by Marc Zola for EDN
Welcome to the first of the Eugene Daily News’ relationship advice column. As a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist and Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in working with couples, I’ve treated a wide variety of relationship issues, yet all of them seem to have one thing in common: Often the way couples try to solve problems IS the problem.My role as a couples therapist, is to help people see how even a small change in the way each partner interacts with one another can result in a significant improvement in relational satisfaction. As therapists focused on relationships, my colleagues and I at Eugene Therapy are known for our direct, straight forward approach to treatment. Most of us trained at the University of Oregon’s Couples & Family Therapy program and are in practice in the community. While an advice column isn’t therapy, we still plan to respond to your most pressing email/text/mail relationship questions in a similar ‘call it like we see it’ fashion.
From dating to living together to marriage, to questions about managing kids, chores and the in-laws, please send in your questions to email@example.com and we’ll do our best not to disappoint!
Q: Whenever I bring up marriage, my boyfriend brings up his recently divorced parents. We’ve been dating four years, and I feel it’s time to take the next step, but he’s still hesitant to even discuss it. Any advice?
MZ: Sounds like you’re saying your boyfriend has cold feet. This feels like a real dilemma for you, but it’s also an opportunity. Let’s start with thinking about what NOT to do. You may be thinking about making demands, ultimatums or even playing ‘hard to get’. Think again. These attempts are likely to backfire. If you walked into a restaurant and the waiter demanded you chose a certain dish, the best the waiter could hope for is for you to acquiesce out of fear (but you’d likely never return to that restaurant). Similarly, ultimatums don’t work. They are recipes for resentment.
Given your partner’s experience of living through the divorce of his parents, his hesitation is completely reasonable. One might argue it’s actually a good sign that shows he IS thinking about you in a serious way but is realistic about the fact that many marriages do end in divorce.
Want to show him what a great prospect you really are? Then try validation. Not only with words, (for example, “It makes sense that you are thinking about your parents. Long term commitments can be really scary!”) but also with deeds. In some way he is saying to you, ‘I need space… I need time.’ The supportive and loving response is to grant it to him. Not as a gift or as giving in, but as both a demonstration of understanding and an opportunity for you to work on building your own individual life. Like they say on airplanes, put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping others around you. Similarly, take time to engage in activities outside the relationship. Exercise, dinners/coffee with friends, start a book club with your girlfriends, take a class. Do things for yourself that subtly say:
1) ‘I matter and I choose me’ and
(2) ‘By the way, if you were smart, you’d choose me too :)’
Look, you can’t ultimately make people choose who or what you’d like them to choose. It may sound like a cliche`, but your best bet is to accept where he’s at right now, continue with your relationship as is, while you work on enhancing your own individual life. There’s a good chance he’d be more attracted to spending a lifetime with the ‘accepting, interested, engaged you’ rather than the ‘demanding, invalidating you’.
There is no guarantee this will work. But there is a guarantee that the alternative (demands, ultimatums) will not. But even if it doesn’t work out, you’ll end up with a better version of yourself!
Q: My partner and I have been seeing each other for 10 years. We have two great kids but we never seem to go on dates, or when we do, we end up talking about paying bills or other household chores.
MZ: This is a common problem. You and your partner started your lives together as romantic partners, but somehow along the way you may have turned into what seems more like business partners. This makes perfect sense. After all, so much of your time is spent managing kids, carpools and household chores let alone bills.
The secret to managing this is to agree to limit family business conversations to a specific day(s) of the week. For example, why not decide to have a once weekly partners-only meeting where say from 8 to 8:30 PM on Monday evenings, you discuss family business issues (bills, insurance, who’s going to take out the recycling).
The two of you then need to agree that barring a ‘911’ situation (and by 911 I mean, foreclosure, very sick kid, you get the drift) you agree to NOT discuss family business issues other than the agreed upon day/time. This may sound rigid, but if you really think about it, this is exactly what the two of you did when you first started dating. You discussed how you feel about one another, what your goals, hopes and dreams are, what to have for dinner, when to have sex, etc. The way to return to those days of yore is to schedule dates and even mini-dates (like a 15 minute walk around the block) with your partner that will focus on one another and avoid all conversations about the laundry, diapers and changing the furnace filter.
Couples often find that when they set limits on family business discussions they inevitably find more time for one another.