Problematic Relationships?: Tips for Dealing with Difficult People

Whether we like it or not, we all have at least one person in our lives that we kind of can’t stand, yet can’t get rid of. I’ll call this person our PO (problematic other). Maybe it’s a friend we’ve known since childhood, a co-worker we’re on a team with, or a family member that just rubs us the wrong way. Regardless of how we’re connected, this person often makes us question our relationship with him/her time and time again due to their self-centered, stubborn, demanding, outrageous, or ________ (insert your irritation here) antics.

Although it’s easy to say ditch the zero and get with a hero, this isn’t always possible. We often find ourselves glued to certain relationships and people. Family relationships, for instance, are involuntary. In other words, we don’t pick our family and it’s a lot harder to completely cut of ties with kin. Yes, we can become estranged from family members but we will still likely be connected in some way (even if it’s just through shared genes).

Conversely, friendships are what we consider to be voluntary relationships. We pick who we want to be friends with and these relationships are, in theory, easier to leave. However, we sometimes become “stuck” in a friendship for a variety of reasons, such as an interwoven social circle or a long history together.

Other times, our PO has a few redeeming qualities (e.g., fun, spontaneous) or when he or she is on “good” behavior things with the relationship are great. Thus, it’s not always easy or even desirable to cut ties with our PO.

Because we more than likely will have to deal with difficult people (by choice or default) at some point in our lives, and because it’s nearly impossible to change someone, it’s important to know how to change how you respond to your PO.

So, what can you do when enough is enough?! Below are a few strategies from the most indirect to direct. Use one, use none, or use them all as you see fit!

It’s a Matter of Perception: The most indirect thing you can do to deal with your PO is to change how you think about him/her and/or the relationship.

Cognitive dissonance occurs when what we believe and how we behave are at odds. For example, you may value loyalty and compassion in a friend, but find yourself being BFFs with a narcissist. As a result, you feel uncomfortable and are unhappy with the situation.

Since you may not be able to change the behavior of your PO, it’s best to change your perception. A good way to do this is to reframe how you think about the problematic relationship.

If you were expecting a self-centered, disco queen to be a concerned and self-less best-friend, you’re in for a letdown. But, if you reframe the relationship from “close friendship” to “casual/party friendship” then you will reduce your cognitive dissonance and potentially become more satisfied with your relationship because your beliefs and behaviors align.

Additionally, reframing the relationship will let you see and except your friend/partner “as is” rather than holding out hope for something more.

Put Your Foot Down (in the nicest way possible, of course):  One common theme I see when people are dealing with POs is that they often feel they’re being taken advantage of or acting as a doormat. The easiest way to remedy this is to “Just Say No” (to your PO and drugs, too!).

Now for some people this is going to be the most difficult thing to do. Saying “no” implies that you’re not being cooperative, that you are instigating a conflict, or that you may anger the beast that dwells deep within your PO. Yes, it’s scary. But, it’s the only way your will establish boundaries, which will help set the tone for your relationship.

Don’t worry, I’m not expecting you to shout, “No means no!” Instead, you want to casually assert yourself. You may also suggest an alternative to help soften the blow.

For example, if your friend asks to borrow your favorite sweater that your beloved grandmother gave you, tell her “You know what, that was a gift from my grandmother and it’s just too sentimental to loan out. But, I’d be happy to go shopping with you to find a similar one.”

See you got your point across and still come across as delightful! Your PO may only take advantage of you because you make it easy for them. Your “no” will be a speed bump that will make him or her slow down and think twice about steamrolling you.

Speak Up: It’s important to let your PO know what you’re feeling. There is a chance that he/she may be unaware of his or her behavior. Bringing your concerns to your POs attention will allow you to start a dialogue about your relationship. However, there are a few important things to keep in mind when speaking your mind.

First, nobody likes hearing negative things about themselves (Lords know I don’t, just ask my husband!). Giving criticism threatens people’s identity and, as a result, people tend to get very reactive and defensive.

To help counter this, you may wish to start by highlighting something you like about the person, before the inevitable BUT: “I really have a lot of fun with you, but…”

Second, focus on your PO’s behavior not them as a person. When you do introduce that but, makes sure you address a specific behavior, don’t make a general character attack.

Instead of “You’re so self-centered, you always just talk about yourself!”

Try “I’ve noticed that a lot of our conversations seem to focus on what’s going on in your life and I never really get to talk about what’s happening with me.”

Also, don’t forget those handy X-Y-Z statements, which can reduce your PO’s defensiveness.

Third, highlight the costs of the negative behavior and the benefits of changing it. Let your PO know that his/her behavior makes you unhappy or is making you question your relationship. Then emphasize the benefits of changing, such as a stronger relationship.

Finally, make this a dialogue not a monologue. Ask your PO how she/he feels about what you’re saying. Encourage him/her to share his/her thoughts and feelings about the topic and together, brainstorm strategies to remedy the problem.

Reevaluate Your Relationship: If the above strategies don’t work then it really is time to reevaluate your relationship. Research suggests that people prefer to have equitable relationships. In other words, you and your partner are receiving equal outputs. If you’re constantly doing favors for your friend, asking her about her life, and she barely returns the favor, then you’re being under-benefited, which can lead to dissatisfaction, frustration, and even resentment. Not a good recipe for a successful relationship.

If you feel that you are under-benefited and you’ve tried the strategies outlined above, then it may be time to cut your losses and end the friendship. I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but getting out of a bad and inequitable relationship, be it a platonic, romantic, or familial tie, is far better for your mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing than staying in a dysfunctional relationship.

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POs are just like BO, they stink! And can really ruin an otherwise pleasurable experience (I’m talking to you guy I stood behind while voting! I digress…). But, with a little work and a lot of communication your PO can go from zero to hero.

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Center of the Universe Syndrome: Treating the Narcissist in Your Life

After my parent’s divorce at the age of seven, I went on a bit of a lying spree. I made up lies about any and everything and told them to anyone who would listen. At day camp that summer, I told one counselor that I was the “star” of my Catholic school’s basketball team (Mind you, I can barely dribble a basketball!). During the drive back from a field trip, I rambled on for over an hour about how: “I was the best player,” “everyone wanted to be like me,” “there was no one who compared to me,” and…well, you get the picture. When I finally shut my mouth for more than 10 seconds my camp counselor said, matter of fact, “You know, compliments mean more when they come from someone other than yourself.” Ohhhh, SNAP!

I’ve always remembered that piece of advice/chiding and almost twenty-five years later I typically keep my accomplishments to myself (aside from telling a few close friends and family) and don’t feel the need to toot my own horn. Unfortunately, a lot of other people did not receive this sage advice and are suffering from a serve case of narcissism; or as I like to call it center of the universe syndrome. Unfortunately, social media (e.g., Facebook  twitter) seems to reinforce these tendencies and gives the narcissist’s of the world their own center stage.

After having to hide yet another person on my Facebook news feed due to their nauseating self-promotion, I began to wonder about narcissism, social media, and relationships. Was I just green with envy and that’s why I loathed self-aggrandizing posts and status updates? Was I too reserved and doing myself a disservice by not touting my accolades? Or, was there something fundamentally different about me and my self-promoting counterparts? (And don’t worry, the irony of talking about narcissism on my blog, which I promote through social media, is not lost on me; but, as you’ll see, it’s a vastly different enterprise!)

A few hours of research later, I uncovered information that demystifies these seemingly out of touch with reality individuals and suggestions for helping the non-narcissists and narcissists of the world co-exist, peacefully and humbly.

“I Want to Talk About Me, I Want Talk to About I…”: A Narcissist’s Reality

We commonly think of narcissistic individuals as self-centered. Not only are narcissists self-absorbed, they also demonstrate “a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and an exaggerated sense of self,” along with “a pervasive sense of uniqueness and entitlement.” In other words, they think they’re great and expect everyone to not only think the same way, but fawn all over their greatness as well.

Although outsiders tend to think of narcissists as extremely confident individuals brimming with self-esteem, the exact opposite tends to be true. Research suggests that narcissists tend to have lower self-esteem and their self-aggrandizing behavior is one way to get their self-esteem “fix,” albeit temporarily. Social media outlets now allow narcissists to readily stroke their own ego by promoting themselves in a very public way to receive the positive affirmation they so need. Several studies have shown that individuals who are categorized as being narcissistic as well as having low self-esteem tend to check Facebook more frequent throughout the day, post more frequently to Facebook, as well as post more self-promotional content (e.g., status update and photos) than individuals not categorized as narcissistic and with higher self-esteem.

Now, I’m not talking about people who share good news with family and friends, or occasionally boast about their own accomplishments, like completing their first marathon or getting a new job, either in person or on Facebook. Sharing is good. It’s important to share good news within close relationship. In addition, Facebook can be a great way to share good news with people near and far.  Instead, I’m talking about people who have an over-inflated self-concept (e.g., “I’m the best at FILL IN THE BLANK”), think everything they do is the most wonderful thing on the planet, and expect others to be in awe on their awesomeness.

Your Relationship’s Worst Enemy: Your Narcissistic Partner

Unfortunately, narcissism has more detrimental consequences than mere annoyance. As you may know from experience, narcissists make lousy friends and lovers. Although narcissists make new friends easily and have numerous superficial relationships, they’re less successful at maintaining meaningful relationships. In fact, narcissists tend to have minimal interest in developing emotionally close and committed interpersonal relationships. Instead, narcissists often see relationships as a new audience for self-promotion and, not surprisingly, aren’t too interested in what is going on with their partner. Narcissistic partners prefer relationships with people who make them feel superior or will help them climb the social ladder. Additionally, if a relational partner doesn’t stroke the narcissist’s ego, the narcissist has no problem dropping that person like a hot-potato.

In other words, self-centeredness does not a good relationship make.

Tips for Dealing with Someone with Center of the Universe Syndrome

Despite comedic portrayals of narcissists in the media, dealing with a self-absorbed monster in real-life is no laughing matter. Although a lot of people simply cut the big-headed beast loose, others stick it out either voluntarily (despite their faults, there is still something they love about him/her), or involuntarily (the person is a family member or a co-worker).

So, here are a few tips (from the most indirect to direct strategy) you can employ to make your relationship with your narcissist more manageable and, hopefully, more satisfying:

Grin and Bear It: The easiest way to deal with a narcissist (and by easiest, I mean least likely to set the narcissist off) is to grin and bear it. This strategy obviously doesn’t cure center of the universe syndrome, but it may allow you to interact with the person without making the problem worse or yourself crazy.

Unfortunately, there isn’t “hide” button for face-to-face interactions, so when you’re in person, listen to the narcissist’s egotistical rant and smile and nod, while engaging in some meditative breathing. (Seriously, they probably won’t notice you tuned out and you’ll be thankful you’re in your happy place!)

Online, it’s a lot easier. You can hide the narcissist’s status updates or twitter posts. This way you can be blissfully ignorant to their daily musings about how wonderful he/she is. Saving yourself frustration and your relationship even more damage.

Although this strategy is least likely to threaten your relationship, it is the most likely to increase your frustration and resentment. So, you may want to try a more direct, but still subtle approach.

Tone Down, and Ramp Up: Yes, this sounds like a new exercise craze (“Tone Down, Ramp Up” TM), and no, it won’t help you shed any excess weight (although, I think you’re beautiful as is!). But, it may help you save your relationship with your little narcissistic friend.

Tone Down refers to trying to subtly put out your narcissist’s over exuberant fire. Instead of even smiling or nodding in agreement when your narcissist goes on a self-enhancing bender, simply say and do nothing. No verbal reactions, no nonverbal reactions. Now, some narcissists won’t even notice your reaction, but others may.

Now, when you combine this with Ramp Up, you start moving the spotlight off your narcissist and let it shine on you a little bit too. When your narcissist talks about how amazing he/she is at FILL IN THE BLANK, don’t be shy to mention something about yourself. It doesn’t have to be as boastful (don’t get caught up in the passive-aggressive, one-upper trap!), but just enough to let your narcissist know that you’re a competent and admired human as well.

As research suggests, your narcissist may react poorly to this shift and decide he or she would prefer a new, more amenable audience. Or, it could help your problem a bit.  I’m not saying it will eradicate your narcissist’s behavior entirely (this trait is deeply rooted), but it may shift your relational culture, or at the very least, make interactions a bit more tolerable.

Bite the Bullet and Speak Up: In healthy relationships, when partners give one another criticism (in a constructive and positive manner, of course!) it rarely derails the relationship. However, the narcissist is a fragile creature that likes to be adored and admired, not critiqued. So, you should seriously consider the potential aftermath before you decide to explicitly say something. But, if you think that the rewards outweigh the costs then by all means speak up!

No one likes being criticized by their partner, even if your partner has your best interest at heart, and a narcissist will like it even less. Focusing on these strategies might help soften the blow and get real results:

Start with a positive: Don’t dig in right away, start with something you like about the person, and then address your issue. For example, instead of “All you do is talk about yourself! It’s annoying,” try “I love how excited you are to share your accomplishments with me, however, I sometimes feel that we only talk about you…”

Focus on behavior: Although being a narcissist is a trait and not simply a behavior, when you focus on the person he/she will become defensive. However, if you can separate the behavior from the person, he/she may be more open to listening to what you have to say.

Instead of “You’re so narcissistic!” try “Sometimes I notice that you tend to talk about yourself a lot and never really ask about me.”

Also, try to combine this with John Gottman’s famed X-Y-Z statement—“When you do X, in situation Y, it makes me feel Z”—for the most impact. For example, “When you only talk about yourself (X), when we hang out/talk (Y), it makes me feel like you don’t care about me or our relationship (Z).” This statement will help minimize defensiveness and anger, by having you accept responsibility for your feelings (rather than placing blame on your partner) and focuses on specific behaviors in specific situations.

Outline the costs and benefits: Let your narcissist know that there are costs to his/her behavior and benefits to changing it. Perhaps let him/her know that his/her behavior makes you hesitant to pursue/maintain the relationship, or that you avoid talking to him/her because of this behavior. Then let him/her know that changing the behavior will help you have a stronger, more intimate relationship.

Offer help: It’s not enough to say “You suck, now fix it.” Instead, come up with solutions to help your narcissist. Maybe you come up with a signal to use when he/she is getting too self-centered. Or, perhaps you help your narcissist find a therapist who can help him/her work through the issues that have led to this behavior, and provide him/her with concrete skills to change his/her behavior.

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Treating center of the universe syndrome is a difficult and intimidating. However, I fully believe that if the thought of addressing this issue makes your palms sweaty, then it’s probably the right conversation to have. Doing the right thing is usually the hardest thing; but the hardest endeavors have the sweetest rewards.

Until next time,

Sylvia

The Mis(sed) Carriage

Today is National Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I was never aware of this day until my husband and I, unfortunately, became members of this club. I write about this today not to gain sympathy, but to bring awareness to this very real and painful experience that many people overlook and even ignore. In our culture, grief and negative emotions are avoided. Since my own loss I’ve learned that miscarriage tends to be a four-letter word; people do not like to hear or talk about others’ miscarriages.

Although I recognize that people may avoid this topic because it’s uncomfortable, imagine losing your child, your hopes and dreams, and having no one to turn to or talk to—that’s uncomfortable. Today, I write for all the mothers and fathers, grandmas and grandpas, and siblings who have suffered this unimaginable heartbreak. This is not only to honor them and their angel babies, but help their social networks learn how they can help them cope with this unbearable heartache.

My Story…

On June 3, 2012 two lines appeared on my home pregnancy test: I was pregnant, again. Given our previous ectopic pregnancy, we were tentative in our excitement even when blood tests indicated things were moving in the right direction. Two weeks later an ultrasound showed a little ball firmly implanted in my uterus, heartbeat and all. At that point, the doctor said my chance of miscarriage was reduced to around 10%. We started to feel some joy.

Even during week 10, when a spotting scare sent us to the emergency room, two ultrasounds showed our little monkey moving and shaking, complete with limbs, nose, and jaw bone. When we heard the heartbeat via Doppler at 12 weeks, we felt reassured—this was going to work, we were going to have our baby.

According to statistics, once you hear the heartbeat through a Doppler your chance of miscarrying is down to 1%. One-percent! Only one person out of 100 goes on to miscarry at that point; surely, we were in the clear. Sadly, one week later, on August 6, 2012, we discovered we were 1 in 100. The odds were never in our favor and we lost our baby. We lost our child, our dreams for the future, our ticket to join the parent club. We were, once again, outsiders looking in.

Because my body didn’t show any signs of miscarrying on its own and I was 12 ½ weeks along, the doctor recommended a D&C. The next afternoon with heavy hearts we made our way to the hospital. Of course, on our way in we saw a family exiting with Baby Girl balloons; oh, irony. During all the hubbub of pre-op, doctors, nurses, and anesthesiologists fluttered about cheerfully, asking us what brought us to the area, and making polite small talk. I tried my best to play along. Finally, right before I was wheeled off to the operating room, the nurse who was assisting with the procedure kindly whispered to me, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” and that is when I lost it. My thin eyelids, swollen from crying through the night before, couldn’t hold back the deluge of tears.

I was only supposed to be under twilight, but eventually they had to put me fully under because I was moving too much. They never said why, but given the doctors tenderness afterwards, I’m guessing my sobs, even while unconscious, got in the way of the procedure. Grief that profound cannot be contained.

In the days and weeks that followed, I learned a lot about not only myself, but others as well. The day we found out about our loss, my first phone call was to my best-friend. I texted her first to prepare her and when I called I tried to ask her how she was doing, but she didn’t let me get away that easily. Instead, she did exactly what I needed her to do, she cried with me and let me sit silently, choking on my own tears. I have never been more grateful for that kind of love and friendship.

Friends sent flowers, cookies, and books that helped them with their losses. Others who came to visit brought us delicious goodies, made us laugh with their goofiness, and distracted us with crazy shenanigans. These friends also let us steer any conversation to our loss, if needed, and when we did, which was often, they simply listened.

Others, however, seemed too uncomfortable with the situation to make a real effort. Although that hurt, we also understood that most people simply do not know what to do or say, so instead of doing the wrong thing they do nothing at all. And instead of telling people what we needed, we waited for people to reach out and silently suffered.

Today, I share my story to shed more light on this taboo topic.  Unlike the loss of a parent or spouse, the loss of a pregnancy does not come with scripts for how to cope. Thus, many of us (the bereaved would-be parents) and family and friends don’t know what to do or say. Below, I offer a few tips to help all of those who suffered a loss and those whose loved ones have suffered a loss, traverse this incredibly uncertain time as best as possible.

Healing After a Loss…

Grieve: You didn’t lose a shoe or your watch, you lost a child, you lost a life. Give yourself time to grieve, time to be sad, time to be angry, time to be numb, time to just be. Even though you may never have met your baby or only knew him or her for a few short hours doesn’t mean you are not entitled to fully grieve the loss of your child.

Be kind to yourself in the days and weeks that follow and do what feels good to you. If lounging around the house feeling blue is what you need, do it. If getting out of town and going on a trip will help, book it.

Also, don’t push yourself to do things that may be emotionally painful. If going to a baby shower or hanging out with a group of friends with children will just hurt too much, pass on the invitation. Your friends will understand that you need to heal.

Talk (if and when you want): Unfortunately, miscarriage is a taboo topic and many people never talk about it. One reason is that some people may feel that a loss is private and may only share their experience with their spouse and a few select friends/family. If other people ask you about your loss and you don’t want to discuss it, feel free to change the subject or give an indirect response.

Other individuals who experience loss want to talk about it but don’t because they want to avoid making other people feel uncomfortable. If you want to talk about your loss, do it. The more you keep silent on this issue, the more taboo it becomes. Plus, once you open up you may find that others have experienced losses too and they can be a great source of comfort.

Bottom line: Share based on your comfort level, not others.

Celebrate your baby:Just because you don’t have a baby in your arms doesn’t mean you have to forget about the life you lost. Celebrating your baby through stories, rituals, or mementos will you help you cope with your loss and celebrate the memory of your little angel.

Whether you plan something special for your due date, or hold a memorial on the day of your loss, do what feels right for you. A necklace with your baby’s birthstone, a framed picture of your ultrasound, or a tree planted in your yard are all wonderful ways to  honor, celebrate, and remember your child.

Helping Loved Ones Heal After a Loss

Ask:Nobody likes to talk about dead babies, I get it. But, you have to. You have to ask your friend how they’re doing. Even if your friend doesn’t want to talk, they’ll always remember whether or not you were there for them when they needed you most.

Also, don’t forget about Dads or the non-pregnant partner. Their grief often gets eclipsed by the mothers’ needs. Ask them how they are coping with the loss.

But, don’t ask “why” or “how”: Do not ask them for details about how they found out, what exactly the doctor said, or if they know why this happened. Someone dealing with a loss probably has many of the same questions you do and none of the answers. Asking questions may, unintentionally, imply some sort of blame or may make your friend feel inadequate for not knowing the answer. If your friend wants to share these details they will, so let them share in their own time.

Also, although you mean well, don’t say things like, “it’s God’s plan” (even if you believe that), that it “will happen if they just relax and stop trying”, “at least you know you can get pregnant,” or “hey, you already have a baby.”

None of this helps or takes away the pain of losing a child. If you don’t know what to say then follow the next tip.

Listen: Often, we feel that we must come up with the perfect thing to say to help our friend feel better or to take away their pain. Although that is a wonderful sentiment, nothing you can say or do can fully relieve their heartache.

If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, don’t say anything. Just be there to listen to your friend talk. Additionally, if you don’t know what to say let them know that you don’t know what to say, but that you’re thinking of them.

Follow-up: Coping with a loss takes some time. Expected milestones, holidays, and due dates will undoubtedly reignite or intensify your friend’s grief. Check-in during the following weeks and months, especially when your friend would have been reaching certain milestones.

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Experiencing pregnancy loss is never easy. However, taking care of yourself and receiving support from loved ones can make you feel comforted as your heart slowly begins to heal.

I Do, Until I Don’t?: Is Your Marriage Divorce-Proof

Commitment. If you follow celebrity gossip, which I’m ashamed to admit I do, then you may think that marriage and commitment are a thing of the past. Every week it seems some celebrity couple is divorcing due to falling out of love, growing apart, or catching their partner in a three-way (the problems of celebrity!). But as I’m sure most of you know firsthand, divorce isn’t confined to the rich and famous, it happens in real life too. It happens to your friends, your parents, your siblings, and, maybe even you.

Divorce, however, isn’t inevitable. Despite the fact that the U.S. divorce rate hovers around 50% (which actually is in line with historical and cross-cultural divorce rates), scholar Stephanie Coontz, a Family Studies Professor at Evergreen State College, found that many Americans still place a high value on marriage and think it’s unacceptable to cheat, lie, or keep secrets within a marriage. So that’s good news!

However, our views of marriage and what a “good” marriage is may make it easier to press the “eject” button the moment things get rough. In fact, Coontz suggests that the notion of romantic love is one of the causes of modern divorce. The notion that marriage should be a loving and fulfilling institution is a relatively modern idea. And it’s this very notion that makes some people scram when the butterflies stop fluttering.

Journalist Rachel Combe interviewed Professor and therapist William Doherty and found that often people divorce for “soft reasons” such as losing that “butterfly” feeling and other seemingly superficial reasons. Although losing that loving feeling or seeing the world differently based on maturity can be cause for concern, in general, soft reasons are fixable. Even reasons for divorce deemed as “hard reasons” like infidelity or substance abuse are fixable. The key is, you’ve got to want to put in the work.

Thus, how we think, behave, and communicate in our marriages is crucial to maintaining a satisfying and stable marriage. Now, I’m not saying that divorce is always the wrong choice. Sometimes we simply marry the wrong people and it’s better for both parties to go their separate ways and meet someone they will live happily ever after with. What I am saying is that in a lot of instances marriages can be saved by taking proactive steps, not just when you reach a critical point, but throughout your relationship. In other words, there are some simple steps you can take to help divorce-proof your marriage:

Love and appreciate your partner: We often take our spouses for granted. We think that once we put a ring on it he/she knows how we feel about him/her. However, it’s important to let your partner know you love him and you appreciate her. A simple “I love you” and a little snuggle while watching TV can go a long way. So can a “thank you.” Also, compliment your partner and appreciate his or her beauty. The longer we’re with someone the more we may worry that they don’t find us as attractive as they did in the beginning or when we were younger. Let your spouse know you’ve still got the hots for him or her.

You don’t have to do a grand gesture to let your partner know you care, something simple, nice, and free can pay dividends.

Have positive illusions: See the best in your partner, even when they’re at their worst, seriously! Research shows that couples who see the best in their partner are more satisfied. So go ahead and think that you have the most amazing, beautiful, kind, funny, and intelligent spouse on the planet and that everyone else should be envious, it will help you in the long run. But don’t post these thoughts to facebook, outside of your marriage it’s just plain annoying.

In addition, attribute your spouse’s untoward behavior to an external not internal source. If your wife snaps at you because or your husband does something thoughtless, remember the things you love about your partner and attribute this behavior to the situation, not your spouse. For example, if you normally think “He’s such a crabby jerk during the week” instead think, “My honey is crabby because he worked late today and sat in traffic for hours.” Attributing the undesirable behavior to an external rather than internal factor helps us maintain a positive illusion and buffers our relationship.

Try new things: Although we like predictability in our relationships, studies show we also like novelty. Whether it’s going on a vacation or trying a new restaurant for “date night” explore new adventures together. In fact, studies show that when we experience novel activities, we attribute the excitement and thrill from these new adventures to the person we’re with, not the activity itself. So, don’t get stuck in a rut, get out there and try new things, your marriage will thank you!

Stay out of harm’s way: It may seem obvious or simple, but don’t put yourself in situations where you’ll be tempted to stray or engage in other activities that your spouse may not approve of. If you think the new hire in accounting is a hottie, it’s probably not a good idea to hang out just the two of you well after happy hour ends. A good rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t do it with your partner there, it’s probably not a good idea to do it.

Communicate: Talk about the big stuff and talk about the small stuff. Research shows that engaging in “mundane talk” or that everyday banter, such as what went on in your day, who you talked to, or even what you ate is important for fostering closeness and intimacy. So spend some time each day checking in with one another, this way you’ll feel connected and know what is going on with each other when you’re apart.

Also, talk about the big stuff. If you’re unhappy with something, speak up. Don’t let it fester and then become a bigger problem than it needed to be. Have an ongoing dialog with your spouse about your life and relationship goals. Getting in to a habit of communicating will make it easier to tackle challenges as they arise.

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Marriage is a contract and it’s important to work together to honor that agreement. With a little work and a lot of communication, you can take steps to make sure that your marriage lasts through better or worse.

Until next time,

Sylvia

 

I Want Your Sex: Sexual Communication

 

 

When I was five-years-old George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex” was my jam. I loved that song and just couldn’t get enough of it. I would spend far too long in the shower listening to our shower radio (yeah, I know what you’re thinking, “Whoa, a shower radio?! So cool.” And it was, until I submerged it under water to test how waterproof it was. Answer, not very.) so I could rock out to my favorite song in private, because every time we were in the car and the song came on my mom would promptly switch the station. And although I was over ten years away from even coming close to truly understanding the song, something about the lyrics “Sex is natural, sex is fun, sex is best when it’s one on one,” resonated with me then and now.

From an early age I was intrigued by sex. In line for a ride at Disney World I asked my Mom, “I know where babies come from, but how do they get there?” I had to wait until we returned home for my mom to take out a book with pictures and tell me about what really happened between a penis and a vagina. That lesson opened the floodgates and I was constantly asking my mom questions about sex, even into adulthood.

Despite society’s aversion to talk about sex, my mom always had an open dialog with me which helped me develop a healthy relationship with sex. She never gave me the “wait until marriage speech,” but instead told me to wait until I felt in loved, respected, and valued. And, most importantly, practice safe sex and make sure you have a good time too. So, when I lost my virginity years later, I finally experienced what good old GM was talking: Sex IS fun.

Although sex is fun and plays a big role in cultivating intimacy in a romantic relationship, many people are hesitant to talk about it. As a result, people’s wishes, desires, and needs go unrecognized and unfulfilled. In addition, being uncomfortable talking about sex leads people to forgo safe sex practices. In addition, couples communication about their sexual desires and needs is associated with relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction. Therefore, it’s important to learn how to talk about sex not only for your physical health, but for your psychological, emotional, and relational well-being too.

However, talking about sex isn’t as easy as talking about the weather. First, it’s a taboo topic in U.S. culture. For some reason we’re not supposed to talk about this natural thing that we do. Second, sex is a sensitive topic and people might feel embarrassed talking about certain topics, even with their partner.

So, how can you talk to your honey about knockin’ the boots?

Speak up: I am a firm believer that if you can’t have an adult conversation about sex, then you shouldn’t be having sex. If your genitals are aligning and engaging than your minds and words should too. This is especially true when it comes to safe sex practices. It is far better to ask a partner to use a condom or get tested for STI’s than to end up with a mysterious sore or a baby you’re not prepared for.

Don’t think that asking someone about their sexual health history, to get tested for STI’s, or to use a condom suggests that you’re “dirty.” Being in charge of your sexual health is sexy and knowing you’re safe is the ultimate aphrodisiac.

Once you’re in a monogamous relationship, then things can change. But until you know where those parts have been or still are visiting, keep it under wraps.          

In addition, if you do have an STI tell your partner. Although you may think that this is your private information or no one needs to know, it is your responsibility to tell your partner and let him/her decide how to proceed.

Speaking up also goes for your wants and desires. Don’t just go with the flow because you don’t want to hurt your partner’s feelings, sex is a team sport and both of you should be having fun.

Be sensitive: If your honey is rubbing you the wrong way (literally) don’t be afraid to speak up, but do so in a sensitive manner. Screaming “Gosh, what the hell are you doing?!” mid-session may make things grind to a halt. Instead, redirect in a gentle way such as “I love when you touch me softly here,” or “it really turns me on when you…” This gives gentle direction and encouragement, simultaneously. Then when your partner hits the right spot, sing his/her praises to reinforce this behavior.

Timing is everything: If there is a larger issue going on, not just a few wrong moves, you may need to have a more in-depth conversation with your partner. However, it’s important that you do this outside of the bedroom. Don’t wait until your underwear are on the floor to tell your partner you’re just not digging what he/she is bringing to the table these days.

Instead, pick a time when you can both dedicate some time to talk about the issue. Have a soft start-up by letting your partner know how much you love being intimate with him or her, then frame your specific concern by giving a few concrete examples. Don’t make blanket statements like “You never…” or “You always…” Then talk about how you can work together to make this satisfying and fun for both of you.

Most partners want their sweetie to have fun in the boudoir and will be grateful that you brought this matter to their attention.

Start slow: If you want to spice things up in the bedroom, whether it’s leaving the lights on or go all out like Khloe and Lamar (did she really think that sex swing would hold with one hook?!), it’s best to start slow.

Try starting a dialogue and gauging interest outside of the bedroom. Tell your partner you just read an article about INSERT FANTASY HERE and see what his or her response is. If he seems interested discuss the possibility of trying that out next time.

Then proceed with caution. If you want to role play, try inserting some “character dialogue” into your next romp. If that goes well, then bring on the costumes and props!

Make sure to create a “safe word” or code that will put an end to things if one of you gets uncomfortable at any point. Fantasies should be mutually agreed upon and participation should be voluntary.

Compromise: Even though fantasies should be agreed upon and voluntary, it is important to try to listen to one another’s wishes, desires, or fantasies, and come up with a mutually satisfying compromise. If your sweetie is showing interest in S&M but you’re terrified of the idea, try a compromise of maybe just gently tying your hands with a ribbon to a bed post rather than being handcuffed. Work together to make sure you’re both comfortable and satisfied.

Don’t judge: Finally, don’t judge your partner whether he or she reveals an STI or a fantasy. Respond neuturally, if you’re unsure, or enthusiastically if you’re on board. Sharing sexual information is a big risk and if you react negatively your partner may become defensive and refrain from being open in the future. Thank them for sharing the information with you and work together to integrate it into your relationship in a way that is meaningful and mutually satisfying.

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Remember, “Sex is natural, Sex is Fun!..” so talk to your partner today to make the most of your next sexcapade!

Until next time

 

Sylvia

Love Is In The Air: A Valentine’s Day Gift Guide

 

Valentine’s Day. Sure, it’s a hallmark holiday that forces couples to buy unnecessary lingerie, heart shaped candy, and overpriced roses. Yet still, the romantic in me loves this holiday (along with its’ lesser celebrated cousin, Sweetest Day)! Although I believe in celebrating love every day of the year, there is something special about having a designated day to relish in your googly-eyed love.

But, since I’m pretty frugal and refuse to spend double what I would on an entrée on February 14th than I would any other day of the year, or pay full price for hearts filled with chocolate that are 50% off a mere 24-hours later, I’ve come up with a few fun, yet inexpensive ways to celebrate Valentine’s Day with your honey bunny!

Write a love letter! Too often we take our partners for granted or forget to tell them how much they mean to us. So, let your one-and-only know how you feel. Even if you say “I love you” every day, writing down the small things they do that make you swoon, like way they look when reading a book or how they always have your coffee ready for you in the morning, really lets them know how much you care an appreciate them.

Make a coupon book! Yes, like those old school ones you would make your parents when you were a child. The upside of making an adult coupon book is that the coupons can be a lot more fun….wink, wink.

Explore the alphabet! Make a book that uses each letter of the alphabet to describe something you love about your partner. For example, I love your “A” …athleticism, “B” your booty, and so on. Get crafty and creative!

Try a new activity! Research shows that people derive more happiness from doing something with a loved one versus getting a material gift. In addition, engaging in novel activities with a partner fires up the feel good area in the brain, people then attribute this euphoria with their partner, not the activity, resulting in increased relational satisfaction and overall lovey dovey-ness.

So, sign up for that cooking class, go see that new museum exhibit, or hike that new trail. Just make sure it’s new and you’re doing it together.

However, if you want to add a little something extra to your homemade Valentine extravaganza, here are a few of my favorite gifts.

Love stories! I’m a sucker for two things NPR’s Story Corp (I have a good cry every Friday morning thanks to this program!) and a good love story. So, what better gift than a combo of both? Read about heartwarming tales of love and then write your own! You may just fall in love all over again.

Make it personal! Sure you can make a calendar filled with your pictures or slap your mug on a coffee mug, but why not go for the ultimate in personalization? I LOVE these custom silhouette prints from Nella Designs. I’ve given a few as gifts and may just have to get one for myself!

In fact, you can’t go wrong getting anything from etsy. It’s personal and unique. Here are a few other favorites…

For the man in your life:

From Vital

For your leading lady:

From Blue Stem Jewelry  

 For ladies and gents:

Who wouldn’t want to store their change, keys, or jewelry in this adorable bowl?

From Elm Studio Designs

Although Valentine’s Day is a great excuse to act all lovey dovey and smoother your sweetie with kindness, don’t forget to keep it going year-round!

XOXO,

Sylvia

Giving Thanks…All Year Long!

It seems that everyone, no matter how cool, calm, and collected, tends to become a bit more introspective this time of year. The very name of the holiday challenges us to reflect on all the things we’re grateful for. Although I wholeheartedly support this tradition, I also think gratitude and thanks should be given year round, not just reserved for one day of the year.

Acknowledging, thanking, and appreciating your relational partner, be it a parent, friend, or significant other, on a daily, rather than annual, basis is an important relational maintenance strategy. Relational maintenance is important because it allows you to maintain the very existence of your relationship and helps keep your relationship satisfying.  However, relational maintenance doesn’t refer to grand gestures that we see too often in the movies (when was the last time someone chased you down a New York City block in the rain to make up after a fight? Or, came to pick you up for a date in a limo complete with roses, Cristal, and a little blue box?). Instead, relational maintenance strategies are the everyday things you can do to let your loved one know you care.

Research has outlined several maintenance strategies that are particularly useful. Many of you probably do these already, but if you don’t, well, get crackin!

Strategy 1: Be positive and make interacting pleasant. Sounds pretty obvious, huh? But how often do we treat the ones we love the most the worst? Simply showing affection, doing favors for one another, and being upbeat are just a few ways to enact this strategy. So give that hug or ask your partner if they want another cup of coffee while you’re in the kitchen. Easy, right?!

Strategy 2: Talk AND  listen! As relationships progress, people sometimes stop talking and really listening to their partners. If you think back on the early days of your relationship you probably spent hours talking and listening to one another’s dreams, fears, and feelings about one another. I can remember many hours spent talking about all the things my husband and I loved about one another (Seriously. And, I apologize to anyone who overheard those conversations!).  Although you may not have time to spend arguing over who loves the other one more, you do have time (or you better make it) to continue to share information with one another, listen to one another’s problems without judgment, and talk about your relationship, either what’s bothering you, what you hope for the future, or reflect back on your googly-eyed early days.

Strategy 3: Reassure your partner. Long-term relationship partners tend to get lazy. They think the other person should “just know” that they love them, still find them attractive, or couldn’t imagine their life without them. And while this may very well be true, it also doesn’t hurt to remind your partner of that, either directly or indirectly. Offering support, comfort, or explicitly telling your loved one how you feel are all ways of assuring your partner. Something as simple as sending a “good luck” text before a big interview or letting your partner know that you’re glad they’re in your life will do the trick.

Strategy 4: Balance your time together with some time apart. Engaging in joint activities is crucial for any relationship. Carving out time for one another or developing weekly rituals is one way of engaging in joint activities (I know I look forward to eating take-out and watching Fringe with my husband every Friday night). However, this doesn’t mean being attached at the hip. I once knew a couple who did everything together. You couldn’t talk to one of them, you talked to both. And when you did, they were either holding hands or clinging to each other for dear life. So, it’s important that all relationships have a bit of independence. Plan separate activities with your own friends or just give one another some “me” time. Your relationship will thank you.

Strategy 5: As many yearbook messages say, K.I.T (keep in touch)! Whether or not your sweetie pie travels for work or your best friend lives across the country or just down the street, staying connected is essential. Technology today makes it super easy to stay involved in one another’s lives, even if you’re apart. So send a text, shoot off an email, or pick up the phone and call those important people in your life to let them know that you’re thinking of them, even if you’ll see them in a few hours or days.

If you already do these strategies, keep it up! If not, maybe Thursday is a good time to start. And while you’re at it, start sharing what you’re thankful for with the ones you love. I’ll go first…

I’m thankful for my wonderfully supportive husband who makes me feel like the smartest, prettiest, most loved woman in the world. I’m thankful for my fabulous friends who know how to cheer me up or when to just let me have a little pity party. I’m thankful for my great Dad, who makes me proud to be his daughter. I’m thankful for supportive and inspiring colleagues. I’m thankful for all the readers of this blog and your encouraging feedback. I’m thankful for the opportunity to do what I love for a living. I’m thankful for the little four pound Yorkie who’s curled up on my lap/arm as I type this (although she’s impairing me from reaching half the keyboard!). I’m thankful for my health; I never take for granted the fact that I can jump in the pool or run out my door without giving it a second thought.

And finally, I’m thankful that I had the most amazing mother in the world who instilled in me a sense of family, love, eternal optimism, and gratitude. Even in the face of cancer she was grateful; grateful for another day, grateful for her family and friends, grateful for the amazing people that helped her through her journey. I’m thankful that we engaged in relational maintenance strategies every single day. No sentiment was left unsaid, no “I love you” absent of a reply. And for that, I am thankful; today, Thursday, and always.

Until next time,

Sylvia

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