Dr. Terri L. Orbuch may go by “Professor Orbuch” when she’s teaching sociology at Oakland University, but many others know her as “The Love Doctor.” With radio and TV shows, magazine columns, advice CDs, national speaking engagements and workshops, and five books, Orbuch is an emerging national authority on relationship advice for couples, families and friends. A nationally funded research scientist in addition to being a marriage and family therapist, Orbuch spoke with the Spinal Column Newsweekly about how to maintain healthy and productive relationships — and yes, start new ones.
How do you approach your research? (Is it) a personal perspective or a scientific research perspective?
TO: I think I’m different than other relationship experts out there because I do come at relationship strategies, tips, how to develop and maintain relationships, from a scientific perspective. So even though I’m also a therapist, I don’t base my strategies on science or being a therapist, and I don’t approach my strategies from a personal perspective. I take research — either my own because I have a long-term project (in which) I’ve been following the same 373 couples now for over 25 years. The study is funded by the National Institutes of Health. Or, I take other relationship researchers’ advice, findings and strategies when I discuss relationships in general.
What do you find is the best way to strengthen a relationship or marriage?
TO: I think there are several things. First, you want to ‘sweat the small stuff’ in relationships. And I know that’s contrary to what people know and understand. But I think that when it comes to relationships, what I have found in my studies is that it’s really important to address those small, annoying things in your relationships. Don’t let them go. What happens is what starts out as really small — like he throws his socks on the floor or she chews with her mouth open — whatever it may be that really annoys you that seems small and rather insignificant, if you don’t address it, it accumulates over time. What starts out as small and can be addressed, becomes bigger and bigger and bigger over time. And when it goes over time, small things accumulate over time, then it’s really hard to unpack and get at the issues after some period of time. So, address the small things. That’s really important.
Second, you want to do or say small things often to make your partner happy. I call that affirmation. You want to say things every single day — and it only takes one phrase. Or do something every single day — and it only takes one thing. Make sure that your partner feels special, cared for, valued and that you don’t take him or her for granted. So you can say, “I love you” or “You’re the best partner” or “Thank you for putting the dishes in the dishwasher.” Those are all phrases that you could say. Or, you could do something small, like turn the coffee pot on in the morning because you know your partner needs caffeine when they wake up, or bring in the newspaper or make him a favorite dessert or meal. Those are things that your partner will really pick up on, and those are things that your partner is looking for to make sure that you care and don’t take them for granted.
And third — I’ll only discuss three, but there are lots of them I should tell you — every single day, practice what I call the 10-minute rule. Now, most couples think they are talking to each other every single day, but what they are really talking about is, who is going to pick up the kids, or call mom, pay the bills, or get the groceries. That’s not communications. That’s what I call maintaining the household. So, practice the 10-minute rule every single day for at least 10 minutes by talking to your partner or spouse about something other than these four topics: Work, family or children, who is going to do what around the house, or your relationship.
When you talk about maintaining your household, obviously marriages and households have a lot to maintain. How do children change relationships or marriages and what advice do you have for new parents?
TO: I think children definitely change a relationship because what starts off as two partners becomes three or four or more, depending on the number of children. Research shows that relationship or marital satisfaction declines — decreases — with every single child that the couple has. Now, you could go, “Oh wow.” In fact, that’s what my students say when I report that finding. But what happens is that you only have 100 percent of time. And, if you have you and your partner, you divide that 100 percent between you and your partner. But when you have a child, that 100 percent gets divided in as many roles or responsibilities that you have. So, it doesn’t mean that you don’t love your partner — it just means that there’s only 100 percent of time and effort and there’s only 24 hours in a day.
What I encourage couples to do when they are first parents is to get on the same page. Make sure that you both know that you care about one another and that you definitely want to spend time with one another, quality time, even though the amount of quality time will decrease. I encourage new parents to find as much time in their day as they can. Sometimes, instead of going out on a date night, they will go out on an errand night. In fact, I remember many nights when my husband and I used to go out to Target or Meijer, and that used to be our errand night. My husband and I would shop at the same time that we would try to do that 10 minute rule together. We would ask each other questions about things other than the children, family, the bills, the household and our relationship. And it’s important that you continue to get to know one another because people continue to change, and that’s OK.
Also, make sure that you find a teen in your neighborhood — or use your family members. Have someone come and take care of your children so that you can spend some time, even an hour, away from the household to get that quality time with one another.
We’ve all heard stats about fights or arguments in marriages over money, the economy, and its stress on a marriage. What part does the economy and money play on marriages, and what are some of the other common mistakes, pit falls or obstacles people often face in marriage?
TO: I should say all relationships and marriages have conflict disagreements. I should say that there are four couples in my study that said, “We have no conflicts.” None of those four couples were still married in (three years) because when you think about it, conflicts, disagreements, fights, are inevitable. You come from two different households, families, backgrounds, sometimes religions. You’re bound to disagree about something. In fact if you’re not, you’re probably not talking about the important things with one another.
Money turns out to be the No. 1 source of conflict in all marriages. Money is what people have much difficulty discussing because they aren’t used to talking openly about money. Usually, when couples talk about money, it’s only those times when they need to pay the bills, or pay taxes, or when they are in debt. So it’s very important for couples to find a neutral time to talk about money, and to talk money often.
I encourage couples to talk about money every three months. They sit down and talk about their short- and long-term money goals, they ask questions about what are we spending, what are we saving.
Next, it’s very important to understand that when couples are having conflict around money, it’s usually not about the money itself. It’s that money is a tangible topic to have conflict over and it’s more likely that two partners are disagreeing about the meaning of money — and money means different things to different people. Sometimes it means control, security, esteem or even love, but then again, money is a tangible part of a relationship, so it’s easy to project those emotional meanings into concrete money matters.
Again, sit down with your partner or spouse and ask them, “What does money mean to you? Where did you learn about money? What did you observe about money when you were growing up? How did your parents handle money?” Oftentimes we are attracted to someone that has a different “money meaning,” so to speak.
It turns out that the economy has even allowed us to have money more at the core of our relationships. It’s not absolute money, but that we talk about money more in the media so that then we are much more likely to have conflict disagreements about money or how we spend money in our relationship.
On the subject of couples staying together or splitting up, how can you tell? I think people wonder, “Is this the right relationship for me?” Are there any ways to tell?
TO: I think first, if you’re at the stage where you’re trying to figure out should you be with this person… “Should I get married? Should we live together?” I think there are three questions you can ask yourself. First, how do you deal with conflict with each other?
That’s very significant. Do you yell or scream? Not listen to one another? Those are not constructive ways to deal with conflict. And it’s very important to recognize that how you do conflict now is very significant to how you will do conflict and how your partner handles stress in the future. So, if you do conflict constructively, you listen to one another or you’re much more calm, you fight fair, you validate one another — that is positive. That means you’re much more likely to deal with conflict constructively in the future.
The second question you want to ask yourself is whether or not you trust this person. Is this person honest? Reliable? Do they have your best interests at heart? Trust is the No. 1 step in any romantic relationship, and probably any relationship — romantic or non-romantic — and that comes before love and commitment. So, sit down and have what I call “trust chats” and see whether you trust your partner and whether your partner trusts you.
And then finally, the third question you want to ask yourself before you make a commitment, before you get married, is, “Do you have similar underlying key life values?” Because we know that opposites do not stay together over the long haul. But, similarity — birds of a feather flock together — they are much more likely to stay together over time. And when I’m talking about key life values, I’m talking about approach to money, approach to family and importance of religion. Those are big interests in your life. So, you could have different hobbies and sport preferences, movie likes — that’s OK. But those are the key life values that you want to be similar with your partner.
Those are the three questions I encourage people to ask themselves before they make a commitment. If you are in a relationship though, there are different questions as to whether you stay together or if you continue to work at a relationship.
Yes. When is the right time or is there a way of telling when the right time for divorce or a break-up is? What advice do you offer to people contemplating that?
TO: I think first, it’s a question that is individual for each person. So, I may tell you some questions that may be important for people to ask themselves in relationships, but then again, it’s a question that people really need to assess and figure out for themselves. But the first question you might contemplate is whether or not the conflict has gotten out of hand.
First, if there is any physical or emotional abuse, that is a sign that this relationship is not healthy and it’s not functional. Second, are you having conflict in front of the children, or in front of other family members? Are you saying negative things, bad things, about your partner in front of your children or in front of other family members? That means, if the answer is yes, that this is an unhealthy relationship and it’s not a functional one. It’s not going well. Third, are you able to continue to say “I love you” to one another? One of the things that’s very important is for you to validate and affirm one another. One of the ways we do that is to say “I love you.” And fourth, very importantly, if you had a life-threatening situation, or if you had a traumatic situation, whether that be an illness or you lost your job or something money-wise happened to you, would you go to your partner or spouse for support? That person doesn’t have to be the only person you go to, but when we think about healthy relationships, we think about people who support one another. And, if the answer is “No, I wouldn’t go to my partner. In fact I would go to everyone else except my partner,” again, not a healthy relationship.
As far as meeting people, have there been studies on where to meet people — online, in church groups, or things like that?
TO: Yes, in my new book, “Finding Love Again: Six Simple Steps to a New and Happy Relationship,” I actually talk about the three best ways to find that someone special, or to find love. First, and people don’t like this answer, you want to ask your friends or family members to fix you up. And I know that everyone goes, “Ahhhh!” and they shrug when I say that strategy, but what we find and what research shows is that your friends know you and this other person and think that you would have something in common, a similar underlying value with this person. It’s a great way for you to meet someone who has similar key life values and interests. I just want people to make sure they know that the person who fixed you up, that fixer-upper, does not need to go out on the date with you. It’s important that you go alone so that you aren’t being scrutinized. Now, you can talk about that person as a way to get to know that person, but fix-ups, blind dates, are wonderful.
Second, you want to do group activity that meets regularly. Go to an activity, like a religious group, a bowling group, a book club, wine appreciation club, intramural volleyball team — any activity or group or event that meets regularly is a great way to meet someone. What you have is what you call the mere-exposure effect. What that says is, mere exposure, or repeated exposure, or contact with someone increases liking. We know that’s what happens with two individuals. So, simply seeing the same person — you don’t even have to say anything — increases liking from you to this other person, and them to you. Then you happen to have a similar interest in common, (and) it’s much more likely that you are going to feel comfortable to go ask this person a question or have something to say, whatever it may be.
The third best way is online dating. We know that online dating is successful, it is safe and that people are meeting others to have relationships. And, one out of six people who get married meet online.
When you talk about the mere-exposure effect, does that carry over to say, office romance?
TO: I think workplace romance is the mere-exposure effect in action. It is at its best. Here you are seeing the same person again and again, and it’s just more likely you are going to develop an attraction, a positive attitude for this person. Now, I want to caution people about workplace romance. I think there are several questions that you want to ask yourself if you feel that this is becoming a reality, so to speak.
First, are you drawn to this person just because you see them repeatedly, or are you attracted to them because (of) something that is similar between the two of you? Many people even say they are attracted to this person in the workplace because it’s sort of secret, and that it shouldn’t be. So, make sure you are really attracted and liking this person.
If you start a workplace romance, (make sure) that you have the similarities and key life values. Or a really big question, as well, that you want to ask yourself, is what are the official policies at work? Although it’s uncommon, some workplace romances can lead to being fired and can lead to some challenges at work, especially if you are the manager or supervisor of this other person. Make sure that there isn’t an official policy against a workplace romance, and that if you do become the manager or are the supervisor, you ask yourself how would you be able to effectively manage or review this person. Also, what happens if you break up? Would you still be able to work together?
And finally, (ask yourself) would an office romance create too much competition between you and this other person? So yes, office romances are common, but you definitely want to ask yourself several questions before you engage in such a relationship.
Is there anything else you would like to mention that you feel is important that we didn’t talk about?
TO: I think the No. 1 question that I get about relationships, especially long-term ones, is how to bring passion and romance into a relationship. We know that the decline of passion and excitement in a relationship is inevitable in all relationships over time. It’s easy to reignite that passion. What you want to do is mirror or do what you used to do when you were dating, and that means three things. First, you want to bring some newness or novelty. Do a new activity or go to a new restaurant or travel spot — anything that is new. As long as it’s done with your partner, (it) will bring a little passion and romance because passion is fuel by novelty.
Second, add a little mystery or surprise to your relationship. Again, when you are first dating or when you first meet someone, it’s all full of mystery and surprise. You don’t know that other person. So, if you want to refuel or reignite passion, ask your partner some new and different questions. Things you didn’t know about your partner. Or, use the element of surprise. Take them on a scavenger hunt, put a surprise note in their lunch, call them on their voicemail and surprise them. Surprise fuels romance and passion.
Third, you want to do what I call “arousal-producing activities” — and it’s clean, so you don’t have to worry. What you want to do with your partner is an arousal-producing activity like some form of exercise with your partner. Go on a scary roller coaster ride, see a scary movie, go to a comedy club and really laugh. Any activity done with your partner that creates arousal, that arousal will be transferred to your partner and your relationship will refuel and reignite the passion. Remember, it doesn’t take much to shake things up and infuse love, spice and romance into your relationship.