Therapy in L.A.

  article of the month
May 2003
By Linda Barnes, Ph.D.

In our culture, enormous demands are placed on relationships. The committed relationship includes love, sexuality, social and financial considerations, and often parenting responsibilities. Sometimes the children involved are step-children or adopted. This brings additional pressure to bear on the couple's relationship and requires further adaptation.

It would seem prudent to start talking about the demands of intimate relationships at least by junior high school, in order to prepare people for some of these intricate and intense challenges. Since this is not the case, we are often left without even the rudimentary tools such as, "What questions should I be pondering when considering a committed relationship?"

The issue most frequently brought to therapy by a couple considering a committed relationship is, "How much of me do I have to give up in order to be in relationship with you?" A successful intimate relationship is viable when one is able to transmit who they are to their mate, and to understand how their mate sees him or herself. The ultimate goal here is to have the ability to talk about who you really are, to say what you want and need and to be heard by your mate.

All relationships involve compromise. However, there are times when the compromise is too much, for example, when one person relinquishes too much of who they really are for fear that the relationship will end. This sets up a time bomb because as time passes the mate who has compromised too much of his/herself cannot maintain this stance and the relationship is thrown into crisis and disintegrates.

Conflict is inevitable in a long-term relationship. How one does or does not work through the conflict is essential. When a couple is able to resolve an issue and initiate change by compromise or acceptance and then move on without resentment, they have succeeded in having a useful fight. However, when mates find that they are arguing about the same things over and over again without resolution, they need help. It is usually a problem in communication and/or empathy.

Another area that needs attention has to do with expectations. Do not ever expect that you will have a perfect relationship. If your relationship is good seventy percent of the time and bad thirty percent of the time, you are considered to have a pretty good relationship. Having unrealistic expectations of what a committed relationship should look like can cause undue distress. It is important to examine what you expect of yourself and of your potential mate and determine if these expectations are realistic prior to commitment.

Trust and respect are key ingredients for finding a partner you are able to love over the long-haul (25 to 50 years). Some important questions to ask when considering someone for a committed partner include:

  1. How long have I known him/her? The longer we know someone the better the chance the relationship has of lasting;
  2. Is this person trustworthy? Am I trustworthy? It is important to see a pattern of consistency., i.e., keeping one's word, by showing up on time, being capable of keeping confidences, and exhibiting loyalty not only to your mate but to others;
  3. Do you respect this person? Honoring who your mate is and how he or she conducts themselves in their daily life is crucial. At times when you get irritated and feel contempt for your mate, you can fall back on basic respect.
  4. Is your mate able to be empathic? It is imperative in terms of both love and communication that each of you is able to take a walk in the other's shoes. This ability may prove to be the most important in terms of effective communication. It includes having the ability to listen and understand the point of view of your mate.
Sometimes couples expect their sex life to continue to be as good as it was at the beginning of their relationship. The truth is that over the long-term, sex will be better sometimes that others. However, starting out with a not so good sex life is not a good idea. Over time, couples have sex as a form of making love, expressing their love and affection towards each other versus lust. The commitment bond is weakened when sex is not satisfactory for one or both mates.

Life stressors such as illness, job loss, parenting, taking care of an aging parent, and busy work schedules can all take a toll. It is important that the couple address their feelings about the lack of sex or sexual desire in their relationship and not just hope that things get better. The lack of sexual satisfaction in a committed relationship can render the relationship vulnerable to affairs.

Last, but not least, are financial considerations. Money plays an enormous role in long-term relationships. It is important to clarify your financial expectations of your partner and his or her expectations of you. Financial hardship and/or excessive indebtedness weaken the relationship and can lead to its demise. If you or your partner has a tendency towards overspending, it's important to address this prior to entering a committed relationship. If either of you are compulsive in your spending, it is important to consider Debtors Anonymous and/or to take a class in personal finance.

All of the factors to consider when entering a committed relationship are not covered here. However this will give you a start. There are, of course, no guarantees, but your chances of a successful committed relationship are certainly enhanced to the extent that you have a conscious understanding of yourself and of your mate.

Dr. Barnes is a psychotherapist in practice in Beverly Hills. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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