Marriage at First Sight?

Can a modern couple find marital happiness without knowing each other before the wedding? Can reality television teach married couples what it takes to sustain healthy relationships? Married at First Sight -FYI’s hit reality TV show–seeks to do both.

On the program, “experts” select six random singles and arrange three marriages based on their potential compatibility. The participants meet their designated spouses at the altar, sight unseen, knowing nothing about them than that they had been “scientifically” matched up. Fast forward to a wedding and a honeymoon. Then the two move in together and began life as husband and wife. Five weeks later, the couples decide whether to continue their marriage, or call it quits. Along the way, each couple receives counseling from four relationship experts: a psychologist, sociologist, sexologist, and spiritualist.

Talk about a quickie!

Despite all the high drama that makes reality TV a guilty pleasure, and the contrived premise, there was real human vulnerability and emotion on the set, which has producers already casting for the second season and cultural critics wondering: what does this say about the current state of marriage?

It is undeniably an enticing notion: do we need the hassle of courtship, with all its emotional uncertainty and time commitment, or can we end up in the same place by hiring some experts and learning on the fly?

(Spoiler alert!)

For two out of the three matched couples, so far, so good. Only one matched pair decided that divorce was the best option for them. Verdict?

To call a marriage successful because it lasts more than five weeks is silly (80% of U.S. marriages make it at least five years). Yet, the month of marital “boot camp” was illuminating. Although the couples were matched based on objective criteria, relationship success came through hard work and emotional commitment.

Take Jason and Cortney, (still married, and now in love). They learned how to communicate openly and honestly with each other. They made an effort to include each other in their lives, even when it meant operating outside their comfort zone (see: Jason awkwardly dancing in the chorus of Cortney’s burlesque show). We saw Jason’s difficulty opening up to Cortney, since he admitted that trust doesn’t come easily to him. However, they shared a mutual desire to make the marriage work and to acknowledge their vulnerabilities, which enabled them to grow as individuals and develop trust in each other. They were able to incorporate advice from the experts, and by the show’s end, Jason admitted he was learning to trust Cortney and even in that short time, had felt a growing sense of intimacy.

On the other hand, Monet and Vaughn, (the divorcing duo), was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. Whenever Monet tried to express her own needs to Vaughn, he felt threatened and would put his needs first. The two would butt heads over the smallest issues because instead of working together, they were quick to lay blame on each other. Advice from family, friends, and experts seemed to bounce off of them. Despite the couple’s high sexual compatibility, they could not find a way to communicate their needs in a thoughtful way.

What created “success” in two of the three marriages wasn’t love at first sight, or any romantic view of courtship. It was the desire to make the relationship work, and an acquired ability to listen to one’s partner, and use the advice from third parties with a vested interest in their success. Ultimately, a willingness to be vulnerable to another person got these men and women through to the end.

“Marriage at First Sight” might be reality-show entertainment, but this clever social experiment contains lessons for us all.

Navigating Change

There is a fundamental dilemma in the human condition. It’s about change. We desire it, but also fear it. It’s an inevitable part of life, yet we often “kick and scream” our way through it.

As a society, we are obsessed with change—changing ourselves and others. Just look at the hundreds of blog posts, articles and infomercials touting all sorts of advice on how to live a better, happier, sexier or richer life.

With all this free advice, how come most of us are still stuck in our old ways of being, holding onto what we know, avoiding change and the possibility of personal growth?

The fault lies in our brains. We are wired for safety and predictability, even though we secretly desire danger and excitement. We crave newness but also fear it. Why this internal conflict?

As children, we had to learn that mother, whom we depended on for safety, was not always there. Hungry, wet or tired, we had to cry to get her attention. The time between our feelings of hunger and the warmth of her embrace felt like an eternity. Even if mum carried a baby monitor 24/7, the anxiety of separation made us feel vulnerable and afraid. Our brain registered these emotions. As adults, we repeat this dance of danger and safety in an attempt to refind our lost attachment to our early caretaker.

We know that life is not about avoiding challenges; we had to face separation and loss. It is an inevitable part of life. Aside from death and taxes, everything is uncertain. So how can we make it easier to accept that safety is an illusion, and change is the norm? Whether dealing with marital conflict or a divorce, starting college, getting married, changing careers, becoming a new parent, or just growing older—adapting to change requires work.

Here are few tips to help you stand up to your primitive brain and navigate life’s transitions with grace:

  • Realize that change or loss may make you feel scared and anxious, even depressed. These are normal feelings and part of the process. The key is knowing that relief will come, although it may not be exactly what you expected. Mother may not show up with a warm embrace, but the best of you, will.
  • Travel through to the other side. Visualize where you want to be. This allows you to see the opportunities that change unveils. Look at how you may interfere with your life goals by seeking certainty and stability. Even the most difficult transitions provide opportunities for being and doing more than we thought possible.
  • Reach out for support. Talk with someone who has gone through a similar situation. Transitions are part of the human condition. Remember that you are not alone and your feelings are normal.
  • Reflect on your experiences. Take your time. Don’t feel you have to rush through the process. Stay with what’s happening, but don’t get attached to your emotions. Everything passes, even your discomfort. Reframe your feelings of anxiety as preparing for a bold step forward.
  • Know yourself and how you have successfully navigated other changes in the past. Concentrate on all the successful transitions you have made in your life. Take credit for your resiliency.

As young children, we had to learn to love and let go. Each transition is another opportunity to grow and test our resiliency. You can face your fear of change without letting it hold you back.

Do Prenups Ruin Romance?

With wedding season coming into full bloom, some couples are doing more than shopping for wedding gowns, ordering flowers, and choosing reception venues. Many couples are discussing the terms of their prenuptial agreements.

You may be thinking: Is this planning a happy future together, or a divorce?

For some people it’s a pragmatic idea, but for others, it chills the romance and threatens the chance of a happy marriage. One or the other partner may feel that suggesting a prenup shows a lack of trust and commitment, or attaches a higher value to assets than intimacy.

The profile of today’s bride and groom has changed from the days when two penniless love-birds just starting out could easily tie the knot. Now many couples marry later in life, after becoming successful in their own careers. They may have acquired homes, significant financial assets, and hefty retirements. Children from a previous marriage may need consideration or they may want to avoid the financial sting felt from a prior divorce. And in any event, a protracted divorce settlement is no one’s idea of a good time. Given these practical reasons, romance can still flourish if a prenup is approached in a sensible, yet sensitive manner.

Deciding whether a prenup is right for you and your future spouse is a personal decision, and every situation is unique. But, “timing” and “wording” are everything.

For the best outcome, try to get a general sense of your partner’s approach to finances before becoming engaged. Talk openly and honestly about financial situations that you may have to deal with as a couple and express your expectations and anxieties about money.

When talking about a prenup, choose your words carefully. Phrases like “I want” and “I need” can sound as if you are focused only on yourself and your interests, rather than on the prenup as a mutually beneficial agreement, in place to protect both of you.

Once engaged, you will still have to work out the particular prenup details, but give yourselves time to enjoy your engagement. Don’t talk about a prenup right after you become engaged, and don’t wait too long to bring it up. You don’t want your fiancé to feel that you are putting money before love, or that you waited until the wedding date was around the corner to bring it up– both will dampen the romance.

If you decide on a prenup, each of you will want to have your own legal representation because you want both interests to be equally protected. It is usually best to retain attorneys who have no special connection to either of you; this keeps negotiations on a neutral keel. And, think about who you choose to represent you. Some lawyers are more sensitive than others in navigating the possible emotional waters.

A prenup is not about distrust, control, or impending doom; it’s about planning and protecting finances for both of you. Once the prenup signed, let your lawyers keep the document. Go on your honeymoon, and forget the papers were ever drafted!

When Love Is a Battlefield

Within the past few years, this country has brought home all of our troops from Iraq, and our soldiers currently deployed in Afghanistan are expected to come home by the end of the year. As these brave men and women return to the United States, their homecomings are celebrated with waving flags, welcome home signs and joyful reunions. However, when the excitement of the homecoming wears off, veterans and their spouses end up dealing with some difficult times, especially among those who deal with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The National Center for PTSD has found that the divorce rate for veterans with PTSD is three times higher than for veterans without PTSD, and this statistic shows the devastating effect that trauma can have on marriages and other relationships.

PTSD is a diagnostic term for someone who has gone through a stressful event in their lives, which causes significant emotional reactions years later. Combat, acts of violence and physical injury are obvious traumas, but there are other kinds of trauma that may also leave emotional scars. Attachment traumas are disruptions in important early relationships that caused emotional distress and have a negative impact on future relationships. If one or both partners experienced emotional traumas in their families as children or teenagers, such as parents divorcing, the loss or abandonment of significant caretakers, even sibling rivalry, these may cause psychic wounds that affect future relationships. Many couples I see suffer in their marriages because past relationship traumas haven’t been analyzed and understood. The good news is that we have learned a lot about dealing with attachment trauma in the past several years. If your past is turning your own relationship into a combat zone, let’s take a look at a few things you can do to heal attachment trauma and turn it into an opportunity for personal growth and healthier relationships.

How Does Trauma Affect Relationships?

People who have experienced trauma often show symptoms of distress in regulating and managing their emotions. Communication is often difficult, and a lack of communication makes it hard to deal with common disputes let alone significant differences. Instead of opportunities for negotiation and self-expression, these disputes are experienced as re-traumatizing. Conflicts are likely to be avoided or intensified. Sexual dysfunction is also a common problem, which can add stress to any relationship. In some cases, individuals trying to cope with trauma turn to drugs or alcohol, which threatens to destroy any relationship.

Tips for Recovery

Of course, the first step to maintaining a successful marriage after a trauma is to recognize that the trauma is affecting your relationship. Once couples realize that their marriage is being negatively affected, they can begin moving forward. Here are some essential tips for keeping a marriage strong after going through a trauma.

Talk to Someone: One of the most important steps to keeping your marriage strong despite the trauma is to find a therapist you feel comfortable with. Individual therapy is important for the partner who has gone through the trauma, but couples therapy is also effective. Seeing a couple’s therapist can help the partner begin to understand what their spouse is going through, which is essential and effective. Psychoanalysts are trained to recognize how past traumas are repeated in current relationships.

Patience and Space: Therapy takes time to work, so flare ups or avoidance strategies may continue to occur for some time. To keep these relationship destroyers at bay requires space, support and containment. Try not to overreact. Be willing to give your spouse some space as they work through their past traumas. Empathy is critical. Try to understand how your partner feels even if you don’t agree or wouldn’t react in the same way.

Spend Time Together: Spending time together doing an activity that you both enjoy can act as a lifeline. Focusing on an activity can keep your minds off the problem and helps to rebuild your bond as a couple. Make time regularly to engage in an activity together, building new, positive memories that will help with the healing process.

A spouse that has gone through attachment trauma needs a strong relationship more than ever. Strong relationships boost self-esteem, offer emotional support and provide a sense of companionship. Avoid allowing a trauma to tear your marriage apart. Seek help from a professional and begin working towards a stronger relationship for both of you.

Advice for Parents of Millennials

Adults: You need to sit down and read “Adulting,” a blog by a very wise Millennial, Kelly Williams Brown. A printed collection of the blog has been published under the same name, subtitled “How to Become a Grown Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps.” It came to my attention via front-page coverage in The New York Times. “Adulting” is, in essence, a how-to manual for understanding the world of adulthood and easing into it. Williams tackles a swath of problems from career to relationships, to setting up utilities and managing a home. (And there are also tips about manners and etiquette.)

On her blog recently, Williams wrote a message to older generations who may be quick to condemn Millennials. For anyone who deals with young adults, from parents to employers, take a look at William’s self assessment of her generation:

We grew up with a model, and set of assumptions, that proved untrue. During our childhoods, unemployment was low, houses gained in value, a bachelor’s degree left you prepared for a variety of employment opportunities and investing was a sound decision. Now all of those things aren’t the case. It’s our job to deal with that, and that’s fine. Generations have faced much worse. But it’s easy to distrust a system that melted down so spectacularly just as it was time for us to buy into it.

When you look behind the curtain — or the digital screen–of young adults, there’s more anger and fear than most of us (meaning their parents) guessed. Instead of expressing their discontent and disappointment in the highly visible mode of former generations (riots in the streets, sit-ins on college campuses), they express their angst on social media, in blogs, and, I’m guessing, in fiction, too. The genuine despair of many Millennials is real, but not necessarily palpable or relatable to the rest of us.

Why do Millennials distrust the system? There are many answers: social, economic, and legal — but the most honest answer is that Baby Boomers sold them a bill of goods.

We made them feel entitled to success in America — and preached the American Dream — but also pulled the rug out from under them by ransacking the economy for our own gain.

We stressed the importance of good healthcare — and prevention! — and then presented them with a system of health insurance that requires they work two jobs to afford coverage. (And we’re not talking Dental coverage, even with two jobs.)

We touted the centrality of marriage and family, while often our own marriages were imploding in front of them.

We promoted parenthood as a key part of happiness, and then created a society where both parents must work to survive, and good, affordable childcare and flextime are the exception. At the same time, we tell Millennial women to “lean in,” implying that the real problem is their ambivalence and timidity.

So, Millennials are complaining and delaying the buy-in to total adulthood. And a lot of the complaining is going on in their parents’ homes because they cannot afford a place of their own.

My fear is they are only talking to each other, not to us. Yet, even if we’ve screwed the pooch on several major fronts, we can still be useful to this generation . . . by listening to them . . . and empathizing with them.

We didn’t face identical challenges, but we certainly felt the combination of anxiety and culture shock that comes after the structure of formal education falls away, when kids graduate from college.

And as older adults, we do know a thing or two about entering and coping with the workplace, and dealing with the Baby Boomers who are still mostly in charge there. (I’m talking about basic things Millennials may not know, like “Never, ever look at your cell phone while your boss is talking to you.”)

So instead of condemnation for a generation of “slacktivists,” let’s rally as family, neighbors and friends to let these kids vent openly, and to give them a hand. They don’t need us as Friends or Followers. They need us to be grown ups, and to get this intergenerational conversation going.

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