ROMANCE THAT WORKS

February is a month that one either dreads or dreads more, from what I hear–and yet it does not have to be so! I notice that the dread affects both those who are in relationships and those who are not–with just slight differences:

    • dread for those in relationship can include anxiety
    • dread for those who are single can include depression

The source of this dread just one day in the month–you guessed it–February 14th, Valentine’s Day. What is currently an opportunity to celebrate love and romance has turned into a day where love is often tested and romance is bought.

But it does not have to be this way.

The power we have as humans is the ability to make choices that align with our values–regardless of what others are doing! This includes our choices about love, sex, dating, and romance.

In this Special February Issue, we will take a look specifically at romance, and how to make choices about it that work–meaning less dread, anxiety, and depression–leaving you to experience more fun and love.

THE BITTER TRUTH ABOUT ROMANCE: Here is what needs to be understood about romance: it was never intended to be mixed up with love. There are many theories of where romantic love began. In Medieval times, for example, it was something of a social ritual that bolstered the public status of those involved–who most often were not in an actual relationship with each other! Romantic love was more of an ideal to pursue for personal and social gain, not something to actually achieve–it was a motivational tool of sorts!

Over time, as marriage became an act of choice for many, “dating” began and romance became the primary fuel for relationship building. This would have been fine except for one problematic influence from previous times: people equated feelings of romance with actual love. Rather than differentiating passion, or sexual chemistry, from real love, modern dating culture fused them, resulting in a misunderstanding of what we feel towards our object(s) of desire.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE: Have you ever eaten a slice of chocolate cake? If you have, and you liked it, then you will remember how you were able to enjoy it even while knowing that it had nearly zero nutritional value. And yet despite this ability to reason intelligently about what we enjoy, we regularly abandon reason to experience infatuation with someone, thinking we are “in love”. Just as chocolate cake is not broccoli, infatuation is not love!

The distinction between initial passion and time-developed love does not have to be bad news. Just as you can enjoy chocolate cake while recognizing it has zero nutritional value, you can enjoy infatuation (and the romantic feelings that come with it) without thinking that it is love (yet). In fact, if you do so, you may enjoy it more because there will be less anxiety about it.

So why isn’t romance love? Because it is based on an ideal rather than a reality. Romance is about the one feeling it–how it makes them feel interesting, sexy, young, and alive. It is about perfection and fantasy. It is not about the other person–the other is just the catalyst for feelings that make us feel better about ourselves.

On the other hand, real love is about the other person, not about you! Romance during infatuation is about bonding and attachment–real processes that brings people together–but they are not love. Love takes time to form because it cannot happen until there is an empathetic and caring understanding of the other person and an interest in their inner emotional world.

The biggest mistake one can make when seeking love is to assume that if you feel romantic toward someone, you are “in” love. This assumption will actually prevent you from moving toward real love, because romance has you see the other as you want them to be, instead of as they are. Preferably, romance is an ingredient of loving relationships, not the container. So how do you make it work well?

HOW TO MAKE ROMANCE WORK: Let’s go back to the chocolate cake for a minute. Remember that there is nothing wrong with enjoying cake, as long as you don’t kid yourself into thinking you are eating broccoli. This is how you make romance work for your relationships. You enjoy it for what it is, and not for what it isn’t. 

Many people think that romance is something you either feel or don’t feel–but actually it is something that we can (and often do) choose to feel toward another. Just because you choose to feel it does not mean that it is not authentic. And in relationships of a year or more, choosing romance is a smart decision because the closer you get intimately, the less romantic you may feel towards each other–the elements that fuel intimacy and romance are oppositional.

So you make romance work by choosing it and then allowing the brain and body to follow your intention. Why do so many suggestions for building romance include soft lighting, sexy music, and candles? Because that helps put us in a romantic mood–you are setting the stage for romance! This seemed to be the idea behind Valentine’s Day at one time, but somewhere along the way romance became an expectation of love rather than a desired and chosen effect of it.  Romance is an element of love, not the proof of love.

***

Just as you would never dream of eating only chocolate cake (or would you?), you would not want a relationship to only be romance–that won’t get you very far. At some point, all our partners will “let us down”–they’ll get sick or have a blemish, they get impatient with us or become depressed. This is all part of life, and it is not very romantic. But as a team you can both choose romance whenever you want to experience it together, in the same way you can choose to have a slice of cake when you desire something sweet.

It’s great when romance comes “naturally”, but when it doesn’t, chosen romance is still romantic. Why not take advantage of both options?

MAKING MONOGAMY WORK

When the holiday bustle ends, there can be a feeling of “letdown” that follows as we return to our “regular lives”. This is not the only option for us, however. We can look at the beginning of the year as a time to “clean house” in our lives and relationships–we can toss out what does not serve us anymore and dust off what does.

One issue that can gather quite a bit of dust is the topic of monogamy. It is possibly no coincidence that it sounds so much like the word “monotony”–because for many couples, that is exactly what monogamy feels like! I like to invite couples who are invested in monogamy to thicken it, so to speak. Most of us are raised with a “thin” story of monogamy: we will be attracted to and have sex with one chosen partner for the rest of our lives, AMEN! That is like tofu–sounds good in theory, but not very appealing in reality unless you “spice it up”.

In order to make monogamy work, it can be helpful to adjust our approach to it as well as our perspective. Instead of feeling like a jail cell, it can feel like a protective fence around your relationship. But how? In order to make modern monogamy work, I had to look back about 250 years for inspiration…

KANT’S PHILOSOPHY: The appeal of philosophy for me is that it is not simple–it deals with the complex reality of human behavior and thinking in a way that modern self-help books do not. The former is concerned with understanding as a way to live better, the latter more often concerned with easy fixes that neglect underlying conflicts. Philosophy can help me to understand modern issues in relationship because we still have the same core needs.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a philosopher who was interested in an approach to “goodness” that did not rely on religious stories–he was interested in a way of living that was motivated from within because he suspected that such a morality would be unflappable. He came up with something called the Categorical Imperative.

Regarding monogamy, I want to refer to the second section of his philosophy, which is called the Formula of Humanity, and it simply states:

“Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

What this means to me is that it is best to go into relationships with others using “respect” as your behavioral guide, something I wrote about in my last post. When you respect someone, you won’t try to “use” them to get something (unless they agree to this). You won’t see them as a means. Why is it disrespectful to see someone as a means? Well, because it is treating another person in a way that you would not treat yourself, in essence placing their value as less than yours.

APPLYING KANT TO MONOGAMY: If you are wondering how this applies to modern monogamy, bear with me! Monogamy today is treated as an end rather than a means, and this is, in my observation, one big reason why it so often fails. Monogamy, rather than being a chosen active approach to a couple’s sexual relationship, is being used to symbolize commitment. It is dead in the water. You want to know what I notice? The majority of people who cheat on their partners love them very much–commitment is not the issue!

When monogamy is used as an end rather than a means, then our partners are reduced to being a measure of our virtue and sex becomes a proving ground. Not fun! We have used monogamy as a gauge for virtuous commitment: to ourselves, our partners, and in the eyes of others. This in turn makes our partners a tool for our own reward. Another way of putting it is that we have turned our partners into a means for us to feel good about monogamy.

What if we instead used monogamy (means) to feel good about our sex life with the partner we are committed to (end)?

When we treat monogamy as a means to something positive in our relationship, it can open up all kinds of delicious fun in bed! This is because when monogamy is a means, it changes from being a descriptor of commitment into being an instrument for commitment–one that is used willingly and joyfully. It is acting on this premise:

“I choose to have sex only with you, because that is respectful to me, to you, and to our current relationship agreements, and it strengthens our commitment to remain interested in each other over time.”

Chosen monogamy (means) is very different than imposed monogamy (end). Chosen monogamy requires mindfulness, because if you decide that you want to be with just one person sexually for any reason (and there are some good reasons to do so!), then you will benefit by making it interesting. Monogamy does not equal monotony if you choose it mindfully.

So how do we do that?

THICKEN IT! Mindful relationships are the goal of couples therapy. A mindful relationship means that two people see each other as not only a partner, but also as an individual with differences. Do you think you can meet every need that your partner has? Good luck! But you might find that you can meet many more needs than you thought possible, merely by:

    • finding out what they are
    • deciding if that is a need you want to fulfill
    • being willing to move outside your comfort zone at times

With sex, we often fall into a very thin understanding of our partner’s needs based on “what worked” at the beginning of the relationship. When this limited repertoire becomes boring, that is usually the time when eyes wander to others. What if, instead, we could see our commitment to monogamy as a means, with our and our partner’s sustained sexual interest as the end? How might that influence how we approach each other? How might it influence how much we reveal to each other or ask? How might it influence our own sexual development, and our interest in our partner’s sexual development? How might it influence how much effort we put into keeping things interesting and fresh?

***

One downside of living in an advanced society is that we sometimes think that everything should be “easy”. This can work against us. Some things require effort, regardless of how advanced our technology is! Having a satisfying, long term, monogamous relationship requires effort no matter how much you love each other, but effort that is applied in the right areas can pay off handsomely.

By treating monogamy as a means, rather than an end, I am suggesting that you put effort into defining monogamy for yourself and for each other–thickening it so that it fits your relationship rather than your parents’, and allowing you to see a rich sex life with your partner as a wonderful end goal rather than a way for you to feel good about values that may never have been  yours in the first place!

You want monogamy to work in your relationship? Put in the effort to bring it alive, and clearly define where you hope it will lead you. Treat it as a means to the preferred end!

 

THE BEST GIFTS YOU CAN GIVE

During the holidays, it is typical to give gifts to people we love. This can include partners in an intimate relationship or marriage, of course. Many times I have heard clients say to me, “I don’t know what to give my wife/husband/partner!” This statement always makes me sad, because I wonder why we don’t know what gift(s) our partner would love to get! How can we not know what makes one another feel joy?

This being said, I also understand the amount of pressure that many feel to “get it right” when it comes to gifts. Rather than being an expression of generosity and love, gifts sometimes are a testing ground for the level of commitment one has in the relationship. Good grief! No wonder anxiety, for many people, spikes during the holidays!

This is why I wanted to write about gifts that rarely disappoint–gifts that offer what is universally desired and wanted, regardless of culture, age, or race. They are gifts that can ensure that all other presents are received with gratitude and appreciation, because the act of gift-giving will no longer be a litmus test for how well one is loved or known.

What are these gifts? Read on…

THE GIFTS THAT NEED NO WRAPPING PAPER: Despite our technological advancement, we are still mammals who require caring in order to thrive. Unfortunately, we live in an economy that convinces us we only need products. If that were true, why is anxiety at such high levels, given that many of us can get any product we want at any time?

What I notice is that many people use products to counteract isolation, loneliness, insecurity, and stress. This works in the short run, but rarely has a lasting effect. But I can understand the appeal when person-to-person caring is either not available or not offered, even when one is in a relationship.

If genuine caring is what we really need to thrive, then what are the key elements? Let’s look at four that are important in any loving relationship.

NURTURING: Nurturing is easier than most of us think. It requires more that we simply show up and less that we try to do something.  If you think that nurturing means “making someone feel better”, then allow me to suggest an alternative meaning. When we are upset, it is often very hard to feel better, and thinking that we should feel better can make it even worse. Nurturing is not about making someone feel better. Rather, it can be thought of as a way of being present with someone in pain. Not doing anything, just being there. And when someone is in pain, usually the most helpful way to be there is to say, “I am here with you.” 

This five-word phrase is what we most want and need to hear when we are hurting and feeling all alone and misunderstood, because it does not require that we be or do anything in return. It does not force us to justify our pain or take care of someone who is caring for us; instead it just lets us know that we are not alone in our pain, and that can be very comforting. It is a way to show your trust in another’s emotional intelligence, while showing them that they can trust you to handle what they are feeling. Nurturing is comfort, in the form of presence. “I am here.” 

EMPATHY/UNDERSTANDING: Empathy is related to nurturing, but it is not the same thing. It is part of the process though, in that it is what can come from being with someone in their pain–empathy is the experience of feeling, on some level, what the other is feeling. Not just understanding it, but actually feeling it, and holding it. It is the process of seeing the problem from the others’ perspective so that we can understand why they are in pain. This understanding gives us the best chance of responding in a way that actually does relieve pain.

I have seen countless couples upset with one another because well-meaning efforts to comfort their partner and respond to their pain land with a thud. This is not because they don’t love their partner, but because they don’t fully understand what the pain is about–in order to relieve hurting we have to know how and why someone is hurting! The how is found out through an empathetic connection, and the why is uncovered by the understanding that comes from empathy. To be on the receiving end of this is nothing short of the greatest experience of being loved.

INTEREST: The type of interest I am talking about is not the kind you get from your bank, where you get a return on your investment. It is instead the opposite kind of interest–it is a way to invest in your relationship in order to get a return. What is that return? It can be boundless regarding what you get from your partner and what they get from you. The power of interest is that it is the action-based expression of love. It is well and good to tell someone that you love them, but it is an entirely different thing to show it in such a way that they feel loved. 

Many couples talk about their “love languages“, and certainly these are good to know about in yourself and in each other.  But the truth is that we don’t always express or respond to just one love language, so even if you know them you can miss the mark with your partner–this is where interest fills in the gaps! Interest is fueled by your genuine and caring curiosity about your partner: what makes them tick? What brings joy to their lives? What upsets them? What is their favorite and worst part of themselves? What are their vulnerabilities?

Interest is the means to this end: making sure that your partner feels truly loved by you, not just for what you like or what you see, but for who they are. (To read my previous full post about Interest, please click HERE.)

RESPECT: I saved this one for last, because it is possibly the most important element in caring–you could say that it is the tent-pole element under which all other elements fall–if you respect your partner and their inner world, then nurturing, empathy, understanding,  and interest will more naturally follow.

What is respect? In the simplest terms, it is act of honoring another’s differences as valid. Respect does not require that we agree with or even like another’s differences, but it does require that we recognize and appreciate them as part of our beloved. Why would we do this? Because this is what real love is–caring about another’s well-being not because they are exactly like us or because they make us feel good or sexy, but because their well-being is important to us! This process is ignited by the initial bonding process, but it is cemented into being over time, as the bonding becomes attune-ment.

Respect leads you to real love.. It is not co-dependent to feel joy when you make your partner truly happy, and sometimes this requires catering to differences we don’t easily understand. Interest can help foster respect for the ways you and your partner diverge. We often find that the differences are not so different at all–that they are tied to shared needs and values. Certainly there are real and perceived threats that work against this understanding, but if partners allow their interactions, responses, and agreements to be guided by respect, then those threats will not present any real challenge to the relationship.

Respect, in action, will discourage sarcasm, needling, taking things personally, and misunderstanding, and will mutually encourage and strengthen all the elements of caring.

***

The elements described above need to be intentional choices, because our brain is wired to be biased toward suspicion and threats (even if they are not real), and this is where couples often need help in choosing. As a couples therapist, I help couples (and individuals) understand the benefits of taking a stand against threats. It can be very hard to set aside our self-protection in relationship, but by regularly making this choice, and having a partner who can then respond accordingly, we can choose nurturing, empathy/understanding, interest, and respect more often. It becomes easier, the threats feel less threatening, the connection becomes stronger, and the rewards become greater!

These are the best expressions of love we can give to one another during the holidays, and all throughout the year, and they don’t require any wrapping. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that couples therapy is the wrapping paper for these gifts. This is the best gift you can give to one another–it is a way to say this relationship matters to me, it matters enough to work on, and I want to work on it with you.

Who wouldn’t want to receive that gift?

 

ULTIMATUMS DON’T WORK–DO THIS INSTEAD

You’ll know you are doing it right if you get a smile!

As a general rule, we don’t like uncertainties–they challenge our sense of security. But uncertainties are a part of life, so the more we try to avoid them, the less prepared we are for when they inevitably show up. In the martial arts, practice is done with the hope that the skills will never have to be used; it is the knowledge that you have the skills and are prepared to use them that help you to face the world and its various threats with confidence instead of fear.

What this means regarding relationships is that it is more effective to concentrate on our response to people than to focus on changing them–the former is within your power while the latter is not. And if you have the skills for responding well to others, then you might just see any potential threat as less of one.

One of these skills is knowing what to do instead of giving ultimatums, because ultimatums never work! At least they never do if you want to get closer to the person you are giving them to–in fact they result in the opposite of closeness. Yet I notice that people love giving them, and they still expect them to work. Why is this? Why do we love ultimatums? And if they don’t work, what should we do instead?

WHAT IS AN ULTIMATUM, REALLY? Let’s look at what an ultimatum is. I define ultimatums using what I have learned and read combined with my experience, and what it comes down to is this: an ultimatum is a demand for behavioral change. If you have been reading my posts regularly or are a client of mine, you will remember that demands never work! They don’t work because they are forcing someone to do something against their will–so while you might get compliance in the short term, you will get rebellion and resentment in the long term.

Examples of ultimatums are:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again!
  2. You better stop doing that!
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again!

If you have ever said anything similar to the above examples, or heard them from your partner, it can be an indication of a lack of differentiation, or a lack of self-defining in the relationship, according to Dr. Ellyn Bader, co-founder of The Couples Institute. While this sounds serious, it is fairly common in that our needs as individuals are often not attended to during key developmental stages. Many times clients will not even be able to tell me what they want! When this happens, how can we even access our needs to communicate them? This often causes ultimatums to become the default response when we feel distressed in our relationship.

WHY DON’T THEY WORK? Ultimatums are a shortcut to getting what you need, without actually asking for what you need. This is why they don’t work–the receiver doesn’t know what you really want, they just know what behavior you want them to stop without knowing why. This information alone is rarely enough motivation to change our behavior. The best motivation to change behavior is having an empathic connection to the person who is upset–an emotional understanding of what gets triggered in them when you behave that way or say those words.

It isn’t the behavior that is necessarily wrong, in fact most of the time it is not done with bad intentions, it is just what the person is doing. The problem happens when their partner feels triggered by that behavior–but this is only a problem if neither partner knows what to do in this situation. The natural reaction is to protect oneself–but that results in disconnection. What works is counter-intuitive, but it results in connection, understanding, and closeness.

WHAT TO DO INSTEAD: If ultimatums don’t work, what does? It is important to remember that we cannot actually change anyone, but we can influence them! So talking about how you feel followed by what you need works because it has the best chance of influencing the listener by engaging their empathy for your distress.

Let’s use the previous three examples and change them from ultimatums to empathy-generating statements:

  1. Don’t EVER do that again! becomes: When you do that, I no longer feel safe in this relationship and that makes me feel sad and also angry at you.
  2. You better stop doing that! becomes: I cannot live with this behavior because of how triggered I get. Will you please to stop doing that? (This example includes a request–a tool that also works when in conflict)
  3. I will leave you if you do that to me again! becomes: If this happens again, I will have to re-think being in this relationship because it is makes me feel badly about both you and me.

The third example shows what a boundary looks like. A boundary is different than an ultimatum in that a boundary is about you, whereas an ultimatum is about the other. Letting someone know what you can and cannot live with is important information for them to know (and for you to know as well!). A boundary draws a line and then lets the chips fall where they may–leaving the other the willful choice to adjust their behavior or not–this is also information you need to know in order to make decisions about the relationship!

So what works instead of ultimatums is to:

  • Notice what feeling or threat the others’ behavior is triggering in us
  • Letting the other know this information without being critical of their behavior
  • Making a request for them to stop the threatening behavior after clarifying why it feels threatening.

***
The reason we give ultimatums is often because we don’t trust that others care enough for us to adjust their behavior. This distrust can be rooted in past betrayals and abandonments, but it surfaces in our current relationships, even when the triggering behavior is the opposite of betrayal or abandonment! This is why it is critical to know your trigger points–these can be identified and explored in individual work. With this knowledge, you have a better chance to regulate yourself down when you get triggered and communicate what you need–recognizing that what you are feeling is more about you than about what the other is doing.

The takeaways on this topic can be summarized in the statements below. Feel free to put them on an index card or in your phone to refer to when needed:

  1. Our partners do not cause feelings in us, they can only trigger them.
  2. We cannot change our partners, but we can influence them.
  3. It is always better to respond than it is to react. (Response requires both the right AND left brains, while reactions come primarily from the right brain.)

In my practice I help couples practice these new skills, because they are the opposite of what we want to do and have learned to do. Many good relationships are ended unnecessarily because the partners don’t have these skills to use during conflict. If you have trouble implementing them yourself, a trained couples therapist can help you out.

WHEN IS ANGER OKAY?

We turn away to protect ourselves

It’s not a surprise that many of the couples I see in my practice come in angry with each other. I am always glad they they came in, because anger, if not properly expressed, can ruin a relationship. My job is to reach the feelings underneath the anger, and help each partner be vulnerable enough to share these with the other, giving them an opportunity to respond in a way that connects them.

This is not easy. However, it is the best way I know to avoid ending a relationship that does not need to end–a relationship that may have several wonderful things going for it!

Let’s face it–we all get angry at times. Anger is not the enemy, but the reality I see is that few people actually feel genuine anger and express it at the time they are feeling it. Instead, they find themselves acting out of aggression or rage, both of which are behaviors and not feelings, according to Anita Avedian, LMFT, author of Anger Management Essentials. These behaviors are also, unfortunately, destructive and sometimes deadly.

So what do we do? Well, the first step is recognizing what anger is, and what it isn’t, and looking at which you are doing in your relationship(s). The next step is learning and practicing expressing healthy anger, while acting to stop aggression and rage before they ever get going. This can take weeks of work, but I am happy to share the basics with you in this article. So when is anger okay?

THIS IS NOT ANGER: Anger is an emotion that is not valued properly. Healthy anger is basically about letting someone know that something is not right, because you are feeling upset with them. For the receiver, this is good to know! But what often happens is that we equate anger with aggression, which is not a feeling at all, as I mentioned above, but instead a behavior.

Avedian writes that aggression is “an abusive was of behaving verbally, emotionally or physically”. Sound familiar? I see this in the world and in relationships everyday. The reason this is not anger is because anger’s intention is to let someone know important information about your boundaries and triggers. Aggression, however, has no intention of letting anyone know anything–the goal of aggression is to hurt the other person.

Rage is another behavior that can, according to Avedian, result even in death. “Rage”, she writes, “is a response to a threat to pride, status, or dignity.” Its intention is to “control or silence the other”. When you read about a murder/suicide, it is most likely the result of rage. Both aggression and rage occur because we are too often discouraged from feeling anger, as though the feeling itself is the problem instead of what triggered it.

THIS IS ANGER: So how do we feel and express anger in way that is healthy to both us and the receiver? First of all, we have to even know that it is there–we need to be tuned in to our emotional world enough to know when we are feeling upset about something. Our bodies help us to do this. When I get upset, I notice my heart rate increasing, my face getting flushed, my attention sharpening. Noticing what happens in your body will help you to recognize anger before it turns into aggression or rage. As Avedian says, anger is “a signal, or alarm, that something is not right, that we don’t feel okay about what we’re observing.”

When you notice feeling upset about something that someone is doing, the best way to express this upset is to use an emotion tied to a person and an event. It might look like this: “I am hurt that you didn’t return my phone call for two days.” Why is this okay? Because there is no judgement in the statement about what the other person was thinking or doing–the statement just includes what happened (the call was not returned for two days). While this approach won’t guarantee that the receiver won’t get defensive, it has the best chance of being responded to in a caring way. That is healthy anger, and when expressed well it can lead to positive change.

***

We get angry at people we love–it is part of being human and in relationship. In my experience working with couples and individuals, I observe that most anger comes from feeling not understood, disrespected, or not cared about. Anger in these cases is a notice to the other that something is lacking, NOT a notice that they are necessarily doing anything wrong. Most couples never intend to hurt their partners, but sometimes we do. If the hurt is expressed in a healthy way, we can respond to it in a way that increases connection, safety, and trust. This is why anger is not a bad thing.

If you want to practice this in your relationships, use these tips:

  1. Start paying attention to the messages your body sends you when you get upset.
  2. Address the anger as soon as possible instead of letting it smolder.
  3. Talk about what you are feeling, not what you think the other is feeling.
  4. Turn any statement you have about the other into a question for them to answer.
  5. Show curiosity about their intentions instead of assuming that you know what they are.

If you are mindful to practice the above steps, you may see a shift in how you feel about both conflict and your loved ones. You will learn that at times, anger is okay!

HOW TO KEEP SEX GREAT

It starts before you get into bed.

I admit I may be “biting off more than I can chew” with a short article on this topic, but I feel that it needs to be addressed because it comes up so often in my practice. Everyone loves “great sex”, and everyone wants to have it (well, almost everyone)! Nothing wrong with that, but it is important to first explore what makes sex “great” for each individual–you may find out that it is different for others than it is for you!

Great sex is whatever YOU and your partner(s) want it to be. For some, that does not always equal “feeling good”–sometimes it equals “pain” (with consent, of course!)–but no matter how we experience pleasure, most want their sexual activity to bring them closer their partner, most want to feel cared about, most want to feel better about themselves as a result. Does this happen automatically? Not necessarily. Some effort is required to keep sex delivering the rewards we enjoy and desire.

Notice I said “effort” and not “work”. Few people like to think of “work” and “sex” in the same context, and yet for many that is exactly what it feels like more often than not. Some clients tell me that sex feels like a job to them. That is fine if you love your job, but if not, something needs to change! In this article I intend to give you some ideas of where to direct that change, so that you don’t end up where you started.

BE INTERESTED IN YOURSELF: What does it mean to be interested in yourself? Isn’t that being “self-involved”? Yes and no. There is a difference between grandiosity and curiosity when it comes to the self. Rather than thinking you know everything about yourself, I suggest being curious about yourself as a sexual being and a sexual body, because believe it or not, you change over time. What pleases you? What excites you? What scares you (just a little bit)? What turns you on now? What no longer turns you on?

One of the easiest ways to explore your sexuality is with self-pleasure. This in itself can inform many things just in the way we think about it–do we see it as harmless fun, a weakness, or a “sin”? Do we feel shameful or celebratory about it? Do we feel that it is something that should be “controlled” so that we don’t do it too often? Are there fantasies that we feel we should not be thinking about when self-pleasuring? Are there parts of your body that you don’t like to explore for pleasure?

It can be very useful to take some time discovering your own body and mind, allowing yourself to freely notice what feels good, without judging it. When we know our own bodies, we can approach sex with more confidence, guiding our lovers to things that please us. Additionally, getting interested in your own pleasure can inform how you please others, since we all have biological similarities.

Who are you now? What makes you feel vulnerable/powerful/sexy/loving? Do you like to laugh during sex or cry? Do you want to be looked at, or do the looking? What are your fantasies? Is sex a release or an exercise in control for you? We are always changing throughout our lives–being curious about who you are now can reflect in others being interested in you as well. If you feel you are genuinely interesting (meaning: interested), that is how you will likely be seen.

Speaking of which…

BE INTERESTED IN YOUR PARTNER: Sex today has become, sadly, like commodity trading. We look for what we want, and offer what we are willing to give. If there is a match, a good time can be had, in that our needs get met, but what is missing? Discovery and connection.

Treating sex as a trade-off isn’t bad, per say, but it diminishes it somewhat from what it can be, which is a way to connect, build trust, transform, and express love. There is no way we “should” have sex, but why diminish it unnecessarily? I see this happening mostly because some people are afraid of closeness and vulnerability–it is too risky. I get that, but if you are reading this article, then I suspect that is not you, or if it is you, that you want to change.

So if you want to connect with your partner(s), get interested in them. Sex is a great opportunity to get interested in them, but you don’t have to wait until the big moment. Our partners are sharing information with us all the time, and if we pay attention, we will learn a lot about what they like and don’t like. But showing interest means going further than just paying attention–it means asking questions–questions that come from your curiosity about how they are unique and different from you.

You like your neck to be kissed? Maybe they don’t! It helps to ask about that–but you don’t have to ask a yes or no question (Do you like your neck kissed?), you can instead ask open-ended questions: “Where do you like to be kissed?”, or “Do you like it when I touch you there?” Remember that questions, and answers, can be communicated nonverbally, and they can be presented both in and out of the bedroom. Who is your partner now? Finding out can be erotic for both of you.

In my work with couples, I often assign what is known as sensate focus exercises. These exercises allow a couple to take orgasm and penetration off the table to make room for exploration and discovery of each other’s bodies apart from the genitals. It can be a wonderful and fun way to get interested in not only what arouses your partner, but what arouses you to do to them! Ideally, getting interested in your partner is also going to give you information about yourself that you may not have been aware of.

MAKE SPACE: Sex takes time. The average sex act lasts anywhere from four to nine minutes, but even so there is time needed to get ready, make sure the kids are sleeping, shower, etc. Couples with small children have an especially challenging time fitting sex into their marriages/relationships, but I notice that even single folks struggle with scheduling free time.

In my practice, I tell couples that in a marriage with kids, the marriage “comes first”, but in a divorce, the children do. This does not mean that you leave the kids on the back porch while you do it in the bedroom, it just means that a healthy and satisfying marriage benefits the children–who often pick up on any anger and tension in the household and internalize it. Children also benefit from seeing appropriate and healthy expressions of physical affection between their parents. You don’t have to delay affectionate foreplay until you are behind closed doors!

Good sex does not take hours, but it does often require mutual intention and planning. Couples will tell me that they want sex to be “hot and spontaneous” like when they were dating, and I then ask them how long they spent “getting ready” for those dates? An hour? Were they not consciously or unconsciously getting ready for the possibility of sex? What made it feel exciting was the anticipation and the sense of risk–elements that Esther Perel has famously talked about as two of the key components in passionate sex. These made fade a bit as time together goes on, but they don’t have to disappear, and this is one way to make sure that you are not only making time for sex, but wanting to.

It is up to you to decide if making space for sex in your relationship or marriage is important, but if it is, being intentional about it is critical–just as you make time to eat, shower, or sleep. It might require that you lessen the time you spend on your devices by fifteen minutes, but when you weight the benefits, you might find it worth it, as NO device satisfies our need to connect and bond with another person quite like sex does. Scheduling sex can be sexy if you want it to be, especially when it results in you have more sex!

***

It used to be that sex was a leisure/pleasure activity, but in today’s fast world, it seems to be just another pressure-associated task to complete or avoid. You can bring it back to its roots with a little bit of mutual intention and effort, and perhaps some healthy boundary-setting with children in the house. It IS okay to close or lock the bedroom door (depending on the age of the children and if they need to be looked after) while you connect with your partner in sensual and erotic ways.

Just remember that in order to be interested in anything, you have to find it interesting! Our long-term partners are no exception. If you pay attention to each other and get curious, you may find that they are just as mysterious and exciting as when you first were dating them. The added bonus is that if you have spent time building trust and security, this can be a great place from which to take risks with each other. If you don’t have that secure base, couples therapy can help you build and strengthen it together.

Sex in long-term relationships can continue to be great in ways that are far more satisfying than consensual hookups, but you have a role if making it great. That is good news, as long as you are willing to get interested in each other and in yourself. So what are you waiting for?

WHEN YOU CAN’T TALK TO EACH OTHER

There are alternatives to the stalemate.

In many couples, during conflict there is one who wants to settle things right away and one who needs time to “cool down”. Who gets their way? Well, in my work it is never about “who wins”, but instead what is best for the relationship of two people. That often requires both sides giving up a bit of what they want for the good of the whole. Easier said that done when emotions, and defenses, are high.

Traditionally, women are the pursuers in relationships and men are the withdrawers. Women often want to talk about how they feel, men prefer to solve problems. The difficulty with this is that those are two different conversations with completely opposite sets of rules, so no wonder problems get swept under the rug until the next blowup. (Hint: There is no such things as reality when you are talking about feelings. We feel what we feel despite what is or is not going on in the outside world.)

In this article I will share an alternative to the stalemate, a way around the impasse that is actually more–it is an approach that can bring couples closer even when in conflict. Because let’s face it–there are times when you should NOT talk to each other! Let’s talk a look at what is behind one person needing to talk, and the other not wanting to…

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE NEEDS TO TALK NOW: Generally when we talk it is because we have something we need to communicate to another. At times this need to communicate is more urgent, especially if we are communicating our response to a real or perceived threat. What is the purpose of communication under these circumstances? Mostly, when we need to talk urgently in response to a threat it is for the purpose of letting someone know that someone is not right. This is how we express healthy anger–we let someone know we are upset.

The problem is that most people don’t do this–what they do instead is attack the other or defend against them. Attack often includes criticism: a statement that includes a judgement and often a demand. This does work if your purpose is to push the other away or threaten them in return–but it does not work if we want them to care about why we are upset and respond to our concerns.

The latter requires that we refrain from attack and instead share our upsettalk about what is going on with us in the moment. Needing to talk right away signals that something is wrong to us and we need to let the other know what that is and how it makes us feel. But in order to do that successfully we have to trust that our vulnerability will be received with caring and curiosity–elements often in short supply even in loving relationships. We will explore what that looks like in the third section of this article, but let’s first examine when someone does not want to talk.

WHAT IT MEANS WHEN ONE DOES NOT WANT TO TALK UNTIL LATER: You might be with a partner who “shuts down” when there is conflict between you. I notice in my practice that in many relationships there is one who wants to talk immediately and one who wants to wait until they have a chance to “process” their feelings. Who is right?

Both are! Every individual has their own way of responding to conflict, and this usually includes not just forming a response but also how to protect ourselves if we feel attacked. For those who need to talk about it immediately, this is their way to feel safe–they have to resolve it right away! For them, waiting is often torture and more painful than the original conflict. It triggers feelings of unimportance and insecurity.

For those who want to wait before talking, the goal is the same–to feel safe, but they do this by creating some distance from the conflict and the attack. For them, the conflict itself is the most painful event, often because it triggers feeling out of control, judged, and criticized–another way of feeling in danger. Time and space give these partners a chance to regulate their agitation and form their response without feeling as though they have a knife at their throats.

As an example, I used to suffer from hypo-arousal during conflict, and the result was that my physical body literally shut down–I couldn’t talk and would feel like I was in a state of partial paralysis. Whoever I was with didn’t know how to respond to this because it appeared as though I had just decided to leave my body. They were right! To continue the conversation would have required me to remain in a disregulated state–and that was too dangerous for me. A greater understanding of this state made a huge difference in my responses.

It is important to understand that just because someone does not want to talk right away, this does not mean that they don’t care about you!

HOW TO MEET IN THE MIDDLE SO BOTH BENEFIT: There is no true meeting in the middle, but there is a place where you hold onto what is important to you while leaning into what is important to your partner. Whether it is in the middle or not is irrelevant, that it happens is more important, because this is an example of what the Gottmans call “leaning into the relationship“, and it results in connection, trust, and security.

Since most couples consist of a partner who wants to talk right away and a partner who wants to process first, how do you lean into each other during conflict? Well, as I said earlier, you may have to wait no matter how badly you want to talk, because if one of you is dis-regulated then talking will likely not go well. However, this does not mean that the one who wants to talk has to suffer and wait. Here are some steps of what to do:

  1. If either of you are disregulated (either hyper or hypo-aroused, left brain shut down) then wait–the experts suggest 20-30 minutes to allow for regulation.
  2. Even in a state of dis-regulation, we have the ability to be respectful and give our partner a time when we will be available to talk or listen. Don’t leave the other hanging! Let them know when you can talk: “It sounds like you really want to talk about what happened. Please give me 20 minutes and then we can check in about discussing it.” You are allowed to revise your timeline, but a timeline must be given as it is respectful and caring for the one who is waiting (and respectful to the relationship!).
  3. When you come together to talk, decide who will be the talker and who will be the listener so that you aren’t competing for roles. You can switch later, but it is important that whoever is talking be given the opportunity to fully express themself. (Hint: The talker is usually the one who was upset in the first place.)
  4. Don’t reality test! This is one sure way to derail a productive talk since in the “land of feelings” there is no reality. We feel what we feel, whether it is what the other feels or not, and if we don’t get the “details” correct, well, that is not as important as hearing about the feelings that go with what happened. You don’t have to agree with what the other feels, but you do have to accept it as their perceptual truth! If you are the listener, focus on what the other is feeling and less so on the accuracy of any details. It is never about the details, and always about what they feel.
  5. Agree ahead of time to act as a team. Make an agreement that you both will stop if things are getting “out of hand”, and make sure that the agreement includes talking about it at a later time when you are both calmer. If you act as a team, you will treat the problem as the problem rather than your partner as the problem! Additionally, as individuals, it is crucial to practice self-regulation so that we don’t make our partner responsible for what we are feeling.

The main take-away it that sometimes in order to resolve conflict, we need to acknowledge the differences between us and our partner. Forcing them to do it “our way” will only increase the disconnection and push-away. Remember, it is not about winning, it is about caring, and the greatest form of caring is interest in your partner. In conflict, that sometimes means accepting that they cannot talk right now. But they will. And evidence of that over time will reduce the urgency to talk before both are ready, and make the conversations you eventually have more connective!

HOW TO ALIGN GOALS

Seeing eye to eye can be tough at times!

Falling in love can be like a dream, in that we often feel as though we have found our “other half” or “lost self” because it seems as though we share every single goal with our new partner. I remember when I was in my twenties I would meet someone and not be able to imagine ever having a conflict because the pairing felt so well matched. Of course, in time conflict did occur, and when this happens it can feel as though the rug has been pulled out from under us!

I often tell the couples I work with that when things like this happen, it is only bad news if you don’t know what to do with it. In other words, conflict and differences do not have to be deal-breakers, they can in fact bring you closer together if you talk about them respectfully and with curiosity. The truth is that there is nobody who is exactly like us in every way–there are always going to be differences.

But what happens when goals aren’t aligned? Not sharing a like of action movies is very different from not sharing a like of children! What if one of you wants to move out of the city? Or change careers? How about when one person becomes religious or leaves the religion you shared when you got together? These issues are not just “preferences”, they are often linked to what is most important to us. How do you navigate these shifts in core values?

It can be challenging, but it is not impossible, and it all depends on knowing how to talk to one another. Guess what, we usually don’t know how. I often will work with couples for weeks or months to help them discuss divergent goals and values, but here are a few key points that can help you right out of the gate. 

BE CURIOUS RATHER THAN JUDGEMENTAL: Curiosity is your best friend in a relationship, especially when it comes to discussing differences! Our brain is wired to feel threatened by differences, so successful conversations require making conscious choices about how we listen to one another. If one of you wants to travel the world and the other prefers to focus on building a home together in one place, it helps to dig a little beneath the conflict. Curiosity pushes judgement aside because it goes beneath the surface difference to the shared humanity underneath. Willing compromises and solutions to problems are possible from a place of shared perspective and understanding.

We are meaning-assigning creatures, and in today’s world where our roles in society are increasingly up to us to decide, it can be difficult to build an identity or know where we stand in relation to others. Some people set goals as a way to ease that process, and it can work, but it can get messy when our identity and values are linked to what we do. Differences in goals can feel like a personal attack on what we value, but they rarely are–they are just differences that have yet to be explored and understood. 

How couples talk about this is critical, as it can divide them or connect them, depending on how they do it. What should they be curious about in these conversations? 

FIND COMMON AREAS AND OVERLAPS: Underneath every goal is a desire for a certain experience or feeling, and exploring these can help to reveal areas of commonality and overlap. This is important because commonality and overlap can connect you to one another and weaken the fear that your differences are deal-breakers. 

In my experience with couples, there is always commonality, because we are all human! Goals, no matter how different, tend to work toward similar meanings and feelings: feeling valued, purposeful, creative, stimulated, etc. If couples can see past the surface look of the goal, they will often discover shared meaning. (If they don’t, then that is also useful information to have as you make decisions about the future of the relationship!)

This is why constructive conversations about goals look for areas of overlap rather than areas of difference. In order to have these conversations, it helps to give your partner the benefit of the doubt and to hold the idea that they are with you, and not against you. The way we approach conversations if influenced by how we think about conversations!

WORK TOWARD COMPROMISE AND DECIDE WHAT YOU CAN GIVE UP: I want to address the concept of compromise briefly, as it comes up in so many discussions with couples. Most people have half the concept of compromise down: you give up something you want in order to get something. But there is another half that is necessary if you want the compromise to result in connection instead of resentment, and that is that the compromise must be willing.

A willing compromise does not mean that you have to agree with the other or even like the compromise, it just means that you do it willingly. This is the key to avoiding resentment and contempt down the line–and the good news is that it is not that hard to do because we do it all the time! Have you ever gone to work on a day when you wanted to stay in bed? If you have, you probably thought you were just “sucking it up”, but in fact you were making a willing compromise with your work. On the other hand, if you spent the day at work bitter and fuming, there is a good chance that you went to work unwillingly!

Willing compromises are a key ingredient to successful relationships and problem-solving. Without them a couple will tend to see the other as a competitor and a threat, resulting in disconnection and resentment.

REGULAR CHECK-INS: Finally, I want to mention the value of doing regular check-ins with your partner. I have trouble understanding why couples expect a relationship to move along smoothly without checking in with each other from time to time–can you imagine running a successful business that way? We regularly meet with our business partners, our doctors, even our friends to discuss “how things are going” and to review goals and progress, and yet when we think of doing this with our partner we are resistant because it can feel “unromantic”.

Romance and passion are often the end results of efforts made along the way–they are usually spontaneous only during the courtship phase. You can make your check-in into a ritual you both look forward to, and a way to practice healthy communication and mutual understanding. I usually recommend doing check-ins once a week, on the same day and at the same time if possible so that it becomes tradition, and they don’t have to last more than fifteen minutes. Here are some things to discuss during check-ins:

  1. Review progress on ongoing goals and projects.
  2. Review the upcoming week of each partner and ask if there is anything each needs to be aware of in the others week.
  3. Ask if the other needs support in any way during the upcoming week, and make a request for support if you need it.
  4. Talk about sex: what is working and what is not–any new ideas or questions–is everyone happy with the sexual relationship?
  5. Finally, find out if the other is bothered by anything recent and needs to talk about it, or let them know if you need to talk and be listened to. It is good to finish this off by sharing what you appreciate about each other or by commenting on something they did well or that made you feel loved.

Remember that check-ins are not about “being right” or arguing–they are a tool that can strengthen your relationship and connect you to each other. A small investment that can lead to a big reward!

***

I hope for the day when we are less threatened by one another’s differences and instead more curious about them. I also hope for the day when we recognize our many shared values–when it comes down to it most of us want the same thing: to feel loved and safe. How we get there may be by different roads, but by knowing how to talk about goals, we may find that our roads are more parellel than we thought. You don’t have to be on the same road to be moving in the same direction with your relationship!

IS LOVE A FEELING OR A CHOICE?

I recently read an opinion piece that explored what led to a more successful relationship: feeling love for, or choosing to love, a partner. This got me thinking about the two, and whether they were in fact different approaches at all. The debate is often based on data showing that arranged marriages, those in which the partners meet only briefly before commiting to a life together, tend to be just as happy as love-based marriages (suggesting that choosing to love someone works as well as feeling it “naturally”).

What is going on here? If we can be just as happy in an arranged marriage as a love-based one, then why go through all the trouble and expense of dating? If dating does not guarantee a better match than one set up by your parents, what is the point? I started thinking of all the time that could be saved! And yet there is not just one right way to start a relationship. The concern for me as a couples therapist is whether the approach my clients take to relationship is working for them.

Love is often misunderstood, and that can get us into trouble. It is like thinking that if you have courage, you have no fear–when courage is a response to fear, not the lack of it! If you take love as a stand-alone concept, you might be missing the point. Rather, think of love as the heading for a whole list of influences–love is a category, not an item. So when we ask if love is a feeling or a choice, the answer is…yes! Let’s look at why that is…

THE BIOLOGY OF FEELINGS: When we meet someone and feel a connection, we may think that it is “love at first sight”. Let me assure you that it never is love! What it is is the limbic system (a series of structures in the brain that release hormones and are involved in emotion and motivation) wanting desperately to bond with the other, and if it finds someone who it attunes to emotionally, physically, and intellectually, well, that need to bond can feel overpowering–like love. But it’s not. More likely it is your limbic system releasing dopamine and  norepinephrine, making you feel really great when you are with this new person!

This is why it is a good idea to hold off on starting a sexual relationship with someone new–giving the rational brain a chance to catch up with the limbic system. This is not a moral stand, but a practical one. The lymbic system does not evaluate whether a partner is a good match–it just wants what it wants. This is why feelings can mislead us into thinking that something is a good idea. Ideally we use both parts of the brain when making emotional decisions. If we take our time, we give our brains a chance to bond based on time spent with a person, resulting in the eventual release of oxytocin and vasopressin, the bonding hormones. Love, or care and concern for the other, begins to build. True love is not about us!

DO WE CHOOSE OUR FEELINGS? The short answer is: sometimes. Since the brain and the body are part of a system, they work interactively and they affect each other. Sometimes we have a feeling that causes us to think a certain way about what is happening, and sometimes we have a thought that result in a feeling. I suspect that in arranged marriages where love develops, it is a result of both processes happening.

I often tell couples that if you want to be in love with your partner, “act” like you are in love with them. This is a cognitive exercise that uses thought to trigger feeling.  Have you ever gone to a movie that you want very badly to love? Your thought about wanting to love it will influence how you feel about it, regardless of the merits of the film! You can’t completely separate the brain’s rational thought processes from its feelings center, so why not use it to your advantage? Go with the “feelings” initiated in the limbic system, and then use your rational brain to either support or suspend that process.

LOVE AS A CONSCIOUS CHOICE: It is time to do away with the harmful, foolish, and frankly crazy notion of “falling in love” as an actual state of being. Let’s replace it with a combination of both the great feelings that occur during attraction and a rational exploration, over time, of whether the other is responsible for his or her own stuff, and responsive to yours. This approach uses the best of both feeling and choice, and can lead to healthier results!

Choice is best done with an awareness of what the options are, and therapy can help to uncover these and make them conscious! I like to think that this type of work on the self helps one to respond to the world rather than react to it–leading to a more preferred experience and outcome. What could be wrong about that?

We all love falling in love because it feels great and makes our “regular” world extraordinary for a while. I am here to say that by inviting the rational mind into the process, that extraordinariness can be extended into something real and lasting: secure attachment with another and feeling cared for. Relationships are hard enough even when they are good, so why make them more difficult by relying only on your feelings? When you make love a choice, the odds are that you will feel even better about it in the long run!

WHAT, EXACTLY, IS CHEATING?

Of all the issues that bring couples into therapy, cheating seems to be in the top five. Despite the frequency with which it happens, it seems that relationships are not prepared to respond when it does. Contributing to this lack of preparedness is the widely held belief that “It could not happen to us.” What is going on here? Is this a case of simple denial that we have the tendency to stray, or is there an element of human sexuality and relationship that we don’t know enough about?

No one will argue that cheating destroys trust. Less subject to agreement is what exactly constitutes cheating. Defining it is not so simple, because to do so requires taking into account culture, generational trends, gender, value systems, and more. Cheating is not just the act of having sex with someone outside your relationship; the parameters change all the time, so the definition is fluid. But despite evolving mores and influences, there are consistent qualities running underneath all the definitions that can help us to make choices about what works for our relationships.

Let’s take a look at what those consistencies are, whether cheating can be prevented, and if a relationship can be repaired once cheating occurs. But first I want to explore why there is so much confusion around cheating, and how to lessen that.

DO YOU HAVE AGREEMENTS?  When a couple comes in to my office because of an infidelity, I always ask what their agreements are concerning sexual/emotional needs being met inside and outside the relationship. You know what I usually hear? They have none! If they do have an agreement, it is usually not of their making–instead it is the “implicit” rule of marriage/commitment that states that you will only have sex with your partner for the duration of your time together. In other words, instead of agreements, they have assumptions.

These assumptions would be just fine–if they worked. Sadly, they rarely do, or else everyone pretends that they do. Now there are couples who successfully remain sexually monogamous to each other, but often they are supported in this commitment by their religion or culture. This does not mean that they don’t struggle privately with the commitment, but often their private doubts are overruled and pushed aside by their public beliefs. But with so many younger couples moving away from their religion and culture, where is the support for their relationship commitments?

Support needs to come primarily from within the relationship in the form of agreements. Agreements can change over time (and will!), but I find them absolutely necessary and helpful in making sure that partners walk a parellel path together. What issues might they benefit from discussing in order to form agreements around sexual fidelity?

  • Whether sex outside the relationship is allowed (and what constitues “sex”)
  • If masturbation is okay at home, either with or without the partner
  • Flirting/Having crushes on others–is that okay?
  • The role of porn either alone or together
  • Online activity: chatting with others randomly vs. having a regular communication with someone
  • Needs that are not being met by the other, sexually and emotionally; needs that we want the other to meet
  • Frequency of sex together/making time for it/satisfaction levels
  • Fantasies, new interests and curiosities

As you can see, there a lots of things to talk about that often are never talked about until they cause trouble. Why wait until then? Now let’s look at what cheating actually is.

WHAT IS CHEATING?  If you ask the average person on the street what cheating is, they might answer that it is having sex with someone other than your partner. This is true if sex with others is not part of the agreements, but that does not mean that that is all there is to cheating. But since this is the most common betrayal, let’s explore what makes sex with others cheating? It depends on how you define it. I define cheating as any action of intentionally breaking the relationship agreements in a deceptive or secretive way.

The key words in this definition are: intentionally, deceptive, and secretive, and to answer the question I posed at the beginning of this article, they are the consistent qualities behind every act of cheating. This definition, you may notice, does not specify an action–so cheating could be sex with others, and it could also be chatting online or watching porn alone–it all depends on what the agreements specify. This is why having them in place is so important!

Intentionality holds so much weight because any actions that come from it are either for or against the relationship. The Gottmans like to say that we are always leaning in or leaning out of the relationship. Intentional actions that lean out of the relationship aren’t necessarily cheating, but cheating is always leaning out of the relationship. Similarly, deception and secrecy are actions that lean out, not in. If you have ever been with someone who deceived you, you will need no convincing of this!

Deception and secrecy, when they are intentional and meant to hide the fact that an agreement has been broken, are betrayals that are difficult to repair, but it can be done with the help of a skilled couples therapist.  Let’s explore what the repair might look like.

CAN IT BE REPAIRED?  Repair is not all I do for relationships where betrayal is present, rather it is just one approach. Often, repair is not possible, and the couple has to explore starting from scratch. This is work, but it can also be more invigorating than it sounds! Many times, relationships have long ceased to be “alive”, and starting fresh can literally feel as though you are in a new relationship. Whether you want to repair or restart, willingness on both sides is essential. If one partner is not at least willing, the process will be a bumpy road that leads to a dead end.

Regardless of whether the intention is to repair or restart the relationship, it is important to first address the “betrayal” itself, and the effect that it has had on the one who was betrayed. Couples therapy cannot progress until this is attended to, because the hurt feelings will sabotage the work. Apologies are not the answer here–what is needed is an empathic understanding of how the betrayed feels. This can be difficult and painful work, but without it the wound will fester and infect the entire relationship. An apology cannot be issued until there is full understanding by the betrayer of how the betrayal affected their partner. Any attempts to apologize before that will come up empty and only increase resentments.

Once this step is accomplished, the couple can talk to each other to understand how the problem appeared (a shared description), and how it worked to push them away from each other and into betrayal. These conversations are best done with the guidance of a skilled therapist so that defensiveness and criticism don’t derail attempts to understand each other. With perserverance and intent, a couple can emerge on the other side of cheating into a more respectful and loving version of relationship. Couples who stick with this work report having better marriages–more honest and caring, with less taking each other for granted.

CAN IT BE PREVENTED?  Ideally, cheating will never happen, but there are no guarantees in any relationship. Nevertheless, there are ways to prevent cheating for the most part, and the good news is that these actions are fun and will bring you closer together. What can you do to keep cheating out of your marriage?

  • Don’t just have sex–TALK about sex. Discuss satisfaction levels by focusing on what is working well and making requests for what might make it work better. Instead of telling your partner what you don’t like, guide them toward what you do like–help them to get to know your sexual body and your erotic self. Remember, anything goes behind closed doors–as long as there is shared consent.
  • Have discussions about what your agreements are, and check in to see how they are working. Be frank–let your partner know if you are bothered by anything from porn viewing to phone use–but talk about how it bothers you rather than criticizing or judging the person doing it. Ask questions if you need to understand what you don’t understand or are not familiar with. That leads us to the next tip…
  • Be curious! The moment you assume that you know everything about each other is the moment the relationship stalls–make space for new interests and fantasies to be introduced, and accept that your partner is going to change, just like you are. Replace judgement with curiousity and you will improve your marriage immediately.
  • Admit that you will each be attracted to others, and that you may even want to have sex with others. This does not mean that you have to act on these feelings, if your agreement is that you don’t but pretending that it won’t happen is a surefire way to “tempt the devil”, as they say! Just because you find another attractive does not mean that you no longer find your partner attractive–it just means that you are alive!
  • Don’t get bored with yourself. Cheating is often a quick fix for feeling dull, unattractive, and bored–if you don’t work to feel good about yourself, how do you expect your partner to feel good about you? This is not just about working out at the gym, but also about trying new things, exploring your interests, challenging yourself, making a game out of “routines”.
  • Be loving to each other every day. The Gottmans are known for emphasizing the importance of positive interactions, especially during conflict–they say they are essential to having a strong healthy relationship. Loving actions can be small or large, it doesn’t matter, but the key is that they come from love–you want your partner to feel cared for by you. It does not take much, but the payoff is tremendous. Loving actions and words pave your relationship road with trust and closeness so that you can have those challenging discussions more easily.
  • Be respectful! This last tip could be the headline for all the others, since respect ensures that you remain interested and don’t run the risk of “missing” one another. Respect will motivate you to cherish who your partner is, who they are becoming, and who they have been, and respect will have you cherish these same qualities in yourself. Respect will discourage you from judging how you are different, recognizing that “being right” is one way to lean out of the marriage. Loving another person is not easy–honor the one who chooses to love you, and you won’t need to cheat. What you will do instead is talk and listen to each other, and adjust your agreements to better suit who you currently are both together and individually. This is respect, and in my opinion it is more important to keeping a relationship together than love.

Remember that cheating is not just about sex–that it is a betrayal of shared agreements and an act of disrespect toward your partner and yourself. And it doesn’t “just happen”. If cheating happens, you can use it as a sign that something is not being attended to between you–or you can make the other the villian and give up. Cheating is not the ultimate betrayal, it is just one form of betrayal, and it could be seen as a symptom of a shared problem. This does not let the cheater off the hook, it just keeps them from being strung up on the hook for life–a mature marriage will process the hurt and betrayal, and work together to unearth the problematic shared dynamic.

It is sad to see an otherwise good relationship end because of one instance of infidelity. It is time to reconsider how we think about love, sex, and marraige, and I am not the only one saying this. Love is not enough to keep someone from cheating on you. Love is just one element in the complex mix that makes up a relationship.  By attending to all the elements, you stand a better chance of being in a living, secure partnership–one where the love is earned and cherished and not just based on fantasy. Trust me, the effort is worth it!