As a relationship therapist, I’ve worked with couples of all ages, genders and sexualities, from a range of cultural and religious backgrounds. I’ve worked with couples that have been together for six months, and those that have been together for almost 60 years.
Most come to therapy feeling stuck and unable to change what hasn’t been working. Along the way, some common themes and conversations have arisen that go to the root of how we experience love and connection with our partners. Here are four things I’ve noticed that most couples that come to therapy are getting wrong.
1. There is no perfect partner. All relationships take work.
There’s a common misconception that if you choose the right partner, the relationship won’t ever feel like hard work. In actual fact, all healthy relationships must be a constant work in progress to keep them running smoothly.
Do you actively carve out quality time with your partner? Do you find small moments to connect – without scrolling on your phones – every day? Do you feel respected by each other? Are you open to hearing and acknowledging each other’s ever-evolving needs? Does it feel safe to bring up uncomfortable topics?
If the answer to any of these questions is no, then it could be time to start putting the work in, together. In my opinion, relationships can’t run on empty.
2. You don’t need to stop arguing, you need to argue better.
Couples often come to therapy and say: “We’re arguing all the time. We need to stop”. But as any relationship therapist will tell you, we don’t want couples to stop arguing. We want them to argue well – and in a way that enhances their connection rather than damages it.
The chances are that you weren’t taught or modeled constructive conflict behaviours. Without the necessary strategies, couples all too often find that their only options are to engage in painful arguments that leave them feeling unheard, lonely, and shut down, or avoid difficult and vulnerable conversations altogether.
In reality, between these two places is an ocean of space in which calm, emotionally-regulated conflict and connection can take place simultaneously. If you leave an argument with your partner feeling hurt, shut down, misunderstood, disliked or abandoned – odds are, you both need a way to argue better.
3. Your partner is acting like a child, and you’re parenting them.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been told that “my partner is basically another one of my children – I’m sick of them never stepping up or helping out”. You’re not imagining it. Your partner probably is acting like a child, and understandably, you’re probably acting like their parent de ella in response.
This is such a common dynamic in fact, that there’s a whole communication model built around the concept that we relate to others from one of three “ego states”: parent, child and adult. So, when you tell your partner, while wagging your finger at them, that you’re sick of their mess and that they must tidy up the house immediately, you’re speaking from your inner critical parent. And how would a child react to such a demand? They would either give in and resentfully comply, or become defiant.
So, when your partner rolls their eyes at you in response while continuing to scroll through Twitter like an obstinate teenager, they’re likely responding from their activated inner child, further triggering your parent-mode, which triggers their child-mode. It’s a cycle – and round the round about you will go, unless you attempt a third and more effective option: communicating from your “adult”, and inviting your other half to meet you in their adult too.
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If you are having a hard time finding that place, try channeling the reasonable, grown up, emotionally-regulated version of yourself that you’d take to work. How would you communicate your frustrations to a colleague, or a friend that you respect?
4. Nagging for sex is getting you less of it.
The most common sexual problem I see in the counseling room is “desire discrepancy” – where one Partner 1 wants more sex, and Partner 2 wants less of it in comparison. Person 1, craving more sexual intimacy, feels rejected, hurt, and undesired. Partner 2 person feels pressured, broken, and not good enough. These two sets of conflicting feelings can warp our relationship to sex and can also speak to our attachment needs and styles.
Sometimes the result of this is that “nagging” or pestering for sex becomes normalized between partners. It’s important to note that this can be closely tied to coercion, even in otherwise happy and healthy relationships. It’s also a counter-productive strategy in the long-term, as there is nothing less erotic than duty and expectation.
Despite that, couples often fall into the pattern of having sex to keep their partners happy, constantly reinforcing the belief that sex is not for their own pleasure but to purely satisfy their partner’s needs. Sex then becomes something to “get through” or “tick off a list of chores” so that the pressure stops for the coming days or weeks.
By the time many couples come to therapy, sex feels horribly complicated and confusing, and anxiety is sky high. But with some psychosexual education and open communication, it’s never too late to strip everything back, unlearn bad habits and rebuild the kind of sex life that is mutually satisfying for both parties.
Natasha Silverman is a relationship counselor and a couples and sex therapist