends who will drop everything and help, so your marriage won't suffer. And remember to keep asking with an open heart about everything your spouse is mastering while you're mastering this. Make a happy, healthy marriage part of your dream and then go after that dream!

January 7, 2019

How the Good Things in Our Childhoods Mess Up Our Marriages

Jerome woke up every morning to his mother bringing him a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice. He'd drink it down before getting out of bed and ready for the rest of his breakfast and the school bus. It was a nice, unhurried way to start the day. And it made a lasting memory: orange juice = love, especially when it's delivered by the woman he loved most.

Rebekkah woke up to an alarm clock and hurried down to the kitchen table to pour herself some cereal. Her mother was already at work. Her father, who worked nights, was home but usually sound asleep when Rebekkah rushed out the door to walk to school.

If you had dropped young Jerome into this household, he would have felt unloved. But Rebekkah never did, because every Saturday, her family spent the entire day together. An only child, she had her parents' undivided attention as they visited museums and beaches and parks or shopped for new school clothes.

When Rebekkah and Jerome married, she planned lots of things to do together on Saturday and looked forward to having two or three kids to join them. But Jerome often had to work on Saturday. And when he didn't, he would accept invitations from his pals to do things together, then feel utterly misunderstood by Rebekkah when she pouted over his choice.

Rebekkah did the shopping. Her family had never bought orange juice and certainly did not own a juicer to make their own, so it never occurred to her to buy oranges or orange juice. She had no idea (who would, if they did not grow up in Jerome's situation) that anyone could feel less loved without a daily dose of the orange stuff. And Jerome got up before her every day, so it never occurred to her to bring him anything in bed. But she really enjoyed the freshly brewed coffee waiting for her in the kitchen when she hurried down for breakfast before work.

Fortunately, Jerome reminisced about all that orange juice while they were visiting his mom soon after they married. And Rebekkah, ever the practical one, stopped scheduling things to do together on Saturdays and had a lot more luck with Sundays.

After their first child, another expectation from their childhoods caught up with them. Neither of them caught it. It wasn't until they finally showed up for marriage counseling after years of drifting far apart that anyone noticed what was driving a huge disagreement.

Jerome had siblings, 3 younger brothers. Unlike the rest of breakfast, that glass of orange juice every morning was one-on-one with his mother. It was followed by all the activity and cross-conversations and whining you'd expect from a family of four boys at the breakfast table with their overburdened parents.

Rebekkah could never imagine that scenario. Somewhere deep inside, she remembered the loneliness of her breakfasts alone. She never felt bad about them as a child, but they drove her to be all business and no fun. Once she had a child of her own, she wanted to give him siblings to share everything with: breakfasts, walking to school, family day on the weekends.

And that's what drove them apart. Rebekkah had no real clue why she was in such a hurry to have another child, and James had even less of a clue why he never felt it was time yet. She expected the second child to improve their son's life. He expected it to have the opposite effect. And because they didn't talk about the expectations, didn't discuss whether their separate fears and hopes were even relevant to their current circumstances, Jerome withdrew from their sex life while Rebekkah pushed for it. And Jerome withdrew from family day, while Rebekkah grew to welcome the time alone with their son, because she didn't want to be around him any more.

Unmet expectations grow resentments. And most go unmet, because we're the only one who believes everyone expects them or ought to.

Rebekkah and Jerome could have turned their unmet expectations into requests if they had noticed that they were building up resentment over unmet needs. As soon as they did this, they could have looked for Third Alternatives, starting by listing what they hoped to gain and what they feared losing. Jerome might have discovered that having no more children isn't the only way to protect their son's one-on-one time with his parents or his loving one-on-one time with Rebekkah. Rebekkah might have discovered that two more children isn't the only way to protect their son from loneliness and too early responsibilities or to protect herself from Jerome's distancing.

Morning orange juice and family day were great traditions and really unfortunate expectations. And this seemed like the time to mention them, as we emerge from the season of expectations rooted in our earliest traditions.

The Author

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

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