Author Archives: Teri Reisser

Thoughts about Helen

There is no such thing as accidentally winning the relationship lottery, whether in marriage or in other friendships. Instead, a truly great relationship is built over time as two very imperfect people share experiences, conversations and a long track record of valuing, the other.

This is where you might think I’m going to start talking about my incredible husband.  But that would be too predictable.  Instead, I’d like to talk about my second-best friend Helen.1

Helen and I became “foxhole buddies” 32 years ago because we were both fairly new to our neighborhood and were striving to maintain some semblance of sanity in the midst of raising young children.  She had a pool in her back yard (luxury of luxuries!) and I had an endless supply of Suisse Mocha instant coffee.  We panted after wild children careening up and down the street on Big Wheels, coached peewee soccer together, and made elaborate plans for each other’s back yards.   We faced late weekday afternoons together, gathering strength for that last stretch before the husbands came home to “take over.”  I don’t know what I would have done without her during those years.  That random relationship of mutual need and support became the basis of a lifelong friendship.

If there were such a thing as a “matching service” for friends, neither one of us would have been likely to single out the other as a potential candidate.  We were (and remain to this day) two very different people in terms of personality and interests.  I am ashamed to confess that in the years of early adulthood, I didn’t understand the value of my friendship with Helen.  As our children grew older and the occasions for sharing those late afternoons began to dwindle, I got into a lazy pattern of counting on her to initiate our get-togethers.  Somewhere along the line (thank goodness) I did start to get it, and became more intentional about cultivating the bond.  I’m so grateful that I did.

One fine day in 2008 Helen said to me, “Hey! Let’s train for the 2009 L.A. Marathon!”  At that point, my idea of daily exercise consisted of walking to the mailbox.  On a whim, I printed out a year-long training schedule for walking a marathon, and thus began a new phase of our friendship.  When you walk with someone twice a week for one to five hours, you get to know her on a whole new level.  We learned more about each other’s fears and dreams than we’d managed to figure out in the previous 29 years.  Unwittingly, we had created the same kind of “checking in” exercise that I prescribe for all the couples I counsel!  After the Marathon – which we finished in a record-breaking 8 hours — we missed our walking/talking times so much that we just kept scheduling half-marathons (having figured out that walking 13.1 miles is much easier than walking 26.2).  We are thus always up to speed with what is churning around in the other’s head.

Helen and I are not primarily fast friends because we are “perfect” for each other.  The friendship we have is the result of a mutual commitment to make the relationship a safe place for each of us.  Interestingly, although we have known each other for more than three decades, it has only been in the past few years that we have each deliberately invested time and effort toward the friendship.  It’s almost like we just kind of bumped along for most of the distance, and then suddenly realized we had something that was increasingly precious.

In the marathon of life, Helen and I have walked through some hard things together, and as we press on toward our finish line – one we both hope is some distance away — we no doubt will have some hard things ahead of us.  I’m reading a book right now about African culture, and this statement popped out at me while I was thinking about this blog:

Connections are essential so that there is someone to turn to in case of need in any of a multitude of problems that are bound to come up…  When public institutions and services are weak, ineffectual, corrupt or nonexistent, and therefore impersonal means of meeting basic needs and services are unavailable, friends are the resources needed for achieving a decent life.2

Needless to say, this quote doesn’t just apply to Africa.  Even where public institutions and services function well, friends are still “the resources needed for achieving a decent life.”

Helen is a treasure in my life.  There are perhaps five people (apart from my immediate family) whom I could comfortably call during a 2 a.m. crisis, and Helen is at the top of the list.  We started out as random neighbors, and we have become sisters.

I raise my glass to you, my friend.  And I am looking forward to our 12th half marathon this Sunday in Paso Robles!

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.


1. I am blessed to be married to my best friend.  Sadly, I have found in my personal and professional life that this is more often the exception than the rule.
2. David Maranz, African Friends and Money Matters. (Dallas, SIL International, p. 69).

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Teri’s Reflections on “Spiritual Disciplines”

Come on now — be honest.  As soon as you saw the words “spiritual disciplines” in the title, you almost didn’t read the blog, right?

If you have raised and/or been a child (and that pretty much covers most of us), the word “discipline” probably comes with some fairly negative associations firmly attached.  When I was growing up, “discipline” meant “Take cover:  Dad’s temper just flashed like lightning, and he’s hauling out the razor strap.”   In my adult life, I have always been resistant to the concept of discipline.  Discipline is the boring, straight-laced adult voice that says I shouldn’t buy what I want  or eat what I like.  (One of Paul’s relatives once described a sure-fire weight loss program:  “If it tastes good, spit it out!”)  No, thank you!

Over the years, people have consistently remarked on Paul’s and my accomplishments.  We smile and mumble an appropriate response, and think to ourselves:  “If they only knew.”  Because the “secret” behind the majority of our accomplishments has been a very simple formula:

Fear of disapproval +
Setting an arbitrary deadline =
Cracking the inner whip enough to get something done.

Nothing works like good old shame and guilt!

Our fear of disapproval from anybody (yes, even the street schizophrenic in Hollywood who makes a pejorative observation about us) will motivate us to get done whatever it takes to get off everyone’s radar of disapproval.   So degrees have been obtained and careers have been established and books have been written and we do, indeed, look like “accomplished” people.  I guess.

At the ripe old age of 59, I find myself in a new place.  Somewhere along the line a few years ago, I finally figured out that I can’t please all of the people all of the time, and decided to let my worth be determined by the One who created me (and I’m not talking about my mother).   This has been an incredibly liberating experience for me.  I feel truly free to act in a generous way toward others because that is the kind of person I am, not because I’m fearful of someone else’s disapproval.  This is great progress, right?  Well, yes.  Except… now that I no longer work for others’ approval, I find myself not getting much done!  Ack!

Anyone who hangs around me for a while will find out that Dallas Willard (Professor of philosophy at USC since 1965) is one of my favorite mentor authors.   The man simply challenges me to think like few other people on the planet.  It is probably no coincidence that I picked up one of his books, The Great Omission, at the beginning of this year, when I was thinking long and hard about how to raise myself up out of this languid pool of numbing malaise that has been masquerading as contentment.

Dallas defines discipline as the process of first deciding what kind of person we want to be, then making plans for becoming so.  This is a book that laments the loss of emphasis on practicing the spiritual disciplines in the church, and Dallas keeps repeating a key phrase:  “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.” That thought has haunted me for the past four weeks.  In my quest to learn how to stop making choices based on trying to earn others’ approval, I have lost sight of the fact that effort is still required to become the kind of person I want to be.

I’m not good at embracing the concept of full obedience to anything.  I’m much better at figuring out what I have to do to satisfy the minimum requirement.  This is how I’ve operated my whole life.  But I’m ready to put on my big girl panties now and try for “exuberant obedience” and see what that might yield.

I’m tired of coolly sitting on the sidelines and being a source of peanut gallery commentary.   I’m tired of never quite pushing my chips to the middle and going “all out.”  I’m tired of being lukewarm as a safeguard to protect against disappointment.  I want to become passionate.  I’m tired of minimum compliance.

Wow.  I wasn’t quite intending my stream of consciousness to go there, but there it went, indeed.

The bottom line is I have decided to become a disciple of Christ, because he was the smartest man who ever lived, and he taught us everything we long to know: What is real?  What is a successful life?  Who is a good person?  Am I a good person?  How does this all end and to what purpose?

Ugh.  I cannot believe I’m talking about embracing the concept of discipline.  Me, of all people.  The original “peace and love” hippie.  But how can I resist the following challenge from Dallas’ book:

I must learn and accept the responsibility of moving with God in the transformation of my own personality.  Intelligent and steady implementation of plans for change are required if I am to lose the incoherence of the broken soul and take on the easy obedience and fulfillment of the person who lives ever more fully within the Kingdom of God and the friendship of Jesus.

What is my plan?

A discipline is an activity within our power – something we can do – that brings us to a point where we can do what we at present cannot do by direct effort.  Discipline is in fact a natural part of the structure of the human soul, and almost nothing of any significance in education, culture, or other attainments is achieved without it.  Everything from learning a language to weight-lifting depends upon it, and its availability in the human makeup is what makes the individual human being responsible for the kind of person he or she becomes.  Animals may be trained, but they are incapable of discipline in the sense that is essential to human life.

I have always been way too cool to indulge in the ridiculous cycle of New Year’s resolutions being euphorically declared and then devolving to yet another source of shameful failure.  So I’m not going to set myself up by telling you the specifics of what I have planned on doing.  But I have made a deliberate plan involving daily choices that I expect to turn into habits.  I anticipate that when they finally become habits, they will move me closer to the kind of person I truly want to become.

I’ll let you know at the end of the year (or maybe sooner) how this all turned out.  Stay tuned…

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2011.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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In Praise of Josefina

God’s sphere and ours are not far apart, and at certain places and moments they interlock. Sometimes, the boundary between them is like a thin partition in which, to some people and at some times, a door is opened or a curtain pulled back, so that people in our dimension can see what’s going on in God’s dimension.” (J.T. Wright, Simply Christian, p. 144)

It is 6:30 a.m., and I am watching the sun rise over a small lake in New Jersey whose surface is as smooth as a mirror. I am sitting on a large screened porch listening to crickets and duck calls. I am truly in the country, and my soul resonates with the solitude. In the two days I’ve been here, I have watched a 200-foot tall tree slowly topple about 10 yards from me, undone by a storm that flashed through the area the day before I arrived. After applying my extremely small fund of mathematical knowledge and determining that the porch was not in the path of the trajectory, I have enjoyed being startled every few moments by a resounding crack as the weight of this massive tree slowly but surely proves too much for the surrounding trees that are, thus far, holding back its complete crash to the woodland floor.

Oh, and one other thing to add to the mix: I managed to acquire the worst sinus infection of my life the day before flying out here. So I am in the odd throes of “soaring soul” vs “incapacitating infirmity.” If I were at home, I would just cancel my day, sleep for 24 hours and be good to go the next day. But I feel like I’m in one of those “thin spaces” we learned to look for in Africa, and I don’t want to miss it. So here I sit, watching the sun come up, having my quiet time, steadily going through an entire box of tissue.

I have come to visit my longtime friend, pediatrician Josefina Miranda, MD, who showed up at my office 18 years ago pregnant and very much a stranger in a strange land. I did the craziest thing I’ve ever done (okay, wait a minute…there are a lot of contenders for that coveted title): I brought her home to live with us, and called Paul afterward for “permission.”

Josefina is simply one of the strongest women I have ever known. You wouldn’t know it to meet her. Raised in the Dominican Republic, she has a soft demeanor, a delightfully musical accent, raven black hair and humongous blue eyes. But she has demonstrated indomitable perseverance over the past 18 years, more than anyone I have ever encountered. I don’t know how to give even a Reader’s Digest version of her life. (By the way, she has given me permission to tell her story.) She was in medical school in France studying pediatric surgery when she became pregnant; was summarily dismissed (so much for tolerance); told not to bother coming home to Santo Domingo in her condition; came to America because she knew an old friend in Los Angeles who promised to help her. The friend was on welfare herself, and brought her to my office for some assistance.

Josefina lived with us for about a year; gave birth to a stunningly beautiful boy who inherited her eyes, but was the most colicky baby Paul has ever encountered in his entire medical career; returned to France to complete her study (still with no help from home); fought her way through poverty and repeated setbacks until she finally completed her residency in New York and opened her pediatric practice four years ago in Teaneck, New Jersey.

Did you do the math? This single mom was delayed 14 years in finishing her medical education because of her unplanned pregnancy. Through all of this, her unshakeable conviction that God was with her every step of her journey kept her going. (By the way, her son Pablo graduates from high school next year.)

Josefina is one of my heroes. I wish I could say I would have responded the same way, were I in her situation. I feel privileged to have crossed her path, and to have accompanied her on part of her amazing journey. And now I sit on the porch of her cozy vacation home on this placid lake, where I seem to have encountered this “thin place” where God’s kingdom and our world intersect. (Yes, I am currently going through the works of N.T. Wright, thank you very much). And despite heavy congestion, a pounding sinus headache, and a relentless river of discharge, I am very much at peace.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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Benefit of the Doubt

The down spot needs to be replaced. Not just any down spot, but my very favorite down spot.

When we remodeled a few years ago, our builder suggested creating a little niche in the wall for a special picture or statue. He put a down spot at the top of the niche which makes whatever is in there look pretty danged spiffy. It makes me feel like we live uptown. The bulb burned out about five months ago and one of us needs to replace it. At 6’1”, Paul could easily reach it, whereas my little 5’4” frame would have to find the stepladder. So I asked Paul to replace the bulb. In total, I’ve asked Paul (ever so sweetly, mind you) about four times to replace it. I even have the bulb out on the little table in front of the niche as an ever-so-sweet reminder. He couldn’t possibly miss the hint, right?

So I’m passing this whole set-up for about the 495th time this morning and for the first time, I realize I’m a little resentful. “What could this mean?” I ask myself. “Does this mean Paul doesn’t listen to me? Doesn’t care what matters to me? Doesn’t really love me after 35 years?” Oh, it is so tempting to go to that place–especially on a day when I have a small fever and am hopelessly behind in preparation for taking off for Uganda in three weeks. I feel glitchy and someone must pay.

And then I catch myself. Why am I allowing myself to get a little worked up over this particular oversight on Paul’s part? Why, in a moment like this, do I choose to interpret this still unlit niche as a deliberate act of unkindness on Paul’s part? Is this one act of omission representative of how Paul responds to my requests most of the time? Of course not. I’m irritated because I don’t feel well and I’m frighteningly behind on my to-do list and it would just make a lot of sense to be able to blame someone else for how I feel.

So here’s the take-home lesson: The next time you find yourself resentful that your partner hasn’t carried through with a particular request, ask yourself if this is typical. If it is, it’s time to make a formal appointment (preferably when you’re not so mad you have smoke coming out your nose) and tell your spouse how it feels to have your requests ignored most of the time. If it isn’t typical, just get the stepladder yourself and change the flippin’ lightbulb, for pete’s sake!

Having said all that, I’m still feeling peevish. So should I change the lightbulb and not say anything or ask him once more (ever so respectfully, of course, because I’m all grown up now)?

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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The Perfect Father’s Day Gift: Shave Him!

So Paul’s working late at his office tonight and I get to write the blog. As Elmer Fudd would say, “Be vewy, vewy afwaid!”

Ladies, remember when you were first married and you cut his hair because you were poor (and because it was still fun to get that close)? You may be past the point where you’re willing to have your husband receive a few smirks because of a bad haircut, but for Father’s Day (and about twice a month thereafter), try giving him the gift of a really long, careful shave.

Benefit #1: IT’S FINALLY EVEN

Let’s face it. Unless you’re married to a meticulous metrosexual1, you probably look at his face several times a week wondering how on earth he missed that spot right under his nose. (I know, right?) He really doesn’t care all that much. Why should he? It’s got to be done all over again tomorrow morning, and the morning after that, and the morning after that. But the task is novel to you – even a little fun and challenging. And your close-up vision is probably better than his at this stage.

Benefit #2: THE CLOSE SHAVE

If he’s using the supermarket foamy stuff, he’s got sandpaper on his cheeks just about the time he’s getting amorous, right? For a really cool Father’s Day gift, invest in the proper shaving tools: a sharp razor, a pure badger shaving brush, and a great shaving cream. (My favorite is Sandalwood Shaving Cream from Taylor of Old Bond Street). Google “How to get a really close shave,” and learn how it’s done by the pros. (For instance, did you know you’re supposed to shave with the grain of the hair and not against it? Who knew, right?)

Benefit #3: AN EXERCISE OF TRUST

A great shave cannot be rushed. There is something quite wonderful about slowly and artistically shaving your husband’s face as if it were an art project. You don’t do this every day, so he needs to be very, very still and breathe deeply while he’s praying that you are being very, very careful. He is in a vulnerable position – if you screw up, he will be mocked by every one of his colleagues for two solid days while the nicks are healing over. (This activity is not recommended for marital relationships that are currently rocky).

Bonus Round Benefit #4: TRY THIS IN THE SHOWER

For a really great Father’s Day gift, do the shave in the shower. This is difficult in a shower stall built for one, but not an absolutely insurmountable logistical dilemma for those who are properly motivated. The benefit: You can skip the hot towel part in the beginning. The cost: well, um, you’re together in the shower. Do the math.

Happy Father’s Day to my first husband. I hope you’re looking forward to your shave this Sunday morning…

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.


1 Pronunciation: \ˌme-trə-sek-sh(ə-)wəl, -sek-shəl\
Function: noun
Etymology: metropolitan + -sexual (as in heterosexualDate: 1994
A usually urban heterosexual male given to enhancing his personal appearance by fastidious grooming, beauty treatments, and fashionable clothes. (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/metrosexual)

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Church in the Chicken Coop

Last Sunday morning as I jumped in the shower to get ready for church, my spiritual cup was as full as it was going to get that day, because I had just spent an hour in my chicken coop, communing with the baby chicks and God.

I have a friend who started hatching baby chicks as a way of coping with a great grief in her life. I made the mistake of going over one day to watch them hatch, and fell utterly in love. With chickens. Yeah… I know.

So I turned our old playhouse out in the back yard into a chicken palace, which now happily houses six baby chicks (frizzle bantam cochins, if anyone cares), two pullets hatched from fertile eggs from our local Trader Joe’s, and two blue-laced red wyandottes. Guarding all of them is the most magnificent rooster you’ve ever seen. His official name is “Puppylove”, because he sits on my lap and cuddles (you heard me), though Paul thinks he should be named “Thor.” (Our daughter calls him “Sully,” in honor of John L. Sullivan, the late 19th-century prizefighter.)

We have a wonderful children’s library in our community, and Paul takes our grandchildren Ella and Zion there on a regular basis to supplement our own collection of bedtime stories. He asks them to pick a couple of topics, and then they search the shelves for interesting books on those subjects. (Recent favorites have been animals and racecars. Guess which child picked which topic?) While he was awaiting their selections a few weeks ago, Paul spotted a big illustrated book entitled Big Bang, by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest. It is an explanation of the origin of the universe (at least as understood in 1997, when the book was written) geared for 5th to 8th graders, and it looked interesting, so he brought it home for me. I have read it no less than 10 times, and my mind is still staggering.

According to the proponents of the Big Bang theory, the universe exploded into being from “nothing and nowhere.” (For my money, that fits nicely with the elegantly simple exposition of Genesis 1.) When the universe first appeared, it weighed about two pounds and was smaller than an atom. In a slice of a second so small that we can’t comprehend it, the universe ballooned into its present existence, and has continued to expand for around 13 billion years (give or take a month or so). The only reason matter developed is because for every 100,000,000 quarks and leptons, there were only 99,999,999 antiquarks and antileptons, and that little difference was enough to produce our entire universe. In a freaking fraction of a second. I have seriously sprained my brain trying to ingest these ideas.

We got a major second dose of awe and wonder about the universe a couple of weeks ago, when we saw a new 3D IMAX film about the Hubble telescope. Aside from giving a fascinating look at the history of the telescope and how it has been repaired over time, the film included a mind-boggling close up of a nebula that is a literal star nursery, and then a tour through the Milky Way and beyond, using images gathered by the Hubble. It was a breathtaking, emotional experience. “The heavens declare the glory of God,” begins Psalm 19, to which we would add, “and the Hubble telescope seconds the motion.”

So what’s this got to do with my chickens?

Sitting in my “happy place” Sunday morning, watching the baby chicks hopping around at my feet, I was suddenly overcome with what had to occur in time and space in order for these six tiny creatures to be exulting in the sunshine. I felt like I was on holy ground. I would have taken my shoes off except… well, a chicken coop is a dangerous place to go barefoot.

The point of this blog? I hope you might have a moment this week when the enormity of the universe hits you in a way that just makes you breathless. I hope you have a brief encounter with something that makes you just stop and bathe yourself in sunshine. I hope you stand still long enough to hear that echo.

You can find me in the chicken coop.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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I Want Intimacy in My Marriage, but My Spouse Doesn’t. Now What?

“I want to grow and change… I long for the kind of marital intimacy that comes from knowing and being known, but my spouse doesn’t seem to want the same thing.  So now what do I do?” This is a cry from the heart that I hear all too often in my office, and it grieves me deeply every time I hear it.  Tracking each other’s growth and changes in a nonjudgmental way is the surest path to emotional intimacy between two human beings.  Not coincidentally, it is also the starting point for most affairs.

My response to someone who is in this position is to follow a game plan that looks like this:

  1. Take the time to fully assess what you want. Don’t blurt out your unhappiness in a moment of irritation or outright anger.  You will likely not say what is really bothering you, but only what is bugging you at that particular moment.  It’s a wasted fight.  Utilize a good counselor or caring friend to help you verbalize, out loud and in writing, what it is you want from your partner.  (For example:  “I want him to value the health of our marriage more than anything else.”)
  2. Present a formal request to your partner. You may think that you’ve let your spouse know what you want in a thousand ways over the years.  But in my experience, these are usually salvos shot out in a moment of frustration, when the other person is least likely to actually hear you.  It is imperative that you set a specific appointment — “I would like an hour of absolutely uninterrupted time with you to talk about something really important.  When would be a good time for you?”  When the appointed time comes, do not proceed until you have his/her full attention.  Ask the other person to allow you to talk without interruption so that you can finish.  Work from bullet points or even consider reading a prepared statement.  When you are finished, ask him/her to summarize what was heard before giving a response.  You should also request that he or she not respond until you are satisfied that you have been heard accurately.  If the meeting becomes heated, do not proceed.  Ask to reschedule the meeting after tempers have cooled down.
  3. If the answer is “Yes, that sounds good to me,” decide together how best to proceed with a marital renovation project.  Options include marriage seminars, marriage weekend retreats, marriage counseling, reading through Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married together and doing all of the exercises, joining a couples’ accountability group, immediately instituting the “Checking in With Your Spouse” exercise on at least a weekly basis, etc.
  4. If the answer is “No, I’m not interested in trying to make this better,” then you have some hard decisions to make.   If you are in an emotionally or physically abusive relationship, and the other person is not interested in changing, you may need to consider removing yourself from this situation.  If your partner is not abusive, there may be many reasons (money, children, a high value placed on your wedding vows, etc.) that people choose to remain in a marriage even though a spouse doesn’t really want an emotionally intimate relationship.  But be wise!  The need for emotional intimacy is an incredibly strong human motivator.  If your spouse has clearly indicated he or she is not interested in developing a deep connection with you, then you are at a high risk for having an affair.  The only way to put yourself back in the “low risk” category is to develop alternate avenues for emotional intimacy that don’t violate your marriage vows.  Plainly put, you will need to identify a friend or two of the same gender who is very interested in knowing who you are and who you are always becoming.

You don’t have to stay in this place forever.  Extend the invitation, make your formal request, then take action depending on the response to your request.  If the answer is “no” for whatever reason, quit trying to get something from a partner who is not able or willing to give it.  Grieve the loss of that dream and take care of your need for intimacy in a way that you can live with ethically.  If the answer is “yes”, congratulations on the beginning of a new journey.

Note the word “beginning” in the last sentence.  Rather than a quick-fix, this is a process, one that may be long and bumpy but definitely worth the effort.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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Why Do I Do That?

Last night, as I was happily snuggled into bed with my great work of fiction (well, okay, it wasn’t Shakespeare–so sue me), Paul wandered into the room and noticed my cell phone on the bedstead.

“Does your phone need to be charged?” he asked.

To which I replied curtly:  “Not really, but you and I both know that you won’t rest easy until it’s plugged in, so just go ahead and take it.”

What a snotty response to a perfectly nice gesture, huh?

Okay, so here’s what was really going on in that little exchange:  Every neuron in Paul’s brain was wired from conception to take care of everyone he loves.  Period.  He doesn’t know how to do it differently.   It’s one of the characteristics that made me fall madly in love with him decades ago.  So why on earth would his hyper vigilance cause such a petty response in me 35 years later?

Maybe he’s implying that I don’t “take care of business” the way I should, which puts a lot of extra work on him.  Maybe he thinks I’m lazy.  Maybe he’s trying to tell me how I should run my life.  Who does he think he is?

Or…

Maybe I’ve become a little too accustomed to taking advantage of this unique caretaking gene in Paul.  Maybe I have become a little too lazy, knowing good and well that I can flop into bed without a care because Paul will set the coffee pot, check all the doors, make sure the dog food dish is full, turn out all the lights, pull the curtains, and yes, make sure both cell phones are being properly recharged.

Hmmm…

Being petty was a lot easier than all this self-revelation.  We were on national radio this week together.  We should be having victory lap sex, for pete’s sake!  So we did.  (Guilt remains the most human of all motivators.  Sigh.)

Thank you, sweety, for tucking the house in at night the way you do.  Thank you for always making sure my cell phone is charged and my gas tank is full.  Thank you for your patience as I grow up.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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Mystic Crystal Revelations: The Secret to a Great Marriage?

All this time I thought intimate relationships were built on the hard work of learning how to hear and understand each other, but now my naive theories have been debunked in the February, 2010 edition of Redbook magazine.*  Dang!

According to an article called “Get Lucky in Love,” apparently all I have to do is fill a small bowl with uncooked rice and then top it with a shake of sea salt. (Salt and rice are the ultimate negative energy absorbers — who knew?) Next I need to place three clear crystals atop the salt so that they form a triangle, hide the bowl under our bed for 9 to 49 days, and (Shazam!) it will “awaken positive relationship energies, including agreeable and open communication.”  Wowzers!

I wish it were that simple.  I really do.  We deeply crave being emotionally connected to one special person, but strong, healthy relationships don’t happen accidentally.  And they don’t happen even when you find the (apparently) perfect partner.  They happen because two people are willing to schedule regular “check-in” times, during which each actually feels heard by the other.

Unfortunately, too many couples – including many who come to my office for counseling – take their “communications” (and I use the term loosely here) in the opposite direction:

  1. An issue shows up, and the couple has “words” that follow a well-worn track driven by personalities and previous patterns of arguing.  More time and energy are spent attacking each other than actually exploring the issue.
  2. The argument stumbles to a conclusion, either because the couple runs out of time, someone caves in, or a door slams as one person retreats to a locked bathroom.  In any case, the conflict is completely unresolved and each person feels unfairly treated and misunderstood.
  3. Icy disconnection follows for a period of time, until the withdrawal becomes too painful or impractical to maintain.  The couple eventually begins to re-engage, usually over daily business that has to be conducted. (“Can you pick up the dry cleaning?”  “Tyler needs a ride home from soccer practice.”  Etc., etc.)
  4. The first three steps repeat for years, until the recurring cycle of attacks and counter-attacks completely overshadows whatever the actual issues were in the first place.  Eventually, only the pain of hundreds of verbal – and sometimes physical — wounds is remembered.

Sound familiar?  Wouldn’t you like to do it differently?  Would you be willing to try something?  In a Moment O’ Brilliance somewhere in the distant past – actually more of a Moment O’ Desperation — I developed an exercise called “Checking In With Your Spouse.”  After I found that it worked miracles with some of the couples I was counseling, I decided to try it at home.  Lo and behold, it worked quite well for Paul and I as well.

Here are the basic ground rules for couples who use this tool.  Set aside a protected, uninterrupted hour each week to ask each other the following questions. (Hint:  If you don’t have a whole hour, go directly to #6.)   Turn off the TV, phones, computers, pets, etc.  Use one of the most basic communication skills:  After the other person answers a question, prove that you heard what he or she said by restating what you think you heard before you respond.

Here are the questions:

  1. What was the best thing that happened to you this week?
  2. What was the worst thing?
  3. How did I best meet your needs this week?
  4. How did I least meet your needs this week?  (Be careful:  Don’t become defensive when you hear the answer.  Just listen!)
  5. What could I have done differently in that situation that would have been more helpful for us?
  6. What are you the most worried about right now?
  7. Is there any way I can help you with that concern?
  8. What are you feeling right now?

I dare you to try this and let me know how it works.  It’s actually cheaper than buying salt, rice, crystals or 52 sessions of marital therapy, and you might find it a tad more effective in building that emotional intimacy you’ve always longed for.  While you’re at it, you can use the rice and salt as ingredients in a nice casserole to enjoy while you talk through these checking-in questions.

* My friend with the wry wit, Deva Andrews, leaves this kind of stuff all over my desk.

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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Why I Love Valentine’s Day (Just Kidding)

Valentine’s Day always generates a lot of extra business for marriage and family therapists.  The week before February 14th, I listen to female clients who are constructing elaborate fantasies of how the Big Day will turn out, complete with their guy coming through in a way that finally trumpets to the universe:  “I love you like no other woman has ever been loved!”   During the week after Valentine’s Day, I inevitably listen to sad refrains from angry and dejected clients whose partners did not ride in on a white charger, brandishing a dozen red roses.  I wonder to myself:  How on earth did Western civilization manage to create this annual monster?

In 1847, someone named Esther Howland figured out how to generate income by making Valentine cards, and the rest is history.  Continuing in the fine American tradition of free enterprise, the greeting card and floral industries have taken the holiday to new heights of frenzied activity, setting the stage for an annual two-player drama consisting of the expectant-then-disappointed female and the panicked-then-resentful male.

I find it ironic that the men who actually want to make a romantic gesture for Valentine’s Day are usually married to women who aren’t so desperate for a perfect February 14th ritual.  These are the women who don’t need “proof” that their partners love them after all.  So here’s the deal, gals.  If he hasn’t come up with a way to make you feel loved and cherished the other 364 days of the year, what makes you think he will turn into Prince Charming or Studley Do-Right on February 14?

I have to confess:  After strictly forbidding Paul to bow to the societal pressure that consumes the first two weeks of February, I found the perfect Valentine’s Day card for him while waiting to pick up a prescription at a local drug store.  “I think my heart was always there…just waiting for you to find it.”  A little corny, but I couldn’t resist.

Okay, so I didn’t follow my own rules for the “prove to me that you love me” Holiday O’Love, but you get the idea.  Hitting a home run on February 14 does not create or destroy an emotionally intimate relationship.   To carry the baseball analogy a bit farther, it isn’t about one at-bat, one inning, or one game.  It’s about what you do for the entire season, day after day after day.

A good marriage is a full time gig.

- Teri

©Paul and Teri Reisser, 2010.

Teri Reisser is a marriage and family therapist and author of A Solitary Sorrow, which deals with the emotional fallout of abortion. Together Teri and her husband Paul have recently written Your Spouse Isn’t the Person You Married.

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