Couples Therapy: So-so Relationships Can Be Easy To Ignore
Perhaps the real enemy of happiness isn’t misery so much as mediocrity. As an NYC couples therapist, I find that’s often the case in marriage and long-term relationships. When things are a hot mess with constant fighting, hating spending time together or otherwise not getting along, at least there is still feeling that is likely to get attention one way or another. But, a so-so relationship after years of inertia is easily ignored.
What Is A So-so Relationship?
A so-so relationship can be lots of things, of course. In couples therapy, these couples often describe themselves as roommates–they’re getting along, but there’s not much excitement. In some instances, couples are really good friends, but there’s not much love and excitement for one another. In other variations, the couple isn’t even really such good friends. Instead, they’re merely coexisting.
While sex doesn’t have to define a relationship, the absence of sex or sexual excitement is often a useful barometer. This can be tricky because some people just aren’t into sex for whatever reason–not even as part of some pathology or trauma, they’re just not. However, the absence of sex does bring up the stereotype that all married couples and couples in long-term relationships eventually just stop having sex or even, the offensive “myth of lesbian bed death.” Even when this can be true statistically for couples of whatever sort, same-sex or opposite-sex, doesn’t mean it’s inevitably the case and doesn’t mean a couple needs to be resigned to it. With this myth, this rhetoric simply serves to lower couples expectations.
A Couple’s Tolerance And Resignation To A So-So Relationship Can Be Toxic
One toxic element in a so-so relationship, even if it is slowly corrosive, is a couple’s resignation to, “It’s so-so, but that’s what I should expect.” People say, “Oh, who’s been married for this long and gets along, is in love, has sex, has good sex, has passion, doesn’t bicker, sleeps in the same bed, etc.”–whatever the benchmark is. Culturally, we also tend to tolerate so-so–not just with sex or relationships. Some people don’t and fight this, of course, but it can be an uphill battle.
Even in so-so relationships in which both partners aren’t happy, it can be hard to break up. Part of that may be due to fear of being alone or the breakup itself. However, sometimes, it’s because there are things in the relationship that otherwise really do work. People say to me (and rightly so), “It’s not easy to find a nice partner, a good financial match, someone who is a good parent, who gets along with my wacky family, etc.” While those are all good things and may be very good reasons to stay with someone, it’s also important to look at whether or not you’re asking enough of a so-so relationship.
As a whole, we have terrible, terrible cultural models for relationships going badly, being worked on and then, transforming. Much like the paucity of images of thriving Black families, there aren’t great images of couples having real struggles and overcoming them, or getting stuck and then, getting unstuck. The truth is we get better–we really do–and not just with therapy, of course.
What Can Couples Do To Ask More Of A So-So Relationship And Get Unstuck?
Previously, I’ve made the case that asking a partner to be anything and everything is too much, too small. As Vonnegut says, “You’re not enough people.” But at the same time, it’s true that many of us could have more–more love, more fun, more help with the kids, the dishes, the yard work, and yes, more and better sex. And we have to ask for it. In a way, it’s sometimes helpful to think about this less as a demand on one partner (“You’d better step up!”), though sometimes that’s needed, and more of a demand on the relationship.
So what can couples in a so-so relationship do? Plan a date or a weekend away. Seduce your partner. This part of the answer is more of the domain of Cosmo, but there’s something to it. Where couples therapy comes in is when that doesn’t work. And if it does work–and it may–great!
However, there are forces that lead people apart and complacency doesn’t emerge in a vacuum, which is where couples therapy can help. Is one partner depressed? Working too much? Are one or both partners substituting intimacy with the kids for intimacy with one another? More important than the particular question is the asking. In a sense, what’s needed is for someone in the relationship to say, “We can do better and I want more.” That’s a big move in and of itself.