Dr. Sandra Pertot,
(Adapted from When Your Sex Drives Don’t Match: Discover Your Libido Types to Create a Mutually Satisfying Sex Life, Marlowe & Co, 2007)
You and your partner may have tried many, many times to talk through your problems and find workable solutions, with little success. Perhaps things change for a while when one partner puts in "effort" to meet the needs of the other, but it is difficult to maintain that effort over a long period if it is about meeting the needs of the receiver but there is not much satisfaction in it for the giver. To be long-lasting, any solutions have to be mutually satisfying and rewarding, so that the pleasure gained from the new way of conducting your relationship is motivation enough for the changes to be self-sustaining. A good relationship takes sensitivity, caring and some work, but it shouldn’t be that much hard work that it becomes aversive and something you prefer to avoid.
Usually the major stumbling block to effective problem-solving is that each of you can only see the problem in terms of your own point of view, and therefore look for solutions that make sense for you. The previous exercises were designed to see these differences from a new perspective, and appreciate that your conflict is triggered by the different wants and needs associated with your different beliefs about how a relationship should be conducted, and may not have anything to do with whether you really love each other and want a future together. Now it is time to share your answers and use the exercises as a way of understanding each other’s point of view, and working towards workable compromises.
If your partner refuses to engage in any discussion at all, there is no point in putting any more pressure on him or her, but it is still worthwhile for you to read through this section. It may give you some ideas about how to approach the issue again at a later time, or how to change your own ideas and behavior that would give him/her encouragement and support to work with you to address your problems.
Before you begin The Talk, it is important to establish some guidelines, otherwise you are at risk of going around in circles and ending up in the same stalemate that has dogged your past attempts to discuss and resolve your sexual problems.
Respect. The obvious rule to start with is the rule of respect. Without respect for each other, The Talk will get nowhere. Respect means that your language is considerate and restrained, and there is no abuse or attack, even if the mood becomes tense and on the edge of conflict.
Courtesy. The Talk will get further if you are courteous, don’t interrupt each other, and you make sure you understand what your partner has said before you rush in to reply.
Generosity means that you encourage each other, allow some minor points of difference to pass without quibbling, and help your partner if he or she gets flustered or tangles his words as he struggles to explain a point.
Stay Calm. Don’t be surprised when your partner says something that you disagree with. The conflict between you has arisen because you are each seeing your relationship from the perspective of your own wants and needs, and it is because you have been unable to reconcile these that you are experiencing the hurt and confusion that is so upsetting. Of course you will each say things the other doesn’t agree with, and when this happens, take a breath, and see this as an example of the difficulties you are wrestling with. Don’t be defensive, and remind yourself that your partner is describing what is true for him or her. Listening to another point of view doesn’t mean that you have to agree with it.
Clarify your understanding of what your partner is saying: sometimes you are arguing about totally different issues. It might sound a bit stiff and formal, but asking your partner, "When you say that, do you mean . . .?", or, "I’m not sure what you are saying, it sounds to me like . . . Is that it?" Often the message sent is not the message received, and you may be reacting to something your partner never intended to imply.
Acknowledge when you realize you have misunderstood your partner’s position, and be prepared to apologize if you have been hurtful in any way. One of the most effective ways of resolving conflict is when you can each truthfully so, "I’m sorry, I didn’t realize that was what you meant," "I’m sorry, I can see I was wrong on that issue," or "I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you." Being able to apologize when it is appropriate is a sign of strength and confidence.
Be willing to listen—really listen. Ask about your partner’s point of view: let your partner know that you want to hear what she has to say, and that you want to understand where the differences between you lie. If you are merely biding your time until your partner finishes talking so that you can jump in with your take on things, you are talking at each other, not with each other, and you will get nowhere.
Be curious. Ask about your partner’s opinion on what you have to say: "What do you think about this?" "What do you think would help here?" "What would you like to do?" "I would like to solve our problem in this way, what’s your view on this?" If you are asking because you genuinely want to know the answers and are not merely using these questions as a form of attack, you will encourage an open and frank atmosphere that might reveal previously hidden solutions.
Describe, don’t judge. This is one of the most important rules when raising a matter of concern. Using words such as "frigid" or "selfish," or insisting your partner has a problem, leads to defensiveness which blocks confident and constructive communication.
Before you proceed with The Talk, think about the differences in your communication style. One of you may be a pursuer: you want to keep talking until you get the matter resolved. The other might be a withdrawer: when it gets too overwhelming, you want to stop. The pursuer often accuses the withdrawer of running away from the problem, while the withdrawer believes she not getting enough time to think and therefore feels unable to express her point of view. Before you begin The Talk, it is useful to determine whether you are a pursuer or a withdrawer: can you recognize your usual approach from these descriptions? Below, you will find tips for both withdrawers and pursuers on how to make conversation and communication flow.
If you are a pursuer:
§ While it is reasonable that you are upset by your partner’s apparent avoidance of the sexual problem, trying to corner your partner into long discussions hasn’t worked so far, and it isn’t likely to work now.
§ Many withdrawers say they try to stop any discussions because they feel that whatever they say is dismissed anyway, so there is no point in continuing. Have you shown your partner you are interested in what he or she has to say, or have you tried to keep the conversation going until your partner agrees with you?
§ It may help if you set a definite time frame with your partner, at most two hours, for The Talk, after which you will stop. If your partner says she has had enough at any stage, there is no point in pursuing her any further.
If you are the withdrawer:
§ When you feel overwhelmed and need to stop The Talk, say so clearly and confidently.
§ Keep in mind that the issues won’t be resolved by avoiding them. Many pursuers say they keep at their partner because they can never get their partner to address the problems, and often the withdrawer dismisses any attempt to discuss the issues by insisting there is nothing wrong.
§ If one partner is unhappy, by definition there is a problem that affects you both, so you need to be prepared to discuss what is worrying your partner even though you may not agree with his point of view.
§ Tell your partner you need time to think about what has been discussed, and the set a time in the next few days when you will begin The Talk again. In the meantime you may find it useful to write out your thoughts, to help you express your point of view.
Irrespective of your communication style and whether you believe your partner has more control in your life than you do, it may surprise you to realize that your partner is very likely experiencing the same feelings of rejection, inadequacy, loneliness, insecurity, and powerlessness that you are. This is often the first revelation that comes out in counseling, and that understanding can in itself change the way you talk to each other. If your partner is feeling as distressed as you are, think about how you want to be treated by your partner and then be that way yourself. You will get much further if you are kind and gentle, and talk softly and sensitively, because isn’t that what you are likely to respond to from your partner?
Having The Talk
The theme of The Talk is, "For one person to be right, the other person does not have to be wrong." In most cases of relationship distress, you are both "right," just different, and it is important that you both keep this in mind as you explore each other’s worries and hurts about the relationship. Don’t be surprised, then, that your partner thinks about the relationship differently, needs different things in a relationship, and can be upset about situations or issues that you think are minor. While you may discover there are many more similarities than you have realized, it is unlikely that you will each be able to "convert" the other entirely to your view of the "perfect" relationship. If you follow the rules of The Talk, however, you may each discover that your shared love and commitment leads to a curiosity about your partner’s wants and needs, and it can be fun to learn a new way to communicate, and you each may find that it is not so difficult to blend your own and your partner’s wants and needs
Your answers to these exercises reveal where your priorities in the relationship lie. Instead of trying to convince each other that your own issues are more important, listen to each other’s concerns about what is important. You may have been at cross-purposes for a long time if you are each focusing on different aspects of the relationship as the most important area to work on. If, for example, one of you has listed sex as the most important part of the relationship and the other has listed time as a family, each of you may have dug in waiting for the other partner to deal with your issues. If you realise that you have different priorities, you can come to an understanding: I’ll put effort into the area that is important to you, if you will do the same for me.
Comparing your beliefs about what is important to your partner, and what your partner’s answers are, can highlight areas of misunderstanding eg your partner may talk a lot about sexual issues, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that sex is the most important aspect of a relationship for him or her. You may have been feeling hurt because you have made assumptions that don’t reflect your partner’s true priorities.
This exercise helps you pinpoint the areas you are concerned about, and indicate ways in which you would like the relationship to change. Share your lists, and be interested in each other’s answers. Try not to be judgmental or get defensive, but let your partner know you want to try to find solutions and you are happy to listen to the suggestions for improving the relationship that are brought out in this exercise.
What expectations have you each brought into this relationship? Where did these expectations come from? How much are you influenced by the media, or your religious views, or your past experiences? When you discovered that your partner’s expectations are very different to your own, what have you thought this meant? Have you assumed that there was something wrong with you, or your partner? Do you believe your partner’s expectations are unrealistic or unreasonable, while you find it difficult to see any problems with your own? The point to keep in mind here is that everyone must have some expectations about relationships, it would be impossible not to, and it may be that there is such a discrepancy between what you each want that there is no mutually acceptable middle ground. However, if you believe you are inadequate or useless because you cannot seem to meet your partner’s expectations, or you believe that your partner is selfish and unreasonable because your expectations are not being met, or that you must not love each other because you can’t meet each other’s expectations, this adds another layer of complexity to your problem.
If you believe your partner is selfish or unreasonable, for example, you are likely to have reacted to any perceived failure on from your partner with irritation, annoyance, and even anger. In this way you sent the message that her wants and needs are not as important as yours. If you have worried that you are inadequate or failing your partner in some way, you will have reacted with apology and submission if you perceived that you had not met her needs, and at the same time you could not let her know what you wanted for yourself. These judgments and reactions have made it impossible to communicate clearly and effectively about your problems. Now, in order to develop a sustainable mutually satisfying relationship, talk through these fears together even though it might be difficult to say out loud what has been in your mind.
For a relationship to be characterised by mutual respect, generosity and tolerance, most of your communication needs to be considerate, warm and positive. Be open to your partner’s point of view: if there is genuine and respectful criticism of past behaviors, accept it with something like "I didn’t know that was what you thought and how you felt, I understand now and I’m sorry for hurting you. What can I do to change this?"
Many people find it easier to express irritation than they do love or approval. If you care about your partner and want your relationship to not only continue but to grow, begin to notice all those times you easily say something negative and think about whether the issue is really that important. More importantly, notice how often you are having a warm feeling for your partner, or a good thought, and you don’t express it: how often do you smile at your partner when you get home, or let them know you are pleased to be with them or happy with something they have just done?
I believe healthy relationships are characterised by the 80/20 rule: 80% of communication needs to be warm and positive, only 20% critical and negative.
As you work through your interpretations of your partner’s behaviour and the state of your relationship, sometimes you misinterpret your partner: that is, the message your partner is sending isn’t what you are receiving. One way of clarifying the situation is to say something like "When you say/do that, I feel that you don’t care about me/our relationship - what do you think?", or, "When you speak to me like that, it sounds as if you are never happy with anything I do, is that how it is?" Obviously if you are misunderstanding each other and you identify this, you can feel a great deal of relief and work together to sort though the issues that are bothering you. If your partner agrees that he or she doesn’t really care about you, or dismisses you with a "don’t be stupid", you will need to take a step back and reflect on what this means about your future together.
Identifying your strengths gives you the hope and energy to work on your relationship; for some couples it is enough to put their problems in perspective and stop fighting about their differences. But if your problems are serious, keep reminding yourself, and your partner, how much you do care about each other and why you want to stay together. If you only ever focus on what is wrong and lose sight of what is right between you, it is easy for the relationship to slide into separation, when neither of you may really want that.
Nevertheless, some relationship problems are serious. Some differences in wants and needs are so great that it is difficult to see a happy future together, and you may have identified your deal breaker, that is, an effect of the differences between you that you feel you can’t live with. When you tell your partner about this, be careful to explain it without malice but you need to let him know that your future together is uncertain. You may be able to compromise, but only so far, and if your partner can’t bridge the gap, you find it difficult to be content with the relationship that suits him. Perhaps you both feel this way, and it is inevitable the relationship will end. If this is the case, sometimes the only healthy outcome is for you to work towards separation, and one or both of you may find counselling will give you support to help this process happen in as respectful manner possible under the circumstances.
In this exercise you identified what you could each do to improve the relationship and defuse the tension between you.
Now comes the point where you have to take responsibility for your part in developing a mutually satisfying relationship: what are you prepared to do in the next few days and over the coming weeks that goes towards meeting your partner’s needs, as they have described? Can you make that first change your partner has requested? Don’t wait to see what your partner does; you can only change your own behavior. If you both take responsibility for change, and your focus is on meeting your partner’s needs rather than concentrating on yourself, ultimately your relationship should move towards meeting your mutual wants and needs. It might sound a bit corny, but to solve your problem you have to be on the same team, working together to please each other, not as individuals threatening to withdraw from the game if your partner doesn’t do things your way.
What typically happens as you follow this process is that instead of pulling against each other and feeling hurt and let down, as you each put yourself out to please the other person, you feel not only more loved and secure but more empowered. As you accept that your partner is a different to you, and you develop your ability to give your partner more of what makes them feel good, your own confidence as a partner grows. A good lover is first and foremost a sensitive person who can be flexible and reasonably adapt to the wants and needs of the partner, and the realities of his or her life circumstances.
For some of you, if you reach a stalemate where your partner simply won’t try to work with you to resolve the relationship problems, and you believe you can’t stay together if things don’t improve, you may need to quietly and confidently talk to him or her about the future of your relationship. Again, if your partner shows no interest in working with you to build a mutually satisfying relationship, sometimes the healthy outcome is to separate with as little conflict as possible.
Some partners simply don’t realise that the relationship may end if they don’t make an effort to address the problems that are causing the other partner such unhappiness. In this case, your partner may finally grasp the seriousness of the situation, and be willing to work with you so that you develop a sound relationship into the future.
Hopefully, though, many of you will have recognised that if the issues you are working on don’t improve as much as you initially had hoped, nevertheless you still love each other and you can have a good enough life together. Maybe as a result of these exercises you have been able to build a relationship based on mutual respect of your differences and tolerance when you don’t get what you want, and you have let go of resentment because you realise you are both good people doing the best you can - and that’s a good outcome!
© Sandra Pertot