There’s a great deal of worthy, common-sense relationships advice to be found on the Internet. Most sites repeat the same familiar truths and give similar relationships advice — about the need for realistic expectations, about how soon to have sex, making room for personal differences once the initial euphoria begins to fade, or about how to recover from an affair, keep the romance alive, etc. Most of this relationships advice tends to be practical; some of it is silly or manipulative. Almost none of it suggests that your own psychological issues may lie at the root of persistent and recurrent conflicts in your relationships.
So here, in the form of a post that’s almost entirely about “finding your own way,” are my three personal, idiosyncratic and only slightly tongue-in-cheek bits of relationships advice for how to improve emotional rapport with your significant other.
Finding Your Own Way:
1. When having a fight, particularly one where both of you have dug in and feel righteously misunderstood, assume that you are in the wrong.
I don’t mean this piece of advice for those of you who always assume you’re in the wrong. This is aimed at people like me who usually assume they’re in the right. You have to embrace this bit of relationships advice fully, at least for a time; it does no good to follow it half-heartedly, simply going through the motions. Articulate your partner’s position in your own thoughts and argue his or her point of view; if necessary, ask for further clarification or examples. On many occasions, I have found that once I eventually cooled down and listened with an open-mind — not in the mode where I was geared up to intercept incoming criticism, defuse and then hurl it back — I was shocked to find some important elements of truth coming from the other side.
Blame is the enemy of truth and intimacy. I know a therapist, a psychologist I deeply respect, who holds that the primary function of many (bad) relationships is to have a partner into whom you can project all the unwanted aspects of yourself and who can then carry your split-off shame for you. While this may sound cynical, I have found it holds true in more cases than you might think. By assuming you’re in the wrong, you can make a start on defusing blame.
2. Better communication is not always the answer.
So much of the relationships advice available on the Internet concerns communication and how to improve it. I agree that clear statements about feelings and needs between partners is crucial; on the other hand, many heated verbal exchanges often have nothing to do with communicating. The employment of language doesn’t necessarily mean you are using words to communicate. Sometimes words can be used to escape the truth (See No. 1 above); sometimes words bear a close resemblance to physical objects such as cudgels, whips and loaded weapons.
Much of the relationships advice you’ll hear will also emphasize the importance of honesty — undoubtedly true. And yet, as I have said before (quoting the 1940 film version of Pride and Prejudice), honesty is a highly over-rated virtue. On the StairMaster at the gym yesterday, the TV directly in front of me happened to be airing an episode of “Family Feud” (I put it that way so you won’t think me vapid enough to watch this show by choice); the host asked the following question, based upon responses gathered from 100 married men: “What would you never dare tell your wife the truth about?” As best I can recall, the correct answers were: her weight, the way she dresses, her hair and makeup, the way she makes love, etc. Many men would fear making an honest communication about such subjects; is it really better for the relationship that they do so?
I have no definitive answer to that question; it’s up to you to decide what you need to say in the interests of open communication and what you should keep to yourself if it might inflict needless pain.
3. Sex is both a pleasure and a responsibility.
Now before you get all up in arms, hear me out. I’m not suggesting that women have a duty to provide sex to their husbands, whether or not they like it. What I mean is this: feeling needy and full of desire is a vulnerable state for everyone; many (most?) of us have some issues about being that vulnerable and few people enjoy the experience of frustration. If your partner asks for sex and repeatedly hears “not tonight,” eventually he or she will find the experience unbearable and shut down. He or she may begin to look elsewhere to have those needs fulfilled. I’m not suggesting that this response is acceptable; I’m only pointing out that if you have pressing physical needs but can’t have them met within your primary relationship, the alternative to infidelity is to live in a state of constant deprivation — hardly conducive to intimacy.
Both of you have a responsibility to keep sex alive in your relationship. Sometimes you might simply do the deed as a way of giving, an act of generosity; you might even find you enjoy it more than expected once you get started. Don’t have sex if you’re too angry or full of hatred, of course; on the other hand, never withhold sex in order to inflict pain.
Years ago when I was working in a law firm to put myself through college, I knew a woman named Sheila who once told me: “When it’s going okay, sex is about 25% of a relationship; when it’s not, it’s about 75%.” I’m not sure if she had the percentages right, or even if I fully agree with her, but to this day I see her point. When sex isn’t going right, it’s the elephant in the room and a huge source of shame for both partners. While I don’t see
good sex as the answer to relationship problems, I personally find that having good and regular sex makes me feel more generous. The minor irritations that might become major problems just don’t seem to matter as much. The resentment a partner feels in the sexual arena can easily spread to other areas, transforming everyday relationship molehills into problematic mountains.
End of advice. I look forward to hearing from you.