Is your love life still not back on track after a tough year? The psychotherapist Jean-Claude Chalmet explains how long-term couples can transform their relationships
Every Saturday, rather than telling him to be grateful that there’s milk in the fridge, the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, 49, makes Brad Falchuk, 50, her husband of three years, a “boyfriend breakfast”. And, she was pleased to tell People magazine this month, she describes their relationship as still being in the “honeymoon” phase. So how do the rest of us remain in, or revert to, that happy state? Especially after a period of upheaval that has sorely tested even the strongest couples. Here is my expert advice.
Touch each other more — not just in the bedroom
Remember the thrill of when you couldn’t keep your hands off each other? When you hug or touch, your body releases the feel-good hormone oxytocin. So how many hugs can you fit in a day? Ten? Twelve? Making the other person feel valued, letting them know that they matter to you, intellectually, emotionally and, of course, physically, is vital. Showing affection pays dividends in a relationship. Think back to your wedding speech — perhaps you said, with sincerity: “Because of you, I’m a better person.” Feeling wanted and loved does bring out the best in us. And touch is a convincing shortcut. It’s a naturally chemically enhanced method of saying: “I love you, I care, I find you attractive.”
Gwyneth is right — make each other breakfast
So often couples wish for intimacy and passion yet choose to behave in a way that further chills the air between them. Someone has to crack the ice. Paltrow makes her husband breakfast every Saturday — who does that for a partner, you might think. Well, someone who wants their relationship to remain in (or revert to) that honeymoon phase. Regardless of how your week was, making breakfast for your partner is a way to reconnect with a thoughtful and friendly gesture. If you’re not a pancake tosser, go out and buy croissants. It sends the message: “I’m still here, I still care about you, I want to do things for you, whether we’ve had a good week or not.” It softens the mood, and if you need to talk, your partner will feel more receptive.
Have a row — yes, really
When people come to my practice and say, “We never fight,” it’s not a sign that a relationship is vibrant. We have disagreements because we want to be heard. We want to feel entitled to our ideas, perhaps have a difference of opinion and talk it out, and see how we can move forward jointly. Rows are part of a healthy relationship — after the rupture, there’s repair, we come back together. Bickering, on the other hand, squabbling about petty, trivial matters, is toxic. It’s passive aggressive — it’s when you’re talking about everything apart from what you should be talking about. It has never helped any couple. It teaches the other person in the relationship to ignore us. If you have something to say, say it.
However long you’ve been together, make an effort to look your best
Make it easy for your partner to be attracted to you. Take a little care of yourself. Men in particular may wonder why their partners don’t initiate sex, and yet they don’t think to trim their ear hair, or gargle and floss. Complacency and hygiene that’s so-so is not a turn-on. Why wouldn’t you want to look your best for the other person? I’m not suggesting full hair and make-up at all times for either party. But maybe vary your outfit. Don’t complain that the mystery has gone and then pick something out of your teeth in front of your partner. Not being slovenly is about self-respect, as much as being a social courtesy.
Have an evening of strictly no sex — just sex talk
Very often I send couples home from our sessions and tell them not to have sex for a week. I know that when they come back, they’ll say coyly: “We’ve broken your rule!” Set aside an evening — the theme is sex, but it’s talking only. (This takes the pressure off, but rules are made to be broken.) Often, if you rarely have sex but haven’t discussed it, it’s like a silent scream between you. We’re afraid, ashamed to be vulnerable about our needs, and fear rejection. There’s a French saying: “The truth sometimes hurts, but it’s what is not said, and the lies, that are the root cause of all the hurt.”
Say, “I miss being close to you,” if that’s what you feel. It’s time to talk about giving each other pleasure. Discuss your rhythm — maybe she wants to have sex every day and he wants it once a week. Talk about how you might compromise and satisfy one another. Sometimes you might agree to do things you don’t enjoy as much as others. That works both ways. Sex can’t always be perfection. Discuss what you like, what you don’t like. Mental and emotional intimacy leads to greater physical intimacy.
If your partner isn’t paying you enough attention, tell them
A client once told me: “I feel as if my partner expends all his charm and energy at work, and I just get the offcuts.” This attitude makes no one sexy. If this sounds like you, recognise what you have and make an effort to reanimate the best version of yourself: the kind and caring one. Most of us can understand that our partner is busy; what we can’t accept is being taken for granted. And if you feel hurt, don’t be a martyr or the situation will become acute. Say: “I need attention from you. How you want to do it is up to you. Just know, that’s what I need.” Even if the response is, “Can you give me a little leeway — I’m so stressed, I know I’m not being as attentive as I should be,” you will feel acknowledged; there will be more understanding, and you will feel more positive towards each other.
Be prepared to say sorry
We need to feel understood and listened to in our relationship, just as when we first met and the air crackled with sparks. Chemistry requires communication. You would think this would get easier, but in presuming we know our partner, we make assumptions. Typically, our old insecurities make us misinterpret their words or behaviour. If we feel raw, and our partner is brusque or mildly tactless, it confirms our worst fears about ourselves. And we react defensively and grow further apart. How good we feel about ourselves dictates how vulnerable we’re willing to be. If you feel stung, say: “What did you really mean when you said that? To me it felt like X.” If you’ve misjudged, say: “Sorry I doubted you — my inner critic got the better of me.” In being honest, you clear the way for deeper connection.
Don’t assume you know what your partner is thinking
Being accountable for your behaviour in a relationship requires emotional maturity; grown-up qualities such as self-awareness (knowing when you’re out of line and being able to admit it with grace), an ability to manage your emotions, and to empathise (especially when you don’t agree). Some couples regularly check in with each other and the marriage, as in: “Are we OK?” Never assume you can mind read.
If there is an issue, being accountable means seeing the bigger picture — that your partner cares enough to want to address it — but also not getting angry or shutting down. If you can make space for talking nondefensively about uncomfortable things, you’re forging intimacy. Just listening shows you care, even if you don’t agree and don’t know what to say or do. It goes a long way to diffusing anger and building trust.
Try turning the clock back
When people come to my practice it’s usually because something needs to change, and yet they’re so resistant. We fear the unknown, although sometimes we therapists say: “Anything is better than what you have now.” If the will is there, however, recapturing that frisson can be surprisingly simple. Pretend it’s 1995, or 2005 — what did you do as a couple then, when you couldn’t wait to hear what the other said, when it was never boring to be together? You’re capable; it’s just a question of recovering the motivation and being creative. Talk about what you did. Get back in touch with those feelings. Rewatch the film you saw when you kissed for the first time. Make the effort. Drop everything — go out just the two of you and be with each other.
Imagine life without your partner
We all look for security in life, and a sense of belonging, and if we’re lucky we find that in our relationship. But quite often we misunderstand what this means and trample on our privilege. If we were fortunate as children, home was a safe place where — after a day of behaving at school — we felt secure enough to relax, express ourselves and act like a brat now and then and throw the odd tantrum. But in adulthood you don’t come home to your adoring parents, you come home to a partner. It’s not the equivalent. If we’re self-obsessed, we can’t see that returning from the office, detailing our hellish day, then falling asleep on the sofa without having asked a question doesn’t make us attractive. Security is not intimacy, and people who behave like this probably shouldn’t feel as secure in their relationship as they do. It’s fine to discuss your problems with your partner, but it’s how you approach it. It’s a very different thing to say: “Do you mind if I talk to you about something that happened today?”
Think about what your life would be like without the other person. If we did this more often, we’d be in a permanent honeymoon state because I suspect we’d remember to look after our partner’s needs as much as our own.
Do one thing to ‘refresh’ your sex life (it doesn’t have to be wild)
We have several sex lives that exist simultaneously — our actual sex life, our unobtainable sex life (our dreams and fantasies) and the sex life that we might achieve but we don’t dare. Well, why don’t we dare? We fear rejection. But we don’t have to begin with full exposure, like sharing our deepest fantasies. (That’s the advanced-level honeymoon phase.) We could start by showing willing. Set the scene. It might be something as small as lighting some candles in the bedroom or buying new sheets. If we feel more confident, we might confound expectations — be the chaser, flirt a little, if we usually wait for our partner to initiate sex. You don’t have to appear naked at the kitchen door — just make that perfunctory hello kiss last longer than they expect.
As told to Anna Maxted for The Times on Saturday, 29th October 2021