Kicking the Old Habit of Spousal Neglect by Embracing the New Habit of Lively Intimate Engagement
A BAKER'S DOZEN 12 STEP PROGRAM;
In the previous post,(see June 13th's Part I), I traced the formation of an insidious habit of marital neglect that begins upon the birth of children, but becomes rigidly entrenched UNLESS REPLACED BY A SUBSTITUTE HABIT. It takes 6 weeks to gain critical distance from a bad habit and lay down a new habit. Fold the following steps into your daily routine and by September, you’ll be well on your way to revitalizing your relationship. They needn’t be taken in any particular order (except step 1), nor all simultaneously adopted. Tailored flexibility to your desires and circumstances, as always, assures maximum benefit.
1) Formally Commit to enhancing your bond: Create a quiet moment with your spouse, (since you’ll never FIND one!) in which to remove yourselves from your harrying pace to talk about how you both are really doing, and how you both feel the marriage is faring. Highlight the aspects of your marriage you prize and cherish. Speak with caring gentleness about ways you’d like to become closer to each other. Affirmatively commit to forging a new habit of loving kindness to replace the habit of complacent neglect.
2) Pick one modest specific behavior you’d like to engage in together for the benefit of your relationship. Focus on the positives you’d like to aim for, NOT the negatives you’re fed up with. (E.g. “I’d love to have walks with you a couple of times a week, to unwind and catch up with you,” vs “you never want to be with me!”) Select one change you both would like to adopt into your routines this summer. (e.g. taking a Yoga or boxing class together (where there’s on site daycare!); 20 minutes sitting and talking together each night in lieu of escape into TV/email/phoning; choosing one weekly TV program you both would like to watch together.)
3) Pick one modest personal goal you’d like your spouse to support your achieving. Address ways you each would like support on a personal goal that you’ve been neglecting (e.g. picking up an old hobby, getting order in the house, practicing meditation daily (which will improve both your moods!)). This builds a bridge across the chasm of isolating separateness that has been growing since the onset of parenthood. Phrase your needs in terms of what you’d like your spouse to help you do differently vs what your spouse maddeningly fails to do. (E.g. “I’d like to cut out carbs this summer and need help avoiding temptations” vs “what are you, trying to kill me with the Costco industrial size boxes of Cinnebons?!”)
4) Guide your actions by the boomerang law of human nature. Generosity begets generosity, while mean-spiritedness begets retaliatory mean-spiritedness, and critical complaints beget critical counter-complaints, while appreciation begets appreciation. Rather than waiting for your spouse to behave lovingly before you reciprocate, which only traps you both in negative deadlock, engage the way you’d like your spouse to, and jumpstart the positive loop. Be a Mrs. Ghandi: “be the change you wish to see in your spouse.” Unexpected acts of kindness make your spouse feel uplifted, such as stopping to massage their shoulders before passing behind them, running a candle-rimmed bath, joining them in gardening, spiriting the kids out on a weekend morning so your spouse can sleep in. No one can get enough of such thoughtful kindnesses, and it comes right back at you. (If it doesn’t, it’s time for a serious talk.) Make a list of “daily devotions;” small gestures you know would be uniquely pleasing to your spouse. This way you have a store of ideas to act on, instead of having to conjure them up in the stress of day to day moments. Keep the list by your bed to add to and work off of. (Ironically, when presenting this program to a group of couples, I had to repeatedly clarify that the daily devotions list they should make was of ways their spouses would enjoy being spoiled by them, NOT ways they’d love to be spoiled by their spouses!)
A) ENGAGE IN ONE DAILY ACT OF KINDNESS AND
B) COMMUNICATE ONE LOVING, KIND OR SPICEY SENTIMENT TO YOUR SPOUSE EVERY DAY (via text, email, phone or in person).
5) Bust yourself for your OWN role in marital conflicts, and APOLOGIZE. Don’t beat yourself up, but with balanced honesty, examine ways in which your own insensitive behavior plays a role in evoking the very behavior that you resent in your spouse. Then look in the mirror and repeat the following: “Hey- YOU’RE no bargain EITHER!” Also, keep in mind that much of what couples squabble about are mere DIFFERENCES, of opinions, values, tastes, desires and styles. Many a confrontation can be averted by abandoning the need to establish who’s RIGHT or WRONG, and instead acknowledging that differences can be healthy, enriching and horizon-expanding. When you do catch yourself being a jerk, be gracious and evolved enough to take responsibility for your own misbehavior and apologize. Not only will you endear yourself to your spouse, but you’ll also be providing a lesson in mature, honorable conduct in relationships.
6) Calendar Weekly Date nights: Get out the summer calendar, and reserve one day or night every week to enjoy private times in which your sole mission is to have whimsical fun together (e.g. outdoor concerts with picnics, bike trips, Harriman Park hikes, NYC museum explorations, comedy nights, tubing, parasailing, Salsa classes, kayaking, pottery classes etc). You’re refilling the reservoir of love too often depleted by parenthood’s draining effect. Why not put as much creative effort into such plans with your spouse as you do so exuberantly in searching out exciting adventures for your kids? Check out internet sites and community newspapers for offbeat local events, consult the tourist books you reserve for your out of town guests; brainstorm with friends; take turns organizing “mystery dates” If babysitting is a problem, arrange an exchange with friends whose kids get along with yours, and trade off date nights. An added bonus is that you’ll weave a local family-like web such that your friends become like aunts and uncles to your kids and you to theirs, while their kids become like cousins to yours. A deeper and broader community is then woven, which may well support your kids through their teen years.
7)Calendar an entire weekend away, just for you two. Escaping your home environment is crucial for habit-breaking. Trips release you from those automated routines prompted by the surroundings and cues. Studies have shown that people are better freed from habitual behavior patterns when in novel settings. Call in your chits, farm out your kids, and take off to any setting that will press the refresh button on your zombie-like static sameness of relating; Amish country, Cape May, Adirondacks, NYC- anywhere but Essex County.
8) Revolutionize your conversation: BAN THE BORING! When on your escapes, don’t let conversations be hijacked by parenting and household tedium. Probe perspectives on spirituality, politics, art, music, adventure, travel. Gather hilarious stories and jokes to share. Ask searching questions like you would if you were seeking to know your spouse again for the first time. (In a sense, that’s precisely what you are trying to do here.)
9)Listen, listen, listen: with nonjudgmental acceptance.Your quest is to understand your spouses’ emotions and dilemmas as fully and acceptingly as possible, without judging, problem-solving, interrogating, correcting, dismissing, or in any way communicating you think they need to be fixed. If your spouses don’t ask for advice, refrain from offering any. Presume your compassionate understanding is all they want. How do YOU like to be listened to by your spouse and friends? Do the same back.
10) Have you Hugged your SPOUSE today?! Hug and kiss your spouse when you part in the morning and when you come back together at day’s end; hold hands, link arms, caress in passing. These are small gestures that uplift each other for the day to come, comfort each other at day’s end, and reaffirms your loving care through the day. Also, it’s excellent modeling of the kind of tender devotion you hope your kids enjoy in their future love life.
11)Try to speak to your spouse only out of a place of loving-kindness, especially when you are upset. Pause, breathe deeply and refrain from confronting your spouse if you cannot speak out of a place of essential lovingness of spirit. Buy time until you can. That may mean waiting until you’re calmer, when the situation is less heated so as to “strike when the iron is cold.” Or it may mean writing your grievance rather than verbally delivering a tirade. I maintain you can say practically anything to another, and it can be optimally received, IF you can say it out of a place of calm, centered lovingness of spirit. And if you can’t speak out of a place of loving kindness, perhaps it’s best left unsaid until you can.
12) Be ever mindful of the sobering truth that life is precious and fleeting. One day we will lose each other. Engaging with loving generosity coaxes the best out of our bonds and reduces regrets for a life and love squandered. Let your awareness of life's swift passage guide your choices about how to engage with your spouse.
13) Stoke the Fires of Your Sex Life!!
No excuses; get a lock on your bedroom door (high up so your little kids can’t lock themselves IN): tell them Mommy and Daddy need a “time out;” skip one of the 27 soccer/baseball/lacrosse/softball little league games in favor of “afternoon delight.” Do you need to be informed of other benefits of sex besides the sheer pure rapture and intimacy of sex?
1) Sex strengthens your immune system, 2) Sex decreases tension, anxiety, hostility and irritability 3) Sex reduces arthritis 4) Sex strengthens your stamina 5) Sex burns calories 6) Sex reduces sleep disturbances 7) Sex keeps your skin youthful and glowing 8) Sex heightens levels of oxytocin, that bonding, (hence fidelity-enhancing) hormone 9) Sex decreases migraines (Dang! Busted folks! So much for THAT alibi! Next time your spouse complains of a headache, propose a powerful dose of THIS tried and true “pain relieving intervention” (!))
Sex is an anti-infidelity, anti-depressant, anti-aging, anti-anxiety wonder drug with only positive side effects. Also, as beneficial as the effects of good sex are, NO sex in marriage has a greater impact, negatively. There is a feedback loop wherein the happier couples are, the more active they are sexually, and the more sexually active couples are, the happier they are. Meanwhile, people in sexless marriages are more prone to consider divorce, and the longer they’ve avoided sex, the more intractable their estrangement becomes. We grow crusty, grumpy, embittered and testy if we’re deprived of touch from physical and sexual intimacy. (Perhaps some of you wives might be dimly familiar with this M.O of your husband? The above mentioned “migraine treatment” works miracles on these agitated toxic moods…) Good loving intimacy, in all its varied forms including tender touches, hugs, squeezes, kisses, caresses, and making love, is the duct tape of happy marriages that can endure the wear and weathering of parenthood.
How often should couples have sex? Of course it depends on the frequency that suits both of your sexual appetites. The average among married couples is about once a week, with broad variability. For frequency recommendations, you could consult the Talmud guidelines which lay out how often husbands of various given professions should “rejoice” their wives. (Isn’t that a dazzling sex term? Christmas Hymns take on an entirely new meaning now!):
“For men of independent means, everyday, for laborers, twice a week; for ass-drivers once a week; for camel-drivers, once in 30 days; and for sailors, once in six months.”
Parenthood takes such a steep toll on couples’ sex life that enlivening it will require candid discussion. If couples scarcely take time to talk (only 4 minutes on average/day!) or to make love (especially for those poor camel-drivers and sailors!), imagine the challenge for parents to take time to talk ABOUT sex! But couples that do speak bluntly with each other about their sexual desires and preferences are more satisfied across all realms of intimacy. Gottman provides a helpful vehicle for subject with your spouse in a questionnaire you both can take and compare. (See Chapter 13, “Heat Up Your Sex Life” from And Baby Makes Three (John Gottman & Julie Schwartz Gottman, 2007)
STEPS IN SUMMARY
1) Commit to replacing the habit of complacency with the habit of mindful, kindhearted engagement.
2) Choose one change you’d like to make together.
3) Actively support your spouse in one personal goal.
4) Do 1 simple act of kindness & convey something loving or spicy EVERY DAY
5) Bust yourself for your OWN role in negative patterns
6) Calendar Weekly Date nights.
7) Calendar a weekend away just for you two
8) Revolutionize your conversation: BAN THE BORING!
9) Listen, listen, listen: with accepting receptivity
10) Hold, hug, kiss your spouse everyday with every goodbye
and hello, and in random passing moments.
11) Speak ONLY out of a place of loving kindness, especially when it involves challenging issues.
12) Be mindful that life is precious and fleeting. We are here to honor and love each other for only a short sweep of time.
13) Revamp your sex life with more candid sharing of desires and needs, and more frequent “rejoicing.”
ONE STEP AT A TIME
By now you’re probably feeling you just wanted a sip from a drinking fountain and you’re getting blasted by the fire hose. Sure it’s a chore to exert effort to change behavior. But that’s precisely the point. If you passively bob along on the currents of routine habit, rather than vigorously driving against the currents of complacency, you’ll be swept through your marital years devoid of the all the joy and closeness that is yours to enjoy. And these rivers of marital neglect can culminate in a Niagara Falls of splintering divorce.
Don’t feel compelled to follow all these steps. (You probably do many or most of them already.) What is important is your spirit and energy of INTENTION. Again, bland indifference to marital estrangement can lead to an unbridgeable divide. But earnest intention to grow closer is itself a catalyzing force. Like the refrain from the movie Field of Dreams, “build it and they will come,” when we invert causal links, the very action that we think of as being an outgrowth becomes in fact the catalyst or cause itself. We may think couples treat each other with loving-kindness because they have are happily married. But the reverse is also true; they are happily married because they treat each other with loving-kindness. In other words, you can “fake it until you make it,” and through your concerted actions, you will. If you can only shoot for a few changes, or only “work the program, one step at a time,” that’s far better than benumbed passivity.
Do it for your kids, if not for yourselves. They’ll enjoy a twofold benefit; from enjoying a more loving family atmosphere in their formative years, and from having a loving nurturing marriage upon which to model their future love life.