As told to Rosa Silverman, NZ Herald on the 29th December 2021
The pandemic has taken a toll on many couples, but not all have been equally affected.
The general story, which I have seen in my psychotherapist practice over recent months, is that prolonged periods of enforced time together have meant that couples whose relationships were already strong have become even closer. But if things weren’t great with your other half beforehand, the pandemic is likely to have exposed the cracks.
The reality is that it is far easier to muddle through when you’re busy with your own lives. But as the usual distractions fell away; work trips, parties, hours in the office, weekend breaks – people came face-to-face with the blunt truth about their relationship. And, for many, what they saw came as a shock.
Some who had been together for years had developed a comfortable, or at least a tolerable, routine. But once this had been stripped away, they found they couldn’t communicate any more, unless it was about practical day-to-day tasks. For some, these strange and difficult times have led them to notice there was no spark remaining.
If any of this sounds familiar, it doesn’t have to mean your relationship is doomed. Far from it. Here are some easy ways to reset it for the new year and get things back on track.
Are you being heard?
One technique I use involves getting couples to sit and face each other. After one has spoken, the other must repeat back to them everything they have heard them say. Instantly, you can see where the gaps exist. Most of the time, when people are supposedly listening to their partner, they are actually formulating replies in their head. But when you’re in a relationship, you want above all to be heard by the other person. It is part of how we feel connected to each other.
I then ask the speaking partner to repeat what they want to express until their partner gets it. Then I ask the listening partner: what are you hearing and what does it mean? Does it make sense to you? Only when you make an effort to understand where your partner is coming from will they feel validated.
Crucially, you don’t have to be able to offer solutions. Empathy is often enough; words like “I understand what you’re feeling”. I find that women in particular simply want to be heard, and don’t need their male partner to present an answer. Many men, meanwhile, are often afraid to express what their own needs are, partly because they don’t always know themselves, and partly because they have been socially conditioned not to. But allowing yourself to be vulnerable is allowing yourself to be understood.
Your partner isn’t a mind-reader
Almost every couple can remember a time when they couldn’t stop talking – usually at the dawn of their relationship, when everything seemed so exciting. What would you do to go back to that time? Would you actually want to? Try to remember how you used to speak to one another. Just because the ease with which you once communicated has been lost doesn’t mean it can never be regained. I try to encourage couples to say one thing they’d like more of and one thing they’d like less of in the relationship. Little by little, this can help both to voice what they want and need.
Often, it’s anger or frustration that stands in our way. So I say to people: “Do you really believe your partner would deliberately set out to make you unhappy? Can you give them the benefit of the doubt and accept that is not their intention?” The aim is to neutralise some of the negative emotions that impede good communication.
We mustn’t expect our partners to be mind-readers. We need to be better at expressing what we feel and, if possible, why.
Don’t live in denial
Get the above right and you’ll have progressed a long way towards achieving the connection and intimacy that we crave in any relationship. But accept it won’t always be plain sailing. Sometimes I say to couples: “Let’s not try to find solutions today, or even talk about the problem. Let’s just sit with this uncomfortable feeling and see what happens.” I believe true intimacy is created by being able to do this.
Try breathing in tandem or simply acknowledging that things are difficult and we’re all going to experience tough moments. If we create a strong enough bond, we can get through stormy times. Don’t be tempted to distract yourself from your relationship problems, by drinking, for instance. This means you’re not addressing them and they will have no way of resolving.
Give your partner a reason to want to sleep with you
The physical side of the relationship often falls by the wayside when you’ve been together for years. People stop making the effort and it’s rare to encounter a couple in which both partners want the same amount of sex. A more common scenario is one in which one partner would like more than he or she is getting.
For women, it’s often a craving for more intimacy that leaves them unsatisfied, rather than a desire for more sex. But I have observed that women are the ones who seem more willing to compromise: they may sacrifice intimacy and have more sex than they want to, whereas men are less willing to sacrifice sex for intimacy. There’s no silver bullet for rekindling physical attraction, but one easy step is for both partners to make some effort to be appealing to the other.
Too often we make ourselves attractive to the outside world, then change into ancient tracksuit bottoms at home and expect our partner to still want to jump into bed with us.
See yourself through your partner’s eyes: are you giving them a reason to want to sleep with you? Have you started neglecting yourself at home and assuming they’ll want you anyway, just because you’re there?
It’s worth both partners making the effort and seeing if anything changes. Often if you rekindle your sex life, other improvements follow.
Find a sense of adventure
Long-term couples can also forget the sense of shared adventure they once had and which is important for keeping the relationship fresh. Ask your partner what they want to do and what would make them happy. It might be something small, such as spending an evening together where you don’t talk about the children, or receiving a compliment. You can go on all the expensive holidays you want, and buy all the fancy gifts, but none of these are a substitute for feeling valued. If you can try new things together and also have great – or even average – sex then you’re on to a winner
Five first steps to a reset
• Stop expecting your partner to mind-read
• Learn to communicate again
• Find out each other’s needs
• Establish if you both want to travel in the same direction
• If you have children, discuss what you want to show them about adult relationships