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    Before You Move in Together...

    Over the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the number of couples choosing to live together before marriage, and many of them expect to make a commitment to each other. The catch is that a large number of them decide not to marry. The nagging question becomes, does marriage really make a difference in relationship quality over time? 

    The Census Bureau reports that the percentage of cohabiting adults ages 25 to 34 increased from 12 percent a decade ago to 15 percent in 2018. Among 25- to 34- year-olds, living together has become commonplace. Among currently-married adults, a whopping 67 percent say they have lived with either their current partner or someone else before they tied the knot. In 1978, however, marriage was more common, with 59 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds married compared to only 30 percent today. 

    With the dramatic increase in couples who live together, one might believe that cohabitation is becoming more like marriage (or at least a step toward it). If you think that, you aren’t alone. 

    Plenty of researchers across the globe have surmised that over time, cohabitation would become more like marriage with all of its benefits. Interestingly though, the latest research released by the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia and The Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University indicates that might not be the case.

    Researchers analyzed the results of a December 2018 YouGov “iFidelity Survey” of 2000 American adults. The data continues to confirm key differences in marriage and cohabiting relationships. They even found categorical differences between marriage and cohabitation on three relationship factors in particular.

    First, married men and women are more likely than couples who live together to report satisfaction with their relationship. After controlling for education, relationship duration and age, married women (54 percent) and married men (49 percent) were more likely to report being “very happy” in their relationship compared to cohabiting adults.

    Second, married adults are more likely to report higher levels of relationship commitment. Forty-six percent of married men and women were in the top relationship commitment group compared to just over 30 percent of cohabiting partners. This finding is consistent with other research that links cohabiting relationships with lower commitment levels.

    Third, married adults are more likely to report higher levels of relationship stability than those who live together without the commitment of marriage. When asked how likely respondents thought their relationship would continue, 54 percent of married adults were in the top perceived relationship stability group, compared to only 28 percent of cohabiting adults. 

    Married relationships are much less likely to break up than cohabiting ones. Even in places like Europe where cohabitation has long been an accepted practice, studies consistently show that married couples experience more stability than couples who live together.

    Marriage has many other benefits for men, women and children in addition to commitment, satisfaction and stability, and there’s plenty of research to prove it. Whether adults are looking for financial benefits, better physical and emotional health, longevity or a more satisfying sex life, the evidence shows that marriage offers some things that cohabitation does not. 

    If you are looking for a committed, highly-satisfying and stable relationship, the research strongly indicates that cohabitation is likely not the best route. Before you decide to move in together, do your homework and decide if that road will take you where you want to go.  

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 24, 2019.

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    8 Must-Have Conversations for Couples

    How do you know if love will last? Some say you don’t, that it’s just luck of the draw if your love lasts over time. Many believe that the more a couple has in common, the more likely they are to be compatible over time. Others say, not so fast. 

    With more than 40 years of love and relationship research under their belt, The Gottman Institute says that whether love will last is more about how couples address their differences and support one another’s needs and dreams. 

    In studying successful couple relationships and couples whose relationships fail to thrive over time, The Gottman Institute found that people connect and fall in love by talking. John and Julie Gottman and their co-authors, Doug Abrams and Rachel Carlton Abrams, MD, discovered eight crucial conversations that couples need to have. These conversations can either help couples know that love will last or help rekindle love that has become lukewarm. The authors made the crucial conversations for couples into dates in the book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love.

    These conversation-based dates have the potential to help couples increase understanding and commitment regardless of how long they have been together. The topics for discussion include:

    • Trust and Commitment. Trust is cherishing each other and showing your partner you are reliable. Choosing commitment means accepting your partner exactly as he or she is, despite their flaws.
    • Conflict. Conflict is a part of every healthy relationship. There is purpose behind it and it is an opportunity to take your relationship to a deeper level. 
    • Sex and Intimacy. Romantic, intimate rituals of connection keep a relationship happy and passionate. Couples who talk about sex have more sex. 
    • Work and Money. Money issues usually aren’t about money at all. Instead, they are about what money means to each person. Learning what money means to each person can help take your relationship to a totally different place. 
    • Family. It is not unusual for relationship satisfaction to decrease after the birth of a child. The decrease often continues with each subsequent child. Couples who maintain their sexual relationship and learn how to manage conflict in a way that builds up their relationship can avoid this drop in relationship happiness.
    • Fun and Adventure. People are often so busy “adulting” that they underestimate the importance of play and adventure in their relationship. They actually are vital components to a successful and joyful relationship. While couples may not necessarily agree on what constitutes play and adventure, learning more about the one you love can be part of the fun. 
    • Growth and Spirituality. The only constant in a relationship is change, and how each person in the relationship accommodates the growth of the other partner is key. Relationships can be more than just two individuals coming together; they can be stories of transformation and great contribution and meaning to the world.
    • Dreams. Honoring each other’s dreams is the secret ingredient to creating love for a lifetime. When dreams are honored, everything else in the relationship gets easier.

    The Gottmans contend that every strong relationship is a result of a never-ending conversation between partners. This book will guide you through how to talk and how to listen in a way that will benefit you as an individual and as a couple.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on February 10, 2019.

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    4 Keys to Help You Survive Wedding Planning

    “I had no idea how much planning was involved in getting married,” remembers Amy Carter. “On top of wedding plans, my fiancé and I were trying to sell my condo so I could move to Nashville. Fortunately, both of our families were very supportive of us as we planned for our big day. I was surprised how much my mother and I agreed on details of the wedding.”

    Carter is lucky. Many couples preparing for their wedding day find themselves between a rock and a hard place by trying to please their parents, siblings, friends, grandparents and others who have an opinion on how the wedding should go. One bride’s mother refused to help because her daughter preferred a small and intimate wedding instead of a large formal affair.

    Most experts agree that planning for a wedding is something most brides and their moms look forward to. Things can get a bit sticky, though. But don’t fear; there are some things you can do to help avert bitter feelings.

    First and foremost, this is your day. Others may give their opinion about how things should go, but ultimately the bride and groom get to have the final say.

    “We are probably different than most couples because we were more concerned about doing it the way that made us comfortable instead of being so concerned with stepping on toes,” says Rebecca Smith. “We set the rules early.

    “There were certain things that I really didn’t care about, like the flowers. When my mom asked me what I wanted, I told her whatever she picked out would be fine. For us the overriding theme was we are incredibly excited about being married. We don’t want our focus on the wedding to be more than our focus on our marriage.”

    At some point during the planning process, Rebecca and her fiancé acknowledged that something could go wrong. They eventually realized it really didn’t matter because they would still be married. They didn’t pursue a perfect production.

    According to the experts, the Smiths would get an A in wedding planning.

    Here are some additional tips to help you have the wedding day of your dreams:

    • Decide what matters most to you. You can’t give 100 percent of your attention to everything, so decide where you want to focus and delegate the other things. This is a great way to involve family members without feeling like they are trying to control your day.

    • Decide on a realistic budget. Although the average wedding today costs between $20,000 – $25,000, couples can have a beautiful wedding for significantly less money. Since money is the top area of conflict for couples, one way to begin your marriage well is to be realistic about your finances. Know what you and your family can comfortably afford. The amount of money spent is not a determining factor in the success of your marriage.

    • Plan for your marriage. It is easy to get so caught up in your wedding planning that you neglect to plan for your marriage – all those days after the wedding. Take time out to attend premarital education classes or a marriage seminar. Read a good book together, like Fighting for Your Marriage: A Deluxe Revised Edition of the Classic Best-seller for Enhancing Marriage and Preventing Divorce or Before "I Do": Preparing for the Full Marriage ExperienceYour marriage will be stronger if go into it with your eyes wide open.

    • Enjoy this time. Even though the preparation may be a bit stressful, schedule your time so you can truly enjoy these special moments. For many, this is a once in a lifetime experience. Instead of looking back at a whirlwind of activity that you really don’t remember, take non-essential things off the calendar. Rest adequately, eat well and don’t let others steal your joy.

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    Engaged Couples and Expectations

    Are you headed down the aisle soon? If you are, whether this is your first marriage or not, you probably have some thoughts rolling around in your brain in terms of what you expect from your soon-to-be spouse. Don’t worry, you aren’t alone.

    Almost everyone comes to marriage with some pretty specific ideas about how things will be, whether they realize it or not. These expectations might be based on what people have experienced in their own family (things they liked or didn’t like and don’t want to repeat), a romantic movie, a previous relationship or even the Hallmark Channel.

    Here’s the thing: Whether it’s how you plan to handle money, accepting support from family and in-laws, how often you will make love, being on time, handling conflict, career aspirations, helping with chores or cleanliness, if you don’t talk about your expectations ahead of time, there’s a really good chance it could lead to some disappointing and frustrating moments in the future.

    People often don’t voice their expectations because they fear the other person won’t live up to them. If you do talk about them and your spouse-to-be doesn’t see these expectations as a big deal or doesn’t plan to change their approach to these issues, you may try to convince yourself that once you have a ring on your finger and things are more final, things will be different. Don’t be fooled, though: There are plenty of studies indicating the best time to look for behavior change is before the wedding, not after.

    Unspoken expectations can silently kill relationships. Do yourself and your fiancé a favor: Be honest about your expectations. Just because your family did something a certain way doesn’t mean you necessarily have to do it the same way. It could be that in the midst of discussing what is important to you both, you realize your expectations aren’t realistic or that you want to tweak them a bit to better fit your relationship. 

    One thing you want to guard against is sacrificing who you are in the name of your relationship. If your faith is very important to you and you strongly expect your fiancé to one day share your faith values, realize that change is possible, but it could place a hefty load of tension on your relationship if your faith is in conflict with what they believe.

    It’s totally possible that you and your fiancé have expectations of each other that you don’t even realize you have. Taking the time to go through a premarital education experience either in person or online could help you both identify things you feel strongly about and help you to work through those issues before you get married. Talking about your expectations ahead of time can save you a lot of headaches and heartache down the road.

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    Money and Marriage

    Solomon and Deona married with $90,000 in student loans and consumer debts. For the first two years of marriage, they struggled to find common ground when it came to handling their finances.

    “This couple’s story is not unique,” said Howard Dayton, co-founder of Crown Financial Ministries and Christian author of Money and Marriage God's Way. “Over time, I have noticed that a significant number of people calling into our money management radio program were married and dealing with financial issues concerning their spouse. Add the intensity of the financial crisis we have been in the middle of and you have a recipe for major league problems for many marriages. It's why I decided to write this book.”

    Dayton has now been happily married for more than 45 years. But as Dayton conducted research for Money and Marriage God's Way, he realized that while he had the money thing down, he needed to focus on the marital side of his own house.

    “We put a focus group together of marriage experts, including those who deal with stepfamilies and people recovering from divorce,” Dayton said. “For me personally, the experience of writing this book has had a huge impact on my own marriage. It helped me in many different ways to enhance our marriage relationship on top of what is said about money. I am convinced that many people totally miss the boat when it comes to money and marriage. God wants to use money to bring couples closer together instead of dividing them.”

    If you are considering marriage, Dayton believes you should think about these key factors.

    • Honesty tops the list. Research indicates that 55 percent of married couples are dishonest about what they do with their money. This clearly has the potential to destroy trust, so it is really important to start out your relationship with financial honesty.

    • Have a weekly money date to keep the lines of communication open. “While this may not sound very romantic, this exercise does have the potential to greatly enhance your marriage relationship. Start out your money date by praying and inviting God to be a part of the process. Review what happened last week in terms of income and expenditures, and make plans for upcoming bills. This is not a time to fight and nag. The goal is to make sure both of you are on the same page. I find in many marriages one person knows what is going on with the finances. And, the other doesn’t,” Dayton said.

    • Celebrate victories in your financial journey. More often than not, discussing money equates to a negative experience for couples. “Very few couples celebrate their financial accomplishments,” Dayton said. “I encourage them to be intentional about celebrating, encouraging one another, and expressing gratitude when they reach financial milestones.”

    Despite feeling like they were drowning in debt, Solomon and Deona decided to try these principles. Thus far, they have significantly reduced their debt. They attribute this accomplishment to creating a financial plan, sticking to it and learning how to make wise money choices.

    Check out Crown Financial Ministries, Financial Peace University and MagnifyMoney.com for information regarding budgets, reducing credit card interest and debt. You'll also learn more about eliminating unnecessary fees, maximizing cash back on everyday spending, and earning savings account interest.

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    How to Be More Supportive

    Everyone has bad days and faces challenges in life, and we all need encouragement to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sometimes in our efforts to be helpful and to avoid awkwardness, we say things like, “Look at the bright side of things,” or “Think positive.” While well-intentioned, the words may not be super helpful.

    The reality is, allowing people to be vulnerable, open and honest about where they are can be a real gift. We live in a world where 1 in 4 people struggles with anxiety about different aspects of life. Just telling them to be positive or pointing out what we see as the “silver lining” does not provide a solution or make things better for them.

    What might be more helpful than mere words is your presence as they walk the road. Acknowledge the reality at hand by being there and by saying, “I can tell this is so hard,” or “In the midst of the storm, it is hard to see past all the challenges.” Asking, “What can you do for yourself today that will be comforting as you try and sort things out?” can also make a world of difference in how they view the situation.

    Whitney Hawkins Goodman, licensed marriage and family therapist, posted a graphic on Instagram containing common positive statements that are meant to be helpful, but might not necessarily be beneficial to someone who is really struggling. She contrasted those statements with ones that offer validation and hope instead.

    Instead of saying, “See the good in everything,” Goodman suggests trying, “It’s probably really hard to see any good in this situation. We’ll make sense of it later.” Or, instead of, “Just be positive,” what about, “I know there’s a lot that could go wrong. What could go right?” The truth is, it’s super hard to see the good in anything when you literally can’t see your way out of the pit. With these statements, you aren’t trying to sugarcoat the problem, and you are giving them the opportunity to consider whether there is potential for something good to happen.

    Think about the hard times in your own life. Sometimes it doesn’t feel safe to express yourself because you aren’t sure how another person will respond. What we are looking for in moments like this is empathy. 

    It can be uncomfortable to see someone you care about struggling. What you really want to do is fix the problem, but you can’t and usually you shouldn’t. In the midst of not being sure what to say or do, our tendency is to “Don’t just sit there; Do something.” Perhaps in this instance we should turn the tables and say, “Don’t do something; Just sit there. 

    It’s freeing for both parties if you are able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and get into the trenches with them, even if you can’t fix it for them. However, you can listen, hold their hand and help them find perspective. In doing so, you are allowing them to feel what they feel without inadvertently being judgmental or condescending, and that is powerful.

    Sometimes we underestimate the power of just showing up. You don’t have to have all the right words. Nor do you have to figure out best next steps. It’s OK not to be OK sometimes.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 21, 2019.

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    Sons, Sex and Standards

    An interesting study just released in JAMA Pediatrics should grab our attention. The study, a joint effort between Johns Hopkins University and The Guttmacher Institute, raises a warning flag about boys and early sex.

    Two national surveys showed that between 4 and 8 percent of boys reported having sex before they were 13. Black males were most at risk, followed by Hispanic males. In some metropolitan areas, more than a quarter of young, African American men reported having sexual intercourse before age 13.

    Young men having sex before age 13 usually haven’t received the appropriate sex education and services, and we need a better system to respond to their needs,” says Arik Marcell, M.D., M.P.H., senior author of the study and associate professor of pediatrics at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. 

    “The cultural double standard about sexual behavior in the United States, in which it is OK for young boys, but not girls, to be sexually active, has prevented us from effectively addressing male adolescents’ vulnerabilities and their healthy sexual development,” Marcell adds.

    Marcell explained that he has heard boys and adolescents talking about their first sex encounters in a way that suggests they didn’t anticipate, understand or know what was happening or what’s appropriate and what’s not. It is concerning that such early sex experiences happening to boys could be unwanted and influence their future health. Marcell and his colleagues used the survey data to attempt to get a better look at the scale and pattern of this problem across the nation.

    The investigators underscored the importance of recognizing young people’s perspectives, and also noted that reports of whether a first sexual experience was wanted may be influenced by gender and race expectations, stereotypes, peer pressure and coercion. Parental education also appeared to have an impact. For instance, boys whose mothers graduated from college were 69 percent less likely to have sex before 13.

    As to why there are such variations in early sex rates, Guttmacher Institute researcher Laura Lindberg says, "Adolescent males' attitudes and values about their sexuality and masculinity are influenced by the social context of their community. 

    “Our findings reflect that where you live exposes you to different social norms about manhood," she added. "The variation across settings means that programs for young people's development and health need to be tailored and responsive to the communities they are in."

    In many instances, it seems like massive strides have been made when it comes to educating kids about sex, but this study clearly indicates there is still work to be done. All young people need to receive sex education and parents need to be ready to have open, honest and ongoing talks with their kids. 

    The best time to start talking with children about sex is when they are young. Look for teachable moments, such as when you see a pregnant woman or a peer's new brother or sister, as a natural discussion-starter.

    Focus your conversation with elementary-age children on:

    • the correct names of sexual organs and body parts,
    • explaining sex and reproduction,
    • personal boundaries,
    • pregnancy, and
    • building healthy relationships.

    If they are old enough to ask questions, they are old enough to receive correct answers, but make sure to clarify your child’s question. When you understand the question, answer it briefly and simply. Sometimes kids have questions, but they are afraid to ask. This is why it is important for parents to look for opportunities to discuss these important matters.  

    Talking about sex is just as important as talking about drugs and alcohol, smoking, stranger danger and pornography. If this feels overwhelming to you, you might want to practice talking privately with your spouse or another adult first. The most important thing is that conversations are happening and you are an askable parent.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 14, 2019.

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    3 Keys to Deeper Friendships

    Shasta Nelson has spent more than a decade studying loneliness and friendships. Nelson is a healthy relationship expert and author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness and Friendships Don’t Just Happen! The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends. She is currently working on her next book, “The Business of Friendship: Making the Most of the Relationships Where We Spend Most of Our Time,” to be published by HarperCollins Leadership.

    Nelson surveyed people to find out how fulfilling their friendships felt from one to 10, with 10 being the most meaningful satisfaction. About 60-70 percent respondents rated their relationships five or below.

    Nelson realized that while people might be in friend relationships or marriage relationships, there was a gap between the kind of relationships people want to have and the kind they actually have. In fact, 80 percent of the complaints about friendships centered around wanting more and deeper connection. She found that people know more people than ever before and are supposedly more connected, yet they are lonelier than ever.

    A 2018 CIGNA study of 20,000 people found that nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone. Additionally, 1 in 4 rarely or never feels as though people really understand them, and 2 in 5 Americans sometimes or always feel that their relationships are not meaningful.

    According to Nelson, modern day loneliness is not because we need to interact more with people; It is due to lack of intimacy. Frientimacy is a relationship where both people feel seen in a safe and satisfying way. When people say they are lonely, Nelson doesn’t believe that answer is to go out and make more friends, but to deepen current relationships.

    “I ask people this question: ‘Do you feel as loved and supported as you need at this point in your life?’” Nelson says. “If the answer is yes, that’s fabulous, but often the answer is no. When that is the case, I encourage them to consider who in their life they would want to build a more meaningful or closer relationship with and then make a list. Start prioritizing those relationships. 

    “Some people say they have no names to put on their list. For these folks, their journey right now is to get out and meet people who have the potential to be future friends. There are a couple of ways you can do this. Going to places you already frequent like school, work, faith-based or civic organizations - proximity and geography matters. Then be intentional about getting to know them better. The second way is to reach out to people you know and ask them if there are people they think you should know. Take advantage of opportunities for introductions to meet new people at their party, book club, discussion group, etc.” 

    Nelson says the more insane your life is, the more you need meaningful friendships. 

    “Often when I am speaking to moms’ groups, I ask them to write what they remember about their mom and her friends,” Nelson says. “A good 70 percent of women have a hard time completing that assignment. I suspect it happens partly because so many moms try to nurture their friendships at a time that doesn’t inconvenience their kids. However, 30 years down the road, your daughters can’t tell me who your friends are. Friendships need to be modeled. Don’t downplay that part of your life. Deep, meaningful friendships make us better.”

    Once you have identified people on your list, Nelson says to then practice the three things that are the basis of every healthy relationship: positivity, consistency and vulnerability, also known as “the frientimacy triangle.” 

    1. Positivity is about feeling supported, kindness, acts of service, affirmation - all the things that make us feel good. 
    2. Consistency is the hours logged, the history built, interactions and knowing there is consistent behavior in the relationship. This is where trust occurs. 
    3. Vulnerabilit is where we share, reveal, let people beyond the formal living room, talk about what is going well and not so well, history, dreams, and where you feel safe to ask for what you need.

    When we have high levels of each part of the “frientimacy triangle,” we feel seen, safe and satisfied, which is what people want and need. We then have the ability to take existing relationships to a completely different level.

    Our bodies are craving this and are literally dying without connections. World-renowned physician Dean Ornish states, “I am not aware of any other factor in medicine (than intimacy and love) - not diet, not smoking, not exercising, not stress, not genetics, not drugs, not surgery - that has a greater impact on our quality of life, incidence of illness and premature death from all causes.” 

    According to Nelson, loneliness is as damaging to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, the equivalent of being a lifelong alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.

    "How you answer the question, ‘How loved and supported do you feel?’ will tell us more about your health 15-20 years down the road than any other factor,” she says.

    If your relationships aren’t where you want them to be, Nelson encourages you to take action and do something different. Not only do we have the opportunity to make our own lives richer, we can enrich others' lives with our positivity, consistency and vulnerability.

    This article was originally published in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on April 7, 2019.