“Love is a two-way street constantly under construction.”
– Carroll Bryant
Most of us have some idea of the kind of romantic relationship we dream of having. We anticipate the longing, the partnership, and emotional and sexual connection with another person. We assume that this heady experience will last forever and that we will live together, forever happily floating around on a pink cloud of bliss. The reality of relationships though is quite different. That does not mean “awful”, just different.
In the early phases of our relationships, we see the other person’s positive attributes and very few, (if any) of their flaws. We easily become sexually aroused by the person and it seems as if this connection, which feels spontaneous and constant is perfect. We are so intrigued by the other person that even disclosures about the minor details of their lives feel like a summer blockbuster which leaves us wanting more. At this point, our hormones are dictating our behavior way more than our capacity to calmly think.
From the abundance of scientific literature on sexual desire, falling in love and relationship maintenance, we know that each phase of relationships is aided and abetted by our hormones. The work of Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers university establishes three categories of romantic love and their links to hormones. Lust, (the infatuation stage) is characterized by surges in our sex hormones, estrogen and testosterone (which exist in all humans regardless of sex and gender), compelling us to engage in sexual activity with our new “person of interest” in an attempt to achieve sexual gratification. Parts of the brain also play an important role in this phase as well. (See here for a related article and visual). Oxytocin, knowns as the “cuddle hormone” is released during orgasm and helps in the process of bonding partners together, (this is a much more complex issue beyond the scope of this article). It is also responsible for bonding between mothers and their infants, which is the primary attachment context that most of us have as newborns. This leads to attachment to our beloved as it promotes pair bonding in adult humans too.
As relationships continue though, we start to see the “flaws” in our beloved which start to become annoying, enraging and/or surprising. We may pay far less attention to their inner worlds, be less curious about their thoughts and feelings and, experience disappointment when the frantic “falling in love” phase ends. However, this is a very normal occurrence as it is simply not possible to maintain the honeymoon phase indefinitely.
Most couples who come in to see me for relationship counseling report that they have “drifted apart”, that “the spark is gone”, that “life” has intervened and that after months or years of painful disconnection, they are coming in as a last resort. They are usually in a lot of pain and in some cases, there has been an instance of infidelity or some kind of betrayal that has put them into a state of emotional crisis. Many couples report that their sex lives are not “spontaneous anymore” and are disappointed as this is not what they expected in a long-term relationship. My work with them is to normalize this entire experience of relationship difficulty and to explain to them that there is hope.
What we do in couple’s therapy is to help them to understand that relationships have various phases and often, we need to work on re-building the capacity of the partners to become attuned to each other again. My approach to working with couples combines Emotion Focused Therapy (most prominently associated with Sue Johnson), and the Gottman Method (developed by John and Julie Gottman) which are evidence-based approaches to helping couples co-create the relationship they really want to have. Having done additional training in both methods and, having specialized in high-conflict couple’s therapy, I find that it is useful to briefly outline the factors that hinder connection and hasten the unraveling of romantic relationships.
The Gottmans, having studied relationships for over four decades, are able to predict with 94% accuracy which couples will stay together or split up. They have been able to identify the key “killers” of relationships and refer to them as the “Four Horsemen” of the relationship apocalypse. They are: defensiveness, criticism, contempt and stonewalling. The Four Horsemen can be overcome as clients become more aware of them and practice overcoming them with the guidance of a trained clinician.
Creating Moments of Connection
One of the simple things you can do to better your own relationship is to pay attention to creating moments of connection with your partner every day. We know that for every negative interaction we have with each other, we need five positive ones to counteract its effect. In order to do this, we should practice turning toward each other rather than away from each other. We constantly reach for our partners in large and small ways. These are called “bids for connection” and simply put, they are any attempt by one partner to seek attention, affection and reassurance of their connection to each other. Small bids show up as smiles, hugs, kisses, eye-contact, small touches etc. They also show up as seeking advice from our partners, the desire to hear about their day etc. In my own relationship on a day to day basis, it shows up as a random picture message of something funny one of us encountered, a cute emoji, a kiss at the door in the morning before we leave for the day, and just doing something nice for the other person without being asked.
It is impossible to catch every single bid for connection that our partners make but, with practice, we can get better at both making and responding to them. They are simply ways of showing our partners that we care and that we still value them. These are the five positive interactions needed to heal the angry disagreement we may have had about some other matter before, (the negative interaction or relationship rupture).
The idea of rupture and repair as a constant in relationships must be mentioned as society would have us believe that a “perfect relationship” is one in which there is no conflict at all. This is simply not true! From a purely logical standpoint, it is impossible for two people raised in different circumstances to seamlessly blend their lives without disagreeing on anything. In fact, when couples proudly declare that they “never fight”, I am usually therapeutically curious because it suggests that one or both partners has an avoidant conflict style and that there is likely a lot of resentment and or dishonesty and dissatisfaction bubbling beneath the surface. The ruptures themselves are often not the issue, (obvious exceptions would be serious betrayals and/or abuse of any kind), it is whether or not a repair attempt happens and how soon after the rupture they are made.
In my work with couples, I also do a lot of work around the identification of their patterns. Most couples report to me that they are having “the same fight over and over”. This is expected. The problem is not the content of the fight, it is really about the dance between them between one partner’s pursuing behaviour which prompts the other one to distance self from the conflict. Sue Johnson addresses this in her numerous YouTube videos, books and blog posts. I use it to help clients understand that in most relationships, one party tends to pursue and the other tends to distance or withdraw. Most often, we are re-enacting the attachment pattern that existed between our primary caregivers and ourselves in childhood, (remember oxytocin and its role in attachment?).
Differences in attachment styles established in childhood play a role in the types of conflict and our responses to them in adulthood. Securely attached people experienced loving relationships with their caregivers who understood their need to go out and explore the world and return to their caregiver when they wanted connection. This pattern establishes trust in the child that when they need support, their “grown-up” would be there. In adult relationships, this is explained by the question, “if I call, will you come?” A securely attached adult knows their partner will be there most of the time. That person is capable of tolerating the ebbs and flows of relationships and has a better capacity to handle the inevitable ruptures and repairs that relationships bring. In situations where one partner experienced inconsistent parenting in regard to the availability of their grown-up when they needed them, (sometimes there, sometimes not), it is expected that the person would grow up with what is referred to as an “anxious attachment” pattern. A more detailed explanation of this phenomenon and its subtypes is given here. Much of this workaround identifying patterns and attachment styles is uncovered in our work together in the therapy room. However, even non-distressed couples can benefit from knowing this so that they can start to realize that they are not alone in their difficulties.
Another common area of misunderstanding is in sexual expression. In the early days of a relationship, there is often constant sex. People constantly anticipate having it, have it, think about having had it, and plan for another opportunity to have it. This is when our hormones are raging and we are most in sync sexually. However, in long-term relationships, sexual expression changes. Work demands, raising children, financial management and extended family drama can sap our energy and alter our focus. Clients with tears in their eyes report to me that something is wrong with the relationship because they no longer experience spontaneous sexual desire. This too, is perfectly normal. Sex therapist and couple’s counselor Esther Perel has famously said “people have this myth of spontaneous sex”. She wrote an entire book on the subject called Mating in Captivity which is a must read for anyone in a long-term relationship.
The central point that Perel makes in most of her work, is that sex was never actually spontaneous to begin with. When we were dating, we made plans to see each other. That began the foreplay experience. We built anticipation, picked out our outfits, set the mood, took care of our hygiene and personal grooming to make the encounter perfect. However, when you live with someone, that sense of mystery is much harder to maintain. Perel reminds us that “foreplay is not five minutes before the real thing. Foreplay starts at the end of the previous orgasm”. In other words, it requires constant work to sustain sexual interest in relationships. She eloquently states this as sex in long term relationships is a “creative enterprise”. She also acknowledges that even those in the strongest relationships still hit sexual challenges. To normalize this is incredibly powerful for worried couples. The relief they feel when I share this with them is often almost tangible in the room.
It is important to have realistic expectations of our partners sexually. Asking them what they do and don’t enjoy is an ongoing conversation because it changes over time. Something that one person enjoyed a year ago may repel them today. That is perfectly ok. The more important thing is to constantly check in with each other about what still works and what new things you want to try together. Learning about giving and receiving pleasure is very important for a successful sex life. There are many resources to help with this including this one for the “not so faint of hearted”. You can also seek out a therapist who has done additional training in sex therapy like I have to help guide you through the areas where you feel stuck or embarrassed since most sexuality issues overlap with relationship problems.
Relationships do require effort. They open us up to experiencing the closest thing to the caregiver-infant relationship we will ever have post-infancy. Before you think of discarding a relationship that no longer feels perfect, remember that relationships go through different phases, that patterns of relating are formed in childhood and tend to endure into adulthood. However, we are not doomed to stay where we began. Change is always possible and relationships are constantly being co-created by the people in them. The truth is, you don’t need to wait until the proverbial “house is on fire”. My friend once told me that she sees couple’s counseling as “kale” for the relationship. When in doubt about your relationship’s future, please book a session with a relationship therapist to help guide you out of the rut.