Tag Archives: marriage

hand

How neuroscience saved my relationship

I have a shit track record with relationships.  I seemed to have gotten married twice and happened to have divorced both of them, getting rid of them with a snap of my fingers (and a small bribe to banish that second one from my life).  My current beau was reasonably nervous about getting involved with what some people might term a “runner”.   Ruiner is another name.  It is tempting to blame my was-bands for my divorces but I know perfectly well that my power to destroy relationships is equal to my ability to attract men.

I am an interesting mix of low maintenance with high expectations.  Camping and no showers for a week – no problem.  Dress up, dress down – all good.  But I require intense interest in life, ambition, progressive inclinations, a desire to volunteer and contribute to the community combined with a nuanced understanding of acceptable shoes (my definition, not your definition) and a butt that can fill out your jeans (which better not be from LL Bean).   I bring people in easily and can easily throw them away when I am done.  Not pretty, not nice.  But if you dig deeper, you might discover, I don’t do this to be mean, I do this to protect myself.

We all have our ways of protecting ourselves from getting too close and being too vulnerable with another human being.  One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.  But I want to keep this one – my new beau.  I want to make the relationship work this time.  I have been studying what works to change our patterns.  I discovered it all has to do with the brain, our neuronal infrastructure and how we form memories from our experiences.  This is what I discovered that might help me and might help you.

“One of my primary ways was to build up a negative story in my mind so I could cut loose at any time without it seeming like a loss.” 

 

We see what we want to see.

During my second marriage, I thought I was being clever by coming up with different pet names for #2, like “f@#king a&&hole”.   I would repeat this sentiment in my head each time he spoke.  As it turns out, this was not helpful!  It biased me against seeing anything good in him, regardless of what he did.  Our thoughts and past experiences dictate what we pull from our current experiences.   It is like we walk around with mesh made up of our past experiences hanging over our eyes, obscuring our vision.  #2 could bring me flowers but all I could focus on what the fact that he was 15 minutes late.  We see what we want to see.

Focus on the good.

In my current relationship, I focus on the good instead.  I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely (like listen to me, smile at me or come with me to my parent’s house).  I say it directly to him (Thank you so much for coming with me to my parents’ house.  It means a lot) and repeat it internally.  This is purposeful.  I am building up an argument to my body and brain to keep him.  Sure, I could pick out things I find annoying but I now know that noting those things, reinforcing them in my body will not do me nor him any good.  Our brain forms channels of thought that we can easily fall into and can easily reinforce if we aren’t careful (“He never comes with me to my parents”).  These negative stories can slowly destroy our relationships by tainting our perception and experiences.  By creating a positive story about him in my mind, when something negative does happen, it no longer has much of an impact.

“I purposely note in my mind when he has done something lovely.” 

 

Appreciate often and out-loud.

Another practice I have adopted is to compliment him on anything I see that I like (and even some behaviors I would like to see).   “I really appreciate how patient you were with me tonight.”  This lets him know patience is important to me (and that it is likely a requirement to adapt to my proclivities).  It also gives me inspiration to be patient with him when needed.  It makes him feel good (presumably) and provides a road map for him in future interactions.  Equally important, it again strengthens the neuronal pathway in my brain between him and good things.

We feel what we want to feel

In my 30’s, I bemoaned my lack of moaning.  I wasn’t consistently attracted to my husband and I was missing out on getting off.  I have thankfully moved past this awkward stage with a key life lesson.  You determine your own experience, not only of life and what you choose to see, but of intimacy, by what you choose to feel.  Much of the orgasmic experience comes from fully immersing oneself inside the sensations.  You can essentially create your own orgasm.  We feel what we choose to feel.

Associate him with good feelings.

I learned I could do much the same thing with my attraction for my beau.  By bringing full focus on how it feels when he touches my hand (or any other body part), I reinforce my brain’s association between the warm vibrations and his being.

There are two key practices I do.  I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.  This practice forces me to slow down and appreciate him; it allows me to feel and note the intensity of my feeling for him.  I also intentionally note out-loud (and loudly inside my head) my attraction for him.  These two practices build a clear narrative for my ever-protective brain:  He is a keeper.

“I breathe in when he touches me, my breath marking the sensation he produces in me.”  

 

We can change our patterns, defeating our protectionist tendencies… if we are willing to practice.

This is the deal.  We are really good at repeating our patterns over time.  We are really good at protecting our hearts.  It takes practice, and courage, to open up, be vulnerable and create something different in your life.  This was my way of doing it: day by day, touch by touch, neuron by neuron.  By coupling positive thoughts with the sight, feel, and smell of him, I aim to ensure we remain a couple over the long term.  I hope you find your way too.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

communication

The Clumsy Conundrum of Communication

I dread the phone call that I know will come before I am ready.  Her timeline is vastly different from mine.  She wants to know what I am thinking about making for Thanksgiving dinner… in September.  I generally get down to business about 24 hours before the celebration.  She wants to discuss what I am thinking about for summer plans in February.  I, on the other hand, hold off as long as possible from thinking about summer and the pain of no free education-based entertainment during those two incredibly long months.  For her, planning ahead calms.  For me, planning ahead hurts my head.  We have different motivations, different timelines, and different ways of dealing with the world.  Neither she nor I are in the right, per se.  We simply communicate differently.  If she were my partner instead of my mother, I would likely have some communication challenges ahead.

In the game of communication, one of the most important aspects is to understand your partners’ communication style and needs.  What do they need to know?  What level of detail do they prefer?  When do they like to know it?  When is the best time to talk with them productively?  Getting used to fine-tuning the way you communicate in the following ways can help you enjoy your relationship more.

What isn’t working?  Sometimes this is the easiest place to start in your search for good communication.  When do you not feel heard?  When does your partner seem not to be listening?  When does your subtle comment turn into a fight?  Ask yourself the following questions:

Was I clear in what I was trying to communicate?

Is there a better or ‘softer’ way to say what I was trying to say?

Did I use any blaming language that may have made my partner defensive?  (“You always…” “You made me angry”)

Did I give my partner time to respond?

Did I try and understand his/her position?

Was the environment conducive to a good conversation?

Are there certain words I use that tend to “trigger” my partner?

What triggers me?  What did he say that made me angry?

In a recent workshop, men and women talked about what is happening when conversations go awry. 

“I was rushed.”                 “We were late.”                 “I just got home from work.” 

“I felt disrespected.”       “She didn’t try to understand me.”          “He cut me off.” 

“He told me how I was feeling.”                 “She was telling me what to do.” 

What is working?  Think it through: when was the last time you had a really effective conversation meaning that you felt heard or you and your partner worked well together?   These are things you might recognize:

Calmness works. Being able to stay calm in your body and tone tends to keep the other person calm.  Think of it this way: people tend to mimic the body language and feelings of the one they are around.  If you are calm, she will be calm.

Environment matters.  Think “where” and “when”.  Don’t start a conversation when either of you is rushed.  Find a place that is quiet and a time when each party can relax into the conversation.  If he likes to have 30 minutes after he comes home to play video games, let him and ask him to let you know when he is ready to talk.  Sometimes I need to take a shower when I get home to wash off the day and then I am ready to face the world again.  Also, put your phones away and reduce any other distractions.  This goes a long way towards building an environment of respect.

Words matter.  We each have phrases that bug us.  Maybe it’s “you always” or “you never”.  Or maybe it’s a condescending tone that makes you feel belittled.  Notice the impact you are having on your partner.  Be willing to try different ways of speaking that build partnership rather than animosity.

Be a good listener.  This is the one to really pay attention to.  Be a good listener.  Being a good listener means not talking (at all!).  It means making eye contact and listening to understand your partner’s perspective.  If you are really listening, you are not be using the time to formulating your comeback.  You are not be planning your next move.  If you fear you will forget what you want to say, write it down.  A good practice to know whether you were listening is to repeat the words back to the talker and ask them if you got it correct.

This is what I think you were trying to say….. Did I hear you correctly?

Simply listening will go a long way to strengthening your communication with your partner.  If your partner feels heard and even better, understood, there is a lot less to complain about.

I fumble as much as I fly in communicating effectively.  It is a practice.  Allow your missteps to lead to you to being in step with your partner (or your mother), at least occasionally.  It is worth it.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

fight

We fight, a lot. Are we doomed?

I dated my college boyfriend for 10 years and then dove into marriage with him for the next 7.  We rarely fought; we were best friends.  Yet, in the end, we divorced.  What happened?  Reading about the research on what makes marriages work, we probably should have been fighting more.

There was too much unsaid in our relationship. Our not-fighting was a sign of not sharing our feelings rather than of contentedness.  John Gottman, my favorite relationship researcher, points out that not fighting is a predictor of divorce!

Is marriage just about resolving conflicts?  No, most marital arguments can’t be fully resolved (69% of them aren’t resolved according to Gottman).   So it isn’t useful to cross your arms until things change.  He simply won’t always be on time and she simply can’t help but need the bedroom to be spotless.  We are generally so ingrained in our patterns, that while short-term changes may be possible, we are more likely to fall back into our patterns over the long term.

So if we can’t change each other or force the other person to be ‘perfect’ in our eyes, what can we do?  We can “manage” the conflict instead of trying to resolve it.  Here are a couple steps for you:

Fight better.  Research shows it is not whether couples argue but how they argue that makes the difference.  Focus your energy on learning more about what triggers you (what makes you really mad!).  Find ways of staying calm so you can effectively communicate.  You might want to practice breathing deeper or asking for a break when overwhelmed.  Practice effectively communicating your needs.  Two tips: (1) find ways of starting a conversation that doesn’t trigger your partner (e.g., make them defensive, or make them shut-down) and (2) research “non-violent communication” practices.

Accept him/her.  Find a couple things about your partner that you are willing to accept just as they are.  Maybe he is messy and maybe you just leave that alone.  Maybe she isn’t great at making small talk at a party and maybe you just learn to live with that and be the “small-talker” of the couple.  For each characteristic of your partner that you can “accept”, you just got rid of one cause of your fights!

Get curious.  Another way to reduce fighting is to gain a greater understanding of your partner.  Start asking (non-threatening) questions.  “I would really like to understand you better.  I noticed you don’t talk a lot at parties.  Do you enjoy the parties?”  Fights can easily arise when you start making assumptions about why your partner is like they are.  A greater understanding of your partner can lead to greater empathy and less fighting.

Shift yourself.  A huge key to shifting away from fighting with your partner is to understand yourself better.   Each fight is caused by the dynamic between the two people.  You are half of that dynamic and the problem is that you can’t control your partner’s behavior (as much as you would like to!).  But, you can control how you behave.  It is rather amazing but you can see big shifts in your dynamic by simply shifting yourself.  This may look like changing the language you use to communicate, finding better times to communicate when both partners are calm, or even integrating yoga or meditation into your world.  Yoga and meditation enable you to be less reactive to stressful situations.  When I go to yoga regularly, I am a much better partner as I am calmer and kinder.

Make up!  Most couples fight.  What is critical for the long-term health of a relationship is the recovery after a fight.  No recovery can lead to resentment and further anger.  Develop a way of coming down and connecting after a fight.  This can be a ritual of apologizing (“Wow, I am really sorry about how I acted.”) or maybe a ritual of appreciation (“I was really angry.  I am calmer now and I wanted to tell you how much I appreciate you coming back together to talk with me.”) or maybe a ritual of affection “I am sorry. <<hug>>”  Of course, offering regular affection, kindnesses, and positive statements about the relationship and each other forms the foundation that allows a couple to come down and connect following a fight.  85% of those who learn to effectively repair fights stay happily married.

So, no, your relationship isn’t doomed if you fight.  But if you fight nasty, it might be.  Learn to fight better, apologize sooner and make up sweetly.

 

Erin Oldham, Ph.D. is a researcher and relationship & divorce coach. Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships. She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world. Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child well-being and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years. She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective. She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Email her here.

Connect with her on her website or on Facebook.

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Ridiculously Honest: The Rebound Marriage Series

The ride was rocky, the destination unknown and the companions changed along the way.  The path into me was circuitous, tires screaming around bends at full speed, body slowing in the trees, silence coming at the end.  A marriage here, a marriage there, a heart meandering, directionless until I started listening to myself.  This is the journey into me.

There are 15 parts to The Rebound Marriage Series.  The series is intended to expose the trauma of divorce and a pathway to the other side.  Erin is the founder of Local Flames, a organization focused on supporting healthy relationships for men and women.  Enjoy and please write me your thoughts in the comments section below.

Part 1 – The Moment of Realization

Part 2 – Picture Perfect

Part 3 – The Decision

Part 4 – Honesty Session

Part 5 – Smiling Weakly

Part 6 - You Can’t Go Back

Part 7 - What would it be like to live not being seen?

Part 8 – Forward Motion

Part 9 – I Wanna Shout Out Loud

Part 10 – I Love the Bubble

Part 11 – No One to Save You

Part 12 – I Have Hit My Limit

Part 13 – You Don’t Know Me

Part 14 – The Path I Walk Down

Part 15 – My Children of Light and Dark

-Erin

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com

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The Moment of Realization

This is the first in my writing series, “The Rebound Marriage”.  Read about the series here.   

Sitting heavy, feeling each small rock beneath me. Knees pulled into my chest, tears coming to the surface and then receding as they realize there is no point. Steeliness and harsh awareness settling into my body. This is for real. This really, really is not an okay relationship. He could actually hurt me. Neglect and apathy can be just as dangerous as blows to the body.

Continue reading

divingin

Diving in, again.

Security in a relationship lies neither in looking back to what it was in nostalgia nor forward to what it might be in dread or anticipation, but living in the present relationship and accepting it as it is now.” – Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Gift from the Sea

Second marriages are exciting and fraught with danger.  While the chemicals in our brains tell us that we are absolutely going down the right path, the cold hard numbers speak to a different reality.  Two-thirds – that is 2 out of 3, of second marriages end in divorce.  So it is really important to gain some awareness before leaping into that next marriage.  And I have to tell you that being aware of what you are doing is exceptionally hard to do while experiencing good sex for the first time in a decade or two, so try to shift your focus, breath and read. Continue reading

Divorce | Local Flames | Matchmaking | Dating in Maine

It was a good decision, that second divorce was.

It was just a good decision, that second divorce was.  2+2 = 4 and deception + apathy = divorce.  Straight forward, not complicated.  A solid decision.  And one my children got.  Straight away.  They got that I was in this for them, that I was considering them, seeing them, hearing them.  Paying attention to the shake of their shoulders when he grabbed them when he was mad at the world.  My eyes leering to the left, daring him to touch them again, lest I completely lose it. Paying attention to the quiet close of the doors when we started yelling in the kitchen, that brilliant green kitchen that spoke of calm and screamed of trouble.  Hearing my daughter say, “He is mean”.  Mean, a word without ambiguity, spoken clearly and astutely.  But really, he was hurt, like the rest of us. Wounded without awareness of where and how deep his wounds went.  So when we make a decision like divorce, we try not to impart a wound to the young among us.

“Mom!” eyes rolling, secretly proud.  “Why are you the only mom who listens to rap music and dances around!”  Why?  Because I have come back, to myself, to my humor, to my dancing, to my freedom.  To the ability to feel the smile spread on my face, raising my cheeks and my power.  My house is now the place where the neighborhood kids gather on weekends, which surprises, since I am a combination of no holds barred, guidelines galore and forehead kisses in front of friends.  The space is safe, the energy is calm, the antithesis of what used to exist.  In my haste to fill in my wound, I wrapped my arms around a man I barely knew but who seemed nice enough.  Seemed was hardly good enough but I was trying to get in front of my fear of being a mother of three and a Ph.D. and a divorcee and strangely independent.  A fear that caused me to ignore my stupendously amazing qualities and focus on all that would make someone skip to the next profile on match.com.

So because of my wound, I couldn’t see straight and put myself straight in the path of a man who lied and covered and hid.  A good match, really, if we are going for parallel lives.  I was going for the infill, someone to jump inside and fill the gaping wound, I just didn’t realize they would keep falling and nothing was going to fill me up but me.  But we decided to jump together, eyes closed, all for one and one for all.  But without a thought of what it was to give up and abandon yourself, abandon your intuition, your beliefs, your deep knowledge that this was meeting not a single real need, just a Band-Aid, a Band-Aid with nice designs on it so that all who gazed at the wound would smile.

But the kids knew, they always know. They could feel the discomfort and the disquiet. The glares and the whispers, the leaks in the ship.  We were slowly drowning together, shouting at the top of our lungs, “Hear me, Understand me, Fill me!”  But two people who are both empty can get no further than the curb.  We could not support each other or understand each other or empathize with each other.  The initial euphoria at feeling a temporary wholeness leaked out like a balloon losing helium.  Deflated, useless, pathetic we were in each other’s presence.    So when I made the call, sent up the distress signal from our sinking ship, the crew was relieved that we would be spared from catastrophe.

The kids let out a deep breath and realized they were in fact standing on solid ground again.  Once their sea legs were gone, they could look around and see that things had not changed. There was continual love and connection, safety in the constant.  Safety in understanding what had happened, a serious life lesson in jumping off a cliff without a thought for the ground.  “He and I are not a good match.  We moved too fast, got married before we took the time to know each other.  He is not a bad person and neither am I.  We were just not meant to be.”

 

Authored by Erin Oldham, Ph.D.

Erin is a researcher, relationship & divorce coach, and mediator.  Erin works with people as they navigate getting into, sustaining and getting out of relationships.  She also works with people as they negotiate divorce and the post-divorce world.  Erin has a Ph.D. in Psychology and has been researching child wellbeing and the formation of healthy relationships among children and adults for 20 years.  She is approachable, pragmatic, empathic and effective.  She facilitates intriguing, engaging workshops on these topics as well.  Contact her now at erin@localflamesmaine.com or 207-200-3970.  More information here.  localflamesmaine.com