“There’s a continuum of how interested people are in changing their own behavior. Versus changing their partners behavior. People are very often focused on their partner being the one that needs to change. And of course, you don’t have any control over your partner. All you have control over is yourself,” said Dr. Carita Anderson, Clinical Psychologist, Couples & Sex Therapist.
Over 2,500 parents, mostly Moms (96%) who are married (81%) or cohabiting (7%) have shared the pandemic’s impact on their lives and relationships. Including with their partners. The majority are overwhelmed by more childcare (69%,) kids activities (59%,) and housework (75%.) Yet only 30% cite their partners are doing more at home.
Whether it’s strain over who does what, challenges with kids or work, many couples are living parallel lives. The real discussions aren’t happening. Because they either want to get through the pandemic or the day, with less conflict. Many in our study crave intimacy. But lack the time, privacy, or communication skills to restore it. So, how can couples re-spark the love connection that brought them together?
Get Past the Anger
Carita said, “When I ask people ‘what are you feeling?’ they always talk about anger and frustration. But frustration only happens when you have an expectation that isn’t being met. It’s not this free-floating thing. Feelings are going to come up. But they don’t last forever.” It can be difficult to remember that in the moment. Carita explained, “So, how you respond to them is key in terms of how you feel about yourself. And how your partner experiences you as well.” She encourages us to examine our needs.
Own Your Needs
Carita said, “Recognize the expectations you have. And ask yourself, did your partner agree to that expectation?” When you’ve been in a long-term partnership, it’s common to make assumptions. Or decisions based on your history. “Are you paying attention to what’s going on in front of you or bringing an expectation with you from the past?” You can say how you feel, what you’ve observed and heard. But if you have something to say about what your partner thinks, then ask them,” she explained.
Carita said, “When partners are communicating, very often, they’ll ask, ‘well, don’t you think that?’ Rather than, ‘What do you think about this?’ I talk a lot about curiosity. So, that you can be open to hearing and understanding from their perspective.” Your partner’s perspective can change.
She added, “Imagine that your partner experiences the world differently. And that it’s valid. A lot of people have a hard time with that. When you’re saying what you need, you have to be at a point where the person can hear you. And recognize that you’re talking about yourself.” It’s vital. But how do you start?
Someone Has to Move First
“So, you have two partners and they both have needs, wants and desires. Somebody has to move first. And often, the first person moves and then the other person isn’t going to respond for quite a while,” said Carita. It’s natural to want speedy relief. But behavior change in humans doesn’t usually unfold that way.
She added, “So, the first person has to decide, either ‘I’m going to keep trying or I’m, willing to live with the consequences of no longer trying.’ And then figure out, ‘what am I going to do if this doesn’t happen?’ And be willing to follow through with that decision. And that’s really hard for people.”
So, Ask for What You Need
No one wants to issue an ultimatum. But the shift from internal dialogue, about what’s not working. To discussions with your partner about it, can feel awkward. But you can be loving and transparent about where you are, what you’re willing to do and want in return.
Carita said we can set up ‘the talk’ for better outcomes. “You have to be aware of whether your partner is actually open to having the conversation. Very often, people are going up to their partner, when their partner’s preoccupied or tired. Ask, ‘hey are you available to talk?’ It’s helpful to check in with your partner first. All of this is hard. It’s never going to go like you want it to go, even 50% of the time. So, you have to keep trying.”
As Carita points out, rewriting relationship rules is not easy. But you can improve the likelihood of success with intentional communication. “Very often, people just don’t have the skills to not be reactive. So, speak from a place of being grounded rather than reactive. And hopefully, you can find a space where your partner can listen from place of being grounded. There’s so much going on and often they don’t have any replenishment. Or have the model to imagine that there could be a different way to be or communicate.”
Put it On the Calendar
And doing this requires kid-free time. With 75% in our study citing disruption to their childcare, it won’t happen magically. Carita said, “Scheduling meetings can be tricky and super helpful. They aren’t going to always happen when you schedule them. However, when you schedule them, they have a greater likelihood of happening.” Yes. And you can prepare for it. She added, “So, if you know that that time is coming up, then hopefully as an adult you will take the responsibility to get your head together. And get into a space where you can then have the conversation.”
Bring Back Touch
Physical intimacy can feel clunky post-kids. Whether there’s a difference in need or energy among partners. Or difficulty making the time for it. If the sex is gone, then the relationship can feel like it’s all work and no fun. Like having a roommate who’s difficult to negotiate with. So, how can couples reconnect in a more physical way? Carita said, “One of the biggest things that people need to understand is that sexuality is a much wider umbrella than just intercourse. A lot of people are very focused on that.”
And Factor in the Warm Up
What you need, from your life and relationship, continues to change. Carita said, “There’s often a big difference in how long one partner takes to warm up and get aroused versus the other partner. And when you have little kids, if the kids are all over you, often the woman doesn’t want to be touched at all anymore. And if she’s partnered with a man, he often has no concept of that. Nor is he doing the things that would help him manage whatever tension is in his body.”
Navigating new requirements, from a long-term partnership, can feel excruciating. But evolving to new conditions is key to making relationships work long-term.
Expand Your Definition of Sex
Carita said, “So, with a very narrow definition of what sex is, people forget about physical touch. Just for the pleasure of physical touch. I mean people are so touch starved right now! There are so many people living alone. And many are isolated because we’re not congregating like we used to.” Sigh.
In our study, most parents cite spending less time on their adult relationships (71%.) And if partnered, almost half (49%) say they’re doing ‘terribly or not as well as usual’ as partners.
Carita explained, “Because there’s so much going on, coupled people are kind of passing each other while trying to get everything done. So, people have forgotten what it’s like to stop for a twenty second hug. They think, ‘if that’s not going to lead to going to bed, why are we doing it?’ But they don’t understand what physical touch can do for their mind and the body.”
And How to Opt in to the Experience
Carita said, “They often imagine that sex has to be some long, drawn-out experience or really good. But it doesn’t have to be good sex, it can be good enough sex. And there’s a lot more conversation that women usually need than men do. And a lot of consent that goes into it. Couples forget about what consent actually looks and sounds like in a marriage or committed relationship.”
She reminds us there are several stages. “Thinking about it, planning for it and allowing for some warmup time. Expect that things aren’t just going to pop off immediately. So, resetting expectations is huge. And trying different things, like a foot massage or a back massage. Or small things like putting on their favorite music or eye gazing. People don’t do eye gazing and that’s super powerful for connecting.”
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Carita Anderson! Follow her great adventure on the website for her practice,
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About Dr. Carita Anderson, PhD.
Dr. Anderson is the Founder of he Boston Center for Couples and Sexuality. uses a combination of cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, and psychodynamic therapy to help you understand what’s working for you, what isn’t, and what you can do to change, cope, and move comfortably through the world.
As a Licensed Psychologist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist, she works to help you understand your emotions & behaviors and how they relate to the intricate web of relationships life weaves.
She is dedicated to providing a space for people of all sexualities, races, genders, and backgrounds to be vulnerable and safe exploring their identities and relationships. Her practice is dedicated to practicing anti-racism, LGBTQ+ informed counseling, and offering a safe space for monogamous, non-monogamous, and polyamorous couplings.
She provides help & guidance for couples, individuals, and groups struggling with:
- Depression & anxiety disorders
- Sexual pain (physical & emotional)
- Relationship issues
- Life transitions (divorce, death, job loss, etc)
- Sexual functioning & sexual education
- Compulsive sexual behavior
- Sex-positive parenting
- And more