Although you have come to Pace to further your academic education, your learning will probably extend beyond the classroom. One of the skills that you will refine at college is how to get along with others in a mature and satisfying way. Furthermore, since many people have their first intimate relationship in college, learning to be a loving and giving partner poses a special challenge. Though intimate relationships can be wonderful, they can also be complicated and confusing. Understanding the ins and outs of relationships can help you and your partner weather the rough spots and maximize your enjoyment of each other. As such, this article is devoted to the subject of intimate relationships and how to improve them.
Please note: The vignettes below are fictitious.
Much of our attitudes about intimate relationships and what to expect from them are shaped by observing our parents' and other adults' relationships.
Jane, for instance, saw her parents as "two lovebirds" who never had any disagreements. As such, she expected she should never have conflicts with a partner. This is probably not very realistic. Two people are bound to have some differences of opinion or approach.
Jason, on the other hand, remembers his father and mother physically attacking one another. His expectation is that relationships can be out-of-control and violent. Because of this, he has tended to avoid intimate relationships. His brother Mark, on the other hand, finds he has been in abusive relationships. Neither outcome is a good or satisfying choice.
Our own experiences of familial and intimate relationships play a part as well.
People tend to establish certain relationship patterns early on. Jennifer was abused by her grandfather and finds that she has been involved in exploitative relationships outside of her family. Ben, another victim of abuse, finds himself distant and guarded with his girlfriends. Debbie, on the other hand, has spent much of her life taking care of her alcoholic mother, her father, and her siblings. She tends to take on this caretaking role in relationships as well.
* Recognizing our past relationship patterns and identifying when these patterns are being repeated in the present is important.
* Although many times these patterns are good ones, other times they are not healthy and cause more pain than pleasure.
Self-esteem. It is much easier to be in a relationship when you feel good about yourself. People who have low self-esteem tend to have a harder time seeing their relationships clearly.
Poor self-esteem prevented Sara from getting close to anyone because she didn't want them to see what a terrible person she really was. Friends and family didn't see her as terrible but she thought they felt sorry for her and were just being nice.
Low self-esteem kept John stuck in a relationship with a critical and insensitive girlfriend because he imagined that no one else would love him or put up with him.
* Often people with low self-esteem find others who confirm their feelings about themselves by treating them poorly. These are not healthy situations.
Cindy, on the other hand, lives in constant fear that her boyfriend will dump her. She finds herself suspicious of him and jealous of interactions he has with anyone of the opposite sex. She is constantly checking up on him and asking questions about where he has been. This is a continual drain on them and their relationship.
* If you suspect your self-esteem is not as high as it should be and you are not in a relationship, consider how your level of self-esteem affects your real or imagined interactions with others.
* If you are in a relationship, keep in mind how your feelings about yourself may be affecting your interactions with your partner and the course your relationship is taking.
A good sense of identity. It is important to have some understanding of who you are before entering a relationship. How would you describe yourself? What is important to you? What are your values and ideals? What sort of experiences have helped shape you? How would you like these qualities and characteristics to fit into a relationship? Having a good sense of who you are is something that should be maintained in a relationship. Too often people lose their identities when they get involved with someone.
Zachary, for instance, fell head over heels for Ben. In the first six months, they were inseparable. He stopped doing all of the things that he liked to do before he met Ben, like going to hockey games, working on his car, and spending a night out with other friends. His school work began to suffer as did his job performance.
* It is important to share in someone else's life and respect their interests and priorities without giving up the things that are important to you.
* Being in a close and good relationship means recognizing separateness and having time to pursue interests that make up your own identity.
Remember that relationships are a process and take time. People often expect that a relationship is an all-or-nothing deal. Actually, it takes time to identify and sort out your feelings about someone and the quality of the relationship. Allow yourself to take this time.
Jumping right in. Some people make the mistake of throwing themselves into a very intense relationship from the start. Daniel did this and, as a result, he tended to overlook a lot of things about Kathy and their relationship that were not so good. For instance, she did not seem to care about his interest in sports and mechanics and she made no effort to get to know his close friends.
* Start up a relationship slowly. See how things go and how you are feeling.
* If you have some concerns, listen to them. Try to address them with your partner.
* If, after some time, your concerns are not going away and/or you and your partner are not working together towards common goals, you may need to think further about the future of the relationship.
The wall. Other people tend to enter into relationships with a three foot wall around them to protect themselves. Theresa tends to do this and her girlfriend Lisa complains that she is secretive and does not know who Theresa really is. Theresa knows Lisa is right but she can't even begin to explain the depth of her fears. That would only make her more vulnerable.
* Think about some of the reasons that you may be so protective of yourself and not trust others.
* Find ways to reach through the wall. Take some risks and let yourself slowly be known.
The evolution of a relationship. Relationships evolve, going through different stages and transmutations.
Jessica was upset because she and Michael were spending less time together. When they were together, they didn't laugh or joke around anymore. They also were not as sexual with each other as they used to be. She questioned whether Michael still cared for her as much as he did in the beginning. She felt rejected and lonely. Michael knew something was bothering Jessica but he had no idea what it was. Yet, whatever was going on made him nervous around her and more distant in the relationship.
* Relationships, like people, go through phases and changes. Sometimes you may feel very close. At other times, you may need or feel more distance. There may be periods of arguing a lot and then periods of smooth sailing. You may go through phases of being very physical and then less so. This is all natural. Changes are inevitable.
* However, it is important to talk with one another about your feelings and observations regarding the course of the relationship. Otherwise, things snowball and the original issue gets caught up in other reactions and overreactions.
Self-esteem boost. Eric's ex-girlfriend Danielle was not only intelligent and beautiful but also came from a wealthy professional family. Eric, on the other hand, had always been ashamed of his working class background. His good looks, however, made it easy for him to meet women and he especially loved parading Danielle around at parties. Having her "on his arm" made him feel special. When Danielle broke off the relationship, Eric was devastated. After all he had always been the "heartbreaker." A few weeks later Eric seduced Brenda, a successful model, who was an acceptable replacement. His self-esteem was restored, at least for the time being.
* Some people get involved with others who enhance them and make them feel good about themselves.
* This is a precarious position to be in, especially if the relationship ends.
* It's better to build your self-esteem independently so that it survives regardless of the existence of a relationship.
Rebelling against parents. Melissa's parents were strict and overprotective. They had grown up in another country and wanted their daughter to uphold their traditions, beliefs, and values. Melissa, aware of these expectations, always seemed to date guys who were the complete opposite of her parent's "ideal." Melissa's parents were furious. She, on the other hand, smiled inside when they berated her.
Pleasing parents. Melissa's sister Peggy had a boyfriend who fit her parents' dream to the tee. She told her parents she was happy but, deep inside, she felt she and this guy had little in common.
* Some people choose partners as a direct reaction to what they think their parents may or may not want.
* This approach is not ideal as people fail to examine what they really want.
* Give your parents a voice. Then, given this information and what you know about yourself, evaluate what is important to you. Your self-identity, along with the values that you consider important, should play a part in your decision.
* Make sure that your decision is not solely a reaction to your parents.
Knowing when to let go. Julie and Jim, who were high school sweethearts, went to different colleges. Julie made sure she had time for fun, but she also took her courses and future career very seriously. She wanted to do well so she could have a co-op job in the Fall and become active in other activities. Jim didn't get it. He teased her whenever she stayed in to study. In fact, Julie began to notice more and more the things that set her and Jim apart. Now out of high school and pursuing their own interests, they had little in common and their future goals were very different. Julie wanted to travel and Jim could not imagine leaving their hometown. Julie liked to try new things and meet new people, whereas Jim was set in his established ways. They both recognized these changes and fought a lot as a result, but neither could let go.
* Realizing that you and your partner are headed in different directions is very difficult. Even after you are pretty sure your attempts to find common ground are futile, it is hard to part ways.
* Change can be hard. And when there are so many other changes happening, like getting adjusted to college, people often cling to relationships that are no longer satisfying.
* Parting ways may trigger past experiences of loss and separation that are painful.
* Low self-esteem may also make it hard to let go.
* But making sure you have room to grow into the person you want to be is of primary importance.
Being in a role rut. Tina complained that her boyfriend Louis was cold and unemotional. Louis knew he had a lot of emotions but did not feel comfortable expressing them. After all, his father had had a hard life and he had never seen him become emotional. In fact, he remembers crying once and his father calling him a "sissy." Showing emotion was weak. He had to be strong.
Diane took very good care of her girlfriend Taylor. She did her laundry every week and even sometimes did her homework. Usually, she had her own work to do but she always put Taylor first. Last week in fact, she handed in a paper late because she had been typing a report for Taylor. The women in her family had always taken care of their partners. Diane was proud of that but she also wondered if some things were different for her because she was the first female in college. Sometimes she wanted to tell Talor to do her own laundry or papers, but she kept silent.
* We all learn and adopt certain roles based on our past experiences. Some of these roles are enjoyable and healthy. Others may be confining because they interfere with our activities and relationships.
* It is important to question family roles we take for granted. We can do things differently. Louis, for example, might benefit from expressing his feelings to Tina. Similarly, Diane would probably be happier and less resentful if she were more assertive with Tim. They need not be their parents.
* For gay couples, negotiating roles with a partner can present an additional problem. Heterosexual parental relationships often do not provide adequate role models for homosexual relationships. For example, guidelines parents used for dividing up household chores and financial responsibilities may not translate.
Mixed up communication. Bob was really furious at Ann for staying out late last night with her friends at the bar. In response, he did not call her today from work as he usually does and was not very talkative when she called him. On her part, Anne was angry at Bob for forgetting their anniversary so she stayed out late on purpose.
* Communicating feelings directly is ideal.
* Actually doing so is very hard. Some people don't know how. Others are afraid of the power of their feelings. Still others fear people's reactions if they did so.
* Take time to think about how you feel and practice what you might say. Direct communication will be more effective than you ever expected.
Sexual communication. David enjoyed having sex with his girlfriend Fran. However, there were times when he just wasn't in the mood. At these times, Fran sometimes taunted him until he agreed to have sex. Since he did not speak up, he was often forced into a sexual situation he did not want to be in.
* Communication in bed is just as important as communication outside the bedroom.
* In healthy relationships, people feel comfortable expressing their sexual needs and telling their partner when they do not want to be intimate. Respecting someone else's desire not to be intimate in certain ways or at certain times is very important.
What's happening on the outside. Rachel was really stressed out. Her mother was in the hospital and she was in the middle of midterms. Philip noticed that she was snappy and short with him and attributed her behavior to PMS. After a few weeks of continued snappiness, Philip was at a loss to explain Rachel's behavior. Rachel, on the other hand, never spoke of her concern about her mother or her slipping grades.
* Events going on outside of the relationship have a great impact on it.
* People often fail to take these events into account, both in their own behavior and that of their partner. It is important to recognize and respect outside pressures and stressors in ourselves and others.
Breaking up. Janet broke up with Craig last week because she felt the relationship was not providing her with what she needed. Moreover, she felt that she and Craig had worked as hard as they could to remedy the situation. Craig was devastated. He stopped eating and sleeping, did not go to classes, and stopped hanging out with his friends. He even sometimes thought there was no reason to go on living. After all, Janet was everything to him and now she was gone.
* At times of loss, people feel their whole world has fallen apart. It is important to work through the loss and keep in mind there is much more to you than the person you lost.
* Don't lose sight of the other things in life that were important and meaningful to you. Recall and recapture them after a breakup. Some people end up discovering they had lost crucial parts of themselves while the relationship was still going on.
* Next time around, try to retain the activities and interests that define you and that are separate from the relationship.
Divorced men and women consistently cite communication problems as the number one reason for their divorce. Communicating with one's partner is not always easy, and at times can seem impossible. With practice, however, we can all learn to become more effective communicators, better listeners, more sensitive individuals, and ultimately better lovers. Following are a list of exercises that are designed to help you improve your relationship with your partner. This list is not intended to replace counseling but rather a series of suggestions to enhance your relationship.
Like and dislike list. Each partner in the relationship should independently create a list of what they like and dislike about the other person's behavior. Partners should also create a second list of what they imagine their partner likes and dislikes about their behavior. Allow ample time for the completion of these lists, perhaps overnight.
Then get together and share your lists. Discuss ways that each of you might be able to decrease the items on the "dislike" list, while doing more of the items on the "like" list. Also, be careful to recognize items that your partner may be unwilling or unable to change. Can you live with this, and if so, how will you?
Listen and repeat. Sit down with your partner and talk about something that has been on your mind. Talk for five minutes without any interruptions from your partner, whose job is to listen closely to what you have to say. When you are finished, your partner should, in his or her own words, repeat back what you have just expressed. After he or she has done so, clarify any miscommunication or misunderstandings. Then, repeat the exercise, reversing the roles of listener and talker. This exercise is particularly useful when you and your partner find yourself in conflict.
Touch and talk. Set aside 20 minutes of quiet, alone time for you and your partner. First, your partner should touch and massage the back of your left hand in a variety of ways for five minutes. During this time, concentrate on how the different touches feel (e.g., soft, hard, tingly). Communicate your experiences and reactions to your partner as they occur. Repeat the exercise with you and your partner switching roles.
Then, repeat the entire exercise, this time touching and massaging only the inside of the right palm. Be certain that during these exercises there is no bodily contact, except as instructed. This exercise will help you to become more aware of what feels good to you and will help foster more open communication with your partner.
Date. The beginning stages of a relationship are often full of romance. Partners shower each other with attention and affection, not to mention roses and candy. However, during the later stages of a relationship, couples often settle into a routine and their busy schedules take priority over romance. While it may be unrealistic to expect fireworks every time you're together, there are ways to help keep the fire burning.
One way is to plan a special "date" once a week. Perhaps a romantic dinner for two, a walk in the park, or a picnic lunch. It is not necessary that your date be expensive. All you need is the two of you, a little creativity, and the time to appreciate and enjoy each other's company. Don't fall into the trap of thinking- "Romance should not be planned. It should be like the movies." In real life, relationships must be nurtured in order to continue to blossom and grow.
Switch chores. A common problem in relationships is that one or both partners feels that the other doesn't understand the enormity of their workload and responsibilities. One partner in a relationship, especially those who are married or co-habitating, may feel that the other is not pulling his or her weight. One way to increase your partner`s appreciation for all you do and vice versa is to switch roles for a day. For example, if you normally cook and your partner washes the dishes, swap chores.
A variation of this exercise is to not only assume your partner's responsibilities, but to "be" your sweetheart for a day and vice versa. Your acting job requires that you imitate all aspects of your partner's personality (i.e., attitudes, values, behaviors, gestures, etc...) This exercise not only builds empathy, but also provides individuals with live representations of themselves, which can help increase self-awareness.
No relationship is perfect all of the time. Even Cinderella and Prince Charming had a rough start. However, if you are feeling particularly distressed about a relationship, you may want to consider individual or couples counseling. Counseling can help you identity negative patterns which may then improve your current relationship, as well as other relationships you may have in the future.
If you are grappling with a relationship problem and would like some further help, please feel free to contact the Counseling Center for an evaluation at (914)773-3710 in Westchester and (212)346-1526 in New York City.