With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, many people are excitedly stocking up on chocolates and bears, making reservations, and trying on endless sexy ensembles for that perfect February 14th date. However, what if you’re not one of those people? What if you’re not single, but your relationship is currently not in a great place, and you can’t stomach the thought of trying to fake it through an awkward dinner with your spouse? Don’t panic! Here are a few ways that you and your partner can still make it through enjoy Valentine’s Day without a major dose of anxiety and tension.
Whatever you do, don’t let the day sneak up on you. If you wait until the night before to start thinking about it, you’ll definitely find yourself stressing. Take control of the situation now, and start planning out what you would like the day to be like. Do you and your partner want to try and do something together that maybe doesn’t include romantic pressure, but that could be fun, relaxing, and enjoyable? Would the two of you rather plan an evening at home with your kids and make it a family affair? Do you want to do absolutely nothing but watch movies in your pajamas? The point is, prepare ahead of time so that you and your partner both know what to expect.
Although Valentine’s Day is marketed as the romance-seeped, blissful, sex-filled holiday of the year, let’s try to remember what it’s really about…LOVE. What is love? Well, that’s a loaded question! Love is many things besides romance and sex-it’s friendship, caring, empathy, respect…the list goes on and on. Maybe this Valentine’s Day, you and your partner seek to connect with each other on a different level. For example, you could agree to give each other the gift of respect for the whole day, and agree to practice talking kindly to each other. Or, perhaps you feel like roommates, and maybe you could do an activity together that allows you to try and be friends for the evening. If even any of that is just too much, consider seeking connection with the other people you and your partner love and care about. Maybe you take cookies to a neighbor, or have some trusted friends over for dinner. Whatever you do, seek connection-don’t spend the day soaking yourself in feelings of loneliness.
Again, while Valentine’s Day is promoted as a day to think solely about your partner, it might be a good idea to do something nice for yourself too! Especially if the day is going to be hard for you this year, make sure you and your partner encourage each other to practice some self-care. Go get a massage, spend the morning reading a good book, or go for a walk. Self-care can be done together or separately, but either way it can feel soothing and comforting on a day that may otherwise be filled with painful reminders.
Best of luck to you! I hope no matter what your current relationship situation is, that you are able to find peace, connection, and happiness this Valentine’s Day. And remember…it’s just 1 day. :0)
Sometimes in our love relationships, we have been hurt or let down so often by our partner that we begin to develop an adversarial relationship. We are always on guard to protect ourselves from further pain. Our relationship becomes us vs. them in an attempt to wall off our heart from the one who knows us best, and therefore knows how to hurt us the most. Most of the time in these situations, our partner isn’t trying to hurt us. Our partner is hurting themselves and like us, is trying to protect from further pain.
In the book Love Sense, Dr. Sue Johnson describes what happens in these relationships:
“When emotional starvation becomes the norm, and negative patterns of outraged criticism and obstinate defensiveness take over, our perspective changes. Our lover slowly begins to feel like an enemy; our most familiar friend turns into a stranger. Trust dies, and grief begins in earnest.”
She goes on to say that the “erosion of a bond begins with the absence of emotional support”. This is key. In order to keep our most important relationships strong and healthy, we have to actively work on being an emotional support for our partner. We need to be there for them, and we need them to be there for us. Emotional supportiveness creates a teammate mentality. Instead of problems turning into us vs. them scenarios, they are approached with the couple as a team, facing the enemy (or the negative cycle) together.
One roadblock in our ability to be there emotionally with our partner is our hurt and anger.
Anger is a secondary emotion. Its purpose is to act as a shield, protecting our more vulnerable (primary) emotions. If my husband doesn’t call me when he said he would, it’s easier for me to lash out at him in my attempt to make sure he knows how hurt I am. My lashing out is likely to cause him to feel defensive and respond with anger of his own (because he is also using anger as a shield to protect himself). If I take a moment to breathe, and calm myself before commenting on his missed phone call, I might say something like, “when you don’t call me when you say you will, I feel really hurt. I worry that I’m not important to you, and you mean so much to me that it hurts in my chest to think that I don’t matter to you.”
Instead of expressing my secondary emotion, anger, I’m expressing my primary emotion. Fear. Fear that I don’t matter to my partner as much as he matters to me. I’m being vulnerable and asking my partner to reassure me and be vulnerable in return.
If my partner responds to my vulnerability with criticism, it reinforces my view that he is not a safe person to turn to, and the emotional bond is further damaged. If he responds with reassurance, the emotional bond can be strengthened. “I’m so sorry I didn’t call. I got so busy with my meetings that I forgot. I know it means a lot to you that I call when I say I will, and I’m sorry I let you down. You do mean so much to me.”
Dr. Johnson describes three questions that we can ask ourselves and our partners when we are working to strengthen or repair our emotional bonds.
1. Are you Accessible? (Will you give me your attention and be emotionally open to what I am saying?)
2. Are you Responsive? (Will you accept my needs and fears and offer comfort and caring?)
3. Are you Engaged? (Will you be emotionally present and involved with me?)
Dr. Johnson combines these into one “core attachment question”. ARE you there for me?
Sit down with your partner and talk about these questions. Do you feel like your partner is accessible, responsive, and engaged? Are you accessible, responsive, and engaged with your partner? When have you been successful at answering “ARE you there for me”? When have you struggled? Think about the last struggle and look for the primary emotions under the struggle. Try being vulnerable with each other.
The stronger our emotional bond, the easier it is to deal with the frustrations that crop up in every relationship. Sometimes the damage in our relationships has gone on for so long, or is so emotionally painful that we need help in repairing it. Couple’s therapy can help break the cycle of negative interactions and allow emotional bonds to be rebuilt stronger than ever.
Are there ways to approach difficult conversations that will make it more likely that we’ll be heard? Absolutely. I talked with Scabs, host of Love Rice podcast about communication strategies and tips form my newest book The Assertiveness Guide for Women. We share some personal stories about difficult conversations we’ve had recently. In this interview I come off more like a chatty girlfriend than a “professional.” It feels like listening in on two girlfriends talking.
I recently chatted with Natasha Helfer Parker, LMFT about how the ability to develop good assertiveness skills can help with sexual satisfaction. We discussed cultural gender messages, both within Mormonism and without, that get in the way of such things as differentiation, communication skills, self-care and self-awareness. I share the 5 skills from my book The Assertiveness Guide for Women that can help shift these patterns around. We also discuss managing libido differences, increasing female arousal and pleasure, sexual education for our teens, how to get past “chastity” language and more.
Do you have an adult child and sometimes struggle to know how to have proper boundaries in your relationship? You’re not alone! When our kids are little, it’s appropriate for us to tell them to brush their teeth and eat their vegetables, but when they grow up and have their own identities, it’s easy to get confused about how much input we should give into their lives. For example, should we be giving them advice on their jobs, their finances, and their dating lives? Of course we shouldn’t be helicopter parents to a man or woman in their 30s, but what if they’re really struggling and need some direction?
I shared my thoughts on this topic in a new Marriott Alumni magazine article written by Holly Munson. Here’s a summary of common scenarios parents face with adult children and my take on how to best handle them:
Emily Nagoski is a sex educator and author of the book “Come as You Are, The Surprising New Science that will Transform your Sex Life”. Sexuality can be a difficult topic because so many of us have been raised with the idea that sexuality isn’t okay. Because of this we avoid talking about it and don’t try to find solutions if we are experiencing difficulties. In my experience, problems with sexual intimacy have ranked fairly high among the issues couples bring up in therapy sessions. Shame over feeling “broken” can also make us uncomfortable bringing it up. The good news is that there is a lot we can do to become more satisfied with this important area in our lives and relationships. I recently attended a presentation Dr. Nagoski gave and found the information so useful, that I thought I’d share some of it here.
All the Same Parts:
The biggest takeaway I got from her lecture (as well as from reading her book) is that throughout our lives we are presented with an idea of what is normal in both our physical bodies and how we approach our sexuality. This presentation comes largely from the media, and leads us to believe that because we are not the same as what is presented, that there is something wrong with us. Dr. Nagoski talks about how we all have the same parts, (physically and sexually) but are arranged differently and that we are not broken or deficient just because we are different from someone else.
The Dual Control Method:
Dr. Nagoski calls them accelerators and brakes. Accelerators are things which signal our brains to respond favorably to sexually relevant stimuli. Accelerators might be things like our partner wearing a cologne or perfume we like, or coming home to a candlelight dinner our partner has surprised us with. Brakes are things which signal our brains that we are not interested at the moment. Examples of brakes can range from things like sitting in a boring meeting to lack of sleep to body odor. Performance anxiety can also be a huge brake. There is a questionnaire to evaluate your sensitivity to brakes (or Inhibitors) and accelerators (or Excitors) at http://www.thedirtynormal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Sexual-Temperament-Questionnaire.pdf.
How we interpret and respond to brakes and accelerators depend largely on context. If our partner approaches us from behind and kisses our neck when we are in the middle of changing a messy diaper, our response might be very different than if they did the same thing after a romantic dinner. It’s all about context. Dr. Nagoski has a worksheet to help individuals discover what contexts appeal sexually, to them, and what contexts do not, at http://www.thedirtynormal.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/Sexy-Context-Worksheets.pdf.
Concordance and Non Concordance:
Concordance refers to the relationship between a physical genital response and an individual’s self reported level of arousal. Men average a 50% concordance rate, which means that half of the time when they are experiencing a physical sexual response to stimuli, they also report feeling aroused. For women, the concordance rate is 10%. One of the things that is often portrayed in media is that when we are physically stimulated, we are also aroused. This leads rape victims to feel guilt for being “aroused” by their rape, when really what happened was just a normal physical response to genital stimulation. It does not mean that it was wanted. It can also lead men who are experiencing erection difficulties to feel guilt, thinking that their lack of erection means they are not aroused by their partner.
Two key terms here are sexual relevance and sexual appeal. Sexual relevance is associated with the physical response to stimuli. An erection stemming from seeing his partner in bed would be an example of an expected sexual stimuli. Sexual appeal is linked to subjective arousal, or an individual’s self-report of arousal. Something can be sexually relevant but not appealing (sexual violence for example), things can also be sexually appealing but not sexually relevant (a fetish for example). Creating healthy, wanted sexual experiences with our partner means creating environments and situations that are both sexually relevant for us as well as sexually appealing.
John Gottman’s research on couples found that the two traits most correlated with a strong, sustained sexual connection lasting decades was 1) a trusting friendship, and 2) making sex a priority. Sometimes when sex isn’t working the way you’d like it to, it feels easier to just let go of sexual intimacy in your relationship. It doesn’t have to be that way. Make a healthy sexual relationship a priority and come in for some couple’s counseling. We can address your concerns and find solutions for them in supportive, respectful ways. I also recommend reading Emily Nagoski’s book for much more of the science and a more thorough coverage of this topic.
Relationship maintenance is one of the most important things couples can do to create and “maintain” emotional intimacy. This maintenance comes in many forms. Some couples have regular date nights. Others have daily talk time. Often times one or both people read self help books about strengthening the relationship. Many of the couples I work with, and come across in my personal life, ask me about books they can read that will give them skills to strengthen their relationship. Here are two books I think every couple, happy or in distress, should read.
The first is The Five Love Languages by Gary Chapman. This book takes you through five ways that people show and feel love. The five love languages are quality time, physical touch, words of affirmation, service, and gift giving. This book takes you through the these five love languages and helps you identify which love language speaks to you. Read this with your partner. Once both of you are done and have properly identified your love language, share it with the other person. I use this idea in every couples session. The hope is that once you know your partners love language you can start speaking directly to what they need in the relationship. Someone who has the love language of quality time, but is given gifts will not feel properly loved and connected to their partner. This book gives invaluable insight into yourself and your partner that can strengthen every relationship.
The second is Hold Me Tight by Dr. Sue Johnson. This is a fantastic book that teaches you about attachment and reconnection with your partner. It has seven fabulous “conversations” for you and your partner to work through. If you are looking for emotional intimacy with your partner this is the book you are looking for. It is educational and highly effective at healing past wounds within relationships. Even if you and your partner have a healthy and loving relationship this book can still be a tool in creating a stronger bond.
Many couples feel that going to therapy, or even reading books like these shows a weakness in the relationship. My frame is that attending therapy and reading books to better your relationship is a strength; it means you and your partner are willing to put hard time and effort into being better individually and together. These couples are the ones that have relationships that will last. Hopefully you have the time to pick up these two books and give them a try. Read them with openness along side your spouse and they can make a world of difference.