Laura G Owens ~ Writer

Real. Raw. Uncomfortably human.

Category: Relationships

setting boundaries

How are you at dealing with difficult people? With setting boundaries?

Over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with drama is remarkably low. Not that sort of “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low. I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable.

The last couple years I’ve been part of a spiritual book club at my Unitarian Universalist church. Now with COVID we meet through Zoom.

Our readings run the gamut of ancient and contemporary teachings. Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer’s interpretation of the Tao Te Ching. Currently we’re reading Donna Cameron’s “A Year of Living Kindly.”

To sum up the latter:

Being nice is easy (polite and pleasant) but being kind is hard, that is — going out of your way to help someone, especially people who aren’t easy to like.

Perhaps you invite the cranky neighbor or incessant complainer friend to lunch because you know that deep down they’re lonely, sad, angry or scared. You put yourself in their shoes. You suck it up and do the right thing.

You call your bigoted friend with a big heart who you repeatedly have to correct when she offhandedly refers to “those Jews.” You clean out the elderly neighbor’s garage even as she criticizes how you stack the boxes or sweep the floor.

No matter how excruciating, you listen to incessant complaining about the minutia of minutia of the minutia.

The point is — kindness takes time, energy, courage and infinite patience.

I take great pains to avoid spending too much time with extremely difficult people: the racist relative, the self-centered high maintenance friend, the relentless complainer or critic, the snobs, blowhards and narcissists, all people you might like well enough in small doses, but who are generally a pain in the ass.

During book club we often find ourselves grappling with what we’re each willing to put up with around people we love but who do some pretty crappy stuff. Boundaries, and all that.

Like everyone in my book club I believe that “to love” is better than “to hate,” and that to forgive is better than to resent someone forever. But unlike many in my group, I find myself exploring these topics less from a spiritual point of view, and more from a psychological one.

During college I majored in psychology mostly as a reflex to growing up in a somewhat dysfunctional family (to no one person’s fault I might add, and I was loved immensely). For years I thought I was semi screwed up and in turn I became obsessed with why I was the way I was (anxious, insecure, the quintessential people pleaser) and — with why humans sometimes treat each other in the most despicable ways.

My father and his first wife Peggy adopted me when I was a few months old. At some point when I was in Kindergarten Peggy met and fell in love with a married-with-children well-established world wildlife photographer while on a bird-watching cruise to the Seychelles.

From her brief affair, my mother immediately left my father and five kids and never came back. She forged an exotic life away from elegant housewife and busy mother in a small upper-middle-class NJ suburb, to wearing Birkenstocks, camping across the African Plains and shooting spectacular pictures for National Geographic and the like.

I’m told for a short time after Peggy left that I stopped talking, which if you know me for five minutes isn’t something I’m known (my family nickname was “motor mouth”).

My father, a remarkably demonstrative man for his era, made it quite clear that he loved all his kids, although he admitted later in life that he was often too harsh with my out-of-control brothers. A single working dad commuting an hour into New York City every day, raising a brood of five bereft children, despite family therapy and a grandmotherly nanny, is in the end, up against too much not to lose it from time to time.  

Two years after Peggy left my father remarried. His second wife Pat was a remarkable and resilient woman who brought with her, two wonderful boys from her first marriage. But by the time Pat came to the rescue there wasn’t much she could do to repair what Peggy destroyed.

I for instance, was a nervous little thing, briefly mute, refusing Pat once told me, to hug back, my arms peeled to my side, in unconscious defiance, I guess, of ever getting close to another mother. My oldest brother Mark, I learned after his death in 2012, started using drugs in high school, possibly even heroin (more on Mark later). At least once he called Pat a c….t which isn’t exactly the foundation for the Brady Bunch.

My middle brother John, a sweet anxious smart introvert, battled a stutter, and my youngest brother Chris was picked up by police for selling drugs near a sub shop and hiring a prostitute. Of all the kids my sister appeared the most unscathed although I realized later in life, that wasn’t the case.

I have vague memories of the boys (probably not John) rolling dog food cans at our kitten down our kitchen aisle, their version of delightful cat bowling. This was likely one step past “boys will be boys,” like when Chris lit firecrackers inside sunfish from our pond while my parent’s party guests looked on – and behavior that teetered on sociopath. Seven years after my father and Pat married, they got divorced, a marriage for many reasons, was destined to fail from the start.

As such, over the years I’ve noticed that my threshold for dealing with high drama or difficult people is remarkably low. Not that sort of age-predicted “oh I’m getting older and less patient” low.

I mean that chaotic people who seem to live for chaos make me intensely uncomfortable. Sensing the faintest whiff of high maintenance (e.g. people often in fights, narcissists, drama queens, those constantly incensed or in need of inexhaustible attention) I will ever so politely back away until our interaction is seamlessly next to nothing.

My brilliant, funny, addict brother

My brother Mark’s opioid addiction got worse when he hurt his back after a fall while he worked on an oil rig in Arizona. Mark was a big bear of a guy, Paul Bunyan-like, brilliant with a wicked dark sarcasm. Even in the midst of peddling his worst addict lies, I laughed at his jokes and knew without question, that he loved his family. He once sent a letter to Pat, the same woman he battled and called the c-word, to thank her for taking care of me and my sister after Peggy left.

For years Mark worked as a public defender and later in private practice with a partner, who I can’t fathom how he managed to keep his practice afloat while dealing with Mark’s obvious addiction. Still, his partner kept him on until it got so bad that despite repeated warnings, he had no choice but to turn Mark into the Bar, who after a review, revoked Mark’s law license.

One afternoon in January 2012 my father’s third wife Mary, who I’d grown close from the moment we met, called and told me “You won’t believe this, but Mark’s dead.” An autopsy revealed that my brother died from opioids and advanced arteriosclerosis.

Shocked and gut-punched, I didn’t cry. Not then, not at his service, not once in nine years.  I wasn’t angry at Mark anymore, I just grew numb to his lies and without consciously realizing it, numb to Mark.

At one point my brother was so far gone that during a flight home from Orlando after visiting (when during lunch with my toddler by my side and Mark’s client across from me in a booth, Mark slurred the whole time) the pilot had to make an emergency landing in Houston. Apparently Mark’s seatmate tried to wake him so he could navigate around his body to go to the bathroom but Mark was unconscious.   

“Your son’s a big guy,” the ER doctor told my father and Mary, “anyone else with this level of alcohol and opioids in his system would be dead.”

Mark eventually landed in prison after three DUI’s (a felony in Arizona). Incarceration kept him alive for a while and when he got out he was sober. In time he started using drugs again, then entered multiple re-habs paid for by my father and Mary. Ultimately Mark settled into using opioids at a level just low enough to fake being sober.

A few years before prison, during one Christmas visit to my house, after a few beers and whatever drugs he took that day, as usual Mark’s eyes rolled to the back of his head, the whites flashed across the room, and his inevitable pronounced slur rolled in as he cranked up his brash humor, “So how the hell are you, Laura? Your patient husband sick of your bullshit yet?”

Despite my horror when Mark reached that level of intoxication, I still managed to laugh at his blunt comments. Because humor was stable, humor was who Mark was. Sober or otherwise.

But as the night went on he’d stir the pot. He’d lean back with his beer, smirk, then casually bring up issues between family members long forgotten or resolved. “So Laura you still pissed after that beach trip you guys had with Mary last year?” Because if Mark could dig up drama about someone else, the spotlight temporarily moved off the fact that he was drowning in his addiction.

One night during a Christmas visit while everyone ran around cooking dinner in our crowded kitchen, setting tables, TV blaring, music on, without asking Mark took my toddler daughter for a night walk on the golf course behind our house. It was only five minutes, but neither my husband nor I knew he took her, or that perhaps in the flurry of dinnertime activity, distracted, someone told him he could take her.  

I ran to the backyard, intercepted Mark and asked where the hell he’d been. When he walked inside he announced that he’d “hoisted Taylor on his shoulders to take a walk and with all that bouncing that she probably had her first orgasm.” Then he roared laughing, oblivious to how disgusted I was at his irresponsible behavior and pedophilic words about his niece. In his stewed brain my brother actually thought a pedophile joke was funny. I wanted to kill him.

I never sensed any inappropriate looks or behaviors towards our daughter, but from that moment my husband and I never allowed Mark alone in the room with her. When I told my father what Mark said that night he gently asked if I was sure “I heard right.” What else can a father say as he’s trying to process the most reprehensible comment imaginable made by his son, about his grandchild, as told by his daughter?

These were the years when Mark mysteriously needed to “get on my computer” to “check his emails” and then ask me to drive him to the nearest drugstore. A well-practiced cover-up by which Mark stockpiled pills from here to Mexico, courtesy of a rotation of more-than-willing doctors who back then, handed out pain killers like aspirin.

A small part of me felt sorry for Mark. I mourned his lost potential and the relationships he destroyed. He repeatedly broke my father’s heart and while in prison somehow caused a permanent rift with my middle brother for reasons I’m still unclear.

Once I became a mother, Mark-the-addict felt like an unintentional monster with a twisted sense of humor I no longer trusted. His filters were anesthetized, his sense of decency blurred by brain-thrashing opioids. I was vehemently protective of exposing my daughter to her uncle who although he clearly loved his niece, had mastered, as addicts do, deceit.

After prison Mark claimed he’d quit using drugs although I often heard the distinct faint slur, undetectable to anyone who didn’t know better. One morning in December 2011 he called to ask if he could visit in January.  “You sound like you’re on something,” I told him right away. “I’m just really really tired. I even had to check myself into the hospital for exhaustion last week,” he claimed.

I told Mark that he could come but that he better not be on drugs because I’d know. Nor could he stay with me or create drama with our stepmom Mary who’d he’d recently been fighting.

Mark agreed and said he’d email me his flight information. A few weeks later he was found dead on the community pool deck at his condo after a night hike in the hills, a new habit I once told him I admired (as well as his recent pursuit of a degree in pharmaceutical law which I found perfectly ironic).

Clearly my brother was more than just the “extremely difficult person” I mentioned earlier. He was an addict, menacing and toxic. I had to set clear unwavering boundaries or cut him off.

Difficult people on the other hand, are merely a thorn in our side. An inconvenience, annoying, insulting or exhausting. To extend acts of kindness to difficult people rather than to simply be nice is a feat. It’s noble.

And yet we all come to this moment with a different history of emotional pain and family chaos. As a result our threshold for dealing with drama and difficult personalities, our boundaries, are wildly different.

For one person regularly interacting with an extraordinarily difficult person is a spiritual challenge to showing radical compassion. A challenge of character. If we show enough compassion, patience, love and understanding, in time, maybe that person will become less difficult.

But for others, inching away from extremely difficult people is how we protect ourselves from what feels threatening to our peace of mind.

I recall a woman who every time I saw her at a party, trapped at least one person for an hour or more to recount tales of her downtrodden life. Nothing good, nothing positive despite clear evidence to the contrary, only the world stomping on her at every turn, big or small, real or perceived, past or present — every tale of woe.

And while I genuinely sympathized because I think she was lonely and struggling, as well as a nice person, I didn’t want to go down the same Rabbit Hole every time. All her stories were stuck in victimhood, and any advice I gently suggested she politely but repeatedly dismissed. So after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly I’d need some more wine or a snack. And off she went to find a new sympathetic ear.  

If we ran into each other when I walked my dog, I’d smile, say a brief hello then keep moving down the sidewalk like I was in a rush, enthusiastically waving goodbye as I said “Have a great day!” She wanted to talk, I wanted to escape.

Boundaries, I’ve come to realize, can be explicit or implicit. “If you do drugs when you come to my house, you’re out” is explicit. Inching down the sidewalk while you smile and wave goodbye to a chronic complainer is implicit. It says, hey I want to be polite, but I’m not investing too much of myself into you.

Boundaries are how we teach people to treat us, and how we decide to treat ourselves.

I know people willing to spend far more time with extremely difficult people than I am. I admire that. These people are saints. They reach into the lives of the most challenging over and over and over. They bear the pain of the snarly, hostile, impatient, cranky and critical, while also setting boundaries, like for instance, reminding The Difficult Person that cursing out the cashier or saying the n-word isn’t okay.

Personally I’ve forgiven myself for why, even if I extend a small kindness to a difficult person, a visit, a meal, that I need to bid that person goodbye before I get sucked in for the long haul. And frankly, maybe she’s bored with me anyway. Likely I won’t expand our 15 or 20 minute conversation into making any future plans. I’ll be polite, brief and vague.

Because what sounds like selfishness on my part, is protecting myself from excess exposure to certain kinds of people. So I extend one foot in the door, while I gently pull the other foot out. It’s the best I can do. Correction, it’s the best I choose to do.

These attitudes are still head shakers for me. Finding muddy love.

That’s all we have sometimes, some version of The Golden Rule and muddy love – Laura
In the category of “I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant” topics that make you do one of those cartoon double takes in your mind and think, did I really just read that?

Dear Amy:

I recently discovered that my son, who is 17, is a homosexual. We are part of a church group and I fear that if people in that group find out they will make fun of me for having a gay child. He won’t listen to reason, and he will not stop being gay. I feel as if he is doing this just to get back at me for forgetting his birthday for the past three years — I have a busy work schedule.
Please help him make the right choice in life by not being gay. He won’t listen to me, so maybe he will listen to you.
I read this “Dear Amy” (like Dear Abby) to my husband the other day and he said it sounded like it was made up. We can hope but sadly no. I know this mom’s attitude doesn’t reflect the majority but nonsense views like this certainly swirl about, to which I’d say,
Who cares? Minority views don’t matter.
But they do. Nonsense like this hurt kids and hurt spreads.  Now, let me say that I truly understand, without caveat or conversion, why some folks can’t embrace homosexuality and gay marriage for Biblical reasons. Do I agree? Not even close, but most folks who feel this way aren’t out spewing nonsense.
This mother’s views move past Biblical loyalty into naivety, ignorance and all out cowardice.  Read more, including Dear Amy’s response…

How he looks at you. How you look at him. Attractiveness unraveled.

Image

Image credit: fashioncurse.blogspot.com

Men, women and how we view attractiveness. (Where I agree with Dennis Prager and where I don’t).

Driving home the other day I heard the Dennis Prager Show. As a conservative Republican he’s not my usual radio show pick (although I try to at least sample all political points of view).

But I agreed with what he said, mostly (see below for where he lost me).

Dennis discussed how men tend to view women’s attractiveness. He offered some surprising insights including that men are far less critical of how their wife or girlfriend looks than women realize, assuming we at least try to look decent.

The effort alone counts.

But unfortunately (and erroneously) women think we have to try to measure up to Charlize Theron, Angelina or Cindy Crawford or even lesser beauties to compete for our mate’s attention. (I can’t imagine where we’d get such a crazy paranoid notion except for the daily delivery of gorgeous models plastered on every media platform across every continent).

Those sexy supermodels Dennis reminds us, are often waif thin with a boyish body. Flat-chested and not much curve. Men like curves. Supermodels are mostly boys with boobs, he points out.   Read more….

Joe Paterno’s death reminds us of most complicated emotion – ambivalence

joe paternao, ambivalence, loss of a loved one, deathI recently experienced a death in our family. I’m not ready to write about it because it feels disrespectful to my departed and to my loved ones to talk directly about my ambivalent feelings.

Instead, I’ll write around my feelings.

I started to think about ambivalence, about loving someone “but” having mixed emotions.   Today I ran across an article about Joe Paterno, his death and how of course his family grieved. Along with mention of his passing was a link to his role in the sex scandal case.

Joe Paterno was revered, he was respected by an entire community — “and/but” the world was horrified.

Talk show show host Dr. Phil tells his guests when you follow a sentence with the word “but” you’ve nullified everything you just said.  I think love can be conditional, or rather, how you want to feel when that person is around has conditions.

How you feel about a person’s death depending on their age or circumstances, depending on the life they led, depending on the impact they had in your life or in your mind’s eye, can make “but” the only word that pulls incongruent thoughts together and softens your cognitive dissonance.

Without disclaimers we lie to ourselves and change history to our blurry convenience.

And while blurry memories may bring us closer to closure, to forgiving and emotional freedom, maybe we should SEE clearly before we fuzzy our thoughts so long that time muddies the truth — and then the truth no longer exists.

Anyone who followed Paterno’s role in the child sex scandal case knows the outrage over his failures, they knew about the fortress of worship and blind loyalty behind Paterno’s protected kingdom of collegiate football, an institution where it was blasphemous to question the ruling class of winning coaches.

This was a hierarchy not unlike the Vatican where power and prestige is sometimes cloaked in cheers, chants, prayers and scorekeeping, (Sinner Zero, Repenter 1) where the very highest servants of the Almighty God and Almighty Win keep the People looking UP with distanced worship, bowing from afar until evil is out of focus, recognition or even possibility — until all that’s left to see is what we want to see.

To speak ill of the departed is to slap the living and pummel the deceased.  Yet,  uncomfortable residue after someone dies while it doesn’t, (and shouldn’t) ever steer how we live our own lives, unresolved ambivalence about someone or something needs to be laid to rest for peace, for comfort to come.

Ambivalence is a topic that fascinates me endlessly. The paradox of emotions we carry with us, more, how we react to our ambivalence and what this creates in its wake.

Over the past ten years I’ve written about The Ambivalence of Motherhood, an institution so idealized, romanticized and revered that (at one time) to speak of anything but glory and gratitude and sheer bliss at bottles, bibs, breastfeeding and hours of laundry and Barney was akin to saying you hated your child and rebuked womanhood.

I never felt motherhood was black and white. I only felt my love for my daughter was crystal clear.

Betty Friedan in her landmark, groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique, coined the vagabond emotion women used to chase with therapy sessions and valium as “the problem that has no name.”

Ambivalence is in fact, that wispy unharnessed inner nudge we can’t quite put into words or hold with utter confidence.

In the early revolution of inner discontent about something or someone, ambivalence doesn’t get a comforting nod of knowing from others who privately feel the same.  Ambivalence is at first a maverick, uncomfortable and unsettled and lonely. It never invites others to join the revolution until enough people say it’s okay — and then the shouting rolls out from every doorway and blog.

Ambivalence is left for people with “issues” or for pioneers to shape into slow and eventual acceptance.

To love and yet……

I now write so openly about ambivalence —  because I’ve written so openly about ambivalence.  The endless gnawing has to feed itself or it can never become peaceful resolve — at least for me.

Ambivalence feels as innate for me as saying I love you to people I trust, and even so, I feel compelled to frame my thoughts about motherhood into something people can easily reconcile, to put my disclaimer for those who can’t feel two sides of the same story at the same time, so they won’t think me a monster.  

So, this is what ambivalence feels like:

That you can love your child so deeply, so intensely so passionately so fully so gratefully and yet not love what as a new mother, motherhood takes away.

That you can love your child and hate the boredom of at home. That you can want to be home and yet want to be at a career you worked big hours to achieve — that you want enough hours for you, but not too much away from her.  That men can grapple this with zero societal reproach but when women grapple out loud they are selfish. 

Resolved ambivalence is having a secure foot in both doors, it is to acknowledge and finally shrug at ying and yang, dark and light, cold and warm. It is to admit to wanting it all and why you want it all. It is to know that one feeling can exist with another and yet you are still full and complete and good and enough.

I know this unharnessed emotion doesn’t sit well for most people because it asks for confessions that haven’t been reconciled and approved by others.

I know it’s why after my loved one died and I carefully with pause, emailed my family my feelings of ambivalence — that no one responded. Urgent and pressing matters trumped my ruminating about my mixed emotions. I genuinely understand that the unfinished business and feelings simmering behind “the one who died” will need to sit in escrow until/if, people are ready, that it is not for me to make someone else’s ambivalence come to light.

Ambivalence is “the problem with no name” until it is time to give it one.

Where does your ambivalence sit?

Photo credit: David Castillo Dominici

 

 

 

 

Marriage After Baby – At Home Date Nights & More Tips to Gradually Re-ignite

marriage after baby, marriage after kids, when partners become parents

It’s natural for new parents to settle in at home with their baby, to “cocoon,” too exhausted to go out and too anxious to leave their child with a babysitter or even trusted parents and in-laws.

As priorities re-order couple time often gets pushed aside. Yet often putting the marriage on the back-burner becomes a permanent pattern in the family and over time, the relationship suffers, the kids notice.

Children can sense when their parents begin to seem emotionally distant.  The unspoken hostility, (or spoken), the disconnect between the couple creates a family “climate” that can feel off-balance.  This marital “gap” can start very gradually (see my post on divorces due to “low conflict” marriages) and over time widen into a great relationship chasm.

And it’s really no surprise.

New mothers rarely have the time, energy or interest to do much more than keep up with the growing demands of their baby and new demands. In addition a new mother’s body and biochemistry is often still re-adjusting which affects mood, stamina and sleep.

Sleep understandably becomes mom’s best friend, watching television the easiest and least expensive entertainment. Exhaustion and the added responsibilities of combing parenting with all other aspects of her life, particularly for a woman whose husband doesn’t share her load, can begin to create quiet, simmering disconnect in the marriage. The husband’s might begin to feel resentful that while he and his wife are deeply grateful, and the baby is the new love of his life, the baby also takes center stage, replacing the attention, intimacy and connection he once shared with his wife.

Click for Marriage after Baby Books

As a result, I suggest new parents begin re-connecting as soon as possible, starting small, but making a mindful effort to nurture their relationship from time to time.

What’s Good for the Parents is Good for the Children 

“Kids whose parents’ relationship has cooled are more likely to have behavioral or academic problems than kids of happy couples,” says Philip Cowan, PhD, in the Parents.com article “Happy Parents, Happy Kids.
“Dr. Cowan and his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD. have studied families for decades “Even if you can’t see yourself going out on a date for yourselves, do it for your kids,” says Dr. Cowan.

And while there’s no timetable for when new parents should get their marriage back on track particularly because the physical and life transition can feel different for each woman, there are simple ways couples can gradually begin to re-ignite their pre-baby relationship.

Making an effort to make the marriage as important as parenting sets the priorities for the future of the relationship, particularly once the kids are out of the house and the couple faces an empty nest.

Dating Again: Bistro in a Bag for Nervous First Time Parents

While spit up and dirty diapers are hardly props for a romantic evening, even small sporadic moments can help couples re-connect.  At home date nights, while not ideal when a child is young and in constant need of attention, can set the stage for couples to put their relationship as priority.

It doesn’t take much to create a spontaneous romantic setting if the baby is asleep. Parents can set up the following in a pleasant area of the home such as the front or back porch or on a blanket in the family room by the fire.

The at home date night might include:

  • Table cloth
  • Small blanket (for picnic style)
  • Two elegant placemats and cloth napkins
  • Candle in a protected candle holder (aromatherapy is ideal)
  • Lighter Small FM radio or CD player
  • Relaxing, upbeat or romantic CD
  • Flowers from the garden, or inexpensive bouquet from the grocery store
  • Soothing or energetic aromatherapy air spray.

A no-hassle delectable plate of finger foods can be an easy and fun dinner, raw veggies, frozen appetizers, cheese, salami, crackers, crusty breads with dips, olives, essentially an Italian antipasto platter that makes for a flavorful, interesting meal with easy clean up.

Click for Marriage after Baby Books

“Relationship re-entry” as I call it, is reason enough to pull out the good china, letting the dirty dishes soak overnight, taking a break from clean up. Even small efforts like these that put the focus back on couple time, while seeming impractical for parents trying to juggle a baby, send a message to the brain, “our relationship matters.”

No matter what the couple does for an at home or outside date night, the point is to put the focus back on the relationship on a regular basis.   If going out for wine and a gourmet meal or setting an elegant table at home isn’t what feels right, then taquitos and takeout with some good conversation is fine.  It’s not what the couple does, only that from time to time, they focus on each other.

Flexible Fondue for Home Date Night

Who doesn’t love food drenched in melted cheese or rich chocolate? Fondue offers a convenient way for parents to create an impromptu romantic dinner that can hold up to interruptions. Baby starts to cry? Turn off the pot and re-light later. 


Inexpensive fondue pots are available online or at local discount retailers (sometimes these are only seasonal during the holidays).  Dippers can be very inexpensive and include anything that tastes good covered in cheese or chocolate (almost everything), a loaf of crusty French bread broken it into bites, some cauliflower and broccoli florets, sliced carrots, pretzels, strawberries, mini brownies etc.

Pre-made cheese and chocolate fondue packages are available at most grocery stores and while the cheese packets can be pricey, it’s easier and more affordable than buying the assorted grated cheeses, wine, and Kirsch (often used in fondue) and trying to mix the perfect pot.

Regular Communication Keeps Parent Connected

Parents often move to autopilot, moving from day-to-day, joyful and appreciative for their child and each other, yet unaware of what they may be leaving behind, communication and couple time. One of the most important habits new parents can adopt for their family’s long-term emotional health is to regularly  talk about how they feel.  

Ideally couples might try sitting down once a week, putting on calm music and talking, disconnecting cell phones, letting the answering machine pick up, because while the world can wait, the relationship can’t.  If parents get interrupted because the baby is awake or needs attention, the effort alone sends a positive message to the couple and over time, to the children. Kids who see their parents making their own relationship as important as the children’s’, receive, in my personal opinion, powerful and positive messaging.

As the family grows and the demands exponentially increase, making couple time a regular priority becomes a juggling game and a matter of choice, but doing so is critical to maintain a healthy long-term marriage.

Couples should try to keep the conversation honest yet non-defensive and constructive, steering away from “You never, you always” and instead explain what he/she appreciates, then what they need. For example mom might say,  “I really appreciate that you do (x,y,z) and you’re a phenomenal dad, but when you come home from work and want to decompress and I’ve been with the baby all day I need you to either take over with her, make dinner or pick up dinner so that I can get some time to myself, go for a walk, whatever.”

Couples Benefit from Informal Climate Survey 

One way to foster positive communication that’s a little more goal-oriented is to do an informal “climate survey” after the baby is about three to six months old, when the massive changes begin to settle into a “new normal.” A climate survey is a process companies use to measure employee satisfaction and to spot potential red flags. And while it sounds formal, the concept is something I use to simply describe couples making a habit of touching base with each other, with getting a feel for the overall tone in their family.

To begin, parents ask each other how they generally feel in their lives, then about their expectations and short and long-term goals, noting how these areas have changed since becoming parents. Some questions might include:

  • “How do you feel physically and mentally?” (Mom needs to pay special attention to her physical and emotional health).”
  • “What has surprised you about the changes that come with parenting? What are your unexpected joys and disappointments?”
  • “What realistic changes can I/you/we make?”

Couples should strive to be non-defensive and completely honest. They should avoid statements like “You always, you never” and instead say “I feel that” and “I would really appreciate if.” The goal isn’t to sugarcoat, stuff feelings or to avoid conflict, but rather to foster communication in a non-defensive manner, to provide useful constructive feedback for the health of the marriage, and to build a solid family foundation based on regular communication.

Click for Marriage after Baby Books

While re-igniting the marriage after a new baby is inherently challenging as priorities dramatically shift, couples who take a gradual and realistic approach to reconnecting with each other as soon as possible, communicating regularly and creating date nights, are building a healthy dynamic and model for their relationship and for their children’s future relationships.

Children only know what they see and what they sense. Twenty years from now will your kids see a parents who were (for the most part), emotionally connected or parents who were living under the same roof but slowly drifting apart, parents who lived for the lives of their kids, but forgot about the life of their marriage?

Sources

Robinson, Holly. “Happy Parents, Happy Kids,” Parents.com (accessed March 2, 2010).

Photo credit: Photostock 

Copyright Laura Owens. Contact the author to obtain permission for republication.

Low Conflict Marriages Cause Most Divorces. Solutions Are Simple.

marriage, divorce, communication, conflict

Most Divorces Due to "Low Conflict" Marriages

It’s not big explosive conflicts such as a spouse cheating or an addiction that finally comes to head that destroy most marriages.

Pamela Haag, author of Marriage Confidential: The Post-Romantic Age of Workhorse Wives, Royal Children, Under-sexed Spouses and Rebel Couples Who Are Rewriting the Rules (Harper),says it’s “low conflict marriages,” the low simmering erosion of the relationship that leads to couples calling it quits.

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In an article published by Tribune papers, “Till tedium do us part,” (September 1, 2011), Heidi Stevens writes:”Up to 60 percent of divorces in the United States, in fact, stem from “low-conflict” marriages, Haag writes in her book, citing a study by marriage researcher Paul Amato.

Marriages that aren’t marred by abuse, addiction, repeated infidelity or other “high-conflict” issues, in other words, actually account for the majority of divorces.” Edward M. Hallowell, director of the Massachusetts-based Hallowell Centers for Cognitive and Emotional Health and co-author of Married to Distraction: How to Restore Intimacy and Strengthen Your Partnership in an Age of Interruption (Ballantine Books) says there isn’t one tipping point that sends these low conflict marriages spiraling down, it’s a decline fueled, among other things, the perpetual noise, buzz and constant distraction couples face today.

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“The ambient noise of life takes over,” Hallowell says. “There’s no big conflict; couples have just lost touch with each other, lost the fun, lost the moments of sustained attention because we live surrounded by this buzz.” Couples are so busy trying to keep up with their lives, bombarded by electronic, digital and day-to-day stimuli they hardly have the time or energy to notice their marital relationship is fading to the background.

The good news is that because these are low conflict issues the remedies aren’t complicated. Hallowell and his wife list 40 tips in their book, and reading over a few of the standouts Heidi Stevens listed in her article I’m reminded that the most useful solutions for resolving conflict seem to boil down to common sense and courtesy, that is once the issue comes to light.

Tips to tackle low simmering marital conflict

  • Be attentive.  Make an effort to tune in, ask your spouse how he/she is doing. Listening is caring and a sign of intimacy.
  • Avoid eye-rolling and any sign of contempt as this fuels more of the same.
  • Split labor into more “attractive” piles. If the wife doesn’t mind doing laundry (as much as her spouse hates it), but hates cleaning the kitchen to the nth degree, divide duties so she does more laundry and he does more kitchen duty.
  • Take a half hour to talk about general things that don’t agitate. Leave out conversations about work, money, chores and conflicts. Connect with each other with light chatter that amuses or inspires, rather than agitates or stresses.

If you you have to ask, there might be a problem

Halwell recalls thinking after a woman asked him if it was bad that her spouse left his Blackberry next to them while they were having sex, “I don’t know which is odder. That he’s doing it or that you have to ask.” My list in life of “If you really have to ask that, you probably already know the answer” could go on for sometime, and this one clearly makes the cut.

When an electronic device is spooning you, you might need to unplug the device, and plug in yourself.

In truth I see signs I need to monitor in myself but nothing like having my Iphone perched on my pillow. My husband and I sit on the porch each weekend listening to music and drinking coffee and wine into the wee hours, yakking up life from A to Z. This is a ritual we’ve done for decades but without any hand-held devices to distract us from the music or our conversation.

Back B.E.D.D (Before Electronic Diversion Disorder) our entertainment on the porch was our chatter and cassettes, then it became CDs, then the radio, now our Ipod. Somewhere along the way, my Iphone and Ipad made it’s way onto our porch. NOW relaxing into the early part of the evening, we sometimes kick back in our chairs with our Iphones glued to our faces and get silent for up to an hour. I’m not sure how that’s connecting, except that we’re in the same room, listening to the same music, sharing the same air.

Fortunately if I get swept into email, websites or Facebook (which I’m more likely to do than my husband), he pulls me back, unphased that I was mentally disconnected, guilty of his own Iphone app diversion, pages of ESPN or Fantasy football. When I read a book in bed, an actual hand held paper book, he reads sports articles on his Iphone which is fine with us because neither is interested in talking to the other when we’re tired, so the distractions of choice don’t disrespect us.

little mindless digital distraction soothes, too much and in lieu of connecting through personal conversation and I can see symptoms surface for a slow simmering spiral down for a marriage.

Photo credit: Ambro

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