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


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. 


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


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." 


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


5 Ways to Keep Your Long-Distance Relationship Alive.

Yes, long-distance relationships can work.


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.


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


5 Reasons The Little Things Matter.

You only need to have one bad day and one really great spouse or partner to know that the little things matter.

Your boss screamed at you or your kids screamed at you and you didn't get done what you needed. Your spouse knows it and brings you your favorite dinner or favorite bottle of wine to make things a little better.

The little things are important. Maybe one little thing won't make a huge difference, but after five or ten years, lots of little things turn into one big relationship security blanket. Here are five reasons why:

1. Little things send a big message.

Subtle actions in intimate relationships send big relationship messages. We are always having two conversations in our relationships. The first is the issue we have to resolve: the kids' schedule, the finances, or the trash. The second conversation flows underneath the first.

Questions like, "Can I count on you?" or "Will you be there for me?" sneak their way into every interaction we have. This is why little disappointments can feel so big to you, but not to your mate. 

But this can also work for you. 

Snagging your partner's favorite ice cream on the way home, planning an unexpected date night, or taking an hour out of your Saturday to shape things up around the house may seem like small gestures, but they send valuable messages about the relationship. 

2. Little things create desire.

Sex is funny in relationships. Some people need intimacy to have sex while others create intimacy through sex. Many times, these people pair up. When in distress, it can create a dance where each is seeking intimacy from the other while at the same time, withholding intimacy. 

But when we intentionally find small ways to demonstrate initiative, like sending text messages throughout the day at work without an expectation of response, intimate and sexual desire often increase. 

3. Little things create goodwill.

One of the first things I ask clients to do is intentionally be flexible about how they make sense of their partner's behaviors. I ask them to be open to new interpretations. This is important because partners almost always have two perspectives of the same event that seem vastly different. 

Emotion tends to color perception in that way. 

In order to help with this, I ask partners to consider ways that they can take initiative to foster goodwill. The little things do that. They allow partners the freedom to believe again that they can love and be loved.

4. Little things create loving feelings.

Love follows action. If we feel a loss of loving feelings in a relationship, it is often because we withhold loving behaviors. Sure, we may have justifiable reasons for withholding loving behaviors, but that is why I ask folks to be flexible, open to new experiences. 

If you choose to engage in loving behaviors, you may be surprised to discover how feelings of romance and intimacy return to your relationship. 

5. Little things communicate safety.

Can you think of ways that your parents used to behave that drove you crazy and embarrassed you, but that you look back on now with a fondness? Or on the other hand, can you remember a total lack of love and intimacy in your family of origin? 

Little ways you express love and intimacy communicate safety not only to your partner or spouse, but also to your children. Parents who intentionally put their relationship or marriage first actually put their children first. It works that way, ironically.

More than busy schedules, the best schools, or the best grades, kids need parents who embarrass each other with their affection. Who laugh together.

These are just a few reasons why the little things are important. Can you think of more? Feel free to share this post with a reason why you think the little things matter.

Dr. Mathis Kennington


The Problem With Waiting Too Long For Help.

Image by Shiro Kazan on  Flickr

Image by Shiro Kazan on Flickr

We wait way too long to ask for help. 

That growth we should have checked on two months ago has started leaking something nasty, and its just now that we're checking it out on WebMD.

You're seeing spots where just a few hours ago you had a headache you hoped would go away. It started as a stomach ache until you find yourself wrapped around your toilet regretting the suspicious oysters you took a chance on. 

it started as just a few arguments, but now the fighting will never stop. 

It's hard to find a therapist. How will you know that it will make a difference? How will you know that the therapy will be any good? Or that your therapist will understand you?

When should you seek help in the first place?

There's a simple answer to this question, I think. When do you know there's a problem with your body? Simple. 

When it hurts.

Pain serves a purpose. It sucks. But it serves a purpose. It lets us know something is wrong. Listen to your pain. When should you get help for your relationship? For your marriage? 

When it hurts. 

Couples tend to know the difference between a cold and pneumonia. Most of the time, with a cold, you might swallow some throat lozenges, drink some NyQuil (or a few hot toddies) and wait it out. But at some point, when the cold doesn't go away, and when new symptoms develop, you start listening to the pain. You get help.

I have this dream that I would be able to see lots and lots of couples for three sessions or less, but that usually doesn't depend on how good I am. 

There's nothing scientific about that number. It's just a hunch from what I experience from couples who are prevention-minded, who deal with the blister before it is a callous.

They get in quick, before the uncomfortable conflict (or silence) turns into business as usual, before the exception becomes the new and unfortunate rule. 

If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
— Henry Ford

Trying harder may not fix what needs to be changed by trying differently.

Couples know what it takes to change, they just don't know they know. And when they don't know that they know, they stay silent or hope things will change on their own. But they don't always. Sometimes, they need to know that something different is possible.

My job isn't to teach you new things. I teach my students, not my clients. In fact, I teach my students not to treat their clients like students, but that's a different story. 

What usually resolves long-term distress is when couples experience each other differently, and when those new experiences become the new rule.

My job is to help you get out of your own way so that you can have new experiences by uncovering what you don't know that you know.

What would it be like if you could expect compassion? If you could expect romance? If you could expect empathy? If you could expect to be loved as you hoped you always would?

Possibility is my passion. That's why I love my job. 

Don't wait. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


What To Do If You're Thinking About Divorce.

Do you wonder if it is too late for you to turn things around? 

About four in every ten couples I see thinks the same. That's what makes this type of work so unique. Most people don't walk into a therapist's office uncertain if the relationship will still be intact when they walk out. 

You don't wonder if you'll stop being a mom. A dad. A son. A daughter.

You may worry that you'll no longer be a spouse. 

Do yourself a favor and try to ask yourself some important questions before you get too far down this road. If your spouse or partner has suggested that you should go see a therapist, don't wait. An early investment in your relationship can save a massive expense down the road, not just in dollars, but in heartache. 

If you've already starting asking this question, then here are some things to consider. 

Most of the time, marriages don't hang on single moments of relationship trauma. Even affairs are not automatic death sentences.

If you feel like you're standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon, staring at your spouse on the other side, you may be surprised to discover that the gap between you is not filled with differences in personality, or flaws, but a past of daily choices that could still be different. 

Most of the time, chronic relationship challenges are co-created.

Without realizing it, we sometimes produce the very behaviors in our spouse that we don't like. If you're preoccupied with a personality flaw you're certain your partner or spouse has - which over time has contributed to your belief that she or he doesn't care about you - then consider the idea that you might be contributing to that very flaw without realizing it. 

Your head will need to get in front of your heart. 

Most of the time, I find that couples never want to get divorced, or at least, they never thought they'd be getting divorced. They just find it hard to imagine that things could be different.

If you're looking or hoping for change to occur before you can commit to the relationship, you may be disappointed. In other words, your head may have to get in front of your heart. 

To me, this means that you may need to commit to the change before the change occurs. This is a big relationship risk. I know that it is asking a lot. Couples therapy takes time to create lasting change. But with a willing heart, you may be surprised at what is able to change in a short time. 

It's okay to think about your kids.

Hell, I tell my clients not only to consider your kids, but everyone who was with you when you were married. Marriage isn't just a couple commitment, but a family one.

There are lots of people invested in you. Ultimately, your decision to be together should be about your relationship. But if you're considering divorce, you community's input is important. 

You may still land on a decision to divorce. If so, there are healthy and peaceful ways to go about it. But if you're wondering whether the relationship can make it, then an authentic conversation with your spouse or partner may reveal some life changing surprises. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


3 Ways To Seek Affection Without Demanding It.

Do you ever feel like the message you send is not the message your partner receives? It feels really unfair to us when we're looking for support, but instead we somehow end up in a fight.


If this seems familiar, you might be surprised to discover what role you unintentionally play in ensuring that your partner will respond in ways you don't understand. Its like a really bad dance: it takes two to tango.

If you're like me and could use some help with choreography, here are three ways you can seek affection without demanding it. 

1. Stay in the moment.

Partners have this funny way of making emotional memory more accessible than it should be. Let's say your husband has had a bad day at work and would really enjoy some down time before he spends a few minutes hearing about your day. I only use this example because it is so common.

You don't know how his day went, but his tone hurts your feelings and immediately, you are drawn into the fight the two of you had last week where he yelled at you to leave him alone. That fight is not this fight, but it could turn into that fight if you're not careful. 

Choose to stay in the moment by remaining curious about your partner's experience. It could be that she or he is mad at you, but it could also be that she or he was ridiculed all day at work, or had a tough day at home with the kids. 

Image: Juliana Coutinho on  Flickr

Image: Juliana Coutinho on Flickr

2. Make it verbal.

Hints are NOT enough. She or he is not going to know that you want to have sex unless you ask for it. Your husband may not know that you want to be held unless you make it plain. It sounds simple, but remember that the message you send is not always the one your spouse hears. Be vulnerable enough to speak your request without saying things like the following:

"Well I guess you don't want to have sex, do you?"

"You never want to just talk to me. It always has to lead somewhere."

We use things like defensive humor to halfway admit that we want to be close without really saying it. This leaves our partners in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what we really want. Meanwhile, we feel dissatisfied and hurt, building up a resentment our spouse does not deserve.

3. Be multilingual.

Some people create intimacy through sex. Other people need intimacy to have sex. This can lead to people who are different in this way through one hell of a merry go round trying to get intimacy without providing intimacy to her or his partner. 

You may have to be open to the idea that you will need to seek to provide intimacy first before seeking intimacy in ways that are meaningful to you. Ask what is important to your spouse. How does she or he like to be touched? How does she or he like to be held? To be talked to? 

One of the most valuable questions you can ask your spouse is, "Do I understand you?" Make it a discipline. 

There's no quick fix to any situation. Most healthy couples are that way because they make a discipline out of simple choices like seeking affection vulnerably, without demanding it, like providing affection without being requested. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington


What Giant Redwoods Can Teach Us About Marriage

You would think the largest trees in the world have deep roots. 

That's not the case. I'm spending some time in northern California this week. I'll admit, most of it I'll spend in the wineries rather than the forests. But my father and mother-in-law had the opportunity to go explore the beautiful redwood forests, and they returned to us with an interesting fact. 

My lovely mother-in-law standing beside a giant redwood

My lovely mother-in-law standing beside a giant redwood

Redwood trees root less than 10 feet underground. Many times, the giant trees' roots bury only to about five to six feet. How then, do these trees - the tallest of which towers over the statue of liberty - stand firm in the face of fires, heavy winds, and unpredictable weather? 

How do they not topple at the first hint of a storm?

The trick about the redwoods' root systems are that they grow in families, or groups, and even though the roots may be comparatively shallow, they are massively wide. They reach out and interlock with the roots of their counterparts, gaining strength from closeness. As the roots grow together, these trees can withstand much more than they could on their own, regardless of how deep they grew. 

We talk a lot about being deeply rooted. But what about to whom we are rooted?

It can be hard to make life changes. We move to new places. We have children. Those children leave. We grow old. Our shoulders become heavier, broader, with greater weight and expectations. 

The greatest opportunity marriage can offer is the chance to reach out and lock in when the wind blows and when the storms come.

Sometimes it can feel as though we are barely rooted into the ground. 

But if we reach out, rather than in, maybe we'll find that we are stronger together than apart, regardless of how deep we reach into work, into activities, and into life..

Isn't that what marriage is all about?

Dr. Mathis Kennington


Can You Hear Me Now? 5 Ways We Don't Actually Listen

Photo by  Dragunsk

Photo by Dragunsk

One of the ways I know someone isn't listening to me is when they tell me they're listening to me. 

Listeners don't have to tell you that they're listening. You just know. Conflict usually has more to do with perspective than actual truth. If you give two people the same picture, they'll often describe two very different images.

So when two people who love each other have very different ideas about a common issue like sex or money, how do you resolve the differences?

That's why listening is so important. 

We do a pretty good job of mucking things up when it comes to listening. Here's just five of the most common listening mistakes.

1. Hearing but not listening

The sneakiest of the five, this one gives the appearance of listening. Hearers are listening to debate rather than to understand or validate. It's really hard to listen when we fight. I'd much rather you were just wrong.

So I'll hear what you say, but only so I can point out where you are flawed in your thinking. 

2. Empathy

This may not be something you were expecting to find here, but hang in there for just a second. I think empathy is overrated. Curiosity is much better.

I see more intimate partners accidentally get themselves in trouble because they make assumptions about how the other feels or what their intentions are. If you are curious, you are listening to understand whereas, empathy gets in the way of curiosity.

3.  Time-Travel

Have you ever been in an argument with your significant other, only to discover you were not only arguing about something that was happening in the moment, but also something that happened two weeks or seven years ago?

One of the barriers to effective listening is that our own brains work against us. When we're in conflict, our brains interpret this as distress. In distress, the past and the present collapse and we access painful emotional memories that occurred years ago.

It takes us out of the present, and we time-travel to past wounds.

4. Yeah, but...

Sometimes we fall into the trap of believing that if we give in just a little bit, we can make our point and win the day. If I concede on this one small thing you're saying, then maybe you'll see that I really am right and give in.

However, "You're right, but..." or, "I get it, but..." are usually good ways to make arguments even worse. 

5. Solving the problem

One of the biggest ways we can help ourselves is to remove any agenda or intention from our listening outside of being curious about our partners' experiences. If you are used to a fast-paced work environment that depends on finding solutions to problems, then you might discover that this approach doesn't work as well at home. 

Most of the time, even in conflict situations where we need to solve a problem, listening is the solution to the problem. That's because we're always having two conversations: 1) the resolution to the problem; and 2) the resolution in the relationship. 

Not only do I need to have a solution to the problem, I also need to know you care. Listen to resolve the relationship before you resolve the problem. 

The Golden Rule in intimate relationship listening is that unless our partners know we're listening, we're not listening. 

Dr. Mathis Kennington