The secret to keeping the romance alive: It’s not all about roses and chocolates

In my last post, I reported on a study by researchers at Stony Brook University that suggested that romance can survive in long-term relationships. That’s great news, but what if you’re in one of those long-term relationships and the romance isn’t what it used to be? Are there ways to rekindle the romance even after 10+ years? Well, science comes to our rescue again with a resounding, “YES!” And the data suggests that increasing the romance and satisfaction in your relationship has less to do with things we think of a traditionally “romantic” and more to do with things that are new and challenging.

Arthur Aron, Ph.D., a social psychologist at Stony Brook University, has spent the last 25 years studying interpersonal relationships, including how some couples are able to keep romance alive in their long- term relationships. His research shows that couples who engage in novel and challenging tasks together report higher levels of relationship satisfaction and increased intimacy compared to those who stick to only familiar and routine activities. These novel and challenging tasks don’t even have to be anything obviously romantic. For example, in one of his studies he asked married couples to spend 7 minutes rolling a ball across a room to each other (no candles and roses there). To increase the level of challenge and novelty of the task, he had half of the couples do the task while their wrists and ankles were tied together. Those couples reported higher levels of relationship satisfaction after the activity than those who did the activity while they were not bound. Aron suggests that engaging in these more exciting and challenging activities together (ok, so rolling a ball across the room isn’t all that exciting, but…) translates into us feeling our relationships are more fun and exciting. “That exhilarating feeling may come from another source, but it’s still associated with your partner,” says Aron.

Given the romance-boosting potential of trying new and challenging activities together, here are 5 suggestions of ways to rekindle the romance in your long-term relationship (It’s probably not a bad idea for those in new relationships too!)

1. Hit the books. Nearly all community colleges offer a wide variety of relatively inexpensive non-credit classes that are open to anyone in the community. Whether it be trying your hand at pottery or taking a stab at Shakespeare, classes can be a great way to learn something new together.

2. Let’s get physical! Try taking up a new physical activity. Anything from taking dancing lessons to joining a kickball team together could work. And try doing something where you’re both novices (remember—novelty is part of the key), so don’t join the softball team if your partner is Babe Ruth!

3. Use your hands. Building something together can be a great way to tackle something new and challenging, especially if the two of you spend most of your time using those parts of your body that sit above your shoulders. Maybe the two of you have always wanted to build that front porch swing together or maybe you could even make this a way to support a great cause by volunteering to work on a Habitat for Humanity house together.

4. Parli Italiano il mio amore? Maybe a long vacation in Paris or Istanbul isn’t the cards for you right now. However, for only the cost of a class at a community college or a Rosetta Stone program, you and your partner can dream of exotic locales together by learning a new language. And who knows, maybe you’ll finally take that trip to Italy together once you’re mastered some basic Italian.

5. Tackle the classics. Is there that one great classic book that you somehow got out of school without ever having read? Maybe you were playing hooky while others were reading Moby Dick or maybe the Cliffs Notes of the Scarlet Letter just seemed a whole lot more appealing to your 18-year-old self than reading the actual book. If that’s the case, you and your partner could commit to tackling your own great white whale of a classic together. Maybe you decide to read a chapter a week, or a chapter a month—doesn’t matter. Then each week or month discuss what you’ve read over a nice dinner or glass of wine. What matters is that by doing something challenging and new together you’re not only increasing your chances of taking home the big prize a pub quiz this week, but you’ll also be increasing the romance in your relationship (speaking of pub quiz, join a pub quiz team together– that could be a six item, if I were going to sneak another one in there).

So next time your relationship could use a little spark, skip the champagne and flowers, and instead stretch yourself with tackling a new challenge together.

Get help coping with your loved one who has persistent mental illness

Do you have a loved one with Bipolar Disorder, Schizophrenia, or another type of persistent mental illness? Having a loved one with a persistent mental illness can feel stressful and overwhelming. The mental health system can be confusing and resources can be difficult to find. I specialize in working with family members to help them develop practical and useful skills to cope with their loved one’s mental illness and improve family relationships.

I offer one-to-one or group training based on evidence-based principles shown to reduce relapses of mental health problems, and improve the well-being of family members. The training is done in a collaborative and supportive style, and is focused on the hands-on skills you can use to improve your and your loved one’s mental health. As a family member of someone with a persistent mental illness, you may have that you are to blame for your family member’s illness. You are NOT to blame for their illness, but there ARE things you can do to improve the quality of life for your family and loved one with mental illness.

Why do I use evidence-based principles in what I do?

The whole team at Portland Psychotherapy has a strong commitment to using evidence-based principles in our work. Evidence-based means that techniques, treatments, or principles were tested in rigorously controlled experimental studies, as well as in studies in settings similar to our center (i.e., outpatient treatment centers), and were shown to be effective in reducing distress, relapses, or functioning. We use what works based on scientific findings, not on fads or untested techniques. Although we have a strong commitment to evidence based principles, we work hard to flexibly tailor these principles to best meet the needs of the individual and the family.

What kinds of things will help me and my family member?

Numerous research studies have shown that certain techniques are more effective in improving your well-being and your family member’s mental health. Communication skills, particularly skills that decrease the expression of negative emotions, can decrease symptoms of and relapses of persistent mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia (Butzlaff & Hooley, 1998). Problem solving and education about mental health problems and treatments can improve your well-being and help your loved one and family resolve problems more effectively (Malouff, Thorsteinsson,  & Schutte, 2007; Dixon, Stewart, Burland, Delahanty, Lucksted et al., 2001). Self-care strategies for family members can decrease stress, anxiety, and even, health problems (Cuijpers & Stam, 2000). I help family members learn these evidence-based skills that will help you and your family member improve your lives.

What will I learn if I work with you?

If you contact me, we will schedule an initial consultation, from which we will develop a plan on how to help you with your family member. The plan could include any of the following elements:

  1. Information about the mental illness your loved one has and treatments for that mental illness.
  2. Information about the mental health system and community resources.
  3. Communication skills training to more effectively express your needs and emotions, set limits, and reward your loved one’s actions.
  4. Help with identifying limits you are comfortable with and how to reward actions that promote mental health and recovery.
  5. Problem solving skills that generate multiple solutions tailored to your unique circumstances.
  6. Realistic self-care strategies that you can implment in your life.
  7. You will also get access to a support group of families struggling with a similar situation that I run.

What can I expect during our meetings?

In the first couple of sessions we will focus on a developing a detailed understanding of your loved one’s mental health symptoms, the impact of the symptoms in your lives, and your own mental health. Then, we will create specific and action-oriented goals that we will use to evaluate our progress. The following sessions will focus on learning and practicing skills described in the section above (i.e., communication skills, problem solving, education about mental health, and self-care). You will be asked to practice the skills in between meetings so we can make any revisions or adjustments to how you use the skills.

I do my best to create a supportive and collaborative environment. I will work with you to learn and tailor the skills to your unique situation. You have valuable information and knowledge about the situation you are in. I actively seek out your contributions and experiences and incorporate them into the learning process. I work hard to create an accepting and positive environment where you can share your experiences and practice the skills. You are not defined by your difficulties, therefore, your strengths and values will also be incorporated into the training.

Resources

General Mental Health Resources

Resources for Specific Mental Health Problems

  • Schizophrenia.com has list of resources on schizophrenia and topics related to schizophrenia (e.g., schizophrenia and drug use).
  • Pendulum.org is a website that has information about Bipolar Disorder, including links to support groups.
  • Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance is a national organization for individuals with depression and Bipolar disorder. It includes a helpful tip sheet for family members of what to say and what not to say to a loved one with Bipolar Disorder.
  • The National Center for PTSD is part of the Veterans Administration dedicated to researching, educating, and treating PTSD. Although there is a strong focus on Veterans, the website includes useful information and resources on PTSD for people who are not Veterans.
  • Families for Depression Awareness is a national organization for families who have loved ones with depression.
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America has information and resources for people with anxiety disorders or depression.
  • Substance abuse resource website at Portland Psychotherapy has links to information about, organizations, and support groups (for people with addictions and for family members of people with addictions) for addictions.

To learn more:

You can learn more about me at my therapist page. If you’d like help coping with mental illness in your family or learning how to better support your loved one who is suffering, I am here to help. If you have any questions or want to set up an appointment, please give me a call at 503-281-4852 x5. You can also contact me using the confidential contact form below.

Recognizing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month

Unfortunately, mental struggles are often given scant attention in the media. Many people are surprised to learn that others struggle with the same difficulties. Although posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been getting more media attention lately because of the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, I was pleased to learn that the secretary for Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) released a statement  recognizing Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month. She writes:

During PTSD Awareness Month and on PTSD Awareness Day, June 27, 2012, we focus national attention on this debilitating condition and renew our commitment to support research, education, and treatment for those living with PTSD, as well as for their friends and families.

National recognition and focus on this often debilitating yet treatable problem is a wonderful step in helping people access needed services. I encourage you to read Ms. Sebelius’ statement yourself, and to pass it on to others.

Pain and values: two sides of the same coin

 “Where there is love there is pain” –Spanish Proverb

I’ve known and lived with many amazing dogs and cats in my life. Each animal I’ve known has been special and wonderful in their own way. But then there is Dalai. She is my lifetime dog. When we adopted that scared little dog all those years ago, I could never have imagined how she would change my life. She’s the canine version of my soul mate.

The problem is Dalai is growing old

Dalai

We’ve shared many, many years together, and unfortunately the fact of nature is that our canine companions’ time on this earth is way too short. Dalai (pictured to right) is somewhere between 16 and 18 years old now. Gone are the days when we would end our early morning walks by chasing each other outside of the Brookings Institution (you should have seen the security guards out in front of that stodgy DC think-tank laughing at us each morning) or of overhearing people at the park say things like “Wow, look at that little rocket dog run!”

We still have our daily walks, but they’ve become slow strolls– sometimes it takes her 20 minutes just to get around the block. More frequently we simply spend time together with her curled up and snoring away beside me on the couch, perfectly content to let her younger adopted sister take over ball-fetching duty. And nearly every day when I’m walking Dalai or sitting with her on the couch, I feel a deep sadness in my heart. As I am with her I am constantly reminded that her time with me is getting ever more finite. And sometimes that sadness is so intense that I have the thought that I can’t bear the feeling.

But here’s the thing…

If I’m not willing to have those thoughts and that sadness that shows up when I’m with Dalai, I can’t actually care for her in the way I would choose to during this time in her life. The only way to get away from these difficult thoughts and feelings is to not be around her. In order to spend time with her, to care for her and love her as my constant companion, then I have to experience my sadness at her impending loss. It’s the price of admission to be in this relationship.

My experience has been that those things that I care about the most, that are most meaningful in my life, are also the things that come with the most pain.

Check that out with your own experience. Are there areas in your life or relationships that you care about so deeply but that also bring a great deal of pain? Is it perhaps the case that the more you care about something, the more you’re opening yourself up to feeling pain?

Here’s an exercise I often do with clients around this struggle…

Step 1: Find some activity or relationship in your life that you value, but from which you find yourself pulling away. Maybe it’s a relationship you care about deeply but in which you’ve noticed you’ve been less engaged. Maybe it’s an activity you care about but you aren’t taking much action on.

Step 2: Now take out an index card or piece of paper. On one side, write down what you value in that relationship or area of living. Who do you really want to be to that individual? What are some descriptors of how you would like to be in that area of your life?  Now turn the card over. On the other side, write down what difficult thoughts and feelings might show up for you when you start taking action toward that value. For example, for my card with Dalai it might look something like

Front of card


Value:


Being a caring steward and loyal companion to Dalai for as long as she lives with us. 

 

Back of card

 

Pain:

  • The thought “I’m not going to be able to handle it when she dies”
  • The thought “This is too painful”
  • The feeling of anxiety of not knowing when her death will happen

Step 3:  Now take that card and put it in your pocket, wallet, or purse. For the next week, take it out and ask yourself: “Am I willing to have that card, both sides of it, in its totality or would I choose to walk away from it?” Because, it’s a package deal, you can’t have one side without the other.

Values are freely chosen; we get to decide whether we will pick up the card. What we don’t get to choose is what’s on the other side of the card. Those things just come along for the ride.

 

Dalai and I are in this together. So Sadness, strap yourself in because Dalai and I still have a ways left to go on this ride together!

Can Romantic Love Stand the Test of Time?

Young love is a flame; very pretty, often very hot and fierce, but still only light and flickering. The love of the older and disciplined heart is as coals, deep-burning, unquenchable. – Henry Ward Beecher


We scientists can be a bunch of wet-blankets when it comes to the idea of romance. Many people believe that feelings of romantic love inevitably fade in relationships as the years go on. The idea is that we fall “in love” and over time those intense feelings fade and either the relationship ends or the couple remains together but experience a less intense friendship-like bond. Most researchers have largely agreed with this premise. However, a new paper from researchers at Stony Brook University shows that romance can be sustained in long-term relationships and that those who manage to do so are more satisfied in their relationships.

What is love?

Before we can determine if “love” can last, we first have to determine what “love” is.  Researchers often think about three types of love: romantic love, passionate love and companionate/friendship love. “Romantic love” is seen as being an intense “desire for union with the beloved” (p. 60). It involves intensity, attraction, engagement, and sexuality. What the authors call “passionate love” is often what we think when we think of the idea of “falling in love”. It involves the same intensity and attraction that is seen in romantic love, but there is also an obsessive quality to it, with people reporting difficulties concentrating on things other than their beloved, uncertainty, and mood swings. Finally, “companionate or friendship love” can be defined as “the affection and tenderness we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply entwined” (p. 60). This type of “love” is typically less intense than either romantic or passionate love and does not necessarily include sexual desire or attraction.

Can love last?

In this paper, the authors were interested in whether or not these three types of love were related to relationship satisfaction in short versus long-term relationships. What they found was that when they looked at both short-term (e.g. lasting less than 4 years) and long-term (e.g. averaging more than 10 years) relationships, those who reported experiencing “romantic love” in their relationship reported having the highest relationship satisfaction.That finding was true for both short and long-term relationships. In contrast, “companionate love” was only moderately correlated to satisfaction in relationships regardless of length of the relationship. And as for that “passionate love”, well, that only seemed to work well (i.e. associated with higher satisfaction) in short-term relationships.

These findings dispute the idea that the intense feelings associated with romantic love don’t last in long-term relationships. To the contrary, it seems that this type of “love” is an important predictor of relationship satisfaction even over the long haul.

Up next, how to rekindle the romance in your long-term relationship…

So the data suggest that contrary to popular belief, romance can stand the test of time and those who manage to keep the romance alive also report much higher satisfaction in their relationships. If that is the case, then the next step might be to address the question of how to bring some of that romantic love back into your relationship if it has lapsed a bit over time. Tune in to my next blog post for some tips on how to rekindle the romance in your long-term relationship.

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