If you want to love the person on the outside then you have to love the person on the inside. If you want to love the person on the inside, you have to know the authentic person on the inside.
“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.
Remember when you were a child growing up dreaming about what you wanted to be? Some of the ideas might have been super hero…rockstar…doctor…dancer…professional athlete…astronaut…etc. I have a four-year old nephew who is obsessed with the Transformers, Bumblebee in particular. Everyday of his life he “transforms” and re-enacts fighting decepticons, the bad guys. There is no doubt in his mind that he is actually fighting for good in real life. He is so good at it, sometimes he has me believing it too!
What is my point?
That when you were young, you believed that you could truly become whatever you wanted to be. There was no doubt in your mind. You likely acted it out often in your play time. It is also likely that either your parents, other friends, or even imaginary friends joined you in your adventures of fighting crime, rocking out on stage, or flying to the moon.
In the world of psychology, this is called cooperative play. This type of play typically begins between the ages of 4 and 6. This is the stage of life where play finally becomes organized into groups and teamwork is seen. This is where the child is interested in both the people that are playing and not just the activity in front of them. This is an integral part to a child’s life as this type of play is closely tied to the cognitive, socio-emotional, and motor development of young children. But in the child’s mind, the most important thing here is that his or her imagination comes to life.
Although, children keep developing as they get older, there is a significant lesson that can be learned for all of us from this particular stage of development. If harnessed effectively, this has the potential to change not just your life, but the world all around you.
What exactly is that?
Friends…that believe with you. The ones that you can process big thoughts and dreams with. The ones who tell you that you can actually accomplish those things. The ones that will say, “I’ll do it with you.” The ones who will fight crime, rock out on stage, and fly to the moon with you. The ones who will cooperatively play with you.
The Science of Friends
In 2008, a study was conducted to measure the rewards of friendship. In this particular study, participants stood in front of a hill, either alone or alongside a friend. They then were asked to estimate how steep that hill seemed. Across the board, the participants who stood with a friend at their side, reported that the hill seemed less steep than the participants who stood alone. In another variation, participants stood alone looking at this hill but were asked to simply think about a friend. Results showed that by simply bringing a friend to mind, again, made the climb seem much less daunting.
These findings reveal much more than just having friends as a good idea. Rather, it uncovers a deeper reality that we, as humans, need connection. We need friends. What if good friends are the key to successfully ‘climbing the mountain’ in your life? What if good friends are the solution to making your fears seem a lot less scary. What if good friends are the secret to making your dreams a reality?
Studies also shows that we tend to like ourselves better when we think about the friends in our lives who are important to us. Researchers had people take a test. Afterwards, they asked them to spend time thinking about a warm or positive friendship, a cold or negative friendship, or a neutral relationship. After spending some time thinking about their designated friendship, they were all told that their performance on the test was not very good. Their response to hearing the results were then measured. What they found was that the people most willing to work on their deficiencies and accept an opportunity to learn were the ones who thought about the positive friendships.
Therefore, having good friends in our lives can help us cope with our own perceived failures. They can help us take the hard things in our lives and learn from them. They can help us love ourselves even when we don’t feel like we are succeeding at anything in life. They can be the difference between stopping halfway up the mountain of your dreams or summiting it. This is why friends can not only change your life, but the world around you.
History of Friends
Although research has more recently grown in the area of friendship, there has been a much heavier prior emphasis on the area of romantic relationships. Regardless of where research is at on friendship, this is not a new concept by any means. If we look into history, I think we will agree that there has been many examples of how friendship changed the world we are living in now.
Let’s open up up the history books for a minute…
- Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass
This egalitarian friendship between African-American abolitionist Douglass and President Lincoln changed the entire course of our nation. During the American Civil War, their friendship proved a role model for the new America. Not only that but what resulted was the elimination of the legality of slavery in our nation.
- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and company.
Behind Dr. King’s great advances for freedom in our nation was a group of tight-knit friends. Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Dr. Benjamin Hooks, and Jesse Jackson were their names. All of whom were no light-weight political figures of their time. Even after Dr. King’s assassination they continued to carry the torch of his dream traveling the country, speaking, organizing, rallying and marching. Jesse Jackson, who had been with Dr. King on the day of his assassination, became a member of the House of Representatives and the first African-American U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. It says a lot when your entourage stays in the spotlight after you are gone.
Flipping to some more modern day examples in business…
Founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen. They grew up as childhood friends. They shared a love of computers and bonded over hacking computers together in high school. Revolutionary? Absolutely.
Founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The two of them became friends at a summer job in 1970. Wozniak was focused on building a computer and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Life-changing? No doubt.
- Ben & Jerry’s
Founded by Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. They, too, were childhood friends, only born four days apart. They met in high school and shared a love of food. They took a course in ice-cream making together in 1977. Arguable the best-tasting, most convenient ice cream of our day? Hands down.
What About You?
So, what are the big ideas you have in your life? And who are the people that will come and ‘play’ with you? Who are your friends that will put on a superhero cape to fight the bad guys, or grab their microphone and rock out on stage with you, or build a rocket ship out of cardboard boxes and fly to the moon together? Remember, there is no dream of Dr. King without his team and there is no Ben without Jerry. Make your friends a priority. They are worth it. Your life depends on it and the world does too.
Kumashiro, M., & Sedikides, C. (2005). Taking on board liability-focused information: Close personal relationships as a self-bolstering resource. Psychological Science, 16, 732-739.
Schnall, S., Harber, K. D., Stefanucci, J. K., & Proffitt, D. R. (2008). Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44, 1246-1255.
As humans, most of us would like to believe that we are capable of making sound, rational decisions even during times of stress or uncertainty. In reality, research shows that many of our decisions are tainted by past emotional investments, leading us to employ flawed logic when trying to make important decisions. One bias, in particular, referred to as – sunk cost fallacy – is particularly problematic, often causing us to make decisions that are not in our best interest.