Don’t Wait – That’s The Biggest Mistake!

Photo of couple with communication issues for The Couples Toolkit blog post, "Don't Wait - Big Mistake"., credit Andrey Popov/iStock.
Credit: Andrey Popov/iStock.

When asked what is the most serious mistake that couples make, I answer, they wait too long to get help. The energy required to sustain a disabled Coupledom and avoid facing the realization that “we have problems that need professional expertise” could be channeled into using that “help” to improve the marriage.

In fact, problems faced and tackled in their early stages are far more likely to be overcome than those that linger, thicken with scar tissue and disfigure the marital state over time. Here the critical factor is time.

Why do couples stay away from professional help? Fear. Fear and finances and cultural beliefs. However, waiting can be fatal to The Coupledom. And that is very costly. The Coupledom is a dyad with two individuals who likely do not share equal measures of tolerance for enduring unhappiness. One member of the pair may be “done” before the other member is “ready” to give the misery a name and seek help. And that, very simply, is the highest cost of “waiting” for everyone, especially the children.

For those individuals who waited until the children left home and the empty nest ensued, the cost of dissolving a marriage can feel emotionally unbearable. Spending the latter decades of one’s life regretting the time spent in the earlier decades because they ended in matrimonial failure is a common depressive state post mid-life divorce. And the staggering possibility that “I may spend the last decades of my life alone” plagues many divorced minds. Does this have to happen? No.

As I see it, these unfortunate outcomes occur because the early years are focused on achieving goals that can supersede or camouflage the deteriorating state of the marital relationship. Quite simply, there is just so much individuals can manage – earning a living, completing an education, housekeeping, child rearing, trying to fit in to a community and socializing simultaneously – and it taps much of the energy supply that humans can access. Add to that fear – fear that if the couple engage in the therapeutic process, the entire marital house of cards will come tumbling down on the family sanctuary and instead of preventing a crisis, it will bring one on. Ah, but this is a misplaced fear indeed.

Many delaying techniques are born out of psychological defenses such as rationalization, denial and avoidance, characteristic defenses of the human psyche – tools the psyche carries in its toolbox. But when these tools are overused the consequences can be devastating.

I have worked with couples who operate differently. They come to therapy seeking prevention of the heartbreaking outcomes I describe above, of the protracted and unraveling dissolution of a marriage. One might say, they are proactive participants in the mental health of their marriage. They have hurt and disappointed each other, disagreed on methods for managing challenges with children, in-laws, finances, work demands and intimacy. They have tried to reconcile their differences but to no avail. In short, they recognize that unless they discuss these tensions in the presence of a skilled third party, matters will only get worse, problems only bigger. They don’t wait to try to a scale mountain when they can use their energies to walk up a hill.

Couples therapy is a complex mission to embark on – far more complex than individual therapy. In fact, couples therapy is a dance of rich complexity which begins way before the first visit. Someone leads the dance but their partner may be unwilling to join in. The multifaceted ways couples undermine getting expert help or sticking with the process, are a book in themselves. One spouse may verbalize that therapy is unnecessary but finally agrees to a visit – a visit that “proves” that either the therapist isn’t good or too costly or the process a clear waste of time – and who has the time anyway? “See, we’re fine.” Some couples terminate prematurely because “The therapist didn’t like me. The therapist sided with you. She’s a woman, she sides with you.  He’s a man, he sides with you. We can work this out ourselves. Anyway, you attack me in every visit. It’s just making matters worse. We fight after every session.”

Some couples are serial users. They have seen five or six therapists over a period of years yet somehow all five or six of these therapists failed them. When asked what led to termination with each of these therapists, the answers are often vague. “I liked her, she didn’t. We didn’t think it was helping. He felt attacked. She thought it was too expensive.” Well, it’s a tough process that taps into our most primitive fears.

At the core of all productive couples therapy is trust – trust between the therapist and the couple that grows with the visits and reduces the otherwise unbearable vulnerability individuals may experience opening up the marital door to a stranger. But not all folks have equal amounts of muscle to build trust – to endure the first stages of awkwardness – because not all participants are equal in their emotional sensitivity or history. Severe attachment trauma can interfere with creating a bond with a therapist, especially in the presence of one’s partner where trust issues may already be a primary culprit in the relationship. Early and repeated emotional betrayals by caregivers can leave scars so thick that no one easily passes through their walls. These individuals can build up muscle for this challenge in individual therapy. That can be a good place to begin. But sadly, that scarring may cause resistance to even the sacred privacy and confidentiality of the one-on-one psychotherapeutic relationship.

Cultural influences may play an important role in a partner’s refusal to see a therapist. Many cultures view entering psychotherapy as an admission of serious mental illness, something to shun – shameful, even indulgent – a cultural taboo. And that you never share family matters outside the family. This is an enormous betrayal. A closed system keeps out strangers. And what is a therapist but a stranger?

This brings me to the hot topic of humiliation. The fear of humiliation ranks high as a hidden yet underlying cause in couples therapy aversion. For the individual this fear may be unconscious, concealed by defenses that appear as arrogance or superiority. They diminish the therapeutic process or are dismissive of their partner’s feelings or insist that financial cost supersedes all other considerations. For these individuals, any exposure of imperfection is experienced as deeply embarrassing, so risky that though they sincerely hope their marriage will continue, they cannot tolerate the “exposure.” Shamed in their childhood, they are spending much of their adulthood avoiding the possibility of being shamed again.

And secrets – secret of the past – avoided, blocked or denied – can wield a heavy blow to attempts to bring someone into the psychotherapeutic process. Seeming irrational reactions to a spouse’s pleading that “we go for help,” may have at their core a raw fear of exposure of family of origin secrets or the danger of unblocking painful buried memories. As I mentioned earlier, embarking on couples therapy is a complex mission.

I have described just some of the motivators in couples therapy resistance. Yet I have worked with many individuals with deeply disturbing histories of betrayal and humiliation, memories buried or denied, cultural conflict, who have engaged in couples work successfully. Their courage is striking, their fortitude impressive.

And equally courageous is the person in The Coupledom who makes the request to enter couples therapy, a request not lightly given. Rather, this is a brave step that signals serious distress. For their partner to balk at it, be dismissive or minimize their spouse’s suffering, is very risky behavior that often reinforces their spouse’s feelings of alienation, hurt or insignificance likely already in play. What would motivate a spouse to be that destructive or seemingly uncaring? Fear. Unconscious perhaps, unrecognized probably, but definitely fear. Or they could be done – emotionally out of the marriage and yet unable to articulate that either to themselves or to their partner. But more than likely the root of the resistance is the fear of losing control over a tightly woven and dysfunctional coping structure. These individuals are still in the marriage but stunningly inept at the crossroads of its future.

How does one address this stalemate? Engage in a series of conversations over time that respectively explore the resistant party’s concerns. Keep these conversations brief and to the point. “…without the aid of an expert, I know our relationship will continue to deteriorate. We are growing apart.” When challenged, be clear. “I’m fifty percent of this marriage and my unhappiness puts the whole marriage at risk.” This is not a threat. It’s a fact. “It takes two to make a marriage work but only one to end it.” Sadly, and ironically, a frightened partner who is strenuously denying that there are marital problems that need outside intervention is likely to cause irreparable damage, the very outcome they are trying to avoid.

If this kind of exploration devolves into a repeated war of words and increasingly hurtful exchanges, then I urge the individual who is asking to get help to go for help on their own. Whether you are one or two in the therapy process, collaboration with an expert is needed – people are stuck here and in pain. The changes that spouses make individually will impact The Coupledom and lead to new strategies and a clarification of choices and options which hopefully can be productively shared with their reluctant spouse.

If you have a toothache you see a dentist, eventually, or you lose your tooth. If your Coupledom is aching and remains untreated… Don’t wait. Big mistake.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016

Why Do Some People Stay? What Can We Learn From Hillary Clinton

Photo in public domain of Chelsea Clinton, Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton.

I am listening to an audio book called First Women by Kate Browser, which delves into the lives of first ladies from Jacqueline Kennedy to Michelle Obama, providing lots of anecdotes and “insider” information about each of the ladies as well as painting a very interesting portrait of their lives in the White House, a portrait that stresses the restrictions and compromises far more than the glories and proximity to fame.

What struck me from my perspective as a couples therapist, is how three of these first ladies stayed in their marriages even with the knowledge of their husbands’ infidelities – knowledge that was known to others as well and in Hillary’s case to the entire world. These women stayed loyal and, even more surprising, in love with or at least caring towards with their husbands (though privately there were scenes and words) despite the humiliation and hurt they suffered as a result of these betrayals. Jacqueline Kennedy, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Lady Bird Johnson all knew that their husbands had relationships with other women and knew that others knew as well. And even after they left the White House, Hillary and Lady Bird remained with their husbands while Jacqueline stayed fiercely loyal to her husband’s memory.

Are these women powerless victims, dependent to a fault on their husbands’ political success or so identified narcissistically with them that they have to keep protecting their husbands’ image in order to continue receiving the reflected glory? Are these the decisions of ambitious women who need the association with singularly achieving males to feed their own appetites? Are these women simply cultural representatives of their times when divorce was viewed as more shameful than remaining in a marriage with an unfaithful man? Or perhaps these are religious women for whom divorce is unthinkable – Jackie was a fairly devout Catholic and had suffered from her own parents’ divorce. I think all these factors played a role in the choices these women made. But another theme that reoccurred throughout the telling of their stories was along the lines of a crazy kind of love, a sort of deep dedication to these men and to the histories and journeys that their wives shared with them.

Do we have any respect for that kind of woman today? Because the woman who chooses to stay exists today – in a world that condones leaving and sees divorce as a very viable option. Can we learn anything from Hillary? Can we stand up for the woman who stays? Well, that’s up to the individual. But I do think we can learn something about marriage through a closer examination of the many complex factors that make up the shared life – factors that include romantic and sexual fidelity but also extend to the multiplicity of components that constitute adult life, many of which contradict and undermine each other, many that might enrich one area of that shared life and deplete another. Factors that might lead someone to choose not the black or white road or the right or wrong road but the road that is dimly lit and full of pot holes yet has riches in its path, too.

In short, do these women have to be ashamed of their choice to stay? Do these women have to be demeaned by that choice? Are they defined by the actions of their partners? Does society reduce the complex contract that is marriage and a shared family life to just some elements while disregarding others?

In many ways it is a lot tougher to be the woman who stays once the affair is outed than the woman who goes. Denial facilitates remaining – it eliminates risk. But once the affair is outed, and especially when others are in the “know” – the other woman always knows, a particularly painful humiliation – it is easier in some ways to just go, to “stand up” for yourself. I have spent many hours with the women who stay, both privately and professionally. In my role as a couples therapist, I have been with both the betrayer and the betrayed, trying to sift through the debris of broken promises and profound humiliation to see if a future can be created from a past and present tarnished and torn. It is often agonizing work. The level of pain experienced by both spouses defines the phrase “palpable pain.” It is thick and it is murky and and it is emotionally bloody.

Equally palpable is the courage and endurance that many of the couples exhibit as they try to save a life shared. Of course each story is individual. The women married to serial adulterers often knew early on that their spouses were somewhat of a liability. But for reasons too complex and vast to try to explain here, they chose to marry them, have children with them, share mortgages with them. Some combination of denial and magical thinking, usually facilitated by the drive to be that force of “change” derived from their family of origin, mars judgement and distorts the data at hand. But often too they adore these men, enjoy their company, want to heal them or benefit from their talents. The White House wives were married to men of tremendous ambition – very few become President of the United States, male or female. So the drive that characterizes these men is often associated with ample supplies of testosterone as well as an exorbitant need for recognition and control. Yet that characterizes so many of both the “successful” or merely needy souls out there. It is just a matter of degree and opportunity. I cannot discount the relevance of the stories of the White House wives because their husbands reached the pinnacle of power. Instead their model provides us with a publicly accessible portrait to explore.

So what are the factors that enable wives or in the case of same sex marriages, wives or husbands, to remain in a marriage once the seal of fidelity has been broken? For one thing, the attitude of the adulterer/spouse is key. Does he want the marriage to survive? If not, then there is nothing to stay for. It’s over. It takes two to save a marriage. From my observations, the betrayed spouse’s motivation to find a pathway to remain married even when trust is broken bends toward the other riches of marriage. Having children together – the creation of a “family” typically drives the desire and courage to stay, if at all possible. These women today understand deeply the emotional and financial burden of terminating a marriage, the burden on their children and the quality of life that they share with their spouses. A quality of life that is not simply perks. It can be affording college tuition. Or it can be the difference between owning a home or losing a home. This is not small change in life. People work hard to build the family fortress.

Another compelling factor is the often very positive aspects of the extended family life – belonging to a community of relatives and in-laws and neighbors that is enriching enough to feel dread at their loss; pain at the prospect of that loss for the children, for themselves. This is the tapestry couples weave together over the decades – a family tapestry of memory and a future of shared celebration and mutual support. Children of divorce talk about the challenges of graduation ceremonies, brisses and baptisms, the Christmas dinners and Passover seders, the wedding celebrations, all diced up and split into sides, even if the sides are talking. It’s not the same. Wives know that.

And in the case of Hillary and so many other women, where do you find another Bill, another Joe, another Henry, another hubby who matches you in wit, intelligence and a rich shared history. Someone who still, despite their deeply hurtful behavior, retains the personality aspects that attracted their spouses from the start. Often these women wonder if they will ever trust anyone else again; or love anyone else again. They are all too familiar with the divorced friend who spends hours on only to meet up with a man who either talks non-stop about himself or seduces and abandons them in record time.

And is there shame in being an ambitious woman? Should a woman be denigrated because she has tied her ambitions to her husband, or shares in a parallel progression of success, each contributing their portion to an overall successful quality of life or profession or business or societal accomplishment? Why do we need to hide any motivations that go beyond love? It’s silly. All the First Women are ambitious women. Read their stories and hold your breath. Yes, they have either chosen to, or felt compelled to, become an integral part of their husbands’ political success, but often they are an essential part of the engine, or the brains or savvy, that drives it on. And now that we have a former first wife who openly proclaims her own political agenda, always has, she is condemned for that. Why? Or better, what’s wrong with being in the same or similar line of work as your husband? With similar personal ambitions? With an eagerness to contribute to that work? Are we liberated or not? Are we equal or still just a bit “less than?”

The women I know who consider staying in their marriages in the face of adultery are often thoughtful and thorough thinkers. They probe deeply and are not content with simply following friends’ advice to “get rid of him.” They have depth and foresight. They can’t justify abandoning the marriage – though often they would like to take such a seemingly simple route. But they are not drawn to simplistic solutions or superficial fixes. They may be canny thinkers, savvy thinkers, often deeply empathic toward their children’s emotional experience, sometimes sacrificing the respect of their peers for the long-term emotional health of their family. They are women for whom I have a great deal of respect. But they are also women who cannot function with denial anymore. They need new guarantees and they need couples counseling over long periods of time. They know there is no quick fix. Building a new and more informed and mature kind of trust takes enormous work. And the chronic fear that they will be “fooled” again haunts them. It is a risk that they take every day – something that shadows their daily lives. Yes, they could be fooled again. We all can be fooled. So how do you manage that piece. First these women have to build up their sense of self – outline with black marker just who they are independent of what their spouse is or the choices he makes. Many of these women, partially spurred on by the real possibility that they will be on their own, become more self-sufficient, less dependent on the approval of their spouses. Some even run for the Senate or design a beautification program that becomes a landmark in our country’s history. One very educated and enormously talented woman dragged her broken heart off the kitchen floor and became one of the best in her field, a bread winner and a star in her profession. Facing betrayal, not running from it, stimulates personal growth. Too often women depend on the permission, the approval of their spouses, trained by a culture that has taught them to do so, even when their husbands may not. But once the emperor is revealed in his nakedness, well, that has a leveling effect too.

Of course there are many contributing factors to adultery. The marriage may have needed work for some time. The “cheating” spouse may have requested that the couple go for help or indicated to his wife that he was unhappy. The woman may have been dismissive, disinterested, hostile or preoccupied. These women are not victims, they are co-participants in a legal contract. They need to be on the ball. They need to be wise and observant and empathic and collaborative. Much of the spouse’s unhappiness or alienation is sifted through and examined in therapy in the aftermath of the exposure of the affair. No one is off the hook. No one is the victim here. As I tell my couples, this is tough stuff. I am in awe of their courage, of their tenacious fight for their Coupledom which requires both parties to see their flaws, to feel shame and guilt. To own their piece.

If this post appears to be a political endorsement of Hillary Clinton to some, it is true that she will get my vote this November. I am not ashamed to admit that fact even as therapists are supposed to maintain a certain anonymity so as not to exert undue influence on their patients. Boundaries are important but transparency and honesty are important too. I am choosing to be transparent. But that is not the reason I have taken on the challenge to write this post. I am writing it because I think we need to learn how to think out of the box about a subject as important as the decision to end a marriage. We need to honor and respect the courageous or ambitious or even self-serving decisions of women who choose to stay. There should not be shame in staying. It is not a criminal act. It is an informed choice. My job is to help make the individual and the couple as informed as possible.

Also, I am not recommending remaining in an unhappy marriage. I am recommending looking from all sides and with a deep probe at the possibility of staying long enough in a flawed marriage to see if it can be viable again, in a different way, with a rewarding future possible. And most of all, I am advocating withholding simplistic judgments and knee jerk interpretations of those who do choose to stay. Women do not have to be seen as victims, as helpless dependents who sacrifice integrity for security, but as individuals with the courage to make informed personal choices that factor in the vast complexity of the shared life. There is a great deal of dignity in doing so.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016


As The Toilet Paper Rolls: The Domestic Challenge


Photo by BananaStock of couple arguing in kitchen, for blog post, "As the Toilet Paper Rolls" on The Couples Tool Kit.
Photo Credit: BananaStock.

A close up view of the daily goings on of a typical American Coupledom resembles a made for primetime series or a daytime soap. And that is what the most successful series chronicle – the minutiae of lives joined together. Could be Friends or Modern Family but the humor tends to be built upon repetitive, menial transactions of domestic life.

And so “As The Toilet Paper Rolls” is the title of today’s post because even the chosen direction that one installs the most elemental necessity of hygienic care can create controversy between two people. I first became aware of this arena of Coupledom combat when a family member mentioned that her husband disapproved of her directional choice. There is a right way and a wrong way. I thought that they were kidding but I have since heard this from others. I’m sure Martha Stewart has an answer and certainly hotels with their neat triangular folds show us the way. But still…does it matter?

In the Coupledom everything can matter. Females know how frightening the drop can feel when a seat is expected to be down but is left up. Jeez! Tooth paste caps not replaced lead to pasty exchanges and sponges not squeezed free of suds cause stinky, smelly accusations. Dishes and glasses emptied from the dishwasher yet not returned to the shelves in the proper order create chaos and havoc, interpersonal estrangement. Light switches left on (wasteful) or lights turned off when someone took a brief  bathroom break (come on) – can cause fireworks. Or someone almost finished the orange juice and left the mostly empty bottle in the fridge – no note to the shopper that “we are out of O.J.”  Oops, crumbs by the sink. A plate preemptively removed from the table, the remaining food trashed – “I wasn’t finished.” Damp towels on the bathroom floor. Shoes left in the family room.

And this isn’t the interchange between a parent and a child, though it sure sounds like it. These are the adults. The problem is not any one incident but the repetition of these incidents, over the years, that clogs the Coupledom pores and bogs down the communication highways with the sludge of accumulated resentment.

Folks feel foolish describing these frictions to me. It is humiliating to admit to so much acrimony over which way the toilet paper turns. But domestic life, all life, is made up of details, transactions that seem so menial yet they are hardly that. In fact they are the currency of communication. The mechanisms of interpersonal interaction. And as with  breathing and sleeping, we cannot survive in a civil society without them.

Of course there are many other issues that create conflict in relationships but for the purposes of this post I am honing in on the shared life of domestic maintenance. It is apparent to me that folks who co-habitat, whether married or not, bring with them the habits and beliefs that they were raised with.  Everything from the proper direction of the knives in a cutlery drawer to the broader definition of neat as in “ready for guests,” has its roots in the world of the past – how the parental home was run, what were the rituals, rules, make of cars and bathroom etiquette. And when couples act out these learned behaviors often they find out that their partner thinks those habits or rules or methods are wrong, ridiculously demanding,  unreasonably rigid or unbearably messy.

And then each party fights for their way of doing things – it’s the right way or it’s the good enough way and what’s your problem anyway? But what gets lost in the battle of minutiae is that the tone is often dismissive or perhaps demeaning, superior or sarcastic, all of which spells hurtful. It is the manner in which the difference is fought that feels unloving and disrespectful.

And since these disagreements or tensions are frequent, the accumulated residue of each round hardens over time. The scab that hurt makes is anger. There’s the rub. Couples seem frustrated and angry with each other, are snappy, roll their eyes, create distance, draw in the children with a glance to join their side, start the battle of passive-aggressive retaliation.

What is the solution here? Pause – take a break and observe yourself and your partner during any one of these encounters. Become a cameraman not an actor on the set. What was that again – did I just dis you because you left the light on? Did you just sneer at me because I rearranged the dishes on the shelf? Did neither of us use any humor here? Did we forget to laugh at ourselves? Did we forget how typical we are – Lucy and Ricky, Mitchell and Cam, The Odd Couple, Mork and Mindy. What planet did we come from and why did we leave it? Oh my goodness, NO! Where did we go?

This is not a one shot conversation. As I mentioned earlier, there are belief systems – habits and notions dragged into the present from the past – at work here. Cultural, gender, religious, racial, geographic, ethnic, even generational differences that need to be outed and explored. But you can be sure of one thing the partners have in common, and that is the active  role that misplaced pride and ego play here, the personal investment in having to be right because of the humiliating possibility of being “wrong.” As if one’s entire self-worth and self-esteem will be determined by the outcome of who let the dog out this time. Foolish, Foolish Pride. It can bring down a marriage.

If your Coupledom has been caught in this snake pit of pettiness for a long time, I would recommend couples therapy. If not, have the conversation not once but as a matter of routine. Tease out the beliefs and really examine them together and establish some new ones that are a compromise – and laugh. It is all so silly. But the stakes are very high.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2016



A Valentine Cocktail: Imagination With A Splash Of Empathy

Photo of couple toasting each other on Valentine's Day, for a post on The Couples Tool Kit.
Credit: EronZeni/iStock.

The romantic season starts now. It’s pretty short – twenty-four little hours. Well not really – there’s the build up and the aftermath to factor in. It is also an opportunity rich with the possibility of long lasting gain for your Coupledom.

I will not challenge the merits of our culture’s classic symbols of romantic devotion – they are fun. Chocolates and lingerie, jewelry and candlelight dining; a weekend in the Poconos or Provence. Even the big teddy bear from New England can spell LUV to any one of us.

But I would add one more item to the Valentine’s Day shopping list: imagination – not necessarily the kinky kind, but the kind that is enriched by empathy: empathic imagination.

Let me tell you why. A good percentage of couples who enter couples therapy are in a very high state of distress – not all, though: some are wisely seeking assistance early in their difficulties to prevent a descent into relational crisis. And not all couples in crisis are alike. But to put a visual to what I often see, hear and feel in the room, it’s that both seem to wear a blindfold over their eyes and earplugs in their ears when speaking of the other. And that other, seated by their side, is rolling their eyes or letting tears slide down their cheeks, emitting deep sighs or lifting their hands in the air in the universal gesture of helplessness, hopelessness and bewilderment – imploring eyes directed at me – “This person doesn’t know me at all!”

What’s at play here? Its really quite simple. The empathic imagination link is down – usually for some time. When I do a history of a relationship, couples tend to describe an earlier period of mutual understanding and caring – feeling seen, known and loved. Is that just lust? Is the knowing just projection, identifying with the other: “We had so much in common?”

Whatever greases those wheels that drive people together, at some point for some couples, the grease dries up and the wheels definitely do not glide. The empathic imagination – which means being able to draw a picture in your mind of how the other person experiences their world, walking in their shoes, pondering what must it be like to do what they do all day, what it must be like for them to live here or work there or have a mind so different from your own that it sees blue where you see green – is in short, wondering what’s it like to be them?

Empathic imagination is what we draw upon when we feel concern for strangers in crisis, ripped out of their homes by a natural disaster, war ravaged and starving, attacked for the color of their skin. We can picture them and in fact we see pictures of them and we want to help. But the person across the dinner table – not so easy – that person, well, we assume either they are an extension of us – think like us and want what we want; or that they can be a threat – they won’t cooperate with our agenda; they seem unwilling to meet our needs. How is that possible? Aren’t they suppose to love us?

The deaf and blind quality that I witness so often between partners in my office is especially intense around feelings. People joined together in an intimate relationship assume they know how their partner feels about them and almost everything else. Assumptions are at the heart of the Coupledom disabilities. Asking your spouse what they really feel or think on any subject is the first step to empathic imagination – it is crucial to inquire with sincere interest and just as crucial to listen – allowing the answer to float in the air before you shoot it down. Reflect on the answer and draw a picture of the person next to you who answered that way – imagine why they gave that answer – this allows that empathic link to charge back up again.

That is the first step. If that doesn’t go well, don’t be discouraged. Go to the second step: Watch them in their world. Really look at them and listen. You will be amazed how much information you will receive. Typically we don’t even remember what our partners are wearing when they leave the house or how they are planning to spend their day. Step three: with this new data, expand the picture in your mind of your partner – it should be richer, more dimensional – imagine with empathy – who this person is that you live with and love.

As you approach this Valentine’s Day celebration set aside all the typical notions that you associate with your mate – the good and the bad – the residue of your daily interactions. And try to imagine who they are – independent of you. A figure standing on its own. What streets do they walk down and what beliefs do they cherish? What fears pile up for them in the middle of the night and what joys excite them during the day? What pressures are on them and what ancestors left their tracks across their hearts. And see if your imagining of them allows for a richer more expansive picture – a more empathic picture – and then your Valentine’s Day gift might actually be more meaningful in the long run.

Now that’s a Valentine Cocktail worth sharing.

©2016 Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 





Toolkit of New Years Vows for 2016

Photo of couple looking into each others eyes for The Couples Tool Kit blog post on New Years Vows for 2016_Credit - Stockbyte.

New Years Vows 2016: Each Day

1. Each Day I will wonder about you – how are you doing? How was your day? And each day I will take a moment to ask you. And each day I will actually listen to your answer.

2. Each Day I will tell you the truth. Each day I will undo a lie or omission from the day before. Each day I will remember that telling the truth takes a lot less time and causes a lot less damage than lying, avoiding or denying. Each Day.

3. Each Day you and I will play, share a joke, watch a show – just a flash of humor, each day. To remember we can play.

4. Each Day I will take a moment out to hold your hand or look into your eyes or kiss your lips or touch your cheek. Each day to remind myself that you are real too.

5. Each Day I vow that I will not let others define our relationship – turn our dyad into a triangle. Each day I will strive to make our unit the strong unit – the “to go to” unit – to strengthen ourselves within our Coupledom.

6. Each Day I will remember that one day I may lose you. So each day I will recall that you are my companion, my partner and my best friend. Even if each day isn’t always the same – some days I like you better than other days. Still.

Six Vows. Not too many. Just enough. Happy New Year Coupledom 2016.

@Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

The Senior Coupledom*: Like the Elephant, Majestic and Scarred

Photo of an elephant for The Couples Tool Kit post, "The Senior Coupledom, like the Elephant, Majestic and Scarred." Photo Credit: 2630ben-iStock-Thinkstock.
Photo Credit: 2630ben/iStock/Thinkstock.

I am impressed by the sheer physicality of a couple who have spent four and more decades married. There is something implacable, massive, monumental, well worn and a bit weary in their presentation. I see them in my office, town events, airports and cocktail parties. Like the elephant whose swaying bulky splendor moves towards the watering hole, beautiful and beaten up but ultimately triumphant, the Senior Coupledom triggers curiosity and inspires awe. How have they done this, the elephant, the Senior Coupledom: Gotten so far and for so long?

(This may appear to be a false comparison: one elephant compared with two people. Elephants are matriarchal, the young males go off but the females remain with their babies and raise them with other females. But for me the Coupledom is one entity made up of two inhabitants. It is a single space, the domicile where the couple’s relationship resides.)

A couple’s decades of shared experience should be as visible and traceable as the aging spots, scars and freckles on their skin. But they are not. I too am a member of a Senior Coupledom – though I find my fascination and wonder draws me to ponder others, it is easier than pondering the intensely familiar. As recently as a month ago, standing up to debark from a plane ride south, someone called my name – a high school chum who sorted through my age related changes to recognize me. She and her husband were actually seated in the row behind me. How did I not see her? But there they were – together like forever – probably forty-five years now. So much personal history, so many hours and woes and triumphs and losses. Yet what I saw was an attractive, well-groomed couple who, in some ways, could have met each other yesterday. All those years of shared experience suggested only by how familiar they seemed with each other; the absence of tentativeness, no quick starts or searching glances – smooth like a well-worn boot.

The shared life is a precious thing. And what I see, and why people chuckled knowingly when I told them the title of my latest post, is just how hard and gratifying it is to accomplish this task – the sharing of a life with another over the decades. When I work with couples in the throes of life altering events – someone has an affair; someone feels isolated and alone in the marriage; someone feels unappreciated and exploited; in-laws and triangles and financial mistakes that create a loss of respect or spark hot rage; child disabilities or illnesses so burdensome that they shred slivers of the connective tissue; child rearing disagreements – to them none of this seems like a temporary phase. All appears as if a permanent truth – about a partner’s indifference or selfishness, cowardice or narcissism – like something that will last forever. But it doesn’t last forever. None of these “chapters” actually lasts forever. Yet they leave scars – blotches of pain – deep gashes. So with the elephant: scars from clashing tusks; infections; endless treks to watering holes; human cruelty. But they move along and the gashes become scars and the scarring ages too.

What’s my point here? When couples are in their tenth year or sixteenth year of marriage (and now marriage is for everyone so I can freely use the term and mean all of us in the U.S.) or twenty-fifth year, and troubles bubble up like indigestion, chronic or incidental, stopping the pain frequently translates into stopping the marriage. That’s okay. Many marriages should be stopped for the benefit of all. But before the attorneys get the call, cast a glance over the full scope of the passage of years. Is this a chapter of hardship, perhaps developmental (empty nest; male or female menopause; crushed dreams of financial invincibility at midlife; a drug addicted child; a difficult or dying parent; a geographic shift that triggers loneliness and increased dependency on a spouse)? Is this a phase where maturing means recognizing that the person you married is imperfect, permanently so, despite all your hard work to change them; yet what they are not isn’t necessarily all that they are?

Be very careful here. Because an aged Coupledom, which yours could evolve into, is a warrior worth protecting. Memories shared become memories scattered when you break up the team that created them together. Generational family passages, new babies, new graduates, become complicated and frequently disjointed events. The couples that I work with, who have spent decades together but hit a wall whose bricks of resentment were assembled over decades as well, can deconstruct the wall, brick by brick, and move on in life together. They don’t have to forgive their partner for each and every scarring. They just have to tell them that they still can feel the hurt and the other has to get it, feel it and genuinely care. A couple with whom I have worked for two decades off and on, not steady so don’t be scared, came last week to tweak something with me. Unexpectedly for them, in the context of the session, each hauled out a pretty deep, very alive hurt from the recent and not so recent past. We did the work and then I checked in and took their pulse. “Do you guys still love each other?” “Yes more than ever.” It makes me tear up just writing this. Because I was their guide and I got scared. When the hurt is so palpable and the anger so alive, even the seasoned clinician can worry – are we all right here? Did I drop the ball somewhere?

Nope, they are an intrepid team of two, a Coupledom, like the elephant, majestic and scarred, in their love and in their shared life. And is it worth? Oh yes – “I love her more than ever.”


* My term Senior Coupledom is not restricted to couples 65 and older or of any particular duration or number of decades together. It can be a second or third marriage, even, but it has lasted over time and adversity and mostly for good reasons, in spite of the bad reasons – through turmoil and challenge but with humor and kindness too.

@Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

Hidden In The Closet: Shopping Addiction & The Coupledom

Photo of a woman with lots of shoes, for a post on The Couples Tool Kit about shopping addiction. Credit: Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock.

Frequently, in couples therapy, a spouse will bring up concerns regarding what they view as their spouse’s excessive shopping. And this is not limited to the stereotype of the wife who has 100 pair of shoes lined up on the closet floor. It is also the husband with 100 shirts in duplicate colors, or a garage full of “toys.” What is common to both genders is the knee jerk of denial: “That’s not true; you’re exaggerating. Lots of women have lots of shoes. And anyway, they were on sale.” Or, “What’s wrong with owning a few motorcycles? I work hard for that money.”

Now I am not in their garages or their closets to verify anyone’s accounting of the other’s inventory, but I am fairly confident that there is truth in much of what is presented. When your spouse has a shopping addiction, like other addictions, it will impact negatively on your relationship, trust, honesty, family life and finances.

Compulsive shopping is a secret shame, often unmentioned, often unnamed. My colleague April Benson, Ph.D. is a specialist in over shopping and has written extensively on the subject. I have taken this opportunity to share Dr. Benson’s most recent and very compassionate post which speaks to the dilemma a spouse is faced with when he realizes that his wife is a compulsive shopper.

Please click on the link below:

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015

Pixar Outs Emotions in “Inside Out”: Denial Folds

Scene from "Inside Out". Credit: Disney.

Before I saw the latest Pixar film Inside Out I was working on a post, “Wild With Denial,” about how couples get into trouble by denying their problems, denying their emotions – and how it only takes one in denial to throw off The Coupledom. “No we are not having a problem; nope it’s just your peri-menopause; my hours; Susie’s adolescence; your commute; it’s not that bad.” In short, your partner’s reality is not your reality – not yet anyway – so guess what? – it is obviously just you. “We’re fine.”

Not only do individuals in The Coupledom actively participate in pushing down uncomfortable feelings and perceptions but our entire culture thinks that sadness, anger, disgust, envy, jealousy, competitiveness and many more human emotions are best left unacknowledged in ourselves and treated as aliens who must be exorcised from our children. Loss is one of the emotions that our heroine in Inside Out is feeling but it is the emotion that cannot be named – to be sad about leaving a small town in Minnesota to go live in a city as exciting as San Francisco is to disappoint mom and dad who are pretty ecstatic about moving. Don’t want to be disappointing the folks.

As a licensed clinical social worker, psychoanalyst/couples therapist or whatever designation makes for some communication of what I do, I know that in a social situation many individuals are made uncomfortable knowing what my professional life consists of – helping others identify and alleviate their emotional discomforts. Often folks will ask if I am analyzing them at a party or if my husband and I spend hours analyzing each other. People seem to worry that I can see through them into their individual secret shames, marital discords or deeply personal insecurities. It’s one of those occupational hazards not unlike how folks might feel around a proctologist or a psychic. Their fear is palpable.

So when I saw the Pixar movie my initial reaction was wow, a feature film is outing the emotion of sadness as useful, necessary, beneficial and developmentally important. In fact, without allowing sadness and other not-joyful feelings to be part of our children’s acknowledged experience and language, serious problems can set in – what we shrinks call “acting out,” or depression, or self-medicating.

This outcome is wonderfully depicted in the film and supported by clinical experience. The eleven-year-old runs away because she cannot allow herself to feel how sad she is, how alone she feels, and how much she misses her former home and friends. That she is able to buy a bus ticket and step onto that bus in the darkness of early evening is another story. But it happens – kids run away.

I have listened for decades to adults describe how in their childhood, a death of a parent, a move to a new school and town, a divorce, a sibling death, a protracted illness of a loved one, was not part of the conversation they were able to have with their parents or anyone close to them. They observed the events or were told something had happened, and may have been asked, “How are you doing with this?” Or maybe not. They often answered “O.K.” or “I’m fine” because kids have a hard time labeling and then articulating complex emotions. And they want to please. They also don’t know, unless they are allowed to experience it, that sad feelings don’t last forever. As parents we may unwittingly collude in that belief by avoiding our own sadness, fearing it will bring us and everyone else “down.” Our model of avoidance becomes the method of choice when our children are faced with the prospect of pain.

We are all eager to reassure ourselves that our children are emotionally O.K. even as they experience unsettling events – one parent spliced into shorter segments of the week or month; grief – a classmate dies, a grandparent develops dementia; or disappointment – they don’t make the team, don’t get into the school they want, are rejected by friends. “Its fine Mom.” If it is something we as parents have orchestrated, we are even more freaked out at the possibility that our choices might have “hurt” our children. So we are thrilled when they say, “I’m fine.” We may have to go back to work or go into detox or sell the house. It is normal and necessary at times for our parental decisions to have some painful repercussions for our children. Or our spouses. It is not the painful repercussions of our decisions (often we have no other option) that create emotional havoc. It is the denial of them that does the damage. Pixar’s frenzied characters Fear, Anger, Disgust, Sadness and Joy spin around popping and pinging like balls in a pinball machine trying to keep sad feelings from taking hold of Riley, as if sadness could kill her.

At the heart of the matter is our fear of non-joyful emotions and our efforts to banish them from our homes, our children’s experience and our memories as quickly as possible. That these feelings might take up residence in home and hearth makes us scamper to tamp them down like unwanted sparks flying off the logs in our fireplace – too close to the rug, the curtain, our hearts.

As a graduate student decades ago, one of my supervisors informed me, “There is only one theme in life and it is loss.” Loss!!!! No way! Hard to imagine when in our twenties. There are probably several themes in life, if we narrow living down to themes. But loss is one of the biggest – we are born into mortality and as we move from infancy to toddlerhood, toddler to preschooler, preschooler to kindergartner, there is loss. Loss never stops but it partners with growth and gain. Yet loss is often hushed because it hurts and we think hurting is weakness – being vulnerable – like a weakened abdominal muscle that reduces our core strength to mush. Easy to knock us over. That’s what tugs at us as humans in western culture – vulnerability.

It is my job to guide individuals to the regions of their pain – they are feeling it or not feeling it but acting it out, ignorant often as to its source and its solution. They may blame themselves for it, “I know I shouldn’t feel this way,” or someone else, as in sessions that begin with “She or He…” rather than “I.” I help them to haul out fear, disgust, anger, sadness, joy and a whole host of other Pixar cast characters, examine their roots, and work on finding useful and effective ways to ease and make use of them. In couples work this is a complex and intricate journey for two people to engage in – outing what hurts – sharing vulnerability. But a very worthy endeavor.

In the New York Times Op Ed article, “The Science of Inside Out” research psychologists Paul Ekman and Daeker Keltner describe their role as consultants to the Pixar creators John Lasseter and Peter Docter (a man who built a tree house to live in with his family). Ekman and Daeker highlight the organizing aspects of emotions – to me, a very welcomed discussion. I loved how that was depicted in the film. Only when sadness was allowed to be part of Riley’s memory and emotional repertoire was she able to reconnect with her emotional bond to her parents, her childhood joys, her fear of the dark night, her grief and her powerful past attachments. Only then were tears allowed to roll down her cheeks in their animated glow. Only then was Riley able to return home and begin the next chapter in her developmental journey.

All our emotions deserve our respect. All emotions are part of a healthy development. It’s not feelings that get us into trouble. It’s denying them, repressing them, disapproving of them and most of all, being frightened of them. Ouch I have a feeling. Oh good, tell me what it is – I’m sure I’ve had that feeling too.

Thank you Pixar. You made my week/month/year.

© Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



The Catch Phrases of Manipulation in The Coupledom

Image of woman being talked to by male partner, for post on The Couples Tool Kit about manipulating in communication.

How can you tell if someone is manipulating you? Let’s see. Are you frequently unsettled and confused after a conversation that didn’t go as you expected? Do you identify with that deer in the headlights scrambling up the shoulder of the road to escape from the semi heading its way? Do you leave conversations with loved ones with an icky aftertaste of guilt or humiliation coating your psyche? Do you return home after a couples’ night out layered in self-loathing and self-recrimination? Or puzzled and discombobulated? Are you likely to feel worse about yourself when with your partner or spouse than when in the company of friends, work colleagues or distant relatives?

If you answered yes to one or more of these questions you just might be a victim of manipulation by a loved one. (And yet another indication of manipulation, do you often feel like a “victim?”) Does the phrase manipulation by a loved one sound like a contradiction in terms? It shouldn’t. Our nearest and dearest are as skilled as any twitter tweeter for spinning the bland into a very personalized poisonous brew all about you.

In fact we all can take turns at being the victim of manipulation and the victimizer. It just takes activating a few key phrases coupled with body language and off we go. What might those phrases be? Well for beginners they start with “you” and are often accompanied by finger pointing, direct and formidable eye contact/forehead frowning, a hand gesture moving in a dismissive wave, lips pursed downward, possibly a body in a three quarter turn away from you or walking out of the bedroom, the kitchen or the family room leaving a trail of unattractive adjectives about you as they go.

So there you are left wondering if you are bad, stupid, uncaring, spoiled, careless, unloving, a cheater or a liar. Your partner has shared with you what they saw or heard or interpreted in an interaction with you and the first feelings you have are anxiety and confusion; you’ve lost your footing; you are metaphorically looking for a guardrail to steady you. Next you are scared: what is the reality after all? Did I say that, do that, mean that? Yes I am bad. Or no, I’ll fight this. Either way you have accepted your partner’s version of the story – you are provoked and reactive. But did you do your homework?

Reality may often be subjective – perception is personal. But certainly there are facts that bear on any interaction with another, accessible facts. And beware believing in an intention that someone else ascribes to you without checking into your psyche first. Only you can know your intentions for your actions, verbalizations or decisions. In truth you may have acted impulsively or spontaneously without examining your intention at the time. That’s fine. But it is your job to retrieve through memory the motivation for your behavior after the fact and share it. I didn’t say I wanted to leave the party because I was mad at you. I said it because I was really tired. The data is available in memory; just develop the skills to explore your own mind.

An exceedingly effective manipulation is the flip, a technique seamlessly introduced into a conversation. You might be sharing a feeling of sadness or disappointment with your partner and next thing you know, they are saying it is your fault that you feel that way. They flip it. You’re too sensitive; you’re too needy; you’re never satisfied. Or your partner takes you on a stroll down memory lane, digging up the bones of your past offenses. How did that happen? Distract by attack – a clever tool that works every time if you don’t catch on that someone has changed the subject and the new subject is “bad you.”

There is a caveat here: just because your partner is telling you that something you did or said created unpleasantness for them doesn’t mean that they are manipulating you or implying that you are a bad person. The other half of the education in interpersonal communication is to learn how to grapple with your own distortion tendencies. No matter how old, big or tall you may be, there is a child lurking within the confines of your psyche who still perceives a world of good or bad, loved or unloved, attached or abandoned. And depending on how severe the ravages of one’s childhood, the inclination to process a fairly mild reproach or even just a partner’s sharing of some hurt feelings might have the power to reduce you to a quivering mass of insecurity or a fire-breathing dragon of self-defensiveness – distortions both.

So keep a keen eye out for manipulations – those of your partner and those of your psyche. Armed and empowered by fact checking and self-knowledge will place you at the top of your game and your Coupledom in a healthy interactive mode for the shared life.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015



Think Outside The Candy Box: Valentine’s Day 2015

Photo of candy hearts for Valentine's Day, from The Couples Tool Kit.

Here we go again. Heart shaped red ribboned candy boxes full of chocolate promises deck the shelves of the local CVS. A few days ago I noticed some harried looking males anxiously flipping through the stacks of Valentine cards in the supermarket aisle. The pressure is on to perform the mating ritual and renewal that Valentine’s Day heralds. TA DA!

Marketed as the year’s most romantic moment, Valentine’s Day is a hot potato of performance for many couples wary after disappointments of the past anticipating or planning activities together. Some rely on the “read my mind” solution – “By now he/she should know what would please me.” Or “Better not to expect anything and then I won’t be hurt.” Somehow none of these attempts at self-protection seem to pan out. Everyone is walking on little candy hearts and we know how easily they are crushed.

So here is a simplistic but possibly useful suggestion: how about together just figure out what would be a fun time. Fun here means sharing in an activity that both members of the Coupledom enjoy. There must be at least one, and probably many, that are attainable on a Saturday in February. Dictionary definitions of romance include the words mystery and excitement, which can be difficult to achieve in a long-term relationship, but fun can incorporate both without the sticky sentimentality that often makes a muck of the Valentine’s Day exercise.

Most successful missions in life are collaborations. Valentine’s Day should be one of the easiest to achieve. After all it is one day and with a budget that matches real life resources, a time frame that takes in the realities of children, sitters and work obligations, and an evenly shared amount of energy and time put into the planning, this just might work. Oh yes, and love.

Happy Valentine’s Day as in Have Fun.

©Jill Edelman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. 2015