Relationship Research

Photo  by stockimages,

Photo by stockimages,

I’ve tried to get my husband into therapy for years – and failed miserably. Why is it that those who are most in need of psychological help are the least able to see it?

Anyway, when I saw an advertisement asking for married couples to participate in a UCSB study on close relationships, I jumped at the chance to get my husband on the couch, even if it was only under the guidance of some 19-year-old psychology students. Not only would Zak finally have the opportunity for some long overdue self-reflection (contemplating one’s navel doesn’t count), but also there was 60 bucks in it for us if we attended two sessions.

Talk about a win-win. They even promised us free parking and snacks.

It was surprisingly easy to talk Zak into going. He was actually excited. On our drive out to UCSB he said, “When they ask about our occupations, do we fight crime or do crime?”

“Honey, I think you should just tell the truth and get as much out of the session as you can,” I said.

“Right. We fight crime,” he said.

Yeah, sure. Whatever gets you onto that couch, dear.

After a brief introduction by a spectacled graduate student in a white lab coat who was, I swear, no more than 14 years old, Zak and I were put into two separate rooms to do some tests.

The first exercise was a series of questions about our relationships. We had to weigh our answers on a scale of one (where you strongly disagreed with the statement) to seven (where you strongly agreed with the statement) or a scale of one (I’m not at all like my mother, how dare you) to nine (I’m exactly like my mother, so deal with it) and so on.

I immediately became utterly and thoroughly confused.

I contemplated using my cell phone to call Zak in the room next door to help me with the test. Would wanting to work together show that we had a healthy relationship or that I was being a complete neurotic idiot? I reminded myself that there couldn’t possibly be any “wrong” answers, and tried to answer the questions the way a healthy person would, giving myself props for refraining from calling Zak as I opened my veins and sweated out answers.

A sample question: “How much time do you spend thinking about your relationship with your spouse?” Does wishing he looked like Brad Pitt count?

Or how about this one, “In my conversations with others, I don’t like to talk about things that don’t interest me.” Who likes to talk about things that don’t interest them? I find boredom extremely exciting, but only if I get to use the time to fantasize about Brad Pitt.

So far this study wasn’t really doing much to bring me closer to my husband, although we did go out to lunch with our stipend.

For our final session, they flipped a coin to decide which spouse would do which activity. Zak got to do a puzzle (something that’s incredibly fun and easy for him) while I had to give a speech (something that’s exceptionally painful and stressful for me).

Hmmm … I wondered just how random that little coin toss was as I contemplated my speech instructions, to fill five minutes, as though I were on an interview for my ideal job. While I can fill thousands of column inches writing about myself, actually talking about myself for five minutes felt like an eternity. Luckily Zak stepped in with some questions, coaxing me into describing how working no more than 25 hours a week would benefit my future employer (I’d be in such a good mood if I could sleep in till 9 every morning!) and why the loan of a company car (preferably a convertible) would help reduce my stress and therefore enhance my creativity.

The researchers found our silly banter to be symptomatic of a healthy relationship. Who knew? We later found out that we had been observed by the psych team the whole time. Thank goodness we didn’t turn the waiting room into a “What’s the craziest place you’ve ever made whoopee?” response, as my husband had suggested earlier.

They explained that the study was designed to help understand how spouses help each other cope with stressful life events and how that relates to marital satisfaction.

I didn’t have the heart to tell our grad student (who actually was 24, even if she looked 12) that the tests weren’t really that stressful, especially when she seemed so pleased with our performance. When Zak and I reviewed our answers we found that despite our contention that his father and my mother would make a terrible couple, we were actually more alike that we thought.

If he’s more like me than I thought, maybe he doesn’t really need therapy after all.

I told Zak, column comedy opportunity aside, participating in the study actually left me feeling pretty good about our relationship.

“That’s good,” he said, “because it really took very little work on my part.”

And that just might be the real secret to a healthy close relationship. That and fighting crime together.

Share your relationship secrets with Leslie For most columns visit Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on February 5, 2010.

Happy Birthday to Me

Photo courtesy George Hodan,

Photo courtesy George Hodan,

When I was born they had to use forceps, which screwed up my face. Family lore has it that dad’s first words upon seeing his firstborn were (to my mom): “It’s okay honey, we’ll buy her pretty clothes and develop her personality.”

My husband gets a big kick out of that one. Until I remind him that now it’s his turn to buy me pretty clothes, and maybe a diamond trinket or two.

Like that’s ever going to happen.

He has lowered the bar on my expectations down so low that I’m thrilled if he remembers to make dinner reservations, and positively orgasmic if he deigns to call a babysitter. So maybe he learned something at Harvard.

The one thing he doesn’t have to be subtly reminded about is the all-important cake. The chocolate cake. We settled that issue early on in our relationship.

I was young and naïve and googly-eyed in love at the time, and tickled to death when my future husband took me out for a lovely birthday dinner. My favorite friends were all there, the food was great, the drinks were plentiful, and he had even bought me the perfect pair of earrings I had slyly hinted might flatter my lobes.

After a rough, first year start—“not every girl dreams of a boyfriend who will give her a $3.99 birthday gift from K-Bee Toys,” I explained, gently—it seemed like Zak was finally starting to “get” me.

It was that night that I started to think our relationship might not just be a phase (which my sister still thinks), that he might actually be “the one.”

Then he took me home, and the trouble began. There was no cake. No cake! Not just no chocolate cake, which would have been a near-fatal error in itself, not an ill-advised angel food concoction or an unfortunate cheesecake. Not even a pineapple upside down cake!

I was about ready to turn Zak upside down when he offered the pitiful excuse, “But we just had crème brulee at the restaurant. With a candle.”  And what on earth did that have to do with my missing birthday cake?

He truly didn’t get it.

In my family, birthdays are a big deal. They last at least a month, with both family and friend versions of the celebration. In recent years we’ve widened the spectrum a bit to include the family with and without kids celebrations, and the friends with and without kids celebrations, which should pretty much fill my calendar until Thanksgiving.

Cake is mandatory, but candles are optional. However, as my husband learned the hard way (“it’s just a flesh wound, darling”), the proper way to count out birthday candles is your age plus “one to grow on.” This is science, and his family is clearly medieval.

And by the way, I saw a really cute purse on sale downtown. I think it would look great with my personality.

Leslie will be accepting birthday wishes—and cake—for the next several months at

Originally appeared in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on September 8, 2006.



The Not-So-Newlywed Game



You wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I’m actually rather competitive. Especially when it comes to stupid things, like knowing the names of one-hit-wonder bands from the 1980s (of course YOU remember when “Der Kommissar” was in town, but I bet you couldn’t tell us that After the Fire was the band that brought him); being able to intuit who is on the phone every time it rings (my mom); and predicting with 99.7% accuracy the words that will come out of my husband’s mouth before he says them. Even if most of those words are, “um,” “well,” and “yeah,” you still have to admit that that is pretty impressive wifely knowledge.

So when my friends Colonel Dan and Lola did a victory lap around the Padaro Beach Grill to celebrate their recent domination of an Alaskan Cruise Ship Not-So-Newlywed Game Tournament, I must admit to feeling a bit envious. I wanted that first place gold-plated bottle of Cold Duck for my mantle.

Sure, their closest competition was a couple from Nantucket who only had one good ear and half a head of hair between the two of them. And sure, the third place bronzed beer can went to a couple that only knew a few words of English. But still, Dan and Lola had won an international Not-So-Newlywed Game competition.

I couldn’t help but wonder how Zak and I would have stacked up. I figured we knew each other at least as well as these hacks. After all, Lola was by herself half the time while Dan was out saving the world on some mission or other. Zak hardly ever left the house without me by his side. Most of the time I knew his thoughts before I let him have them. Surely we could kick their sorry little butts.

Luckily, Colonel Dan was eager to quiz us.

The first question was easy. “If your spouse were lost while driving in a foreign city, he/she would do what?”

“Not ask for directions,” I yelled eagerly, knowing I had aced that one.

“OK,” Dan said. “What if you were the one driving, Leslie?”

Zak and I both laughed. I refer you to my column where I made fun of my dad’s driving. My dad taught me to drive. Me, drive in foreign cities? Not in this lifetime.

Dan threw out a few more easy questions. What color are your spouse’s eyes? Boxers or briefs? Leno or Letterman? Dog or cat? Would you like fries with that?

I was starting to feel a little cocky when Lola mentioned that she and Dan had gotten a perfect score. How do you top that?

Lola asked the next question: “If you were stranded on a desert island and you could only be with one person, who wasn’t your spouse, who would it be?”

I weighed the possibilities. Would Einstein or Da Vinci be better able to build us a boat out of palm leaves and coconut shells? And more importantly, which of them was better suited to help me repopulate society? Hmmm…Then Zak piped up with “Brad Pitt” for me. Please. I like man candy just as much as the next girl, but I’m still angry about the whole Jennifer thing.

Dan interrupted my reverie. “Who would Zak want to be trapped with on a desert island?”

C’mon, we’re down a point. Got to regroup, focus. I know he’s moved on from Uma to Scarlett Johanssen, so I go with Scarlett.

He says, “Leonardo Da Vinci.”

Honey, I really didn’t mean to punch your arm so hard. You know how I get in competition.

Zak was still rubbing his bruise when Dan let us have one final bonus question that would allow us to tie the score with them. “Where’s the most unusual place you’ve ever made whoopee?”

I looked at my husband and giggled. We both knew the answer to this one. All we had to do was say the word and the Newlywed Game honors would be ours.

I looked deep into my husband’s eyes (still blue) and nodded, as he said, “Not in this lifetime.”

We’re Not-So-Newlywedded for a reason, after all. It’s all about how well you know your partner.

When she’s not singing “Tainted Love,” by Soft Cell, Leslie can be reached at email

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound on August 11, 2006.

Some fine marriage advice

Marriage of Walter John Beckwith and Myrtle Ellenor Brown, 1920. Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Marriage of Walter John Beckwith and Myrtle Ellenor Brown, 1920. Item is held by John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

Last weekend we celebrated my in-laws 50th anniversary. Can you imagine being married for 50 years? Remember how long that movie Titanic was? Now watch it 127,750 times. That’s how long 50 years is. Drop an iceberg on me now.

It’s not that I don’t love my husband, I do. And even though I’d had a glass of champagne, I still meant what I said when I vowed, “till death do us part” some 12 years ago.

And I only dream about his death once a week, maximum.

But 50 years of marriage. Fifty years. I had to find out their secrets.

To understand the challenges of this quest, you have to understand that my mother-in-law, lovely and easy-going as she is, is not exactly a fount of personal information. I know more about the complete strangers I eavesdrop on at Starbuck’s than I do about my mother-in-law. She’s not exactly what you would call a talker.

In my family you have to talk about everything. And talk, and talk, and talk, until you’re so tired of talking you forgot what you were talking about. We talk so much that my dad sometimes has to take little naps while the rest of us talk.

Then we talk about that.

My husband’s family doesn’t get the whole talking thing. They’d rather play games, rhyming their words rather than actually communicating with them.

A sample conversation with my in-laws, as we drive by the Madonna Inn: He says, “It’s very pink.” She says, “Do you think?” He says, “Should we have a drink?” She says, “That wouldn’t stink.” He says, “Wink, wink.” She giggles.

She giggles a lot, which brings me to the first marriage tip I’ve gleaned indirectly from my mother-in-law: Marry someone you think is funny.

If it’s too late for that, try to find things you both think are funny. Babies and the disgusting things that ooze from their various orifices are great for this. I’m told that teenage puberty, particularly when coupled with mom’s menopause, can also be a hilarious bonding experience for couples. I can’t wait.

I know I’ll never be a match for my mother-in-law’s impressive ability to zip her lip when it comes to complaining or even commenting on the eccentricities of her husband. They always manage to present a united front. My husband and I are pretty good at that too, although I do try to make sure that Koss loves me more by buying him candy. Nonetheless, we’re equally firm about disciplining him when he gets too sassy, even if I do sneak him a Reese’s for comfort every once in a while.

And I really do try not to laugh too hard when my friends agree with my complaints about my husband. Somebody’s got to stick up for the poor guy, and I know he would never complain about me to his friends. It’s nice to know that we’ve got each other’s backs. Right, dear.

I prod my in-laws for more marriage advice. “Three little words,” says my father-in-law.

I know this one. “I love you.” Right? They laugh.

“Honey, I’m wrong,” guesses my husband. More giggles.

“Buy me toys,” guesses my son, who’s good at math and gets the word count right.

“What is it?” I ask. My mother-in-law smiles and giggles some more.

“Everything’s just fine,” she says, knowing it will drive me crazy. My father-in-law laughs along.

But how do they really feel? I’ll never know. And that’s “just fine” with them.

Leslie is always eager for marriage advice. You can reach her at email.

Originally published in the Santa Barbara Daily Sound.

Family ways sometimes leave a lot to be desired

Photo by luist & his inner pig,

Photo by luist & his inner pig,

Tribal customs can be a mystery to outsiders. Are you fine with that?

“Feliz Navidad,” sang those sweet, high-pitched voices of the fourth and fifth grade children.
“I want to wish you a Peaceful Solstice. I want to wish you a Happy Hanukkah. I want to wish you a Joyful Kwanza. I want to wish you a Merry Christmas from the bottom of my heart.”
It was the most politically correct holiday concert I’d ever seen.
If only my own holiday rituals could be so inclusive.
There’s one very important fact about marriage that gets lost in the sea of white silk and perfect place settings that all of those bridal magazines are so enamored with.
You don’t just marry a man; you marry an entire family.
With that family comes decades worth of holiday rituals that are guaranteed to be different than your own.
And let’s be honest here, when it comes to holiday celebrations, different isn’t just different — it’s plain wrong.
So after we’ve cleaned up all of that wrapping paper and eaten our last bite of Christmas turkey and we pull out a deck of cards this year, I’ll have to ask, once again: “Are we playing Dinaberg or Klobucher rules?” Because Klobucher rules are weird. It’s like they actually read the directions or something. And they don’t cheat, which I take as an affront to every thing my father ever taught me.
I love my husband’s family, but sometimes when I’m with them I feel like I’m an anthropologist digging through exotic terrain.
I should have known I was in for trouble when we were first dating and my future husband took me out for a lovely birthday dinner. The food was fabulous. He’d invited only my favorite friends and bought me that perfect pair of earrings I had slyly hinted that I wanted.
It was when he took me home that the trouble began.
There was no cake.
No cake.
Not just no chocolate cake, but no cake whatsoever.
“But we had Crème Brulee at the restaurant,” he protested, like that had anything to do with my missing birthday cake.
He didn’t understand. Birthdays are a big deal in my family. They last at least a month (several months in my mother’s case), with both family and friend versions of the celebration.
The specifics may vary a little from year to year, but one thing doesn’t. There is always cake.
And by the way, the proper way to figure out birthday candles is your age plus “one to grow on.” This is science.
“A little more is always better” is my family’s philosophy.
My husband comes from a mother who fed four growing kids on two Chinese dinners from Ming-ons.
I, on the other hand, come from a Jewish mother.
So I know that if, God forbid, you have a party and there aren’t leftovers for at least a week, you didn’t make enough food.
It’s enough to make you feel guilty for a year.
And if you feel guilty about something you have to talk about it, right?
In my family you have to talk about everything. And talk, and talk, and talk … until you’re so tired of talking you forgot what you were talking about.
Then you can talk about that.
My husband’s family doesn’t get the whole talking thing. Mostly they’re “just fine” with just about everything.
But how do they really feel? We’ll never know. And that’s “just fine” with them.
I, for one, have never been “just fine” about anything in my life.
I certainly wasn’t “just fine” that one year we had Thanksgiving dinner at my ex-Uncle’s house. Sure they had turkey and a killer game of Pictionary but there were no mashed potatoes.
That’s right. Thanksgiving without mashed potatoes.
Can you imagine such a thing? No wonder he’s an ex-Uncle.
Which is why my sister and I spent the latter part of that evening driving around in search of mashed potatoes. It simply wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without them.
And when we finally found them at a Thai restaurant they were the most delicious potatoes we’d ever tasted.
Kind of like that gigantic flourless chocolate cake the year after my husband didn’t buy me a cake.
“As if I’d ever forget again,” he barked.
“See, that’s why we talked about it so much honey,” I mentioned for about the 12th time that year.
“Fine,” he said. “Just fine.”
When Leslie is not studying the tribal customs of her in-laws, she can be reached at For more columns visit

Originally published in South Coast Beacon on December 23, 2004.