Saturday, July 30, 2016

Intermission Sunset

At about 5pm this evening, Sara and I started looking at our calendar for the week and realized how stressful it was going to be.  Discussion was tense, awkward, and rough around the edges.  At 7pm, we started working on our new flatscreen, trying to figure out the screen ratio.  Again, conversations were bumpy and didn't flow well at best.  By 9pm, we got into more conflict as we both entered our work on computers across from one another over the dinner table, Sara her master's degree work, and grading final exams for me. 

During the summer, Seattle sunsets come around 9:30pm, and when the sunset came, I noticed it out of the corner of my eye through the back window.  I had a feeling it was a good one, so I drew the curtains of the side-window wide open in front of Sara.  

"Wow, what a beautiful sunset," she said.

"Let's get out there," I replied.

I knew we needed the intermission, to engage with each other and that sunset, to connect and become whole again.  We crossed our residential street, found a good spot to watch, hold, and talk to one another.  Each of us took deep breaths.  We knew how important this moment was for our evening together. 

After coming in, Sara said, "I feel so much more connected to you now."

So true.

In the end, we have to take advantages of opportunities like these.  Little moments like this might be little, but built up over a lifetime, they add up to a huge foundation that can weather many storms.  

(note to men: I know doing something like this can feel awkward because it is gushy emotional stuff.  However, remember that even if you don't know what to say, the fact that you initiate with your wife or partner is the act of leading, and your spouse will feel your strength and leadership.)

photo called "Sunset" taken from flickr creative commons by photographer David Marsh

Play Date

Sara and I struggle with date nights.  We've got work, school, and daughter.  Trying to plan a date night requires baby swapping or finding and paying a baby sitter.  Plus, in thinking about a date night, we often get into this mindset which says it has to be a little more extravagant because it doesn't happen that often.  

Recently, an idea came to me about getting "little" play dates in for me and Sara.  Our housemate is often here during the evenings, so we asked her if she'd be willing to keep an eye on the monitor while we went for a walk.  If our daughter woke up, we'd be just around the corner and could come right home.  She agreed, so we went for a 30 minute walk.  It was nice.

A couple nights later, we asked if we could do it again, but this time we'd pay her a small amount to keep an eye on the monitor.   She agreed again, so this time, we brought a frisbee and a soccer ball up to the park and played, again for 30 minutes.  Not only did we get some time together, but we got some play in as well.  One of our friends, who is a nutritionist, explains that longevity isn't necessarily based upon prolonged amounts of time exercising; rather, it is more based upon a mixture of play, intimacy, and exercise.  In fact, she mentions that about 30 minutes a day is all that's needed.  Thus, whether it is walking or playing frisbee, we invest into our relationships and our health through small times like these.  And, like our nutritionist friend, researcher Dr. John Gottman explains that other researchers have determined we increase our longevity by an average of four years if we are in a satisfying committed relationship.  These are the benefits of 30 minute play dates with our spouses.

Not all of us have housemates or nearby parks, but the reality is that these little 30 minute intimate, playful, even verbal rendezvous with our partners must be fought for with our intentionality in the midst of bumbling through the whole thing.  Gottman's research is also clear in that moving towards one another in these ways ranks in the top seven factors for marriages that go the distance.

photo taken from flickr creative commons by "_dbr"

Mother's Day Pressure for Fathers

Approaching Mother's Day, I felt the pressure of coming up with something big.  "Gotta please my wife," was the thought going through my head.  I knew this was messed up thinking.  The angel on my right shoulder kept saying, "Don't listen to that crap, just try to do good to her without thinking about the "why" of everything."  The other thought going through my mind was "I haven't been doing as much for Sara lately, so I feel like I'd just be trying to do something for Mother's Day because I'm supposed to".  Again, the good angel said, "It's never too late to do good for your wife. Don't worry about whether or not you are 'just doing it for Mother's Day'."

Throughout our marriage I am a combination of intentionality and bumbling through things.  Although it might look like I get it right every time, that isn't the case because I've had my fair share of missing out on opportunities to do good.  Although I must give myself grace, I often find myself lacking desire to move towards my wife, especially since having our daughter.  We are living life, doing work, both in graduate school, cleaning up the house, tending the garden, and most of all - putting a tremendous amount of energy into our daughter.  At the end of the day, or even the in-between times, I can find myself lacking desire to put energy into my wife.

This is when I have to step back and think as clearly as possible.  "What do I really believe?  Do I want to move towards Sara?  Of course I do."  That's when I throw up the simple prayer that comes to mind in moments like these, "God, help me to move towards my wife."

In the end, I created a "You-Tube-video-Mother's-Day-card" for Sara several days ago, and of course, she loved it.  I know you might think that I sure went overboard after struggling with moving towards her for Mother's Day, but this isn't the truth.  I love to do little videos, and I loved doing this video with my daughter.  It wasn't hard for me to muster up the motivation to make a creative video for her.  Nevertheless, it took me finding the desire to move towards her, and a little prayer to muster up the desire to get the energy to do it.  Then, once I did it, I found myself having loved moving towards Sara after all of my mental agony and gymnastics.

In the end, it wasn't too late to move towards Sara, and it is never too late to move towards her, no matter how long it has been.  Never forget that it is never too late to move towards your spouse.  Our hearts are designed for and long for such movement.

Photo by Jonathan Daniels on Unsplash

Relationship Preparation, Maintenance, and Messiness

Check out this yahoo in the back right corner with the sports jacket.  Who let him into this race?  He'll be throwing that thing off about two or three minutes. Hopefully, it didn't cost him much.  Or, what about the gal in the elf outfit in front?  Where did she find that get-up?  And, if you take a look at the photo below, I'm sure you'll get the idea that these women are probably all thinking, what in the heck am I doing here in this winter race without my clothes on?  Sounded like a lot more fun than it's going to be after all.  Hopefully, they'll warm up in the next ten to fifteen minutes of the race, but the Grinch in center is probably going to eighty-six the mask due to heat exhaustion sooner than the yahoo with the sports jacket, so long as the Grinch doesn't crash, due to lack of visibility!

Do you ever feel like you're out of place in life like the characters in these photos?  You're at the starting line but everyone seems more prepared?

Back in 2010, I started attending this adult Sunday school class at my church that was supposed to be for twenty and thirty somethings, but in reality almost everyone was married and many of them had kids.

I was single.

The class wasn't supposed to be just for married couples or those with kids, but pretty much every topic centered on marriage and children.  Every Sunday, I came to class feeling like I was wearing a Grinch outfit, a sports jacket, or had simply forgotten to put my clothes on for the race!  Nevertheless, I wanted to be part of a community my age, and most people my age were married and many of them had kids.

So, I kept going.

For the first six months, there was a point during each class that I almost literally had to brace my chair with both hands to keep me from walking out because I felt so out of place.  It isn't that the people in the class were doing anything wrong.  They were simply being themselves, and talking about married stuff and kids stuff.  Nevertheless, I kept pressing on, and finally, after about six months, I began to feel more comfortable, with only an occasional desire to run.

The story doesn't stop there.

My marriage class is but one example of feeling out of place at the starting line.  Every single one of us is tempted to look around at the others and feel pretty out-of-place.

I'm married, but the one next to me has a new born.  We've got a newborn, but the couple next to us has four middle schooler's.  We're having our first children but our peers are having grandchildren!  Why the heck are we so far behind?  Yeah, but you don't understand my situation as a grandparent.  I wish I could go back and start over.

I'm single.  I'm divorced.  I'm remarried.  I'm a single parent.  Those around me don't seem to be.  Or, I'm remarried, but her remarriage certainly seems to be going a lot better than mine!  Oh, and you think you have it bad?  I know you're single, but you're only twenty-five.  I'm single, going on thirty-six, plus I don't even have a job that could help support a family if I did get married!

Do you get the idea?  We're all wearing sports jackets, Grinch outfits, and many of us aren't even wearing clothes at all, but we're at this starting line every day and we're wondering what in the heck happened!

The reality is that we have to figure out how to believe that it is okay to toe-up at that starting line and enter the race every day.  Once we realize that pretty much everyone is in the same boat as us, we can begin to forgive ourselves for not living up to the expectations that we and our cultures have placed upon us.  We have to get out there and take a chance and see what we can do every day.

I do think marriage is a wonderful and beautiful thing, and I'll continue to write about it, but our stories are so complex and often messed up, so we just have to do the best with what we've got.  The hope is that we can keep entering the story every day, and maybe over time, the story will be a little more beautiful and powerful than we thought it had been while we were measuring it against crazy notions of perfection.

(photos taken from flickr creative commons by Roxanne King)

Boundaries are Compassion to Self and Partner

Airlines understand the value of self-care that is outwardly focused.

If there is a sudden decrease in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will deploy.  Put the mask on you first, and then place the mask on your child sitting next to you.  In order to save our child, we must save ourselves first.

Likewise, boundaries are about having compassion upon ourselves first so that we have the energy and love to give compassion to our spouses and those around us as well.  We have to put on the oxygen mask so that we can put the mask on our spouses as well.

Of course, life is much messier than that, and there isn't a formula.  Sometimes, we give up our needs for the sake of our spouse or children or even others, but this is a general norm here.  In order to have energy to give to others, we have to set boundaries.

Second, boundaries are not just about self-care.  There are boundaries that we can set as couples that are "couple-care" as opposed to "self-care".  I remember listening to a married couple speak one time about how they decided to spend 15 hours a week together outside their time with children.  Wow!  How in the world do you do that?  Basically, they decided to arrange their schedule so it would work, and they accomplished it somehow, even without severely limiting their time with their children.  It was more about organizing and setting boundaries than about taking time away from children significantly.  They had to give up a number of things in order to accomplish this.  Interestingly enough, they shared how their children seemed to be more content, and more at peace around the house once they made this 15 hour plan work.  Now, I'm not saying that you need to figure out how to do 15 hours a week with your spouse, but what we are really talking about here is setting boundaries intentionally so that couples can connect with each other as allies.

Another example, you'll see below in the Brene Brown video, where she explains that she and her husband discovered that their goals and their desires weren't adding up.  When they listed their goals, it required more work, more accomplishments, and so forth.  When they listed their desires of what they loved to do in life, it meant decreasing goals, making less money, and having more time.  Over time, they decided to set boundaries to make sure that they were doing the things they loved, not doing the things that helped them achieve their occupational goals so much.  In the end, they began spending more time with each other and more time with children.  The result was more play, more fun, and in the end, they didn't suffer occupationally that much anyway.

Don't forget - boundaries aren't just about self-care.  Our self-care, and our couple-care, is always about using our compassion within us to move outwardly in compassion to others around us.

(photo at top taken from flickr creative commons by Jon Gos)

The Role of Boundaries

When we love our spouse, we establish boundaries.

This might sound counter-intuitive, but boundaries are integral to love.  It's about saying "yes" when we mean "yes" and saying "no" when we mean "no".  It would be nice if people actually used authentic yes's and no's because then we'd actually know who they truly are.  

Thus, in loving my spouse, I allow him or her to truly know my likes, dislikes, tastes, desires, and in the extreme, what I will not say yes to.  My boundaries invite my spouse to see who I truly am, and this is one of the greatest aspects of love, which is to know and be known.

The other week, I asked Sara if she'd consider doing something for me.  I can't even remember what it was, but what I do know is that she was very clear that her answer was "no".  I'm a lover of boundaries, but even for me, it was very difficult.  In the end, I have to deal with her yes's and no's, and her boundaries help me to know her heart, mind, and being.  This is one of the greatest aspects of loving our spouses despite the discomfort.  Knowing my partner's boundaries establishes trust through a baseline of predictability and connection.

Notice in the photo that I've chosen a gate to represent our boundaries.  Boundaries are not walls, rather they are like a gate which you can come in and out of with permission (Cloud & Townsend in Boundaries).  If you don't have permission, then the gate stays closed, but if you do have permission, then the gate is open and you can come on in.  Our gates are weaker or stronger depending upon the level of trust we have with the other person.

In the end, boundaries are about inviting others into relationship with who we truly are, which is a very loving act.  That isn't selfish. That's being outward focused.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by authentic eccentric)

Sticks and Stones

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

Not only is this old adage incorrect because experience tells us the opposite, but it is incorrect because it assumes that words are not physical in nature.

When we bless or curse our spouses with our words, we physically move our diaphragms, puff out breaths of air, and move our mouths to produce sound waves.  These sound waves travel to our partner, which then hit their eardrums, causing vibrations.  These vibrations are then interpreted by their brain, and these messages we transmit day after day, have a physical effect on our partner's brain.  We literally change each other's brains as we interaction with our bodies and our words.  Thus, when we affirm one another with our words, we physically bless them, and when we hurt one another with our words, we also hurt them physically.

Sometimes, we hurt one another legitimately, such as when we establish a healthy boundary.  The other spouse might recognize the value in the boundary, but he or she is still hurt and disappointed.  It still hurts, but it is the kind of hurt that, when taken correctly, can actually benefit the intimacy of a relationship.  Nevertheless, the hurt is physical.  It occurred in a physical way, by way of words, sound-waves, eardrums, and changing our partner's brain.

The more violent aspect come from words that are meant to denigrate, tear down, hurl contempt, or comparison.  These words physically harm our partner's brains, and in this sense, it should be noted that all violence is physical.  So, if you've been thinking all your life that you aren't a very violent person, but you also tend to criticize your partner, compare him or her to others, belittle them, or simply attack them, then you are a physically violent person.

In this way, we are all physically violent people because we have all hurled insults at others to one degree or another.  Our words strike each other's brains just in the same way that sticks and stones strike each other's bodies.  Oh, and so many of us think we are off the hook because we don't insult one another.  In fact, we keep our mouths shut and refuse to do such things.  However, let me tell you about how I harm my wife - it is with my silence.  Thus, this adage is true - "The silence was deafening."

When I get angry with my wife, I get silent.  It might not be for very long, but it is long enough to hurt her with my language.  Yes, not all forms of language are verbal.  In fact, as a second language teacher, I know that one of the most important forms of emotional language is body language.  Silence is a form of body language that tells our partner we are very angry and yet we refuse to talk.  We refuse to engage.  You aren't worth me working past the discomfort to communicate with you at this time.  To clarify, it is definitely true that we might need to be silent for a time, in order to be able to sooth ourselves, but it is only for a time.  Once we are able to calm down, then it is time to enter verbal communication with our spouses.  It is at this point that we begin to truly harm our spouses if we refuse to talk.  When we give someone "the silent treatment" we are using our body language to do violence to them.  Our spouse sees our body language.  The light waves hit their retinas, get interpreted by their brain, and over time, our silent treatments begin to reconfigure their brains physically.  In short, our silent treatments, just like our verbal assaults are all physical forms of harm, which if done over time, constitute physical abuse as well.

Add to all of this that studies seems to suggest that our emotional status and physical health are connected in many ways, and you can see that emotional abuse over time will affect us physically.  Thus, even more reason to remember that our words and body language are physical in nature.

On the side of hope, the more we choose to bless one another, the more we physically restore one another's brains, bodies, and emotional hearts.  I believe there is only one way we can begin to turn around and begin to bless one another.  We have to believe we are forgiven so that we can have the freedom to try to do good to one another.  This is where individuation from our spouse must come.  Even if our spouse has a hard time forgiving us for all that we have done, we must decide that we are forgiven, decide to forgive ourselves, and believe we have the freedom to try to do good in the midst of all the uncertainty.

All of us are in different places in the spectrum of blessing and harming one another, but we are capable of doing great physical goodness or harm to one another through our words, our actions, our body language, and our physical comfort.  The hope is that we can begin to make repair, whichever part of the spectrum we fall on.  That is something that should uplift us!

Giving and Receiving

The humble spouse gives and receives affection, comfort, chores, conversation, and lovemaking without demand.  To give or receive without an agenda means our focus is simply to do good to us and our spouse.  In this sense, giving is not just about doing good to our spouse, but also doing good to ourselves.  At the same time, receiving is also about doing good both to our spouse and to our self.  Sometimes, receiving can be one of the most outwardly focused acts we can bestow upon another person.  Thus, the old adage is wrong - giving isn't better than receiving.  Instead, the adage should read - giving and receiving is better than taking.

The difference lies in our agendas.  If I have an agenda, in that I want the other person to do something for me, before I will give or receive, then I am capable of neither - I'm only capable of taking.  Thus, when an agenda is present, there is only taking, never any giving or receiving.  

We can take it even further to the idea of asking, or stating our desires.  This is truly vulnerable, but when we ask our spouses to meet a desire, without a demand on our part, we might truly be giving to them in a way they have never received before.  

Thus, the final adage might read - To ask, give, and receive are better than taking.  Thankfulness and joy are possible with all three.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by Ray)

Soft Start Ups

"This isn't a criticism," were the first words out of my mouth.

Sara had left our daughter's fingernail clippers on the end-table in the living room, well within our daughter's reach, a perfect opportunity for her to "poke-her-eye-out".

My words and the short pause that followed were not meant to try to keep Sara happy, which would have been for my benefit instead of hers; rather they conveyed to her that my next words were not intended to be adversarial, which was to her benefit.

"The nail clippers were on the end table within our daughter's reach," were my next words.  Even these words were directed towards the situation, rather than what Sara had done, further helping to prevent escalating the situation.

Sara's response was something like, "Oh no, you're right! Thank you for getting them."  

Dr. John Gottman's research* time and time again reveals the presence of soft start-up's in good relationships that go the distance.  Soft start-up's aren't indirect, wishy-washy, or manipulative.  Quite the contrary, soft start-ups are very direct and to-the-point, yet they also tell the other party that our desire isn't to be adversarial.  Moreover, a soft start-up indicates that we want to connect with our partner instead of dividing.

When I initiate a soft start-up, I always have this mental picture in the back of my mind that I'm laying out an issue on the table, instead of hurling my words at her.  I even picture us side-by-side, looking the issue, instead of on opposite sides of the table.  This is a mental picture of partnership instead of confrontation.

By placing my words and the issue on the table, it gives Sara an opportunity (within reason) to enter conversation over the issue instead of having to deal with the extraordinarily complex act of juggling issues and insults at the same time.  

It also places me in a vulnerable position because it also allows her to talk about the issue in a way that I might not like.  She might not agree with my assessment of the situation.  Nevertheless, even if she disagrees with me, more often than not, she will also respond with me in a way that is equally non-adversarial.  

Soft start-up's, not always, but often beget soft-start up's in a cyclical pattern.  I think that soft start-up's fall under Gottman's category of the "Neutral Box" as well, which I discussed, two blog-entries ago.

*What Makes Love Last? and The Science of Trust by Gottman are good sources for more on soft start-ups and the "Neutral Box".  For a more practical and helpful tool for your marriage, read and work through the exercises in The Seven Principles of Marriage by Gottman.

Midday Visits


I believe that life is 33% intentionality, 33% bumbling around, and 33% out-of-our-control - at least something along these lines.  Nevertheless, we've got 33% intentionality and we can do something with that.  

When Sara and I moved to Seattle, we happened to move half-a-mile from a community college.  I seized the opportunity to apply for lots of positions at the college in order to work close to home.  I walk to school everyday and we're able to keep to a one-car family.  

Nevertheless, between my work day, graduate school for both Sara and I, along with raising a daughter, finding ways to connect with each other as a family can get put on the back-burner if we don't focus on the intentionality of the matter.

A beautiful thing recently has been Sara and my daughter coming to visit me around lunch time at work.  It's only 30 minutes of hangout time, but it goes a long way.  And by the way, Seattle rains a lot, so working through these rituals isn't always easy.  It's much easier to stay at home when it's raining, but it is more fulfilling in the long run to press on towards rituals that over time are the little big things in life.

As another example, I know a couple who about five or six years ago made a decision to spend 15 hours a week as a married couple without their kids.  Holy smokes!  How in the world do you do that?  Well, they made some decisions about the school they had their kids in, baby sitters, and bed-time.  They also limited their children's clubs and sports.  (Maybe their kids had to choose only one per year instead of three or four.)  Ultimately, they figured out how to do it without sacrificing their time with their kids.  I distinctly remember this couple saying that the level of tension in the family had decreased not only with them but with their kids.  I know that life is difficult and maybe you can't do what they did, but maybe you can find ten hours or five hours a week for each other.  In the end, part of this whole thing is the intentionality of it.  When our spouses see that we are being intentional about connecting, then this intentionality provides huge amounts of safety and gratitude.  The endorphins start to fire in relation to one another.

As a final example, I know a married couple who have a lot of money, but for a while, they only had one car, on purpose.  The wife drove the husband to work every day with their daughter.  It was a 20 minute drive, and it gave them the opportunity to talk to and from work.  Plus, the ritual of connecting every day builds upon our sense of trust and desire.  When they had their second child and his work moved further away, they finally decided to get a second car, but that couple years of driving to and from work together went a long way.  Even though they don't do this ritual any more, I'm sure they are finding other ways to initiate other rituals that help them to connect apart from driving to work together.  Intentionality is an upwards spiral if we keep focused on it.

So, what are you going to do with your 33% intentionality?  What are the small ways that you can move things around in life to make sure to connect with family in the midst of a busy life?  It doesn't have to be big.  Start with something small.  See what happens.

*Photo taken from Jeff Turner at flickr creative commons

The Neutral Box

This morning, I once again asked Sara where I could find something, and Sara's glance let me know she was frustrated.  She walked into our bedroom, moved several items around in the top desk drawer and pulled out what I was looking for.  Point be told, I'd moved stuff around in the same drawer, but I couldn't find it.  Nevertheless, this has been going on for a number of months now, me not finding things and Sara finding them for me.

A couple minutes later, Sara engaged in a conversation with me in the living room.  "Steven, I don't know how to not be angry with you about this.  I know you aren't lazy and I know that you are looking, but I'm having a hard time because this has been happening for quite a while now."

To give you a clue about Sara's demeanor, I'll mention that her voice wasn't raised and even the way she started the conversation was to let me know that she didn't want to get into a fight, but that she wanted to have a conversation about the issue.  The main thing I knew is that she didn't want to be adversarial.  The result was we were able to have a conversation about the issue without getting into a fight, without pointing fingers, and even though we weren't really able to resolve the issue, we both finished the conversation knowing that we felt respected, heard, and more understood.

John Gottman, Ph.D. categorizes spousal interaction into three categories: "nice", "neutral", and "nasty".  The conversation I just described falls into the "neutral" category.  The interesting thing is that in Gottman's research, it isn't large volumes of conversations that fall into the "nice" category which sustain long term marriages.  Instead, it is the high volume of "neutral" conversations.  Such conversations, though direct, are often introduced with what he calls a "soft start-up".  A soft start-up lets the partner know that the conversation isn't meant to be adversarial, but rather to connect.  

When Sara used a soft start-up with me this morning and entered a direct, yet kind conversation with me about my struggles with finding things around the house, she let me know that even in her frustration, she still wanted to connect with me through conversation about it, rather than getting into a fight.  She wanted me to hear her heart.  Such "neutral" conversations would leave movie theaters empty if they were the basis for screenplays, but string along hundreds and thousands of these in a marriage over the decades, and they result in so many moments of gratitude for spouses in a marriage.  Such gratitude is what I write for Sara and I right now.

(photo taken from flickr creative commons by niXerKG)

New Rituals

When we first moved to Seattle, I converted three dollar store holiday boxes into prayer boxes of a sort.  We keep these three boxes on a shelf in the corner of our bedroom.  These boxes include “Laments”, “Ebeneezers”, and “Dreams & Desires”.  When we feel things that are heavy on our heart, we write them down on notes and place them in the boxes.
Laments are for when we want to cry out and just say, “Where is the justice?” or “What is wrong?  Why isn’t anything being done about this?” or “I am so sad.  I don’t know if I can make it any longer.”  Ebeneezers are for faithfulness.  Notes of these sort remind us of the faithfulness that has been extended to us in the past.  Thousands of years ago, the Israelites would create a large pile of rocks to mark a place where they had seen God’s faithfulness.  Thus, in this box, we place our “Ebeneezers” to help us remember where things came together that maybe we didn’t think were going to come together.  Finally, the last box contain our continued Dreams and Desires.
This Valentine's Day, Sara suggested we open up the boxes and read our notes.  It was a great gift of communication for the two of us as we communed with one another, our dreams, desires, laments, and ebeneezers.  The thought occurred to me that we ought to do this every Valentine's Day.  And so, our goal is to try to remember to do so next Valentine's Day.  These are the ways that rituals and traditions are born in marriages and families.  They sort of happen, and then they turn into something annual.

Get Out on Dates

The disconnect caught up to us slowly, sort of like a frog that slowly boils in water.  We knew it was coming because research and friends told us so, but it still took us by surprise.  Three weeks ago, Sara and I were struggling to stay connected in the midst of baby.  We hadn't gotten a break from our daughter in almost four months, and we were finding ourselves irritable towards one another.
Finally, we buckled down and decided to put some money into our program and get a baby sitter.  We started off last week with a 2 hour date, riding a tandem bike and eating dinner at an outdoor burger joint along the beach. Yesterday, we went to see the play "Into the Woods" in a West Seattle venue, followed by Starbucks and a 20 minute neighborhood walk in a beautiful park.
All without our daughter.
I love my daughter, but Sara and I had both been missing each other.  Our goal is to continue to budget babysitting money and kid swapping with others in order to generate more date nights in the near, mid, and distant future.  No matter how many kids, it is so important.  That irritability is a sign of a disconnect, which is a sign of the connection we all long for in our partners.
(photo taken from zeplinrose at flickr creative commons)

Create Traditions

As of today, Sara and I have been married for three years, and it has certainly been an amazing three years.Sara likes to say she feels like we've been married twenty years in just a short amount of time.  One of the things we try to do in our marriage is to create traditions, which are sort of intentional and happenstance at the same time. 
A new anniversary tradition is currently emerging in what we are calling our "Anniversary Week".  It all started when I bought flowers this past weekend as a kick-off to the week.  Next, a friend of ours offered to watch our daughter for a date night last Saturday.  We rode a tandem bike along the beach and ate dinner at an outdoor restaurant.
This week, we don't have much time for anniversary items, and in fact, Sara plays volleyball tonight on our official anniversary.  A card and gift are in order tonight, but nothing else.  To cap off the week, our friends will watch our daughter on Saturday night while we see a play, which is something we love to do.
All of the items on this week's agenda sort of happened randomly, but the point in creating traditions is to use these somewhat random series of events translate into traditions for the years to come.  Thus, for Sara and I, we will probably continue to practice an Anniversary Week celebration each year instead of only the anniversary itself.  This process can work with many other kinds of traditions throughout the year.  Turn somewhat random events into traditions.
(photo taken from flickr creative commons by Joe Lanman)

Kiss in Front of Baby

Our lives can get so caught up in baby-affection that we forget about spouse-affection in front of baby.  This is a win-win for the whole family because we are being intentional about moving towards our spouse and because Baby sees us being affectionate towards one another.  From the get-go, infants watch our spousal interactions.  We can be loving towards our children, but one of the best ways we can love them is to pursue one another with affection in front of them.  The more we pursue one another in their midst, the more secure they feel.  Like I say, it is a win-win for both spouses, children, and family as a whole.  If you want to focus on your children, focus on one another in front of them.
 (photo taken from flickr creative commons by Melissa Cervantes)

Connecting During Downtime

couple embrace
Sara and I are incrementally getting used to raising our first child, mostly learning from our mistakes. One of our mistakes during the first 3.5 months has been our choices during downtime. Emery, our daughter takes irregular naps during the day that range from 5 to 30 minutes. During these times, one of the mistakes we've made has been going our separate ways to do chores, read books separately, and crafts or blogging.
The difficulty with these sort of choices is that as husband and wife, we need all the connection we can get, now that we have a daughter. The other day, when Sara put Emery down to sleep, I suggested we take some time on the couch to hold each other and talk. After about 5 minutes of connecting, Emery woke up, and we were back into parenting again. We only got 5 minutes of emotional and physical connection, but it was much needed.
In the future, our plan is to do our personal things when Emery is awake since we're unable to spend one-on-one time in the first place. We can tag-team when she's awake, but we need to connect with each other when she's asleep.
Connecting with each other in the midst of Baby is so important.
(photo taken from flickr creative commons by ladyhawke365)


my feasts
Men dot themselves along a spectrum of cooking abilities in this world, some of them world class chefs, others struggling with anything more complicated than PB & J.  Nevertheless, cooking can bring us men together in for a variety of reasons.  Last night, I attended a "Man-Cook", hosted by my friend Martin.  The goal of Man-Cook is to hang out with other guys for "Man-Time" while also challenging us to learn how to cook new things for our spouses.  We have to bring the website, magazine, or book to share with the other guys so they can use it in the future with their significant other.
Last night was a simple sausage-cook-off, but in the weeks to come, we will dabble in such themes as "Latin Recipes for Sunset and Candlelight" and "Italian Night with the In-Laws".  The idea is to try to learn some new recipes for doing a creative date with our spouses.  All along, we hang out as men, doing our much needed "Man-Time".  It's a win-win for husbands and wives.
Variations on this theme in your neck of the woods might be "Cooking Presentations" for those of you who'd like to get men together in order to teach them how to cook in the first place.  As another variation, tell the men to bring ideas on the internet that they find for creative dating activities.  These are but two of probably a number of options.
Stereotypically, women are better cooks than men, and even though I don't know the numbers, I do know that there are a number of you men out there who love to cook and simply need an outlet like this to lead other men into cooking for their wives.  Maybe you aren't an organizer, so ask another man to get the guys together.  Work as a team.  You don't have to shoulder it alone.
By the way, in our Man-Cook group, the goal by the end of this summer is to invite our wives, fiancees, and girlfriends to a creative, flavorful meal and experience.  Blessings, as you navigate the world of cooking in the midst of your significant others and families!

(image taken from flickr creative commons by myfeast)


Life often prevents us from the following scenario, but when you get the chance, intentional rendezvous can be a great way to connect in marriage.  Yesterday, during my 40 minute lunch break, Sara brought our daughter to work for a short 25 minute picnic blanket lunch on the grass.
A picnic during lunch may not always be possible, but other sorts of intentional rendezvous can be very helpful and bring feelings of gratitude.

Intentional Connection in the Midst of Baby

The past week has been difficult for Sara and I in terms of connecting to one another.  Emery takes a lot of time and effort due to her legitimate needs as a three month old baby.  In addition, I started back to work for the summer quarter, teaching from 9am to 4pm (four days a week) instead of 11am to 3pm (5 days a week), and I was having difficulty sleeping due to my sleep apnea.  Throw in the normal night time wake ups, and it was getting stressful and exhausting.  Sara and I found ourselves at wits end with each other, especially in the evening.
One difficulty with Baby is that it is hard to have natural times to connect with one another as a couple.  It is a real battle to fight for your marriage in the middle of the chaos.  A good thing we've continued to do is take walks at parks and along the beach every couple of days.  Yet, even though this is good for us as a family and as a married couple, I found myself wanting (no, needing) to intentionally pursue Sara in an adult way that was more about her and I than about the three of us.  I woke up this morning and found myself wanting to read a book with Sara.
Reading a book together as a couple isn't everyone's cup of tea, but for Sara and I, it is something we enjoy and helps us connect.  Earlier this morning, while Emery slept on Mom's chest, I suggested I read some of a book we both have enjoyed reading.  I read for about fifteen minutes, and then we talked about what we read for the next ten or fifteen as well.  In this short half hour, we found a way to do an "adult" way of connecting in the midst of Emery, while she slept.  I felt thankful at the time, and even as I write, a feeling of gratitude wells up inside me.
On a side note, following our emotional connection during our reading and conversation, I felt sexually drawn to Sara and flirted a little with her.  It was directly related to our having connected emotionally. Raising a baby can zap lots of our romantic and sexual feelings for one another if we don't take the time to be intentional about connecting with each other in the midst of baby.
In short, reading together might not be your cup of tea, but as a couple, what are the things that you can do to connect in an "adult" way in the midst of baby, child, or teenager?

Preemptive Strikes of Love

A couple days ago, I was gone all day at a conference. Sara had been with baby all day and cooped up at home because, contrary to the norm, I had the car. When I got home, I sensed Sara's tiredness and knew immediately this was an opportunity to create space for Her to choose what she wanted to do alone or with us for the evening, so I offered to take Emery off her hands for a couple hours. I asked her what she would like to do, and she said she wanted to work on a project for the nursery. I took Emery off her hands for about two hours to let Sara get her creativity time. She was very thankful and it was a recharge to her. Such a recharge isn't just good for her but also for me, Emery, and the three of us as a whole.
On a related side note, in order to experience feelings of thankfulness on our part as givers, we must ask for the desire to give our time to our spouses simply because we want to try to do good to them. The moment we think about getting something from them in return is the moment we have ceased to be givers and turned into manipulators. That being said, it is still true that when we do preemptive strikes of love, we in turn build up trust with them so that when we need time for our own down time, our spouses might be more likely to endorse our need for such time.  As spouses, we can even begin to realize that when our spouses ask for rest/creativity/play time, that their request isn't just for them but even for us as well.  This is when it really gets good - when we begin to take care of our mind/body/spirit in order to do good to others and not just for ourselves.  We offer space for our partners and we ask for our own space as well, but the amazing thing is that both giving and requesting this time can become preemptive strikes of love. It is a circle of trust and gratitude that builds and builds over time.

Expose Lies

A couple weeks ago, I lied to Sara.  I can't remember exactly what it was about, but I lied to her.  I knew I had to tell her about it.  Within the day, I told her I had lied to her.  Sara was thankful I told her about it and felt safer with me because I had told her about the lie.  Before I got married, a friend of mine told me a very simple truth about marriage - "Don't hide," he said.
The result of Sara's gratitude for my honesty was gratitude on her part.  Her thankfulness then influenced my heart by helping me to feel safer, in return.  I know I can go to her in the future with similar issues, and she will accept me.  This helps me to have even more desire to grow in honesty, integrity, and maturity.

Move Towards Spouse in the Midst of Baby

Researcher John Gottman, Ph.D. has discovered that 66% of married couples feel a strong dip in their marital life following the birth of their first child.  He and his wife wrote a book called And Baby Makes Three, and the Gottman Institute has put together a class called "Bringing Baby Home" in order to help married couples move towards each other following the birth of a child.  Based on the data, those who take the class fair much better in their marital relationship after the birth.  Only 33% of those who take the class experience a strong relational dip in their marriage compared to the rest of the population which dips at 66%.  The book and class help married couples deal with the distance and lack of intimacy that can occur when baby arrives.
Sara and I are reading this book aloud together right now.  Reading this book together is one way that we move towards one another in the midst of baby. It is very easy to let baby meet our emotional needs when we feel the distance with our spouse at the birth of a first child, or any child for that matter.  Not only does this place an undue burden on baby, but this also isn't the best thing we can do for him or her in the first place.  The more we move towards our spouse in the midst of baby, the more secure baby feels in the family.  There is nothing that promotes the growth and development of our children than two spouses who are moving towards one another in front of the children.
Thus, reading books, attending classes, or seeking therapy together as a married couple strengthens our marriages and then emotionally and cognitively grows our babies, children, and teenagers as an added bonus.  The more we move towards our spouses, the better our longevity in marriage for the long haul.  Our children will move out of our homes, and what will be left once they move out?  Moving towards our spouse not only cultivates deeper intimacy with our spouse but also creates a deeper intimacy and emotional growth for our children through safety, security, and our model for them.  They see us and they want to be like us in the future with their own spouses.  It is a story of influence.

Affirmation Journals

Sara and I have thee notebooks. One is for her, one is for me, and one is for Emery. Instead of writing in these journals as personal diaries to ourselves, we use them to write affirmations to each other.  It's like writing letters to each other but in a bound journal.  Our daughter having been born yesterday, I just took the last 30 minutes and wrote a two page letter of affirmation and thankfulness to Sara.  She will return the favor by writing me an affirmation of thankfulness as well. In addition, we will also write to Emery in her journal.  How wonderful it will be for each of us to have all that love written down on paper for each of us to read in the years to come.
By the way, it is never too late to start.

Struggling with Relational Creativity?

A lot of times, we can get into ruts out of the routines that we go through in marriage.  Some routines are good, but some routines can get old.  Sometimes, we need help from the outside to help get us going in the creativity and connection department.  As Anthony Kleon says, we must Steal Like An Artist.
I found a couple of great Apps that can help you get started via the Gottman Institute.  John Gottman, Ph.D. is a leading researcher on marriage out of the University of Washington.  Get on your iPhone, iPad, or tablet and in the App Store, search for "The Gottman Institute".  You'll find helpful apps like "Open Ended Questions", "Give Appreciation!", and "Affection and Love Making".

To Husbands

Imagine you are the one who recommends to your wife that the two of you go to counseling.
Imagine you are the one who recommends attending RCA (Recovering Couples Anonymous).
Imagine you recommend a marriage class at your church or non-profit organization.
Imagine recommending to your wife a class on creative dating, addressing conflict, or childhood development.
I am NOT telling wives to stop initiating in these areas, but I AM saying to husbands that when we initiate our relationships towards these areas of vulnerability that something amazing takes place.  We get to feel powerful and our wives get to feel loved.  I don't mean powerful in a controlling way.  I mean powerful in a vulnerable and open way that points towards hope.  We demonstrate our power by ushering our wives into areas of vulnerability that men are not normally accustomed to.
It is completely foreign and terrifying to so many men, and that is why it is so powerful.

Listen to Your Spouse

A couple weeks ago, Sara said to me that she was concerned because I hadn't read anything much about being a birth partner and helping her during the birth. Normally, I prepare in such a way well ahead of time and I'm a non-fiction reader in general.
The temptation at first was to get defensive. Why didn't she trust me? Didn't she know I was going to be there for her?  But that lasted for about a nano second. I realized very quickly that I didn't know where to get the information. So I asked her if she could get the stuff I needed.  Of course she obliged and a couple books and thee handouts were in my hands within a day or two. I read the handouts and I'm currently skimming a book.
Two things about these interactions. First, what I didn't say at first was that Sara used what John Gottman (Ph.D at Univ. of Wash.) calls a "soft start up". She didn't demand I did it, nor did she "not-so-subtly" put the books on my nightstand without addressing the issue first. She simply raised the issue, named her desire, and then left her desire with me to consider on my own. No attempt at manipulation on her part.
Second, I named my quandary to her about a lack of known resources.  This required my vulnerability.  Yet I also named my willingness within the context of my limitations.  So at this point, at minimum, Sara knew my desire to engage and learn was on the table. That was enough and she was more than willing to do a little research on her own to get me the needed resources.
On a final note, what if I weren't a reader? The same would apply.  I name my limitations and see what we can work out. Maybe I or she are able to find audio-visual resources, for example, or maybe I become willing to find a birthing class for fathers that I can go to.
The important point is that Sara can only raise the issue of her desire and then she has to wait and see how I respond. That is the act of courage.