Are You in a Real Relationship?

A capital "R" relationship is one with love, intimacy, and sex.

Posted Feb 03, 2012

You know the conundrum of whether the color blue you see is the same as what I recognize as blue? That's one of those questions that all but philosophers have to take on faith. Yep, the color of the sky is blue, we agree, but whether it is gray-blue or baby-blue or even the particular shade known as sky-blue will be a matter of personal interpretation and open to debate.

It is often my practice in doing couples counseling to see each member of the couple separately before or after I have seen the two together in my office. When I see the individuals first, I am often amazed that I am hearing reports about the same relationship, so different are their descriptions. Woody Allen absolutely nailed it in that famous split-screen scene from Annie Hall.

On one side, we see him talking to his therapist, and on the other side of the screen, she is talking with hers. "How often do the two of you have sex?" his therapist asks the male. "Hardly ever," the patient whines. "Maybe two or three times a week." "How often do you two have sex?" her therapist asks the woman. "Oh," she sighs, "constantly. Probably two or three times a week!" There is agreement on the numbers, but what a difference in interpretation.

I often hear people complain that they want a Relationship (I hear the capital R), or even that the relationship they are in is not a real relationship, and then we get down to a what color blue the sky is definition of terms. Everyone who is not a complete hermit in the woods has relationships—many of them—with co-workers, cousins, restaurant servers, hair cutters. Anyone with whom a person interacts on a more or less regular basis is someone with whom there is a relationship.

What one usually means when they talk about a capital "R" relationship is one with love and intimacy and sex. Yet, 98 percent of the coupled people I see in my counseling office has a spouse or significant other with whom there is a relationship that lacks one or two or all three of those necessities for a capital "R" relationship. That's why they have come to consult me.

When someone discounts the relationships in his or her life as not real ones, I ask them to tell me what a real one would look like. As often as not, even though the couple has been together for years, the definition each gives for what would make the relationship real, let alone satisfactory, is going to vary.

So the discussion needs to be not whether you and I see the same thing that we are calling blue, not whether what we have is a relationship carrying the weight of reality, but what do each of us want in a relationship... specifically. Universal nouns like "respect" and "warmth," and that perpetual bugaboo "commitment," are way too fuzzy.

What are the components for you as an individual that will make a satisfying, loving, sexy relationship? Please don't assume it's obvious. Having sex two or three times a week could be too much for one person or too little for another. If this is your relationship, it has to meet your personal requirements.

I recently worked with a couple whose long marriage was having problems. They planned a getaway vacation, each hoping it would repair some of their estrangement.

"What do you expect this time away from the children will be mostly about?" I asked.

"Sex," one answered, at the same time the other said, "Sleep, and lots of it."

The rest of our session was spent averting a disappointing disaster in the making. Each of these two had been so sure they were on the same page it didn't bear discussion.

So if you are looking for a capital "R" relationship or have one which is less than satisfying, defining it down to the nubbin makes it far more likely you will get it, and it will be satisfyingly real.