Marriage therapist Beth D. Nelson is often asked about “normal.” We asked her about sex, love and snoring, so you don’t have to.
Is it normal to fantasize about someone else, even when you really love your spouse/partner?
Yes, it’s normal, and it can be a good thing. Often it’s just that, a fantasy, not something you’ll act upon. But it might be helpful to learn to talk about this with your partner. Fantasies can be about wanting something different sexually, spicing things up. Experimenting with “role play” around each other’s fantasies is one way partners can share more intimacy. What’s the worst thing that can happen? Your partner might say, “That doesn’t work for me.” A “no” isn’t your partner rejecting you. It’s more about comfort or discomfort.
Is sleeping in separate bedrooms the sign of a marriage in trouble?
If a couple says, “We do better this way because he or she snores,” then it’s not a problem. If, on the other hand, one of them says, “I feel alone. I miss the intimacy,” I would want to explore that. Ultimately, do what works for you. Don’t look at neighbors, other couples or friends and say, “Oh, but they have the perfect relationship.” Trust me. Nobody does.
How often are other couples having sex?
If a couple asks that question, I respond with, “How often would you like to be having sex?” How often isn’t as important as the quality of the sex. Is it satisfying? Sex, and how you enjoy it, changes with different phases in your life, but it is always a concern for couples. When people can’t talk about sex, it often becomes all or nothing; sex all the time or no sex, not even hugs. But humans need touch. Couples can find ways to connect where each feels love and support.
What’s the best way to start a difficult conversation?
Lead with what you most feel. Set the stage with what you worry will happen; name it instead of holding in fear: “I have something I want to talk about, but I worry it will upset you.” If you lead with that, the other person is less likely to respond out of anger or surprise. It allows you both to soften and, perhaps, risk vulnerability. We often lead with shame, blame, accusations. Try, instead, to lead with your heart.
What’s the worst thing couples do when they fight?
Shut down. I call this “dirty fighting.” Shutting down is one of the most toxic things, because neither you nor your partner has the opportunity to express themselves. Clean fighting is when you allow yourself to be vulnerable. “I’m hurt. I’m angry. I’m going to give you the best picture of what I feel.” It’s OK to ask for a pause, or a break, and then find a time to talk about it. If it’s a hot topic, a therapist can help you navigate conflict in a way that’s helpful, so you break the negative cycle.
Why does marriage, or a long-term relationship, feel so hard sometimes?
We’re sold the myth that relationships are easy, and most of us don’t learn how to do conflict well. We have to get better at truth-telling. Relationships are a lot of work because it’s the thing that matters most to us, the thing we have the most stake in. Hate is a strong word, but sometimes couples do feel hate for one another. That’s because they care so much, love so much. Seeing couples at the boiling point doesn’t scare me. What scares me is when they’ve checked out, when they’ve flatlined. What I tell people even at a breaking point is, if you do the work, whether it’s to stay together or leave, you will be in a better position because you will understand yourself better.
What’s the kindest thing I can do for my spouse/partner on a regular basis?
Let that person know you appreciate them. Early in relationships, you appreciate the small and simple things. “I like the way you smell.” Then you get caught up in life, careers and kids, and you forget to notice what you do for each other. Remember to notice the small things. “Wow. I really appreciate that you put the dishes away.” Everybody likes to hear praise and feel appreciated and respected. Nobody wants to feel, or hear, only the negative stuff, like they’re not measuring up.
Beth D. Nelson is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Minneapolis and president of the Minnesota division of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy.