Recently I was asked to answer a few questions about relationships for a dating website. Below are the questions and my responses.
How important is a good work life balance when it comes to relationships?”
Today’s economic conditions have created a challenging environment for many couples. A lot of people hold more than one job these days or are forced to work longer hours because their company expects higher productivity from a smaller number of people. With potentially fewer hours together, it’s important to maximize the enjoyment couples have during the time they’re together – that potential, “quality time,” everyone always talks about. So while you may have the urge to rush to see your partner, recognize that you both may need a cool down period at the end of the day. And because there are now more single parents than ever before, this becomes especially important if there are kids in the picture. No one likes to end their work day being met with a lengthy dissertation on the problems or challenges of someone else’s problems. So whether you live together or separately, allow a brief cool down time when you first get together after work or a commute. And whether your man is a blue collar worker or wears a suit all day, he probably needs to wash up before he starts hearing about your day or your kids’ adventures. The same is true for women. No matter if she’s an office worker, retail salesperson or executive, getting changed and taking even just a few minutes before cooking or dealing with you or your kids can have a really positive effect on the rest of your evening. Kids tend to have a low tolerance for delaying their gratification of seeing you, so getting into the habit of saying something like, “I can’t wait to hear all about it, just let me wash up and get comfortable and I’m all ears,” will score big points with everyone – even yourself. And that’s because you’ll be in a better mind set to listen. You’ll find that if you allow 15, 10 or even just 5 minutes of decompressing after work, it’s more likely you’ll get off to a good start and have a better chance of higher quality time together. So it’s not so much about a balance in terms of the quantity of time as it is in terms of the quality of time. Also, try making plans ahead of time so you’re not burdened with having to make decisions as soon as you get together. Even if you narrow it down to 2 or 3 choices, at least you’ll have an idea of what you’re going to do together later or tomorrow. There’s a lot to be said for planning and preparation. In fact, Winston Churchill said something to the effect of, “failing to plan is planning to fail.” This certainly applies to couples’ time together.
In your 15+ years as a psychotherapist, what patterns of behavior have you observed in couples right before they headed toward a divorce or nasty breakup? What should they have been doing differently?
Unless there is a serious event like an affair or another transgression that makes one partner or the other feel there can be no resolution, the biggest evidence of a breakup seems to be one or both partners feeling they are not being heard. This takes shape in many ways and usually builds over time. Either partner can make the other feel intimidated, fearful or paralyzed to speak up about their feelings. Once that cycle begins, the fear, anger or resentment ultimately explodes with a desire to leave the relationship. Sometimes it seems like a shock. “Where did this come from?” Could it be from all the times that they were told in one way or another that they weren’t happy? We’re not all born with a gift for communicating our feelings so sometimes we have to read our partner’s tone and body language. In fact, the noted social psychologist, Albert Mehrabian, reveals in a study that just 7% of what we communicate is in our words: the rest is in tone, body language and gestures. So the phrase, “get a clue,” goes for all of us. Pay attention and if your partner doesn’t seem happy, start talking about it and find out what you can each do differently to get closer and happier. If you find that it’s difficult to talk about what’s bothering you or your partner isn’t talking, get some help. And not from your mother, brother, sister, or friend, a neutral third party is a much better bet. Many couples see great improvement even after just a few sessions with a therapist. Once you learn how to talk and listen to each other and understand what you’re both feeling, there’s always hope to get on a better track.
How can couples discuss sensitive issues such as bedroom performance without breaking into a fight or argument?
Talking about sensitive issues like sex is a challenge for many couples. Often times it’s more about frequency and mutual desire than it is about performance. But the more you avoid discussing sex – whether it’s performance or desire - the easier it gets to continue avoiding it. So don’t hold off any longer. Get your thoughts together and plan 30 to 45 uninterrupted minutes (60 max) to talk about your thoughts and feelings. Preface what you’re saying with how much you care about your partner and your relationship. Hopefully you both want nothing more than to find ways to make each other happier. After all, if you’re not both happy, then what’s the point? Here are a few simple rules for talking about sensitive issues like sex and almost any issue without getting into a fight:
State how you feel in terms of “I.” For example, “I feel like you’re in a rush to finish – I need more time. Can you try holding off longer?” Or ask, “I feel alone about wanting to try new things. Can we talk about getting closer this way?”
- Stick to one thing at a time. If it’s about prolonging the moment then stay with that. Don’t let the conversation drift off to another issue and evolve into a complaint session about your whole relationship. However if something created resentment that was never discussed or explored, then it’s time to put the intimacy talk on hold until the air is cleared.
- Focus on solutions. Assess your concern and talk about it. But getting hung up just on the problems or the complaints is a recipe for disaster. Once the concern has been assessed, switch to solution focused thinking and ways to improve things or repair the problems. Again, though, if there are old issues creating a wall or a block to feeling closer, they may need to be talked out first. And if it gets too complicated for you two alone, then a therapist or marriage counselor can always help facilitate a productive dialogue.
- Try not to make broad generalizations like “always” or “never.” Maybe your partner is often quick to get sex over with. But saying, “you never take your time” opens the gates for a non-win argument: “Yes I do.” “No you don’t.” That gets away from the real point of making things better and ends up in an unproductive test of wills instead of hearing each person’s point of view and paths to improvement.
- Don’t get stuck in the past. If there are things that need to be vented, vent them. Or listen to your partner’s concerns, acknowledge them and try to work together to make sure you connect better the next time these things come up. But if you don’t let go of whatever divided you, then you’ve sentenced your partner – and your relationship – to indefinite misery. You need to decide to move forward and make things better.
- Don’t say, “Forget it,” or, “Whatever.” That just says you’re not taking your partner’s concerns seriously and your relationship will die a slow death. Some day, all the pent-up feelings will blow up like a huge volcano. The damage will then be far more serious than whatever the individual issues were to begin with.
It takes courage to talk about the sensitive issues that divide you. If you use that same courage to openly and honestly explore what divides you, then you’ll have a good chance of finding solutions. If you can’t, then use that same courage to talk with a professional and you’ll stand a much better chance of improving one of the most important parts of your relationship.
Have you noticed technology making a big impact on relationships? For better or worse?
Throughout history, technology – especially when it comes to communication – has always been controversial. The advent of the telephone was thought to be the end of “real” relationships. But we adapted. The same was true for e mail, smart phones and text messages. But so far, without having a scientific examination of the issues, I’d have to say that in many cases having sophisticated technology hasn’t changed things much. If anything, I’d have to say it improves the ability to communicate things like being late, making dates, where to meet and whether or not each agrees on whatever it is in question. There are those who want to talk in person and resist the new technology, though, and that has to be respected. Each couple needs to find their own comfort zone. But if we look at other technology like computers, Smart phones, streaming media, or computer games, the tide shifts and relationships often get short-changed. So pay attention to how much time you spend with technology and make sure you keep a healthy balance of reality and technology in your relationship.
Lastly, what are your thoughts on 50 Shades of Grey and what its success means for relationships?
My understanding is that the sale of grey neckties, cable ties and rope has increased. But I have a case load of over 80 and among the individuals and couples I see, no one has spontaneously talked about “50 Shades of Grey.” On the other hand, many people have discussed the role of pornography and sex toys in their lives. Millions of couples enjoy pornography and sex toys together as well as alone. Because reading a book is more often a solitary activity I’m uncertain if the impact will be as broad-ranging as other sexually stimulating activities. If “50 Shades of Grey” helps people with new ideas for the bedroom, then I’m all for it. So far my feeling is that the biggest impact is in the pocketbook of E.L. James.
Re-UPDATE - 10/30/2013 - Since my origial answer to this question, when appropriate, I continue to probe this question when appropriate with some of my clients. Most of the clients who come to me about their relationships are having challenges and difficulties. So while I have not yet seen a huge impact of "50 Shades of Grey," a few have been intrigued about exploring some of the ideas in the book but none have reported back whether it's been helpful. A few women have noted that they have become re-invigorated with regard to experimenting sexually with their partners. It's just that some of the relationships are not ready for this. But my sense is that when ready, the book's influence will be a positive one. New ideas and creativity are wonderful additions to relationships no matter what area they're in. So Brava, E.L. James! And get creative in the bedroom!
© Joshua Kates 2014