Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Work of Love

The idea of happiness in romance is pervasive, but not well understood. Usually we judge the success of a romance based on how happy the people seem to be. But measuring success based on happiness is difficult and often damaging.

What is Happiness?

Martin Seligman has done work to give better definitions of what happiness is and how we can pursue it well. Along with other researchers in the field of positive psychology, Seligman has identified three types of happiness: pleasure, passion, and purpose.


The type of happiness described by pleasure is simply what feels good in the moment. In romance this is often the feelings of connection, having things in common, enjoying being together, and delighting in what is shared. Pleasure is a beautiful, fleeting thing that sends cascades of dopamine through our brains and fades as quickly as it's found.


Passion describes the type of happiness achieved through engaging, working, and learning something until the the work disappears and becomes a flow. Learning to play the guitar takes effort, it starts off feeling clumsy and awkward, but with time and practice the mechanics of the act fade away and the joy of the music drives things forward. In romance passion is found when the you've learned how to anticipate each other's needs, when you can work side-by-side without arguing or correcting each other and the result is better than anything you could have done on your own. 


Purpose is using your skills and talents for the betterment of a community. If passion is learning to play the guitar and joining a band, purpose is playing in that band to raise money for charities that you care deeply about or writing songs that help others process their own pain. In romance purpose is seen when you are both deeply engaged in making your world a better place together.

Happy Romance

We easily fall into the happiness of pleasure. We experience something, we like it, so we keep doing it. We fall in love in the same way. We like someone so we keep spending time with them. It's easy, simple, and fleeting. 

From Pleasure to Passion

Making the transition from pleasure to passion isn't always natural. We usually just try to get through the parts of the relationship that feel like work so we can get back to the parts that feel like fun. Over time it's possible to stumble into passion, but it's not so easy. We have to remain committed long enough to get past the unpleasurable parts, to do the work of learning and growing, and from that we can find moments of passion. 

Any couple that's built Ikea furniture together knows that it can be frustrating to learn to work together. The arguing and annoyances build up. It would be easier to just quit, to have only one person do the job, to pay someone else to do it. Sometimes the arguments are resolved, the annoyances are minimized, and the work gets done. The next time (if there is one) gets easier, and eventually it's possible to get to a point where the work just flows without anyone having to manage the process. 

But that method usually requires a lot of broken Ikea furniture. 

The Work of Love

Passion is when we feel that our talents and skills are being well used and the steps in the process disappear as we just do things that are difficult and complicated. This is called flow. In sports they talk about flow as being in the zone. In work it's when the day disappears and we look up to see that it's time to go home. Flow is a great source of passion-happiness that requires developing skills and understanding process to accomplish. 

The work of love is uncovering each person's skills, learning each person's process, and putting in the time to practice using your skills in the process of life together. 

That takes time. It takes effort and energy and not giving up when things are difficult. It takes commitment. It also helps to have some practical steps to get into the steps of learning. What we have used is an annual retreat, we call ours the State of the Marriage Retreat. We go away for a night once a year to talk through our skills and our processes. We look for what we can learn, what we can improve, and what we're doing well. It's work, and it is absolutely worth it. 

How do you find the passion-happiness in your relationship?  

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Sexy is an Oxymoron

You've heard the classic examples of an oxymoron. Military Intelligence. Jumbo shrimp. Open secret.

The word, in Greek, literally means sharp-dull. And I believe, contained within the idea of sexiness, is yet another oxymoron. Or even several.

Safe Danger

Sexiness is a little bit dangerous, a little bit risque, a little bit edgy, but if those things are turned up too much, then the safety goes away and the sexiness turns into something scary. 

Sexiness is also a little bit comfortable, a little bit normal, a little bit safe. If the scale tips too far in that direction, toward safety, then the allure is lost and sexiness evaporates into mundanity. But somewhere in the middle, in the contradiction of safe danger, lies an aspect of sexiness. 

Fading Beauty

For the most part the objective, physical beauty of each person peaks in early adulthood and declines from then. And yes, there are some objective aspects to beauty like symmetry and consistency. Often committed relationships start during this peak and then the commitment grows as the beauty fades. But what's almost magical about sexiness is that it can increase over time even though the objective beauty might be fading.

Sexiness is partly defined by objective beauty, partly by subjective beauty (what you, personally, find appealing), and partly by experience. Our brains use little chemical rewards to remind us what is good in our lives, things like dopamine and endorphins. When those rewards are triggered by your partner, your brain starts to see them as a source for the rewards and, here's the really cool part, it will kick out some of the rewards in anticipation. So the more attractive you are to your partner, the more attractive you'll be. Having experiences that make your partner attractive will make your partner more attractive to you.

Beauty wanes, but sexiness can wax greater for as long as you keep feeding your brain with positive experiences.

Consistent Change

It's well established, both through research and anecdotes, that variety is sexy. That's why we can see someone new and be instantly attracted to that person. It doesn't mean we're being unfaithful to our partner to notice a new face, it means that our brains are working normally (of course what we do with that noticing is the important bit). 

Our brains are wired to notice change. You'll see something that's moving first. You'll notice something that's different before you'll look at what's familiar. Those traits made humans able to survive in the wild, to notice predators, and to find food. 

But our brains are also wired for consistency. We gravitate toward patterns, even to the point of creating them so that we can make sense of the world. That trait has allowed humans to develop language and science and math and art and engineering and music. The consistency of the patterns in our world have helped us to learn and grow beyond just surviving. 

Sexiness is often seen in what's different. For someone you've never met, the very fact that you've never seen them adds to the allure. But for someone you know, especially for your romantic partner, sexiness is often seen in what has changed: a new hairstyle, new clothes, a new scent. 

Here's the contradiction: the more familiar you are with a person, the less they trigger your difference-sense, but the more your pattern-sense. That, in turn, allows you to see smaller and smaller differences. Essentially, sexiness is found through the discovery and wonder of unraveling the ever-deepening mystery of another human being.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

6 Non-Secrets to a Happy Relationship

Do you get tired of people telling you that there are secrets that you have to learn from them in order to have a happy relationship? Yeah, me too. They aren't secrets; they're pretty obvious, but for some reason we don't want to do them.

Expect Change

It's no secret that we all change, but for whatever reason we think that our relationships shouldn't. Maybe it's the myth of happily ever after or maybe it's the fact that we don't really understand how our brains create the sensations of infatuation and love. Whatever it is that causes the unrealistic expectation that a relationship won't change is hurting us all. 

The only way to stop change is to stop life. We all, by the very nature of being alive, change. Every day we change. Every moment our brains are creating new pathways, our cells are dividing, dying, and growing anew. Our bodies change constantly and that means our minds and emotions are changing too. Expect it to happen. Work with the change instead of fighting against it. 

Mature Your Happiness

When I was a kid it didn't take much for me to be happy. A bowl of sugar-cereal and a television filled with cartoons could bring me bliss. I could spend hours pretending to fly while jumping off the steps in my front yard. I could ride my bike in endless loops around the neighborhood. 

But as I've grown older it takes more for me to be happy. That's a good thing. 

The kind of happiness that I experienced as a kid was immature. I enjoyed an experience and it made me happy. But as soon as the experience was over I stopped being happy. And if I had a negative experience I would be instantly sad or angry (brussel sprouts, anyone). 

Growing up has meant, not less happiness, but more mature happiness. I work for my happiness instead of having it handed to me in the cereal-bowl of an experience. And my happiness isn't dissolved in an instant if my experiences aren't exactly what I want. 

Own Your Happiness

Related to maturing your happiness is owning it. Your partner isn't responsible for making you happy and you aren't responsible for making your partner happy. If they stop making you happy, or vice versa, then own your feelings and figure it out. 

I love my partner and I want her to be happy. I will do just about anything I can to help facilitate her happiness. But I can't make her feel anything and she can't make me feel anything. My emotions are my own and hers are her own. If I'm unhappy I need to start with myself to figure out why. 

Are my expectations different from reality? Then maybe I should change my expectations or figure out how to change my situation. 

Is my partner doing things that upset me? Then maybe I need to figure out why I'm upset by those things before I ask my partner to change. 

Very often, when we aren't happy, we get into conflict and see that as a win-lose situation. 

Reverse Engineer Your Conflict

If you aren't familiar with the term, reverse engineering is the practice of looking at something in its present state and trying to figure out how it got to be that way. A mechanic might take apart a car to see how it works so they can make their own, for example. You can do the same thing with conflict. 

Fights between couples usually progress along a script. The script isn't the same for every couple, but for every couple they usually have the same script within their own fights. 

Here's just one possible example: 
  • Notice something that causes a negative emotion.* 
  • Internally blaming the partner for the thing -- and by default the emotion. 
  • Try to change the emotion by changing the partner's actions. 
  • The partner feels attacked and responds with anger. 
  • Anger escalates and harsh things are said. 
  • The anger cools and apologies are offered, but no real changes are made. 
Nearly every point in this script offers another option that would reduce or eliminate the fight, but usually we're too far into the fight to stop completely by the time we notice what's going on. But what you can do is to choose the better option as soon as you see it. Eventually you'll get to the point where some conflicts don't ever turn into fights. That's a pretty great moment when it happens. 

In reverse order you could:
  • Instead of just apologizing, you could work to make some changes to address the reason why the thing causes negative emotions. 
  • When the anger escalates, take some time to cool off so you don't end up saying anything harsh or unkind. 
  • When feeling attacked, you could stop and evaluate the feeling instead of responding in anger. 
  • Instead of trying to fix your emotions by changing your partner, you could keep the focus on your own emotional response. 
  • Instead of blaming your partner for your emotions, you could look for what it is within you that causes your response. 
  • When you notice your negative emotions, stop and think about why you're feeling that way and, if necessary, ask for help in improving your emotional state. 
Of course your conflict-script is probably different, but the process is the same. Start with the moment you notice the conflict and begin to work your way backward through the script every time the conflict comes up. Soon you could be solving your fights before they even become fights. 

Embrace the Awkward

Talking about feelings or sex or money or your stuffed emu collection can be awkward. That feeling of awkwardness can turn into a sense of impending shame. And that shame can keep you from being able to share yourself with your partner. Not sharing yourself with your partner is the surest way to stop feeling loved by them. 

But it's really awkward. It's awkward to say what you want during sex. It's awkward to admit that you're working on your feelings and something that didn't seem to bother you last year actually hurts your feelings now. It's awkward to admit that you overspent the budget or that you forgot about it completely. 

It was also awkward to ask your partner out for the very first time. It was awkward to lean in for that first kiss. It was awkward to label yourselves as being in a relationship. It was awkward when you voiced your commitment to each other. Yet none of those awkward moments seem bad in retrospect because they led to your current relationship. 

So why are you avoiding the awkwardness of conversations now? 

Embrace the awkwardness, the flushed face, the sweaty palms, the pounding heart. Embrace the fear that you might be judged, that you might be ashamed, that you might be rejected. Those are real feelings that you should honor, but not necessarily obey. Your body is responding to fear in your mind with a physiological reaction that sets you up to fight or flee and, since you love your partner, you don't want to fight. 

But don't flee either. Remember that when you've faced your fears in the past your partner hasn't rejected you or shamed you or judged you. They kissed you back.

Plan It

In every other aspect of your life, planning is a good thing, but somehow there's this idea that planning in a relationship takes away the magic. How would you feel if your next flight wasn't planned? Your next restaurant meal? Your next job? 

Plan to have a great relationship. Plan your dates, plan for sex, plan for meals, plan for spending money. That doesn't mean that you can't be spontaneous, but that spontaneity will be from the plan you've both agreed to rather than out of nowhere. 

You can even plan your conflict. We know that we are going to have big, scary, conflict-laden conversations. We're going to have to figure out our budget when our income changes. We're going to have to think through our careers. We're going to have to check in on our health and our emotions and our sexuality. So we plan for it by setting aside one weekend each year to go through all those topics (and more). 

We call it the State of the Marriage Retreat and we've been doing it every year since 2007. This annual retreat is one of the main reasons we have a happy relationship and one of the key places where we've learned the non-secrets that have made every year better than the last. 

There's no secret to having a happy relationship, there's just a lot of non-secrets that require us to grow, mature, and work together. 

*I'm using the term 'negative emotion' here for those feelings that often lead to fights like anger, fear, frustration, and sadness. But those emotions (in fact no emotions) are inherently negative or positive. Anger tells us something and we need to figure out what that is and search for a positive way to express it. For the sake of brevity, just know that by 'negative emotions' I mean the emotions that lead to a negative response. Cool? Cool!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Gratitude and Reflection

As Andrea and I have written about marriage we've done our best to keep the writing as accessible as possible. We even hesitated to use the word "marriage" because we didn't want to exclude committed couples that haven't gone through a ceremony or signed legal papers. Our goal in writing about relationship stuff has been, and continues to be, offering tools that we've found helpful. But the other night it occurred to me that one of the main things that has been helpful in our relationship has never been mentioned in our books or on this blog.

The reason it hasn't been mentioned is because it's prayer. Every night we pray together. But prayer is a religious practice and we didn't want to exclude from our audience those who aren't religious. But it occurred to me that there's something meaningful and helpful in what we've been doing all these years that doesn't require religion.*

The Practice

Every night as we get ready to sleep we'll reach out, hold hands, and say a short prayer. I start (mostly because that's the habit we fell into when we were first married), and Andrea will finish. We always begin with thanks for the day, recapping what happened, and sometimes remembering to share special events with each other. After we give thanks, we'll reflect on what's happening in our lives. We'll pray for friends and family in need, we'll ask for help with our own needs, or if things are going well, we'll be done. 

Sometimes we're tired and the only words we can get out are a simple statement of gratitude for the day. Sometimes we're hurting and we can't quite be thankful for what the day brought us. Sometimes one of us will be unable to be grateful, so the other will take over. And sometimes we fall asleep before we can pray together or we're apart for the night and can't make a phone call. 

But through all the years of our marriage we've made this nightly ritual a habit so that something feels off if we don't do it. 


A recent study has shown that the practice of gratitude in a relationship can predict the happiness of that relationship. Gratitude for each day, even the crappy ones, even the ones where grief is overwhelming, even the ones where tears stain your eyes, helps to build a strong, healthy relationship.

Gratitude is the practice of being thankful. Sometimes that thanks is simply for having another day to live and breathe. Sometimes that thanks is for a great success, but other times the thanks is that the catastrophe didn't destroy us. 

Every day we remind each other that there is something to be thankful for. 


After gratitude, we reflect on what's happening in our lives. On the busiest of days when we've barely had a chance to talk, let alone share what we've been thinking and feeling, that moment of reflection might be all we get. As we're drifting off to sleep we'll share the joys and frustrations of the day, what's worrying us and what's making us giddy with anticipation. 

Reflection helps us to reconnect and to reestablish that we're both heading in the same direction. It reminds us of what's most important and what's trivial. Sometimes the reflection goes on and on when we've had a lot of fantastic experiences. Other times the reflection is somber grief, but every time the reflection is of how we are working together. 

Your Turn

As I said, you don't have to be religious to get the benefits of gratitude and reflection. What you do need to do is to speak the words aloud to each other. Simply tell your partner what you're grateful for and what you're focused on. 

Today I'm thankful for...
Today I'm focused on...
That's it. Just do that. Every day. I can't think of another practice in our relationship that has had a greater impact on its quality or our commitment. All of the other stuff that we do, that we've written about, has been in the context of gratitude and reflection.

*While religion is deeply important to us, we follow the teaching of Christ that we should love our neighbors. To us, it doesn't feel very loving to withhold help or put conditions on caring for people. If you want to know more about our religious beliefs, please ask us and we'd be happy to share, but because we're trying to put those beliefs into practice, we're not going to force them on anyone.  

Saturday, February 14, 2015

50 Shades of Stop Being Terrible at Sex

So there's the movie that's out right now and people are all losing their minds over it. One half of my Facebook feed is all about how only depraved sinners will go to see the movie. The other half is about how awesome the books were and how excited they are for the movie.

I don't really want to comment on the writing of the book (I haven't read it) or the acting in the movie (I haven't watched it). That's not my place or my purpose. This blog is about marriage, not literary or cinema critique.

What I think needs to be said is this: 50 Shades of Grey is popular for a reason.

There's a reason that over 100 million copies of the books have been sold. There's a reason why so many people (mostly women) are flocking to see the movie. Understanding that reason is important to your relationship (the books and/or movie are up to you).

I know I'm not the only one who grew up in a situation where sex was naughty. I grew up in a Christian home and in church I was taught that sex (outside of marriage) is wrong. Mostly I dropped the parenthetical as I incorporated that idea into my teenage psyche. I just got the message that sex was wrong. I would ruin my life and perhaps catch gross and deadly diseases if I did it. Despite the fact that I really (really) wanted to have sex, it would have labeled me as a dirty, terrible person if I had.

Then I got married and I was supposed to magically change my mind and start thinking sex was awesome.

Does your brain work that way? Yeah, neither does mine.

My wife and I have been working for our whole married life to unlearn the message that sex is shameful and wrong. Even today when we talk about sex it's sometimes too scary for us to do so with the lights on. We've been married for over 11 years and talked about everything else, but we still have those moments when it's just too shameful to say certain things while looking each other in the eye.

Gentlemen, I'm going to be frank with you here (if you're not a gentleman, you can still read this part, it probably applies to you, also I'm making generalizations here that may not apply to every person or every relationship for the sake of brevity).

Guys, if we're satisfying our wives then perhaps they won't need or want to read/watch 50 Shades of Grey.

Yeah, I said it.

In the whole sex-is-bad culture there's the terrible double-standard that says boys will be boys while girls have to be pure and virginal. Basically it's saying that men are allowed to be sexually satisfied while women are not. One of the worst examples of this is in things like female genital mutilation that still goes in on today.

Our culture is having a hard time letting go of the notion that women are meant ot be property for the sexual gratification of the men. They aren't, so let's stop acting like it.

But, James, you'll argue, in 50 Shades of Grey, the women is not in control.

I know. She's told to do all the stuff and, even when she says that it's time to stop, Christian (the male lead) keeps going. So that absolves her of any guilt in wanting the stuff that happens (some bondage, dominance, sadism, and masochism) but still getting to experience it.

Let me say that again, she gets to enjoy sex without feeling guilty about it.

The fantasy of 50 Shades of Grey is for a women to have the benefit of sex without the guilt and shame. The guilt and shame are there because our culture (by which I mean Western religious culture which still permeates much of American society) says that sex is dirty and wrong. The lack of enjoyment is there because our culture has said that sex if for men's enjoyment not women's.

So if we work (and it will be work) to unlearn the idea that sex is dirty we can start to address some of the guilt and shame issues. But that's not enough. Sex is awesome and both men and women should get a chance to enjoy it.

So what should you do?

Here's a short list of suggestions:

  • Talk about your sexaul fantasies (even if you have to turn off the lights). 
  • Take turns being the focus of sex (tonight it's all about what she wants). 
  • Debrief after sex to talk about what worked and what didn't.
  • Remind yourselves that sex is awesome (say it outloud to each other). 
  • Do your best to make sure that everyone fully enjoys the sexytimes (guys let her finish first). 
  • Play, experiment, take risks, have fun (get some toys or some ropes or go on an adventure). 
What would you add to the list? 

What am I absolutely wrong about? 

Have you seen the movie or read the book(s)? What did you think? 

Monday, March 10, 2014

True Love vs. the Lies

I've been trying to post encouraging pictures and articles to the Facebook page for The Marriage Challenge. In searching for good content to share, I've come across a lot of terrible stuff.

When I looked for marriage quotes and memes most of what I found took a really poor view of marriage. It kept going with the old trope that marriage is a trap for men and a chore for women. There wasn't much of it that was usable so I had to make my own.

Next I went searching for good quotes about love. What I found was almost the polar opposite of the stuff that I found on marriage. Instead of taking a view that is too low, this stuff takes a view that is way too high. They make love out to be some sort of magical power that cures the common cold and harnesses leprechauns to a sled to pull you through a park where it's snowing white rosepetals being dropped on you by unicorns and Care Bears.

Where's the truth in all this?

I think the truth is in twitterpation - you remember, from the movie Bambi - it's that intoxicating feeling of infatuation that you feel when you first meet someone. It's the butterflies and sleepless nights thinking of them. It's an obsession that can't be filled by anyone else.

Guess what, that's not love. Love comes out of that. Love might grow from the soil of twitterpation, but the chemical imbalance of infatuation isn't love. It's not sustainable and it's not healthy.

The chemicals in your brain that give you the twitterpated feeling start to fade in between 18 and 36 months. You know how they say, "the honeymoon is over" when a couple has been together for a while? This is usually about the time that the intoxication wears off and reality sets in.

I think this is where love really happens.

After the love-drunk feeling wears off you get to learn about sacrificing for the other person and having them sacrifice for you. You get to learn how to speak a different language of emotions and conflict, and how to teach your language to them. You get to fight, maybe even yell and scream, and work through it. You get to figure out how one person can never fulfill all your needs and learn to be okay with that.

Twitterpation isn't bad. It's thrilling to feel so connected to another person. It's so much fun to feel that way about someone who feels the same about you. Go for it, enjoy it, wallow in it. But don't think that's as good as it gets. That love drunk feeling is just the beginning of deeper and more rewarding levels of happiness that will demand more effort and commitment from you every day.

Below are some of the images that stuck out to me as being particularly ignorant of what love is really about.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New and Improved

I really don't like it when marketers slap that label onto a product: "New and Improved!" It's either one or the other. If it's new, then you didn't improve the old thing. If it's improved, you didn't give me something new.

The only way that would be true is if they gave me something that they'd improved and gave me something new. That would be pretty cool.


We're getting ready to launch a new book about marriage. It's a short handbook designed to help couples go through a marriage retreat together. It's got all the conversations and planning tips you need to have your own State of the Marriage Retreat


We've also gone back and edited the first book, 52 Conversations, to get rid of some pesky errors, add some good content, and update the cover design. There are 4 totally new conversations in there, along with numerous small improvements. 

We look forward to telling you more about all of this as the books get closer to being released.