Transitioning to Sexual Intimacy: No, No, NO! to Go, Go, GO!

flirty young couple (cropped)

“After being told all my life no, no, no all of a sudden it was okay and it was go, go, go. It took a little transitioning.”-Female participant 

Many years ago (and I got permission from my student to share this), a student of mine wrote in her paper about sexuality that when she asked her mom one week before she got married to give her any advice about sex, her mother replied, “Well, Honey, people have been having sex since Adam and Eve, you will figure it out, too.” That was her sexual education. Pretty exhaustive. 

As I stated in my blog post on sexuality a few months ago, sexual intimacy is one of the most vulnerable experiences we will engage in this life time. Few experiences can replicate the deep emotional and physical exposure that accompanies being sexual with our partner. Despite the magnitude of the impact that sex can have on the marital relationship, our study revealed that few people are prepared for this anticipated event and aspect of romantic relationships. 

Much of the research on first sexual experience is embedded in adolescent studies. In our research, we only found one study that exclusively involved married couples who came into the marriage as virgins and looked closely at their experience. Through an extensive survey and short answers, we sought out to gain a better understanding of this experience for many individuals who have decided to remain abstinent before their wedding night. 

In our study of over 1000 married individuals and couples, we wanted to learn what contributed to a great transition from abstinence into sexual activity and what we could learn from those who struggled. It should be noted that our research found that most couples made a positive transition to this intimate area of their marriage. However, for a good portion of our sample, even those who reported a positive sex life, many reported that, despite their ability to traverse that new experience there was so much they wish they had known before and early into their marriage. 

We don’t claim to have all of the answers but I have briefly outlined four key elements that emerged in our ongoing study that aided couples in the transition from abstinence before marriage to sexual intimacy after marrying. Further, please note, that there is so much I could include in the synopsis but for the sake of brevity, I will summarize our results. Before we get going, we would like to thank all of the generous participants who took part in our study and shared some much of their thoughts and experiences to help others in their journey to a positive transition and great sexual intimacy. 

Sexual Knowledge

Overwhelmingly, one of the most consistent messages we received from our participants was that they just didn’t feel prepared with enough knowledge going into marriage and engaging in sexual activity. One female respondent state, “I was so uneducated and unknowledgeable about sex and sexual acts.
We learned to talk along the way but it took a few years.”
In fact, only 28% reported any knowledge of human sexual response and less than 7% reported any specific knowledge in how to make love. Stocksy_txp3dc73c26zO6000_Small_148400We know that, the large majority of our sexual knowledge comes from the parental message we receive while growing up. If individuals grew up in a home where abstinence was the clarion call, most of the parental education is can be summarized with “Just don’t do it.” Onto junior high and high school, the large majority of their education is sexually transmitted infections, maturation, and birth control. For the lucky few, they may have taken a human sexuality class in college. But even then, our respondents reported that they felt unprepared going into marriage. Take home message: Don’t be afraid to look for material that is in line with your values, get educated, visit a medical and/or mental health professional before and after marriage, and find answers.  

Healthy Sexual Messages, Beliefs, and Scripts

Our society is saturated with message about sexuality and how it should or shouldn’t be. Further, most of our conceptions of sex and sexuality come from our parents and family. From the time we can understand language to high school graduation, we will have receive thousands of messages about how to view our own bodies, relationships, marriage, sex, and our own sexuality. From religion, family, media, and our own experience with sexuality we develop what some scholars call our sexual self-concept or sexual scripts. Sexual scripts are the messages we tell ourselves about sex and what to expect when it comes to being sexually intimate and what it means to be a sexual being. Some of our sexual scripts can be very positive as participants reported some satisfaction with what they learned from parents and formal sex education. Other messages can create insecurity and negativity as one female stated, “I was taught growing up sex was bad, dirty and wrong and we didn’t talk about it. When I got married it took a while for us to talk through my fears and for me to grow out of shame and into acceptance and enjoyment. We just took it slow though it was emotionally devastating. Finally, many participants said that they thought it was going to be like the movies. Despite our past or current sexual scripts, it is important for adolescents and adults to develop and hold on to positive, healthy, and correct messages about sex and sexuality. Take home message: Become aware of your own sexual scripts and share these with your partner before and after marriage about what you learned about sex and sexuality from family, school, friends, media, and religion. Invite your partner to also share their sexual scripts with you and both should practice empathy and understanding as hear about their view of sex and sexuality. 

Emotional Safety

We are hard-wired to connect to others and specifically to our romantic partners. When we don’t feel emotionally safe, our brains are wired to emit signals of danger. As sex is one of the more sacred, private, and intimate acts in our relationship, if one doesn’t feel emotionally safe, sex will struggle to be consistently satisfying and pleasurable. When we asked married individuals what advice they would give couples who are about to embark on their first sexual experience together, we noted several themes. Some of the more dominate pieces of advice were that they would encourage couples to be patient with each other, go slow, and to practice kindness, gentleness, and love during their first time. As one respondent put it, “Be patient and understanding. It’ll take a while to get the hang of it, and be open and understanding to each other’s needs. Be loving and concerned about each other.” Study after study has noted that when spouses feel emotionally safe and connected, their sex life thrives. Take home message: Your partner is the most important person in your life, and together, you are embarking on one of the best areas of marriage. While you may both be incredible “horny”, the likelihood of you both also being nervous and apprehensive is high. Therefore, be kind, soft, patient, understanding, and gentle with each other.

Sexual Communication

Stocksy_txp3dc73c26zO6000_Small_190003According to our study, only 44% of couples talked about their expectations about the wedding night before marriage. This was staggering to us. Thus, the fourth and final overarching key element of a successful transition into sexual activity that arose from our data was that couples need to communicate before and after their marriage about their expectations, thoughts, and emotions about sexual intimacy. 

We know from our own findings and dozens of other studies that couples who can talk about their sex life together are significantly more sexually satisfied than those who can’t or don’t. Our study also found that the large majority of married individuals indicated that both men and women strongly agreed with the statement, “Looking back, I wish we had communicated about sex more before we got married.” As one of our favorite quotes from our study, one male participant stated, “For the love of all that is holy, talk about it! If you have no sexual experience, there are so many unknowns, you can’t just figure out by guessing nor is it realistic to think that your partner should just ‘know’ what you are feeling if they really love you.” From my experience as a therapist and educator and from some of the responses from our participants, a few items that should be discussed before your wedding night are expectations of frequency, the wedding night and honeymoon, boundaries (what I’m comfortable with), foreplay, past and current pornography issues, and initiation. While some may argue that it is impossible to talk about something you’ve never experienced, I would argue that we can still discuss our sexual scripts and messages that were formulated up to that point and our general expectations. It is also important to discuss when and how you are going to communicate about sex when it is less than satisfying or faltering. The “when” to talk about it can be summarized by stating the couples should discuss their sex life often because people develop and change over time as well as their preferences can change. Further, the “how” to talk about their sex life is to approach it with acceptance, understanding, and love. This creates safety. Take home message: You must create a safe environment and push yourself to discuss these important issues surrounding sexual intimacy. Couples who talk about their sex life have better sex and more of it. 

When couples can gain adequate knowledge, cultivate healthy sexual scripts, create an emotionally safe relationship, and learn to safely and frequently discuss their sex life, our research supports that their love-making will be significantly more satisfying and contribute to the overall health of the relationship. In closing, one last piece of advice from a participant when asked for advice for couples making the transition into sexual intimacy, he stated, “Make sure you take your clothes off.” Now that is some sound advice!

No-to-go workshopIf you are dating, engaged, or newly married (0-2 years) and would like to more about how to prepare for and enhance the sexual intimacy in your relationship, my colleagues and I are hosting a workshop for couples on Friday, June 20 from 7-9pm at the Provo Library in Provo, Utah. Please visit my website at www.jeremyboden.com for more details and registration. 

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It’s NOT about Communication

It’s NOT about Communication

Young couple arguing in a cafe. Relationship problems.When I was working toward my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy, we were required to see clients at the beginning of our second semester. Most therapists can remember their first day of seeing a client and the anxiety that preceded it. I was not unique to this experience. It was a couple who, in my mind, had waited way too long to come to therapy. They had been married for over 20 years and they both spoke of long-standing resentment and loneliness. I distinctly remember the wife telling me that after 20 years of marriage, they just couldn’t communicate.

That first session led to many more sessions with other couples that had the same plight, “Jeremy, we just don’t see eye to eye and we just can’t communicate.” In fact, research has established that the number one complaint couples bring to marital therapy is “lack of communication.” As I took classes and learned about families, relationships, and couples, and continued to spend time walking on the hallowed ground of these couples in despair, it became clear to me that they weren’t struggling with communication; they just couldn’t risk anymore.

As humans, we are hard-wired to connect in a variety of intimate ways. When we are unable to connect to one another, our brains sense danger and we go into what has been termed a “primal panic.” In fact, one of the universal torture techniques is isolation or solitary confinement. Consistently being alone emotionally and physically is literally tortuous.

This became even clearer when a couple I had been working with for many sessions talked often about their lack of communication or inadequate skills. They came into my office with their “fight-of-the-week”, which had to do with the wife’s frustration that her husband recently went out with the guys for some time together. After 10 minutes of them going back and forth, blaming and criticizing one another for their selfishness, I finally stopped them and asked what was underneath all of this hurt. The wife, looked down at her hands and said, “I just wanted to be included. I’m never included in his life.” After she shared that she just wanted to know that she mattered to him, he softened, moved closer and said, “I wish you would say it like that instead of telling me I’m selfish.” To which she responded, “I guess I was just scared you would make fun of me or criticize me even more for needing you.” Behind all of her anger, blame, and criticism was a loving wife who just wanted to know that she mattered and was a priority in his life. Underneath his frustration and withdraw was someone who was scared she wouldn’t love him back.

Our Negative Patterns

In the beginning of my journey of couples work, I found that when I taught them communication skills, it worked for a few weeks but they would eventually find their way back into my office with the same hurts and frustrations and longings for greater emotional safety. Anyone can use the skills but if there isn’t a deeper level of safety, the skills become hallow, rigid, mechanical, and sometimes, even manipulative. However, when I help them step out of the “communication is our problem” mantra by supporting them as they identify their negative pattern, they are then able to recognize it when they are outside of my office and their fights begin to diminish. Nevertheless, that is not the only thing that leads couples to more risk and safer connection. The next step is to understand the elements that are fueling the negative pattern.

Primary Emotions

As you can see from this story, no one is to blame and no one is at fault. If anything, their pattern or their “fights-of-the-week” was the culprit. Someone would move in for closeness, the other would respond negatively, they would withdraw, sulk for a few days, and come back to avoid the awkward silence. Not only were they dealing with a negative pattern, the driver of the pattern was their secondary emotions, behaviors, and perceptions. These include anger, blame, criticism, withdrawal, jealousy, and frustration. What was underneath these secondary emotions and behaviors and what was fueling the conflict was their primary emotions of hurt, sadness, shame, loneliness, and most often, fear. These primary emotions are the key to understanding one another and rebuilding intimacy and safety.

The great thing about our brains is that they can be literally “re-wired.” I’ve found that when couples can reconnect on a deep and emotional level, where safety and love meet, past and present wounds are healed, more risks are taken, and emotional intimacy flourishes. We must remember that, building a foundation of emotional safety is the most important component to a successful romantic relationships. Off of that platform comes stronger friendships, less fighting, better sex, and more love for each other. Further, when we feel safe we risk more which leads to great intimacy, which leads to more safety. Interestingly, some research has even shown that when partners feel emotionally connected and safe their physical wounds heal faster and they are less likely to get sick.

The First Step to Emotional Safety

Candid image of young couple smiling in a coffee shopIf you would like to begin building emotional safety, here are a few brief starting points. I often hesitate to give out “tips” because much of what I do with couples takes time, patience, forgiveness, and most importantly, humility. Remember, you have likely built up these patterns so much that they have become habitual and automatic. As you practice these things, you will more than likely fail. In fact, I tell my students and clients that I still fail and I’m a relationship educator and couples therapist! However, I’ve become much better and I fail significantly less often than I used to. The key is having the knowledge, being humble, and to try, try again. I will preface these points by stating that many of them come from my therapeutic experience, my workshops, my training in Emotionally Focused Therapy, and the book Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson.

  1. Begin by viewing your lack of safety as a couple problem rather than an individual problem. You are a team now fighting against the negative pattern.
  2. Next, see if you can identify the pattern that comes and attacks your relationship. Not so much the topic that you argue about but rather the way that you argue, the way you move away from each other, and/or move towards each other.
  3. Then try to recognize this pattern the next time you argue or find yourself in a conflict. Point it out together.
  4. When you are in the pattern, decide together to stop (e.g., “Hey, I think we are getting into that negative pattern we talked about.”), take a break, write down some of your underlying (i.e., primary emotions) feelings. Start each one by writing, “I feel…” or “I’m experiencing ______ right now.” You may be tempted to say, “I feel angry.” That is fine but see what might be under that anger. What are your primary emotions?
  5. When you are both calm and relaxed, share these with your partner. By doing this, you avoid blame, criticism, your negative pattern, and you create safety and softer feelings towards one another.

Every semester, the last thing I tell my students in my marriage and relationship class is that most partners within a relationship, regardless of gender, really want the same thing—to know that they matter, to feel emotionally connected and safe, and that their partner will be there for them when they need them.

 

If you are interested in learning more about this model of connection, please attend one of my Hold Me Tight Workshops. The next one is Friday and Saturday, May 9-10. There will be others posted soon.

“Sex? Who has time for that?”

Stocksy_txp0bd4cddbek2000_Small_135554One of the more vulnerable parts of our human experience is to engage in sexual activity. Despite this truth, very little education or training is given to individuals and couples concerning this most important aspect of life. A large number of individuals report that despite any formal or parental sex education they received, they felt very unprepared to engage in sexual intimacy with their spouse.

Decades of research, therapeutic trainings, couples I work with, and my years as a married man have all led me to believe that sexual intimacy is a vital and necessary part of a healthy and satisfying romantic relationship. Research suggests that couples that have a healthy, consistent, and mutually satisfying sexual relationship are found to be more stable and satisfied compared to those who do not. In fact, some research suggests that having a satisfying sex life can make up to 15-20% of marital satisfaction. That may not seem like a lot, but when you statistically consider all of the other elements that go into marital satisfaction (e.g., communication, financial management, conflict, children, etc.), that number is quite significant. An even more telling statistic is that a couple’s unhappiness with their sexual intimacy can make up to 50-60% of their marital dissatisfaction.

My own findings seem to coincide with this past research. In my recent study of over 600 married individuals, one of the top responses to the question, “What advice would you give to premarital couples?” was to make their sex life a priority. One respondent stated, “Make sure each partner is committed to a healthy sexual relationship and that providing for each other sexually should be a high priority.” Much like my post for January, our lives are extremely busy and the demands on our time are plenty. Unfortunately, love-making often takes a backseat or when it does happen it is often rushed and between two very tired partners. Sadly, some marriages have become sexual deserts and any physical or sexual connection is unfulfilling, sparse, or nonexistent. Perpetuating this trend too long can be dangerous territory for any marriage. Author and noted couples therapist, Dr. Michelle Davis stated, “…a marriage void of sexuality and intimacy is a marriage doomed to fail.”

Why Sexual Intimacy is so important to a Marriage

Ok, so it’s good for a marriage, but why? Unfortunately, the media and our culture have led us to believe that sex is all about immediate personal physical satisfaction. Thankfully, not everyone has adopted this belief. Referring back to my study on married individuals, we also asked, “What purpose does sexual intimacy serve in your marriage?” The most consistent answer was that sexual intimacy builds emotional closeness and strengthens our bond. Sex can be a very potent bonding experience for a couple. Respondents also stated that it was one avenue to express love and affection, as well as a way to heal hurt feelings and facilitate forgiveness. One respondent stated, “Sex deepens the relationship between me and my spouse. It is a source of healing, love, strength, and renewal.” Further, many respondents noted that sex for them was fun and a great way to relax. Taken together, you can see how sexual intimacy can really influence the stability, safety, and happiness in a relationship. This also points to why the lack of sex or the inconsistency of love-making can pull from the overall satisfaction as it deletes these positive, natural byproducts of sexual intimacy. Sex has also been shown to improve cardio health, sleep habits, reduce pain, and improve one’s mood. Who couldn’t use some of those benefits?!

When sexual intimacy is lacking, consistently failing, or just doesn’t happen, it can suck the emotional energy out of spouses and the marriage as a whole. So few human experiences have the ability to physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually draw us together as husband and wife as does sex. We know from years of research that we are literally hard-wired to desire, crave, and long for emotional connection. Sexual intimacy allows men and women to feel desired, attractive, and appreciated. Further, it allows partners to experience their natural traits of masculinity and femininity. Likewise, few experiences have the ability to create resentment, anger, and frustration as does our sexual relationship. When the sexual relationships suffers, the relationship often does, as well. As renowned couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson stated, “No safe bond, no sex; no sex, no bond.”

Making Sexual Intimacy a Priority

Now that we know that sexual intimacy should be a priority and why it is important, what can you do to push it up the ladder of importance in your relationship? When couples come to my office, one of the first things I do is help them work on the issues as a team rather than trying to fix one another. By viewing increased sexual connection as a “couple goal” (rather than an individual goal) and become an intimate team, this creates more emotional safety. Assuming there aren’t any major relationship issues or extensive biological challenges (next month I will talk about steps you can take to address your sexual relationship if the relationship itself is less than ideal), I have outlined a small list to get you started. This is obviously not an exhaustive list and I don’t view this as a “quick fix” but here are three suggestions that have been helpful for couples that I have worked with that want to put sexual intimacy higher on the list. I would encourage you to read these suggestions together as a couple and approach this challenge as an adventure you are on as an intimate team.

First, make a goal as a couple to be more sexual.couple

There are a variety of ways to increase marital satisfaction: play more, schedule weekly dates, increase spirituality, show appreciation for one another, and relax together. However, we often place kids, housework, schedules, jobs, sleep, and others needs above the importance of sexual intimacy. I believe that most couples know what to do to make their relationship better but sometimes have a difficult time putting their finger on it. One activity I have couples do is to think back to the time when their sexual relationship was a priority and what has changed since then. Take some time together to talk about when your sex life was good or at least better than it is now. Be careful not to resign yourself to excuses of why your sex life has dwindled. There may be some legitimate reasons but focus on the areas you can change and look for solutions. Discuss specific and realistic ways you can bring it back to that point. Be intentional, positive, and proactive.

Second, let go of the want/need for spontaneity.

This is closely related to the previous suggestions. Now that you have made it a goal to be sexually intimate more often, let go of the romanticized view that every sexual encounter must begin with a knowing glance and euphoric hormones. While spontaneous sexual connections can be great, waiting for those moments can rob you of positive sexual bonding. Spontaneous sex can be great, and I am not suggesting that you schedule every sexual encounter with your spouse but be mindful that the sexual relationship is often one of the first things to be placed on the “back burner.” When placed there too long, you are opening yourself up to other problems and limiting one of the best ways to enhance your marriage. As the average length of a sexual experience usually lasts between 15 and 30 minutes, surely you can find that time during the week. On the other hand, if it’s been awhile, it might be good to make a plan to be sexually intimate by sending a text that alludes to an upcoming intimate encounter (e.g., “The kids will be with my parents tomorrow night. It will be nice to be alone and…(wink).” In the end, anticipated, planned or even scheduled sex is better than no sex at all.

Third, make it consistent.

Dr. Barry McCarthy, a sex therapist and researcher, has found that couples who thrive sexually are those who, rather than reporting “amazing, movie-like sex,” have regular and consistent sex. Individual spouses who are happiest with their sex life don’t have to guess when it will occur. They know that it will be at least once, twice, or more per week. While I don’t want to suggest a particular frequency, the large majority of individuals who report satisfying sex lives make love at least 3-4 times per month or more. The important thing is that it can be counted on rather than left to chance or completely random. It’s consistent.

In the end, understanding the importance of sexual intimacy and making it a priority is one of the best gifts you can give yourself and your marriage. Some of the above suggestions may take some compromise but most of what makes marriage rewarding involves healthy compromise and sacrifice. So much good can come from enjoying one of the most bonding and innate experiences as humans. Every couple deserves to pull from this reservoir of loving connection. I hope you will do all that you can to make this area of marriage a greater priority. I know you will be happy you did.

I will be presenting a FREE workshop series on the topic of enhancing sexual intimacy in marriage beginning on Wednesday, February 26 at 7pm at the Provo Library. You may visit my website at www.jeremyboden.com for more details.

How Just Dance 4 Can Help Your Marriage: The Power of Play Principle

The other night my kids were playing Just Dance 4. The game consists of simulating the moves of the dancers on the screen. The closer you get to simulating their moves exactly, the more points you gain. After they were tired, our kids wanted my wife and me to join in the fun. Knowing the Power of Play Principle, I decided to embarrass myself and capitulate to their relentless requests. For five minutes my wife and I busted-a-move to Rock Lobster with the back ground of laughter from our kids. Research finds that this simple act might just continue to fortify our marriage and keep us less prone to conflict.

Screen Shot 2014-01-26 at 11.02.36 PM

When was the last time you and your partner really had fun together? When was the last time you and your partner really laughed together? When was the last time you were truly playing together?

When working with couples in my therapeutic practice, one of my most consistent questions I ask to evaluate the current vitality of their relationship is about their level of fun and play. I’ve found in my work with couples in both therapeutic and educational settings that couples overwhelmingly underestimate the power of play and fun in their long-term relationships. The research is consistent that couples who play together, stay together. In fact, two findings consistently show up in the research: 1. Couples give too little notice to fun and play in their relationship and, 2. Playing together and having fun turns out to be a key contributor to marital happiness among couples who make it a priority.

You might contend, “We are too busy for fun.” If this is your sentiment, let me be the first to validate that and say yes, our lives have become increasingly busy and the demands on our time are plenty. Having fun together just doesn’t seem productive when there are jobs to go to, rooms to clean, kids to feed, and activities to attend. I know. It’s tough. However, humor me and see if I can bring in another perspective to the importance of fun and play in marriage.

Let’s talk about the science of positive interactions between couples. Dr. John Gottman, an award-winning relationship researcher, has interviewed and observed couples in his “love lab” for the last 25 – 30 years. One of the many findings that emerged from his work was that when couples maintain at least five times as many positive interactions as they do negative interactions their relationship is more likely to be stable.

However, few people have wedding vows that state, “I promise to make this relationship stable all of our married life.” At the genesis of most marriages, couples hope for their relationship to be full of vitality and happiness for the length of their lives. Interestingly, it’s not about the absence of or avoiding negative interactions but rather an overabundance of positive emotions that essentially dilute harmful exchanges. Thus, the goal for couples should be to have 10 to 20 times as many positives as they do negatives.

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So, what counts as a positive interaction? A positive interaction is any interaction (great or small) between you and your partner where a bond is strengthened and fortified. A positive interaction can be an apology, a good morning kiss, a call to say, “hello” or ask about an important meeting that they were nervous about. When it comes to just having fun and playing together, examples might include, planning and going on dates, a flirtatious text, surprises, sharing a funny story, playing a game together, an affectionate greeting, or just being silly together are all examples of fun and play.

One study took 147 married couples who were also soon to be parents and followed them before and after the birth of their child. Couples who had shared leisure (aka fun and play) together both before and after the baby came fared better in terms of more marital love and less conflict than those who did not have shared activities together. If you are still not convinced, neuroscience has found that when we are engaged in positive, playful, and fun activities, our brains get a surge of dopamine which is the neurotransmitter responsible for our reward and pleasure centers. It aides in focus, concentration, and, most importantly, positive moods.

So what might explain the process behind play, fun, and positive interactions? One reason why positive interactions are so important for a relationship is that during times of tension and frustration, if you don’t have a reservoir of positive interactions stored up, the negative interaction can drain any positive feelings you have for your partner and create more tension than the issue probably deserves. Again, it’s not the absence of disconnections but the increase of relationship affirming connections.

In my experience with couples, those relationships that do the best are those who are proactive and intentional about their relationship. Most relationships don’t just accidentally succeed but rather it is two partners committed to nourishing and enriching their relationship daily. So, let me help you be a little more intentional by giving you some Home Practice. Tonight, set aside 20 minutes when you are both relatively relaxed and wound down. Then, with your partner, engage in the following activity:

  1. Separately, write down five ideas of things that would be fun.
  2. Share your ideas and be open to your partner’s ideas.
  3. Do your best to engage in activities that are, for the most part, fun for both partners. But also try to stretch yourself a little.
  4. Make a plan for this upcoming weekend to engage in one of the activities.
  5. Discuss after how this was helpful for your relationship and what you will do next weekend.
  6. Finally, make a point to not shy away from moments in your day together where you could be more spontaneously playful, affectionate, flirtatious, and/or silly.

In case you are wondering, my wife beat me in Just Dance 4. I guess I just need more practice.

Marriage IS For You

Recently a popular blog post by Seth Adam Smith generated much attention. At first glance the post “Marriage Isn’t for You” is a great commentary on the meaning of selflessness and sacrifice in marriage. It presents the idea that marriage is not about fulfilling one’s own desires, hopes, and dreams but rather a “true marriage” is built and maintained by giving of yourself—totally.  And while that is generally good advice, it doesn’t present the whole picture and Smith presents a lopsided view of marriage and sacrifice.

Let me first say that I agree with the author that selflessness in a marriage is essential. As a relationship educator and couples therapist, I would have less business if people practiced more selflessness in their relationships. Even the research provides evidence for the importance of sacrifice. When there is a spirit of giving to one’s partner, love flourishes. In general, people tend to equate “sacrifice” as essential in their definitions of love. Scholars have found that as a relationship deepens in commitment, partners begin to exhibit a “communal orientation” (Bastian, 1993) wherein they begin to turn their focus on their couple relationship rather than two separate individuals. According to Smith, “a true marriage (and true love) is never about you. It’s about the person you love—their wants, their needs, their hopes, and their dreams.” While on the surface this advice is meaningful and even noble, to take this guidance literally is potentially reckless and toxic to a burgeoning relationship. Decades of research and professional counsel would tell him to “pump the brakes” a bit. Here’s why. Happy marriages are about sacrifice but more importantly they are about balance and boundaries. So, Seth, you have part of it but let me add a little more.
The missing piece in Smith’s advice has to do with balancing closeness and separateness. We know from research that the most successful marriages have a balance of closeness and separateness (Olson & Gorall, 2003). In these relationships, couples maintain a certain level of independence. Partners invest in their own personal growth as well as their partner’s. While it is important to attend to your partner’s needs, it is also important to make sure you are emotionally, physically, and spiritually healthy. If all I am focusing on is my partner and their needs, desires, hopes, and their dreams, where do my needs fit in?

 

In some weddings, it is customary for couples to light and carry their own individual candle and together light what is called a unity candle. The symbolism in this tradition says “now that we are married, we are one.” However, it is important to observe that the individual candles are not extinguished, but continue to burn. This is an important part of the ritual as it symbolizes that, although they are one, they also each have their own needs, desires, dreams, and goals that burn just as brightly.

Focusing on your partner’s needs, hopes, and dreams only works if you are both on the same page. The idea of selflessness is noble but it must be offered on both sides and both partners need to be emotionally healthy enough to take care of their own needs at the same time. There must also be a level of safety in the relationship for each partner to be able to reach out to the other to fulfill certain needs, wants, and desires. Relationships tend to flourish when both partners are invested in helping the other partner become the people that they want to be.

Marriage is supposed to be a growing experience for both partners and if one goes into marriage with the idea that that they are going to serve their partner and neglect their own needs, that individual will gradually become discontented and, perhaps, resentful. Two healthy individuals will view marriage in a way that they see the benefit of their partner pursuing leisure activities, interests, and relationships with friends and family as a way to add to the richness of their communally sculpted marriage. An overworked, burned out, over-sacrificial husband/father or wife/mother is no good to anyone.

Researcher, clinician, and author, Dr. Blaine Fowers, speaking to married couples, states, “As we create a shared life with our partners, we hold a great deal in common. We can have goods like intimacy, togetherness, belonging, and mutual goals only if we share them” (2000, pg. 197). To me, a “true marriage” is about our wants, our needs, our hopes and our dreams. Marriage should be about us; growing together, supporting together, mourning together, loving together, and sacrificing together.

References:

Baston, C. D. (1994). Communal and exchange relationships: What is the difference? Personality and

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