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Date 6: Play and Adventure

Nothing like a thunderstorm that produces dime size hail, tornados, flash flooding and a power outage to thwart date night plans.  Fast-forward twenty-four hours and we were still without electricity, so we set out to find somewhere to eat and have some fun.

Fun and adventure are like oxygen for relationship happiness.  We feel more vital when it is plentiful.  When oxygen is in short supply, we feel restless, confused and have a sense of impending doom. Something feels off kilter and we are gasping for air.

We are working our way through Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.  Date 6 is Play with Me:  Fun and Adventure. It’s all about breathing new life into your relationship with play, fun, laughter and adventure.  The book’s date suggestions are about going somewhere you have never been before and being open and spontaneous.

We hopped in the car without a plan and started driving down one of the main arteries in our town.  After batting a few ideas around, we decided to go to Saint Arnold’s Brewery in Houston.  Right before we got to the highway my husband made a sharp left and I was confused.  Where was he taking me?

He said he heard about a new brewery in our town that recently opened and he wanted to try it.  Talk about spontaneous.  Megaton Brewery here we come.

After getting a few pale ales and some tacos from the food truck, we sat outside at a picnic table and dug into the open-ended questions.

Why Laughter and Play are Important

This is my second marriage (and his too).  When I divorced I went to counseling so I would not repeat my mistakes.  One of the things my counselor and I talked about was what I wanted in a new partner.

Laughter was at the top of the list.

My first marriage was one of those oxygen deprived relationships and I made a vow that if I ever remarried, my new husband would have a sense of humor.

He’s all that and more.  Our early days were full of fun and adventure. I watched him play rugby and he went with me to see Cats.  We rode bikes and hiked and remodeled our mid-century home.  There was the Halloween party where we dressed up like Marge and Homer Simpson.  And the time he took me for a plane ride when he was learning to fly.  

Being able to laugh has helped us through our most difficult times.  And being adventurous is one of our strongest connections.  

From research we know that experiencing novel things with our romantic partners brings more happiness. It activates the reward center in our brain and keeps the relationship fresh and satisfying.  Researcher Amy Muise even found that on days couples had a novel experience they were 36% more likely to have sex.  

Couples mistakenly believe that they are doomed if they don’t like the same activities.  Not true!  Couples can create shared meaning when they accept influence regarding their differences, know how to compromise (make situations win/win rather than win/lose) and show interest in their partner’s interests.  

It’s All About Creating Shared Meaning

We started our conversation by reviewing the list of things we would like to experience together.  Our top choice was to travel to an exotic country. We agreed on Iceland, hiking Machu Picchu/going to the Galapagos Islands, and New Zealand.  

I can hardly wait to get busy planning our next trip!

For me, planning vacations is part of the enjoyment.  I recently learned that this is backed by research.  Elizabeth Dunn, a happiness researcher from University of British Columbia, found that anticipating a vacation will be fun enhanced happiness.  Planning together allows you to have input and create something you will both enjoy.  

And since reminiscing about good times adds to joy, I will be sure to take plenty of photographs of the aurora borealis in Iceland and the Inca Trail in Peru.

As we worked through the open-ended questions we discussed things like how we played as children and what adventure we want to have before we die.  Like with all the other dates, we learned some new information about each other.

By the time we finished our conversation the band began to play.  We decided to call some friends to see if they wanted to join us.  They also are spontaneous, fun-loving people, so within a half an hour they were there and we were playing cornhole, air hockey and connect four.

As we played and acted silly, the stress of the previous 24 hours melted away.

Laughter truly is the best medicine.

The Dog-tor Will See You Now: How Therapy Dogs Augment Counseling Sessions

Petting, scratching, and cuddling a dog could be as soothing to the mind and heart as deep meditation, and almost as good for the soul as prayer.  author Dean Koontz

John sat across from Alicia, with tears in his eyes, telling the painful story of his father’s rejection of him in childhood.  He spent the latter part of his teen years drowning out his pain with drugs and alcohol.

“Nothing I ever did got his attention.  It was as if I didn’t exist”.

At this very moment, my therapy dog, Fred, approached John and placed his head on his lap.

John responded by patting his head and smiling through his tears.

Alicia noticed. “Animals gravitate towards John.”

He nodded.  He relayed that as a child his pets, a dog and a bird, were the only connection to his family.  Pets have always helped soothe him.

Fred’s instinct to attend to the person in most pain is not uncommon for therapy dogs.  In their quest to be a useful participant in their social group, they know when to offer up warmth and support.

The History of the Symbiotic Relationship of Dogs and Humans

It is believed that gray wolves, the closest ancestor to domesticated dogs, and humans have had a social relationship since hunter-gatherer days.  Initially the relationship was built on survival and hunting for the same food supply.  This dependency on one another to live is what helped create the social bond between dogs and humans.

During the 1800s, dogs became essential to life.   They herded livestock, controlled vermin and protected homes.  Socially dogs were used for field sports, shooting birds and companion animals.   

Charles Darwin had a well-documented history as a dog lover.  They sparked his interest and affected his studies.  He noted biological traits that dogs and humans shared (and we now can confirm that we share 84% of our DNA with dogs), and that impacted his study of evolution.  His book, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals, is still relevant today.  Current research is illuminating that animals are capable of reflection, bliss, grief and mental illness.  

Sigmund Freud often had his Chow Chow, Jofi, in his psychoanalysis sessions. He noticed that people seemed to talk more openly with the dog present, especially children and adolescents. Present day studies show that Freud was correct.  Dogs do indeed help reduce blood pressure and have been shown to be beneficial with autism, PTSD and addiction.

The first true service animal was Buddy, the Seeing Eye Dog.  But Guide Dogs for the blind are just one example of how animals can be of service.  Dogs can be trained for medical detection purposes, such as sensing when a human’s blood sugar is too low or an epileptic seizure is about to take place.

Today, dogs are the most common companion animals, with 38% of households having one or more dogs. They are part of our social group and our family.  We allow them into our hearts and our homes . . . and even into our beds.  A recent study on women’s sleep quality and pet ownership showed that dogs offer a sense of comfort and security when they share a bed with us. 

Simply put, dog lovers cannot imagine their life without a dog in it.

Are Dogs Good Therapists?

A meta-analysis by Dr. Helen Louise Brooks from the University of Liverpool found that animals can benefit people with mental health issues.  Pets give stability, continuity and meaning to one’s life. They help manage human emotions and provide distraction from mental health issues.  Their unconditional love and support ease feelings of worry, distress and loneliness.  Their need for physical activity encourages connection with the outside world, as well as social interaction. 

The downside to pet ownership regarding mental health is that it can be negatively impacted by intense grief when they die. But as Alfred Lord Tennyson said, ‘Tis better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.

Each and every one of my dogs was special and served as a personal therapist, but most would not pass muster in a counseling office.  

Pete, our energetic Australian Shepherd, is smart, loyal and protective of our home.  But he barks a bit too much and startles too easily.

Minnie, our beloved greyhound, was graceful, gentle and had the most soulful eyes.  She was also aloof and anxious, eventually ending up on anti-anxiety medication.  I believe her early days at the racetrack were traumatic and left emotional scars we could not heal.

To be a good therapy dog, they must have many (not all) traits that would be welcome in a therapy session.  The list includes friendly, patient, obedient, few vocalizations, gentle, ease in all situations, exhibits calm with distractions, enjoys human contact, likes being handled/petted, good manners and clean.

Enter Fred, our 2-year old labradoodle. He literally checks every box and as an added bonus is non-shedding.  Seriously, he is an amazing pet and it was love at first sight.  It baffles me how someone could have relinquished him to a shelter.  

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.  

Fred was well-behaved when he arrived, but we proceeded with basic training for good measure. Unbeknownst to us, the trainer we hired had trained many therapy dogs for local elementary schools.  She saw Fred’s special qualities and eagerness to please, and suggested additional training.

There are no regulations or laws governing the term “therapy dog”.  A licensed mental health clinician can choose to have a dog present in session, but at a minimum it is a good idea that the dog meets criteria to be an American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen.  From there, the therapist uses the methodology within their scope of practice and the dog augments the interventions. 

Options for registering a dog as a therapy animal include Therapy Dogs International and Pet Partners.  Additional trainings and certificate courses are available for therapists to learn how to best utilize animals in therapy.

So, what exactly does a therapy dog do?

The average dog has an IQ equivalent to a 2-year child, and a very smart dog about a 3-year old.  And while IQ is important for training purposes, it is a dog’s social intelligence that makes them a good therapy animal.  

First and foremost, dogs are social beings, so they will greet you warmly and accept you as you are. They don’t judge your looks, your flaws, your socioeconomic status or messy emotions.  Unconditional positive regard is a hallmark of a good therapist.

The mere presence of a friendly dog can serve as an icebreaker.  Client fears can be eased and small talk about the animal can be a great segue to rapport building

Therapy dogs will gravitate towards people in pain.  Their feedback is immediate.  Just like in my session with John and Alicia, when emotional mood shifts, the dog will be more attentive.  Fred often will take a nap near a client’s feet, as if to say “I am sticking close by, just in case you need me.”

Animals boost levels of oxytocin, also dubbed the cuddle hormone.  When you run your fingers through a dog’s fur, pat their head, look into their eyes or smell their puppy breath, your body can react to the interaction by reducing stress and blood pressure.  Oxytocin’s powerful affects help a mom bond with her baby during breastfeeding, generates feelings of closeness in couples through touch and orgasm, and promotes general feelings of well-being when we are  in positive interactions with others.  And who doesn’t want more of that?

Therapy dogs can also serve as bridge with difficult conversations.  As a couple’s therapist I often see partners struggling to communicate painful feelings with one another.  An attentive dog that looks you in the eye and tilts his head, as if he’s really trying to understand your words, creates a sense of safety.  Partners can practice their words on the dog before looking their partners in the eye.  This can be powerful.

Sometimes feelings get heightened in the therapy sessions, causing one to feel overwhelmed or emotionally flooded.  In these instances, hearts race and breathing becomes shallow.  By modeling the calm and steady breathing of a dog, either by watching their chest slowly rise and fall with each breath, or by placing your hand on the animal to feel it, a client can begin to self-soothe.  Once calm, therapy can resume.

Ultimately, what happens in the therapy session is a result of the therapist and client interaction. Skilled therapists can help move clients toward better functioning with or without a therapy dog in the room. However, for dog loving therapists and clients, the gentle presence of a therapy is dog is the cherry on top.  

Date # 5: Room to Grow: Family

As an empty-nesters, our memories about deciding to have a baby are swayed by how we feel now.

By that I mean we tend to glorify the struggle of rearing our only child.  Now that our son is off at college, we find ourselves reminiscing and it all has a positive spin.

Remember that night when he was a screaming, colicky infant and we drove for hours to calm him down? Boy, do I. Thank goodness you were there to get me through that night.

What about when he had the car accident by fooling around in the parking lot?  He sure learned his lesson and it changed him for the better.  

In other words, we faced many stressors as parents.  I assure you there was not always positivity about these things in the moment.  

We are happily navigating empty nest-hood, and having fun working through “Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love”. Date # 5 is Room to Grow:  Family. Since we already have a family, it was fun for s to reflect on the last 20 years of parenting, plus our decision to enter into parenthood.

As with all of the dates, a suggestion is provided for the date location.  In this case the suggested locations were a playground, amusement park or family friendly restaurant to have kids in your field of vision.  

Torchy’s Tacos didn’t disappoint.  There were toddler fraternal twins in eyesight, simultaneously self-feeding and flinging food.  

It brought back those happy memories again.

WHAT RESEARCH SAYS ABOUT TRANSITION TO PARENTHOOD

Before we discussed the open-ended questions, we talked briefly about John Gottman’s research with marital happiness and parenthood.  

He found that 67% of couples have a drop in marital happiness in the first three years of the baby’s life.  For the one third that stayed happy, he found that it was more likely when men were respectful to their wives and accepted their wife’s opinions. 

These men were also different during the pregnancy in that they complimented their partner, and were involved during the pregnancy and birth.  

Check.  And check.  

Whew.

Research aside, we reflected on how we were able to stay in the happy group.  For us, it has always been a deep friendship filled with laughter. Despite all of the normal fears, frustrations and incompetence we felt as new parents, we never forgot how to laugh.  Or how to lean on one another for support.

Even when we didn’t have money to go out on dates, or babysitters to watch our son, we had home dates that were deeply satisfying.  Think Scrabble, wine, The Soprano’s and bike rides.

OPEN-ENDED QUESTIONS

The open-ended questions are intended to guide couples into discussion about:

  • whether or not to have children
  • if so, how many
  • what did parenthood do to our parent’s marriages
  • and things to consider if you do or do not have children

We reflected that for the first four years of our relationship, there was no talk of marriage or children. We both had prior marriages and were in no hurry.  We simply enjoyed one another and built a strong foundation.  

In the fourth year we married and it was I that brought up having a child a year later.

So, I am not getting any younger, you know. My eggs are getting old.  So, uh, I think I want to have a baby before I time out and the factory shuts down.

Are you sure?

Ya, I am sure.

Really?

Okay.

And that was it.  We didn’t have the benefit of the Eight Dates questions to guide us through a more thoughtful conversation. But my influence-accepting husband trusted my instincts that the time was right.  

He was scared but in agreement.  His parents divorced when he was two.  But he was adopted into my big, crazy family and knew that family could look different. 

We didn’t have a plan, but we had a deep bond.  That bond has sustained us over the last 20 years, albeit with some ups and downs. We feel proud of our parenting.  And while we don’t feel regret, we sometimes wonder what it would be like to have more children.

But as our son says, “Why mess with perfection?”.  

Being on the downside of parenting, we find ourselves with a strong desire to have grandchildren someday, but that choice is not ours.

But you can bet that we will give our son and his future partner a copy of Eight Dates to have that essential conversation someday.  

Date #4: The Cost of Love: Work and Money

Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, the newest book by Drs. John and Julie Gottman, guides readers to have important conversations while on a date.

For Date #4 the topic is work and money and how each partner brings value to the relationship. It also includes a discussion of money histories as well as what it means to have enough money.  

A rich topic indeed.

The suggested location is something that costs as little as possible and reminds you of something you did as a couple when you had less money.  Go to a fancy hotel and sit in the lobby or get take-out from your favorite restaurant and serve it on china.  Pamper yourself.

In the past we would have been on the patio of a Mexican restaurant, drinking Happy Hour margaritas and eating baskets of free chips.  

Our waistlines were more cooperative back then.

So, with clear blue skies and a perfect 74 degrees, we still chose to be on a patio, but this time it was in our own backyard.  Freshly potted planters and the scent of our blossoming lemon tree added something special to the gorgeous spring day.

I nixed the idea of using china for our take-out from Thai Lao.  To me, pampering means NOT washing dishes. 

As per the directions, we started the date by sharing three things we appreciate about each other’s paid or unpaid contribution to the wealth of the relationship.

Being four months shy of 25 years together, we have no shortage of examples, but we each chose to focus on the present.  His drive to have record-breaking overtime was celebrated, as was my ability to plan amazing vacations with said overtime. I call that teamwork.

We then discussed answers from two questionnaires in the chapter, My Family History with Money and What Money Means to Me.  

Twenty-five years together and we still had untold stories regarding family histories.  As we shared our stories, it was clear that both of our families gave us valuable, albeit sometimes painful, lessons with money without even realizing they were doing so.

The Family History questionnaire made me wonder how our son will answer these questions in 25 years. Without even realizing it I am sure we are passing on both positive and negative messages to him.  Thoughts like this help me to be forgiving of my parent’s flaws. 

My husband and I always knew we had similar philosophies regarding money since it is one topic we rarely argued about.  But it was surprising to see exactly how in sync we truly are when we compared answers on the What Money Means to Me questionnaire.  With the exception of our views on how money relates to stress and responsibility, we answered nearly identically.  

I guess that’s why it has always been easy for us to talk about money, which we do quite often.  The Open-Ended Questions for this date were nothing new for us, but still fun to answer.  We often love map about our fears and goals related to money.

The final open-ended question of the exercise is “What are your hopes and dreams about money?”.  This is the topic we have talked about most consistently for the last 25 years.

My husband has had a recurring dream that he won $18,000,000 with a lottery ticket.  We have fantasized and drooled about how we will spend that bounty, never giving up hope that someday we will match all of the numbers.

But even if we never see a nickel of that $18,000,000, we have shared a lifetime of richness in those conversations.

Date #3 . . . Let’s Get It On: Sex and Intimacy

“I admit it, I am a receiver, not a giver”.  

He nodded with a playful smirk on his face.

We were on our third date from the book Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Date #3 is Let’s Get It On:  Sex and Intimacy.

The scene of the date had been planned a few months prior.  Happy Hour at a cool Portuguese wine bar, followed by Little Shop of Horrors at a local repertory theater. 

Not exactly the candlelit dinner recommended in the book.

But, that’s not us. We both prefer a more casual vibe, so a noisy wine bar was the perfect backdrop for our date.  And I must say, the spicy batatas and spinach artichoke gratin were excellent.

The book suggested dressing in a way that your partner found sexy.   I put on my new high waisted, wide leg jeans and chunky suede sandals with fringe. My husband noticed.  He said I looked like Marcia Brady, a total compliment for this 70s girl.  I was feeling groovy.  

What does a great sex life look like?

As we sipped and noshed, we began discussing the chapter we read earlier in the day.  We talked about The Normal Bara book referenced in Eight Dates.  The authors conducted a study about and sex with 70,000 participants in 24 countries. 

They found that couples who reported having great sex lives did a baker’s dozen of things to keep their love and passion alive, such as saying “I love you” often, public displays of affection, romantic dates and vacations, and talking about sex comfortably.

They also give each other back rubs.

I had to admit I was a receiver and not a giver.  It’s a long-standing joke for us, hence the smirk.

We were pleased that we could check off many of the 13 behaviors cited in The Normal Bar but we made a pact to work on kissing passionately for no reason at all.  We give six second kisses frequently but want to improve on the “for no reason at all” part. 

Let’s talk about sex . . . .

Moving on to the Open-Ended Questions section, the first question is about sharing your favorite sexual memories with each other.  

Hmm, we both had to reflect on that for a bit.  Interestingly, we cited many of the same memories.  

We laughed hysterically about one particular memory from our dating phase.  We both recalled our first romantic trip together to the mountains of New Mexico.

And then there was the conception of our son.  When we were trying to get pregnant I was ovulating and my husband, who is a pilot, was in another city.  I hopped on a plane and surprised him.  We will never forget that crappy Holiday Inn that changed our lives forever.

It seems that the times that stood out were more about our connection than erotic pleasure.

I like that about us. 

We didn’t make it through all of the remaining questions at Happy Hour, so we talked some more on the car ride home.

Question 4 is “What’s your favorite way for me to let you know I want to have sex?”  Research shows that 70 percent of couples ask for sex in indirect ways, but as relationships mature, the bids get more direct.  

My husband couldn’t have been more direct when he gave his Little Shop of Horrors inspired answer.

“Feed me Seymour”.

I couldn’t help but laugh. Gottman says that “every positive thing you do in your relationship is foreplay”, and that includes humor.

For us, it’a all about the connection.

Date #2: Exploring Anger

“I see you Jake Sully”, my husband said.

I burst into laughter.

We were working through our second date from Eight Dates:  Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.  The topic was Agree to Disagree:  Addressing Conflict.

His response was perfect. Jake Sully was the protagonist in the movie Avatar.  In the movie, the Na’Vi tribe greets one another by saying “I see you”.  In a spiritual sense it means ‘I see who you are and I understand you’.  

Mutual understanding, according to John Gottman, is the healthiest and most productive goal of all conflict discussions.

It was Sean’s turn to plan the date.  Per the book it suggests that the couple find a park, beach or restaurant to talk privately. He opted for the at-home date suggestion of walking around the neighborhood since we have had a hectic social calendar the last few weeks.

We put on our sneakers, which cued our dogs it was time to walk.  When we stepped outside it was 52 degrees and a bit drizzly.  I let out a sigh of disgust.

Since we are talking about conflict I need to say, cold and I are bitter rivals and we broke up a long time ago.  Despite my chilly Pennsylvania roots, this Texas girl had to put the kibosh on that plan. 

After the frustrated dogs settled down, we made a pot of tea and sat in the same location as Date #1. This time Sean answered the questions first.

The issue we chose to talk about was differences in expressing anger.  I have always been comfortable letting off steam, whereas Sean viewed anger as a dangerous emotion.

Having been together 25 years, processing many fights and going to couples therapy, this wasn’t our first rodeo with discussing our differences in expressing anger. But the truth is, each time we have talked about it a new layer was uncovered.

This time was no different.

I knew the story of a defining moment with anger in his life.  It left him with a sense that anger is a dangerous emotion that causes a permanent strain on relationships.   

What I didn’t know until I asked the questions in the book was how I could best support him when he is angry and how he likes to make up.

THIS WAS HUGE!

Knowing how to repair is the ultimate skill in marriage. Arguments are inevitable and actually healthy when processed at a deeper level.  By listening and being gentle with our partners we create a safe environment for deeper meanings to be revealed.

Having this discussion as a scheduled date conversation rather than processing a fresh fight helped us to get to this new layer.  The best time to talk about conflict is not while you are in the middle of a conflict. It allows for some time and distance to explore more deeply, rather just knee-jerk reactions.

When it was my turn to answer questions, I talked about how my Italian family was very expressive with anger, but they made repairs with humor or food.  Both worked equally well.  

Despite their fighting, nothing bad ever happened like it did with Sean.  Their fighting was unpleasant and loud, but our home and their relationship were stable.  My parents fought, let off steam, made up and life went on.

As I shared my story, he listened intently and I could see the wheels turning.  

“I see you Jake Sully”, he said.

I burst into laughter. “I see you too Jake Sully”.  

He poured another cup of tea and we shared a piece of Italian cream cake.  It was very comforting to know that he is learning the power of humor and food.

Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love . . . Date #1

With bellies miserably full of Thai Beef and Noodles, he washed and I dried.  Alexa was playing Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran in the background. 

When your legs don’t work like they used to before
And I can’t sweep you off of your feet
Will your mouth still remember the taste of my love
Will your eyes still smile from your cheeks

“We’ll start our low carb diet tomorrow.  This time for real” I said with conviction to my husband, Sean.

He nodded in agreement. 

He’s heard it before. But he knows my weaknesses after 25 years together, noodles being at the top of the list.  I overeat and then complain. Instead of judging me, he grabs a bottle of wine and some dark chocolate (more weaknesses . . . this man really knows me) and sits down at the table to continue our quiet, stay-at-home Valentine’s Day celebration.

“So, who wants to go first?” he asks.

Earlier in the day I told him I wanted to have the First Date from John and Julie Gottman’s new book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love

“I do!” I said, not giving him a chance to respond. 

Date “1” is Lean on Me: Trust and Commitment.  After reading that chapter earlier in the day, I had compiled a list of things I cherish about Sean.  While there were many things on my list, there were ten that stood out.  I envisioned sharing in David Letterman Top 10 List fashion.

Cherishing and Commitment

When we cherish our partner, we have a deep feeling that they are irreplaceable.  We simply cannot imagine our lives without them, even when times are rough.  We find ways to tell them that we appreciate them, and do that often.  Cherishing and commitment go together, but they are different.  Commitment is really a verb because it is the actions we take daily to let our partner know we are with them, that we make decisions with them in mind.  

When we choose commitment, we resist temptation to betray our partner. We create trust and safety by turning towards them to work out our differences.  Gratitude is nurtured by knowing what we have rather than focusing on what we don’t have. There is no gossiping or trashing of our partner to others.  

Commitment in Action

Sean and I have had our share of difficult times, that’s for sure. When our son was a colicky infant we leaned on each other for support despite being sleep deprived and cranky with one another.  When my mother and beloved dog both died in the same year, I had a hard time shaking off my depression.  We argued more than ever and found ourselves in couples counseling. Despite these and other challenges, we never gave up on one another.

The incident that sealed the deal for me though was when I had a health crisis 12 years ago.  My mysterious illness had the medical community stumped and I was terrified.  Our lives were turned upside down for months on end with scary symptoms and no treatment. My life and my outlook were forever changed.  It wasn’t until I got a diagnosis and learned to manage my chronic symptoms that I could reflect on how it changed us as a couple.

I had been too absorbed in my own fear to recognize how my husband was scared too.  His life was also forever changed.  But instead of complaining he expressed cherishing and commitment by supporting me through my illness in ways that I took for granted at the time.  He rubbed my back when I was scared.  He drove me to the Emergency Room in the middle of the night on countless occasions. When I had to change my diet, he joined me.  He developed a patience with me that had not been there before.  He was less quick to anger over small stuff and he started leaving love notes for me. 

While he never came out and said it, almost losing me made him realize how much I meant to him.  I felt loved and cared for. We now joke that my near-death experience is the secret to our long marriage.

As I compiled my Top10 List I realized I was describing our everyday life.  Playing and laughing together, and that we get each other’s sense of humor.  Raising a child and dogs together, a connection that is precious to us but was often fraught with stress, cleaning up bodily functions and money we could have spent in far more fun ways. Being comfortable to be myself with Sean and having my faults and bad habits accepted. And that includes bingeing on noodles knowing full well I will complain about it afterwards.  

The song was still playing as I started reading my list.

So honey now
Take me into your loving arms
Kiss me under the light of a thousand stars
Place your head on my beating heart
I’m thinking out loud
Maybe we found love right where we are

Yes, I believe we have found love right where we are. And I could hardly wait to tell him.

Pucker Up . . . It’s Kiss Day

Who knew?  The day before Valentine’s Day is now known as Kiss Day.  That’s the prefect prelude to love and romance.

Kissing, that wonderful, sloppy, sensual act is the gateway to a great love life.  Remember the scene from The Notebook, where Ryan Gosling and Rachel Adams were mugging down in the pouring rain?  Who wouldn’t want to be loved like that.

Kissing has special powers that stimulate our senses.  Our uber-sensitive lips send signals to our brain to create a cocktail of hormones that make us want more.  Dopamine activates the pleasure center.  Oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone” generates feelings of connection and bonding.  

Yes, a little kissing leads to more kissing.  And more kissing can lead to sex. Passionate sex.

In the book The Normal Bar, authors Christiane Northrup, James Witt and Pepper Schwartz describe their relationship research.  They surveyed 100,000 people around the world and found habits related to happiness in relationships.  Of the people who reported being extremely happy, 57% shared a passionate kiss several times per week.

Among the couples that reported enjoying sex with their partners, 85% of them kiss passionately on a regular basis.

So, if you want a bit more happiness and better sex, pucker up and start smooching.  Sex without kissing is focused on orgasm.  Kissing before, during and after sex leads to better connection.

But don’t just think of kissing as foreplay.  Kiss often throughout the day.

Couples often give a quick peck when greeting one another or parting.  John Gottman says instead of just a perfunctory kiss, try making it last for six seconds.

One.  Two.  Three. Four.  Five.  Six.

Now that’s a kiss with possibilities.  

A six-second kiss feels different than a peck.  It gives the brain a chance to feel the sensation on the lips.  You can smell and taste your partner.  You can feel the softness of their skin or their stubbly growth.  It is long enough to say “I can take time out of my busy day to focus on you.”

If the passion is waning in your relationship and you long for a better sex life, start by giving your partner six seconds of your time.  And then six seconds more.  And six seconds more.  Even if you giggle while doing it, do it anyway.

Then move on to the longer, more passionate kisses of your earlier relationship.  The Normal Bar reported that passionate kissing often declines in longer term relationships.  But you don’t have to fall victim to that.  

Start now and give your Valentine a kiss to remember.

Holiday Traditions Create Shared Meaning

Families are gearing up to celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza and the many other winter holidays that are upon us.  While this can be a stressful time, it can also be a joyous time of family connection. How each family celebrates is unique.

The other day I was culling out photos from my phone.  I came across a photo of my dad taken in the late-1960s and was instantly flooded with memories.  In the photo he was painting two reindeer that would grace our front porch at Christmastime for decades to come. Those reindeer, along with a Santa, are a cherished family tradition.

Even though my parents have passed, my brother and his family have ensured that the traditions we had as children live on.  Christmas Eve wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without a blending of my mother’s Czechoslovakian family recipes and a variety of fish to honor my father’s Italian heritage. The food is fattening, but anything short of these traditions would simply feel wrong.  We happily indulge in the extra calories and complain about how miserable we feel afterwards.  That too, is part of the tradition.

Rituals and traditions bind people together because they can be counted on.  We know what will happen, what to expect.  Traditions make us feel a part of something bigger, creating a sense of safety and emotion connection.

When couples join together they often have to compromise and blend their family traditions, creating a new and unique culture.  By doing so it becomes part of their shared meaning.

Examine Your Rituals

The holiday season is the perfect time to examine your rituals and traditions.  You may have more than you realize.

Do you have special ornaments to place on the Christmas tree?

Do you have a ritual for lighting the Menorah candles?

What holiday foods are special for your family?

Do you watch your favorite Christmas shows?

Do you decorate gingerbread houses?

Do you go see a live performance of The Nutcracker?

Do you have an Elf on the Shelf?

Sharing the tradition and the story that goes along with it is important.  This holiday season, as you pull the boxes from the attic or dust off the old recipe cards, take a moment and share the story of these rituals with your loved ones.  Help the tradition live on.

 

You’re not the Grinch: You Don’t Hate the Holidays, You Hate the Work

“I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.”  Charlie Brown and the Grinch have something in common, the lost meaning of Holidays. For the Grinch, being mean transfers his lack of joy on others.  For Charlie Brown, the holidays are things he suffers mostly in silence and endures.

Are you like the Grinch or Charlie Brown? You aren’t alone.  The holiday rush is a time when many people express to me unequivocally that they “hate the holidays.”  When pressed, they tell me that they really love the gathering and the festivities; it’s the work they hate.  They feel obligated to do things they don’t want to do or don’t feel supported in doing those things.

We spend some time considering how they might want to choose what they do and create holiday rituals that create joy instead of drain them.

Sometimes changing things up is part of the answer.  Think about what is really important about the holidays and think about curtailing some activities or tasks if they bring more aggravation than joy.

Even if you do that, you also need to ask for the help in doing all those holiday things.  But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do that.

Don’t be resentful.  Ask for what you need instead.  In my line of work, I help couples raise issues in their relationship that are sometimes conflictual.  That includes the holidays. Dr. John Gottman, well known for his research in relationship stability and divorce prediction and cofounder of the “Gottman Method” of therapy I practice, found that couples who stay together are gentlewhen they bring up a concern or issue in their relationship and they ask for what they need.

How we ask for what we need creates opportunity for connection with those we love.  When we don’t ask for what we need, we can feel disconnected and resentful.

That leads to problems sooner or later.

Broader requests are not as good as specific ones.  Let me give you an example from my own Thanksgiving dinner.  Several people were standing around doing nothing.  I could have yelled “help me!!!,” but that would neither be polite nor asking for what I specifically needed.  Instead, I asked those standing around to please cover the leftovers with aluminum foil.  Seems so minor but even that asking matters because if I hadn’t, I could have felt angry that people weren’t helping and could have felt overburdened.  Instead I felt supported.

With so many things happening over the holiday season, it is vital to ask those you love for what you need. Whether its help with the shopping, wrapping, decorating or cooking, asking for what you need is essential. Being gentle and clear also gives the person hearing the request the greater possibility for success.  So if you start to feel overwhelmed.  Turn to your partner and let them know, “Honey, I am feeling overwhelmed and I would really appreciate your help.  There is a lot of shopping left to do and I need you to help with getting the gifts for your parents.”

Practice this, and maybe you too can rediscover the joy of the holidays like Charlie Brown or the Grinch.


Couples Counseling and Psychotherapy Associates provides service to Kingwood, Humble, Atascocita, Porter, Fall Creek, Summerwood, North Houston and surrounding areas.

Couples Counseling & Psychotherapy Associates

2330 Timber Shadows Drive
Suite 106
Kingwood, Texas 77339
Ph: 281-812-7529

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