Sometimes it Really IS Just About the Trash

The division of household responsibilities can spark intense conflict among many couples. A heated discussion over chores (why the trash hasn’t been taken out yet) is often the convenient forum couples use to vent about deeper conflicts that exist in their relationship.

However, sometimes it really IS just about the trash! Research has shown that when the division of labor is seen as unfair, couples may seriously consider ending their relationship. And even when chores are viewed as equally shared, partners may still be dissatisfied–especially if gratitude and appreciation aren’t regularly expressed for each other’s contributions.

While professors at Arizona State University, Jess Alberts and Angela Trethewey conducted research on how the role of gratitude affects couples’ satisfaction. They found that gratitude not only lessens the negative effects of an unfair division of responsibilities, but a lack of gratitude may even contribute to an uneven division of labor in the first place.  

If one partner isn’t bothered by a sink full of dirty dishes (referred to as having a higher “response threshold” in their study), but his or her partner has a lower tolerance for the kitchen mess, guess who usually ends up doing the dishes? We’ve likely all experienced or witnessed examples of this scenario. Statistics (not surprisingly) show that women perform two-thirds of household tasks, even when they work full time.

This difference in an individual’s level of tolerance (response threshold) can quickly lead to an unequal division of household labor if not addressed. Unfortunately, research has also confirmed that repeatedly jumping in to perform a household duty early on in a relationship, will quickly make it yours to do forever!  

Study results point out that our understanding of why our partner completed the chore is critical. For example, if we feel that our partner cleaned the kitchen for the benefit and good of the household, we are much more likely to express gratitude and appreciation for the act.  

However, if we perceive that our partner cleaned the kitchen because they can’t tolerate mess and did it for their own personal benefit, we’re much less likely be grateful. If you consider your partner’s efforts as a gift, you’re more likely to express your appreciation. This, in turn, creates less resentment on his or her part (regardless of the division of labor) and leads to greater relationship satisfaction.

So, if Johnny thinks his wife, Julie, keeps the kitchen spotless as a contribution for the good of the family, he’s more likely to feel and express gratitude for her efforts. If, however, Johnny views that sparkly kitchen as something she’s doing for herself (because she cannot tolerate a messy kitchen), he’s highly unlikely to express any appreciation.

Recently, in my practice, I addressed this division of labor issue with a couple. The husband had been making more effort now to participate in chores. After taking the trash out, he announced to his wife, “I did it for you” (instead of “I wanted to do my share to help out the household”). We had a good laugh about it in our session, joking that it was indeed her ultimate lifetime dream to have the trash taken out.

The bottom line is that it’s much healthier to understand that your partner is contributing to the household when they do chores (with few exceptions). This allows you to naturally be much more appreciative.

Here are some tips to help eliminate conflict over household chores:

  1. First, determine and understand the differing “response thresholds” of both you and your partner.

  1. Don’t completely take over a chore unless you really enjoy it–otherwise, you will soon “own” it. This advice is best instituted early in the relationship, if possible. Share household tasks from the beginning.

  1. Consider putting chores on a schedule versus waiting until the responsible person decides it needs to be done. Set a time/day for the task to be completed–well before it bothers the “lower threshold” partner.

  1. To fully appreciate your partner’s efforts and express meaningful gratitude, switch tasks every few weeks or months. Experiencing what the other person does and contributes by “walking in their shoes,” will increase your feelings of appreciation for their efforts.

Couples who share household responsibilities and express gratitude for each other’s contributions, clearly have the most successful, satisfying relationships. Working together to avoid any conflicts over chores also keeps partners from taking each other for granted.

If you find you need help eliminating this source of friction in your relationship, don’t hesitate to seek couples counseling for assistance–even if it’s just about the trash.

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Gratitude to the Rescue!

iStock_000016233501Small_erThe research is in, and it’s pretty conclusive. The last decade has provided us with lots of new information on the practice of gratitude. Study results repeatedly illustrate a multitude of benefits for those who’ve implemented a gratitude practice in their lives.

Overall, people who develop an attitude of gratitude experience enhanced physical and mental well-being. By generally showing and feeling gratitude in their daily lives, they are happier and more optimistic.

Those who appreciate the world around them tend to be pro-social leaders, are more cooperative, and experience less envy and possessiveness. Additionally, these folks have less depression and anxiety, lower blood pressure, and a stronger immune system.

Couples researcher Sara Algoe, Ph.D, and her colleagues at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, found that partners who practice gratitude are happier with their relationship and feel more intimately connected to each other. Practicing gratitude was also predictive as to which couples would stay together and which relationships would be more likely fall apart nine months down the road.

So, what exactly does it mean to show gratitude in a relationship?

Being appreciative of your partner includes much more than saying thanks for picking up milk at the store after work. It’s not just about expressing appreciation for what he or she does, but also for who he or she is as a person. It’s often helpful to remember what drew you to your partner in the first place, and begin anew to appreciate and compliment their appealing personality characteristics.

Dr. Amie Gordon, gratitude researcher and writer for Psychology Today, reports that even when appreciation is expressed by only one partner, it can help both partners increase the level of commitment in their relationship. She and her colleagues, in a series of studies, concluded that there are four steps in a cycle of gratitude which can start from only one partner’s actions:

  1. Feeling grateful for your partner contributes to wanting to remain in your relationship.
  2. Feeling grateful for your partner also causes you to willingly work to keep your relationship healthy.
  3. Working to keep the relationship healthy makes your partner feel appreciated.
  4. When your partner feels appreciated, he or she will then feel and express more gratitude in return.

This cycle causes a chain reaction of gratitude, with both partners becoming more aware of each other’s cherished qualities (and behaviors).

If this sounds like a no-brainer attitude to incorporate into your life, it really is!

Here are some steps I recommend to start your own cycle of feeling, and expressing, more gratitude in your relationship:

  1. Take time to really reflect on your partner’s positive qualities. If this proves difficult, think back on what attracted you to your partner in the first place.
  2. Focus on giving to your partner. Expressing kindness and performing acts of service for others has been shown to increase our own happiness anyway.
  1. Take action in a special way to say thanks for who your partner is. Perhaps write a gratitude letter to your partner telling them what you appreciate about them, how they have affected your life, and what your relationship with them has meant to you. Then, go ahead and read the letter to your partner. This can have a tremendously positive impact on your relationship. (Don’t forget to bring the Kleenex!)
  1. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude in general. One easy way is to start a gratitude journal. Begin by writing down three to five things you are grateful for. It is recommended that you add new entries at least once a week or as often as every day, depending on what feels right for you. Click here for tips on keeping a gratitude journal.

Learning to appreciate and take in “the good” in life, while expressing gratitude to others (especially those closest to us) can greatly improve our physical and mental well-being. Over time, the habit of this practice helps us stay aware of the positive aspects of our life (and of our partner). Developing an attitude of gratitude also reminds us to consistently show appreciation, which will undoubtedly strengthen our relationships.

If you feel you need help cultivating a gratitude practice, don’t hesitate to seek out the professional assistance of an experienced therapist. The benefits are more than worth the effort to get there.

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9 Steps to Forgiveness

Carrying resentments and holding grudges requires energy. These emotional burdens not only impact our psychological health, but research shows that holding grudges actually exerts a toll on our physical health as well.

So how do we let go of our resentments and grudges? Why do we hold grudges in the first place? And why are they so hard to let go of?  

Research suggests that the key to releasing these old wounds (with the added benefits of fostering happiness and reducing stress), lies in the act of forgiveness.  

We essentially have two choices when it comes to resolving conflict and dealing with our resentment: We can hang on to our anger and seek vengeance, or let it go and seek forgiveness. As humans, we are hardwired for both of these responses. What we choose ultimately depends on what we focus on.

In order to make an informed decision, it’s important to understand what forgiveness is – and what it isn’t.  

Dr. Fred Luskin, author of the best-selling book Forgive for Good, and director of the Stanford University Forgiveness Project, describes forgiveness as essentially making peace with the word “no.” To accept what happened when something doesn’t go the way we wanted (receiving a “no” instead of a “yes”) is to forgive.  

We all have a vision of how we want our lives to be. If those plans don’t materialize (we’re basically told “no, things won’t go as you planned”), we can stay angry and resentful, or we can move toward accepting the change and making peace with it. Releasing the grudge (forgiving) by accepting what happened allows us to move forward and give the next moment a chance to be “yes.”

It is crucial, however, to understand what forgiveness is not! It does not require us to condone the actions or behavior of another person, nor does it mean relinquishing them from responsibility. To release a grudge and forgive also does not require forgetting what happened, agreeing with it, or even necessarily reconciling with the other person.

Making peace – the essence of forgiveness – is something we do for ourselves and our own wellbeing. It is a way of being resilient when things don’t go as planned. We accept what happened, and move on.

Luskin also points out that if we’re really at peace with “no,” we can lead our lives without prejudice, meaning we are no longer influenced by the event.

When examining the benefits of forgiveness in relationships, studies have found that partners who forgave each other were happier (even nine weeks later) than couples who remained resentful and held grudges against each other.

A great quote from the renowned Nelson Mandela sums up this paradox perfectly: “Resentment is like drinking poison and hoping it will kill your enemy.”  

Those who hold grudges are burdened physically and psychologically by the poison left inside them.

Dr. Luskin, in his work with the Forgiveness Project, created nine steps to help us reach a state of forgiveness in our lives, which I’ve outlined below:

  1. Pinpoint how you feel about what happened and what you didn’t like about the incident. Then share the experience with people you trust. “Getting it out/talking it out” is the first step in releasing the negativity you’re holding inside.

  2. Make the decision to feel better – just for yourself, not anyone else.

  3. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to like the offending person or event, but that you are releasing the offense and its power over you, and seeking peace.

  4. Recognize that what hurts most is how you’re actually feeling right now – not the atrocities of an injustice that occurred five years, or even five minutes ago.

  5. Learn and practice stress management techniques to better control impulse reactions to behaviors or actions that affect you negatively.

  6. Give up expecting everything to go as you plan. Much of what happens in life is out of our personal control. You will needlessly suffer if you refuse to accept that fact.

  7. Focus on new and positive ways to meet goals, rather than the previous disappointing experience. Consider it a valuable life lesson. Learn from it and move on.

  8. Look for and appreciate the many blessings in your life, instead of focusing on pain and suffering. Living well is the best revenge over negativity!

  9. Don’t hesitate to pat yourself on the back for having “taken the high road” in less than ideal experiences. Reminding ourselves of how we appropriately overcame adversity brightens the darkness of the memories we carry.

In Dr. Luskin’s forgiveness studies, participants had the benefit of a therapist to help guide them through these nine steps.  

Go ahead and try to work through them yourself. However, do not hesitate to seek professional support if you find yourself struggling with one of the above steps, or have difficulty learning to forgive on your own. Making peace with “no” can be a very challenging process, but it can make a very positive impact on your overall wellbeing.

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5 Ways to Revitalize Your Relationship

Let’s face it. Every relationship can use a boost from time to time. As the years go by and familiarity sets in, keeping our connection fresh and exciting becomes more and more of a challenge.

Understanding what connects us to each other does make a difference. Common bonds can keep our love alive and help reinvigorate our passion for one another.

According to Dr. Barbara Fredrickson, author, psychologist and expert in the study of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina, being in love with our partner is closely connected to the “positive resonance” between us. She explains that this term is comprised of three essential qualities:

  1. Sharing one or more positive emotions with your partner.

  2. Being in sync with each other’s personality and behavior.

  3. Having the motivation to invest in the wellbeing of another person, knowing it will benefit us personally as well.

Instead of accepting that our relationships have lost their spark, we can actively attract more love into our relationships by using these guidelines of positive resonance.

Dr. Fredrickson’s research points out that it’s not biologically possible to be in love 100% of the time. Our emotions are not constant, but wax and wane. She explains that our actions make a big difference in building and keeping that intimate, loving connection. Positive resonance keeps the bond alive, and strengthens it – even when we are physically apart.

Best of all, you can practice and generate the positive emotions associated with love whenever you want. Knowing that loving feelings aren’t a constant can motivate us to focus on creating that passion and connection on a daily basis. It also can keep us from taking love for granted.  

Studies conducted by Dr. Fredrickson at the Positive Emotions and Psychophysiology Lab, UNC’s Chapel Hill location, revealed five ways to put positive resonance to work in your relationship:

  1. Look into your partner’s eyes: “Be one with one another.” Although we have many options for staying connected (texts, phone calls, and Facebook to name a few), scientists say that eye contact is our primary mode of sensory connection. Visually seeing and experiencing each other in the flesh is the most potent trigger for keeping love alive.

  1. Regularly incorporate cooperative silliness in your relationship. Having silly fun together is an engaging way to strengthen the intimate bond. Not only is it a privately shared activity, but humorous situations reduce stress, hostility, and other negative feelings.

  1. Search out and build on a shared history. These times together from our past turn into “micro-moments of love,” or special memories we share with our partner. This might include an adventure (or mishap) just the two of you experienced, or an inside private joke only you and your partner understand. Recalling those shared moments of history increases our sense of connection to another person.

  1. Show appreciation and gratitude on a regular basis. Expressing thanks to our partner for their contribution to the good things in our relationship, and life in general, encourages positivity in return. This cycle of gratitude will build on itself and often becomes contagious, with each partner looking for opportunities to express their appreciation.

  1. Create a “positive emotion bank account.” As also recommended in the research of Dr. John Gottman, regular “deposits” into your positivity “account” can serve you well in the future. Having an emotional reserve of goodwill between you and your partner can act as a cushion, particularly helpful in challenging times, and increases the resiliency in your relationship. 

Give these steps a try and see what you notice. However, if you and your partner find you are still having trouble revitalizing the love in your relationship, consider seeking the help of a skilled couples counselor. With professional support and guidance, you can strengthen your loving connection and reignite the passion.

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7 Steps to End Loneliness in a Relationship

The vision of having a special long-term partner or spouse in your life does not always live up to the reality that many experience. Unfortunately, being in a committed relationship does not guarantee that you’ll feel closely connected, satisfied, or fulfilled.

Research shows that about 20% of the general population admits to being lonely, and one recent study found that over 60% of people in older marriages feel isolated from their partners. Those percentages represent many lonely people out there in relationships (and of course many lonely singles as well).

Loneliness is not often considered to be a problem in marriage, and it’s certainly not talked about much. Not many people even admit it to themselves, much less to anyone else — including their partner! It’s something that can feel awkward and embarrassing.

In addition to being an unpleasant experience, chronic loneliness affects our mental health. The risk of clinical depression and related negativity can sink our feelings of self-worth, and also lead to anxiety issues. Loneliness is also shown to negatively impact our physical health by weakening our immune system and upsetting our cardiovascular and digestive functioning, in addition to causing other physical ailments.  

Feeling disconnected in our committed relationship is often the result of a lack of having deep conversations with our partner and poor communication in general. In the day-to-day busyness of life, it’s easy to fall into a routine that focuses mostly on basic maintenance: household chores, parenting issues, and paying the bills. Certain sensitive periods in relationships, such as when a first child is born or when having work or health stressors, can also negatively impact our connection.

Unfortunately, what often gets lost are meaningful exchanges with our partner. Our hopes, dreams, life philosophies, and goals do not get shared, the dialogues that may have helped connect us to our partner in the first place.

While it’s not easy for couples to find their way back and recreate the sparks that originally brought them together, it is in fact possible to reestablish their special connection. Here are seven suggestions to help combat loneliness in an intimate relationship:

  1. If you’re feeling lonely, don’t accept it – take action! Share with your partner what you feel is missing, and be specific about what you would like different. Clearly state what is bothering you, and talk about what you feel is going to make you happier. Take responsibility for how you may be contributing to the current state of your relationship. 

  1. If you’ve been feeling lonely for a while, chances are that your partner is feeling a similar disconnect as well. Give your significant other equal time to express his or her own needs and opinions on the subject. Listen with compassion, and reflect their thoughts back to them, to make sure they feel heard.

  1. Address, and attempt to resolve, any past or present issues that might be preventing the intimacy and connection you’re looking for. Seek outside help, if necessary. Any longstanding resentment needs to be addressed in order for your situation to change.

  1. Make an effort to increase your physical proximity as well as your emotional connection. Although recreating sexual intimacy is important, start with smaller steps such as sitting next to each other, holding hands, and becoming more affectionate. It’s often these “little things” that have fallen by the wayside when we feel isolated from our partner.

  1. Focus on increasing quality time together. Participate in more shared activities or hobbies. Introduce your partner to something you enjoy, become better acquainted with his/her favorites, and/or try something totally new for you both! 

  1. Remember that the key to effective communication is to make it happen consistently. It’s unfortunately easy to revert back to the unhealthier patterns and habits without a determined effort.

  1. If, after several weeks, little has changed in your sense of loneliness or depth of connection, approach your partner about the possibility of going to couples counseling. A trained professional can assist in clearing the air, removing those isolating roadblocks, and help you reestablish the intimacy you once had.

Being in a relationship is more than just living together – it’s sharing your life.  Make it as meaningful as you can.

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