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Love in the Time of Corona

An abbreviated, written rewind of our webinar on how to maintain, or even elevate your relationship while staying in place.

Jonathan Fader: From my perspective, this is one of those topics that really hits home for all of us. Anybody here who’s in a relationship has noticed that this whole time has affected us. I think most of us haven’t spent as much time with our partner since our honeymoon. Today, we have a chance to talk to an expert in the field. Melissa (Thoen) has a wide variety of experience in talking to couples. In addition to being at Union Square Practice, she’s had a leadership role at the Ackerman Institute, a world renowned couples and family therapy Institute. Melissa is also an expert in family & sex therapy and has advanced training in working with couples and individuals to understand and improve their relationship with their own sexuality.

One of the things I wanted to talk about first is people’s experience now. What are couples talking about right now?

Melissa Thoen: Hi and thanks for having me. From my experience, I’ve realized that everybody’s struggling. Everybody is at home right now having some challenge. Folks who may have previously had some difficulties talking about money, sex, different parenting styles, all of those things now have been magnified in being quarantined with their families or their partners, their loved ones.

Fader: Backing up, before we get into the quarantine discussion and your experience, what is your general experience, what do couples typically talk about?

Melissa: Well, as a sex therapist, of course they come in and talk a lot about sex and communication around that. There’s a lot of folks that have challenges with money and they don’t know how to talk about it. It’s something we weren’t necessarily taught to speak about. So that’s something that’s definitely in the forefront. Communication is always the subtext of everything and figuring out where the communication about these subjects is breaking down. So it’s educating folks about these different subjects. And then giving them the tools to be able to communicate better.

Fader: We’re not given these tools often. When you think about how you learn to drive, most people were at driver’s ed or their parents taught them. But, how do we learn to love? I think most people learn to love by just observing the people who loved us, whether they’re parents or a babysitter, a teacher.

Getting back to the situation at this particular time, people talk about money, they talk about sex. When people talk about sex, where does that conversation usually go?

Melissa: Well, believe it or not, they talk about how they were brought up and what their experiences were learning from their families, their own sexual experiences, what are their expectations? People have been taught that sex should be a certain way, when in fact it’s not. And people don’t realize they have this canvas they can paint for themselves. So it’s teaching them and bringing this concept of making your sexual relationship, your partner, whatever you want it to be and by creating the language to guide that narrative.

Fader: So they have this fixed idea that they learned from observation and their childhood and adolescence about what sex means. I think you’re saying that you can broaden that concept of what it means and help people to explore it in different ways.

Melissa: Absolutely. I like to really open up these conversations and broaden them and get a real good understanding about how people want to be loved and connect with others.

Fader: Right. As you’re alluding to, I think love happens in so many more vibrant and rich ways than it used to, or at least is accepted more. I think we’re going to have to get you back on for a whole other webinar just talking about sex and love. And you know, we’ll probably crash Zoom with the number of attendees on that one.

What in particular in this time do you think is making it really difficult for couples? What are the factors right now that make it challenging?

Melissa: There are a lot of issues that people have come to me with over the last few weeks, but I’m going to turn it around and make it more about the couples who have been successful. And that is the ability to be more lenient and flexible in your relationship. Many times we’re so stuck on everything needing to be a certain way. Right now is a great time to practice sitting back and just letting things be and being okay with something not being perfect. That has been something that has helped a lot of couples move ahead.

Fader: So basically, not being a perfectionist. How do you help couples do that with things that really bother them, like for example their spouse is crowding them? They’ve never spent this much time together. How do you work with people on acceptance in that environment?

Melissa: A lot has to do with having some kind of communication about it. It’s really important for couples to create a structure. I think it’s also important to build in routines. For me for example, we wake up every day and our routine is to take the dog for a walk and get some coffee. It’s the only time, one of the only times we go outside and we safely social distance. But that routine right there creates some kind of sense of normalcy for a couple and some stability.

My third tip in getting through this phase is creating boundaries. We’re often trying to make sure that everybody else is comfortable, but we’re not in tune with our own needs. And sometimes it’s okay to say to your partner, “Hey listen, I am going to step into the other room for 10 minutes right now.” Hopefully there is that space in an apartment in New York city, but having boundaries is so important during this time.

Fader: I think the routine piece is critical. In my relationship, I credit the date night that we established 15 years ago to be one of the hallmarks of what makes my relationship strong. What we tend to do is really focus on what’s wrong. Figuring out how we can focus on what couples are doing right and how to enhance that is absolutely critical.
How about communication? What are the skills that you teach couples?

Melissa: A lot of the work that I do with my couples is helping them understand how they interact. If a conflict arises, what emotions come up when your partner spoke to you this way, how do you typically react to that? How does your reaction impact your partner? What emotions come up for your partner and then in return, how does that person respond? When couples understand how they’re impacting each other. My job is to help them figure out what’s going on there in order for them to step back. This is the meat and bones of how we do couples therapy.

Fader: I love that. I think about John Gottman’s work, a couples therapy researcher who talks about these four horsemen. The biggest dangers to relationships are criticism, contempt, stonewalling, and hostility. This idea of moving away from those things and moving towards more positive communication and conflict is critical.

I know that you want people to not only learn about these ideas but to have some actual strategies or recommendations when they leave the workshop.

Melissa: Yeah, I think it’s important for everybody to leave with tools or something to go back with and explore in their relationship. So, I always give people homework in therapy.

1. Take a look at your partner’s schedule. If they’re working, check and see when their meetings are and try to create one routine. So it’s Monday and they have meetings from 12 to 4. After or before, can the two of you make some time to sit and have lunch, dinner, go for a walk, watch something, play a game, maybe something interactive?

2. Planning a date night is the second recommendation. We’re bogged down and many of us forget that we can make this a still a very exciting time. Let’s be creative, because a relationship is all about the experiences and you’re just trying to find a new type of experience during this time.

3. Leave a note somewhere, on the fridge for example, “Hey, I loved your dinner last night.” I’m clearly like overeating here in my apartment because those are all the references I have lately. Little signs and gestures or acts or comments to help your partner feel better. Try to think about one thing every day in which you showed your partner appreciation because we want to come from a positive place. There’s enough negativity out in the world right now.

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