Date Night: Useful Relationship Tool or Useless Relationship Cliché?

In the movie “Date Night” starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey, a couple who is married with young children decides they need to do something to get out of their romantic rut. In true Hollywood style, their date takes them on an unrealistic yet funny adventure which ends up reawakening their appreciation and passion for each other. But do date nights work in real life?

In my experience as a couple’s therapist, date nights do not “fix” a distressed relationship. More than a change of scenery and a good meal is needed to bridge the gap of emotional distance or heal the pain of pent up resentments. But for the average relationship, I think it’s worth examining the benefits and pitfalls.

Everyone in a long term relationship runs the risk of getting swept up in the routines of life and not making time for each other. Date nights can be a time for focusing only on each other without the distractions of home. Exciting, new activities activate the pleasure center of the brain which can help people associate their partner with pleasurable experience. Parents, especially of young children, often need help turning off their parenting role and turning on their lover/partner role. Getting out of the house as two adults can help turn that switch.

What are the pitfalls and how are they avoided? Beware of date nights becoming as routine as everyday life. Make sure to plan new and different activities to get the benefit of the “feel good” brain chemicals. Running out of ideas that aren’t too costly? Consider the daily internet deals through sites such as Groupon, LivingSocial, and Bloomspot. Don’t let date nights cause financial problems. An exciting date does not have to mean spending tons of money. If babysitting costs are daunting, see about making arrangements with another couple to alternate date nights and watching each other’s kids. Don’t let date nights be the only time for connecting with each other. Sharing one special night won’t make up for a lack of small gestures and regular physical affection throughout the other days.

Date nights may be cliché but I don’t think they are useless. If done right, I think they can help couples connect and remember what drew them together in the first place.

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How Parenting Turned Me into a Cry Baby

I’m driving home from work one Friday afternoon. It’s only 2pm, but the traffic is a slow crawl as I exit onto the outer loop of the Baltimore Beltway. I’m feeling frustrated and impatient because I thought I left early enough to avoid the typical commuter mess. But then I notice there are no cars at all coming from the other direction on the inner loop. As I move along, I see a line of police cars parked on the shoulder of the empty road. Twenty or more officers are standing at attention in front of their vehicles with their K9 companions sitting by their sides. At first, I don’t understand what’s happening. Then I hear the roar and see the lights of at least a hundred police motorcycles riding past those officers. I realize it’s a funeral procession for a fallen police officer. Various police vehicles follow the motorcycles with their lights flashing. The line of red and blue lit cars seems to go on for miles. I’m no longer bothered by the slow commute, but something else is happening. A lump has formed and is forcing its way up my throat despite my attempts to keep swallowing it down. I know what’s going to happen next so I’m not surprised when the tears start. I try to blink to keep my eyes clear and focused on the road ahead of me. But my mind won’t let go of the knowledge I will soon see the hearse. And in that hearse is a coffin. And in that coffin is someone’s son.

Before I had children, it took a lot to make me cry. I took pride in the fact I was emotionally tough. Growing up with an older brother, the term “cry baby” was a huge insult and one I sought to avoid at all cost. I thought crying was for the emotionally weak. I could watch any movie and certainly see a stranger’s funeral procession without a tear in my eye. Now that I have children, all it takes is seeing a sappy commercial set to “Cats in the Cradle” or reading a news article about an abducted child for the waterworks to flow. My children are old enough now I can’t blame it on hormones. So what happened to me?

I am reminded of a popular quote by Elizabeth Stone which says, “Making the decision to have a child is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.” My heart is walking around outside my body in the form of my two boys, making me more vulnerable than I have ever been in my life. Something happening to them would feel like my heart’s destruction. This knowledge becomes an invisible tie from me to all the other mothers and fathers out there who are also watching their hearts walk around outside their bodies. When something happens to someone else’s child, no matter what age or circumstance, I feel a tug on that tie which allows me to experience a small taste of the pain they must be going through.

Does being a “cry baby” make me weak? I don’t believe so. I think being able to live in this vulnerable and connected state makes me a stronger person. And definitely makes me a more compassionate person. As a parent, I allow myself to feel things to such a depth I never thought possible before. I don’t think I would have let myself risk so much emotionally before my children were born.

I wish I had more to offer than my tears for the family of Officer Hunter of the Maryland State Police. I wish I could give his family the peace that I know is a long time away. All I can tell them is they are not alone. I know now that I’d rather risk sharing in their pain then not be connected at all, even if it makes me a big “cry baby”.

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Can I Raise an Appreciative Child?

I’m sitting on the couch with my eight year old son trying to plan out our day. Thinking aloud, I say, “It looks like a good day for the park. What do you say?”

In a monotone response, he says, “Thank you.”

I was looking for his opinion, not for a “Thank you.” We both had a quick laugh when he realized his mistake. But it got me thinking about just how many times I’ve prompted him with “What do you say?” to get him to show thanks for something. His automatic and insincere response is anything but appreciative. “Thank you” has become just words. So now I’m on a mission to raise a more appreciative child. Here is what I’ve figured out so far:

We are all at risk for taking for granted things we have access to all the time. If I go to take a shower one morning and no water comes out, do I appreciate all the times it has worked and think about all the people in countries who have to walk miles for clean water just to drink? No, I get angry and feel deprived.

People appreciate things more if they have to work for them. I relish in the vegetables I grow by hand in my own garden. I throw the grocery store veggies in the cart without a second thought.

Overindulging does not lead to appreciation, only to entitlement. Some people want to give more and more to their children in an effort to be appreciated as parents. Unfortunately, these children just come to expect more and more instead of stopping to appreciate what they have.

Based on these thoughts, here are my ideas on what to do about it:

1. Make sure I’m being a good model for my kids by showing my own appreciation for the things in my life.
2. Not give them every little thing they want, just because they want it.
3. Have my kids work for the extra things they want through chores, good grades, and good behavior.
4. Limit access to “privileges” like TV and computer time. (They won’t appreciate me for this, but they will appreciate those privileges more.)
5. When they are given special gifts or treatment, have them write thank-you notes and do other acts of appreciation versus just saying the words.
6. Have them help me with community service projects like collecting food for the hungry which will expose them to the reality of people who don’t have what they take for granted every day.

All that being said, there are times when I think a lack of appreciation is actually okay or expected. I will let them take for granted that I love them unconditionally and will be there for them when they need it. They likely will never appreciate (until they have kids) all my rules and expectations, my supervision of them, and my effort to instill in them a strong work ethic. I will provide those things anyways without hope of appreciation.

I would love to hear ideas from other parents about their efforts to raise more appreciative children. What do you do that works?

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Whose Fault is it Anyway? When relationships are in trouble.

It is day four of my intensive training conference in Emotionally Focused Therapy, one of the most successful types of therapy for couples according to outcome studies. I’m excited about what I’ve learned and how I can bring this powerful way of being with a couple into my therapy practice. But my head is also swimming right now with all the information presented and how to process it all. For me, the ultimate goal of all couple’s therapy is to help people connect with each other. It makes sense to me there is something within us biologically that seeks connection with a significant other. It begins in childhood as a parent-child bond. Human babies, being particularly vulnerable when born, need to be taken care of physically and emotionally to stay alive. So we are all born to bond for our own survival. I also can see how this need to connect with another wouldn’t just disappear as we get older. So how do so many people sabotage the connection in their most important relationship?

One of the things that appeals to me about EFT is the focus on the negative cycles people get caught up in which prevent them from feeling connected. There isn’t a need to point out who is right or who is wrong, who is the “good one” and who is the “bad one”. It is not even important to pin down who started the negative cycle. Once the cycle is in place, it takes on a life of its own and robs the couple of intimacy and safety in their relationship. For example, she may be angry because she feels a distance from him so she goes after him about how he spends his time. Then he feels attacked and feels he can’t make her happy so he withdraws from her. His withdrawal triggers her to become more angry and critical of him for not being there for her. So he withdraws more. Whether her angry pursuit or his hostile withdrawal “started first” is irrelevant, the cycle becomes more set as time goes on and a gulf opens up between them.

Life would be easier if people recognized the negative cycles they perpetuate. Instead, it presents as: “He’s always watching TV instead of spending time with me”, “She is always nagging me”, “He never wants to talk about anything”, “I can never do anything right in her eyes”, “He doesn’t do anything around the house”, “She doesn’t appreciate anything I do”, etc. Both begin to feel alone in the relationship and start to cut-off emotionally from the other, blaming the other for causing all of the problems. My hope for couples is they are able to start looking under the negative cycle they are stuck in to the true emotions hidden underneath. The truth is that the only reason our significant other can have such an impact on us in the first place is because of the depth of feelings we have for them. Being able to get to the heart of the matter is much easier said than done, though. As my training over the past four days sinks in, I hope to provide couples with the opportunity to do just that.

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Valentine’s Day: A Survival Guide

Next week is Valentine’s Day and I’m already gathering the requisite supplies to send in to school with my children:  shoe boxes, red construction paper, heart stickers.  Being in elementary school, they are still of an age where they will be forced to bring in a card for everyone in their class.  The school takes upon itself the task of protecting those who might not be as liked as others.  As my kids get older, however, the rules will change.  I can still remember watching Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown in which Charlie Brown watches everyone else get cards except for him.

What a strange holiday this is that evokes such different feelings from different people!  Not as strange as the Roman holiday that preceded it where men ran naked in the streets hitting willing women with switches to ensure fertility and easier childbirth.  When the Roman gods fell out of favor, the Christians cleaned the holiday up by adding the name of a saint and eliminating the naked men.  Although I know some people who would prefer to be hit with a stick then celebrate the modern incarnation of this holiday.

Why do people have such mixed emotions about this holiday?  The only people who seem to truly look forward to it (besides flower shops and restaurant owners) are those newly in love couples who take any excuse to shower each other with gifts and affection.  For those who are single, it is an obnoxious reminder of their being alone.  For those in long term relationships, it can feel like a costly obligation instead of a true expression of love.

If you are newly in love, there is little advice I need to give except to embrace the holiday.  Some people feel pressure to get the perfect gift or set up the most romantic situation.  I would say to give yourself a break.  Unless you make no effort at all, you are in the relationship stage where it will be hardest to disappoint. The most important element will be the quality of time you spend with each other, so prepare to focus your time and attention on the other person.

If you are in a long term relationship, the best bet is to acknowledge the holiday no matter what your personal feelings are about it.   Even if both people agree Valentine’s Day is too commercial and a waste of money, there may be a sense of disappointment or irritation if the day passes without any acknowledgement. Remember expressing appreciation and affection towards your significant other will only serve to improve your relationship no matter what day of the year it is.   Participating in this holiday does not have to be about spending gobs of money.  Ideas for a cheap celebration include: writing love notes, giving each other a massage, renting a favorite movie to watch, looking through picture albums together, making time for a romp in the bedroom.  Make sure you both have clearly expressed your expectations, however, since expectations can make or break this holiday.  If she or he is expecting an expensive dinner and you show up with carry-out, the disappointment can spoil the whole day.

If you are single and especially if you are still mourning the loss of a relationship, you certainly have a reason to dislike Valentine’s Day.  The best bet for surviving this holiday is not to hide under the covers until it goes away, but to treat yourself as your own Valentine.  Make this day about indulging and treating yourself like you deserve to be treated.  This may include curling up with a favorite (non romantic) movie or book, getting your favorite foods to eat, pampering yourself with a candle lit bubble bath, calling a friend on the phone, scheduling a massage, listening to your favorite music.  Whatever you decide to do, make it all about taking care of yourself.

These are just some of my ideas for surviving this holiday.  I welcome any comments or feedback on your survival tips.

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I Love You but I’m Not “In Love” With You

   If only I had a dollar every time I heard this phrase in my work with couples.  So what do people mean when they say this?  Usually they are making a distinction between a caring, tender kind of love versus a passionate, exciting kind of love.  Unfortunately, the word “love” in the English language encompasses many different meanings.  We can love a spouse, we can love our children, and we can love a double dip hot fudge sundae.  The only commonality between these types of love is they all have to do with attachment to something that can affect us emotionally.  Too bad we haven’t developed different words for the different kinds of love, like the myth of the Eskimo language having multiple words for “snow.” 

   I recently heard the famous love anthropologist, Helen Fisher, speak at a conference about her decades of research on the concept of love.  She said love is not an emotion, but a drive, like hunger and sex.  A drive motivates behavior and elicits a whole spectrum of emotions.  This idea makes a lot of sense to me.  Why else do we continue to go after love even when we’ve been hurt by it?  Her research also looked at this idea of love versus “being in love.”  She actually scanned the brains of people who said they were “in love” and found high levels of dopamine, which rewards us with a feeling of pleasure and creates in us a desire for more.  Not coincidentally, this is the same neurotransmitter that is affected by cocaine use.  This continual dopamine high cannot last forever, though.  Helen Fisher suggests it may last only up to a year.  Then love turns into a more secure, attachment kind of love ruled by different chemicals, such as oxytocin which is the bonding hormone.  This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of dopamine release in a long term relationship, there is and there should be.  It’s just not automatic and every day anymore. If those pleasurable moments are not happening at all, then you are at risk for no longer feeling “in love” with your partner and vice versa.  Nurturing that “in love” feeling between you and yours helps protect your long term relationship, and is much cheaper and less dangerous than cocaine.

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Who am I and what am I doing here?

I am asking myself this question as a sit down to write this first blog post.  I have to admit I’ve been intimidated by the idea of starting a blog and joining my voice to the millions of others on the web.  Who am I to make a difference?  What am I trying to accomplish?  I am a wife and a mother, which means I have first hand experience in the realm of relationships.  As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I can say I have the official credentials of a “relationship expert”.  But more important than the letters behind my name is the kind of therapist I am.  I don’t just stand on the edge of struggling relationships and try to throw out a line.  I roll up my sleeves and crawl into the morass of the relationship in order to help lead those involved out and on to a better place.  After years of jumping in and crawling out, I feel I’ve learned a lot of relationship survival skills.  Those I’ve helped have taught me a lot.  My own marriage has benefited from what I’ve learned on this journey. So if what I can pass on can help even one person make a relationship just a little bit stronger, then this will be worth it.

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