Let’s Make a Deal

Dont CoversBrowsing a gift shop in Astoria, Oregon, Ed and I found two tiny books by Blanche Ebutt, published by Bloomsbury in 1913. They’re titled “DON’TS FOR HUSBANDS” and “DON’TS FOR WIVES”.

The DON’TS FOR HUSBANDS contains this gem: “Don’t drop cigarette ash all over the drawing room carpet. Some people will tell you that this improves the colours, but your wife won’t care to try that recipe.”

In DON’TS FOR WIVES, we found this caution:  “Don’t let your cook persist in frying steak when your husband likes it grilled, or in serving his eggs hard-boiled when he likes them milky.”

Cute, quaint, but not exactly relevant these days. And do modern couples even need “Don’ts”? Yes. We do.

Coupledom is a joint venture. Boundaries and rules help us avoid conflict and keep us on a track that leads to and maintains secure attachment. We suggest that couples create contracts, with clear guidelines as to what is not mutually okay. If one partner breaches the contract, the other can say, “We don’t do that,” or “That is not something we do.” These contracts are especially important around issues where there is conflict.

For example, here are some “Don’ts” we’ve seen help couples:

We don’t talk negatively about our relationship with our respective families or friends. We tell them, “That’s private, between us.”

We don’t spend money for items costing above (X amount) without consulting each other.

We don’t check our cell phones while we’re sharing a meal.

We don’t badmouth our partner in front of anyone.

We don’t, even in the blaze of an argument, use phrases and terms that threaten the relationship. “I’m outa here. Gone. Divorce!” (More about this one in a future blog.)

Think of the contract as a safety net to keep you from doing hurtful things. “We don’t do that,” is not attacking nor accusatory, if you’ve mutually decided you don’t do that because it will harm your relationship.

We aren’t “bad” because we need contracts. We need contracts to help us take care of each other. As DON’TS FOR HUSBANDS says, “Don’t think that, because she is a woman, that your wife ought to be an angel of light. She is just as much of a human being as you are, and no more perfect.” Likewise, DON’TS FOR WIVES admonishes, “Don’t expect your husband to be an angel. You’d get very tired of him if he were.”

It’s not likely any of us will become angelic. We can, however, become better partners. Clear agreements on how we deal with each other can help.


















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Posted by on January 25, 2016 in Uncategorized


Squeeze My Hand


About six weeks ago, I got a bad case of Shingles. The nerve pain was sometimes excruciating, especially at night. I’d lie in bed next to Ed, both of us reading, and when the hot little knives pierced my stomach and side, I’d wince and whimper and make awful sounds. Ed would about lose his mind, hating that I hurt and he could do nothing about it. Couples share a nervous system.

Then we found a way he could help us both. I’d lie holding his hand, and when the pain jabbed me, instead of making noise, I’d squeeze as long and hard as it hurt. He’d squeeze back, and when the pain stopped, I’d let go. Ed felt like his squeeze gave me comfort (and it did), and he knew how long the pain lasted, giving him a sense he was with me in my pain. He couldn’t stop the pain, but he could share it. That made both of us feel better.

Comfort is one of the members of the couples’ “Holy Trinity”: Safety, Security, and Comfort. Securely attached couples ask for comfort from, and want to give comfort to, each other. As with children, physical touch is often the most effective way to give and receive comfort.

In a study by J.A. Coan  at the University of Virginia, sixteen married women were threatened with electric shock while holding their husband’s hand, the hand of an anonymous male experimenter, or no one’s hand. fMRI results indicated less neural activity associated with fear or pain when the women held the husband’s hand, much more than when holding the hand of a stranger, or of no one. Most striking is the finding that the effects varied as a function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting less brain activity associated with pain. Several other studies have found similar effects. Evidently, our brains and our deeper selves know when our primary source of comfort is present.

Touching our partners helps soothe emotional pain too. When I’m upset about a friend’s illness, or Ed is overwhelmed with juggling too many projects, touch helps. Bodies don’t lie, and it’s reassuring to feel the realness, the solidness of contact that says, “It’s gonna be all right. I’m with you. It’s okay.”

It’s more difficult to give and receive touch when we are the source of our partners’ pain. The tendency to back off when we hurt each other, to avoid contact when we’re at odds, is understandable. But we couples can’t afford the price of losing “touch” with our partners. So, repair as soon as you can. Hold his hand, squeeze her knee, touch her face, stroke his hair. Do the Welcome Home hug as much as possible. You’ll both reap the benefits.

The poet, Stanley Kunitz, wrote,

do you remember
the man you married?
Touch me,
remind me who I am.”

Loving touch from our partners reminds us that we’re connected, that we’re not alone. Touch heals.

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Posted by on October 19, 2015 in Uncategorized


Don’t Waste It.

Garbage cans

In Toni Morrison’s latest book, GOD HELP THE CHILD, the narrator watches a young couple in love and contemplates their future. “They will blow it,” she thinks. “Each will cling to a sad little story of hurt and sorrow—some long ago trouble and pain life dumped on their pure and innocent selves. And each one will rewrite that story forever, knowing the plot, guessing the theme, inventing its meaning, and dismissing its origin. What waste.”

Not an uplifting view of couples. But realistic. The couples we see are hurt and sad.They accuse each other of bad intent, of not caring. When we explore what’s going on, it’s usually clear that both care very much. But they can’t see each other clearly. They’ve made up stories. Not on purpose. Not because they’re ornery. Certainly not because they like living with pain.

All couples make up stories because, when we’re very young, our psyches form lasting responses to people based on our parents’ reactions to us. How available were they? How well did they see who we really are? How safe was it to show ourselves to them? For many of us, the answer is, not well enough. They were not available. They did not see us. If we showed vulnerability, we got ignored or ridiculed.

Poor babies. Poor brains. Poor us. When we form an adult partnership, we pack all we got and all we didn’t get into that relationship. As adults, when we commit to a partner, our brains struggle to tell the difference between our partner and our primary caretaker(s).

So, when Ed furrows his brow or squints in response to my account of, say, some political event, my brain, long ago attuned to a daddy who put me down, automatically believes Ed sees me as lesser than. So arrogant, I think. Such a jerk.

Likewise, if we walk through the garage and I say, “These cars are filthy,” Ed is ready to fight. I’m critical and picky and I’m blaming him, his brain believes, like his daddy got onto him for not cleaning things fast enough.

In those moments, our stories about each other are as real as what happened to us back then. We project our childhood hurts onto each other.

“What waste,” Toni Morrison says. Yes, if we don’t learn to heal each other’s hurts. And partners are in the best position to do just that. If we see and understand what is actually happening, we can change our responses.

Rewiring our brains is hard. The first step is committing to help each other. When emotions run high, our old stories take over, and we tend to fight or flee. Instead, tell your partner what stings you. Then ask them to listen and assure you. I’ve learned to say, “Honey, I’m not blaming you, but I want to get those cars clean.” And if he’s still tweaked, I tell him, “I’m not upset. You work your butt off.” And he learns to say to me, “Look, you’re one of the smartest people I know. I value your opinion. I’m just not clear on your point.”

A client of ours bought his young daughter a crafts book about recycling, titled FROM TRASH TO TREASURE. That needs to be the story of our marriages. We all have trash, but if we learn how to help each other, instead of waste, we can turn it into the treasure of secure relationship.

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Posted by on September 14, 2015 in Uncategorized


I’m Sorry.

In Love Story, a hit movie from the ’60’s, a tearful, dying Ali McGraw delivers a line to Ryan O’Neal that has become a catch phrase: “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”

For those of us who live in the real world, it doesn’t work that way. Love, resilient as it may be, can’t bear up under repeated hurts without acknowledgement and apology. And couples hurt each other. We say mean things. We withhold affection and dole out anger. We’re snottier and sulkier and more sensitive with our partners than we are with anybody else, and we expect them to “get over it” without sufficient repair. That’s where the “I’m sorry” part comes in.

But it can’t be just any “I’m sorry.” We can’t effectively apologize before understanding the real function of an apology. “I’m sorry” too often means, “Oh, don’t think I’m a bad person and be upset with me. I didn’t mean it. I was just in a foul mood. Sorry.” This apology is not about the person who’s been hurt. It’s about the person who did the hurting, about trying to feel better about doing something hurtful. It won’t work, because it doesn’t address our partner’s hurt.

An effective apology calls for truly understanding why your partner is distressed. This means getting out of your self-centered stance and walking a minute or a mile in your partner’s shoes. If you can imagine, feel, and “get” why your partner is hurt, and let yourself be truly sorry for the hurt you caused, your apology will more likely be believed, you can truly be forgiven, and the two of you can go about your business instead of wasting precious time being disconnected.

There will be times you’ll hurt your partner when you honestly don’t mean to. These times are hard to apologize for. Let’s say you’re in a hurry, loading the dishwasher, and your partner shows you a photo he just shot, and you glance at it and say, “Um. I don’t think that works.” Let’s say he gets his feelings hurt and says, “I just felt totally brushed off. That stung.” You will probably bristle at his bristling and then you’ll jump to your own defense. “Don’t be mad,” you say. “I didn’t mean anything by that. I was distracted.” All true, perhaps, but that doesn’t matter. If your partner is hurt, it’s your job to truly understand why. So, think. Reflect. Consider what it must have been like for him to bring you something he created, wanting your approval, and to feel like his creation was dismissed by the most important person in his life–You. Now, you say, “Honey, of course that stung. I was too abrupt and didn’t even really look. I’m sorry.” Getting clearer? Good.

“But he’s so sensitive,” you might say. “Too sensitive, really.” Too bad. Secure couples honor each others’ neuroses. If he’s overly sensitive about his creative skills, it’s your job to know that and to act accordingly. It’s his job to do the same after he hurts you–like when he smirks and says you throw like a girl. Even if he swears his smirk was affectionate. “I’m so sorry I hurt you,” when you mean it, works wonders. Love means having to say you’re sorry.


Posted by on June 1, 2015 in Uncategorized


Attached at the… Heart


We recently received this poem a client of ours wrote for her husband:

I am writing your eulogy.
You are not dead, probably.
Probabilistically. Statistically.
You are not bleeding out under our mangled car,
Or clutching both hands over a knife wound from a mugger,
Or flattened by a stroke in the aisle at Fry’s.
You are just at Fry’s browsing,
Probably. Probabilistically.
But death comes to us all,
And you didn’t text to say!
So my heart is composing
Your eulogy.

by A.K.S.S.

We love this poem.  It depicts a scenario we, and lots of couples, know too well.  “I get diarrhea when he’s ten minutes late,” one of our friends said. “I can’t quit thinking about blood on the highway.” “I can’t quit checking my phone,” another said. “Hoping it will ring. Except if it rings, it might be the hospital. Aagghh.”

These people are not crazy or “co-dependent”. And neither are you if you understand and experience what they are saying.

I have some driving anxiety, so I pace when Ed is late. I catch myself not breathing easily. I push away images of dismembered body parts. And I love the sound of that garage door opening. My Honey is home safe.

That fear, though not the fun part of marriage, indicates strong attachment. We attach to our partners like we attached, as babies, to our parents. Ed is now my “primary attachment figure”. And I am his. Babies go into “failure to thrive” and can die without their primary attachment figures. They know they can’t make it alone. Fear of losing the most important person in your world makes total sense.

Though the feeling is similar, we’re not talking about the anxiety people feel when they’re afraid their partner is doing something non-relational, like having an affair. We’re talking about the “irrational” fear that the person we love most is gone. The safer we feel with our partner, the greater the fear of losing her or him. I remember the first time I heard Stan Tatkin, our teacher, say, ” When you become securely attached, you start being afraid your partner will die.” Oh, I thought. That’s what’s going on with me.

So are we crazy to sign up for a relationship with so much potential hurt? Not at all. We believe the happiness in a securely attached relationship far outweighs the pain of the secure attachment, or whatever pain it takes to get to that secure place.

Remember the three basics of a good relationship–Safety, Security, and Comfort? Well, if you and your partner have weathered enough marriage to achieve those, you’re securely attached. And you’re having some fine times. You have what we’re all looking for when we marry. You have a confidant, a mirror, a lover, a friend. That’s worth some fretful times, yes? And it makes the times when you struggle with each other less threatening.

One of our favorite theologians, Fredrick Buechner, says, “What’s lost is nothing to what’s found; and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup”. Struggles, imperfections, fear of death and all, we hope your relationship cup fills, and that your attachment is, and keeps becoming, secure. Worrying about each other is part of the deal, when you’re attached at the heart.

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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in Uncategorized


Five to One


On Valentine’s Day Eve, when I turned back the covers on our bed, two candy hearts lay against the  sheets. You know, those colorful little boxed hearts, the ones we all gave each other back when? One heart read SOUL MATE. The other read GIGGLE. I loved them. We’re soul mates and we giggle in bed.

On Valentine’s Day, Ed gave me a third heart. And, I swear, this one read LET’S READ. Evidently, candy hearts have evolved for baby boomers. I loved that one too. Reading, side by side, is respite for us. Sometimes, we read to each other. We did some giggling in bed about the LETS READ heart.  Such a little thing. So much fun.

According to relationship researcher John Gottman, in order for a couple’s relationship to thrive, partners need a ratio of five positive interactions to every negative encounter. Negative interactions are so hard on the couple’s collective psyche that it takes five positives to balance the scale. So, for every complaint, criticism, insult, put-down or outright nasty fight, a couple needs five occasions of compliment, appreciation, affection, shared laughter, or enjoyment to maintain a healthy relationship.

Couples talk to us about “getting away” to experience more positives and re-boot their relationships. And getting away is wonderful. The trials and tribs of everyday life can wear any couple down, and going away can be rejuvenating. We got away the weekend after Valentine’s Day. We saw three thousand sea lions invading the port of Astoria. We oohed and aahed over glorious sunsets on the Long Beach peninsula. We ate grilled Willapa Bay oysters with jalapeno jelly and goat cheese “pearls” on top. (Oh. My. Lord.) Ed watched me close my eyes and savor an oyster. He said it reminded him of the scene in “When Harry Met Sally” when the woman dining next to her said, “I want what she’s having.” I appreciated his attention and his assessment.

But getting away is not always an option. And it’s not necessary. Those relationship positives, the ones you need to balance out the times you’re less than kind to each other, do not have to be big deals nor cost money.  A kiss on the forehead or shoulder, a “You’re my Sweetheart, you know that?”, a dance in the kitchen while dinner is cooking, a side by side snuggle while you watch your children laugh, bring life and joy to coupledom.

If you’re doing these things, good for you. If not, let yourself wonder why. And try it. Go get ice cream cones. Share a song with your partner–an oldie from your dating years or a new one you’re crazy about. Rub her feet. Rub his back. Bring her a beautiful rock you found. Tell him you love his nose. Little positives for a big payoff.

When I think back on Valentine’s Day, I’ll smile. I’ll remember our trip and those oysters and seeing “The Theory of Everything” at an afternoon matinee. But mostly, I’ll remember those candy hearts. SOULMATE. GIGGLE. LET’S READ.


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Posted by on March 5, 2015 in Uncategorized


Viva La Difference

For Help blogJazz Alley in Seattle last month: “That’s ‘Misty'”, Carol whispered to our friends and me.  The Brazilian trio had played six chords, max. We looked at her like she was crazy. No way. Great sound, complex rhythm and chord structure, but no discernible tune. Several bars in, we turned toward her, delighted and bemused. It was “Misty”. Later, she did the same thing with, “My Sweet Embraceable You”. I’m not sure I’d have ever heard the melodic theme in either of those numbers. Carol doesn’t listen to a lot of jazz, but she has a music brain. Her name fits.

Carol is lost in space. If we go into a new place, she is as likely to turn the wrong direction coming out as she is the right. I can find my way around in the world like I have a built in GPS. She is boggled by my internal map.

This morning, Carol was sitting in her recliner with her coffee, going over materials for her next weekly writing class, five days away. When I was a preacher, I sat down to write my sermon the Saturday night before the Sunday I preached it. On the Meyers Briggs scale of “stress-avoidance,” meaning “does things ahead of time,” Carol scored a 10. I’m a 2.

Differences like these, interesting and even attractive when we’re courting, can create conflict later. How? Carol’s lack of spatial ability makes her low tech, and I used to think she, for example, didn’t bother to master our latest version of MS Word, because she knew I’d take care of it for her. She just takes advantage of me. Before Carol knew I was ADD, she thought my spaciness and putting things off was neglectful. If he cared, he’d remember to close that kitchen drawer.

We hear couples complain about clutter, time, dirt, or complex tech and their different ways of managing them, and we hear them attribute those differences to not caring or to passive aggressive motives. We now know that many of these differences are due to the wiring in our brains. We all have deficits, and many of our frustrations with our partners are because we don’t understand and accept how differently our brains work. As we realize how hard-wired these things are, it makes it easier to take care of each other and help without resentment. I’ll help you with your brain’s glitches, and you help me with mine. We’re partners, and that’s part of our jobs. I’ll drive Carol to Valley Center Stage tonight to see a play because it’s foggy and rainy, and she won’t be able to see. She will make me a list and remind me (gently) of what needs to be done next for our party this weekend. On a broader level than tech or time, I deal well with the physical world, but not so well with close relationships. Carol expects and goes for real relationship, but struggles with machines. As partners, we learn from each other and manage the world better together.

We know that difficulty with expressing feelings or with restraining anger have more impact overall than the differences I’ve described. But we also now know that, like Carol’s spatial problems and my memory problems, these problems also stem from deficit rather than character. Knowing this moves us toward understanding, compassion, and cooperation. We build a stronger, more loving partnership when we see differences as areas to explore, understand, and work on together. Whether it’s a struggle with a messy bedroom, how to drive on a freeway, or expressing feelings effectively, you and that strange “other” you live with are the best help you’ve got.   

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Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Uncategorized


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