Monday, February 09, 2009

Tell her what she doesn't know you know

In all conversations, I confess, I am addicted to listening for-'what's missing.' Not so much what's being said as what's not being said. "We have a good marriage," a woman recently told me and then went on to offer a kind of unsolicited qualification. "Of course we have our struggles," she added and I listened.

"Bob likes to offer solutions," she went on, "and sometimes I find that tiring. Of course I'm not perfect either..." I wondered what she needed at that moment. I met her in Starbucks and we started out chatting about the rain, the planet's stingy gift in Southern California.

I offered something lame I think, "well men do like to solve problems." She only looked at me. Didn't respond but went on, perhaps believing that by educating me, a man, she would in some way potentially be educating Bob.

"You know sometimes a solution is not what you want to hear." I nodded, starting to realize that I was, to her, more of an audience than a participant in a conversation. "I suppose all marriages have their challenges, and, you know, he's a good man." I didn't know but I was willing to take her word for it.

I then started wondering how my wife would describe me to a stranger in a coffee shop. Or how I would describe her if I had occassion to. Perhaps I'd start out "my wife likes living with me. Of course I'm a pain in the neck but I appreciate that she likes me." Then when my 'audience' said something mundane back to me as I did to the lady in the coffee shop, I'd add "she's unpredictable. To me at least. I never know what she's going to say or when she's going to say it. What I enjoy most, I think, is her unpredictability."

Couples know a lot about their partners but perhaps conversations could be expanded if they told each other what each other doesn't know they know. Or see. Or experience. Or believe. My wife might like knowing that I enjoy her unpredictability - I think she thinks it's a problem for me. Maybe I'll tell her. Tonight.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Marriage Transformed: Five steps to improve your marriage

Marriage Transformed

Five quick and easy steps to improve your marriage.

There’s a ton of advice out there. Let’s boil some of it down to basics. Here are five things you can do today to increase the quality of your loving:

1. Say your partner’s name outloud three times. Then say three simple things outloud that you like about him/ her.
2. Pick your favorite of these and email or phone message them with it immediately.
3. Create a surprise for your partner today. Ideas: pick up a book, pick a flower, do a chore that is normally theirs to do, listen three minutes without interrupting except to ask clarifying questions, draw a picture of you loving them, write a short poem.
4. Pull out an old picture of the two of you having fun, make a homemade frame (a friend did this with sticks from the yard) and place it by their dinner place.
5. Tell them of your dreams for this relationship.

Marriage is a work (of joy) in progress. Embrace your today.

Stephen W. Frueh PhD

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Loving simplicity

The elephant seals make it look simple. Squawking on the a strip of beach north of San Simeon in central California they herd their young while looking a lot like healthy couples. Here's a father haruumphing and flopping over the sand to get next to his partner who, it just so happened, was hanging out with another male seal. The guest left hurriedly as father/mate approached. He lustily bit his partner on the back of the neck and she squawked with enthusiasm - "yes I'm yours."

They have no problem claiming their love, keeping it current or laying in the sun happily while the kids nurse and flop around themselves.

My daughter and her eleven year old friend watched this social event with glee. We had just arrived having decided to take a quick three day trip up the coast while mama vacationed with friends in Vegas. I was aware of my complicated way of thinking, of my always wanting to understand, of my sometimes need to put my own relationship under too fine a focus.

I was reminded of the first lines of a beautiful poem by David Whyte .. "And we know when Moses was told,

in the way he was told,

'take off your shoes!' He grew pale from that simple

reminder of fire in the dusty earth.

He never recovered

his complicated way of loving again

and was free to love in the same way

he felt the fire licking at his heels loved him... Fire in The Earth, David Whyte

After a bit we left the amazing elephant seals and as we did my daughter pointed and said "look Papa, triplets."

Tolstoy once said this "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." We were reminded of one simple truth as we watched the families of elephant seals. Uncomplicated loving is a pathway to happiness, lowers your stress, and may, occassionally, get you a sweet bite on the neck.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Many of us were deeply moved by the stories of flight 1549 United Airways and its pilot "Sully." His competence was flawless, his presence impeccable, and his humility touched our hearts. He did, he said, "what we are trained to do."

This kind of straightforward talk reflects an attitude not only of accepting a high level of competence as a personal standard, but also of the 'servant leader.' Sully checked his plane twice to ensure all passengers under his care where out of the plane.

It's not too big a jump, I hope, to remind ourselves that what we bring to the challenges of marriage requires deep commitment to consistently increase our relational competencies. And, the ability or capacity to love those we love is a necessary competency as well.

What we came into marriage with was perhaps a romantic notion - if we were 'in love' and could stay 'in love' everything would be alright. Nothing wrong with being 'in love.' Feels good, opens communication, deepens commitment. May I not sound Scrooge-like on that. But...

'In love' for most of us comes and goes. A lot of what we feel as 'in love' is hormonal, or seasonal, or biological clock stuff, some of it is fascination and some, good old fashioned desire. But healthy marriages need a deep underground river of loving as well to sustain them through the inevitable challenges of life and marriage.

We call that 'the need to love' and it is the first principle in our philosophy of marriage. While 'in love' may feel good, focusing on loving your partner is good - good for them and good for you. What would loving your partner look like?

Here are a couple of simple ideas:
* loving my honey 'looks like' paying attention to her challenges rather than dismissing or analyzing her. Simple listening, without bringing my own agenda, is helpful for her.
* loving her means withdrawing my theories, diagnoses, analyses, and speculations about her - her motives, her feelings, her intentions - and instead asking her, often, who she is.
* loving her means developing the capacity to get out of my own head once in awhile, to stop whining, stop complaining, stop withdrawing - and be present to her and with her.
* and loving her means including her in my own loneliness, or lostness or wandering. She can take it. She loves me.

Look at Captain 'Sully.' He didn't posture or complain, didn't grandstand, didn't jump off the plane first. He worked for over forty years to become fully competent and when the occasion came he 'simply did his job.' That's what competence is all about.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's up?

Wednesday's mornings I get to drive my 10 y/o daughter to school. It's about a 20 minute drive so we get time to talk, a favorite time for me. We load her (newly achieved full size) cello and trombone into the back of the car, add backpack stuffed with lunch box, homework and treasures. Add music bag.

This morning we're driving a rental suv the result of a slight fender bender someone else's daughter had with my wife's Scion. I talked to her father. We agreed it was a "million dollar accident" - hopefully lesson learned, damage small, no injuries. We also agreed that being a father was a vulnerable enterprise. We love our daughters and now they are out there in the world and protecting them becomes more and more a matter of faith.

My daughter pops her feet up on the dash - "can I do this in this car?" she asks. Why not I say and she reaches over and grabs my hand holding it tight in her lap. Soon she's dozing off and I see the woman in the girl, her mother's body, her serious approach to school, her inquisitive spirit.

These moments reminding me of my years on a Pennsylvania farm when I was a boy and again when I was a teenager. I loved the smells of earth overturned in plowing, of new grass mowed for haying, the barn in winter, my own small calf whose milky mouth smelled sweet. Later in our ride I tell my daughter of silage in winter and how the cows went kind of crazy with the smell of it. Promise of spring grasses, days out in the pasture. I was fully present to these experiences, and lived them as Dylan Thomas says (Fern Hill) as if "time held me golden in her arms."

These memories remind me of the critical importance of being present with my daughter of being here, now. I am so easily seduced into worrying about finances, or global warming, or violent conflicts in other parts of the world. All legitimate concerns. Yet, these moments with a ten year old 'tween' who will herself soon be forming the consciousness another generation offers to the challenges of this world, these moments are golden.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Crises are opportunities for coming together

I am always looking for good news. Not easy when the front pages of the two newspapers I read daily are covered with mostly alarming news. What I've noticed with some of the couples I coach, however, is an increase in creative problem solving, a new commitment to an old idea - 'we can do this,' and a resulting intimacy that comes with sharing challenges.

One of the newly appointed people in the new administration (sorry I can't remember who) said it this way: 'never waste the opportunity in a crisis.' That's good and it's a healthy balancer. We who might have been seduced by a generation of advertisers offering us the perpetual good life are now being reminded that life is ... well, life. Inflations and deflations, recessions and depressions are not new. They have occurred throughout time. So has greed, so has stupidity.

Relationally you might want to take the gift in being challenged economically as an opportunity for moving closer. One couple I know recently started walking to the supermarket which is about a mile from their home instead of driving. They decided to a) save gas, b) enjoy a little family time, c) gain some exercise and d) escape their tv addiction. They also cut down some of their coaching time with me because, they said, "we are now talking more on our walks and trying our hand at some of the issues we brought to you in the first place."

We teach a marriage paradigm that takes advantage of the three journeys within marriage. That first journey is living in this world as "roommates." What they are doing is beginning to use the current economic challenges to 'drive' a deeper friendship (the third journey is the journey into deep friendship or intimacy) within their family.

And, 'we can do this' is really about inviting all family members into shared vision. Once you begin to back away from the drum beat of a marketing culture that shortcuts human activity and promotes spectator living you also begin to rediscover the enormous potential of the individuals within your family for living creatively.

Turn off the tv, walk to the store, make dinners together, plant a miniature herb garden in your kitchen, wash your own cars together, create your own 'fast food' meals, spend some time 'brainstorming' around money - enjoy the people you are connected with, whether you're a couple or a family. See what happens.

As I headed off for bed last night, my honey was sorting through coupons with my ten year old daughter. "We can save hundreds of dollars a month," I heard her say. I slept like a baby.

Coaching: email or phone: Stephen@WithTheseRings.com 805 527 2600

Friday, November 21, 2008

Marriage, Money and Mayhem

A crisis in most cases depends for its severity on your own perception. Some people lose a job and see it as a catastrophe, others might see it as an opportunity. I know a very wealthy man who owns and operates restaurants. I once asked him what he'd do if his (first) restaurant burned down. He said "I'd throw a party! It would give me the freedom to try something new."

The spreading financial crisis we are in today also offers multiple points of view. If you're heavy into stocks, it's pretty serious. If you are a financial crisis counselor, this is your moment. Within marriage, challenges can drive a sense of panic which can drive a couple apart. We forget to hug.

It's important to remember the formula for hysteria: two parts fear, one part anger plus a whole lot of projection (we like to think we know the future). We don't know as much as we think we know and, if you're addicted to media versions of life chances are your fear will be fed until your psyche is obese with it. Relationally, fear plus anger equals distance.

For a moment, turn away from the sources of information you rely on. Turn towards your partner and in the quietest possible way share your fears. Don't try, at that moment, to analyze them, and don't try to solve them. Simply share them with each other. When you're done, repeat this simple sentence to each other: "I do not know what anything (including this current situation) means. And I will not use my past experience to guide me now." (this is from The Course on Miracles and is a good meditative sentence)

Another good meditative sentence comes from the New Testament. I have taken the liberty to write the apostle Paul's words in my own language. Here it is: "There are no challenges confronting you but those that are common to men. God, however, is right here and able to help. He will not challenge you beyond your abilities but will, with the challenge, offer a pathway through that you may be able to succeed." (I Corinthians 10:13)

Money is a 'shape shifter' and can easily seduce us into feeling like we're orphans. When mayhem beckons, move towards each other. Embrace your love. Live in the present and remember 'you are not alone.'