Relationships are hard, but they’re hard for everyone, not just you. Therapist Lyla Cicero offers her advice on how to have realistic expectations of your partner and your partnership, and how to help others in the process.
1) Act How You Feel (Within Reason): We’ve all been around those couples bickering violently in public or making nasty passive aggressive jabs all the time. When we air our dirty laundry too readily, we make other folks so uncomfortable they may stop hanging out with us. On the other hand, pretending your relationship is flawless is lame too. We all do it at times. We act like everything’s fine when it’s not. We fight in the car and then get out and hold hands all through dinner until we get back in the car and go another round. So how do we strike the right balance?
I find there are ways to be real with people without turning your social gatherings into group couples’ therapy. I will often take my husband’s hand and, with a loving glance his way, report that “We’ve actually been fighting today.” This gives people a heads up that while we are not filing divorce papers tomorrow, our relationship isn’t always smooth. If you are talking to a friend and feeling upset by your partner, tell them that. It’s OK to have weeks, or even months where you are questioning whether you are with the right person, feeling trapped or tempted to cheat, or embroiled in what can feel like never-ending conflict. What a relief it would be to admit to each other what we are feeling, and know that others will understand, and not assume our relationships or ourselves are fatally flawed.
2) Demand Realistic Portrayals of Relationships: When you see relationships presented in an unrealistic light, say so. Wonder aloud why a certain couple feels the need to act like they are madly in love every moment, when after 10 years, we all know that’s unlikely. Comment about how much you’d like to see a film that seems to reflect the ups and downs of your relationship experience, or that covers anything other than the beginning stages. Joke about how amazing it is that on television men and women always seem to orgasm easily and at the exact same time.
3) Normalize Outside Attractions: I have a lot of folks come to see me either feeling horribly guilty that they fantasize about people other than their partner, or horribly offended that their partner looks at other people with sexual interest. The part of our brains that finds other humans sexually and romantically appealing doesn’t die off when we commit to someone. If our goal is monogamy, we need to realize that that is a goal for our behavior, not for our thoughts. It’s not reasonable to ask people to control their thoughts, and I would argue it is actually a bad idea.
Fantasy is natural, and can even be exciting for couples. Hearing your partner’s fantasies can help you see them as a separate and sexual person again, rather than that lame guy who can’t go to bed unless the sink is empty of dishes. Try being open with your partner about your fantasies, celebrity crushes, and even your real-life temptations. This way you can bring them out in the open, joke about them, bring them into the bedroom and role play them, or in some cases possibly decide to open up your relationship. Whatever the boundaries of our relationships, our minds are going to transgress them. This does not mean we don’t love our partners or are dissatisfied in any way. It means that we are human.
4) Talk to People About Sex: I’m currently training to be a sex therapist, and I can’t believe the number of people who talk to me about sex once they find that out. I realize I’m training to help people who have problems, but I have yet to have anyone come to me and report that they are having amazing sex and are totally satisfied. A great many of them tell me about problems and frustrations that they’ve never talked to anyone about, often not even their partners.
We need to stop perpetuating the myth that we all know exactly how to have great sex with a long-term partner year after year, and that we don’t need anyone else’s input. One of the things I love about sex therapy is how easy many sexual problems are to fix. Often they simply stem from lack of information, feeling ashamed about things that are perfectly normal, and/or failing to communicate with our partners. If we all talked about sex, we would not only see that most of us have some room for improvement, but be able to share what’s worked and what hasn’t, saving others and ourselves unnecessary bad sex.
5) Stop Convincing Yourself It Can’t Happen to You: Most relationships end. Almost half of marriages end in divorce. Going into marriage believing that won’t happen to me perpetuates the idea that we are somehow different and that it’s going to be easy for us to do what’s clearly extremely difficult for most of the human population. There is nothing special about you and your partner. You are no more immune to breaking up than anyone else. We all need to start seeing ourselves as vulnerable, rather than exceptional. Some may say this is pessimistic or unromantic, but going into a long-term partnership believing in the fantasy that we are special and it’s not going to be difficult may be setting us up for defeat. I believe most couples come to points where they consider separating, whether they do or not. If we are expecting this, we will be more able to weather that storm.
6) Expect to Work Hard: The fantasy that if we are with the perfect person, our relationship will be easy, and that everything in our lives will fall into place is actually damaging to our chances of sticking out a long-term partnership. If we expect to feel known and understood, attractive and attracted, to never be lonely, to never look at anyone else, to never have doubts, and for our partners to magically make our lives emotionally full and logistically easy, we are in for a rude awakening. Personally, I’d rather be a partner to someone with slightly lower expectations than that. I believe that in relationships, we are doomed to fail each other in some ways no matter what. That is the nature of human relationships, because it is the nature of human beings. We are imperfect. But if we expect a flawed partner and flawed partnership, it’s a lot easier to manage the disappointment when those flaws become apparent than if we have been expecting “happily ever after” to be literal.
Lyla Cicero has a doctorate in clinical psychology, and focuses on relationships, sexual minorities, and sex therapy. Lyla is a feminist, LGBTQIAPK-affirmative, sex-positive blogger at UnderCoverintheSuburbs.com, where she writes about expanding cultural notions of identity, especially those surrounding gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, and sexuality. Follow her on Twitter @UndrCvrNSuburbs.