y Todd Creager
Q: If I am not in love with my partner, is it possible to ever get those feelings back?
A: If you have ever been in love with your partner, you can be in love again. The problem is that as relationships continue, pain emerges such as hurt, disappointment, fear and anger. Often the couple starts to emotionally disconnect at this point because we have few if any good role models in how to stay connected even when feeling these unpleasant feelings towards our partner.
As you learn how to develop the “emotional muscle” to reconnect with your partner, even through pain, your “in love” feelings may reemerge just as spontaneously as they left. It is difficult to imagine this when you are basing your future on your history. With new patterns of connecting, it is possible to fall back in love.
Q: Since my partner had an affair, is it possible to ever trust him or her again?
A: There are a variety of reasons people have affairs. Affairs are symptoms of other problems whether it has to do with unmet needs in the relationship, a sex addiction, or a way of having power. This is not meant to be a condoning of extramarital relationships; the person having the affair is responsible for his or her choice to do that and we are not blaming the partner. However, it would be a mistake to say the affair IS the problem. Not only is that inaccurate; it would make it near impossible to heal from the affair.
On the other hand, once you understand the underlying causes and issues, you can focus on healing at that deeper level. Once that happens and healthier patterns of relating are developing, you could trust again. (There is never a 100% chance of fidelity even in marriages where there has been total faithfulness; trust needs to happen as the PROBABILITY of having an affair goes down since there is no certainty).
Q: We fight all the time; can we ever learn to stop fighting?
A: When couples are constantly fighting, it is because both people are continually reacting in ways that push the raw buttons of the partner and for sure-there is no listening going on. Either partner can begin to interrupt that behavior by
1) Noticing what makes him react as well as his partner.
2) Developing the emotional muscle it takes to listen to one’s partner even if the first impulse is to do a fight or fight behavior.
When partners listen to each other, there is no need for fighting. Fighting can be thought of as an inept way of trying to be heard or regaining some sense of power. Listening takes care of both of these needs. When you are experiencing your partner listening, you would never raise your voice since you are already being heard. Also, being heard will naturally and healthily give you a sense of power; the power of feeling that you matter.
Q: My partner used to desire me sexually, but lately he treats me like a roommate and has said he has lost his sexual desire. Is there anything that can be done about that or is our sex life over?
A: Since this question is being asked regarding a male losing his desire, I will first answer it from this gender perspective. Then I will answer it if it is a woman who lost her desire.
The first thing that needs to be done here is to get a good assessment of the possible factors that are contributing to his lowered libido. Often a sex therapist or doctor is helpful in these situations. Physical and medical reasons cannot be overlooked. For example, many medications such as antidepressants and medication for high blood pressure have sexual side effects. If the lowered libido coincides with the time he has started medications, there is a good possibility that this is the problem. Other physical factors include chronic illness and lowered testosterone. Testosterone levels for men can be checked by a simple blood test.
There can be psychological reasons such as situational stress, life transitions that raise anxiety, and even sexual performance fears that lead to sex avoidance. Lastly, there are relationship factors such as built up resentment, ongoing power struggles, something in the current relationship evoking some past trauma and lack of trust. It is not uncommon for there to be multiple factors contributing to lowered sexual desire. There is treatment for all of these factors and often other aspects of the relationship can improve as well by working with the underlying causes of the sexual problem.
If it is the woman who is experiencing lowered libido, it could be any of the factors above. Women are typically more affected by hormonal fluctuations and hormone level must be paid attention to in the treatment of lowered libido in females. However, the most common reason for lower sexual desire in women is a lack of emotional connection with one’s partner. Educating the male in how to share as well as listen to feelings (as uncomfortable as that may be for many men) is often a pre-requisite for a reemergence of healthy desire in the female partner. Emotional nourishment is necessary for many women to desire their mate.
Q: I feel like no matter what I do for my spouse, it is not enough. Is there any way to please my partner?
A: Almost always, yes. You may be doing a lot for your partner, but it is not the one or two things you need to do that will highly impact your partner. Typically, people give in the areas that they are strong. The key is to discover what it is that will truly raise the emotional energy of your partner. The catch is that it often takes what I call, “Giving from your weakest link'” that gets the job done.
In other words, in order to be what I call a high impact partner, you need to give in areas that are less developed in yourself. For example, if you are great at providing, fixing, giving advice and even cooking and washing the dishes, but what your partner really needs is for you to be interested in what she is feeling, you may be relatively inept in the world of feelings. The good news is that you never have to become an expert in your weak areas. Getting a little better can go along way in having a huge positive effect on your partner.
Q: It has been so long since I have felt close to my partner. Is there any chance we can feel close again?
A: Unless your partner has grieved the relationship and emotionally moved on, it is very possible to feel close again. Couples get locked into emotional dances that often distance the couple from each other. I would suggest that you get curious about your partner and ask some open ended questions. Don’t think you know your partner very well. In fact, if you don’t feel close, you probably have a lot to learn about your partner.
If your partner refuses to talk, don’t just give up. He may be very awkward with becoming vulnerable. Acknowledge to him how difficult it is. If he is so shut down that he will not participate no matter how patient and kind you are, a good “couples” therapist may be in order so that his fears can be addressed. If he has been withdrawn for a while, ask him what he is protecting himself from. The first step is to create a safe environment where both partners can risk opening up again. Don’t take his withdrawal personally, no matter how hard that may be. His self-protective mechanism is just that- self protective, not meant to make you miserable, even though that may be exactly how you feel.
Also, look within yourself and see what you are protecting yourself from by keeping the relationship as distant as it is. Healthy relationships are not for the feint of heart. They require courage and you need to make your relationship an interpersonal adventure. Ask yourself- am I holding back physically? Am I willing to stretch a little and meet his physical needs if that has not happened in a while? How can I open up more to my partner?
Q: My partner and I are so different. Can you have a good marriage with someone whom you apparently have nothing in common?
Most couples have many differences. Just like the North and South poles of a magnet, opposites attract at least to a degree. It is not necessary to be interested in what your partner is interested in, but it is necessary to be interested in your partner’s enthusiasm for activities or topics that you may have little or no enthusiasm yourself for. Tune into him and his energy. If he likes fishing and you would not be caught anywhere in a boat, show your excitement about his excitement about catching that big fish. That is what is important. With this attitude, you have now found your first similarity- you both celebrate his interest in fishing! Of course, he needs to be tuned into what sparks you as well.
Of course, some differences are more challenging and compromise is necessary. If you are an extreme extrovert and your partner is an extreme introvert, put the energy into finding a healthy compromise. Maybe, you spend a quiet evening just with your spouse and turn down the big party invitation one weekend. He reciprocates by going to the next big party and endures his anxiety with as much grace as possible. Since you did not marry your clone, negotiation, compromise and most of all an acceptance of differences is a winning combination to make a partnership work.
Q: I feel like I have a child for a partner. Can he ever grow up?
A: Probably he can. And there are probably some things you can do to accelerate that process. There are people who have major personality disorders and other mental health issues. However, all couples slip into what I call a Parent/Child pattern where one partner feels more like the parent managing a child and the other feels like he (or she) is being controlled or judged by a parent. Since this seems to happen to all couples, the couples that have the most satisfying relationships are those that become aware of this dynamic and consciously begin to change it.
The first thing for you to do is look at how you communicate verbally as well as non-verbally to your partner. Are you speaking like the one who knows better or is the authority figure? If you are doing this, know that you are evoking in your partner more of the child. Instead, try to speak from a place of vulnerability. For example, don’t say- “I can’t believe you just plopped yourself down and began watching TV. What am I your servant?” Instead, you can say “I know you want to watch TV, but you know what would make me feel less overwhelmed and very grateful- if you could help me out here. That would be just terrific.” With the second way of communicating, you have probably not evoked the “child” but rather the part of him that wants to be helpful and appreciated.
Of course, your partner needs to be aware of how he slips into the child as well. (Either gender can slip into either role, even though within one relationship, one partner will more often slip into the parent role and the other will more often slip into the child role). He needs to consciously pull himself out of that role and see you as a person who needs him rather than someone who will boss him around. Be vigilant about this. It is easy to slip back onto old, familiar roles that do not work.
Q: Because of my sexual history, it is hard for me to be “normal” sexually with my partner. Can we ever have a normal sexual relationship?
A: Usually, yes even though normal is one of those words that is hard to measure when it comes to sexuality. There are two important points here. One is that there is great treatment and literature available for people who have been sexually abused or been given unhealthy messages about sex. Two is that a sensitive, understanding partner is crucial. Couples with these challenges who have worked with me, learn that the process of healing and working on the sexual relationship together is more important than the sexual outcomes of any particular experience. As the couple gives attention to their sexuality and deepens their relationship, the probability of the sexual “survivor” experiencing a greater range of sexual responses increases dramatically.
Q: My partner is addicted to internet porn. How should I deal with this?
A: There are many resources for dealing with this common problem. There are specialists in this area and the understanding of this problem continues to increase as well as improved treatment. Firstly, as difficult as it may be to do, do not take it personally. Your partner’s behavior is not a reflection on you or how attractive you are. If he is doing internet porn instead of spending time with you sexually, he is not doing the adult kinds of risking vulnerability and connecting with you emotionally.
People that do internet porn enter a trancelike state that takes them away from everyday challenges and gives them a chance to experience their sexuality in a regressed, childlike way. It often is used for stress relief as well. Do your best to not be judgmental, but at the same time tell him that he needs help with this problem because you want to be with a partner who deals with feelings and problems in healthier ways.
From Sarah: Todd Creager is fantastic – an accomplished Speaker, Therapist, Consultant and Author. His advice is both insightful and practical. You can find much more at his Center for Successful Relationships