The Key to Effective Relationship Therapy

As a relationship therapist, my job description includes destabilizing the status quo of relationships that aren’t working. No matter how much you want your relationship to change, change is uncomfortable. It involves trying new things, adjusting to new ways of being and relating, digging deep for empathy and generosity of spirit, and generally wading into the unknown. 

Relational therapy also involves a commitment to personal growth. That often requires quite a deep look at oneself, which can be surprising and unsettling. Usually people start therapy when they feel very frustrated and dissatisfied with their relationship. Often this shows up as a strong desire for change in one’s partner: “If only my partner would change this, that, and the other thing, our relationship would be great.” So then, it might come as a bit of a surprise when you arrive in my therapy room, that the first thing I want to discuss is what you might want to change in how you are showing up in your relationship. 

I start there because, in my opinion, this is the difference between relational therapy that does work, and relational therapy that does not work. If each partner is able to identify at least one or two things they are doing that aren’t working very well in their relationship, that is a good start. The next step is to find individually-motivated reasons why each partner would want to change those things. “Because my partner wants me to” isn’t as effective a motivator for change as (for instance) “because it is the kind of person I want to be.”

It is so easy to look for external changes to circumstances (my partner changed and our relationship got better) rather than internal ones, but here is the unfortunate (and hopeful!) truth:

You can’t be the same person you are in the current non-working relationship and expect to have a relationship that DOES work. You have to become the person you want to be in the relationship you want to have and then observe what happens next. Hopefully, you will find that the relationship transforms as well.

Balancing Novelty and Comfort in Romantic Relationships

We expect a lot from our partners. On the one hand, we develop relationships based on love and romance. We yearn for attraction, excitement, a spark. On the other hand, when we’re forging lifelong partnerships, we also seek stability, reliability, and a predictable, comfortable status quo with a lot of emotional safety. 

Naturally, different people prioritize different aspects of partnership. Some people are perfectly happy to sacrifice the thrill of the crush for the solidity of companionship. Others would rather focus on the magic spark. But most of us want a measure of each. 

It’s natural for human beings to seek both novelty and reliability, excitement and comfort. But it’s quite a balancing act in a long-term relationship. Consider: the thrill of the crush comes in part from multiple uncertainties, including “do they like me, or not?” But the comfort of a best friend comes from the abiding certainty of their lasting affection. How can our partners be both thrilling crushes and trusted friends? 

Part of the puzzle is simply the recognition that the early, head-over-heels infatuation phase of any romantic relationship must come to an end at some point. As magical as this phase is, we need to return to equilibrium at some point, if for no other reason, so we can get some sleep and accomplish some things that fell by the wayside while we fell in love.

The early phase of relationship includes focusing on ways in which we are similar, and stretching to be more alike. Together we create a sense of similarity and high regard that, ideally, can be the foundation for a lifelong relationship. It is also healthy for it to pass, and to give way to acknowledging our differences, reconnecting with ourselves and our individuality, and noticing there are things about our partner we don’t like.

It is easy to focus on the down side of differentiation, because as we notice and acknowledge our differences, we often disagree. This transition can be rough, and often includes significant disillusionment. But consider this: desire requires difference. 

If the romantic spark is fading in your relationship, or perhaps faded a long time ago, ask yourself if you might be overly emotionally entangled, or a little too safe, predictable, or known. 

In the right circumstances, asserting difference can be a powerful aphrodisiac. It allows partners to see each other in a new light, and desire one another anew. 

Every individual in every relationship has to find their own way to address this challenge. Here are a few ideas:

  • Have new conversations. Turn off devices and learn something new about one another over dinner or breakfast. I love Vertellis cards for this, but if you’re great at curious, creative, thought-inspiring questions, you don’t need any prompts. Not matter how long you’ve known one another, you don’t know all there is to know. Get creative, go deeper, and discover your ever-changing partner.
  • Do new things. Turn off devices and create some memories. What sounds like fun? Start with a brainstorming list of at least 30 ideas of things that sound like fun to one or the other of you; you don’t have to agree, just brainstorm. Try to include things that take a few minutes, as well as some that take a couple of weeks. Include things that don’t cost anything, as well as big ticket items. 
  • Read a book together. Ideally, this would be about something that interests both of you. Organic farming? International travel? Lifestyle choices? Get inspired, and learn something together.
  • In the same vein, take a class together.
  • Look for the spark within yourself, and then share that with your partner. We have a weird cultural belief that we need other people to light us up, turn us on, excite us. While other people and deep connections can certainly be amazing, you also have the capacity to light yourself up. Have you lost your own connection with excitement, fun, play, novelty, or pleasure? Ask yourself: “What do I do to light myself up?” and start doing it!

Personal Preference, or Perpetuation of Oppression?

I just returned from the AASECT annual conference in Philadelphia, and it was, in my opinion, a particularly excellent conference this year. In the next couple months, I’ll share some of the thoughts that are stirring around for me in the aftermath of the presentations and workshops I attended.

First up, I want to tell you about a fascinating talk entitled “The Politics of Desirability.”

Consider what we think of as “personal preference.” Tall, dark, and handsome? Slim, blonde, and athletic? Able-bodied? White? Christine Shio Lim, who presented her research findings, suggests that what we have thought of as “personal preference” is not only socially constructed to the point that the word “personal” hardly applies, but also that these preferences arise from politically and socially oppressive systems that result in biases around weight, race, differing ability, and so forth.

This is not shocking for those of us who believe in social constructionism. But consider the implications for our lives and for therapy. “It’s my right to prefer what I prefer” is a common stance. But what if our preferences perpetuate oppression? Or, if we bring the discussion down to earth in real relationship examples, what if someone experiences diminished attraction to their partner after, for instance, they gain weight, but they want to stay together?

Have you ever felt uncomfortable when this situation has comes up in therapy, or is it just me?

As a body positive activist with a life-long history of experiencing our culture’s rampant bias against fatness, I have done lots of research on the topic of fatness and health, and have worked hard on my own personal feelings about my body and, more generally, cultural norms of beauty. I definitely am not interested in perpetuating myths about body size and beauty, or health.

However, I also appreciate the differentiation it takes to say something as hard as “I’m not feeling attracted to you because you have gained weight”. At least, once it has been said, a discussion can happen, if (and this is a big if!) the therapist can hold the tension sufficiently and guide the conversation in productive ways.

Here are some things to consider, from my experience working with body image issues in therapy, and guided by Shio Lim’s findings:

  • The story you’re seeing play out is not just about the relationship between partners—it’s about the relationship between the partners and the culture they exist in.
  • Attraction is malleable. If you want to change it, you can change it. Help the partner whose attraction has waned to look at beauty from a values-led perspective. Do some psychoeducation about size acceptance. Get creative about stretching perception.
  • No matter what a person says about their preference, or how they say it, it is more about them and how they see the world than about their partner. Help both partners understand the emotional boundaries here. There is no “too fat to be desirable” in a global sense. Also, fatness is not a character flaw. The person who states “you are too fat” is expressing something important about their own perception, belief system, and how they see the world as a result of their experiences. They are not right or wrong, nor are they unchangeable. They are just expressing something about their perceptions in this moment.
  • There is an inherent boundary problem with expecting your partner to lose weight. First, it might not be possible for multiple personal or medical reasons. Secondly, it is essentially none of your business.
  • Nobody ever made any difficult change by beating themselves up. Supporting beauty and self-love at any size is a powerful way to help your client stay empowered to make and act on their own decisions about their life.
  • Have you ever experienced being attracted to a person’s attitude, vibe, or presence rather than their body per se? Help the client who has gained weight to find an internal sense of sexiness, body love, joy in life, embodiment of pleasure. That’s the sexiest thing they could do, and almost certainly more powerful than losing weight.
  • It is very possible for a couple’s dynamic to remove or block all motivation to change. In other words, coercion, pressure, auditing or remarking on food choices, or any other subtle or not-so-subtle judgment is more likely to block change than create it. Challenge the pressuring partner to mind their own business while they work to expand their erotic template.
  • I love to have couples watch the film Embrace together. It is about body image for women, but it generalizes well for anyone who needs a new perspective on oppressive systems around size, health, beauty, and ability.

As a therapist, and a human being, you would be doing a radical thing by challenging your clients (and yourself) to consider that all bodies are beautiful, all are worthy, all are equal. Our sense that thinner bodies are more valuable and more desirable is shaped by our culture and our media. At many points in history, and in many cultures, fatter bodies have been valued over thinner ones. Our culture’s current preference does not reflect an eternal truth. The same goes for preferences and beliefs around skin color, ability/disability, gender presentation, and so forth.

This conversation can be incredibly difficult and painful. It’s also an amazing opportunity for both partners to put differentiation of self into practice. It takes real emotional muscle to hear something like “I’m not as attracted to you anymore because of your weight” and recognize it as something that comes from your partner’s experiences and history rather than as an indication that something is wrong with you.

I know a lot of therapists might shy away from having an open conversation about weight and attraction. It just feels too personal, too painful, and too potentially explosive. But once we recognize that our ideas about desirability are both personal (meaning they reflect our values and experiences, not objective reality), and shaped by our society (meaning that factors like systemic bias and oppression play a meaningful role), it becomes possible to have a non-judgemental, non-pathologizing, diversity-embracing conversation about where our desires come from and what roles they play in our lives and relationships.