Support Your Spouse with Encouragement

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Most people go in to marriage with some idea that supporting their spouse is expected. But what does this mean? How do you DO it?

Is nagging supportive? (I just want to help him reach his potential!) Is playing devil’s advocate supportive? (I just want to make sure he’s really thought this through…) Is blind faith supportive? (I’m sure investing our life savings in the stock market is fine….)

To me, supporting your spouse means being on the SAME TEAM. Nagging and playing devil’s advocate both take a contrary position, even if you claim to do it in his/her best interest against his/her will. Trust me, your spouse will not interpret this “helpfulness” as supportive.

Blind faith is also not necessarily being on the same team as your spouse because it is abdicates responsibility. If anything, it shows you don’t really care and aren’t really interested. That may not be how you feel, but it may be how it looks to others.

ENCOURAGEMENT is the way to support your spouse. Encouragement means cheering him or her on, investing your time, energy, interest, and possibly money in your spouse’s pursuits.

Sometimes this is hard. Sometimes this is scary and life changing. Sometimes it may mean altering your lifestyle or goals to take your partner’s into account.

And of course, there may be times when you truly disagree with your spouse’s goal and feel that you cannot support him or her. If this is the case, ask yourself whether THIS is the battle you want to hang your relationship on. If it is worth possibly losing your spouse over, then fine. Some things really are worth that, such as wanting to do something potentially life-threatening or family-threatening. But most things we fight about are just differences of opinion. BE MORE LOYAL TO YOUR SPOUSE THAN YOU ARE TO YOUR OPINIONS.

Here are some examples of encouragement:

A wife says she wants to start exercising. Her husband stays home with the kids in the morning while she goes jogging. He compliments her efforts.

What he DOESN’T do: Nag or guilt her when she doesn’t go. Undermine her efforts to go. Act indifferent to her progress.

A husband wants to take flying lessons to get his pilot’s license. This costs about $10k and that doesn’t even include the plane rentals later on. His wife makes it her goal as well to save up the money. She buys him airplane magazines and sends him youtube videos of cockpit cams. Listens while he talks about the bajillion dollar airplane he wants to buy someday.

What she DOESN’T do: Remind him all the time that they’ll never be able to afford it. (He already knows that.) Allow him to invest money in flying lessons on credit. Ignore his desire or belittle it.

Supporting your spouse means being his or her biggest cheerleader, in good times and in bad. It means having each other’s back even when its hard. It means sacrificing for the other person’s happiness and well being. It means making YOUR goal MY goal. It means being on the SAME TEAM in word and action.

Oxytocin: The Key to Love and Happiness?

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If you have ever read my blog before, you know I am a full-on nerd. Today’s post is the nerdiest yet. This information can be found, like the last few weeks, in Love Sense by Sue Johnson, but it has also become common knowledge and can be found many other places as well. (But buy Love Sense: it will change your life!)

You may not have heard of oxytocin before, or you may not be familiar with its important role in the brain. Oxytocin is a hormone and a nuerotransmitter.

Your brain gets a rush of oxytocin when you look at a loved one, remember a happy event with a loved one, hold hands, hug, breast feed, hold a baby, or even play with a pet. Snuggling on the couch, rocking a child to sleep, or cuddling with your cat or dog will all produce that warm fuzzy feeling that comes from oxytocin. The biggest rush of oxytocin comes from orgasm, which is why we like to cuddle after sex. It is also the hormone that sends a pregnant woman into labor (pitocin, the drug they may have given you to induce labor, is the synthetic form of oxytocin), but that is in a whole different quantity than what we usually have in our body.

Oxytocin is only found in mammals; the presence of oxytocin is part of what causes a mother to care for her babies after they are born, often at great cost to herself. (I know birds take care of their babies too, but I haven’t read what causes that behavior in non-mammals.) Oxytocin increases our tendancy to trust, to have empathy, and can actually reduce the perception of physical pain. With the presence of oxytocin, the amgdala (the fight/flight/freeze/f–k part of the brain) calms down, allowing the person to feel calmer and safer.

So what does this mean for you and your relationships? It means that when you feel sad, angry, hurt, lonely, depressed, or anxious, getting a hug or petting your cat really does make you feel better. It means that your romantic relationship can be improved by holding hands and having sex. It means your kids will be calmer and happier after a bedtime snuggle. All of this has been folk wisdom for centuries…but now you know the science behind it.

The Concept of Attachment

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The Susan Johnson discussion continues!

During the first half of the 20th century, the need for connection between mothers and babies was not understood. In fact, mothers were discouraged from picking up a crying baby, because it was thought that reinforcing the crying behavior would spoil the baby. It was not until John Bowlby performed research on orphans, and then children and mothers, that western society came to understand and accept that babies NEED to attach to their caregiver in order to develop properly.

Here are some of Bowlby’s findings, many of which may seem normal and intuitive to you. But remember, this was revolutionary 60 years ago:

*The drive to bond is innate, not learned.
*We are designed to love, emotionally attach, and depend on a few precious others who will be there to protect and attend to our needs. This desire for connection lasts “from cradle to grave”.
*One’s emotional tie is wired before birth and automatic
*Forming a deep mutual bond with another is the first imperative task of the human species.
*We seek out, monitor, and try to maintain emotional and physical connection with our loved one.
*We reach out for our loved ones particularly when we are uncertain, threatened, anxious, or upset.
*We miss our loved ones and become extremely upset when they are physically or emotionally remote; this separation anxiety can become intense and incapacitating.
*We depend on our loved one to support us emotionally and be a secure base as we venture into the world and learn and explore.

Next week we will discuss how attachment applies to adult romantic relationships.

The Concept of Adult Romantic Attachment

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Continuing our discussion of Sue Johnson’s book Love Sense, this time we will talk about adult romantic attachment.

Adults’ attachment style is influenced by the attachment style they experienced with their mother (or other primary caregiver). Just like children, there are three types of attachment:
1. Secure attachment: is the optimal style. It is built based on the trust that one can count on his/her partner to be available and receptive when needed.
2. Anxious attachment: take places in a relationship where partners are inconsistently responsive and/or neglectful toward each other’s needs. Individuals with anxious attachment have difficulty trusting others due to doubt and insecurity.
3. Avoidant attachment: people with this style of attachment tend to suppress their emotions and desires for connection as a result of fear of abandonment and rejection. Adults with avoidant attachment view others as unreliable and/or untrustworthy.

Just like children, adults experience attachment threats in this way:
First step: anger and protest
Second step: clinging and seeking
Third step: depression and despair
Fourth step: detachment (the worst one).

Just like children, adults need a “secure base” in order to feel confident and able to meet their potential. Needing a partner is not pathological or weak, it is the way we are made. We desire to love and to be loved, to share ourselves with an intimate partner. When this relationship is threatened or does not exist, we may feel lonely, desperate, depressed or otherwise unfulfilled.

Changing Notions of Love

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Continuing our discussion of Sue Johnson’s text Love Sense, this week we will talk about how the concept of marriage has changed over time.

Historically, generally speaking, marriages were made for economic and survival purposes. People fell in love, but they didn’t marry for love. Marriage was to maximize economic status and provide food, shelter, protection, and reproduction for the family unit. Even during the Industrial Revolution, people still decided to marry according to a list of pros and cons. (Actually only men could afford to make lists; women pretty much HAD to get married.) By 1939 love was ranked fifth on a list of 18 characteristics a woman thought would be important in a potential mate. In the 1970s love was listed as ONE of the significant factors in mate selection. Finally by the beginning of the 21st century, 80% of women said that having a man who could talk about his feelings was more important than how much money he made. (Another great book on this topic is Marriage: A History by Stephanie Coontz.)

Scientific findings show that the primary drive of human beings, contrary to previous thought, is neither sex nor aggression. It is human connection. Connection for babies means food and safety and love. This doesn’t change for adults on a subconscious level. The attachment spouses feel for each other is exactly like the attachment babies feel for their caregivers.

Society tells us that adults should be strong and independent. But the truth is, we are strongest when we have a secure attachment to a partner. Contrary to many beliefs, we are not born selfish, we are born with the capacity and inclination for empathy.

According to Johnson, the key to a happy relationship lies in the trust that partners matter to each other and that they are available, reliable, and responsive to each other’s needs. Love is “a continuing process of tuning in, connecting, missing and misreading cues, disconnecting, repairing, and finding deeper connection” (Johnson, 2013, p.26) Secure love brings about positive reciprocal emotional interactions between partners, creating a safe haven for both.

Fixing a Broken Relationship

ID-10044246Last week I wrote about why love dies, according psychologist, clinician, and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson. This week I will discuss how to fix that broken relationship. Of course, this is short and incomplete synopsis of her work. Read the full version in Johnson’s books “Hold Me Tight” and “Love Sense.” Therapists that use Emotion Focused techniques use these same principles.

Renewing Bonds
Step 1: Identify the destructive pattern and learn to recognize and curtail it. Is your pattern pursuer-distancer? Withdraw-withdraw? Attack-attack?
Step 2: Actively work together to build stronger bonds of attachment.
*Become more proactive, you need to work on your relationship continually—not just once.
*A love relationship is never static, it always requires attention.
*A relationship is made up of micromoments of connection and disconnection.
*Misattunement is NOT a sign of lack of love.
*Repair tiny moments of misattunement and come back into harmony.
*Over time, thousand of micromoves accumulate into secure or insecure attachment.

Everyone wants to know, “are you there for me?” Show a clear answer of “yes!” by:
*Accessibility: pay attention and be emotionally open
*Responsiveness: accept needs and fears, offer comfort and caring
*Engagement: be emotionally present, absorbed and involved

Hold Me Tight Conversation
*Tune in to and stay with your own softer emotions and hold hope of potential connection with the loved one.
*Regulate your emotions so you can look out at the other person with some openness and curiosity and show willingness to listen to incoming cues. You are not flooded or trying to shut down and stay numb. (p. 223)
*Turn your emotions into clear, specific signals. Messages are not conflicted or garbled. Clear communication flows from a clear inner sense of feared danger and longed-for safety.
*Tolerate fears of the other’s response enough to stay engaged and give the other a chance to respond.
*Explicitly state needs. To do this you recognize and accept your attachment needs. (p. 223-224)
*Hear and accept the needs of the other. Respond to these needs with empathy and honesty.
*React to the other’s response, even if it is not what is hoped for, in a way that is relatively balanced and, especially if it is what is hoped for, with increased trust and positive emotion.
*Explore and take into account your partner’s reality and make sense of, rather than dismiss, his or her response. (p. 224-225)