In the last newsletter, I talked about how one of the commonly asked questions in couples therapy was whether partners should stay or get married. Given that any relationship, healthy or otherwise, is going to have issues, sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether or not your issues are ‘normal’ or a sign of something more sinister. So how do you assess if you have a healthy relationship? Well, there are no easy answers, but in this post, I talk about the top 3 ways I ‘take the temperature’ of a couple’s relationship.
Do You Enjoy Spending Time Together?
When I was dating, my father told me, “you need to find someone you can be your silly self with.” That phrase really stuck with me, and I think it encapsulates the core of modern marriage, which is to have a friend and partner as we make our way through life. And yet, it’s easy for couples to get away from this very basic relationship tenet. Often, couples who have been together a long time, or have children, or have competing schedules are spending precious little time together. Make a point to carve out a shared space, preferably each day, but at the very least, a few times a week. Let me be clear—without this, slowly, over time, your bond will undoubtedly suffer. It’s easy to look up one day and realize that your partner has become a stranger—cut this off at the pass by ensuring regular, dedicated time together.
If you are spending time together, and you just don’t enjoy it, that can be a different beast altogether. More commonly we see this problem with new couples. Sometimes, it can also be because of schedules or other conflicts making it difficult for them to fully connect. But sometimes this can be a sign that a couple is staying together because they think it should work, rather than they want to be together. The truth is, if you don’t like being together in the beginning, it is highly unlikely that you’re going to want to be together more as time goes on. In fact, it will often be harder, as other life challenges compete for your attention. If you haven’t been together very long, and find it difficult to enjoy your shared time, it’s time to take a step back and think about what is truly keeping you in this relationship.
And if you have been together a long time, and are not enjoying each other’s company, then it’s time to think about what has shifted in your relationship that makes your time less enjoyable together. Perhaps one or both of you is distracted, and not truly present. Perhaps you’ve gotten away from each other, and don’t really know the other person as well you used to. Whatever the case, spend some time talking it through, and make an actionable plan for how you want to address the issue.
Are You able to Express Both Emotional and Sexual Intimacy?
I believe a core and often overlooked aspect of long term commitment and marriage is emotional intimacy. While we are typically aware that sexual intimacy is important, emotional intimacy—the ability to be truly vulnerable with one another—is not necessarily something we’re taught to think about. This is unfortunate, as the research overwhelmingly demonstrates that the more emotionally safe that we feel in our relationships, the stronger our partnerships tend to be.
Couples who can share their thoughts and feelings comfortably, with little fear of a significant negative reaction from their partners develop a felt sense of security in their relationship. This frees them from much of the anxiety regarding whether or not their partner will be there for them—they know their partner will show up for them. And when one person does make a mistake, they can recover more quickly because they each believe, at their core, the other person would not purposely do anything to hurt them.
The corresponding piece to emotional intimacy, is, of course, physical intimacy. While we often talk about this purely in terms of how frequently a couple has sex, there are many aspects to a couple’s intimate life, including, how enjoyable partners find their physical interactions, how comfortable each person feels expressing their sensuality, and the frequency of shared physical affection outside the bedroom. When partners focus on the quality of their intimate lives, then frequency can follow naturally.
Are You Able to Solve Problems Together?
Beyond the sex and champagne, much of marriage is dealing with problems and making choices together. Figuring out where to live, and how to raise your children, determining how to provide for your family, and when and where to go on vacation. There are hard problems and easy ones, those that are complex and those that are simple. But no matter how you slice it, partners must be able to talk through and make decisions on a variety of different issues. You can have all the love in the world, but if you’re not an effective team, things can go south very quickly. More than anything, couples who solve problems effectively respect and appreciate each other’s input. This means that you start by viewing the other person as someone worthy of getting advice from; you believe they have something valuable to offer the conversation. Beyond that, each partner needs to actually listen to the other person, be willing to have their mind changed, and compromise when needed.
While there are few hard and fast rules when it comes to determining a healthy relationship, a couple that enjoys spending time together, has emotional and sexual intimacy, and can effectively solve problems together has a strong foundation to making love last. If a couple wants to determine if they are ready for marriage, or figure out if their current relationship is in a good place, those are the areas I believe would be most helpful for them to focus on.