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. 

Gratitude

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. 

Reflection

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?