Creating Deep and Lasting Changes in your Marriage



Shallow change

Last fall, husband and I had a chance to visit Kauai. We were there with family and we also got some time to ourselves. With little hesitation, we rented snorkel gear and stand up paddle boards on the first day. We ended up doing little of both because of the strong waves. Nonetheless, it didn’t stop us from trying.

We drove to Poipu Beach Park which is on the south end of the island. We saw some amazing sea creatures, but something else was bothering me: my goggles. It kept leaking water in. I’d be in the water for no more than 30 seconds and my astonishment would be put out by the gradual overflowing of salt water that threatened my eyes and I’d have to re-surface. My husband came and checked on me a few times and I kept trying to make it work: I tightened my goggles, I breathed in to suck the goggles to my face, I tried to remove every trace of hair that might have been in the way. Some of you reading this can come up with yet a 4th way I could’ve tried to make it work, but by now, my forehead was turning purple and I wasn’t having any fun. The changes I was making were not working.

Deeper change

We finally decided to cut the trip short and went back to Snorkel Bob’s to exchange for a new pair of goggles. The next day, we headed to Salt Pond Park. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but to wonder, “Are my goggles going to work?” I took a moment to adjust to the water temperature and dove in. I was expecting water to slowly fill up. Nothing. I paddled around for a bit longer and ta-da! My goggles were water proof, as goggles should be! We enjoyed the rest of our snorkeling experience and saw for the first time, trumpetfish!

Shallow changes in intimate relationships

So why am I telling you this story? I believe that we often try to make shallow changes in our intimate relationships, changes we call “first order change” in family systems theory. First order change is when patterns of interactions are changed at the surface level and they usually involve changes in behaviors. Let’s say you and your partner are not getting along. Well, you should learn to communicate better, use “I” statements, carve out time to go on date nights or address a fair share of household chores.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all for these changes, except I don’t believe that’s really the problem. These surface level changes will improve things momentarily, probably for longer than 30 seconds. But they don’t change the fact that something more is likely going on that’s causing the “leak” in your relationship. These problems might be surfacing because of deeper underlying issues in your marriage.

Deeper changes in couple relationships

So what is this deeper change and how is it possible? Yes, you guessed it: it’s called “second order change.” Second order change is when your relationship itself changes based on feedback from each other and hopefully, for the better. Underlying rules and beliefs about the relationship is called into question and altered. Let’s come back to your relationship.

Where you’re stuck in your relationship

Same problem: you’re not getting along. Your partner is super defensive when you bring something up and ends up hiding out at work. You become more frustrated every time you approach him and all he hears is your anger. You want to feel loved, accepted, important, and connected and it’s not happening. Your partner feels criticized, misunderstood, like he can’t do anything right. He also feels scared about rocking the boat, because he doesn’t want to make things worse. His feelings of inadequacy makes him withdraw even more. Sounds familiar? Are you tell me that this is just a communication problem and you can fix it by throwing solutions at it?

Want to feel close and connected with your partner?

The thing is, deeper changes lie in each of you recognizing that you have a part to play in the dance. As one of you pursues, often times out of desperation seen as anger, the other gets defensive and withdraws, often due to feelings of incompetence and shame. It’s not as simple as asking you to stop pursuing and the other to stop running away. After all, you have reasons for why you do what you do. Rather, it’s about recognizing that this dance is not working and it’s time to put on a different set of music. We’d still go snorkeling, but let’s switch out the goggles.

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT)

Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFCT) is a heavily research-based model for the treatment of couples. It gets at the underlying needs for couples to feel close, desired, and accepted in their intimate relationship. It focuses on how each partner influences the other and whatever rules or beliefs you had about your relationship will naturally shift as you experience your partner in new ways.

This is hard work and it’s not for the faint of heart. Let me know when you’re ready to trade in your goggles. I'll be here. 

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond psychotherapy practice in WA. She helps distressed couples and breast cancer patients. That can also mean couples distressed by a partner’s cancer diagnosis, or couples wishing to use their marriage as a resource during their cancer journey. When she’s not thinking about couples and cancer, she loves to go play with her husband! Her favorite sea creature while snorkeling in Hawaii will always be the Humuhumunukunukuapua’a. 

Marriage Problems after Baby? 11+1 Tips to Stay Connected to your Partner

Drew Hays/

Drew Hays/

Cover your eyes if you don't want to read this: It's not looking good after kids

Are you having marriage problems now that your baby is born? You're not alone. My husband recently shared with me the CNN article about the steep decline in marital satisfaction following parenthood. I remember reading such research back in grad school, so it was definitely old news. However, it got me thinking whether the decline has to be this drastic.

Ready for your marriage to go down the toilet?

True, parenting is a major life transition, and this complicated by the fact that you don't know who's coming out on the other side and how their temperament might fit with yours, or not. Sleepless nights, little time to yourself, and a disruption to everything you've ever known. Is there still time and energy to connect with your partner?

I want to say yes!

Here are 11+1 tips to stay connected to your partner after baby:

  1. Use humor – if this is your first child, in all likelihood, a lot of things ring true in Brian Gordon's comic about parenthood. Laugh at yourself and with each other. Is it an interesting finding in baby poop that wasn't well digested? Your mismatched socks? Your partner's overgrown beard? Take time to laugh. Don't take yourselves too seriously.
  2. Admire your partner as a co-parent – this will be your first time witnessing your partner as a father/mother. How are they different with the baby? The same? Can you take a moment to watch the two interact from a distance? How does this make you appreciate your partner all the more?
  3. Make use of every moment – is it the first few minutes of your partner walking through the door or when you pass by each other in the hall? Share a touch, a kiss, a something that lets each other know you're still there. These brief moments of connection can go a long way.
  4. Do the little things – aside from sharing a moment in between feedings, what were the little things you used to do for each other, to show that the other mattered? Is it a quick text with Emoticons, picking up his preferred brand of toothpaste, or making coffee in the morning? When you're tired and your patience is thin, knowing that you're remembered keeps you going.
  5. Hire a sitter – take a break, go out, or do nothing. Time away from your kid and chores makes you a better parent, a better partner. If you must use this time to run errands, remember to grab yourself a little treat.
  6. Set up date nights early on – while it can no longer be every Friday, unless you have a plan, months can go by without the comfort and familiarity of time together. Go out for a movie, a nice dinner, a stroll in your neighborhood. While it may seem like you have left someone important at home, taking the time to connect with your partner can make co-parenting more enjoyable.
  7. Focus on each other during date nights – if you're not careful, topics around your kid's music lessons, her playdate with Sally or even how you've organized the baby's drawers can quickly seep into your date night. Set a rule to minimize business talk during your night out. How is the other person doing? What's happening at work? What did you used to talk about before the baby came along? Revisit that.
  8. Take turns baby sitting - “me time” and time with friends are still important, even though you're pooped and your priorities have shifted. Put it on the calendar that the 2nd Tuesday is your coffee night and the 4th Thursday is bball with his buddies. When you encourage personal interests outside of the home as new parents, you're cognizant of each others' needs as individuals. That's another way of giving to each other.
  9. Keep the conversation going – parenting brings out the worse in all of us. Things that work one day no longer works the next because the kid changes on you. Keep talking about expectations around roles, chores, and responsibilities. Be willing to adapt to the needs and preferences of the kid, and each other.
  10. Visit each other at work with the child – you don't have to wait until Bring Your Kids to Work Day. Set an intention that the visit is as much about seeing your kid and showing him around as it is about meeting with your partner midday.
  11. Involve your child – there are ways to be mindful of your partner while you're with your child. You can talk to them early on about mom's favorite food, dad's favorite color, and let the child pick up something at the store for the other parent. That's hopefully sending the message, “I love you and I'm teaching our child ways to love you too.”

And here's a bonus and my all time favorite:

  1. Use terms of endearment – it often pains me to hear partners be called, “mommy” or “daddy” following the birth of a child. What happened to “Babe,” “Honey,” “Wifey” or “Apple Streusel”? Okay, maybe not “Apple Streusel,” but you get the idea. As much as possible, call your partner the names they were once known for. It's a reminder that you were partners before you were parents.

Another bonus: if this is not your first rodeo, here's an earlier post about connecting with your child around bringing home a second baby.

Mitigating the loss

While I won't argue against 30 years of studies that show time and time again a decline in relationship satisfaction following children, I do believe there are ways to soften the blow. Let me know how I can help!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping individuals and couples grow through life transitions, parenthood being one of them. She's usually overjoyed when her husband brings home the occasional dinner. She's a firm believer that we tend to remember the sweet little things.

What Happens to the Human Brain when Touch is Provided?

The hand holding mystery

Rachael Crowe/

Rachael Crowe/

I recently came back from a 4-day conference and had the privilege of hearing from neuroscientist Jim Coan. He had the question, “Why do people hold hands?” and the only way to find out was to feed people through a MRI machine, so he says.

He had a group of happy couples come in. He fed the female partner inside a MRI machine and showed them either a red X or a blue O. When the red X flashes, it signals a 20% chance of a mild electric shock on the ankle. When a blue O appears, it means no electric shock.

Coan measured 3 conditions: the woman being alone, holding the hands of a stranger, or holding the hand of her partner. Can you guess what happened?

When under the threat of an electric shock by themselves, the brain got really busy. When holding the hand of a stranger, the same regions of the brain were less active. Finally, when holding the hand of a significant other, there was a reported decrease in vigilance and physiological arousal. The pre-frontal cortex, partly responsible for regulating emotions, was less active, because the partner's touch helped to regulate and reassure. Moreover, there was also less activity in the area of the brain responsible for dumping stress hormones into the bloodstream.

Similar results were found in larger, more diverse populations, and between not just partners, but also friends. There was an overall decreased activity in the region of the brain sensing pain. Somehow, pain or emotions about the pain were attenuated with handholding.

Here's Coan's study on Ted Talk:

Bringing it home

In my last blog post why friends matter, I talked about how the presence of my best friend, aka husband helped mitigate perceived stress. Let me give you a different example with a near stranger.

Last year, I had to go into a medical procedure which had me feeling very scared. It was unplanned, so my husband couldn't be there. The nurse Joanne walked me through what to expect. While I still sensed the anxiety and pain before, during and after the procedure, something was very memorable: she had put her hand on my shoulder the whole time. There was something comforting about the touch of another, the pressure that I felt, the knowing that I wasn't alone. Squeeze me into a MRI machine and I can only imagine her touch was soothing to my busy brain.

What does this mean for you?

If you are in an unhappy relationship and you yearn for your partner's hand to hold and comfort you, there is hope. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Therapy teamed up with Coan to do a study with a group of distressed couples. Prior to 20 weeks of EFT, there was NO difference in these women's brain activity whether alone or holding the hand of their partner. Post treatment, their brains looked a lot like that of happy couples: their partner's presence was soothing and created a buffer against the threat of a shock. EFT helped these marriages create a sense of safety and closeness, and Johnson would say such security is a protective factor against life's challenges.

I practice this type of therapy and I can help you! Give me a call!

Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping couples reconnect in their relationships. Her most memorable moments with her husband are not at their wedding or during their travels; rather, it's when they're on the couch, talking about anything and everything.