Putting the Rrrrrr back into your Relationship

Notes from Bernie’s conversation on Nightlife with Dom Knight on ABC 702 Radio on Monday night 10 October 2016

Listen to the podcast here


Has your relationship become boring?  Instead of the freshness and excitement of the early days together, are you getting complacent and focusing on the everyday obligations and tasks like doing chores, paying bills, fixing up things around the house. Are you choosing to do things together that are safe, secure and familiar such as going to the same café or inviting the same people over for dinner?  When is the last time you really put thought and effort into your relationship?

Q: Bernie, the statistics are scary, more than 1 in 3 marriages end in divorce and half of these divorces occur in the first seven years.  What is going on?

A: Dom we are all leading very busy lives but thanks to the online world, instant gratification is more possible than ever. You don’t need to debate things anymore with others. You simply look it up on your phone and within seconds whoever is right gets the satisfaction of knowing it instantly. You don’t need to wait to buy something you want. You can order it online and receive it within minutes if it is a digital service or the next day if it is a physical product. We live in a world where you can get almost anything you want when you want it and it’s hard not to need instant gratification in every area of life. So much so that the concept of working for something is often considered to be boring.  It makes people unwilling to work through things and take their time on things, and relationships are one of the biggest things that people need to work on and take their time with. I wonder how many relationships could have been saved with just a little bit of patience and effort…

Q. But there has to be more to it than that? Given that ending a relationship can have the most devastating emotional and financial consequences, surely trying harder and showing a little more perseverance is not the only thing at play here?

A. Of course you’re right.  We also have to fight our own physiological and biochemical make-up.  As humans, we are hard wired to always be on the look-out for something new, to hunt. When we see something we don’t have, our bodies become flooded with all sorts of neurotransmitters and happy hormones.  We move into a state of heightened arousal and it feels good.  And then when we capture it, these chemical reactions automatically shut down.  And there is nothing we can do about it.  So put a new relationship into this context, in the early phase it’s all excitement and an adrenaline rush at the mere fantasy of a brush of skin.  But  two years on, it all become a little hum drum.  And we crave that adrenaline rush again – it’s like an addiction.  But unfortunately if we are not mindful, we can go looking in the wrong places and suddenly Mr Right is no longer Mr Right but the latest cast-off.  The challenge is to keep on putting new back into our old relationships.

Q. New back into the old – what do you mean by that? 

A. I think the first thing we have to do is to really acknowledge that a relationship is made up of more than one person, that it does in fact take two people to make or break it.  We are each responsible for the part we play.  By that I mean that if we are beginning to look at our relationship and moaning about how stale it has become, perhaps in the first place we should take a long, hard look at ourselves before we lay the blame totally at our partner’s feet. How are we measuring up as a person of interest?  When was the last time we took on something new ourselves? Took up a new hobby, talked to a stranger on the train, walked a different way to work, hopped into bed on the other side?  These changes don’t have to be huge, but they keep us vital and out of our comfort zones. In essence they keep us interesting as individuals.

Q. What happens if one person wants to reinvigorate the relationship and the other is quite happy just as it is?

A.  The reality is, both people have to be engaged in keeping the relationship fresh.  The trick is learning how to listen afresh to your partner’s needs and incorporating them into your lives.  So if one person is happy with the status quo and the other wants to rev if up a bit, somewhere in between is where the magic will happen.  Dr Gary Chapman, an American psychologist, came up with the concept of the Five Love Languages.  He say we tend to love the way we like to be loved rather than how our partner wants to be loved.  Leading Australian sex therapist, Dr Rosie King reiterated this with her five ‘Ts’ concept – Talk, Tasks, Time, Touch and Tokens. The principle behind both these ideas is that if your partner needs you to spend time with them to feel loved, then that is what you should do.  It doesn’t matter that you have spent the morning doing the garden – a task which she hates to do and you’re not too keen on either but you have done it because you love her and she should know that… So as a first step towards getting to know each other again I would suggest that you both take Gary Chapman’s fun questionnaire on line (http://www.5lovelanguages.com/profile/ ) and find how you can get the best bang for your buck with your good intentions.

Q. One of the things that struck me when you were talking about the Five Love Languages was how important it is not to assume anything.  In your example, there the poor man was slaving away in the garden so that she didn’t have to and in the meantime she was getting irritated because he wasn’t spending any time with her? What can we do about this?

A.  There isn’t a counsellor out there who wouldn’t stress the importance of good communication.  And they will give you all sorts of tips on how to do it well, in particular the techniques of active listening. But what they are really doing is teaching you how to resolve conflict.  However, Dr John Gottman from the University of Washington in Seattle, has studied 1000’s of couples over the last 40 years and has come to the conclusion that over 65% of our conflicts are never resolved and in fact resolving conflict well is not the key to a happy, successful relationship.  What he suggests we do is bring back curiosity into our relationships and convert that curiosity into empathy and respect.  Don’t be lazy, don’t just make assumptions about your partner’s interests and desires, rather ask the questions, show interest and listen to the answers.  Get to know your partner well all over again. Introduce the real quality of Emotional Intelligence into the relationship.  So in the example of the gardening above, what would have helped would have been for her to ask why he spends so much time in the garden rather than assume he just doesn’t value spending time with her.  And if you really aren’t comfortable asking these questions yourself, take yourselves along to a counsellor or coach who can facilitate these sometimes awkward conversations.

Q.  Another buzz word out there at the moment is Values.  Discover your values, live your values and the authentic life will follow.  But what happens if you have different values?  

A. Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology and the science of wellbeing from the University of Pennsylvania, is a great believer in values and signature strengths.  He posits that if you live your life using both of these principles as your parameters and link them to your goals, your sense of wellbeing will be increased exponentially. And therein lies the potential problem in a relationship. One partner’s values cannot not be honoured at the expense of the other. So what to do?  In the first place, it is really important to understand what are your real values and not the values you think you should have.  This is a fun exercise to do together and can be a way of deepening the understanding and empathy between you.  For example, financial issues are one of the biggest causes of relationship breakdown.  Couples argue about money all the time and quite often it just plays out with one partner being known as the tight-ass in the relationship.  How different might it be if they were to look at their values and discover that financial security is the value of one partner and a sense of giving is the value of the other? What might a different conversation look like?  How about taking the time to talk about where these values came from and how could both be addressed in the context of their relationship?  Coming up with ways for both partners to think more mindfully about the money spent and also ways to give back to society can lead to deeper, reinvigorated relationships.

Q. How important is it to actually be nice to our partners? I’m sure we’re all guilty of getting lazy.  Whereas in the beginning, we used to send them little texts during the day just to let them know you were thinking about them, now they are lucky to get a text saying we are going to be late home!

A. This is a really important point.  As humans, bad trumps good every time. That is, we are five times as likely to remember when our partner says something mean to us as we are to recall the one time he does something nice for us. This is known as the 5:1 Magic Ratio. And something mean does not have to be words; it can be an eye-roll, it can be arriving late without an explanation or apology, it can be lack of gratitude, it can be a lack of appreciation for a nice gesture.  So to get ourselves back on track in our relationships, we have to start building rituals of niceness into our everyday lives.  We have to proactively communicate at least 5 appreciations to our partners on a daily basis. It can be kissing our partner when we arrive home from work, it can be holding his hand when walking down the street, it can be admiring her haircut or his new jacket.  What we are doing is building a positive emotional bank account.  So that when we fall off the wagon and let loose with an unkind comment (because we are only human after all), it will be received in the context of normally he says really nice things to me so there must be something else going on for him.  Instead of getting defensive and letting fly ourselves with an equally unkind comment, we may stop and think and try to understand what is going on for him.

Q. Date night!  Isn’t that supposed to be the cure-all for couples who are in a rut?

A. Yes and I just don’t get it.  Think about it.  Your relationship is struggling.  You are both tired and stressed.  And then the counsellor suggests you hire a baby-sitter and go out for a romantic dinner.  The pain of sitting across the table from some-one with whom you haven’t had a decent conversation in months is palpable.  Date nights are for relationships that are working, not for those that need reboot.   So how about trying a Date Mark 2? It works along the lines of the following:

  1. Take your partner to a place that is new for both of you (such as a park, café, beach).  This is to put you in the right frame of mind for planning to do things differently in the future.  A change of scenery is great to get the creative juices flowing.
  2. Now take 10 minutes and write down all the things you would like to do together for the first time that you’ve never experienced.  Be realistic but still get outside your comfort zone (e.g. do a different gym class together, have a dinner party with new friends, organise a surprise weekend away, try out a new restaurant).
  3. Then share these with your partner and agree on 10 things that you’re going to do more often.
  4. Do one activity every week from your ‘novelty list’ with your partner and have some fun.
  5. Once you’ve completed the ten items on your novelty list, come up with more so you continue to keep your relationship fresh.

Q. What about fun and not taking it all too seriously?

A. This is something that is all too often forgotten about.  You have to make room for a little light-heartedness if you want to have a balanced love life.

However cultivating humour in your relationship requires that you both are respectful in your encounters. This is not stand-up comedy or razor-sharp repartee. It is two people playing with words and with each other. Keeping it harmless, blameless, and never using humour as a weapon. Even if you don’t think you are especially funny, you can approach your life and love with a sense of humour. It’s not about making jokes that rival the likes of Jerry Seinfeld. It’s about seeing the lighter side of living and revelling in it. Life can be ironic, and that can be fun and funny. It’s worth the effort to find the humour in life, and appreciate your mate for his or hers.

Everyone has his or her own style, and if your loved one’s humour is not to your liking, you need to have a conversation about it and set appropriate boundaries. Some people enjoy insulting, or put-down, humour, and that won’t work for you in a relationship. Jokes or actions have to be life enhancing, and they should never make things worse. It is always wise to think before you speak, and if you think your partner might take what you are about to say in the wrong way, don’t say it.

Q. If we are talking about putting some sass back into the relationship, then

surely we have to mention sex? How big a role do sex and intimacy play in keeping a relationship alive?

A. I think we totally underestimate the role that sex plays in our lives and especially in our relationships.  We are animals. We need sex. According to renowned psychologist, Sue Johnson, we are neurologically hardwired by millions of years of evolution to find a mate, to love and cherish, to be attached and connected.  But quite often, men and women display their needs it differently.  It is often said that men become intimate to have sex and women have sex to become intimate.

Dr Rosemary Basson is credited with discovering the female response cycle.  She claims that a number of women engage in sex without initially feeling sexual desire, either to please their partners or to create intimacy, and having sex then fuels their desire.  But so often, being uninterested in sex means that women find excuses to avoid it.  So it is really important that their partners do something to awaken a response in them.  And that something has got to be more than the ‘hand creep’.

According to the Hite report, every positive thing a couple does together can be seen as foreplay and therefore part of sex. So guys, if you are one of those men who hasn’t had sex in months (at least not with your partner!), maybe try washing the dishes, or vacuuming the living room, or even making the bed.  You may find you have a far better time unmaking it!  According to a study of 1,300 couples, men who contributed their fair share towards housework, reported better and more frequent sex for both partners.

And of course, there is one other very obvious thing that has to change in order to get your sex life going again – get the kids out of your bed!

Q.  So if you were to come up with a list of the 7 most important things to reboot your relationship, what would they be?

7 Ways to put the Rrrrrrr back into your Relationship

  1. Be curious and interested – ask questions rather than assume
  2. Remain interesting yourself – be prepared to reinvent yourself
  3. Build a Positive Emotional Bank Account – 5:1 Magic Ratio
  4. Book a meeting with a Relationships Coach
  5. Have a Date Mark 2
  6. Rethink your foreplay and your sex life
  7. Have fun and never forget how to laugh