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!

Why Helping Your Clients Find the Joy is a Crucial Part of Couples Therapy

It is tempting to spend a lot of time in therapy working on making the things that are going wrong in relationships go better. But what exactly is that effort supporting, if the partners don’t connect, are constantly at odds, and becoming fatigued by all the conflict?

In my opinion, at least half of therapy must be about creating, improving and multiplying positive interactions. If your clients don’t feel like their relationship is worth the effort, of they don’t get joy out of each other’s company, hopelessness will win in the end.

Therapy is hard, because working as a team in an intimate relationship involves becoming more curious and less reactive. Nobody is going to work hard to modify their automatic responses in a marriage where fun has become extinct.

There are a number of ways you can help your clients rediscover the joy in their relationships. Here are some strategies to consider:

  • Help your clients remember positive interactions. Consider: What made them positive? How can the mood of those past interactions be re-created in current circumstances?
  • Create a positive interaction in your therapy room. I start most sessions by asking each partner to express appreciation or gratitude to their partner for something fairly specific they did or said recently that made a difference, and why. (A tip of my hat to the Developmental Model, once again!)
  • Remind your clients that positive aspects of their relationship continue to exist even when they’re not agreeing about something. Help them pay attention to those aspects of the relationship that are really working, and develop a practice of noticing and appreciating those moments.
  • Help clients create a daily positive interaction habit. Many clients already have at least one positive interaction each day, in which case it can be expanded to more, longer, or more meaningful. However, some clients many need to start small. Small or large,  being able to deliberately create a positive interaction is an indispensable skill for a strong relationship. It requires self-control, compartmentalization, making a clear choice, emotional regulation, motivation…all the skills couples need in order to function as a team.

As clients become better able to deliberately choose, create, and change the tone or atmosphere of an interaction, it becomes increasingly possible to help them have more productive conversations about tough topics. Helping each partner focus on their own individual interactional goals (for instance, responding with curiosity rather than defensiveness) will help them experience one another differently when they discuss their differences–as teammates and collaborators rather than adversaries. Creating positive experiences builds positive regard as well as goodwill and motivation. In the end, the couple will find themselves with the opportunity to build something MUCH better than either has ever imagined.

Sex and Differentiation of Self

This is the first post in a three-part series about sex and differentiation of self in relationships.

Sex is perhaps the area of human experience in which we feel the most vulnerable. In sex, we are exposed, naked before another human being, both literally and figuratively. With vulnerability often comes anxiety: how will my partner react to my body, my sexual preferences, my fantasies? How will they react to my discomfort, awkwardness and uncertainty? What if I don’t get hard or stay hard? Will I be able to figure out how to please them? What if they don’t reach orgasm, or if I don’t? What if I suggest something they think is gross?

Sex is a place where our deepest sense of desire and our deepest vulnerabilities meet. In this tender intersection, it can feel like the future of the relationship rests on whether our partner is pleased by us or, heaven forbid, turned off by us. We look for any sign of the latter so we can adapt, and quickly. “Oh, did you think I said vibrator? I didn’t say that, I would never say that! I absolutely agree with you, vibrators are gross!” or “Yeah, that was DEFINITELY an orgasm. Absolutely. Awesome.” There is a whole lot of nonverbal communication going on, as well as people working hard to accommodate one another before there is even a sign of distress. Before you know it, you have an entire narrative about who you and your partner are together sexually that is based on, in part, false assumptions and kindly-meant untruths.

Where did the connection go, to say nothing of the pleasure? How did sex become a performance, frequently ending in hurt feelings or tears? Why isn’t sex spontaneous any more? What happened to all that super hot desire?

Let’s just pause there for a minute; think about those questions. What is your theory about what happened? And how might you approach that as a relational therapist?

Helping couples work with questions such as these used to be VERY difficult for me, because the level of distress the partners were experiencing was hard to handle in therapy. How directive should I be? How can I join with everyone? How can I shift unrealistic expectations effectively? Also, what expectations were realistic? Where does psychoeducation fit in? And certainly, how can I get the partners to calm down sufficiently to hear one another, and me? Improving communication is a great goal, but not if nobody can hear.

Some days felt like a win, others most definitely felt like a loss. I researched couple therapy in every way I could. I knew I needed to get much more effective. I borrowed some ideas and techniques from others, and I developed some of my own. I knew deep down that differentiation of self had to be at the root of the solution, but most couple therapy modalities focused on attachment to the exclusion of differentiation.

That’s when I discovered the Developmental Model. The DM incorporates aspects of attachment, differentiation, and neuroscience. Not two opposing camps but one cohesive whole, informed by science. What’s not to love? I looked deeper. I took webinars and then training from Ellyn Bader and Peter Pearson the developers of the model. I took every opportunity to learn from them, and I took pages of notes. I replayed webinars again and again. I memorized. I took very specific interventions to my clients, and right away, my life got easier. I collected those interventions like precious stones. The more I had, the better things got. Naturally, I applied what I learned to my own clientele, and noticed the difference in progress. Of course I wanted to train with Ellyn and Pete.

As I learned more about the Developmental Model, I came to understand that relationships progress through stages. There is a connection between getting stuck in a developmental stage and experiencing relational problems. This provided a road map of sorts for therapy, and a non-pathologizing one at that. As a relationship develops, the couple’s experience of sex changes, too–providing an opportunity for relational and personal growth.

So how can you or your clients build a healthy sexual relationship that doesn’t suffer when the new relationship energy dissipates?  In my next post, I’ll discuss the early, symbiotic phase of the relationship, and I’ll share some tips for setting up an easier transition into the differentiation phase.

Click here for the second post in this three-part series.