The Washington Post

On Love: Making your relationship work

May 25, 2011

Modern relationships seem to fail more often than they succeed. So what is the key to success for those who can make their relationships work? according to relationship expert Terry Real, the key is making a key connection that works and can keep a couple together.

Join Terry Real, best-selling author, family and couple therapist, as he chats about learning how you and your significant other can make your relationship work - and work well. He will be online with On Love's Ellen McCarthy Wednesday, May 25, at noon ET.

Hi all,  Thanks for stopping by another Wednesday OnLove chat.  I'm grateful Terry Real can be with us today.  He's devoted his life to figuring out what makes relationships really function well -- in practice, not theory.  It's clear you have plenty of questions for him, so let's get going. 

Several years ago, my husband and I stopped having sex. It was a very difficult period of our lives. It happened gradually. Now we have no intimate physical contact. We would both like to restart it but don't know how. We are such different people now. The youthful passion we had for each other is gone but we care so much about each other. We love each other. It's impossible to explain this situation to people. They think, just have sex. It's not that simple. What's our first step?

the first step is to schedule (that's right schedule) some sensual time between the two of you - take the pressure off of having to have sex, but do spend time facing each other in the bedroom - perhaps just kissing or having a massage. The key is to push yourselves a little - not too much but not passive either

Hi Terry, My wife fell out of love with me. She says I am an excellent man, husband and father, but that she just does not "feel in love" or attracted to me outside of friendship. Can you please comment on the idea of falling out of love, the feeling of love vs the decision to love and what might be done about our situation. She did have an affair after 12 years of marriage with a man she did fall in love with. The affair is over and we're looking at how to try and make things work. Thank you. RJ

2/3s of couples do manage to survive an affair. when women, in contrast to men, do have an affair they often 'fall in love' with the other person and often feel out of love with their spouse. this is not untypical and not insurmountable. it is, though, an indication that you need professional counseling. hang in, don't be thrown by all this - but do get help.

My boyfriend of 4 years and I have decided to go on a hiatus as we try to figure out what's important to us and what we are willing to compromise on, and what we aren't. For us, the major issue standing in our way is religion. I come from a deeply religious background and want to maintain a certain level of observance in life. He, while willing to convert (although with a less strict conversion than I would prefer), he definitely has reservations that he will not budge on, i.e. sending our future children to a private school where religion is part of the curriculum. We love each other and there is no doubt in our minds that we want to spend the rest of our lives together but...we don't want to move forward if this issue of religion is going to be too much for us to overcome and result in resentment and regret down the road. How do we come to terms with this so that we can make it work?

To be honest, it's less about how to make it work and more about whether it CAN work. You need to do what you've been doing - be very frank about what you're differences in values are and what you can and cannot compromise on. You are going to have to 'duke this out' Better now than after you're married with children. See if you can come to decisions you can both live with. If not, you're better off with different partners.

My marriage counselor says I need to learn more tact. Yeah, like a big fat know it all slob is going to control what I say. Which gets to the serious side of my question: would it benefit couples to learn how to better use words and avoid those that hurt? We should consider our words and when we realize we might say something that might hurt another person, find a more tactful way to say it.

It isn't just the words, it's the 'energy' behind them. Are you being respectful or, if you're honest, contemptuous? I speak of "FULL-RESPECT LIVING" Making a commitment that come hell or high water nothing will come out of your mouth that drops below the level of simple respect - use that as your litmus test. Before you speak, ask yourself, "Is this respectful?" If the answer's 'no,' then - with all due respect - shut up.

Many of the stories in "I Don't Want to Talk About It" rang true for me, but my emotions and reactions seem different from most of the men you describe, anxiousness rather than depression. Because of my parents, I become anxious whenever others are upset or angry, especially if they're people I care about. For a while I had a regular pattern with my own children - if my wife became angry with them for something they did, I would become angrier and sterner with the kids, almost as an automatic reaction. It has taken me some time to break that pattern. For even longer, I've gotten nervous when my wife has gotten angry at me, or criticized me for a mistake I've made. I can remember two incidents where I actually became a little nauseous and dizzy. And my wife is far from an angry person, and in fact has pointed out that's unfair of me to treat her as if she was a tyrant. Or as she puts it, she's not my mother or my father and won't treat me like they did. When I make a mistake I don't consciously believe that she'll kick me out. It's more than I tend to focus and ruminate on the worst possibilities in situations.

We all marry our unfinished business. We all marry our mothers and fathers - become our mothers or fathers in the marital dynamic. That's inevitable. The question is: what do you do about it? Do you simply repeat the old patterns, do you palm off that little boy inside for your partner to deal with? Or do you manage the pain or anxiety that gets triggered yourself - as a grown man. We all get triggered by our nearest and dearest. But I'm with your wife - she does not sound like a tyrant. You can ruminate away if you have to - but at least own that you're being neurotic and it's really not her issue - and certainly not her fault.You take care of that scared little boy inside and don't ask her to.

I know this might sound crazy. But I am thinking about asking my husband something. I had some suspicions that earlier in our relationship, before we had children, that he cheated. Our relationship is on more solid ground now, after some mutual work and lots of more open communication. I have always wanted to have that lingering question answered, and I feel like now we could handle it. I would not be asking to hold it over his head, and I am not wanting to know so I can leave him if it turns out to be true. Quite the opposite -- I would like to finally lay that question to rest once and for all so we are in a cleaner place moving forward. So aside from wanting to know your opinion on this, I'd like to know if you have any suggestions for how to bring it up, and also how to prepare myself for what his answer is, either way. Thank you.

This may sound radical, even perhaps harsh, but I'd ask myself some serious questions about WHY I needed to do this. If it's because you pretty much believe that the suspicions are groundless, then ok, clear the air. But, if, as it sounds, you're fairly convinced he did cheat on you way back when, what is your goal in dredging it up - and what makes you think he'll be honest with you about it? You can try to bring it up by naming it as a fear you've walked around with for years and would like to clear up - but if you don't get the answer you like; I'd consider wither going to a counselor to supervise the conversation, or just dropping it altogether. Assume he cheated on you and let it go.

I dated my boyfriend for 10 years, yes, 10 years. We've never lived together and until six months ago we just saw each other one night on weekends and sometimes a night or two during the week. I'm 47 - he's 53. I haven't wanted to date this long, but he's been going through an 11-year divorce and hasn't wanted to tell his children (age 18-27) about me lest they tell their mother who (he said) would then prolong the divorce even more. Six months ago I finally had enough and told him I would no longer enable his double life which has also kept us from moving ahead as a couple. Either tell his family about me or we don't see each other. We haven't seen each other. I want to move on, but he is constantly begging me to "come back" and THEN he'll make the change. Right now he says we're not really a couple so there's nothing to tell his children. He has made this relationship a lot of work. If I was going to keep trying to work this out, what would you suggest?

Well your boyfriend is right about one thing - you're not a couple! An "11 year divorce" sounds awfully fishy to me. I think you are 100% right to put your foot down. You are dating a married man. Let him deal with his ex and his family already - this is silly. You can be available to him when he's truly available to you. Enough.

My wife and I haven't been "together" since late February. Nothing happens in the bedroom, unless I initiate it. Now, after giving her some time/space the past 2+ months, I'm interested in getting things going again. But it's awkward, as she's less than adventurous. Any tips on how to smoothly get things happening again?

While it's not ideal, the truth of things is that there are couples who enjoy a fine sex life in which it's up to one partner to initiate. I'd talk to her about your wish that she initiate too sometimes, but sitting around waiting for her could be a very long wait. If you have a good sex life so long you initiate, well...there are worse things to contend with.

I am a student in college and I am at home for the summer. My boyfriend lives to far for me to see him this summer. Currently I am working and taking two summer classes. This has been a lot of balencing because I normally don't work while taking classes. My boyfriends issist that since we won't see each other this summer that it is important for us to talk everyday. Since I am balencing so much, would it be bad for our relationship if on some days when I am busy that we don't talk. What do you think

No, it wouldn't be the end of the world for your relationship to skip a day here and there - and it wouldn't be the end of the world if your b.f. showed a little more compassion for how much you're juggling. Explain yourself - nicely and firmly - and set a limit. Take a moment and text him on days you can't talk - you should have time for that.

I have many guy friends that I like to go to lunch with to catch up with because I havent seen them in awhile. My boyfriend constantly gets upset that I am going out with these guys because he sees them as a date. I assure him that nothing is going on and that it is simply a friendly lunch. Is it wrong to go out on a friendly lunch with a guy friend when you have a boyfriend.

This is a question of balance. Just listening to your side of it, it sounds like your b.f. has jealousy issues and needs to chill. On the other hand, how much are you sharing with these guys? What, if anything, have you done to try to include your b.f. in these relationships. It helps cut jealousy, in general, to make some room for your partner in your friendships.

How do you make sure you are considering your own needs and spending enough time with your partner? I find it incredibly difficult to find a happy medium. Right now, I think we are too intense and while it's great, I fear it'll fizzle or we'll get sick of each other and we are not taking care of ourselves as individuals.

Hey, if 'right now it's great' I say, let it be great and enjoy yourself. Take more space when you actually feel a need for it - not out of principle or fear of needing it later. When this intense phase simmers down, you can talk about transitioning to a more moderate balance - right now you're sprinting. Enjoy it for as long as it's enjoyable, then settle back for the long run

Hello Mr. Real, I have been in a 2yr rocky relationship with my boyfriend. I'm 34 and he is 42, we want the relationship to work but have a hard time communicating. We are complete opposites that love each other. Our communication leads to heated discussions and then arguements no matter how small or big the discussion is. How do you know when to continue the relationship and try to make it work and move on?

You sound like a "hot" relationship. I say: Hot relationships need cool skills." It wouldn't hurt for you to take a communication skills workshop - I'm offering one in Boston in June. Many other couples counselors offer them. I'd like you to read The New Rules of Marriage - sounds like you two - like so many of us - need to learn how to communicate constructively - particularly when things get heated

My husband and I have been married for ten years and have two small children. We both work full time outside of the home, with his hours being longer than mine. As such, I do the bulk of the work in the house as well - meals, baths, driving to/from school activities, morning & night time routine. And even when he is home, he just doesn't engage with the kids. I know we all need our downtime, but I think our balance is way off. We have repeatedly talked about his taking on a greater role, both for his sake and the kids' sake - so he is more involved with the kids on a daily basis - and to offer relief to me. It improves for a while, but no real, lasting changes. I'm starting to believe that it just isn't a priority for him and am starting to feel like this is just the way it is always going to be. Is there any way I can more constructively communicate with him?

Communication is fine if he's listening, but it doesn't sound like he is...much anyway. You either need to accept this limitation and let go of your resentment about it - concentrate on the wonderful things he does give you and the kids. Or, you need to put your foot down and "dare to rock the boat." Before he'll listen, you have to get his attention - in other words, make it clear to him, by word and deed, that this is not okay with you. Good luck!

My fiance and I have been living together for a year, and do so harmoniously. So the physical space around us won't change. I think we're good communicators, trying to work though issues by getting into the other's shoes, we're revisiting finances. We feel calm and excited about the upcoming marriage the autumn - challenges and all! What do you think is the most important thing for me/us to do in preparation for marriage?

First of all I think this is a lovely, thoughtful question - i think you should make it your business to learn some things about how to have a relationship - don't assume the culture at large has prepared you. Of course, I'm going to recommend my book, but there are many others as well - and also, weekend workshops on things like communication. Invest in learning more about "relationship technology" It will be a good investment

My boyfriend and I sometimes get in very heated arguements. Sometimes by the end we just cant agree, so at the end of the argument we just agree to disagree. Is this healthy, I feel that we should come to some type of consenses?

letting go sometimes is the most mature skill - no couple agrees on all points

well, thanks everyone, gotta go. wonderful questions!!

In This Chat
Terry Real
Before launching his groundbreaking new company, REAL Relational Solutions, Terry founded the Relational Life Institute (RLI), (formed in 2002 as The Relational Recovery Institute). A family therapist and teacher for more than twenty years, Terry is the best-selling author of I Don’t Want to Talk About It: Overcoming the Secret Legacy of Male Depression (Scribner, 1997), the straight-talking How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women (Scribner, 2002), and most recently The New Rules of Marriage: What You Need to Make Love Work (Random House). Terry knows how to lead couples on a step-by-step journey to greater intimacy -- and greater personal fulfillment.
Ellen McCarthy
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