Entries in relationships (10)


How Can You Maintain A Relationship When You Are Starting a Family?

A lot of couples find that their relationship undergoes a drastic change immediately following the birth of a child.  There is often a misconception that having a child will bring a couple closer together.  However, the opposite is more likely.  While having a joint love and interest can allow you to see wonderful qualities in your significant other shine, it can also create new hurdles that previously didn’t exist or just seemed like minor annoyances.

The first facet of the relationship that is likely to be affected is sexual intimacy.  A lot of women remark that changes in their bodies make them self-conscious even before the baby has arrived.  Then, post baby, there is a period of time where healing takes precedence.  A lot of men tend to take cues from their significant other regarding the availability of intimacy so there is a tendency for a long period of time to elapse before normal physical intimacy patterns are restored.  While all of this is normal and transpires in most relationships, for some it is hard to get back to sexual desire once so much time has gone by.  Sleepless nights and physical exhaustion exacerbate the problem. 

Even though having a child is a wonderful experience, it is also a stressful one.  Like any major life transition, it requires a lot of adaptation, which can be very difficult for some.  Add in the demands of a baby and sleep deprivation and it is often a recipe for a lot of irritation, argument, and resentment.  Additionally, there is the whole new world of parenting decision making that may cause a couple to butt heads.  Communication patterns that may have been healthy previously may devolve and bad habits may develop that will be hard to break when things settle into a routine.

Furthermore, it is easy for a child to become the center of your focus.  This is especially true because each new experience causes a shared excitement.  The problem is that a child can become the only thing you talk to your significant other about, leaving no room for focus on other aspects of your relationship together.  Once you begin to disagree about parenting decisions, it becomes hard to see your significant other as more than an adversary when parenting is your biggest or only current connection.

Therefore, the question becomes, what are some easy things that you can do to keep your relationship healthy and strong during this period in your life and going forward?  First, I suggest a “Babymoon”.  Before the baby arrives take some time to be together.  For some people that involves a trip but it can also just involve a staycation where you are unplugged from everything but each other.  Talk openly about fears, concerns, and things that are important to you with regards to parenting.  Try to maintain some physical intimacy even if sex is out of the question and definitely keep a conversation about it going.  Make eye contact and touch each other lovingly a lot.  Foot massages and other forms of loving physical contact help maintain your connectivity.


Once the baby arrives, you may have your hands full, but make standing dates where you spend quality time together and don’t talk about the baby.  A candlelight dinner while the baby sleeps or a picnic lunch in front of the fireplace can be great ways to show each other that you are making your relationship a priority even if you don’t have reliable trusted childcare or money for outings.  While occasionally the baby may make keeping your appointments with each other impossible, it is important that nothing else short of a serious emergency get in the way of this time.  Remember, this is also a time where both of you will be sensitive to criticism and unsure of your abilities to be good parents, so praise each other often. 

It is easy to take for granted that your strong relationship with your significant other will still be strong when you adjust to this new journey on which you are embarking.  However, resentment is likely to build when your significant other feels that they are being taken for granted.  Keep communication flowing and find little ways to let your partner know that they are still a priority in your life. This small time investment now will pay off in a big way in the future when you are sharing the triumphs of parenting together as a team.


Should You Let Go of a Difficult Relationship?

I am often asked why I believe the divorce rate has become so high in this country.  Although I don’t presume to have all the answers to this question, I do notice a trend in the couples that seek out therapy and yet end in divorce.  While I still treat plenty of couples that have grown resentful and cannot even sit next to each other in my office by the time they come to seek my help, I also seem to be seeing a lot of couples that have positive feelings towards their significant other, but are nonetheless miserable in the relationship.  Unfortunately, the latter couples are more likely to end up divorced and my belief is that this is due to the relationship being flawed from its inception. 

The trend in our society has been for couples to seek out marriages later in life than previous generations.  There are many benefits to this lifestyle choice, including more career satisfaction and more maturity when entering the relationship.  However, it also seems to lead to fear of ending up alone and rushed decisions to marry, at least for many women, based on the fear of an inability to have families.  So when you meet someone who is mature, well rounded, has built a nice life for themselves and is an all-around good person why would you not want to spend the rest of your lives with them?  The problem becomes that sometimes two wonderful people have had life experiences that don’t allow them to meet each other’s needs. Of course, there is little worse than a spouse who is unable to meet your deepest needs.

When someone comes to my office in these circumstances I often hear statements about how they have shared their desires for changes with each other and their partner is receptive.  Sometimes there is even an initial push to make those changes in order to save what is basically a good and loving relationship.  However, over time those changes fade and the old behavior patterns emerge and both parties are left frustrated all over again.  They are eager to uncover why this keeps happening and how to solve the problem.  

The reason is often easy to determine: people grow and adapt based on experiences with their families of origin and other relationships.  For instance, they may learn through a difficult childhood to be extremely self-sufficient, thus making inclusion of their significant other difficult when it comes to emotions, major decisions or milestones.  It may not occur to such a person to share big news or skip an important work meeting for a birthday.  None of these decisions makes this individual a bad person, but it may make them a bad partner for someone who watched their parents be a connected team and place value on being present for celebrations of each other.

Solving these problems is a much bigger task and ultimately sometimes an impossible challenge.  The couple mentioned above can learn how to navigate these differences once they understand they are present and implement systems for making these decisions.  The question is whether they are both invested in changing and that investment comes when they recognize their behavior as a problem for their relationship.  Unfortunately, if their behavior is not something that they can recognize as a problem, it is not likely to change.

My advice would be to consider letting go of relationships where your needs are not being met, even if it means that you are letting go of a wonderful person.  Just because someone is a good person does not mean they are the right person for you.  Often understanding that someone is loving you in the best way they know how, but it is not the way you need, helps you to let go.  Think about whether the relationship you are in meets your needs.  What things do you truly need to make you feel valued and understood?  Everyone deserves to be with someone who can meet their needs, whatever those needs may be, and while nobody will likely be a perfect match to everything you want you should never stay in a relationship where you are thinking that someone will change for you over time.  I ask each couple that comes to see me before they get married one question and it is a good question to ask yourself about your relationship: if your significant other never changes would you still want to be with them?

If you are already in a relationship that you think may fall into this category, do not despair.  I always advise meeting with a therapeutic professional who may be able to help both parties gain the self-awareness necessary to make compromise possible.   Either way, open communication and an awareness of the real underlying problems within the couple’s dynamic will be incredibly helpful to improve any relationship.  While it is never easy to make a decision about whether or not to end a long term relationship, I hope being armed with some information about why it may not be working will help you come to the best possible decision for you.


Can Men and Women be Friends Without More?

Yesterday I was listening to a great new radio program called “The Happy Hour” on TODAY Show Radio (SiriusXM channel 108).  The show included lively discussion about relationships, and more specifically, the question of whether or not men and women can be friends without more.  Not surprisingly there were differing views regarding whether or not this was possible.  The thoughtful comments and insights on the show made me think about the patients I have seen over the years and how small steps across boundaries can lead to extramarital affairs.  There are definitely patterns in the seemingly minor problems that lead to major boundary crossing.  Awareness of these patterns can help prevent you from putting yourself in situations that are potentially damaging to your romantic relationship. 

It is my opinion that men and women can be friends in certain circumstances.  Of course, the key to sustaining a healthy friendship with anyone is creating and maintaining appropriate boundaries.  I think this is especially true of male/female friendships.  If you are behaving towards your friend in a way that would upset you if the same were true of your significant other, that may be a good benchmark to use for your boundaries.  It may also become important for you to ask your partner about where they feel the boundaries should be in order to avoid trouble in your primary romantic relationship. 

One factor that can influence whether a relationship can successfully be maintained on a friendship level is the circumstances under which you meet the individual in question.  For example, men and women who meet in professional settings are more likely to develop friendships that are healthy and appropriate than those that meet out socially.  The professional capacity of the relationship sets implied boundaries that facilitate the friendship’s harmless nature.  Regardless of what boundaries are introduced at the beginning of the relationship, however, it always remains important to respect and maintain those firm boundaries as the friendship moves forward. 

I’ve also noticed that men and women seem to view this issue through very different prisms.  For many women it is important that they do not share too much of themselves and develop a strong emotional connection with their male friends.  These emotional connections often cause boundaries to become blurred and potential affairs to take root.  For men, the impetus to cross boundaries often seems to be much more related to flirtations and physical proximity.  These differing motivations can also result in the two friends having drastically different perceptions of the relationship. 

One should also be mindful of the priority he/she is placing on their romantic relationship compared to other relationships.  It is typically symptomatic of a problem if you are investing more time and energy into a relationship with a friend than with your significant other, especially if that friend is the opposite sex.  Have the self-awareness necessary to recognize when you are at risk of losing the proper balance between these relationships. 

I believe that maintaining fidelity to your relationship with your significant other has to come from an awareness of, and faithfulness to, appropriate boundaries.  It also helps to invest a lot of time and energy into your relationship with your significant other and not to share emotional experiences with your friend that you wouldn’t share with your significant other. Additionally, don’t badmouth your significant other to the friend.  This may lead to comparisons such as my friend listens to me more than my partner.   Avoidance of comparison is extremely important.  Someone that you share responsibilities with cannot possibly be fun or energetic all the time whereas you might primarily be seeing your friend in their best environment.  When you compare people in this way, you might as well be comparing apples and oranges.  Maintaining healthy relationships with opposite sex friends may seem like a minefield, but if you respect boundaries you stand a better chance of maintaining the appropriate balance in your relationships. 


Maintaining Good Sexual Intimacy

One of the tensions that often comes up in couples counseling is sex.  After all, one of the things that automatically goes downhill in long-term relationships is your sex life, right?  Wrong!  While it is true that initial sexual chemistry creates an influx of oxytocin in your body creating a new relationship euphoria and these levels do go down after about two years in a relationship, your sex life does not need to suffer.  The key is keeping the novelty and variety while appreciating the trust and emotional intimacy that lets you explore your boundaries in a safe and secure way.


Maintaining a good sex life starts with maintaining a good connection with your partner.  I advise couples to make the relationship a priority amidst their busy lives.  Put date nights and spending fun time together first, before other commitments, to the extent possible.  Try to keep some spontaneity in the form of things like lunch break meet ups (even if they are at home), naughty notes or early morning promises to leave your partner thinking about what might lie ahead after work.  Go back to the art of making out.  Nothing is sexier than the anticipation of what comes next.  Think about things that you both enjoyed while you were dating that disappeared from your sex life.  Are there ways you might reintroduce some of those things?


And talk about it!  Sex is the least discussed thing in relationships despite the fact that it is one of the biggest expressions of emotional intimacy.  Start with a discussion of the things you like and enjoy about your current sex life.  Once the discussion reaches a certain comfort level, introduce issues in your current sexual interactions by presenting differing ideas or solutions to things you see as problems.  It is much more likely to be well received, for example, if you tell your partner that you would like to try having sex somewhere other than the bedroom, than if you tell them that always having sex in the bedroom is boring.  Be positive and sensitive to their feelings.  It is also vital to listen to what your partner has to say with an open mind.  It is okay to draw boundaries with things you are not comfortable doing, but those boundaries need to be expressed in a constructive way.  Nobody wants to talk about their inner desires if they know that their partner will make them feel judged.  If you keep communication open, you may find new avenues that interest both partners and keep things fresh.


If you don’t know where to begin, why not do a little research?  Exploring extreme fetishes through books or visits to sex shops often allows you to become aware of which sexual boundaries you have that are firm.  It also may give you ideas of which you might be open to exploring further and will very likely make you more open to the discussion.  Simply enjoying the search together can breathe new life into your relationship.  Just make sure you keep your mind, and the communication, open. 



Can Your Relationship Survive Long Distance?

In our modern society where jobs and relationships can take you anywhere around the globe, many people are faced with periods of time where they are physically separated from their significant other.  As a result, clients often ask me to provide advice for maintaining and growing a strong relationship despite these periods of separation. 

There are many factors to consider when evaluating the potential success of a long distance relationship.  First, what is the expected duration of the separation?  In my experience, relationship separations that have defined time limits fare better than those that are indefinite.  Second, during what stage of your relationship will the separation occur?  While individual experiences will vary, a period of separation may be less impactful at the beginning of a relationship when oxytocin levels are high and you are insulated by the euphoria of a new love than during other periods of increased stress and uncertainty (for example, when you have recently embarked on the journey of parenthood where responsibilities have increased while oxytocin levels are dipping drastically). Finally, is either person in a high risk factor group for infidelity?  These groups can include things like substance abuse issues, major life transitional periods, and high stress work environments. 

So if being apart from your partner is unavoidable or you decide it might work for your relationship, how do you give yourselves the best chance for success?  As with all aspects of a relationship, communication matters.  Discuss expectations and set clear boundaries for what constitutes infidelity.  You would be surprised how many couples take this for granted and end up discovering that they have very different ideas of what actually defines infidelity.  Use technology to your advantage.  Programs like Skype and FaceTime allow you to stay connected and close the geographical gap by maintaining visual contact with your partner and their living environment or new friends.  If you and your partner are separated by a significant time difference, use email or text messenges to leave your partner a surprise to wake up to.  However, don’t forget the power of a phone call. Communicating by phone while away from your partner may actually allow for deeper communication.  Not having to look someone in the eye while talking to them often removes inhibitions and may make emotional subjects easier to discuss, leading to heightened emotional intimacy.  It is crucial to also have plans to see each other regularly because there is no substitute for physical contact and sharing of daily living.  I also recommend small surprises such as mailed letters, flowers, funny cards/post cards or small silly gifts to let your partner know that you are thinking of them, even when you are apart.


While there is no foolproof plan for making a long distance relationship work, making your relationship a top priority gives you the highest likelihood of success.  Communication and maintaining a strong connection is the key to any health relationship, even a long distance one.  Don’t despair.  Despite what you may have heard (including from your friends and family), long distance relationships can work.