Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Protecting Your Relationship in the Shadow of Corona

 The Corona virus raises new challenges for our most cherished relationships.

Photo by Julian Wan on Upsplash

There are three keys that my colleagues and I have stressed in our work to help couples.1  They are simple to remember and potent. They may help you, now.

  • Do your part.
  • Decide, don’t slide.
  • Make it safe to connect.

These three keys could frame a public health campaign but my focus here is on a relationship health campaign, the relationship you have with your spouse, mate, or partner. These ideas will also apply to any relationship that matters dearly to you.

Do your part

C19 (my shorthand for the virus) has introduced massive uncertainties and stress into our lives. So many things feel out of control because they are. As ever, we do best when we focus on what we can do in our relationship over what we think our partner should do. You can influence your partner but you can only control yourself (if you are in a healthy relationship). To be sure, there are times when one partner needs to confront, challenge, or nudge the other about their behavior. That can also be doing your part, but, in day-to-day moments, we do best to focus on what we can do to make a difference.

What things can you do to strengthen and protect your relationship during this time?
Decide, don’t slide

There are two applications of this key, one about transitions and one about moments.

Transitions: People often slide through potentially life-altering relationship transitions. To understand how much this can matter, consider two fundamental aspects of commitment: dedication and constraint. Dedication is about the “want to.” It encompasses the desire for a future together, the will to sacrifice for one another, and having an identity of being a couple (in addition to being individuals). In contrast, constraints reflect the mix of things that would be either costs and losses of leaving or poor alternatives. Constraints can be good or bad, depending on the quality of a relationship. If you have a great marriage, you have a lot of constraints. If you have a damaging, dangerous, awful marriage, you likely also have a lot of constraints.

Constraints can be chosen or not, and that makes all the difference in understanding commitment. Commitment is making a choice to give up other choices. It is choosing to be constrained because you believe in the path you are choosing. Deciding. In contrast, sliding often increases constraints but they are not chosen as much as experienced as inertia creeps up to continue forward on a path not clearly chosen. When a transition can deeply impact what follows, it’s worth deciding and not sliding.

C19 presents a massive transitional moment, maybe unrivaled since World War II. At home, routines are disrupted, and roles that had worked great for years may not work well now. With disruption, it’s time (and opportunity) for discussions and decisions. You do not need to talk about everything or even most things, but it is worth talking about the things where not sharing can lead to consequential sliding. You don’t want to lose options without making a choice.

Here are a few ideas.

  • Who does this or that in this present time? 
  • How does working remotely affect you as a couple?
  • If one of you is still working outside the home, how does that affect you both or the family? Is there added risk and concern? How can you work together coping with that? 
  • What does positive time together look like, now? 
  • Money, income, debt—what will it have been better to make decisions about?

If you think about it a bit, you will know what should be on your list. Realize that decisions can be re-decided as things change. That’s a strength, not a weakness. And, slides can be converted to decisions you both share.

Moments: “Decide, don’t slide” also pertains to moments where you could either let something hurtful happen, decide to let something go, or even do something to show you care.

Many are on edge and worried. Fuses are short. One says X, the other hears Y, and off you go into an argument or, almost worse, a missed opportunity to connect. In these moments, sliding is the easy but costly path. My colleagues and I teach couples to take Time Outs to protect their relationship from things going awry. I don’t mean “go-sit-in-the-corner” social distancing. I mean the type of Time Out a team calls when they need to stop their ragged play and reset their game—as a team.

One person can use this concept to stop a slide to the bad side: “I’m not at my best right now but I know we should talk about this. Can we a little break and come back to this in a bit?” That can work, especially if the “come back” part happens. It works all the better if both partners have decided to use the strategy and use an agreed-upon signal for when taking a time out is the smart play—like using the words “Time Out” in a constructive way. “I would like it if we took a Time Out on this for a little bit.”

One member of the team should not keep dribbling when the other is trying to get a time out called.

There are so many other moments where a decision will beat a slide. Don’t try to “decide” about everything, but look for the moments and at the issues where deciding beats sliding.

Make it safe to connect

Types of safety can describe the foundations of good relationships. Physical safety is freedom from fear, physical harm, and control. If you feel unsafe in your relationship, there are people at the National Domestic Violence Hotline who would want to help (US number): 1-800-799-7233.

Emotional safety is being able to talk and share, to feel accepted; it’s having and giving support and acknowledgement. It gets at what most people want deeply in their closest relationship. It’s also easily damaged.

Change, worry, and exhaustion create the perfect conditions for nasty comments, criticism, cold distance, or avoidance—all things that damage emotional safety. Escalation, where little arguments grow to big conflicts, is a hallmark of a couple not being able to maintain emotional safety. My colleagues and I have written for decades about various patterns that represent “communication danger signs,” while similar patterns were more creatively named the “four horsemen of the apocalypse” by John Gottman. That is pretty fine language for our times. I’m a little envious.

You make it safe to connect by doing your part to make it so you both feel heard, loved, accepted, and secure. That means communicating well, reigning in the harsh words, listening, and showing care. Here are just a few more ideas:

Do you struggle to communicate well under normal circumstances? Lean to do that better. There are many ways to learn how. We have one that you can start learning on YouTube.

Cut your partner and your children some slack. React less. Listen more. More margin, less edge.

Get good at some form of Time Out.

Hug more (observing proper social distancing, where appropriate)

This is an unusually direct suggestion that some of you may find useful, and I freely announce my conflict of interest in making it. If you have a little extra time, and you want to learn some strategies for strengthening your relationship right now, we have an online version of our program for couples at lovetakeslearning.com. It’s not expensive. It’s an option. One among many.

Consider this the moment in your life where you have the opportunity to raise your game as a couple and a family. Three keys. You might need only one to get through the gate. 


*  *  * 

 If you would like more detail on the three keys, we have an open access journal article, here

 1. For example, in our books such as Fighting for Your Marriage, and our relationship education approach for couples, PREP (the Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program). I am a researcher at the University of Denver, but my colleague Howard Markman and I also own a business that disseminates adaptations of PREP. I note this as a disclosure of interest.


Saturday, February 15, 2020

The Nuclear Family Was No Mistake

David Brooks, opinion columnist of the New York Times, wrote a thoughtful and somewhat provoking piece entitle The Nuclear Family Was a Mistake that appeared in The Atlantic last week. His article has received much attention.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Brooks' essential arguments were that the nuclear family is a relatively recent (in history) family form, that it has come to foster detachment and disconnect, that it may have damaged extended family connections, and that something new is emerging and encouraging wherein people forge families and close connections in the absence of nuclear families.

The Institute for Family Studies published a symposium of opinions on its blog, including rejoinders from a number of scholars from different perspectives, challenging, supporting, refuting, and discussing various aspects of the arguments Brooks raised. Several (Hymowitz, Cherlin, & Stanley) directly challenge some of the inferences about the nuclear family, noting its close ties to the most fundamental of human relationships, the pair bond. Most all deal with, and share, a major concern of Brooks--the decline of connection in our society.

Brooks has encouraged an important discussion for our times.

The rejoinders are relatively brief pieces. Here are links to them all.

Scott Stanley (University of Denver): When Wants Conflict with Needs: A Response to David Brooks

Andrew Cherlin (Johns Hopkins University): David Brooks is Urging Us to Go Forward, not Backward

Richard Reeves (The Brookings Institute): David Brooks Is Correct: Both the Quality and Quantity of Our Relationships Matter

Kay Hymowitz (Manhatten Institute): Yes, David Brooks, the Nuclear Family is the Worst Family Form—Except for All Others

Rod Dreher (The American Conservative): David Brooks Is Right—The Nuclear Family Was Destined to Die

Wendy Wang (Institute for Family Studies) & W. Bradford Wilcox (University of Virginia): What Do We Know About Extended Families in America? A Response to David Brooks

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

"Don't Worry, Be Happy" is Not a Plan: Give me a Lever

“Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.”

The famous quote by Archimedes is fundamentally about the mechanics of leverage. You might remember a teacher explaining fulcrums and levers, and how a lever could help you move a heavy weight with less force than otherwise needed. Though the mechanics are interesting, what captivates me most in this is the simple idea of there being a lever to pull that will make something else happen.

Over my career, I keep returning to the importance of differentiating between the kinds of constructs used by researchers to describe romantic relationships. I believe some constructs imply levers that might be pulled to cause an effect, and others do not. This distinction matters theoretically and in our personal relationships.


Psychologists use the term “construct” to refer to cluster of things that reflect a concept. It is easy to think of a construct in the way most people use the term variable, but the idea of a variable usually refers to a specific measure of a construct as used in a study. Common constructs in the study of romantic relationships are things like satisfaction, commitment, conflict, appreciation, forgiveness, distress, attachment, and communication. A variety of things can be included in a construct but, in each case, there is a ball of stuff around a label reflecting one inherent thing. A construct has a clumpy, thingness to it.

When it comes to romantic relationships, satisfaction has gotten the most attention. Satisfaction is part of the same ball of stuff as happiness. This clump represents an overall, broad sentiment about a relationship.[i]

As a researcher and intervention minded psychologist, I’m not wild about the construct of satisfaction, and I can explain why. Think about some other constructs relevant to romantic relationships.


What is different about these constructs from satisfaction? First, notice that all those terms refer to something more specific than satisfaction. If your friend has started dating someone, and you are curious to know how it’s going, you might text and ask, “do you like her?” The answer will tell you a lot without telling you anything specific. Liking, happiness, and satisfaction are all part of the same clump of non-specific positive sentiments.

More importantly, each of those constructs just listed—and many others—have plausible levers. They each imply someplace to stand and something to pull. In other words, those constructs are actionable. Although they each can also reflect something about the current state of a relationship, it’s that idea of something to pull that sets them apart from satisfaction.


Satisfaction, and anything like it, will predict a good deal about the future of a relationship. It is an important construct and nearly always measured in relationship science. It also can cause other things and yet still be relatively lever-less. For example, if a person is not satisfied in their relationship, they may give their partner less attention and their relationship will deteriorate further. In that case, satisfaction is causal by way of motivation—demotivating, really.

The notion of levers focuses attention on a different thing than just causality. A construct with a lever will reflect something that could be plausibly acted on by will. Thus, having a lever means the construct is potentially both causal and possible to direct.

Let’s say you wanted to increase satisfaction in your relationship this week. I do not think you will get very far with a plan that merely specifies your objective. Can you will yourself to be happier? I cannot. Can you decide to just be more satisfied with your partner? You could, but if you decide to do that you will shortly thereafter be thinking about your options to do something that could make that happen. A construct with a lever will imply an answer to a question, “What has a lever I could go pull this evening, that would probably have a good effect on my relationship, tonight, this week, or this year?" 

Here are some possible answers. You can decide to listen more to your partner. You can work at articulating more clearly what you want. You can show your commitment by some tangible act like inviting your partner to do something with you that you both enjoy. You can look for ways to provide more emotional or tangible support to your partner around an ongoing personal struggle. You can show joy about something your partner has achieved. Lever-actions, all.

You can see this principle in various things my colleagues and I have written over the years about commitment. The following is a passage from a chapter on how to use commitment theory in marital therapy (from Stanley, Lobitz, & Dickson, 1999)[ii]:

While satisfaction is certainly a crucial construct, focusing on it alone will lead to incomplete understandings of the complex motivations that underlie stay-leave decisions (Johnson, 1978, 1982, 1985; McDonald, 1981; Stanley & Markman, 1992; Rusbult, 1983). Furthermore, satisfaction alone gives therapists little instruction in how to help unhappy couples. "Don't worry, be happy" makes a great motto, but it does not offer much in terms of specific therapeutic strategies.
. . .
The good news is that the factors that underlie dedication are things about which people have choices. People can choose how they will handle the allure of alternatives. People can choose the priority they will place on their relationships. People can choose to nurture a positive, long-term vision for their relationship.

There are many models of measurement and theory about commitment, but one that resonates the most with me contrasts commitment as constraint and commitment as dedication. Constraints are things that can lead someone to remain in a relationship, whether or not they want to, and constraints tend naturally to build up over time. They often function harmlessly or even positively (as evidence of investment and a brake on ruining years of investment during a down time), but if satisfaction is low, they are what makes a person feel trapped. Constraints are hard to change or change quickly. Dedication, in contrast, is loaded with parts (sub-constructs) that are festooned with possible levers.

Consider this next list and how everything on it reflects not only something that will tell you something about a person’s commitment to their partner but will also leave a clue about aspects of behavior that might be changed to make a difference.

            A desire for a future together
            Couple identity

A person can think about ways to make their relationship a higher priority, and likely do something even slightly different the next day. For example, a person can choose to find ways to reinforce something about the future they want with their partner. That could mean planning a trip together or simply talking about the future with their significant other. Sacrifice, especially in little things, can also play a potent role in signaling commitment. There is a small but conceptually tight literature on sacrifice that suggests that, aside from situations where sacrifice is grossly uneven or resented, little sacrifices are going to make a positive difference.[iii] I have written a briefarticle about some of the ways one can focus on small acts of sacrifice in their relationship. Small positive sacrifices not only reflect this idea of levers, they might also have the very property Archimedes touted where a little effort can do a lot.

Here is a similar distinction in another paper, where we are differentiating dedication from romantic attachment (from Stanley, Rhoades, & Whitton, 2010)[iv]:

If commitment develops partly to secure romantic attachments, which aspects of the broader construct of commitment serve this purpose? . . . Constraint can foster a sense of permanence, which can contribute to overall security, but dedication will be reflected in behaviors that are more readily seen as under personal control, and, thereby, informative about commitment in ways that fosters trust and security between partners.
            . . .
One of the important differences between commitment and romantic attachment lies in the fact that intention is central in understanding commitment while romantic attachment only implies depth of emotional connection.

These examples are focused on aspects of commitment because that has been a focus of a lot of my thinking about relationships, but it is just an example of my main argument about constructs with levers. I often similarly contrast communication with satisfaction, where communication implies loads of levers and satisfaction does not.

Rock your world

I bet Archimedes believed that he could literally move the earth with a long enough lever, a fulcrum, and a place to stand just beyond it—hypothetically, of course. And you and me? Sometimes we’re looking too hard for something to rock our world when we just need to pull the lever that is nearest to where we presently stand.

Special thanks to Troy Fangmeier for help in editing this piece. A shorter version of this piece first appeared at my blog for Psychology Today on 12-3-2019. 

[i] In fact, satisfaction is potentially so broad a construct that many in my field of family psychology keep referring back to a concept of positive sentiment override, a term put forth by Robert Weiss to describe a phenomenon where one partner can hold such a positive overall sentiment about the other partner that pretty much nothing but positive can be seen. There can be negative sentiment override, also. This idea comes up often in discussions with colleagues over the years when the question is asked if some other construct is really just satisfaction by a different name. Citation: Weiss, R. L. (1980). Strategic behavioral marital therapy:  Toward a model for assessment and intervention, Volume 1. In   J. P. Vincent (Ed.) Advances in Family Intervention, Assessment, and, Theory (pp. 229-271). Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

[ii] Stanley, S.M., Lobitz, W.C., & Dickson, F. (1999). Using what we know: Commitment and cognitions in marital therapy. In W. Jones & J. Adams (Eds), Handbook of interpersonal commitment and relationship stability (pp. 379-392). New York: Plenum.

[iii] Especially on this point, see: Wieselquist, J., Rusbult, C. E., Foster, C. A., & Agnew, C. R. (1999). Commitment, pro-relationship behavior, and trust in close relationships. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77, 942-966.; and also: Stanley, S. M., Whitton, S. W., Low, S. M., Clements, M. L., & Markman, H. J. (2006). Sacrifice as a predictor of marital outcomes. Family Process, 45, 289-303.

[iv] Stanley, S. M., Rhoades, G. K., & Whitton, S. W. (2010). Commitment: Functions, formation, and the securing of romantic attachment. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2, 243-257. DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-2589.2010.00060.x