Coffee With…Elaine Braff

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It may seem counter-intuitive, but South Orange couples therapist Elaine Braff is an expert on having fun. With more than 31 years experience working with couples, now she’s put her ideas on the importance of fun for couples in a book, “We’re No Fun Anymore: Helping Couples Cultivate Joyful Marriages Through the Power of Play” which she co-authored with Pennsylvania therapist Robert Schwarz. The two also present training seminars for other couples therapists. At her home office, Braff counsels couples working through a wide range of issues, from severe trauma to constant bickering to boredom. Every couple, she says, can benefit from having a little more fun together. And some couples need to have a lot more fun!

Baristanet dropped in on Braff at the art-filled home she shares with her husband Hal, an attorney.

Q: So you literally wrote the book on putting fun back in marriage!
A: The book is for couples therapists, but any couple can get value out of it.

Q: Why do couples stop having fun?
A: They begin focusing attention on children, and look away from each other, stop paying attention, stop making the relationship the top priority, and take each other for granted. Even couples without children take each other for granted; couples think a relationship can grow without putting any new energy into it. It won’t.

Q: What are the signs a couple is “no fun anymore”?
A: When the number of negative experiences is greater than the number of positive experiences; when they start doing things separately, especially at night; they stop laughing together; they get too concerned over career and finances. Having little to no sex is a sign too!

Q: If a couple recognizes themself in that list, what can they do differently?
A: There are four pivotal times during the day when it’s important for couples to connect – waking up, when one or both leave the house, coming back together later in the day, and before bed: Hug, exchange greetings, kiss, say something positive. Make some connection. And do it before anything else, before doing anything with the kids or around the house.

Q: That’s a start. What else?
A: Date night! Only the two of you. And don’t always go to same restaurant, don’t always do the same things. Studies show when you add novelty, there is an increase in martial satisfaction. On date night, do not talk about issues and problems. Date night is for FUN. Free of conflict.

Q: What’s your definition of fun for couples?
A: Being playful with each other, anytime. You can even make chores fun. Be silly. Fun could be taking a walk or listening to music. Maybe you find something funny during the day and bring it home to show your partner so you can laugh together. Look for humor. If the only conversation is business as usual – house, kids, career, finances – that’s NOT fun. The only aim of fun is pure enjoyment. Americans think fun is wasting time, not being productive. I find women tend to think that way more than men. Men appreciate recreation more.

Q: If a couple is having serious problems, how can having fun help?
A: You have to attend to any serious crisis first, of course; but then as soon as possible, I talk to couples about fun, about “making love deposits in the emotional bank account” so you have resources for when something does go wrong. The optimum ratio of positive to negative experience is 5 to 1. When you don’t have a lot of positive experiences, everything seems negative after a while.

Q: Summer is probably a great time for couples to venture outside for fun, right?
A: Sure. If kids are away at camp – take advantage! Or just use the outdoors more, learn a sport together (as long as you don’t get competitive — gotta watch that!). Learn something new together outdoors.

Q: Do you and your husband Hal practice what you preach?
A: We do. On long car trips, we sing, listen to a book on tape and talk about it. We love seeing a movie and talking about it after. We love theater. We play board and word games and listen to music. We went to a renaissance faire and watched jousting and mud wrestling not too long ago and once, we were clowns in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Q: I understand your stepson is actor/playwright/filmmaker Zach Braff, and your daughter is comedian Jessica Kirson. So I’m guessing you and Hal also get invited to lots of fun events.
A: We’re going to the Montreal Comedy Festival to watch Jessica soon and we go to all of Zach’s events. But we have fun with our other kids and grandchildren too!

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