How to be in Love at 90.

A bowl of sliced strawberries taught me everything I needed to know about love.

Last week, I published a post about what to do when you fall out of desire with your partner. It's a complex, yet common challenge in modern love. But recently, my grandparents - who have a way of weaving through life's most valuable lessons with an effortless grace - educated me once again on the art of staying in love, and since one of my best traits is that I can't keep my mouth shut, you get to hear about it.

I pick up hobbies. Too many at once. My latest hobby is fermentation. So I've been making my own beer, my own bread and I've got my eye on cheese. I'm pretty sure my interest in hobbies I don't need comes from my grandmother's lust for life. She's always involved in something, even at the age of 87. I've never known her not to have her eyes, her hands and her passions deep into something meaningful.

Every day, for example, Grandma wakes up, wrestles my grandfather from a jealous sleep and drives both of them to their local gym where they defy their own age with a vengeful fervor. When they return, she waddles outside to her flourishing garden, and gently mumbles to the herbs and tomatoes that grow each day with her encouragement, the secret ingredient of their abundance.

Next, she makes her way to a giant chicken coop monstrosity she had built in their backyard. It houses far fewer chickens than it could, giving them the impression that the world is much larger than it actually is. She steps into the chicken monstrosity and ticks each of them off with her fingers, one at a time, name by name. She checks their feeders, freshens their water, replaces their heads of lettuce, buys them new toys, feeds them the first-fruits of the garden that should be reserved for human mouths and shares their company for a time before she returns at sunset to tuck them in.

But last week, when I called to check in, I was surprised to hear my grandmother's predictably steady voice cracked with grief as she explained how a group of crafty raccoons Oceans Elevened their way into the chicken mansion and left only one of my grandmother's feathered children.

It was heartbreaking.

Whenever I call her, I expect to hear her vibrant and optimistic voice that serves as a grounding touchstone in my life. So her vulnerable voice caught me off guard. When she told me, through tears, what had happened, it was the first time in my life I felt murderous toward a group of raccoons.

I spent a few moments listening to my Grandma, feeling powerless to do anything and hating myself for it when, suddenly, an abrupt giggle broke through my grandmother's tears as she described watching my grandfather, who has a very hard time getting around, cut a bowl of strawberries into little slivers and gently pierce each wedge with a single toothpick before placing it in front of her.

Because what else can you do?

The chickens were gone. Those of us who become attached to animals know what it's like to lose them. It's heartbreaking. Like losing a member of your own family. And although the grief softens more quickly, it's sharp and deep for a time. And I caught my grandmother right at the start of it. So there was literally no way for me to help her.

But she didn't need my help, because fortunately, my grandfather has mastered her heart after more than 60 years of loving her.

I use that language not to reflect possession. No one possesses Betty Vance. I describe it that way to reflect how each of our hearts is like a story. Every story is unique, but they also follow a steady rhythm. If you read a story long enough, you get a good idea for how a story's characters will react to an event. In this case, though I know my grandmother better than most, I'm not my grandfather.

My powerlessness in that moment reflected that I didn't have a clue what to do. I wanted to murder the raccoons. I wanted to turn back the clock. I wanted to reach through the phone and somehow make the pain go away. But my grandfather knows better. He knows that his wife doesn't want this grief to go away because it reflects the depth of her love for life and it's creatures. She's also too independent to have someone solve her problems for her, so I'm pretty sure the only thing that could have reached her was to see this man offer a bowl of berries to dance across her tastebuds and remind her that life is still sweet.

Simple gestures are sometimes the only thing that can cut through the blanket of life's unexpected pains. And my grandfather was not intimidated by the futility of making the problem go away. Instead of trying to change her circumstances, he relied on his steady love for her to step in and introduce pleasure into the pain.

And this is the secret of loving someone forever.

If you want to feel passion. If you want to feel alive. If you want a vibrant with a person or persons, then master their heart by doing two things:

1. Pay Attention

Listen to how your partner describes needing help when they're in pain. Our first tendency is to fix the cause of pain, but most of the time, that's impossible. When we can't solve the problem, we either reach for solutions that don't make sense - like rushing too quickly to replace the chickens my grandmother lost. That wouldn't have worked.

Our second tendency could be to take a nastier approach to deal with our own powerlessness by trying to convince our partners that what's causing them pain is not actually a problem. Can you imagine what would have happened if my grandfather tried to tell Grandma that she shouldn't be so hurt over animals?

Loving someone across a lifetime, and being loved by them, depends how much well we listen to what they need rather than trying to hack a problem that has no immediate solution.

2. Take Initiative

Don't wait to take action to be there for your partner in moments of distress. Even if you don't know what to do, or your partner doesn't know what she or he needs, don't make the mistake of waiting to take action because you have no answer to the problem. Take a risk. It may be that you fail. It may be that thing you do wasn't what your partner wanted or needed.

Maybe my grandmother didn't want strawberries that day. That's possible.

But I can almost guarantee you that more mistakes are made in love when a partner takes no action because she or he doesn't know what to do. In moments of distress, inaction communicates apathy - whether you feel apathetic or whether you don't. Take a risk, and when you notice your partner in pain. Reach out somehow. Even asking how you can help when you don't know communicates love. And if she or he doesn't know what they need, then just respond by telling her that you're just going to sit with her, and be.

This kind of love is persistent. And the more adept we become at soothing each other when life threatens to crumble around us, the small and sweet pleasures of love cut through our grief like a bowl of bright red strawberries, cultivating passion for a moment.

And moment by moment, you pass through the years together, in love.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

When You're No Longer Attracted to Your Partner.

Image by Cathy Labudak on Flickr

Image by Cathy Labudak on Flickr

If I could do away with any relationship myth, it would be that good relationships are those in which partners always feel "in love," with each other. Octavio Paz, a philosopher and writer who has written extensively about love and romance, argues that eroticism - which is the cornerstone of desire - and love - which is the cornerstone of intimacy - creates the double flame of life.

Relationship expert Esther Perel expands on this idea by suggesting that sometimes, love and desire work against each other. The familiarity we need to create a family requires love, which sometimes acts like a wet blanket to desire.

When this happens, it can feel like we're falling out of love with our partners, when what's actually happening is that we're falling out of desire.

Most of the time, when we lose attraction to our partners, it's not because we're no longer in love with them, it's because we no longer desire them. This is both normal and also could be a sign of distress that needs to be dealt with.

Here's how you know.

Are you under a lot of life stress? Are you having a baby? Do you have toddlers? Are there crises in your family that require you and your partner(s) to spend a lot of time together solving problems like business colleagues or roommates?

All of these situations can create a stressful environment that requires a LOT of love and intimacy so that the problems can be dealt with. But the cost of that closeness and familiarity is predictability. We lose novelty and distance, the fuel for desire's flame.

We're not taught from a young age to expect desire to normally diminish over time with a partner. So we're certainly not ready for this to happen when stress increases. Usually, we expect the opposite. We expect that when stress increases, our partners will know exactly what we need, even if we don't expect it. That's rarely the case.

When our expectations for caretaking aren't met, we feel hurt and resentful. This is the point at which our desire starts to diminish. But here's the thing. It's normal. It's normal for desire to come and go. For the feeling of being "in love" to come and go. It's a problem, but it's the kind of problem you want. We have these emotions because they're like data that helps us ask the questions we need to ask. Questions like:

Why do we feel distant from each other?

What should we do about it?

How can I help you feel closer to me?

The problem we don't want is when we just keep our feelings to ourselves, plug our heads in the sand like an ostrich and just forge ahead. It's these ineffective solutions that lead people in my office five years later considering separation or divorce.

So what should you do when you're aware that you no longer feel attracted to your partner? First, do a personal inventory. Consider what's going on in your life that's preventing you from experiencing desire. Are you overwhelmed at work? Have you created enough space in your life for levity, play, adventure and risk? Are you stuck in a routine with no flexibility for change because you don't believe your partner can change?

Second, consider how you feel about yourself. One of the best kept secrets about attraction is that very often when we don't feel attracted to our partners, it's because we're remembering how we felt about ourselves when we knew our partners were attracted to us. For example, in the beginning of every relationship, people tend to report that their confidence and feelings of sexiness are at their highest. Do you feel attractive? Do you feel vital? Do you feel confident?

If not, is it possible that your lost feelings of attraction are really because you don't feel attracted to yourself?

Once you've done a thorough personal inventory, it's time to start talking to your partner. Many people are afraid to disclose that they no longer feel in love with their partner because of the value our society places on this phrase. The moment we hear our partners say they no longer feel in love with us, it triggers a deep anxiety response that can push us into anxious pursuits that can become suffocating and overwhelming.

Finally, what is the state of your relationship? Are you fighting a lot? Do you ever fight? We tend to assume that a lack of conflict means a relationship is in a good place, but that's not necessarily true. A lack of conflict can be the result of boredom and fusion. On the other hand, too much conflict can be chaotic. Conflict is nothing more than a symptom. It's not the heart of the problem. But even symptoms can get out of controll

Falling out of love - or really, falling out of desire - is common. It's not unusual. It happens to most of us. The issue is, what do we do about it when it happens? Couple and sex therapy can be a good option, but only about half of all distressed couples seek help. And many of those distressed couples who don't seek help get better on their own.

If you're not in love with your partner, don't panic. Instead, consider what's going on within you that is preventing you from feeling desire. If you feel desire for other people, don't be threatened by that. You're attracted to other people and not your partner precisely because those people aren't your partner. You don't have history with them. Those other people are novelties. You've never shared a bathroom with them. It's okay.

Turn inward toward yourself for discovery and then turn outward toward your partner for change. If your partner resists the conversation or refuses to participate with you in a conversation to help you get better, then consider couples therapy or some other medium to create change.

Just don't wait.

Elephant-Rider-Icon.png

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Love Language(s) You Didn't Know About.

Image by Rui Ornelas on Flickr.

Image by Rui Ornelas on Flickr.

My wife and I occupy different spaces in our marriage. I tend to be a little spacey, a little head-in-the-clouds-y, while my wife tends to have her feet planted firmly on the ground. Restless thoughts keep me up at night while she wraps the blankets tightly around her because she likes the feeling of warmth and safety while she sleeps. This has...occasionally...been a challenge for us both. Her mind's desire for security is deeply challenged by my tendency to do very stupid things.

Our minds operate at their best in two different ways.

My mind needs a world without boundaries, disordered and filled with risk. Her mind thrives in an ordered world, where safety and consistency abound. This is a generalization, of course. She surprises me sometimes - like the time she hitchhiked to the women's march with a group of girlfriends because the buses were taking too long. And I'll surprise her (although far less frequently) with my attention to detail and consistency. 

This tension between safety and risk has created moments where each of us felt that the other was either suffocating or abandoning us. It is one of most common and normal challenges that intimate partners face. 

We tend to find the things that complement us in our other(s). Her focused and attentive mind is deeply soothing to my chaotic and, at times, frenzied one. My jump-first-get-a-cast-later attitude keeps her world bright and lively.

Mostly.

But it turns out that when these strengths aren't balanced, they can render any attempt to show love a disaster. No amount of time spent or gifts given can soothe a worried mind or calm a restless spirit. But these moments when I have failed to see what motivated her to take a risk with me taught me something vital.

My wife's craving for security is not a liability, but a love language.

In Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages, he challenges partners to think through ways that are not natural to them in order to reach their intimate others. While Chapman's book can be a little reductive (There's only five love languages?!), it's a useful exercise to get out of your own head and see what your partner needs.

My wife's need for security - which often shows up as she grills me on the details of my plan - is not an attempt to control or even influence my ideas, but rather, to feel secure in my risk-taking.

 She wants to join me, not restrict me. It's a big difference. 

It turns out that my willingness to invest in her safety and security was the love language I never knew existed. 

I was working with a couple that was negotiating a difference like this. Tom wanted to move into the city while Stefan wanted to stay put in his comfortable suburban neighborhood.

Stefan's logic was rock solid. They're house was earning a lot of value. They couldn't carry two notes, so they'd have to sell the house and lose that investment to move to the city. Still, the argument didn't sway Tom. They ran around in circles for a year in this argument before I saw them.

It almost brought them to the end of a 20-year relationship. 

Stefan couldn't understand why Tom cared so much about moving when they had everything they could possibly want.

So he was surprised to learn that it was precisely because they had everything they needed that made Tom feel so stuck. He had a hard time explaining it, but in one desperate moment, Tom shared that living in a suburban neighborhood for the rest of his life felt like he was slowly dying. 

He needed access to a dream. Something more.

I'll fast forward through the details - except to say that it was only when Stefan began to understand - when he decided to suspend his fear-driven agenda - that Tom needed opportunities to grow, to move, to stretch and to risk in order to feel alive. While Stefan was comfortable in his contentment, Tom felt restless, frantic and even depressed without the ability to wander. 

The couple ended up staying in their home, but only after hours of conversation and Stefan's commitment to Tom's adventurous spirit. They started to travel more, spend more time away from home - a few more weekends in the city without a schedule.

This satisfied Tom's desire to feel alive in his own way without sacrificing the secure foundation Stefan needed. 

This struggle could have devolved into a never-ending habit of the couple missing each other's core needs. In order to take a risk with Tom, Stefan needed to feel secure that Tom was going to invest in his need for stability.

Stefan didn't want to reject Tom's dream, but his brain would not allow him to entertain the idea without feeling like he had a plan he needed to feel secure enough to dream.

Tom needed to feel confident that Stefan would be willing to dream with him. They moved from saying things like this:

You'll always be the same. You never want to go anywhere or do anything. 

To this:

I get it. You need me to build confidence with you. You need to hear me think this through so you can feel safe enough to dream with me.

Like Stefan, my wife's willingness to take deep breaths when she hears about my latest idea, or entertains my latest request and just hear me out is her willingness to engage my love language: risk

Risk and safety are the two love languages we never knew existed.

They're not actually two love languages, but one. They work together. Because all of us need security in order to take risks and feel alive, and as John A. Shedd puts it best, "A ship in harbor is safe, but that's not what ships are built for."

If you find yourselves having this argument again and again, try to make a conversational shift. Take a moment and have a few deep breaths. Suspend your agenda in the conversation. Don't be an engineer - trying to hack your partner's logic so she/he no longer says things that upset you. Don't be a lawyer, litigating your case or defending yourself against accusations. 

Instead, be a journalist, whose only agenda is to get the story.

Ask open-ended non-judgmental questions. Stuff like:

What's that like for you?

What about this makes you feel so alive?

What would make you feel safe as we have this conversation? 

Just because you occupy different spaces in your relationship, doesn't mean you can't share those spaces together.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540 

Honk! if You Love Sexual Health.

The other day I was driving down Manchaca heading downtown and on the east side of the street was a group of people holding signs - which my trained mind immediately registered as protesters. My partisan mind immediately read the signs to determine whether these people were friend or foe. 

That's when one of the brightly colored signs caught my eye. Sprawled across neon paper were big bold words, "Honk! if You Love Hugs!"

Wasn't expecting that. In fact, all these protesters signs had positive messages that had no political affiliation. There was one person wearing a pro-Trump shirt and another person wearing a Bernie Sanders shirt. Bold. 

The experience made me think how easily we put people into monolithic baskets and start searching for what side we're on. It's no different when it comes to mental health issues.

If the public knew how their therapists fought on message boards and at conferences, we'd all probably be out of a job. 

There's a big debate right now in the field about the nature of sexual health problems. Can sex be addictive? or not? I'm not getting into that discussion here. But this is why I love the work of Doug Braun-Harvey and Michael Vigorito. They've presented an open access resource that doesn't rely on certification (The fast track to making money in this business), but is instead, intended to be an integration model that helps therapists incorporate important sexual health principles into the work they're already doing.

These two powerhouses of sexual health have recently published their book on how to treat consensual sexual problems that feel out of control. So this would be things like pornography and other sexual behaviors people are either uncomfortable with or feel like they can't get control of. 

The thing I love about this work is that it doesn't rely on pathologizing (making something bad or sick) in order to provide the treatment. We're not going to tell you that the specific behavior is a problem. Instead, we're going to work toward aligning your behavior with your ethics and some previously established principles of sexual health. Principles like consent. Honesty. Pleasure. 

In just a few weeks, Dr. Braun-Harvey will present his work on treating out of control sexual behavior. That presentation will be hosted by the Southwest Sexual Health Alliance, a first-of-its-kind sexual health resource in the Austin community. If you're a clinician, student or sexual health nerd, you don't want to miss this presentation. 

I hope to see you all there! 

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Be Your Own Advocate

If you've ever wondered what makes a therapist/psychologist/counselor/social worker (hereafter just, therapist) different from your hair stylist, then this is a good post for you to read. I'm going to pull the curtain back on what actually sets these people apart in our society as the gatekeepers of problem solving. 

Keep in mind that this list is supposed to be an ideal one. Hence, if it goes the way it's supposed to, then this list is what you SHOULD find in your clinician. 

1. They are evidence-based problem solvers. 

You can get problems solved anywhere. Go talk to your girlfriends or listen to your buddies rant over a football game. Meditate. Pray. 

All potential options. Usually though, someone seeks me out when they feel they've exhausted all the options. What makes a therapist different is that she or he has been trained in problem solving methods that have been demonstrated to be scientifically effective. 

We're not just throwing random thoughts out there. We have a method to the madness. Or at least, we should. 

2. They are excellent relationship builders.

Of all the things that make therapy work, relationship building is the most important. That, and what you, the client, bring to the table work together to produce the change you're looking for. Plenty of therapists will use different evidence-based approaches to help you solve problems. 

But none of those are effective if your relationship with your therapist is poor. 

3. They are aware of their own judgments and values. 

This is probably the more important of the three, and coincidentally, it's the one I want to spend some time on today. All of these are important. We could spend time talking about how you could spot a therapist using evidence-based treatment, but this last one has me steaming right now and I think you should know why. 

At least once or twice a week in my office, I hear someone tell me that they've finally got their spouse figured out because of something they read on....

Fill in the blank. 

Huffington Post. Elephant Journal. The New York Times. The comics section of the daily newspaper. 

The most recent article I discovered tried to convince it's readers that the reason people have affairs was because of this nefarious little personality trait called "machiavellianism." Machiavellianism is a pop-psychology nonsense word that has absolutely zero meaning and value in clinical language. 

You won't find it in the DSM-V (The bible of mental health). You won't find it in almost any credible manual that instructs clinicians how to help people recovering from infidelity. 

And that's because it's not a useful term to describe this problem. But the article is written in such a way that makes you think it's a perfectly legitimate explanation for why people have affairs. 

It's not. 

I'm not going to get too far into the details, but suffice it to say that the author cites a journal article from a journal that doesn't do clinical research, that doesn't have a strong peer review process and that was relying on data nearly half a century old. 

The point is this. 

When you're out there looking for answers to your questions, which we all do in the age of Google, you're going to be tempted to believe the advice of experts whose writing suits the suspicions you already have. 

Be careful. 

I expect that part of the problem with the author of the infidelity post I listed above was that she wasn't as aware of her own unconscious judgments as she should be. She used value-driven critical language to describe people's motives. She relied on poorly executed research to explain her theory. 

You'll find a lot of this swimming around the internet. Therapists aren't immune from value judgments. Despite what your shrink may tell you, she or he is not objective. There's no such thing. We shouldn't strive for it either. It's bad therapy. 

Rather, we're trained to be aware of our judgments and decide intelligently whether we should act on them, or reveal them to our clients. 

You, however, have a responsibility as well. You're responsibility is to be an empowered client. Don't fall prey to intelligent sounding words just because they link to a study. Go to the study. Research the journal. Examine the author's claims. If you're not familiar with research, just ask someone who is to help you understand. 

You are always your most powerful resource. Just because a therapist says something or writes something, doesn't make it right. You have the power to determine that truth for yourself.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Why Men Shut Down.

Image by Rolf Enger on Flickr

Image by Rolf Enger on Flickr

Warning: some adult language follows.

First, you need to know that this is not exclusively a man problem. Your gender probably doesn't predict that you'll be more or less likely to shut down during conflict or intimacy. There's probably research on this, but I'm too lazy to find it this morning. 

In my experience, men tend to do this more often, but it's because we're raised that way rather than born that way.

I'm writing about men in this post because I want to talk about some specific reasons men tend to disengage from intimate conflict. When men shut down, stonewall or walk away - to their partners it feels like abandonment, a lack of caring or apathy. 

But for the most part, nothing could be farther from the truth. 

By the end of this post, I hope to convince you that the reason men are first to shut down is precisely because they care. I know it seems backwards, but hang in there with me. 

First, there's something you should know about how society impacts male psychology. Middle class white men are told from their first breath that they can conquer the world. Messages about our potential vary across ethnicities. African American men, for example, are prepared by their mothers, grandmothers, fathers, uncles and aunts for hostility in the world. And for good reason.

Nonetheless, all men receive the message that they can and should possess the world. 

We internalize subtle messages across the course of lives that we must be successful, strong and impenetrable. We are stoic, powerful, sexual and emotionless. More than anything, we are competent. 

We have the solutions. We have the answers. Or at least, we better. If we don't, it's a big problem for us. Author Brene Brown tells a story about what motivated her to study how men experience shame: 

I did not interview men for the first four years of my study. It wasn’t until a man looked at me after a book signing, and said, ‘I love what you say about shame, I’m curious why you didn’t mention men.’ And I said, ‘I don’t study men.’ And he said, ‘That’s convenient.’
I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because you say to reach out, tell our story, be vulnerable. But you see those books you just signed for my wife and my three daughters?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ ‘They’d rather me die on top of my white horse than watch me fall down. When we reach out and be vulnerable, we get the shit beat out of us. And don’t tell me it’s from the guys and the coaches and the dads. Because the women in my life are harder on me than anyone else.’
— Brene Brown

Our entire lives, we're told to be hard. We're told to sit on our white horses. We're told that to be a man means that we must be unaffected by the world. This, unfortunately, not only has a terrible impact on our emotional development, but on the emotional well-being of our future partners. 

We aren't taught - as many women are - how to be competent in intimate relationships. Boys don't cry, after all. We don't know that empathy is a solution to many problems. We only know that we must win to survive.

We live by the three "F's": fight, fuck or fail. 

Forgive my crude language, but it's the only way I know how to get the point across. 

Fight.

We solve problems through violence or aggression. Always have. Why do you think UFC is so popular? It's an exercise in male competence and ego. 

For most of us, the modern day battlefield takes place in corporate America. Thank God women entered the public workforce because men have been forced to increase emotional intelligence rather than solve every problem like Don Draper. 

Fuck.

Our value comes from sex (as much of it as we can). If we're not having sex, we're not men. Sometimes our libido drops because we're afraid we won't be able to have sex how we want, so we shut down. And for the most part, male sexuality has been maligned and cast aside as a perversion. 

Since we're not well equipped to talk about our feelings, we have no idea what do about this. Most of us struggle to ask (rather than demand) for the kind of sex we want - or we hear our partners' requests for a different kind of sex as a judgment on our performance. 

Which brings me to the third "F".

Fail.

If we're not fighting or fucking successfully, we're failing. And when we fail, we try harder to fight (we get aggressive) or we try to soothe ourselves through sex.

When those don't work, we are at serious risk of an identity crisis. 

At some point, we become adults when these strange creatures called our lovers enter our lives.  The demands for closeness, intimacy and connection are difficult. We are mystified and perplexed by the new "F" that we're suddenly expected to know how to deal with.

Feel.

No. No, no, no. Feel = weak.

Feel is just another word for fail.

We've never been taught how to deal with this "F." We've always channeled our emotion through sex, ambition or action. So when, as adults, our partners demand that we know how to feel, we resort to what we always do when we don't know what to do.

We fail. 

And to you, this will look like abandonment.

Because the generations before us haven't equipped us to be empathetic. When you're telling us something that bothers you about us and we disagree, we don't know how to listen to you and validate your emotion. We simply try to solve the problem and if that doesn't work adequately, then we get defensive. Angry. Careless. Maybe even abusive. 

That's on us. Not you. Aggression is not excused by incompetence.

We go through this cycle until it spins out of control. We tell ourselves that nothing will work and we might as well give up. We give up because the last thing we want to do is expose our incompetence.

We don't want to make things worse. 

Unfortunately, to our emotionally competent partners this looks a hell of a lot like we'd just rather not bother. But be careful not to confuse a lack of competence with a lack of desire.

I know when he turns around and walks away or throws up his hands and tells you "this conversation is over," it looks very much like he doesn't care. 

But what's actually going on is a complex conflict common in male psychology. We're so scared of failing you that we can no longer face the fear of enduring the conversation, so we end it instead. And if it's been going on long enough, we find ways to end it before it begins.

Powerlessness masquerades as apathy.

I was talking with my colleague Simon this morning about a conversation we both have frequently with couples. 

I told a story about a couple I worked with a few years back. She came to realize in a powerfully emotional moment that her husband's shutting down behavior was intricately tied to her own critical accusations. When she discovered what was going on, she asked him if he felt powerless - genuinely curious.

Struck by the power of his wife's sudden empathy, he began to weep. 

Not used to this, she was scared out of her mind. She didn't know what to do with his sudden vulnerability.

Being from New Zealand, Simon is a bit of a cheeky fellow. He smiled knowingly and said, "Uh oh. Looks like he fell off his horse." 

Women and men alike expect men to know how to deal with everything. So when we don't, it takes everyone by surprise. When we fall off our white horses, the world around us either leaves us there to be trampled or tries to get us back up on the horse. They ask us to be vulnerable, but when we are, we're punished for it.

We need help.  

Sometimes, that can be achieved with a little reading, open communication or through resources like TED videos or corporate trainings on communication.

Sometimes, it can only be addressed through therapy or life changing experiences like the birth of a child.

Whatever the solution, it matters that our partners understand what's going on with us. We may not even know how to describe it until someone points it out to us...gently. 

I've worked with many men who are uniquely emotionally and relationally competent. So this blog won't fit everyone. But unfortunately, these men are generally the exception rather than the rule. which is a cultural problem, not an individual one. 

Be careful with the men in your life. They are more delicate than they appear.

Dr. Mathis Kennington, LMFT

512-329-5540

The Case for Sexual Health.

Image by Vitruvian on Flickr.

Image by Vitruvian on Flickr.

There's no evidence to suggest that you can treat sex like a drug.
 

There's no scientific evidence that can prove that there's an amount of sex that will be unhealthy for a person. There's also no evidence to show that consensual sexual behavior between adults is universally sick. Despite our efforts to pathologize normal behavior, we can't seem to find a way to make illness stick.

Many have tried.

Some researchers recently tried to connect what they called "sex addiction" or "hypersexuality" to a scientific theory called Incentive Sensitization Theory (IST). IST researchers argue that repeated exposure to a drug makes it impossible for addicts to regulate their need for the drug. So they keep coming back to it. This theory, if true, explains why people crave alcohol and drugs at rates they can't control.

Imagine that I placed two glasses of water in front of you and asked you to drink both. It's crazy hot in central Texas this time of year, so you gladly accept. The first glass goes down smooth. The second glass tastes disgusting and hurts your stomach the moment of your first gulp. 

It's then that I tell you that the first glass of water was clear spring water from a local well. The other glass, however, came from a bottle of ocean water I brought back from my recent trip to the Bahamas. 

What's the point? 

Just because one thing looks like the other, doesn't mean they're the same.

Just because my brain's pleasure centers are activated when I have sex doesn't mean that sex = cocaine.

IST is based on consumption of a foreign substance entering the body. Our bodies don't naturally produce cocaine. They don't naturally produce alcohol or heroin.

Proponents of sex addiction argue that, like drug addiction, sex addicts crave more and more compulsive "dangerous" sex (whatever that means) because - they too - have become desensitized to sexual behaviors, making their brains unable to regulate their need for the pleasure they receive from sex. There's just one problem:

Sex isn't a drug.

Don't get me wrong, sex is intoxicating. Even motivating. But is it reasonable to argue that the brain can't regulate sex cravings when there's no foreign substance to impair how it works? 

There's no doubt that many many people have trouble making healthy sexual choices.

That's not the debate.

The debate is what causes people to make choices they believe are unhealthy. Why do people make poor health choices when it comes to sex? Are they actually behaving in unhealthy ways? 

Should they be shamed for sexual behavior because it makes someone else uncomfortable? If there is a problem, is it evidence of a sex addiction epidemic? Or is it something more complex? 

Addiction and illness only exist as a counterpoint.

In other words, to define something as a illness, we have to know what health looks like. We know cells cancer (that's a verb) because we know how healthy cells function.

We can measure diabetes and generalize it to large groups of people because we know how much insulin the pancreas should produce. We see bones break and know they shouldn't look like that. 

 Most proponents of sex addiction define sexual health by it's absence.

You can't have too much sex.

You can't view sexually explicit materials for too long or too often.

You can't feel conflicted or confused about your sexual behavior. 

You can't have sex to manage stress or anxiety.

The closest universally accepted definition of sexual health comes from the World Health Organization (WHO). The WHO - arguably the world's leading authority on human health - cites none of the sex addiction pathologies in their definition of sexual health. Instead, they base health on principles of consent, mutual pleasure, education and autonomy among others. 

Sexual health changes according to context in which we live.

Our institutions, countries, faith communities and our families define sexual health in abstract and diverse ways. For obvious reasons: It's difficult to know what sex is healthy given the overwhelming fear we have about sexual conversations - not just with our partners and spouses, but with our children, friends and families. 

Is pleasure good? If so, how much? 

These are the conversations we must have to define sexual health. What if you and your partner disagree about what is sexually healthy?

Most of the time, this conflict is the beginning of our fears about sex addiction. Our culture makes people who like to have a lot of sex feel like there's something wrong with them because they might be different than their partners or because their fantasies are different from ours. 

So, we tell them to keep it quiet. Or we pathologize those behaviors. It was an illness to be gay until 1973. Anal sex can land you in prison in twelve states. So no wonder people hide their sexual behaviors. What stays hidden remains feared. And what is feared is unhealthy, evil or dirty.

Our society relies on counterpoints to define problematic behavior:

Night and day. Hot and cold. Health and disease. But without a clear sexual health definition, sexual addiction is a counterpoint to nothing, which makes it very hard to disprove. 

How are we supposed to have a realistic conversation about illness when we can't even agree on health? 

What do we know about sexual health problems?

We know there's no scientific agreement on whether sexual compulsivity, sex addiction and hypersexuality exist as illnesses.

The most recent attempt to define them as such was when a group of sex addiction proponents tried to classify hypersexuality in the DSM (the bible of mental illness). It failed because there wasn't enough evidence to suggest that there is such a thing. 

There's a ton of evidence to suggest that what is sexually acceptable is greatly influenced by society. Our morals, beliefs and disgusts tend to predict what is sexually healthy.

There's also evidence that sexuality is too diverse to create a single classification. It's too wide a concept to fit within a single prescription of illness. Unlike diabetes, it's hard to generalize. Maybe impossible. 

So in other words, sexual health in the United States may be different than sexual health in Kenya. Sexual health in Texas might different than sexual health in New York. And sexual health in your family might be different than sexual health in mine.

That sounds fine, right? Live and let live. 

Not so fast. 

Sexuality educator and psychologist Dr. David Ley makes a strong argument that we don't treat sex like other pleasure-seeking activities.

If I told you that in my family, we work out 12 times a week, you might be surprised, but you probably wouldn't feel morally compelled to stop us from our love of elliptical machines.

If, however, I told you that my wife and I regularly attend BDSM parties, you might rush me to a local rehab or synagogue. And the fact that I feel compelled to clarify that my wife and I don't attend BDSM parties reflects the fear of moral judgment that is so prevalent in our society when it comes to sex.

Consider this my "coming out" as a clinician who refuses to support the existence of a disorder that is built on unclear moral arguments and pseudoscience.

Morality is important and there's a place for it in sexual health discussions. We all have morals. Because of that, we must critically examine how those morals influence our ideas about health and illness.

And if you're reading this blog as a clinician, then you must be willing to let those morals be influenced by evidence that exists as a counterpoint to what you believe about sexual health.

I strongly support helping women, men, and gender non-conforming persons ground their sexuality within a framework of sexual health that fits their worldviews.

I believe in eradicating shame and promoting congruence in both personal and relationship values.

It's time to remove pathological judgment and give people something that can actually help them align their values with their behaviors.

Running around in shame circles trying to control a high sexual libido with surgical abstinence will only make matters worse. 

Some sexual health resources:

Southwest Sexual Health Alliance

The Harvey Institute

Dr. David Ley Books 

LGBTQ Sexual Health 

Center for Disease Control Sexual Health Information

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Benefits of A Mystery.

Image by Dino Ahmad Ali on Flickr.

Image by Dino Ahmad Ali on Flickr.

When I was a kid, I would go wandering through my backyard in search of the mysteries hiding under rocks or in the ditch behind my house. I would bloody my fingers and dirty my toes looking for crystals, hidden treasures or maps that ancient explorers had left behind. 

My favorite place to look was my own backyard, or my grandparents', who lived just a few blocks away. I didn't know it then, but I was compelled to discover something new in familiar territory. 

My mother could tell you innumerable stories of a dust-covered little boy carrying newly discovered dank and dirty ditch stones he was sure were diamonds. 

There are few things more intoxicating than finding a mystery where you expected PREDICTABILITY. 

If I could harness this passion, if I could put the curiosity of little boys and girls in a bottle and sell it, that magic might make marriage a little easier. 

Curiosity is the start of something you didn't believe was possible.

A classic human psychology argument is that belief precedes reality. The philosopher Descartes said, "I think, therefore I am." Philosophy classes across the world debate the phrase's meaning, but one argument suggests that it means that we know we exist because we are aware of ourselves

To me, it means that the stories we tell ourselves produce our behavior.

This is never clearer to me than when I witness the intricate and sophisticated conflict music to which distressed partners dance.

Those who have had the misfortune of living in a relationship in distress know that ongoing and unceasing conflict feels chaotic, like a house after a flood. It's miserable and seemingly disordered. 

But actually, it's quite ordered. It's like a blindfolded dance. We don't realize our part in the steps, but we move to the music just like our partner does. 

We predict the steps our partner will make. We know, for example, that her foot is about step to the right, and so we step to the left. If a choreographer asked you why you stepped to the left, you would say because your partner is leading this dance and she stepped to the right. 

Of course, your partner's reason is the same. She stepped to the right because she knew you would step to the left. 

She's danced this dance before. Just like you.

The dance is so intricate. It's so predictable. It's familiar, like the stones you laid in your own backyard. You know exactly what to expect.

So, you dance.  

You move, not realizing that your movement is what creates the chaos in the dance. You know, for example, that if you say what you're about to say, in that tone, with that face and in that timing, your partner will step left to counter your tone with defensiveness.

You know it won't be effective. You know it won't make him listen. You know it'll probably just anger him, but you say it anyway. 

Why? 

Because we know this song. We've stepped these steps. We know what to expect. And it is that certainty, that predictability, that keeps the dance alive. 

Forget why it started. Every dance has it's own beginning. Most of us spend way too much time arguing about how the dance started without giving energy to how it feels when we dance, or whether we should keep this particular dance alive. We need to change.

change requires novelty.

Novelty requires possibility.

Possibility requires curiosity.

We must believe it is possible to find a secret mystery in a dance we've come to know and predict. We must stop asking, "Why?," and start asking, "How?"

We must believe that it can be different. Only then will we find the courage to step out of line because the two-step we've been in isn't working anymore and we need to tango.

Changing a dance takes time. Your partner may have a more difficulty finding the courage to believe you are a mystery and not a certainty. He may think that as soon as he tries to tango with you, you'll trick her and go right back to the two-step.

It's this fear that leaves partners standing out alone on the dance floor. A million steps have turned into a story that can no longer be edited.

Creating a relationship starts between dance partners. But changing a relationship starts within. You have to believe that the dance can change. I know you feel certain that you know what to expect from this dance, but we know change is possible

The question is, do you have the courage to believe it?

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Say I'm Sorry Without Sounding Like A Jerk.

Image by Leyram Odacrem on Flickr

Image by Leyram Odacrem on Flickr

Saying "I'm sorry," has as much potential to cause damage as it does to heal. Think about the last time you heard an apology that you knew wasn't genuine.

"I'm sorry, okay!"

We all know that one. That's the patronizing apology. The one someone throws at you like a pissed off heckler throws a tomato at a villain on the way to the gallows.

All it does is make you even more hopeless.

Or what about the apology that someone gives out too soon. It might be genuine, but they're apologizing and they really don't know why.

This is the apology that you run away from. The one that makes you resent the apologizer because you're not ready to let go of being angry or hurt. 

Then it's your fault. 

My personal favorites are apologies so blatantly patronizing that they make the person receiving the apology feel like a magician's assistant, pinned to a wall hoping the knives you're throwing don't make it to her heart.

"I'm sorry you feel like I hurt you." 

Translation. 

I'm sorry you're stupid. 

Just don't. Don't ever, ever, ever say the words "I'm sorry," before the words "you feel." It never works.

Apologies are hard. It's sort of like baking your own sourdough bread. The expert bakers make it look so easy.

Yeah, just throw some flour and water in a jar and let it sit there until the next day when you throw in more water and flour. Then do it again for a couple of days until the water flour mixture smells like a perfect beer and throw it in the oven with some more water and flour. No grandma's secret cooking magic required.

Simple as that.  

It seems like apologies should be easy too. Just apologize. When you've done something wrong. Just say I'm sorry.

If it was that easy, we wouldn't fumble over it so much.

Apologies are meaningless unless they've got the substance they need, which requires two steps. 

1. Don't apologize until the person receiving your apology knows you understand why they're upset.

It doesn't matter how well you get it. If the person to whom you're apologizing doesn't know you get it, then you don't get it. 

Easiest way to accomplish this? Just ask. "Do I get it?" Do I understand how I hurt you? If they say yes, then you've completed the first task. 

2. Don't apologize unless you're authentic about it. This is not an excuse to avoid an apology because you don't think you've done something wrong. If you go through the first step, you'll probably see where your mistake was.

We all do things to hurt each other without meaning to. Avoiding a heartfelt apology because you don't want to admit fault is a good way to make things worse.

Just because you didn't mean to hurt him when you compared him to your last boyfriend, doesn't mean you don't need to make it right. 

What it does mean is that you shouldn't apologize if you're going to roll your eyes while you're doing it.

Either the person asking for the apology needs a reality check, or you do. 

It's probably you.

So here's a recipe for you to remember when you're unclear about the best way to apologize to someone you love: 

Empathy + Authenticity = Apology.

It's that simple.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Spring Forward a New Start in Your Marriage.

Spring is the season of fresh starts.

Every first day of the year, most of us spend a few hours with a new journal or word document with our best intentions to make this year's resolutions stick. Despite research that says that less than 10% of us will actually follow through with those resolutions, we go through the same ritual the next year.

Yesterday, spring officially kicked off. Although for those of us in central Texas, it feels like spring has been here for a while, our spring was ushered in with a couple of beautiful green days with crisp and cool weather.

Another chance for a new beginning.

Spring is one of those times of year that many of us start thinking about how we can start over. We clean out those cabinets that have been accumulating garbage. We put junk out in the front for the city to come clean up.

We decide to get in the gym again to get ready for summer which will show up in about...five minutes.

But what our marriages?

Have we been accumulating any junk in the closet of our relationships that need to be cleaned out? Relationship distress has a tendency to fester beyond repair if left unattended. Is it time to start working on our relationship fitness before we run out of breath?

There are more reasons than I can count why spring is a good time to ask yourself whether it's time to make some changes in your relationship.

New growth

Spring is the season of new growth. It is the earth's declaration that new life is coming. I'm looking out over my backyard as I write this. We have a number of young and old trees. Spring is everywhere on these trees. Trees both young and old sprout beautifully bright and neon green leaves.

Some couples worry that they're too far gone to change. They tell me that they've been together too long, or that they know each other too much to experience something new...which always reminds me of those trees. 

It doesn't matter how old they are, each season, old trees bring forward something new.

When something new develops, the old must be understood. Examined. Mourned or celebrated. But eventually discarded and exchanged for something better.

All relationships can change. Sometimes it is difficult to know what kind of change we need, but all relationships either change or they die.

Marriages either weather the seasons or they wither. Maybe it's time to start thinking about the change you need in your marriage.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How Your Brain Gets in The Way of Your Heart.

Image by Chi Tranter on Flickr.

Image by Chi Tranter on Flickr.

Your brain may be getting in the way of the love you’re trying to make. 

I’m spending the week at the Texas Association for Marriage and Family Therapy’s annual conference. Right now, I’m with about 200 or so of my closes colleauges, listening to Mona Fishbane share her genius with us. 

Mona’s specialty is love and relationships are best understood at their most basic ingredient, the breadcrumb of love.

When we get into distress, our amygdalae, the fight or flight parts of our brains, take over and the opportunity to de-escalate conflict at the point pretty much goes away. 

On the other hand, when we’re in the beginning of our relationships and everything is great, we’re constantly soothed by the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine, both of which are very involved with the experience of orgasm. 

So over time, as life crowds our relationships and kids take over our energies, it becomes more and more difficult to get those super warm and sexy hormones that keep us happy and glued together.

When we start to fight, not only are we deprived of those loving hormones, we’re flooded with stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. 

This is overwhelming when it happens again...and again...and again.

They say things like:

She's no good for you.

He doesn't love you anymore. 

Once our hormones start talking to us, our relationships start to become very distressed. In that distress, we start making decisions about whether we want to stay or go. 

This is an incredibly stressful experience. It's also what happens when we're worried we're no longer in love with our spouses. This may be a good reason to get therapy, but it may not be a good reason to get a divorce. Why?

Because it can change.

We have so much on the line. So when we fight, we start to behave in ways we'll regret.

And it gets worse and worse. We yell louder. We fight harder. We run faster. Then, when asked to apologize, we do something new. 

We rationalize our behavior.

To our partners, this looks like a lack of responsibility; so they point that out, which of course, just makes things worse. We are the only ones who can be responsible for our own behavior.

The next time you start to rationalize your own wacky behavior, just remember what Robert A. Heinlein said, “Man is not a rational animal, he is a rationalizing animal.” 

When we try to explain our reactive behaviors in self-righteous ways, our brains are going through complex task to try and win the argument. We’re surviving.

By winning, we’re still alive.

To our spouses or partners, it looks like selfishness. To them, we look like torturers. 

We’re all wired in different and unique ways. The great mystery of love is that those of us who protect ourselves by going inward and getting defensive usually find people who survive by trying to neutralize the distance between us. This works well when we’re not in distress, but it feels like war when it’s not going well. 

I know it sounds bleak, but it can be different. The good news is that brains are flexible. Scientists have discovered this concept in the brain called neuro-plasticity, which is basically evidence that people can change. 

If you’ve asked yourself this question, then here is your answer. 

There's hope.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

SEO, Hashtags and Other Riddles

This is a presentation that I've developed for therapists who are attending my workshop at TAMFT's 2016 annual conference. I believe strongly in the services that licensed marriage and family therapists provide, and I've put together some thoughts on how therapists can proliferate their message. Follow along with this presentation or refer to it as you develop your own digital spiderwebs.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-960-9898

3 Ways We Fail To Listen.

Image by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr

Image by David Robert Bliwas on Flickr

The person you love the most is the hardest person to listen to in a fight.

If you've ever struggled in your marriage and thought, "How can he be so nice to his colleagues and talk to me like this?" then you know exactly what I'm talking about.

We think we listen, but we don't. We watch people "listen" on television shows and presidential debates, but what we're actually watching are one-way dialogues where no one listens vulnerably and with compassion. So we're programmed to think that listening is a one way street.

As long as I get what you're saying, then I'm listening.

If that's true, why is it that as soon as we react to what our partners say, offering a totally reasonable response, what we often hear is something like, "You're not listening to me!"

I've put together a small list of ways we don't actually listen in the hopes that we can make the basic ingredient of couple communication work more smoothly.

1. We forget to ask if we're listening.

Listeners don't tell their partners they're listening; listeners ask their partners if they're listening. If you're truly listening, then your spouse will tell you.

At the end of a long day when my wife and I get home, we're both exhausted, and both want the other to listen to us.

It takes more energy to share than to be shared to.

Sometimes, I'll get distracted by the news or a baseball game while she's telling me something about her day. Very gently, she'll place her finger on the mute button and wait for me to look up at her with a cute but expectant smile on her face.

This is a clear message that I'm not listening.

We need to be as good at asking if we're listening as our partners are at showing us we're not. If we can develop that skill, then the mute button won't even be necessary. Master these questions:

Did I hear you right?

Do I understand you?

Did I get it?

Use these questions in combination with number two, and you'll be on your way to changing your marriage moment by moment.

2. We don't repeat what we heard.

One of the most annoying things I ask my clients to do is repeat back to their partners what they heard from them. This isn't so hard when we're talking about pizza or dinner plans, but what makes it tough is when we get into conflict.

Our brains do funny things when we're in distress, especially when that distress becomes chronic and predictable.

Our own bodies work against us - secreting what I like to call the battle hormones - convincing us that rather than listen to a criticism, we should fight back and win at any cost. 

This is the opposite of what it means to listen well.

Sometimes listening well means letting down the defenses. One of the hardest things I have to convince folks is that it doesn't matter if you feel attacked. You need to listen; because the only way to disarm an attack is to understand its purpose.

So when your partner or spouse isn't doing their best job to soften her or his criticisms or attacks, you can do your best to listen well by repeating back what you heard.

This sends the message that you're invested - that you care - without you having to lose ground or agree with the attack.

3. We only appear interested.

I once heard a married couple who were also therapists give what I thought was some of the worst advice on listening, ever.

They reinforced the ancient idea that men and women have innately different capacities to listen. Women had higher emotional needs and men just want to scratch their crotches and watch football.

To deal with this, the husband of the pair said that as long as you are looking in the direction of your wife and nodding your head, this will satisfy her need to be heard.

No.

This is a lie. It's not good enough that we pretend to listen. If you can't listen at any given moment, just be honest and say you can't listen. But show enough initiative to come back in 30 minutes and start the conversation equipped with the first two steps.

Great marriages exist between intellectual peers.

Your partner needs to feel like you care about what they face when they walk out the door, like you'll remember at least some of the details the next day. If you struggle to be interested in mechanical engineering, then do your own research on your own time to generate an interest.

It'll go a long way in about 3 hours when you're hoping you'll get lucky.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Is Your Marriage Fooling All of Your Friends?

This week, a client told me that she was tired of fooling all of her friends into thinking that their marriage was great when felt so strongly that it was not. She was tired of hearing the same observations:

"Oh, you guys are so in love..."

"I wish my marriage could be more like yours." 

From the frustrated look on her face when she told me this - a look I've seen on many faces just like hers as they've lamented over something similar - it was clear that she did not share her friends' perspectives. 

Nobody sees the real us. 

When relationships feel bad, every negative nook and cranny becomes super exaggerated. That little tic that only used to bother you a little now sounds more like your home fire alarms screaming at you at 3:00 in the morning. 

The fact that he comes home later than usual on a Tuesday evening is just another way that he’s telling he doesn’t care about you. Her plea that you come home earlier is evidence that she's trying to control you. 

Of course, all of this is hidden from a very carefully manicured social world, where we try to present our shiniest and polished selves.

I've heard this complaint so many times - that very few people see the real us, and that everyone else is happier than we are - that until this week, I just filed it away as another sign of a relationship in trouble.

Have you forgotten your own strength?

That was before this week, when this couple's connection seemed to hint at some serious growth. So I was surprised to hear this complaint from a pair who seemed to be connecting in a way I hadn’t seen in some time.

They were laughing together.

They were touching each other.

They were close.

At first, I started to question my own judgment. Was I missing something? But I feel pretty confident in my judgment of where couples are. I’ve got good relationship radar.

If my judgment wasn’t off, it had to be something else. I started to wonder if maybe this couple’s friends weren’t on to something.

What if these friends saw something that this couple did not? Usually, partners in distressed relationships assume that it is their friends who aren’t seeing the real them.

But what if these spouses weren’t seeing the real them?

What if it was the couple that was blind to their own strength.

Many – if not most – divorces are preventable.

I take that to mean that change is possible where there is still a chance. Sometimes that means challenging my clients’ perspectives about how bad their relationship is.

When I meet with a couple, I’m always on the hunt for little pockets of resilience: places in a relationship where love still grows like moss under shade.

I’m still surprised when my couples are surprised to hear it. How do they not see it? Then I remember that a relationship in distress feels like a living hell. It’s hard to see water when you’re in a desert.

If you’re in a relationship or marriage that feels like its in trouble – if you doubt your friends’ envy of your marriage – maybe you should stop to consider what they see that you won’t instead of assuming they you know something they don’t.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

 

Why Your Heart Matters To Your Marriage.

I can't help but see an image like this and be inspired by a relationship that can last a lifetime. It reminds me of my grandparents, whose commitment to each other set the stage for generations of healthy relationships that followed them.

But I work with couples who aren't thinking about a lifetime. I work with couples who are thinking about the next week. They're interested in surviving just the next few moments, all of whom seem to be asking the same question.

How did we get here?

What are the mechanics of turning a relationship around? I've spent my professional and academic career trying to answer this question. I've delved into hours of research that tries to answer hundreds of questions, yet only seems to produce more questions.

What actually creates change in couple relationships? 

It's somewhat of a mystery to me too, but the answer lies somewhere between science and art. Couples whose hearts are at war with each other, who expect the worst, who have lost their curiosity, are going to have a very difficult time changing, regardless of how sophisticated my intervention or how subtle my brushstroke. 

The reality is that most of the changes that happen in couples therapy depend on my clients' willingness to change the position of their heart. If I have this in place, then my job is much easier, made simpler by couples' openness to change and suggestion.

A hard heart is calloused and closed off. An open heart is willing. An open heart accepts feedback and makes changes. A closed heart blames. A closed heart stays mired in defensiveness.

What opens a closed heart?

Usually, you can't soften a hardened heart with education. It's hard to turn people toward each other with listening skills or new techniques.

This is where an experienced clinician can be helpful. A therapist who focuses on experience, and crafting new experiences in the room with couples helps create the possible outcome couples can expect at home.

This takes experience and patience for a therapist. It takes willingness and initiative from clients. Therapy isn't always safe, but it should be good and effective.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

How to Get To Know Your Spouse Again.

Image by Jim Pennucci

Image by Jim Pennucci

Tis the season for new beginnings, and what new beginning could you desire more than the one closest to home.

When relationships become distressed, it’s harder and harder to take an interest in each other’s lives the way that we used to when it was easy. So we fill our time with our kid’s activities or with work demands. Soon, the schedule is so full, we don’t even have time to sit down over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

It’s not until we’re forced to be at home together, maybe over the holidays or when the kids leave, that we realize that we don’t even know each other.

This blog is for folks who find themselves here. I’ve come up with a brief list of ideas and questions to help you get to know your partner again. I hope you find it useful. 

Play the journalist.

The longer we spend time in a distressed marriage, the more the questions we ask our spouses start to change. It’s a subtle thing. We go from asking open-ended questions that provoke detailed descriptions to causal questions that look for blame and provoke defensiveness.

If you’ve ever asked yourself why a simple conversation turned into a big fight, this may be why.

We stop asking, “What was that like for you?” or “How did that feel?” and we start asking “Why did you do that?” or “What were you thinking?”

This happens because we’re in a constant state of feeling like we need to prove ourselves to our spouses or partners, which leaves us always looking for opportunities to criticize each other. We don’t realize we’re doing it, but it happens.

To change this, start acting like a journalist. Eliminate all questions that begin with the word, “Why…” Choose instead to ask open ended questions that come from a place of curiosity. 

10 questions to ask your spouse

Tell me about your day.

Okay, this one isn’t a question, but I wrote it to make a point that language really matters. If you ask, “how was your day?” you ask a value question that could get you a one-word response. Make this request and seek details from your partner.

Where do you see us in a year?

What was your favorite thing about us when we first met

Research shows that couples that can access the early positive aspects of their relationships do better in the long haul. This question takes you right back to the beginning with all the butterflies and anticipation.

What do you like about us now?

What would you change about us if you could?

What is the most challenging part of your job?

We all work hard. Some of us work hard inside our homes and some work hard outside. This question applies to everyone. Take an interest in your partner’s daily grind.

What’s your favorite way that I show you I love you? That I admire you?

Follow up questions:

What is that like for you? How did that impact you? What did you like about that?

Question to avoid:

Why did you do that?

What’s your favorite way to have fun with me?

I can’t overstate the importance of leisure time. If there’s not a clear answer to this question, then put on your journalist hat and discover something new. 

Note: if you find that the answer to most or all of these questions is, "sex," don't fret. Our basic needs tend to be super exaggerated when we're distressed. This answer is more complex than you might realize. 

Clear the schedule.

I’m convinced that the American work ethic is at least partially responsible for why many marriages fall apart. It’s not that work is bad, but if we redirected half the dedication that we reserve for our jobs, we might just discover a happy relationship.

I suspect that our schedules are so full accidentally on purpose. When couples tell me they don’t have time to get to know each other again, I wonder whether that is no coincidence.

Clear the schedule. Lose money for a week. Change jobs. Do something drastic, because ultimately, chronic distress leads to a chronically unhappy relationship that will implode or end.

It doesn’t take much to sustain a healthy relationship, but it does take a lot of work to jump start one. Divorces are more expensive than the money you might make on the deal you’ve been working on for the last three months.  

Consider investing time into your marriage at the expense of your job. You may be surprised to find that it was worth it.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

What is a Marriage and Family Therapist?

It wasn't that long ago that I was hesitant to tell people that I was a marriage and family therapist. Not because I was embarrassed about what I do. I love my job. But it used to be that not everyone could get married. So sometimes that meant that people who could not legally married would be less likely to ask for my help because they weren't sure whether I would want to help them or judge them.

With the recent changes in the national law regarding marriage, I don't have to worry about that any more. It's not that I'm more or less proud of what I do, just relieved that I can talk about marriage without that little voice in the back of my head that says, "yeah, but..." 

So recently, my professional organization, The American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, produced a video that shares what it means to be a marriage and family therapist. I think it captures really well what my profession aspires to.

We want to be great at helping people solve problems. 

For me, that means working with couples. I share this video to be a resource for anyone who needs help. Sometimes, the way I help people is by not being their therapist, but by getting them to the right therapist or service that works for them.

This is a free service I provide for the community. Sometimes, you just need a place to start.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

Ethics and Competency in Couples Therapy

I like to believe that when I go to get my oil change, I know something about my truck.

Not a ton, just enough so that I don't feel like an idiot when I'm walking out the door $100 lighter after paying for something I could have done myself. 

In the spirit of being informed, I'm writing this blog for anyone who wants to feel empowered when they go see someone for their relationship. 

It's an absurd notion, really. The idea that you are going to walk into an office and talk to someone about your deepest and darkest secrets...and then expect things to get better? 

In my training, we talked about how couples generally wait too long to get help. But honestly, I'm amazed at the courage it takes to believe you can be helped. 

Believe it or not, there is both a science and an art to this process. In just a few weeks, I'm going to give a presentation on what it means to do ethical couples therapy. This blog is intended to be a warm-up for that presentation.

What is good couples therapy?

When more than one person is in therapy, I’m no longer dealing with individuals, but relationships. Within couple therapy, the individuals are not my clients; the relationship is my client. 

When I remove a person from the room, I remove the relationship from the room. When I have private conversations with one partner, I privately collude with their stories and exclude the relationship.

Sometimes collusion is necessary, and that’s okay. When there's violence, for example, I need to have some private conversations.

However, too many therapists see individual partners for couple problems because their clients’ chaos is overwhelming.

Ethical couple therapy is a relationship-driven process. Partners don’t just want to develop and grow. They want to develop and grow in their relationship. They want intimacy.

If I try individual therapy as a method for treating couple problems, it usually means I’m scared to see a couple. Unless there’s some threat to either partner, couple therapy should not be done with one person. 

I don’t keep secrets between partners. 

Secrets triangulate therapists and increase unhealthy collusion. Secrets turn therapists into affair partners.

Ethical couple therapists don’t have affairs with their clients.

Competent couple therapists respect their clients’ stories, but are also not afraid to show a little irreverence toward them. Not because its rude, or because I know better, but because if couples come to therapy, it usually means that their meaning-making systems have become rigid, calloused, and mutually exclusive.

One way to confirm this statement is to ask partners how they know the other wants to have sex.

I ask this question as often as I can because I’m secretly collecting responses for a book I’m going to write about all the bizarre and hilarious ways humans try to stay emotionally clothed and physically naked at the same time.

Couples will go years without having sex because Hollywood has created the destructive myth that you never have to ask to be desired, that you might have to vulnerable for good sex. 

We do come up with all kinds of creative hints that we hope will cue our partners’ sex response system.

Slap on rear. -> Cue sex response.

Snuggle in bed. -> Cue sex response.

Do dishes.-> Cue sex response.

“Honey, I’m home!” -> Cue sex response.

“Good morning.” -> Cue sex response.

“Are the kids in bed?” -> Cue sex response.

I wonder if she wants sex. -> Cue sex response.

Inhale. Exhale. -> Cue sex response.

I once asked a client how he knew his partner wanted to have sex. He responded that he knew she wanted to have sex when she was grumpy.

Another client once told me she knew her husband wanted to have sex when he ran into the room naked and swung his genitals in a circle exclaiming, “Want to take a ride on this helicopter?!”

I would fail my couples if I became lost in the abrasive and defensive humor that is the helicopter, a functional way that a man veiled emotional vulnerability behind brash nudity and coarse jokes.

He wants to have sex, but doesn’t want to ask. He wants to make love, yet does not want to risk crushing rejection, so he comes up with a drama for laughing it off when his partner rejects his…advances.

So he walks away again, his familiar smile hiding desire and rejection, he builds up resentment because his partner doesn’t want sex, all the while missing her similarly profound longing to be romanced by something other than a helicopter penis.

These meaning-making dramas can’t usually be interrupted by educational talk therapy. The husband knows he could ask for sex. A therapist could tell him he should ask for sex.

But the helicopter penis is an intelligently-designed system to avoid vulnerability. Telling a client to ask for sex doesn’t deal with the problem of fear or desire.

Change must be experienced, and new experiences aren’t always safe or easy.

 I hear too many of my supervisees talking about therapy as a “safe place.” That’s absurd. That’s a therapist’s way of making sense of the environment they idealize for people.

Safety does not promote change. Safety promotes stagnation. It’s a therapist’s job to create anxiety and hold that anxiety enough so that people will change, which is risky.

Safe therapy is ineffective therapy.

If I’m not willing to put myself at emotional or professional risk, I should probably not do couples therapy.

When I show empathy for one partner, I will inevitably anger the other. When I’m so worried about my Yelp reviews, or the fact that this client came from an important referral source that I withhold meaningful care, I’ve crossed into the realm of unethical treatment.

Different stories create different expectations for therapy.

Partners enter therapy with different levels of belief about whether therapy will work. Some think it’s a waste of time.

They might be right.

But don’t mistake this cynicism for a lack of desire to change. Many partners just have no other idea what to do. Some have believed their whole adult lives that therapy is a sham.

They might be right.

But nonetheless, they end up in my office because they’ve run out of options.

Distressed couples usually have one-dimensional perspectives on their problems – and you’ve been hired to collude with that perspective by whipping their spouses into shape.

Of course, as an ethical couple therapist, you understand that colluding with one partner’s narrative, no matter how strongly that narrative seems to make sense given your own family of origin rules (If you would just stop criticizing so damn much, maybe he wouldn’t shut down so often), will ultimately exclude the other.

This is not safe or boring work. If I’m bored, I’m just collecting a paycheck. If I’m just collecting a paycheck then my therapy is lukewarm, and lukewarm therapy is as good as lukewarm bath water in December. Couples wait far too long to come to therapy, so always be prepared for a crisis.

It’s winter outside and clients need hot water in their baths…figuratively speaking of course.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

The Rule of 3: Keeping Your Relationship Strong for a Lifetime.

Making a relationship last a lifetime can seem like an overwhelming task.

But keeping a marriage or relationship fresh and connected every day is a choice you can make every second, minute, hour, and week of the year. 

It doesn't take much to remind your partner or spouse that you are still happy with the choice you've made. I've developed a "rule of three" to help couples stay on top of their relationship's intimacy. 

I know rules aren't the sexiest thing on the planet, but these may surprise you. 

1. Rule One: Every Day

Do you remember that old hypothetical situation where someone will offer you either a million dollars right now or a penny doubled each day? If you took the million dollars, you'd miss out on nearly 5 million dollars. 

That's how this rule works. 

If you will find 10 seconds out of every day to remind your partner or spouse that you love them, and commit to that practice, by the end of month, you will have built up incredible positive regard that can help prevent or repair from nasty conflict

What can you do in 10 second?

How about a text message? A love note written on a post-it? Do you any tokens of affection that you share? Could you hide it under a pillow? Underneath a windshield wiper? 

There are innumerable ways that you can send a positive message in only 10 seconds. Find one each day to start, then increase your time by 5 seconds as you start to get a little more creative. 

2. Rule Two: Every Week

This one can be more challenging if you have kids, but it is all the more important.

It is still task-oriented, which means that you may have to schedule some babysitting or have the kids stay with family members. 

I'm a big advocate for parents getting away for a lunch or dinner together alone, even if it means postponing one of the kids' activities. 

Parents' schedules should be more important at least one day of the week. Yes, there's football games, band activities, or theater performances to get to, but parents who put their relationship as a priority make their kids emotionally safe. 

Plan a night out. Go to a breakfast or lunch together. Share a meal at home that is intentionally set apart from the kids' table. Your children need to know that your relationship is important. 

3. Rule Three: Every Month

This one may be easier than you think. The monthly task isn't so much about event planning as it is about meaning-making. If you have the ability to get away for a night or two, then by all means, take advantage of it. There's no need to let those Marriott points just sit there without being used. 

However, if you're like me and life gets hectic sometimes, something like a handpicked bouquet of flowers may send just the right message.

I once had a coupe who wrote a love letter from his office and mailed it to his partner from his office at the end of each month. 

The monthly task does not need to take your money, just your time and creative energy. 

Get going on these tasks to help you jump-start a relationship bogged down by responsibility or childcare. They can be a great way to renew a commitment or create that spark again.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

5 Ways to Keep Your Long-Distance Relationship Alive.

Yes, long-distance relationships can work.

couple-in-mountains

I'm not saying this because I've been through it. Before my wife and I were married, we spent four years in different cities, which in Texas, is no small feat. 

So I do have some personal experience, but I've also learned a lot from the couples I work with who have done this well.

Even if you're not within driving distance, technology mixed with a few lessons from some old-school love stories can help you keep a long-distance relationship healthy and vibrant.

1. Love Letters.

Yes, Skype and FaceTime rock. When I was doing the long-distance thing, the webcam idea was just hitting the market and we never really got the benefit of seeing each other on a screen or a tablet. However, I'm thankful for this because it also made us rely more heavily on some old world techniques for keeping communication open. 

Don't neglect the power of pen and paper. There's something uniquely powerful about taking the time, thought, and effort, to write your feelings down on paper.

The words you use may be simple, but in a culture built around immediacy, the relationship message you send is what keeps long-distance relationships alive, which brings me to number 2.

2. Initiative.

We love initiative. We don't want someone to love us because we ask them to love us, we want them to love us because they want to love us. It means more that way because it affirms our value.

We don't want to feel like a chore. 

Find meaningful ways to express love without being asked. One of the challenges in long-distance relationships is that you have fewer opportunities to show your partner or spouse that you love them in the minutia of life that glues relationships together. 

Normally I work with partners to both show initiative, but also to ask for what you want if you see a lack of initiative. Both are healthy. But with long-distance relationships, spontaneous acts of affection are relationship gold.

3. Always have something on the calendar.

This is a trick I discovered when I learned about a key difference between my wife and I. I always knew that I would see her again soon. She knew it too, but she really needed to have that date on her calendar.

She needed to be able to expect proximity to me.

I've been known to be a little....impulsive. In our long-distance relationship, this served us well. One day, I had been in a bus for 10 hours round trip for a football game. I got back to campus at around 2:00 in the morning where I had planned to go to sleep and then get up and drive to see my wife. 

I don't know if it was the coffee or the adrenaline from the game, but I just decided to hop in the car and drive (College students: Don't do this).

The surprise was welcome. It showed initiative. She was excited to see me. But my impulsivity shouldn't also mean that I don't accommodate her need for structure, which brings me to number 4.

road-long-distance

4. Be flexible.

Partner in healthy relationship needs healthy communities. Sometimes, when you're planning trips to see each other, it means that you don't have a ton of opportunities for liesure time with your own immediate community to continue to build relationships.

But you need those social relationships, so be careful not to neglect them.

Sometimes a weekend at home is what is needed. Consider it an opportunity to strengthen your relationship in an indirect way. Foster a healthy intimate relationship by creating healthy social relationships.

Then, when you do get to see each other, make sure that you integrate each other into your own social worlds. One of the worst things that can happens is that you forget to intentionally include each other into your own communities. It can feel very exclusive.

5. Make room in your daily schedule.

You don't get to come home to each other. You don't get to go to the grocery store after work or yell at each other and then make up. Not regularly anyway. So, you need to find other ways to have little intimate moments. 

For some of us, this is hard. If you are an especially focused person who tends to compartmentalize your world - when I'm at work, I'm at work only - this may be difficult.

One of the best ways you can create healthy long-distance relationships is by intentionally opening up little moments in your work day, school day, or other times you wouldn't normally to send a text or do a quick FaceTime. 

Plan a FaceTime lunch where you bring an iPad and go out to the picnic during the middle of the day. Snap a picture of the report you just wrote to share how proud you are of your work. Use emojis.

Yes, emojis. 

You'll be amazed at how this discipline will become a habit that serves you the rest of your lives, when you need it less. You'll be that embarrassing couple that makes people jealous.

Is that such a bad thing?

Do you have your own tips and tricks? Comment here, tweet them to me, or post on my Facebook page.

Dr. Mathis Kennington

512-329-5540

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