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All couples fight. It’s completely natural, and comes with the territory of being in a relationship. But when you find yourself bickering more than usual, it’s natural to wonder, “How much fighting is too much?” and “Are we totally screwed?”
Our argument is probably about more than you think.
Long-term committed relationships are hard.
There are massive benefits to them, of course, but it’s challenging to live with someone day in, day out. You’ve got to cooperate, negotiate, communicate, and connect every single day (if you want to keep the relationship thriving). Add kids to the mix and things get even more interesting.
It turns out, there’s often a fight beneath the fight. And lots of couples end up arguing about the same things (I’m far from the only person to squabble with her partner about the dishes). Relationship therapists like Darcy Sterling, Ph.D., LCSW, psychotherapist Vanessa Marin, and Rosara Torrisi, Ph.D., have helped plenty of couples work through their disagreements. And they constantly see common fights boil down into similar root issues that have similar solutions.
1. “You’re always working. I never see you.”
Whether you’ve been in a relationship for a few years or a few months, it can be difficult to fit everything into your busy days — and sometimes your relationship takes a backseat. Maybe one person is trying to build a high-powered career and needs to put in extra hours at the office. Or maybe it’s a new-ish relationship and one of you is trying hard to avoid sacrificing your friendships. “Why are you always out with your friends?” is another version of this fight Sterling often hears.
The general “spend more time with me” request can mean a few things, Torrisi says. It could be that your partner doesn’t feel like a priority in your life, or it could be that their expectations for being in a relationship aren’t being met. For example, if your partner thought that being with you meant they’d never have to go to family gatherings alone, and now you’re missing events because of work or plans with other people, then you’re not living up to their ideal version of a partner.
In either case, Torrisi suggests sitting down together and figuring out your expectations for time spent together. If your partner is insecure about being alone at parties or family dinners, try your best to work your schedule so you can make those events. If they don’t feel like a priority, make the time you can spend together into quality time.
“Most people don’t have endless amounts of time, especially people who are just beginning relationships and are often also trying to build a career,” Torrisi says. Maybe you truly only have a few hours every Friday to be in a relationship, but if that’s the case you need to spend those few hours being fully present with your partner. Put your electronics away, plan a date night, try new things together (both in and out of the bedroom), and talk about your relationship.
2. “Can you not be on your phone all the time?”
Having technology at our fingertips can be both a blessing and a curse to our relationships. On the one hand, there are dating apps that let us connect with people we never would have met. But then, once we’re in a relationship, the phone can become a distraction, Torrisi says. “What happens with phones is that they’re our primary soothing activity for anxiety and boredom,” she explains. That means that we gravitate toward our phones when there’s an awkward pause in conversation (which tends to happen often when a relationship is young) or when we’re bored sitting at home with a long-term partner.
Zack B., 27, constantly argues with his wife about spending too much time on his phone. His head is down so often that she accuses him of being addicted to technology. Typically, he laughs her comments off without addressing them.
Yet, couples who tend to have this fight are usually fighting about intimacy more than they are about phone usage, Sterling says. They just might not recognize that. It’s likely that Zack’s wife isn’t really concerned about how many YouTube videos he watches every day. She’s probably more upset that he’s stopped being as engaged with her as he was before the phone caught his attention.
The solution to this one is pretty simple: Put your phone away. “There are so many ways we can be more mindful about our phone habits,” Marin says. “I recommend that couples try to spend at least 20 minutes of cell phone-free time per day and have dedicated phone-free date nights.”
While you can’t expect to magically spend less time with Candy Crush and more with your partner overnight, you can make it clear to them that you’re trying. That way, the argument might be softer next time, because your partner can gently remind you of what you agreed upon.
3. “Why does your ex like everything you post?”
It’s not too difficult to understand the emotion behind this argument: jealousy. And it’s not always about an ex. Jealousy can rear its head when one partner thinks the other is flirting with someone else and even when a partner’s celebrity crush comes up in conversation.
Matt, 20, had this problem with his ex-girlfriend. She had what he calls “a flirty personality,” and it bothered him when he saw her interacting with other men, even though he knew her flirting was harmless.
Tina, 23, also finds herself feeling jealous a lot, often when her boyfriend talks about his love for Emma Watson, an actress who looks nothing like her. If she’s his biggest fantasy, Tina thinks, then does that mean he’s not really attracted to her?
Insecurity is often at the root of jealousy — we get jealous because we worry that our partners aren’t invested in us anymore, or that we’re no longer “good enough” to satisfy their desires. “At its root, [jealousy is] a fear of loss: loss of a person, a situation, or of face. Until you’ve eradicated these issues in yourself, remind yourself that your jealousy has far less to do with what your partner is doing and is more deeply rooted in your own issues,” Sterling writes on her blog. Recognizing that your jealousy is about you, not your partner, can give you the perspective you need to start dealing with the insecurities that are making you feel vulnerable.
4. “Why don’t we have sex anymore?”
Anyone who’s been in a relationship long enough for sex to fade has probably uttered these words. But if you’re constantly upset about the amount of sex you’re not having, there may be a mismatch in the way you and your partner express intimacy.
Sarah, 25, has a much higher sex drive than her girlfriend. When the two don’t have sex as often as she likes, she admits that she eventually gets so frustrated that she gives her girlfriend the cold shoulder.
Again, the solution lies in communication and, specifically, in how we communicate. Usually, fights like this happen because each partner shows love in different ways, according to Gary Chapman, Ph.D.’s book “The 5 Love Languages.” For people like Sarah, sex is more than just a way to feel good physically. Her love language is physical touch, which means that kisses, caresses, and sex are how she shows her partners that she loves them and how she feels loved in return.
Sarah’s partner likely shows love in a different way (the other four love languages are: acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and quality time). When each person values different parts of their relationship, it can cause tension. The solution: Talk to your partner and figure out what each of your love languages are. In Sarah’s case, she could tell her girlfriend that sex makes her feel loved. It might not result in the bustling sex life she wants — because no one should pressure anyone else into having sex when they’re not in the mood. But, being honest about her feelings could help her girlfriend recognize why sex is so important. It might lead to more sexy nights or the kisses and caresses that Sarah also values.
When you find yourself fighting, don’t worry too much.
Often, people run scared when they start fighting with their partners, Sterling says. “We think conflict is the sign of a bad match. So instead of building those [conflict-solving] muscles and learning how to resolve it, most people jump ship.” Really, though, arguing is a normal part of every relationship, including non-romantic ones. And Sterling worries more when couples don’t fight than when they do — it’s usually a sign that either or both partners don’t trust that they can get through an argument. “They’re not being authentically themselves,” she says. “They’re walking on eggshells, whether they realize it or not.” Clearly though, we need to be able to express our feelings in order to resolve them.
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How Much PDA Is Too Much PDA?
Public display of affection (PDA) isn’t for everyone.
There is a delicate science to knowing when it’s OK to engage in public displays of affection with your partner.
I’m going to be straight with you: I’ve never been a fan of PDA. Holding hands and the occasional kiss are fine, but anything more than that is vom-worthy. My friend recently sent me a (40-second long) Snapchat video of her friends eye-gazing and giving each other Eskimo kisses at a local cafe, and I immediately wanted to throw my phone against the wall. It’s not just that I’m salty because I’m single. I find it disrespectful to basically rub your relationship in people’s faces. Some couples save the touchy-feely stuff for the heat of the bedroom or the comfort of the sofa, away from prying eyes, no witnesses to yucky pet names and absentminded stroking. Some lovers, however, want the world to see.
Couples create their own boundaries on how to express their love for one another in public, but some people seem to find PDA offensive or unnecessary.
First of all, consider the concept of “public” – what does it mean? If you can’t be seen, does it matter? Does the place you choose to be affectionate make a difference? If you feel the urge to reach out and touch your lover’s hand, or anything else you can lay your mitts on, you must scout out your surroundings.
And I have to wonder why someone might be overly affectionate with their partner in public. While some people find it difficult to keep their hands off each other in the beginning phase of a relationship, others participate in PDA as a result of how comfortable they feel with one another, says sociologist Alicia Walker, Ph.D. “However, sometimes one partner engages in PDA because of insecurity in the relationship,” she explains. “They may also be signaling (consciously or subconsciously) to others that the person is ‘taken.’”
Josh, 29, believes public affection makes people come across as lacking confidence more than anything else. “When I see people all over each other, I actually question their relationship,” he says. “Why do you need to convince others of how you feel about each other? When my wife and I are out with friends, we go our separate ways and don’t sit on each other’s laps. We have nothing to prove.”
Of course, there’s no universal agreement on what is and isn’t appropriate, but there are a handful of guidelines you can follow to respectfully navigate PDA with your Significant other.
1. Figure out where you both stand.
Keeping in mind that your partner may be far more or less inclined toward PDA than you, have an honest conversation with them about how comfortable you are being physical with each other in public. “Willingness to participate in PDA is highly personal,” says Alicia Walker. “The reality is that someone’s comfort with it isn’t likely to change very much, but it’s important to understand where your partner stands.” So try not to take it personally or assume they’re ashamed of dating you if they’d prefer not to kiss in front of their friends. “While it can be frustrating to have a partner who refuses to even hold your hand in public, forcing or demanding that your partner participate in PDA will create friction,” Walker adds.
Jake, 28, experienced incompatibility with his ex in this area. “She thought I wasn’t into her because I didn’t parade her around. She made me feel like my affection didn’t count because others weren’t witnessing it, which was annoying,” he says. “I didn’t want to have to put my arm around her or hold her hand [in public] just to validate ourselves — especially when I’d go out of my way to tell her how into her I was.”
If your and your partner’s preferences are misaligned, consider how important PDA is to you and whether or not it’s an area in which you’re willing to compromise. “If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker. Only you can decide if a mismatch matters enough to call it quits, but she warns it’s a red flag if someone pushes you to engage in public acts of affection that make you uncomfortable. “That tells you this person lacks respect for your boundaries and feelings. It’s really a matter of consent.”
“If you’re someone who highly values PDA and your partner is completely opposed, the relationship isn’t necessarily doomed,” says Walker.
2. Consider the context.
Veronica, 25, believes the appropriate level of PDA depends on the setting. “I think hand-holding, hugging, and kissing are fine, but no making out unless it’s a late night at a bar or club and everyone’s drunk,” she says. “That’s what I’m comfortable with in my own relationship.” John, 26, agrees that it’s important to consider your surroundings but feels most PDA is OK as long as your partner is on board. “I wouldn’t go shoving my tongue down my girl’s throat in front of small children, but at the bar, if she’s into it, why not?”
There’s a time and place for everything, including intimacy. “Being aware of the context and expectations of the space you’re in matters,” says Walker. For example, it’s far more acceptable to sit on your partner’s lap at a bar than in a church. Still, I personally find it annoying to squeeze past a couple who can’t pull away from each other for 30 seconds when I want to order a margarita. Kevin, a 30-year-old bartender, confirms I’m not alone. “Nothing is worse than two people hooking up at a full bar,” he says. “They usually make everyone around them uncomfortable and ruin the vibe.” A quick check is often all it takes to avoid coming across as impolite or inconsiderate to a room full of people.
3. Respect others’ feelings about your behavior.
“In North American culture, holding hands and small pecks are generally acceptable in public spaces,” says Walker. “Making out, groping, and the like fall under behaviors that tend to make others uncomfortable.” It’s not a tried-and-true rule, but no matter where you are, you want to be mindful of how your behavior might affect those around you and respect the fact that it could be offensive to some people.
“My college boyfriend and I made my roommate extremely uncomfortable when he put his hand in my back jean pocket at the mall,” says Jen, 28. “Once we got home, she sat us down like she was our parent and told us that how we acted in public was disrespectful.” Although Jen didn’t agree, she learned an important lesson. “Looking back now, I think the biggest thing to remember with PDA is it’s not so much what you accept but how you may be offending others around you.”
Short of completely keeping your hands to yourself, there’s no guarantee that any form of PDA won’t make someone uncomfortable. All you can do is scan the environment to make your best guess as to what’s appropriate then attempt to respect everyone’s feelings and boundaries. After all, it’ll probably only be a few hours until you’re home and free to do as you please.