Episode 83: Dr. John Curtis: Relationships are Serious Business
Introducing Dr. John Curtis, author of “Happily Unmarried: Living Together and Loving It”. Dr. Curtis thinks that relationships are serious business. Looking at US Census data, the number of unmarried couples living together has increased ten-fold over the last 40 years and Dr Curtis has got a new approach to building intimate live-in relationships that work. Using proven, successful business tactics, Dr. Curtis takes us through a his systematic, step-by-step approach to building and sustaining thriving, healthy, cohabitating relationships. And don't miss Dr. Curtis's exercises for you to try at home.
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Chip August: Welcome to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I’m your host, Chip August. Today on the show I’m going to be talking to Dr. John Curtis. Dr. Curtis is the author of Happily Un-Married: Living Together and Loving It. It’s a book and a workbook about cohabitation. Dr. Curtis thinks that relationships are serious business.
He’s been looking at U. S. census data and noticing that the number of unmarried couples living together has increased tenfold over the last 10 years, and Dr. Curtis has got a new approach to building intimate live-in relationships that work.
Dr. Curtis is a senior consultant, researcher, and organizational development specialist as well as a former marriage and family counselor with 20 years of experience. In addition he’s married and has two children and two grandchildren. Welcome to the show, John Curtis.
Dr. John Curtis: Thank you so much. It’s great to be with you.
Chip August: Yeah, it’s great to have you here. So let’s just start right in. Who did you write this book for?
Dr. John Curtis: Well, it’s that growing number of individuals, some say as many as ten million couples in America out of about 78 million couples total, who are cohabitating.
The other tidbit here, too, is if you look at and feel concerned about cohabitation and think it’s a bad trend, almost 70% of all high school kids say they think cohabitation is harmless and worthwhile. So we’re going to see an explosion in the number of people cohabitating, so the book is really targeting those individuals.
Chip August: And in your opinion is cohabitation harmless and worthwhile?
Dr. John Curtis: No. No, I think there are a lot of downsides. There’s been the dark side of cohabitation that’s been what’s touted frequently in the research and those who write the negative books about it. But frankly I have to equate it to, and this dates me a little bit, Reefer Madness…
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: …that movie they showed us back in the sixties to scare us all. It didn’t work. We’ve condemned and judged and been critical of cohabitation for decades now. It’s done nothing to discourage people because you can tell them the facts, that you’re more likely to be a victim of x, y, or z, infidelity, as a woman perhaps physical abuse, a greater likelihood of depression, all kinds of other problems that can come from cohabitation.
But you know like any couple in love, whether they’re walking down the aisle in a few months or just getting ready to sign a lease together, think, “It’s not going to happen to us.” Yes, there is a downside, but what I’m trying to focus on is really committed relationships. Whether you’re legally married or you’re cohabitating, what does a committed relationship look like?
Chip August: OK, so you’re not just shacking up. It’s not just, “Well, why don’t we?” You’ve decided that there’s a connection, intimacy, a relationship. You’ve decided to live together. Now you seem to be approaching the work of fostering and nurturing these intimate relationships by using what I would call a business model. So why would techniques designed for business productivity work in a love-based environment?
Dr. John Curtis: One, the way that we try to make relationships work in America has been failing for decades now. The rate of marriage has declined every single year since 1967, so it’s time to do something different. There’s that old joke about the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.
Secondly, and while there are a lot of models out there about what makes for a healthy, committed relationship, the one that I think really summarizes nicely and certainly hard to argue against, is that to have a healthy relationship, married or cohabitating, there are two key elements. One is romantic attraction. The other is emotional maturity.
Now we’re all about romantic attraction. That’s what we see in TV. That’s what we see in the movies. That’s what the songs talk about. “Will I fall in love? That’s the one. I’m on the dating websites. I’m trying to find the perfect one.” But there’s not a whole lot being said about developing emotional maturity.
Chip August: No, maybe quite the opposite.
Dr. John Curtis: Yeah, exactly. It’s love will conquer all. We’ll live happily ever after. That denial of “love is all we need” as the Beatles would say. What I’m trying to say is here’s the other the side of the coin, gang. Emotional maturity. Now how in the world do you develop that?
Well, maybe you write a vision statement together. Maybe you develop a job description together. Maybe you complete, at minimum, my cohabitation contract, which just spells out expectations. That begins to bring that maturity piece into this couple that are in love. And they ultimately get married. We’ve got over 60% of couples who get married today who are cohabitating first. So lots of folks are doing it, and it’s really time to focus on the emotional maturity side.
Chip August: OK. Could you summarize? And then we’ll get into specifics. What is this approach? I said it’s business-like, but can you summarize? What is it you’re actually encouraging couples to do?
Dr. John Curtis: Certainly. It’s built on the basic premise that to teach somebody something new, it’s best to compare it to something they already know. So in this case what I’ve taken are basic concepts that most anyone in the world of work would say, “Oh, yeah. That makes sense. You’ve got to have that in your job,” and showing couples how to translate that to the relationship. Writing a vision statement: 25 to 50 words that state in eloquent terms what you want the relationship to be.
Log on to Microsoft. Check NASA.com. You will find vision statements. It causes people to have to focus, determine, and write in specific words what they want the relationship to be. Job descriptions. Who in the world would want to go to work everyday and not have a clue what’s expected of them?
Now you may not have a written job description that’s in a folder somewhere in the human resources office, but you know what the tasks are. You could probably describe them pretty accurately. Well, couples fight all the time about who’s going to take out the trash. So a job description is another consideration.
Mergers. I talked about the concept of business mergers. We’ve heard over the years of so many business mergers that have failed because they’ve lacked taking into consideration the different cultures of the organizations. The same may be true for a couple. Talk about, “How do you want to celebrate the holidays? What do you do with money?”
Begin like just two businesses that are beginning to talk about merging and they say, “Well, tell me about you and how you work and what your culture is. I know what your product is, but I don’t know how you...” It’s that whole idea of taking concepts from the world of work that people understand and grasp, couples’ meetings, retreats where you take the time every year like the corporate executives do at the local golf resort or at the beach somewhere, to do that as a couple. That’s basically the model. Take business concepts, and show couples how to apply them in their intimate relationship.
Chip August: One of the things I was struck by when I was reading your book, and maybe it’s just me, but it seems like you’re creating a marriage whether they’re going to call it a marriage or not. But that the same sort of emotional maturity that make a marriage work is the same sort of emotional maturity to make any sort of long-term cohabitation work. If people don’t want to get married, that’s fine. But you’re basically saying, “Look. This is the discipline whatever you call the relationship.”
Dr. John Curtis: Well, you kind of revealed my motive. It’s like saying, “Aha! I caught you pulling back the curtain for the Wizard of Oz here.” What I ultimately would say, I believe, is that our society is built on healthy, stable families. I’m almost 60 years old. The definition of family has transformed itself drastically from the days of, at least for me, growing up with Ozzie and Harriet, Father Knows Best, and maybe as recently as the Cosbys.
Now Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are a family role model for some folks. They are not legally married, obviously. They are only in a cohabitating relationship. They’ve got children. For lots of young folks today, they go, “Gee, they can do it. Why can’t we?” So there are some folks that are not ever going to move all the way down that path to a legal committed relationship.
But what, frankly, I’m up to in the book is, for those who want to have a healthy cohabitation relationship only, these practices will help you. For those who want to have a healthy relationship that could become a marriage and they’re practicing, some call it sliding rather than deciding.
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: Once they get into the cohabitation relationship, following my model, now they’re stable. They’re healthy. I had a couple in Oregon recently. They’re in their sixties. They did this for almost five years. After five years, they said, “Let’s get married!”
So they moved in that direction and began to develop all the necessary foundation. For them of their generation, as you can imagine, it was a real act of rebellion. It was unsettling for the children to have “Here’s dad’s girlfriend, or here’s mom’s boyfriend.” So partly they did it for that reason. If you’re 25, there are different kinds of pressures on you.
Ultimately the goal is to get people to marry, but if they don’t, they can at least live in happy, healthy relationships, which by the way is a lot of what’s happening in Western Europe and the Scandinavian countries in particular that have the highest rate of cohabitation in the world.
Chip August: Now I want to get into some of the specifics of this, but I want to pause for a moment because I want to give an opportunity to support our sponsors. Listeners, please, I really want to invite you to listen to the ads you’re about to hear. The ads are created for my show, and they really help me bring my work to you. If you can support my sponsors, I’d really appreciate it because among other things, I get a credit for anything that you can utilize.
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Chip August: Welcome back to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I’m your host, Chip August. On today’s show we’re talking to Dr. John Curtis. Dr. Curtis is a consultant, a researcher, an organizational development specialist, a former marriage and family counselor, and he’s the author of a book, Happily Un-Married: Living Together and Loving It.
When we went to a break, you were describing overall the grand picture of what this is and what you’re hoping for. I want to get into some of the specifics of it because I thought some of it was really fascinating. I do this with my own business, where we talk about measurable objectives, that really having an objective that isn’t measurable makes you feel good but you never really get anywhere. What kind of measurable objectives can a cohabitating relationship have?
Dr. John Curtis: It’s about categories. I find that easiest. I want to preface my answer with saying one of the purposes of the book and the model that I use there is it’s much more likely to engage and be appealing to men, also, because it’s not a touchy-feely book. Again, remember it’s talking about the maturity side of the relationship and not the head-over-heels-in-love side.
So when you begin to get guys to sit and talk about measurable objectives, “Oh, OK. Yeah, I can do that.” If you’re a white-collar worker and in a corporate setting, you can really identify with that. Or you’re working in a small business somewhere. There are sales, goals, and things that they want to accomplish in that business.
It’s a way to really build on that comfort model, and I call it a gateway activity, Chip. It’s that once a man is seated at the dining room table talking across that to his current girlfriend that he’s living with about these kinds of things, they tend to get real. They tend to get authentic.
They tend to get more emotionally intimate by just talking about things like: “Within the next six months I would like for us to find a congregation within driving distance of our new apartment that we could both attend on Sunday morning.” “Within the next six months what I’d like to do is to go ahead and complete my application with you to start our degree at the local community college.”
“Within the next three months, I’d like to find a fitness center for both of us.” Start identifying very specific things that you want to achieve. It could be around education. It could be around health. It could be around spirituality and religion.
It could be about a myriad of different things, but you put them in writing. It begins to do one key thing that oftentimes bubbles up to the top of the list of what caused the relationship to get in trouble in the first place, whether you’re cohabitating or married. That is unfulfilled expectations.
Well, this gets that out of the way because this clearly defines what are our expectations of ourselves, of each other, and of the relationship in the coming months. Being able to have those measurable objectives, as you just said, helps you to feel like, “Hey, we were successful.” We have our little list. Maybe it’s just a handwritten piece of paper. Maybe it’s an Excel spreadsheet that I’ve had some couples do.
They pull it up every 90 days, and go, “Son of a gun. Look at what we’ve achieved.” They feel good about getting somewhere. Accomplishing things together makes it easier to set more measurable objectives down the road.
Chip August: You used a term in the book: S-M-A-R-T. Smart. What was that?
Dr. John Curtis: It’s an acronym out of the business world. Again, as a preface, I did marriage and family counseling for many years, got burned out completely in the 1980’s, and left the profession. I went on to do organizational development consulting.
It wasn’t until early 2000 I started thinking about maybe there’s a model somewhere to bring these two worlds together: business consulting and marriage counseling. I started looking at various concepts that I thought really were common in the business community that would really make sense in the book.
One of them is the acronym in goal setting called SMART. They need to be specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. So that’s like my example of finding the fitness center in the next three months. It’s a very specific thing. It’s relevant to what the couples want to achieve.
And it’s just a good way to make sure you’re writing legitimate objectives as opposed to “Well, we want to be healthier sometime this year.” That’s a real cop-out. It’s not measurable, but it’s easy to achieve. So I’m pushing people to say, “Put it in writing. It’s OK.”
Chip August: You use a term that I hadn’t seen before. You talk about different people’s mindstyles. I think you’re talking about values?
Dr. John Curtis: It’s partly that. It’s partly how you order your life. This goes back a little bit to this issue of mergers because in a corporate setting, we would do what they call a corporate culture. Doing organizational development consulting culture’s really critical, but unfortunately culture is invisible.
You don’t see it anywhere. It’s the white space as they say in an organizational chart. It’s just how it feels to work there. Is it an open, friendly, supportive, caring, positive work culture? Or is it a backbiting, mean-spirited, be careful, cover-your-rear-end kind of culture? What I’m trying to do with the concept of mindstyles is say the same thing to people.
What is your mindstyle when it comes to your values? What is your value system? How do you, again, like to spend the holidays? What do you do with your free time? Those are elements of my own personal culture, if you will, or mindstyle. I need to identify and speak out loud about that and really help this other potential partner understand that, much like the two folks talking about maybe merging their businesses.
Now here’s the real kicker because what you’ll hear, and I hear all the time from lots of folks, motive for cohabitation: “Well, I wouldn’t want to buy the car without taking a test drive.”
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: “Well, I really need to live with somebody to find out if we’re compatible or not.” Well, Chip, I wrote the book, but I would say you don’t need to live with somebody to find out what they really are about: their mindstyle.
What I mean by that is I can find out about this potential partner of mine by going out on a date and watching how, while getting there, she’s driving and how she deals with somebody who cuts her off in traffic. I can learn a whole lot about this woman by watching what she does when the waitress accidentally gives her too much money back in making change.
All I have to do is watch little scenarios. I can watch how this woman deals with a stranger on the street who’s panhandling. I can learn a lot about this woman. I can see how she responds at a bar after three drinks. I don’t have to live with her.
Those are the little things, and granted that may be important about, “Does she put the cap back on the toothpaste?” But you don’t have to live with somebody to find this stuff out. A lot of couples will say, “No, I would never buy a car without test driving it.” But again, the point is the mindstyle is like the culture. It’s just a way to get couples to start talking about that kind of stuff.
Chip August: Now I think there are some differences that are just gender differences when you start getting into that mindstyle stuff. What do you do when you bump into a real difference? Great. I’m with my partner, and I think it’s really totally appropriate that I spend four weeks every winter skiing. My partner’s like “Wait. Four weeks? Hold on here. How about one week?” What do you do with those differences?
Dr. John Curtis: Well, it really boils down to two basic categories as far as differences that can lead to conflict. There’s the value conflicts, part of what you brought up earlier. In the value conflicts, you hear this many times. I heard this in couples counseling all the time. “We just need to communicate better.”
Frankly, I hear it in organizational development consulting. “We just need better communication.” Sometimes people are communicating just fine. They don’t like what they’re hearing.
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: What I mean by that is the value differences are things that we can talk until we’re blue in the face, and it’s extremely unlikely I’m going to change my value system based on something you say to me.
I’m a republican. You’re a democrat. We argue all day long. I’m going to go register as an independent? I don’t think so. I’m Catholic, and you’re Jewish. We’re going to argue all day long. We’re both going to become Lutherans? I don’t think so. I’m conservative, very cautious with my money. You like to spend every penny that you get. We’re going to argue all day long, and I’m going to go out and go into debt on my credit card? I don’t think so.
While the values are important for me to know about you, including how you spend your leisure time and whether you go skiing for a month every year, the point is I have to learn to accept them, support them, and understand them.
It doesn’t mean they won’t change over time, but it’s for darned sure most folks are not going to change them if a potential or existing partner, married or otherwise, is hammering away, saying “You shouldn’t be that way. You shouldn’t be that way.”
Need conflicts are the simple ones. That’s a little of what I alluded to earlier. They’re the ones that do require communication, compromise, and problem-solving skills. Who does put the cap back on the toothpaste? What do we do about getting the trash out to the dumpster? What happens when the car is always brought home on empty and I’m the one the next morning who has to drive it?
It’s those kinds of things that you can negotiate about over need conflicts. And a compromise? Well, maybe we’ll flip a coin. Maybe we’ll outsource dog walking. Maybe we’ll outsource dry cleaning and somebody coming in and doing it, all those things that we can solve relatively easy if we just sit down like a couple of mature adults and talk about them. That’s the difference between the value and the need conflicts. Make sense?
Chip August: Yes, it does. I don’t know how the time is going by so quick, but we need to pause for another break. We’re about to take a break. Listeners, I could use your help. If you’d be willing to take five minutes and fill out the anonymous listener survey for my show, it would help me understand you better. It helps create sponsor confidence, helps us to sell advertising, and helps support this work, which I so love to do for you.
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Chip August: Welcome back to Sex, Love, and Intimacy. I’m your host, Chip August. I’m talking to Dr. John Curtis, author of Happily Un-Married: Living Together and Loving It. We’ve been talking about really building a strategy, building a workable business plan for your relationship.
I’m bringing this to a close, but somewhere in there you started talking about [laughs] a relationship’s brand and about marketing the relationship. I thought that was a pretty fascinating concept. Can you tell me, what’s a relationship’s brand?
Dr. John Curtis: Well, it’s a critical element more so for a cohabitating couple, almost exclusively for a cohabitating couple, than a married couple. The reason is this, and frankly it’s part of the motive for writing the book.
When you have a good friend say, “Hey, guess what? So-and-so proposed to me last night!” or “I’m going to propose,” there’s this excitement, the marriage, the $25,000 [laughs] we’re going to spend on the wedding, the high expectations that everybody has, and the wonderful ceremony.
A good friend calls you and says, “Guess what? I’m going to move in with my boyfriend/girlfriend!” You go, “OK. Well, good luck there.” We don’t expect a whole lot. The trouble is in particular when that couple who are just cohabitating go out with friends that are maybe married. They go over and see the family, her parents. Boy, though, they do not like the idea that their daughter is living with this guy.
The brand allows you to get real clear upfront, who we are, what we stand for, what we value, so they can’t drive a wedge between the two of you. It can be as simple as, and the easy way to do the exercise is, you get a bunch of magazines and newspapers. Throw them on the kitchen table. Get a couple pairs of scissors or go online to Google images, and just start cutting out images that describe what you think your relationship stands for.
For example, I had a couple do this just recently. They found a silhouette of a lion, a great big picture of a lion almost like the one in the Lion King ads, but it was a profile. That for them meant the relationship was about courage and all the things they thought a lion stood for: courage, bravery, and idealism. They cut that out. They scanned it in. They got it on their desktops and their computers.
They were at an arts and crafts show and found somebody who had made something that looked like the image, so they bought that. For them, even now here’s dad with the live-in boyfriend in the living room, talking to him, and here’s daughter in the kitchen with mother who’s grilling her about why in the world she’s living with this guy. He’s got tattoos and pierced body parts…
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: …and the two of them are connected. They’re connected through that brand. It could be music is added to it. Maybe there’s a song you decide.
For my wife and I, I know this sounds a little hokey and a little old, but it’s Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. That was played at our wedding with a violin. We’re not living together. We are married. But that song I can hear anywhere, and it always conjures up a nice, warm feeling. Just like the Intel chip. You hear the four-part tone or you see the logo of Apple computer, and it brings up an emotional response.
So an emotional brand for a relationship is just that. You create it. You draw it. You define it. You find it on the Internet. Then you really support it and rally around it. Put it on the refrigerator. Put it on your desktop, and it really lets folks know this is what we stand for.
Chip August: Just as a little aside, I have to say I think that’s the first time I’ve ever heard anybody describe Beethoven as hokey. [laughs] Hokey! But listen. John, if people wanted to reach you or they want to get your book or learn more about you, how can they find you?
Dr. John Curtis: WeCohabitate.com. There’s a free chapter that’s downloadable as some of these activities that we’ve been talking about. Keep in mind every year May is National Cohabitation Month. I think you’re going to see more focus and emphasis on back to societal expectations. We have to think more positively, bring these folks out of the closet, so to speak, and National Cohabitation Month is a way to do that.
I’ll be saying more about that on my website. WeCohabitate.com. You can go to Amazon to get the book. You can buy the book there at the website. There’s actually a variety of activities I mentioned that are free downloads available at WeCohabitate.com.
Chip August: The title of the book is Happily Un-Married: Living Together and Loving It. Listeners, I’m sure you know this. If you go to Sex, Love, and Intimacy and go to our episode pages, they’ll be a link to Dr. John Curtis. So you can just follow the link there.
We’re coming to the end of the show. I’m curious. What’s an exercise you would invite people who have been listening to do at home that would improve their love, intimacy, and sexuality?
Dr. John Curtis: The big picture for some, or maybe the micro concrete activity for others, would be sit down at a piece of paper, at your computer, and compose 25 to 50 words that describe the future ideal state for the relationship: the vision statement.
And not unlike the unity candle ceremony at a wedding, where there’s two candles burning and they light one and blow the other two out, then sit down with your partner and say, “Here’s what I think the future ideal state is going to be.”
That’s the big picture for folks who like those kind of broad, sweeping activities. I had a couple recently. True example. He basically said, “footloose, fancy free, sailing in the Keys.” They were from Key West, or Marathon actually, down in the Keys. She wrote “picket fence, children on tire swings, and”…
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: Yeah, and they really realized their visions were drastically different. Unless one of them changed, he was going to be very, very, if you will, disappointed if he lived in a white picket fence house, and she was not going to be happy living on a sailboat. So that’s the big picture.
The other activity much more micro and specific is write a job description. I’ve got a downloadable job description on the website at WeCohabitate.com, Chip. Just draw a line down the middle of the piece of paper, and start writing on one side his/hers, his/hers, based on competency not gender.
Taking out the trash, that is always a guy thing. Well, maybe it’s not going to be.
Money management might be the woman’s better at it. Cooking might be the man’s better at it. You identify very quickly the day-in day-out little duties that you like to do you feel competent doing. Then, of course, there are always the leftover things that nobody wants to do: cleaning out the cat litter box, cleaning the toilet, paying the bills.
Then you begin to negotiate around those as I talked about, or maybe you flip a coin. Maybe you alternate. Odd months of the year, you’ll clean out the litter box, even months of the year… but you define all that so you’re not destroying the love and the intimacy over something stupid like arguing about who takes out the trash.
That’s an easy, concrete thing to do that I think many couples will see an immediate benefit from by just writing all that out, especially when you’re not in the heat of battle.
Before that’s going to happen is to write down the specific task and then revisit it. I would say probably about every 90 days if you’re newly living together.
If things are stable and healthy, I would say at least once a year take an annual retreat just like the corporate execs. Go away. Take your vision statement that you created. Take your job description. Talk to each other about how things are going.
That’s one last quick point here about cohabitating relationships because they tend to be more time bound. Marriage, of course, is supposed to be until death do you part. Cohabitation may be until the lease ends.
Chip August: [laughs]
Dr. John Curtis: But go ahead and make that agreement. We’re signing our lease today. There we are with the rental agent at the apartment complex, and we know one year from today the lease is up. So we know we’ve got 12 months to try to figure out how to make this thing work, or in 12 months we can part hopefully as friends.
See, you’ve got those time limitations in a cohabitating relationship, which I think is good actually, rather than being open-ended. So put it in writing. Be specific what you want to accomplish at the job description level, and then check on it about every 90 days.
Chip August: Well, John Curtis you’ve been a very informative and interesting guest, and I want to really appreciate you for coming on the show.
Dr. John Curtis: Thanks so much for having me. I enjoyed your questions and your comments. I hope we made a difference and frankly got some folks thinking about how to build healthier relationships whether you get married or not.
Chip August: I hope so, too. Listeners, thank you for listening in. I really appreciate your support. This brings us to the end of another episode of Sex, Love, and Intimacy, and I hope you’ll join me again next time.
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