The Ultimate Garage Cleaner’s Guide to Marriage Repair

A few years ago a client gave me a refrigerator magnet that reads:


Yep. I agree.

Especially when one of the chores involves the word garage. That’s how our garage ended up looking like a scene from the reality show where they bring in five guys in hazmat suits while a team of kind social workers comforts the hoarder.

No, neither my husband nor I have trouble with hoarding. What we did have was a troublesome habit of tossing all manner of stuff into the garage, thinking we’d deal with it “later.” Which is a very bad idea when, year after year, you’d rather be writing, or hiking, or… well, doing pretty much anything but tackling our neglected mess that grew worse by the day.

Brave and determined, and tired of the mess, we put a date on the calendar, written in ink.

“I’ve got a plan,” I announced on the morning we’d picked, at which point I noticed that my husband had begun to look a bit like he did the day we went whale watching on rough waters: glassy-eyed and slightly gray.

“Let’s just take it one box, or bag, or old chair at a time,” I said with my hand on his arm, intending to both reassure him and keep him from dashing back into the house.

“One pile for the trash can. One pile to keep. One for Goodwill, and another for things that are worth saving if they can be fixed,” a strategy I’d learned from an enthusiastic blogger who writes about clearing clutter.

Within a matter of hours, everything was sorted and classified, spread out on the lawn, and what had seemed unmanageable — no, monstrous! — was well under control.

Once we were done, we were exhausted and happy, vowing, like converts, that we would never, EVER, let this happen again.

Back in my office on Monday, I realized that marital troubles are a lot like our messy garage: one unresolved issue stashed here, another buried and forgotten there. Things once valued, now broken, left un-repaired.

Most of the couples I work with show up in my office looking much like my husband and I did on garage cleaning day: a bit overwhelmed, staring down the mess, hoping to find a good place to start.

Yes, relationship struggles are far more challenging and complex to sort out than old boxes of books, gardening tools, and thirty years worth of paint. Even so, the clutter clearing rules that we followed are a surprisingly helpful way to begin.

And no, you don’t have to drag it all out onto the front lawn.

1. Things you need to take to the dump.

imageGot any old grudges taking up space? What about resentments or unmet expectations?

Many of us hang on to negative feelings that color the way we see our lives. Or, we hang on to past hurts and keep them “live” in the present.

If you’re ready to clean house, consider letting go of any and all of the following: grudge-holding, stinginess, nastiness, and score-keeping, along with any excuses you have for why you don’t do things that will give you a more satisfying marriage.

2. Things you need to spruce up.

Even in the best of relationships, we can find at least one or two things that need to be cleaned up or repaired.

Why not start with any bad habits or self-defeating attitudes or low standards you’ve set? It can be something as simple as remembering to turn off the light in the basement, or as meaningful as deciding to curtail your complaints. All too often, we take our partner for granted, failing to show up as our most loving and kind-hearted self.

Maybe you’re carrying some sort of hurt that needs to be addressed. Or, there’s something for which you need to apologize, or something that you’re willing to forgive.

Sometimes we get lazy or busy and we rush out the door with a hand wave instead of a kiss, or we forget to say thank you. Or, we don’t put in the effort to take care of problems as they arise and we end up with a relationship that resembles my old, cluttered garage.

If you’ve got a long fix-it list, begin, as we did, by tackling one messy issue at a time.

3. Things to hold and to have.

Research has shown that happy marriages are happy, in part, because the happiest couples focus on what’s good. Even in the midst of an argument; even when they’re, well, unhappy.

This isn’t to suggest that you ignore problems that need attention. My suggestion is that you make a practice of acknowledging the positives: the small, loving gestures; the everyday ways you support each other; the quirky, endearing behaviors that make your spouse one of a kind.

Maybe she knows how to make you smile when you’re grumpy, or he makes sure you don’t dash out the door without your travel mug. Maybe he helps you stay calm when you’re sure you’ve lost your keys, or, in a conflict, she’s willing to patiently hear you out even when she disagrees.

Remember, even the messiest of marriages holds its share of treasures that need to be brought forward and given their due.

Woman with question mark on blackboard4. Things you need to reinvent.

When cleaning out a garage or a closet there are plenty of things to take to Goodwill. But nobody wants our less-than-stellar behaviors, or our stockpile of outdated beliefs.

Some things, however, don’t need to be tossed out nor cleaned up. Sometimes what’s needed is for us to look at our familiar problems and stuck places and try to see them in a new way.

Say you’ve been frustrated, thinking your spouse is a terrible listener. With a fresh eye you may see that, in fact, you need to more clearly articulate your feelings and thoughts. Or, if a big problem in your marriage is that your spouse is really defensive, you might want to see if you play a part by being critical, or short-tempered, or all over his or her case.

Sometimes we see problems when what we’re facing are merely differences, which, when seen in a new light, may be opportunities for us to be more tolerant or to explore something new.

5. New things to bring in.

Now that you’ve created some space in your marriage, consider some valuable things you might add. More fun? More affection? Less dashing around?

Maybe you want more quality time for yourself and with your spouse. Or more courage to tackle those difficult-to-talk-about, but important issues.

Having carted out your grumpiness, you’ve made room for more kindness. The same goes for ditching the score-keeping and stinginess, which will make room for more warmth and generosity.

And after all your hard work, that’s a lovely reward.

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10 Everyday Relationship Issues That Aren’t Worth Freaking Out About

One of the best parts of my job as a couples therapist is that I get to deliver good news.

Woman Biting On Her LipCouples come in fearing that their marriage is too far gone to fix, and I get to tell them it’s not.

Yes, some people are in serious trouble and if they keep going in the direction they’re headed, their worst fears will come true.

Still, most couples are simply facing normal and ordinary relationship challenges that they lack the tools to address.

But normal and ordinary isn’t the same thing as easy or inconsequential. Marriage is challenging, and at times normal and ordinary can be hard to differentiate from dire.

Spend a few hours on the Internet reading marriage advice, and you might easily conclude that the only marriage worth keeping is one with no problems; that the only partner to stay with is one who never screws up.

A spouse who raises his voice or can’t express how he feels? A wife who nags or complains? Door slamming? Temper tantrums? All of these have been listed as sure-fire signs that your marriage is doomed.

A couple recently told me that they hesitated to seek therapy because they feared I would tell them they really ought to divorce. Their issue? They argued a lot and couldn’t agree on how to parent their three-year-old twins.

Another couple had similar worries when they confessed to sulking and guilt-tripping each other when they don’t get their way. Same goes for the couple who’d assumed they were in trouble because they were no longer having sex three times a week.

One woman, after one year of marriage, feared she’d chosen the wrong man because she was finding him “hard to adore.”

Between the frightening (and exaggerated) divorce statistics and the over-idealized notion of wedded bliss, it’s no wonder that normal marital struggles seem alarming — or worse.

Consider yourself perfectly normal if:

Bulldog Argument1. You don’t approach every conflict with a collaborative spirit.

Yep. Even the best of us don’t always use I-statements. Nor are we always reasonable or generous. Sometimes we’re tired or grumpy or selfish. Sometimes our two-year-old self just wants what she wants.

While a daily diet of this will erode the good will between you and your partner, it’s nice to know that being less-than-perfect is not a big deal.

2. You don’t feel madly in love.

Couples don’t stay head-over-heels in love with each other 24/7, for the rest of their days. Where did anyone get the idea that they should?

In love is sparkly and wonderful and a great place to start. In love grows into love, which burns more slowly and warms more deeply. Love is what stays with us, year after year.

I’ll take love over in love, hands down.

3. You want to sleep in another room when your partner is sick.

I’ve heard people say that having their spouse move into the guest room when they’re sick is a clear statement that “it’s every man for himself.”

I’m all for exchanging love and affection. Influenza? Not so much.

Chicken soup, orange juice, a brand new box of tissues? Count me in. I’ll put a cool hand or a kiss on my hubby’s forehead and then… call me in the morning.

4. You sometimes feel bored.

Finding your spouse to be a bit bland? Chances are, you have your dull moments, too.

In a marriage that spans decades, you’re bound to hear — more times than you wish — the story about how your spouse nearly froze to death snow camping, how she found a $1000 bill in the subway, how he ate that weird, jiggly fish in Japan. Never mind the joke about the dog and the psychiatrist.

Marriage can get ho-hum if we don’t bring enough fresh energy to keep things interesting. TV can replace chatting in bed. Eye contact can be something we only have with our phone.

Marriage doesn’t stay scintillating all on its own.

Things getting a bit boring? No cause for alarm. Read a good book. Talk about it. Do something surprising. Bring some pizazz.

5. You wish your spouse would change.

Even though you know this one’s out of your hands, go on. It feels good to dream.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have one or two things that they wouldn’t banish in an instant, given a magic wand.

6. You sometimes crave alone time.

How can this be a sign that things have gone south?

Remember — the two of you are two separate people, not two halves of a whole.

Wanting to spend the day alone at the beach, to spend time in your favorite chair reading a book, watching a movie, or chatting with an old friend is hardly a reflection on your spouse or your marriage.

7. You have some issues that never resolve.

You and every couple on earth.

When I learned that 69% of marital issues cannot be resolved, my first thought was, “What a relief!” I’d worried for years that my husband and I were the world’s most incompetent problem-solvers. My second thought: Thank goodness for the resolvable 31%.

As couples, we can endlessly struggle or we can figure out how not to go nuts. Best case scenario — we can be compassionate and flexible and even learn to laugh.

But working everything out? Not in this life. And, fortunately, not necessary.

angry and frustrated woman ready to explode

8. Now and again you wonder, “What was I thinking?”

Much like the magic wand fantasy of wishing your partner would change, it’s perfectly normal to wonder whether life would have been easier (more exciting, more satisfying) with somebody else.

Possibly so. But then again, maybe not.

Things that, early on, seemed charming or cute or, at a minimum, tolerable, can, in time, become grating and irksome beyond what you can bear. And the prospect of five decades of say, his whistling, or her knuckle-cracking, or the way she says, “Hmmm,” confirms that when you said, “’till death do us part,” you were out of your mind.

Some might tell you they’ve never once had thoughts like these. I, for one, find that hard to believe.

9. You don’t always feel like a team.

I like to be realistic about couples being a team. Teamwork is great. I’m totally for it.

But, like all teams, sometimes we play better than other times. Sometimes we foul out or we don’t even show up for the game. Expecting precision is a set-up for disappointment.

Many people think functioning as a team means thinking alike, agreeing, wanting all the same things. That’s not teamwork. That’s expecting your partner to be your twin.

Sometimes what’s needed is one person breaking ranks and unilaterally taking an action. Such as confronting a spouse’s overspending or drinking or insisting that there be a ban on texting while driving the car.

10. There are things about your spouse that you don’t understand.

No matter how much you love each other, or care about each other, no matter how many anniversaries you have under your belt, there will be things about your partner that remain a mystery to you.

Why she watches TV with the sound off; why he likes to drive fast. Why he eats grapefruit and oranges and hates tangerines. Why she gets angry when you interrupt her, and she interrupts you all the time. And what makes him so “certain” when he’s not actually right?

Sometimes it can seem that we live with a stranger — someone so different from us that, try as we might, we can’t see the world through their eyes.

Marriage makes us a couple; it does not turn two people into “one.” Expecting to be perfectly known or to perfectly know is too much to ask.

Truth is, there are things about myself that I’m still trying to understand. For now, I’m content to focus on those.

My overall message: Relax. Every relationship will have it’s challenges that need to be addressed. Far too many of us assume marriage will be a smooth sail. I say it’s far better to become sailors who can safely navigate rough seas.


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10 Reasons Not to Be a Valentine’s Day Grinch

wallpaper_20100115103718_16542854972It’s that time again — Valentine’s Day. The holiday of romantic love, chocolate hearts, and passionate feelings about whether Valentine’s Day should be celebrated, or banned.

Yes, a dozen red roses, plus dinner, will cost as much as your car payment. And yes, love is as sweet on February 15th and every day after that (and should, indeed, be expressed all year long.)

And it’s true, Valentine’s Day is a red ribbon sales day for Hallmark and Hershey and a host of others who peddle “romance” for profit, creating enough hype and hoopla to turn even the ultra-romantic among us into a Valentine’s Day Grinch.

Still there are those of us who like to make the most of the day. We don’t take it seriously enough to expect something from Tiffany or to assess the depth of our love based on what happens that day. We simply view Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to do something sweet with the special someone we love.

Whether you’re a Valentine’s Day hater, a scoffer, or a romantic like me, consider these reasons to make Valentine’s Day a holiday you won’t want to miss:

1. It feels good to give.

When we give to others, at least two good things happen: we feel closer to the person who’s received our gift and that person feels closer to us.

It doesn’t matter what you give — a cookie, a back rub, a coupon that promises that you’ll help clean out the garage; or better still, your undivided attention.

Generosity is good for your health, your self-esteem, and your marriage. Though I don’t recommend giving with an expectation that your spouse must respond in kind, most often, our generosity is met with gratitude, which is an act of love, as well.

2. There’s no such thing as too much L and A  (Love and affection).

Maybe your everyday life is chock full of hugs and “I LOVE YOUs!” Then again, maybe it’s not.

It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of everyday life, to let our to-do list grab more than its fair share of our time. To often (and too easily) the sweet, loving 29209363_sgestures and kind words that are so important in marriage go unexpressed.

Sometimes what we express isn’t loving at all.

Valentine’s Day is the perfect time to put some love in the bank. Go on. Go a bit over the top.

3. It’s good for your heart. Literally.

Forget the over-priced dinner and the wilting bouquet. One of the best things you can do for your marriage and overall well-being is to hug.

It’s fun. It’s free. And it brings a host of good things. Hugging and hand-holding have been found to release the hormone oxytocin, which reduces blood pressure, boosts your mood, and lowers the levels of stress hormones in your body.

Sounds good to me!

4. Chocolate.

Need I say more?

5. It’s about fun.

Valentine’s Day is not a solemn occasion. Cupids and hearts and chocolates left on your pillow are about whimsy and playfulness. They’re about the light side of love.

Loathe the idea of an over-crowded restaurant with a prix-fixe menu?

Can’t stand dressing up?

There’s no need. Take a walk. Go out for breakfast. Or lunch. Have cookies and milk, or order a pizza.

Maybe just saying, “I love you” will feel like enough.

Whatever you do, don’t have a fight about not living up to some romantic ideal.

6. It’s a good day to start making things better.

It’s a sad fact that some people turn Valentine’s Day into a day of reckoning. Just Google Valentine’s Day and divorce and you’ll see what I mean.

Everyday disappointments about marriage can feel even more disappointing on a day when we imagine everyone else is “in love.”

Rather than mope or bemoan the miserable state of their marriage, rather than feel defeated and just try to get through the day, I’ve know couples to use Valentine’s Day as an occasion to reach out: To talk about wanting to have a deeper connection. To talk about ways to have more kindness and love. To renew their effort to try.

Of course any of us can do this any day of the year. But, as one of my clients said, “What I wanted for Valentine’s Day was a better marriage. I figured this was a perfect day to begin.”

7. It’s a chance for romance.

People have used the occasion of Valentine’s Day to profess love, to propose marriage, to send flowers or a love poem to someone they secretly admire.

Why not let your inner romantic roam free?

8. It’s an opportunity to smile.

This one’s a lot like hugging.

Smiling has a profound effect on the reward centers of the brain: one smile can generate the same degree of pleasurable brain stimulation as 2000 bars of chocolate, without impacting your waistline. (I did not make this up!)

Smiling reduces stress, relaxes us, and even builds trust.

Want a gift that keeps on giving? Smile.

Since smiles are contagious (it’s difficult to frown when someone smiles at you) the benefits you get from your smile will be shared by everyone around you. You may even get a hug in return.

17380463_s9. It’s a day to bring out your crayons.

Or, your paper and pen. Or, your grandmother’s recipe for chocolate fudge hearts.

Write a love poem, a haiku, or a limerick — the more risqué the better.

10. It’s a perfect reminder that love matters.

Ask anyone what they want most with their partner and they’re likely to say that they want to love and be loved.

We all want to be cherished. We want to know that, despite the inevitable ups and downs of marriage, our spouse still wants to be our Valentine.
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Valentine’s Day graphic by Randall Munroe.

How to Become Your Spouse’s Best Friend

girl shares, gives or feeds boy with her ice cream in studio isoEvery day we hear yet another bit of advice about what it takes to have a marriage that lasts. The latest: Find a spouse who can be your best friend.

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Kindness, companionship, a special someone to come home to…

For many of us, the friendship we have with our spouse is what we value the most in our relationship. And according to recent research, friendship plays a key role in what makes a good marriage even better.

Mind you, the researchers aren’t saying that you have to start out as best friends. Continue reading

How to Have a Happier Marriage — Without Changing a Thing

imageJanuary 1st. The day of fresh starts and new beginnings. The day we vow to eat more green vegetables, actually use our gym membership, and try, once again, to lose those hard to lose pounds.

As we look to the new year, we often focus on ways to be “better” — resolving to do more of what’s good for us and less of what’s not. To (at least most of the time) come from our best.

For a good many of us, finding ways to have a more satisfying marriage is high on our list.

But in our rush for improvement, we overlook this key fact: Continue reading

36 Things I Know After 36 Years of Marriage

P & W Yosemite 2014IMG_0086 copyNext week, my husband and I will celebrate our 36th anniversary.

Some years we’ve gotten dressed-up and gone out to dinner. Other years we’ve simply marked the day with a kiss.

Once, we were both sick with the flu and I vaguely remember clinking our glasses of orange juice together and then sleeping right through the day.

Then there was the year when we were so embroiled in struggle that we let the day pass without even a word.

That’s what marriage is: richer, poorer, good times and bad. Each year with its surprises and challenges, its hard fought lessons, its moments of sweetness.

To honor our many years together, here are 36 lessons I’ve found most valuable: Continue reading

5 Myths About Marriage That I’m Glad Aren’t True


Ask ten happily married people, “What’s your key to success?” and you’ll get fifteen answers — many of which contradict each other.

Some will say couples should never to go to bed angry. Others will say it’s fine to sleep on your arguments. For them, World War III or not, it’s lights out at 11.

Many will say, “don’t sweat the small stuff,” while an equal number will tout the virtues of talking things out.

Do opposites attract or should we be birds of a feather?

Are we better off lowering our expectations, or setting a high bar?

And do couples really need to be each other’s best friend?

The truth is, many of the widely-dispensed bits of marriage advice are more fiction than fact. Continue reading