Important But Not Urgent l January 2015

For a great many couples with children, it isn’t the spouse who’s most valued — it’s the kids. At least within the middle and upper-middle-class, today’s couples tend to place kids at the top of the priority ladder, with the partner relationship landing in second or even third place (behind career). Many of us pay lip service to the importance of our marriage, but the great amounts of time, energy, and financial resources we devote to the youngsters betray those words.

Author Stephen Coveyi wrote that we all have priorities that are "important but not urgent" and priorities that are "urgent but not important." Our children’s needs seem urgent — chauffeuring to school or practice, bringing them the bag lunch they forgot at home, drilling them on concepts the night before a test — and we end up confusing what seems urgent with what’s actually important. In fact, so much of what our children ask and want of us, and so much of what we do for them, is not important — it’s optional. But on the treadmill of modern parenting, we rarely stop and ask ourselves, “How important is this? What’s truly at stake here?”

What is most important to kids’ welfare? Parents maintaining a strong and healthy marriage; it trumps most everything else. Children secure in the knowledge that their parents are solid with one another enjoy freedom to think about their studies, their hobbies, their friendships. They’re free to daydream of bright futures, to hone aspirations of the road ahead. But when the marital connection is fraught, when tension or alienation between parents is a spoken (or unspoken) dimension of home life, kids worry about the grown-ups, wondering what they can do to help, or worse, what they’ve done to contribute to the trouble. By contrast, a solid marital relationship serves as the sturdy foundation from which kids can best face life’s challenges. But solid marriage takes time and effort — it means making the relationship the highest priority.

To raise healthy kids, put your marriage first and your children second.
Because our marriages are important but not urgent, we neglect to feed and water them.
Often they die slowly and quietly, and we don’t even realize it until it’s too late.ii

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i Covey, Stephen R. et al. First Things First. (Simon and Schuster: New York), 1994.
ii Alphonse, Lylah M. Overview of an interview with author and family coach David Code, found at http://www.lylahmalphonse.com/2010/06/putting-your-marriage-first-may-be.html#more.

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A True Apology l November-December 2014

Who among us doesn’t sometimes say the wrong thing or act in a way that triggers — even accidentally — a spouse’s hurt feelings? And who among us, after a misstep, doesn’t want to be forgiven? We want our partner to move on without harboring ill will. Research has found that an authentic apology increases the likelihood of being forgiven, and reduces feelings of anger in the “injured” spouse. It seems that we’re viewed as a more valuable partner through our acts of apology, and our injured spouse feels less risk of being hurt again if we apologize.1

But a proper apology can be a tricky thing. Many of us say, “I’m sorry if you felt badly” or “I’m sorry if I upset you.” Why the “if”? The “if” conveys that we’re not sure we believe that our partner’s feelings are really hurt. Or the “if” conveys that we’re not sure we did anything wrong. Apologies with an “if” usually leave an injured spouse feeling dissatisfied or disappointed.

“I’m sorry that you feel this way” is another common expression that doesn’t cut it as an authentic apology. In this wording, too, there’s no acknowledgement that we did< anything wrong, which is precisely what an injured spouse wants to hear.

A true apology begins with three words: either "I'm sorry I …" or “I apologize for …” A true apology acknowledges that something I said, or something I did, was insensitive or unkind or triggered hurt, fear, embarrassment or humiliation. (The fact that the outcome — our partner’s distress — may have been unintentional on our part doesn’t preclude the need for an apology.)

Here are some well-phrased apologies:

  • "I'm sorry I spoke in a hurtful way."
  • “I apologize for shouting and frightening you.”
  • “I’m sorry I broke our agreement.”
  • “I apologize for losing my patience.”
  • “I’m sorry I rolled my eyes in the way you dislike.”

Without the three words — “I’m sorry I …” or “I apologize for …” — an apology is unlikely to promote the kind of forgiveness that heals emotional wounds and helps partners move past those tough moments all couples encounter.

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1McCullough, Michael E. et al. "Conciliatory gestures promote human forgiveness and reduce anger in humans." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Volume 111 Number 30, pages 11211-11216.

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Childhood Sexual Abuse l September/October 2014

What trips up couples? Poor communication, overworked spouses, the stress of raising children, financial pressures — these are what typically come to mind. But one culprit often goes unmentioned: a partner’s history of childhood sexual abuse. Some studies estimate that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 20 men have been subjected to sexual abuse as youngsters.

Despite the passage of time, the impact of early abuse on a couple’s satisfaction — especially on emotional and physical closeness — can be profound.

Complicating matters is the fact that some partners have little to no memory of early abuse, and those that do remember don’t always realize that it may be an obstacle in their way.

Here’s how it works: Unwanted physical or sexual contact during childhood almost always becomes associated with fear and upset and shame. It’s a linkage that lives deep inside, so that during moments of emotional or sexual intimacy with an adult partner, the original feelings — fear, upset, shame — become triggered. It’s why spouses with an abuse history often resist closeness, feeling unsafe, unsettled, guilty or ashamed when invited into intimacy.

Some signs that hint at the possibility of early sexual abuse include:

  • Shutting oneself off from any kind of closeness
  • Feeling unsafe within a relationship, particularly within the sexual dimension of the relationship
  • Harboring negative attitudes and/or feelings toward sex
  • Experiencing discomfort or pain upon being touched
  • Resisting the stirring of sexual desire
  • Fearing loss of control during sex
  • Experiencing thoughts or images of sexual abuse during sex
  • Feeling drawn to sexuality that has a compulsive or risky dimension (such as a fascination with pornography depicting abusive behavior)
  • Seeking physical distance after engaging in sex

These signs can be associated with other psychological challenges and don’t necessarily reflect early sexual abuse. But when blending love and sex becomes a source of pain and anxiety, it’s worth investigating whether sexual abuse might be the stumbling block. Counselors skilled in this area can help loving couples get past the barriers to the joy and satisfaction that emotional and physical closeness can bring.

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