Is Your Relationship Beyond Repair?

Giving Up Is Easy, But It Isn’t Always the Answer.

Posted Aug 26, 2016

Men are men. What this means is that the best and the worst of our traits are exacerbated in male-male relationships. 

Although heterosexual relationships are fraught with challenges, and often partners feel trapped by expectations that come with sex role stereotypes, those stereotypes do provide a blueprint regarding norms within a couple.  

Most male couples don’t have role models to go by—or even to go against. Heterosexual couples can model themselves after their family relationships, and there are abundant societal portrayals of how such couples should live. There is no “traditional gay couple” to look toward for hints on ways in which a relationship grows and thrives. And it is always amazing to watch couples avoid basic communication. What are they thinking as they sit at opposite ends of the couch in my therapy office, each man with his arms folded and his eyes averted? 

Learning to communicate and share vulnerabilities is perhaps the biggest challenge for male couples. Men are raised to keep their feelings to themselves, with stoicism and self-protection being the way and the goal. This is true for gay men as well. Though we didn’t necessarily grow up feeling masculine—and perhaps do not feel that we meet the stereotype of masculinity now—we were raised as men are raised and so adhere more to our upbringing than we likely realize. 

My experience as a therapist is that male partners struggle with revealing themselves to each other, overvaluing privacy and independence. This emphasis certainly has its merits, but the tendency to hide vulnerabilities promotes distance between partners. Real problems are often obscured as partners drift apart, and so are real solutions.

Such was the case with Brian and Mark. They had been together for 12-plus years and reported that things had become stale between them. Their romantic life had waned, and they engaged in more and more spats. They were also careful to avoid substantive conversations. Though perhaps they waited longer than they should have to pursue couples work, it was clear in their first visit that they had a decent relationship overall and that it just needed some fresh attention. Their well-honed expertise in evasiveness, with busy careers being the perfect excuse to avoid reconnecting, had become an intractable relational habit. They needed help in breaking the pattern, and the safe space that the therapy room provides, The time and effort we all contributed encouraged them to risk it. I frequently had to remind them to talk more and to do more with each other. But as fear and pride dissipated, the loving bond and special energy they had once easily shared was remembered and rekindled. All of this naturally led to something else: better sex. 

Unfortunately, many longstanding gay couples who could model how to do great long-term relationships move out of gay mainstream culture. And social media tend to perpetuate a fast and furious lifestyle. Thus, tools for couples who want to stay together and to grow are not readily accessible.

Thus, I am dedicated to teaching that vulnerability, which may have once been experienced in negative, isolating ways, can actually become a place of rich exploration and care within the adult relationship. Couples who are able to understand each other and share their emotional experiences can grow their partnership and increase their relationship satisfaction in every way.

When couples come to my office I usually ask them a series of questions over the first few visits to understand how they operate as a couple. You may ask yourself these questions in order to assess strengths and struggles within your relationship.

  • What tasks do each of you do in the household? How are they divided?
  • How are important decisions made by the two of you?
  • Describe each of your communication styles? (For example, “direct,” “circuitous,” “nonverbal.”) How does this help or hinder you feeling in sync with each other? 
  • How do you resolve disagreements?
  • What do you define as your own unique roles in the relationship? (For example, “nurturer,” “mediator,” “truth-teller.”)
  • How easy or difficult is it for the two of you to discuss difficulties? 
  • How do you handle financial pressures when they arise? Do you pool your money or have separate accounts?
  • How satisfying is your sexual relationship? Do you agree on this answer?

These are just a few questions that elicit themes that arise for all couples.  All relationships need some degree of fine-tuning. The more communication, the better the relationship will be. 

What You Can Do To Refresh Your Relationship

First and foremost, talk to each other. Every couple has unique ways of doing this. Some sit down and check in, while others come to therapy in order to get at the larger unresolved issues or allusive underlying challenges. 

I chuckle as I think about one of my clients describing how much he enjoys riding in the car! “Do you know why we talk best during long car rides? Because we are facing the same direction and looking out the window ahead of us instead of at each other.” This is a great metaphor. No blaming each other or looking for the other to read your mind. Instead, you look forward and consider what helps you stay on the road, especially the scenic route!

Tips for Maintaining (or Re-establishing) Closeness  

Check in regularly.

This will keep you engaged and current with each other. You’ll be surprised how much of a difference this makes. Perhaps schedule a time each week. It doesn’t have to be a long conversation but spacious enough to communicate. 

Engage in listening exercises. Repeat back to your partner what you heard him saying and ask if you got it right. Let him have the time he needs to express himself and try not to be defensive if he says you missed the point.

As difficult as this may be, doing this regularly will help you stay aligned with each other. Being heard is the benefit to him, and understanding his viewpoint is the benefit to you. This is known as a mirroring exercise in which you make sure that silent interpretations and judgments don’t run off with your imagination.

When you listen, do just that, listen! Work at not correcting him or giving him your version of things. 

Partners who can hear each other out feel more respected by the other and experience an increased commitment to each other. We are sometimes not looking for advice, just to be really heard.

Push yourselves to risk putting the things you most avoid into words. 

As hard as this can be, clearing the air is important, and tackling difficult issues head-on can lead to a lighter tone if you can learn to experience conflict and get beyond it. It is something that has to be experienced.

Plan alone time and prioritize “we”—have a regular date night or make a “computers off during dinner” agreement.

You will fortify your bond and notice that it is easier and more enjoyable to be with each other. These are just two examples, you can have fun creating new opportunities.

Take day trips to unexpected destinations or learn something new together. Explore surprise.

Shaking things up by doing something out of the ordinary is energizing and fun.

If your physical or sexual relationship has lapsed, work on it again. Reawaken romance.

Though remaining self-protective can be automatic, taking the risk of reconnecting will allow you both to feel closer. 

Create a safe boundary from the outer world.

Having your own protective bubble of relationship/home is what makes being in a couple special. You and he can be an oasis for each other.

Establish norms regarding a regular schedule that prioritizes spending time alone together.

Leaving work behind or doing things alone will remind you of why you are together in the fist place. Learning or relearning to enjoy each other’s company is a pleasure.

Establish a social community for yourselves consisting of neighbors, friends, or even family. 

Being social includes going beyond the sphere of only gay men and reflects back strengths of your relationship. How affirming this can be!

Each of these ideas offers an opportunity to stay updated in your relationship, to discover new things about yourself and each other, and to nurture the best of what you have created together.