Couple Tips

Circular Stories l April 2017

During (and after) moments of conflict, we tend to create, for ourselves and others, linear stories that focus on cause and effect, good and bad, winner and loser. "You showed up late for our dinner reservation and ruined my evening." It's a simplistic approach, black and white in its thinking. Our linear stories have good guys and bad guys...someone at fault and someone who's been injured (and we're rarely the person at fault).

In her book Loving Bravely, psychologist Alexandra Solomon offers an example of a linear story.iMarius says to Scarlett: "I cannot believe you went into my email to find out if I sent my resume to that job posting! How could you do this to me? You are nosy and you betrayed my trust big-time." His is a blaming, one-sided, simplistic storyline: Scarlett bad, Marius good.

Far more conducive to relationship harmony is circular storytellingii, in which the storyline circles back and forth between both spouses' roles and contributions. Rather than emphasizing who started the conflict, circular stories make room for "my stuff," "your stuff," and "our stuff." Because most couples, according to research, argue about recurring (and usually unfixable) problemsiii, the goal during and after conflict shouldn't be fixing what happens, but "skillfully and lovingly moving through [it] in a way that minimizes damage"iv. Circular storytelling is the best way to reach that end. Circular stories acknowledge both partner's contributions and both partner's emotions, while eschewing a black/white, good guy/bad guy version of events.

If Marius were able to resist the urge to blame and scold, and instead looked at both his and Scarlett's contributions, his circular story might sound like this: "I feel embarrassed about my current unemployment, which leads me to withdraw, avoiding your questions. The more I withdraw, the more you feel alone. The more you feel abandoned by me, the more you pester me or resort to searching my email in order to get information. The more you dig for information, the more I feel embarrassed, and round and round we go."v
Resisting the urge to tell linear, blaming stories frees us to tell more helpful circular stories that acknowledge it takes two to tango. Circular stories call up our best and most generous self, conveying: We're a team and we're in this together.

i Solomon, Alexandra. Loving bravely: 20 lessons of self-discovery to help you get the love you want. (Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.) 2017.
ii Circular storytelling is sometimes referred to as systemic storytelling.
iii Gottman, J.M. The science of trust: emotional attunement for couples. (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.) 2011.
iv Solomon, A. op. cit.
v ibid.

Technoference l Feb/March 2017

The title refers to a relatively recent cultural phenomenon: the interruptions and intrusions into our everyday lives by technology devices -- devices that are always on and always present. When it comes to our primary relationships, technoference seems an insidious problem...and one that's affecting more and more couples. 

According to the researchers who coined the word technoference: "By allowing technology to interfere with or interrupt conversations, activities, and time with romantic partners -- even when unintentional or for brief moments -- individuals may be sending implicit messages about what they value most, leading to conflict and negative outcomes in personal life and relationships."[i]

In a 2014 study, 75% of 140 women reported that smartphone use significantly undermined the ease of connecting with their partner. It's not a surprising statistic, given the ubiquitous use of phones and other devices nowadays. According to a Harris Interactive poll entitled "Americans Can't Put Down Their Phones Even During Sex," one third of adults reported using their phones during dinner dates, and 20% of respondents between 18 and 34 even reported using their phones during sex.[ii]

It's hard to escape the cultural influences encouraging constant smartphone use. When most people in our social and professional networks operate with the expectation that they and others need to be available all the time, it's hard not to conform. Many of us have bought into the myth that some emergency -- be it with our children, spouse, or clients -- awaits at any moment, necessitating answering our phones or reading text messages whenever we hear the ding. Primary partners in particular often desire our instant responsiveness, which ironically conditions us to always reach for the phone...except of course when we're with that partner and we're expected to not allow texts or calls or the allure of checking email to interrupt partnership time.

Consider establishing protective boundaries around designated relationship moments, whether it be dinner, chatting over coffee in the morning, or enjoying a TV show or movie together at night. Have a conversation about the realistic risks in letting calls roll into voicemail, and allowing emails or texts to go unread or unchecked for 30 minutes (or longer) while you protect relationship time from technoference. Nowadays, it sends a powerful message to a loved one when we refuse to let our devices steal our focus from shared moments together.

[i] McDaniel, Brandon T.; Coyne, Sarah M. "Technoference: The interference of technology in couple relationships and implications for women's personal and relational well-being." Psychology of Popular Media Culture, Vol 5(1), Jan 2016, 85-98.



How Much Sex l April/May 2016

Sex is like money; only too much is enough
— John Updike

It’s a popular notion that couples who engage in more sex are more contented in their relationship than couples who engage in less. But is it true? Perhaps sex operates like money. In that area, research has revealed that the greater one’s family income, the higher the level of reported satisfaction — but only to a point. Beyond a certain income level, more money doesn’t enhance satisfaction. Could it be that way when it comes to sex?

Studies have demonstrated that higher sexual frequency leads to greater romantic relationship happiness. And that higher sexual frequency also leads to greater overall well-being.i ii But researchers at the University of Toronto wondered whether there’s an upper limit beyond which more sex doesn’t seem to increase relationship satisfaction or well-being?iii To investigate that question, they conducted three studies examining data from over 30,000 individuals. Their 2015 findings indicated that what’s true for money seems true for sex: beyond a certain point — an average of one sexual encounter per week — increasing the frequency of sex doesn’t seem to produce added benefits for people in ongoing, partnered relationships.

Why is more not better? Definitive answers haven’t been determined. Perhaps, as it is with money, we compare ourselves to those around us and feel satisfied based on an assumption that weekly sex is typical for people like us. Or maybe when it comes to couples with busy lives, including work and children, feeling pressured to engage in more frequent sex may be stressful in itself. Perhaps the challenge of making the effort (and finding the time) for more sex cancels out the potential benefits of greater frequency.

But what matters more than statistical averages is each couple determining its own optimal frequency. Honest conversation is the way to go: How are we feeling about our sex life? Are we content with its frequency? What obstacles might be standing in the way of a more satisfying sex life? Can we think of ways to resolve those obstacles? Rarely is this an easy conversation, so schedule it — put it on the calendar — for when there’s energy and no distractions, when moods are upbeat and stresses are low. Egos bruise easily when talking about sex, so be gentle and kind and assume good intentions in one another. You’ll probably think about this conversation many times afterwards, so participate in a way that you’re unlikely to later regret.

i Blanchflower, D. G., & Oswald, A. J. (2004). “Money, sex and happiness: An empirical study.” Scandinavian Journal of Economics, 106, 393–415. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9442.2.

ii Cheng, Z., & Smyth, R. (2015). “Sex and happiness.” Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 112, 26–32.

iii Muise, A., U. Schimmack and E.A. Impett, “Sexual frequency predicts greater well-being, but more is not always better.” Social Psychological and Personality Science. 10.1177/1948550615616462.

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