Over the course of my career as a couples therapist, I have noticed a pattern among the couples that walk through the (virtual) door of my therapy practice.
Most couples fall into one of two categories: distressed and non-distressed. I am fully aware that categorizing my clients may lead to inaccurate stereotypes, which is why I resist placing my couples into either one of those categories.
But, as I write this article, I feel justified, supported by my clinical experience and, most importantly, called to present my clinical experience to you, the reader. If what I have to say does one thing to save your relationship and keep you and your partner together, then I will have accomplished my goal as a writer, relationship advocate, and eternal optimist. So here goes.
In the following paragraphs, you’re going to get the best argument I can possibly give you that will hopefully elucidate why it is so important for you and your partner to:
1) keep trying in your relationship, and
2) not giving up on the possibility that you can have a better relationship.
How to Keep Your Relationship From Falling Apart
In all my experience working with hundreds of couples, the minute you stop working, trying, and making an effort, that is the moment you’ve lost your relationship. Now, for some people, that is okay. There are a lot of reasons why people choose to end their relationship – and I am not in the position to judge anyone, nor would I want to.
But, as my wife and I pass into another phase of life – yes, we’re firmly planted in middle age as I’m 43 and my wife is 39 – some of the friends around us whose weddings we attended are now slowly beginning to see their marriages come to an end. Both my wife and I find ourselves more frequently on the phone these days, lending support to our friends whose relationships are falling apart. Perhaps that has something to do with my vocation as a couples therapist and my wife’s natural ability to be more empathic than me.
Avoid These Three Little Words
Now, unfortunately, when it comes to relationships, it does not take two people to end a relationship, as it does to start one. That’s because, at any time, one partner can call it quits. The partner ending the relationship need not ask permission of the other. They simply need to utter the words, “I am done”. In my practice, I’ve witnessed the pain associated with those three little words and the tsunami-like ripple effect they cause.
Fortunately, for myself, I have never heard those words from my wife – although I’m sure at times she was close! I have a theory that has a lot to do with her upbringing, as she comes from an intact family that espouses strong family values and places a lot of emphasis on understanding and commitment. Sadly, my twice-divorced parents didn’t offer me such a positive example of till-death-do-us-part.
Okay, back to the impact that those three little words have on a person. Let me repeat them here. Perhaps you can utter them to yourself for me. Let’s say it together. Ready? One, two, three:
“I am done”
Profound little words, aren’t they?
You see, they are not just profound to the person who hears them. In fact, I would argue that they are more profound to the person who utters them.
What My Experience as a Couples Therapist Has Taught Me
Well, in all my experience as a couples therapist, of all the distressed clients that come to my office, without a doubt, one partner shares with me that they can remember, with absolute clarity, the moment that they realized to themselves that, when it came to their relationship, they were in fact DONE.
Yep, with absolute accuracy, to the very clothes they were wearing that day or the menu that comprised dinner, they can remember with extreme clarity the moment that they realized they were done.
Now, for those same partners, many of them waited weeks, months, and sometimes years before they uttered those words to their partner. But, when they finally had the courage to admit out loud that they were done, there is one thing that was strikingly eerie about the consequences of those words being said. When they were, in fact, uttered, there was very little the other partner could do to reverse the outcome.
My wife and I met online, through e-Harmony (which sounds positively antiquated in today’s world of Tinder!) and, after three short months, we were engaged. I knew she was the one after our second date. Now, our romance wasn’t always a fairy-tale. And, in fact, our marriage faces the same challenges as the next. I know that has a lot more to do with the circumstances and life stage we find ourselves in (raising two kids under 7). But, what I want to say is that we went through difficult times. We had to learn a whole lot about who we married AFTER we were married. In retrospect, we barely knew each other when we both said “I do” and it took years to fully know who we married. But, we kept at it. I tried a lot. And, my wife isn’t the kind to run when the going gets a little rocky.
And, that’s what happens with marriage (and relationships) a lot – they get rocky. It’s inevitable. But, what doesn’t have to happen is muttering those three little words. No one needs to say, “I’m done”. In fact, there is always a chance to turn things around. But, I will say, as a couples therapist, it is extremely difficult to do just that once those words rear their ugly head.
If you don’t possess the level of stubbornness that my wife and I have, then you’re going to need to work. You’re going to need to make an effort to make your relationship a success, long-term. But, so too will your partner. They need to make an equal effort as well.
Both of you have a responsibility to make things better because, if you don’t, then those three little words could signal the death knell for your relationship. It doesn’t take a scientist to prove that the odds of you coming out of couples therapy with an intact relationship decrease dramatically if you begin therapy as a distressed couple as opposed to when you come to therapy to work on your relationship as a non-distressed couple.
Distressed Versus Non-Distressed Couples
All that said, do you know my diagnostic criteria for categorizing distressed versus non-distressed couples? Well, it has to do with whether or not those three little words have been spoken out loud.
And that does mean that thinking about saying those words and saying them out loud are two VERY different things. I don’t know why, and I have no scientific evidence to reference when I say this, but those three little words – without a doubt – spell more endings for relationships than most other things I know.
I don’t need a peer-reviewed journal article to support this claim. I know that each and every one of my couples therapist peers who are reading this article are nodding their heads. They understand the struggle in helping their clients keep their relationships together after one of the partners has uttered those words.
Here’s what I suggest you do, should those words crop up in your daily thoughts. Before you give into them, before you give yourself and your relationship over to them, tell your partner that you’re thinking them. Yes, really.
Tell them that you’re scared that you’re seriously considering ending your relationship. Do it in a way that you’re not interjecting it into the middle of an argument as some kind of threat, ultimatum, or scare-tactic. Instead, sit your partner down and, with compassion, tell your partner that it’s time you really consider working on your relationship, before it’s too late. This can be done with a skilled couples therapist. Or you may reach out to your pastor, a friend, or another non-biased third-party. It doesn’t matter.
The bottom line is, make some effort to convey the seriousness of what you’re contemplating. If you can communicate with your partner that things are bad BUT that you still want to try, then you fall firmly in what I view as the “non-distressed” category of a couple. Wait much longer, and you may find yourself on the other side, struggling to find a reason to work on your relationship and therefore seeing it come to an end.
“I can’t believe the big day is here! I am so happy and don’t want the feeling to end!” said almost every bride and every groom in nearly every romantic comedy movie out there on their wedding day. Admittedly, on my wedding day, I was happy. It was an overwhelming feeling thinking about how many people showed up for us. They showed up to witness our union, to cheer the happy couple, and to celebrate the concept of long-lasting love.
I knew differently as did my husband.
The theme of the speeches at our wedding was our unique pairing. As my father-in-law said, “One of you wants to conquer the world, while the other wants to save it.” As a Licensed Marriage and Family therapist married to an ADHD entrepreneur, our love story had an interesting beginning.
Create Balance in Your Relationships
Ask any therapist you know, particularly a Marriage and Family therapist, if their relationship is perfect and I can guarantee the answer will be no. Despite my training, I also have difficulty applying a lot of what I know to my relationship. For me what makes it worse is that I know how I “should” handle the arguments, but my emotions take over leaving the same pattern to play out over and over again.
Early on in our dating relationship, we struggled to find balance. We worked on seeing each other but also giving each other space to pursue our then blossoming careers. We had issues with power in our relationship as most strong, independent people do when trying to “have it all.” Looking back, what we really were forming was an interdependent relationship, which is something I work on with my clients.
Dr. Barton Goldsmith, in his article, “Interdependence Day(s)- How to create a balanced relationship,” describes the idea of interdependence: “The healthiest way we can interact with those close to us is by being truly interdependent. This is where two people, both strong individuals, are involved with each other, but without sacrificing themselves or compromising their values.”1
Address Trust Issues
Interdependence is what I as a therapist strive to help my clients achieve. The idea of interdependence is amazing, but the execution can be very tricky. If we think about what is underneath interdependence, trust inevitably comes up. In the cases I have where one partner is very clingy, or where one partner checks the other’s phone because they do not believe their partner is really at work, trust issues are everywhere. Through therapy, we work through any underlying traumas that have occurred in the relationship – or any past relationships – to help heal and move forward without resentment.
Signs of Interdependence in Relationships
Aside from therapy, how can you work on interdependence? According to Goldsmith (1), a great way to start is to assess where you are currently in your relationship. Things you may want to consider are:
- Current levels of trust
- How supportive you perceive yourself to be as a partner
- How supported you feel by your partner from day to day.
Consider what would happen if the relationship ended tomorrow. Would you be okay? Although you may be heartbroken, could you move forward? Signs of interdependence include the ability to stand on your own and not to be defined by your relationship role. If you feel as though you are more stuck in your relationship than you wish, I recommend seeking help from a professional to process some of your thoughts and feelings.
So, you may be asking yourself, is interdependence the “secret sauce?” While it may be an essential ingredient, it does not make up the entire recipe. The other important component is choice.
When I have couples sitting in front of me questioning their relationship, I tell them each the same thing, “This relationship is a choice. Every day you choose to either be in this relationship or not be in this relationship.” The reality is whether you have been together for five days or 50 years, every single day you choose to be in the relationship. Acknowledging this decision helps each partner to remain accountable for their role in the relationship.
I am sure you have heard people say that marriage is work. While this is true; it is not the type of work most people think. While marriage does require daily effort, it should be a relatively painless process. The most important thing is to prioritize your relationship. This is achieved through daily effort, regular check-ins, frequent discussions, and intentional affection. This will do so many good things for your relationship. Even more, your trust will start to grow exponentially.
The Power of Love Maps
Being a Marriage and Family therapist, I am most familiar with the question “How?” How do you choose your relationship daily? It can start with small things. I recommend to my clients to do a “love map” exercise from the one and only John Gottman (the “godfather” of couple’s therapy). Love maps are an excellent exercise to tune into your partner’s daily issues, big life goals, and their emotions. My husband and I do a love map exercise every few months just to check in with each other. The point of them is not to be right or wrong, but rather to facilitate a conversation. Here is one from Gottman’s site2:
Love Map Exercise:
- Name my two closest friends.
- What was I wearing when we first met?
- Name one of my hobbies.
- What stresses am I facing right now?
- Describe in detail what I did today or yesterday.
- What is my fondest unrealized dream?
- What is one of my greatest fears or disaster scenarios?
- Name my favorite way to spend an evening.
- What is one of my favorite ways to be soothed?
- What is my favorite getaway place?
- Are there important events coming up in my life?
- How do I feel about them?
- What are some of my favorite ways to work out?
- Name one of my major rivals or “enemies.”
- What would I consider my ideal job?
- What medical problems do I worry about?
- Describe my most embarrassing moment.
- Name one of my favorite novels/movies.
- What is my favorite restaurant?
Relationships are challenging even for the most seasoned couples. There is a lot that goes into them and a lot we can learn from them. For romantic relationships, it is important to know the main ingredients of the “secret sauce,” which are interdependence and choice. By choosing every day to be the best partner you can be, addressing your partner’s needs, clearly stating your needs, and by giving your relationship, yourself, and your partner room to grow, you will inevitably build a foundationally sound relationship. Not to mention, living a happier and less stressful life.
We all know that relationships are hard; they require us to put our best foot forward each day.
Relationships also require us to have realistic expectations about what we can hope to get in return for our efforts. Because when our efforts match our expectations, there is equilibrium in the relationship — a balance that is a win-win for both partners.
But, what happens when one partner holds unrealistic expectations of the other? When they seemingly ignore or just aren’t capable of understanding that the relationship should resemble a tennis match, and not a baseball game in which one player is pitching to another without getting anything in return? This type of lopsidedness can occur in other parts of your relationship as well — like in sex and intimacy.
And, when that happens, it’s possible that sexual narcissism is going on.
Sexual narcissism in and of itself wouldn’t be such a problem – other than it’s not the most equitable way to relate intimately to one another. But, what the authors of this study1 discovered is that when one partner is showing signs of sexual narcissism, then the seeds may be planted for infidelity down the road.
What Exactly is Sexual Narcissism?
According to the International Society for Sexual Medicine, the term sexual narcissism best describes someone who has develop a one-sided view of their sexual entitlements and thus their behavior in the bedroom.
You may ask yourself…
Does my partner demand sex despite my reluctance?
Does my partner make me feel guilty if I’m not in the mood?
If I don’t give in, does my partner get angry?
Do they think they are so good that once they start I will ‘get in the mood’?
Well, if any of the above is happening in your relationship, then they are clues that your partner feels a sense of sexual entitlement and is potentially a sexual narcissist. And this type of behavior is a red flag.
But, don’t throw in the towel just yet.
Now that we know what may be going on in your relationship, there is something we can do about it – I’ll get to more about that later.
But First, Why is Sexual Narcissism Such a Big Problem?
If your partner has a one-sided sense of sexual entitlement, then – according to the authors – that trait could lead to infidelity and spell disaster for your relationship. Given that infidelity is the most commonly cited reason for divorce, 2 addressing sexual narcissism could be a good use of your time.
So, if you suspect that your partner is a sexual narcissist, what can you do about it? How can you avoid an outcome that leads to infidelity and divorce? Well, first pat yourself on the back for trusting your intuition! This is important because addressing sexual narcissism isn’t going to be easy and it takes a lot of courage to do something about it.
Now that you’ve decided to take action to address the unbalance in your sexual intimacy with your partner, you need a plan – and tools to execute that plan. It’s time to get on the same page with your partner.
You may be wondering how to you do that?
Five Ways to Rebuild Equilibrium in Your Relationship
1. Place your focus on building a solid relationship.
Since our relationship is inextricably tied to our own emotional well-being, then building a solid one is helpful for both partners. When a relationship is healthy, then both partners are less likely to step outside of it. Which makes sense: when things are going well in our lives, we don’t turn towards negative coping strategies (like infidelity) to sooth our emotional well-being and make us feel better.
2. Remember when your relationship was balanced.
Both you AND your partner need to see that there was a time when you WERE in sexual equilibrium. Assuming you and your partner committed to a long-term relationship with one another, then there was hopefully a time when you two ‘clicked’ — when you were on the same page. If that was the case, then you can get back there. To do that, start by asking each other
- What you liked about your intimacy when you first got together?
- What made you a ‘good fit’ for one another?
- What other things did you like about each other back then?
By asking these questions, you’ll reconnect with your past successes as a couple. And your past successes hold the all-important clues to getting back on the same page.
3. Move away from labels.
If you only talk about your present-day problems – like your dissimilarities in intimacy – then you risk painting one another into a corner that neither of you can ever get out of. If your partner is labelled a sexual narcissist, how are they supposed to be anything else? How do they take that first step towards improving their relationship with you? By helping your partner be something other than a sexual narcissist, by extending an olive branch, you help them lower their guard. That’s important because if they hear themselves being called a sexual narcissist, their guard is all you’re going to get. However, by giving them an olive branch, I’m not implying that you should let them off the hook. They are still not justified in their one-sided behavior and they still need to take responsibility for their actions. I’m simply saying that by focusing on how you and your partner come together as a couple, you will do more to help one another overcome sexual narcissism than anything anyone else will tell you to do.
4. Talk about the positivity that already exists in your relationship.
This step is essential – talking about the good and not just the bad. Think about it. The fact that your partner is willing to talk about his/her sexuality should be considered a win – a huge win, in fact. On top of that, simply by talking about the strengths of your relationship with your partner, you will create more empathy and understanding for one another. In fact, this is what the authors of the original study believe will lower the association between sexual entitlement and infidelity: increasing the empathy and understanding in the relationship.
And, to that end, my top three ways to start a conversation that will help both parties feel safe and open to share, rather than getting defensive, is to start by asking yourselves:
- What is going well in our relationship?
- What makes us such a great couple?
- How do we manage to ‘know’ one another so well?
See where I’m going? I’m asking you what works well in your relationship, and I do that because there is immense power in seeing the good.
5. Allow time to create room for growth – as a couple.
By being patient and allowing one another the time to fulfill our needs, we create room for our partner to help us if we struggle with intimacy in our relationship. Of course, there will be times that we have needs that go unfulfilled or we’ll struggle with our own decreased sex-drive. But, when we take our time by going slow and talking with our partner about what they do well, how they help, and how we are on the ‘same page’ we start playing tennis.
And, when we’re playing tennis, we’re not sitting on the sidelines and watching the innings go by!
Instead, we start hitting the ball back and forth and figuring out what works for both of us in the bedroom, and what doesn’t. And, when we do that, we’re not watching the game unfold from the bleachers while our partner is exercising their muscles without us. We’re not playing baseball. Instead, we’re playing tennis.
And, while you may go back and forth a while until you get the hang of talking about how you meet each other’s needs instead of falling short, at least you’ll be playing a game that just two people play together. And for most of us in committed relationships, two-player games are the whole point of it.