Episode 380: Married Happily Ever After with Dr. Frieda Birnbaum

Episode Summary

Today, I’m joined by the inspiring Dr. Frieda Birnbaum, a National Media Psychologist and Personality, fellow podcaster Host of The Dr. Frieda Show, sought-after International Speaker, and Author of “Life Begins at 60: A New View on Motherhood, Marriage, and Reinventing Ourselves.” We had a fantastic conversation about what makes couples stay together, the foundations of a happy marriage (not perfect), and how emotional prenups can prevent marriages from ending. Dr. Frieda also shared details of her background, what inspired her to focus on couples’ happiness, what makes an effective emotional prenup, and the importance of creating personal space in a relationship.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to all of our Becoming Your Best podcast listeners wherever you may be in the world today. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger. I am delighted that we have a special guest with us today. She is a research psychologist, a psychotherapist in Saddle River, New Jersey, and the award-winning author of “Life Begins at 60: A New View on Motherhood, Marriage, and Reinventing Ourselves” and “What Price Power: An InDepth Study of the Professional Woman in a Relationship.” Welcome Dr. Frieda Birnbaum. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: Thank you so much for such a great introduction. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you. We’ve got a lot to talk about today. She has so much experience and we’re gonna get into the wonderful point of view she brings into motherhood, relationships, and couples. She is an expert on topics such as family dynamics, parenthood, as I mentioned, relationships, addiction, anxiety, and depression. Dr. Frieda is a seasoned media personality and commentator who is adept at discerning the psychological underpinnings of current issues, and parsing out the psychological profiles of various newsmakers, politicians, celebrities, criminals, etc. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: This is a show in itself. It’s okay. You don’t have to commit to all this. You gave me wonderful recognition. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’m gonna give you just a little bit more, and then we’re going to launch. Notably, Dr. Frieda is the oldest woman in America to give birth to twins. The mother of five, her youngest sons were born when she was 60, lending her a unique perspective on issues relating to parenthood and empowering women at any age. So let’s get rolling. Dr. Frieda, if you don’t mind, tell us about your background, maybe any significant things that have happened that help you get to where you are today. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: Absolutely. That’s a very important question because it goes back to the time when I was first married, in my early 20s. I was standing in line in the supermarket and I see this woman in front of me. She’s so happy and she has these two children. I’m wondering, “What’s wrong with me? Why aren’t I this happy?” So, I did research for my dissertation for my PhD. What becomes of a relationship with a housewife, which was me at the time, if I become super professional, which I wanted to do. Will the relationship get worse, or will it get better? I found that what does happen is, in the midst of all of it, it does get worse. Divorce often happens because the original agreement is broken. A man marries a woman because he wants her to stay the same. A woman wants to change the man. That’s usually the opposite of what happens as time goes on. Then the relationship shifts. You never know why. So I always felt if you go back to the original agreement, you’ll know what’s missing every few years. What did happen when I did this research was a profound change in the relationship: decision-making, financial, social, being heard, being respected. I always felt that there was some kind of disconnect in a marriage between a man and a woman and what you need to do about that. So that’s where this prenup came into the picture to see that we can handle it before it actually happens, what are your real expectations? And it’s not about what sports you like, or even about what you look like, because the attraction in the beginning is wonderful. It’s sex, it’s lust, it’s romance, it’s marriage, and then marriage happily after? Well, that’s the part that’s much more questionable. That’s the part we really need to investigate because 50% of our population that has been married, in this country, is divorced. That’s huge. And we need to be able to study this and look at it, and hopefully, change that statistic into a population that stays married. And that’s what my agenda is about the emotional prenup. So, thank you for asking. 

Steve Shallenberger: And it’s not just the fact, Dr. Fireda, that 50% are divorced; it’s all of the pain, all of the emotion, the scars that are left, the cost, and disrupted lives. So yeah, that’s not an understatement. It’s a big impact. And many of our listeners will have experienced it. I certainly have in our family — my mom, sisters, and brother, it’s just not an uncommon thing. So, it affects all of us. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: It’s children more than anyone. There are so many children that have single parents and mothers are often struggling. So all these things that are unnecessary are happening in front of us. And we can avoid it because the children role model what was given to them. So their success rate is also very low. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a good point. So, what is an emotional prenup? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: An emotional prenup is very different than a financial prenup. I always find it crass to have a prenup about getting divorced. Well, you’re not even married yet? And what is that all about? What kind of mindset is that? How you can protect yourself from it happening? That’s how are you gonna live your life? What can I get if it doesn’t work? Well, sometimes it’s much more of a benefit, especially if you’re 20 and you met somebody 60, you say, “Hey, wait a minute, I am never going to have this. I’ll marry the guy but my take-back from this is going to be a financial stability.” So that’s the sad part. So you have to work on what makes the marriage work. Because when we marry each other, we’re looking for certain criteria that hopefully are healthy. And that criteria, moving forward, if it’s repeated over and over again, well, you may even forget the initial reason why you married the person if it’s not something that’s above board, and really ended up liking each other because it adds up to the feelings, the connection, the understanding, the companionship, all that part is what where the depth of a relationship really is. Hopefully, it’ll continue to be romantic. But then again, that’s not what’s going to keep it together. 

Steve Shallenberger: So, what are the components? Is it different for a man versus a woman of the emotional prenup? And what are some of the dimensions we should be thinking about that should be addressed? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: Well, relationships have definitely changed. Men are more nurturing. Women are more financially responsible at times, and they like that. That piece of them was missing back and forth. So that is being fulfilled. So the expectations of this double standard are really no longer there. When a woman comes home from work, and often she’s working, and a man comes home from work, well, let’s see if the roles are really more similar. The roles cannot be defined the way they used to be. And what I mean by that is behavioral, yes, masculine, feminine, that’s important. You don’t want to be masculine or feminine unless that’s your orientation. But if you’re heterosexual, that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about the man kicking his feet up on the couch and reading a newspaper, while the woman is slaving, carrying the baby, and cooking a meal. Let’s not go there. That’s enough for an argument right there. That’s enough to carry on the next day and the next day. And we all know that the feelings that keep carrying on become vengeful, we want to hurt the other person in a different way. And arguments can be extremely ugly. So, knowing what it is on this emotional prenup. If I have children, this is what I want you to do. If I decide to stay home, this is what I want you to know if the children need, me. What are the priorities, my career or the family? It’s extremely important. So the reasons for divorce will be lessened because we don’t really know what to look for and what to expect. We expect our partner to read our minds and to make up for everything that happened before we knew this person who had nothing to do with it and give us everything we need. It never happens, because your partner also needs to be full, and has their agenda as well. So a partnership is when you give, you get unconditionally. And that’s something that we need to hold on to, that when we enjoy the other person, we’re not narcissists anymore. There’s a reason for feeling fulfilled, then you unconditionally get what it is that you need to. So you have to change the way you think because this is a partnership now. 

Steve Shallenberger: I’ve gotten a lot of questions about this. And thank you for this perspective. And of course, you have in our society, you just mentioned, the statistic is around 50%, give or take, and seems to be somewhat steady over a long period of time. So you have both a part of our population that is getting to know each other, dating, and interested in becoming a couple and becoming married, maybe ultimately, who have never been married. But then you have maybe somebody who has been divorced once or twice and now dating again, and they may be dating a widower or widow. So, what are the right questions to ask to set up a meaningful emotional prenup? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: People get married twice, they can have three times or four times or whatever number you can remember. When you have this emotional prenup, you can do it when you have a second marriage or so on. It’s beginning, just like the relationship is beginning. You may be wiser, you may know what you need. But the other person, as I said, has to know the same thing as well. So once you put it down on paper, once you sign it, once you go back to it, each person has that responsibility to know, “Well, wait a minute, it may not be important to me but it’s important to that person. If that makes that person upset.” That’s called respect. You can’t respect someone if you’re not respected back. And it’s not about agreeing with that person. It’s about what makes the difference. What has the most effect? So, leave your ego out the door, forget about that. It’s not about who’s right or wrong. That never works. It’s about trying to fix what needs to be looked at and making it better And then it’s positive. It’s not negative. It’s not blaming one another. “Well, you said that I do this? Well, you did that. And you’re worse than I am.” “Well, your mother was a horrible person, and your father never made a dime in his life.” “What does that have to do with me?” “Well, that’s where you came from.” So, it gets really dirty and ugly, and “you’re going to be just like your mother.” And meanwhile, this woman could be a career woman, and “you’re just like your father; you had no feelings for anybody.” So, we try to dig deeper and deeper. So, it’s not effective. If we’re not hurting that person enough, we’re gonna make sure that that person is really very damaged, and we can really do a good job with that.  

Steve Shallenberger: It’s so sad when that happens, because who wants to live in that kind of relationship? So, what are the right kinds of questions to ask? And I love this, Dr. Frieda, because it really starts, in a genuine way, opening up communication for what’s important to each person in a sincere and genuine way. So, what’s your experience span of how to come up and discover these areas together and really know what is important to you so that you can express it and hopefully, the people in our world would just be so much better if they could learn to listen and respect? So, how do you open it up? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: What seems to be a given is, of course, you’re going to be devoted; of course, you’re going to be faithful to me. That’s part of it. It’s the unspoken word. Well, some people say, “You mean the rest of my life, I’m going to be with this one person. I don’t think I can do it. I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to ruin this relationship. But who knows, maybe I’ll have something on the side. I don’t know what’s going to happen.” Of course, that’s the number one rule breaker: Infidelity breaks the marriage. It’s difficult to be intimate with someone when you’ve been intimate with somebody else and maintain the same intimacy. It’s impossible. I’ve had people in my practice that have come in, I have fixed the marriages, and they reveal right in my office, “Honey, I have something to tell you.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, no,” “I have been with someone else.” And then marriage does break down, but then you have to reassess the principles. It’s very hard to get people to see each other the same way. A lot of times, it happens, not because of sexuality, but because it’s psychological: they’re not being heard, they don’t have the life that they like, they’re bored, and they don’t like their jobs. Somebody is going to hear him or her. And by the way, this was a Freudian slip, but more women are having affairs. I hate to disillusion men because they’re out in the workforce. And as you know, the person who listens to them, as I said, the other one that they bond with. And eventually, they become intimate because they’re understood. They come home to a spouse that’s grumpy, disheveled, and complaining. Why do they need that when they have someone in the office who looks great, who loves them unconditionally, and who agrees with their problems? It’s a no-brainer. Why should you put up with this stuff? So those are the things that really break a marriage up. And even when we’re together, it is hard to go back to the original concept. Now, if you really work on it, it could be better than ever, because each partner is trying harder than they did before because they know they can’t take it for granted. 

Steve Shallenberger: Thank you for the depth of this discussion. And I’m just thinking that it takes discipline. It’s not always gonna go great in a marriage. But, if you have a list of things that are important for you, that you agree upon in advance, yes, some things take discipline. But discipline leads to confidence, and ultimately, really, it’ll lead to happiness as you work on something that’s precious. So, it does take commitment. And I was just thinking, Frieda, while you were talking that if somebody is going to have a financial prenup, they give a lot of thought to that. This is a legal document. It’s a written document that is thought out, and the assets of each person are listed, and you say, “Here’s what we’re going to do, and here’s what we’re not going to do.” And then you both sign it and you agree to it. It’s a binding document. I suppose that maybe you can look at an emotional prenup the same way. In other words, you really haven’t rational thought; you’re with someone that you’re attracted to, and that you’re highly interested in and love, so you capture these things. Is that kind of what you’re saying, that it’s equivalent to that kind of a document and is worth putting in an effort? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: Absolutely, we need to go back with connecting, and we need to go back with what’s important. And it definitely isn’t money. And one of the major things that break people up is the money. Are you a spender or a saver? What do you do with that money? Are you going to divide the money up equally after you pay all the bills, even though you make more money? Or do we each get a certain percentage? They don’t talk about that. That’s so touchy. But arguments after arguments, and after a while, it becomes sustained with that kind of feeling of “you’re not there for me, so why should I be there for you? I’m not happy. How do we decipher this? What do we do with this?” “Well, my spending money is my business. I’ll do what I want with it. If I buy a dress for $1,000, who are you to say that this is something I shouldn’t do?” And if you buy a motorcycle for $3,000, who am I to say you’re not spending your money right?” So that’s the emotional aspect of it as well. So we need to start reassessing and having space with one another, which is very important, because the person needs to be an individual first, and then you can enjoy each other. Because a couple that’s too intertwined becomes boring. So, guess what? “Hey, that motorcycle ride was fun.” “Hey, you look great in that dress.” So, you bring something into the relationship that wouldn’t be there otherwise, and that’s part of being with someone else and learning differences. Otherwise, it’s a sleeper, for sure. 

Steve Shallenberger: Yeah, really, and how to make your partner happy. You’re right. So maybe that’s a part of your emotional prenup, “I want to help you feel like a 10.” And you start getting these thoughts there and recognizing your needs and talking about it. You start writing these things down, and here’s what we’re gonna do in communication, and here’s how many dates we want to have because it makes us feel good. And I was just thinking, as we go through life, and our intentions are good, life does change and circumstances can be what we didn’t anticipate, and maybe that’s when you really need to double down on your emotional prenup and say, “Hold it. It’s our job to create a vision together of happiness. And we’re going to have to adapt.” What’s been your experience in being able to do that? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: It’s extremely important because we change. And as we change, we need to reassess what it is we need at different times in our lives. And people have secrets, and we find out about them. Well, how are we going to go forward with that? Do you have any secrets to begin with? Open up. What about your income? What is your income? People are afraid to ask, “What is your income?” Oh, no, they can’t say that. If you find out that person wasn’t telling the truth, you have every right to look and see if this is a marriage you want to continue. Just like the prenups that we have now, this needs to be binding because we’re marrying for certain reasons. If those reasons are no longer there, is that marriage really viable? Because you’re not married, you’re not getting what you signed up for. That’s very important. 

Steve Shallenberger: As you’re developing this emotional prenup, which is a foundation for your lives, a blueprint, a way forward. So they’re important issues. They’re loving issues, and in many cases, issues of respect and trust. What happens if you find that maybe, as you’re together, you do really great. You love being together, you love each other, you have fun like all the time, but there’s one or two things you just can’t wrap up. And maybe in your heart, maybe one partner’s been divorced twice and the other is a widower and they’ve had a long marriage. But this person is just hesitant and just can’t make a decision. What do you do? Do you just ultimately say, “Well, I guess we can’t make it happen.” And that’s the purpose, partly, about an emotional prenup? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: It’s important to know that you have to be able to have somebody who’s on the same page as you. And if they don’t think they’re getting what they want, who are you to say that that’s not true? That’s interfering. Again, that’s not giving that person space. So, in order to do that, that person has to feel secure. Otherwise, the rest of your marriage, if you do get married, since how you start out, you’re going to be convincing that person, “Oh, no, I’m right if you do this–” and you’ll always have to be doing something to get that person to be where you want to be. And that struggle is going to interfere with everything you do because it’s full of repetitions. It may look different but it really has the same underlying theme. If that person is not sure, you want to spend the rest of your time making sure that that person is happy, it puts you to a subservient pattern. You don’t want to make sure that that person’s happy; you want to be there for the person. You’re not trying to rescue that person. There’s a difference between a mutual understanding of happiness or trying to get that person to see and think the way you do. Otherwise, you’re in a situation where that agreement is not there from the beginning and it’s a much bigger struggle. 

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great point. Thank you. And that’s a valuable worth of doing what you’re talking about having an emotional prenup because maybe it uncovers those type of things and you could feel so much in love. But if there are some things that are just sideways, this helps recognize it. How do you have the courage then to say, “Hold it, we’re gonna go a different direction. It’s just not lining up.” We can’t force it as much as we want to. What have you found the best way to just say, “Hey, listen, it’s not gonna work.” 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: First, you have to be healthy, emotionally, to find somebody who’s emotionally healthy. Now, if that person fits into who you are, perfect; if that person is not there, you may be more evolved in some way, and that person needs that time to see. But that’s the way to start. Otherwise, we’re going to question yourself, you’re gonna think, “Hey, maybe that person’s right.” It’s gonna be very convoluting. So it’s very, very simple. They either fit into who you are or they don’t. Romance, love, all that is wonderful. But research has shown that it lasts maybe the most three years, maybe a year and a half, that infatuation, “That person is the best. I’m such a high. No matter what we do, I’m enjoying myself so much.” We cannot sustain that. It doesn’t stay. We move on to errands, catastrophes, deaths, wonderful experiences, events, and all kinds of things become a part of this relationship. What about in-laws and money? So, Lala Land is right there. I hate to say this, it’s Lala Land: “My husband could do no wrong.” He was a saint, and I’m using the word was. And now I reassess always, “Wait a minute, this is what I need. Is he fitting into that? Because I worked on myself.” So you have to really be very solid and know that you believe in what it is that’s right or wrong. Very simple answer: If that person fits into your life, perfect; if that person does not fit into who you are, don’t waste the years of your life trying to get that person healthy because it takes a long time and there’s a lot of negativity. And that other person has an agenda of their own to stay where they are because some people like to be victims, some people like other people to do the work for them. You don’t want to go into that place. You don’t want to be a social worker. You want to have a person that’s equal to you. You don’t want to fix all the time because you forget who you are if you get the essence of who you are. And if you give too much respect, you don’t get the same respect back. So there’s going to be an imbalance.  

Steve Shallenberger: Thanks for sharing your perspective on that. Your experience and research, that was great. I’m always amazed, Dr. Frieda, at how fast these interviews go. We’re at the end of our time. And I wonder if you have any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: To know when you have the feelings, trust your judgment. Don’t be complimented by somebody who is jealous of you, who loves themselves, who wants to control you, because people think, “Oh, that person really cares about me.” No, you’re going to lose who you are for that person, and you’ll be trapped the rest of your life thinking that it’s you trying to prove yourself. Don’t go there. Stay separate. That person needs to be able to appreciate you. But that makes you feel as if you can’t include your friends or your family, or continue to be who you are. Each time you strip away who you are, you’re stripping the reason why he or she liked you to begin with. So you’re not even gaining any benefits at all. Be that same person, and then if they can’t change you, those are their issues. 

Steve Shallenberger: What an interview. How much fun was that. And then I might say, Dr. Fireda has twin sons that she had 60 years old are 16 years old now. Our hats off to you. Way to go. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: They are the best thing that could have happened to me. They’re great students socially, six feet tall. It’s the same height but they don’t look like. People are surprised they are brothers; one is blonde, one is dark. Different temperaments, one loves to clown around, and the other is always disciplining him. So it’s an interesting combination, but there’s so much positive energy, and their happiness and their lust for life. So, hopefully, I did it. I’m doing a good job to watch them grow and prosper. I’m very blessed to have that in my life. 

Steve Shallenberger: I bet you just could not imagine your life without them. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: No, because they make everything happen. And tactically wise, even this, one of them edits. I have a podcast, he puts me on the podcast and does everything technically. The other one does everything with making this house smart; you walk in, the lights go on. It’s fun. It’s interesting how they have joy. They really have a passion for life. And I think that’s the most important thing—to have a passion for what you do—because then you can always do better and you’re always in a good place. You’re not trying to make things, fix it for others, or to go ahead in the direction where you feel, “Oh, I’m supposed to be this. I’m supposed to be a doctor.” Well, today, doctors are not supposed to, it’s computer science. That’s their direction. And so they are doing it not because I say anything, I don’t even know their grades. I don’t know anything. They are on their own. But because of that, I’m so negligent, they’re really taking on the perspective of what’s important. So their grades and everything they’re doing is coming from within. And I’d rather they are able to process life and fail and be able to go ahead and succeed because my success is not theirs. So I can’t impose it on them, because they’ll falter eventually anyway. So I’m very blessed that they have this kind of responsible outlook on life. 

Steve Shallenberger: How can people find out about what you are doing? 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: I have a website,, and my email address is And I have a podcast, The Doctor Frieda Show. 

Steve Shallenberger: We actually do a transcript of this as well, so people can look on that to get that right. Thank you, Dr. Fireda Birnbaum for being part of the show today. 

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum: Thank you so much. It was fun talking to you. 

Steve Shallenberger: It’s been a delight. We wish you all the best. And to each of our listeners, we are so grateful that you would join us today. We’re honored that you would take your time to be part of this show. And we wish you all the best as you are working on becoming your best, which is not a comparison against someone else, it’s asking yourself, “What is my best that is yet to be?” And then going to work on it. So, thanks and we wish you a great day. This is your host, Steve Shallenberger, signing off. 

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, and Community Leader.

Dr. Frieda Birnbaum

National Media Psychologist and Personality

Podcaster, Speaker, Author

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