Oh, that tricky word: “normal.” What does that mean, anyway? When I hear my clients ask, “Is it ‘normal’ for [fill in the blank] to be happening?” or “Why can’t my life/relationship/job/thoughts/feelings/etc. be ‘normal’?”, I always ask for what their definition of “normal” is. Of course, there is no definition that fits every scenario. What is “normal” for one person would be “abnormal” for another.
Many clients come to counseling because of relationship difficulties. People look at what other couples are doing and think something is wrong with their own relationship. Or they have ideas about what should be happening in their relationship, and decide it is somehow flawed. Or they think that the problems they have with their partners is unique. That may be true, but it is rare.
So, are you wondering what it is people talk about regarding relationships in counseling offices?
These are the most frequent relationship complaints therapists hear about, in no particular order:
- He/she doesn’t understand my illness.
- We’re not having sex anymore.
- He/she doesn’t pay any attention to me. We might as well be roommates.
- The kids always come first, and I might as well not be there.
- We have no idea how to communicate.
- He/she wants sex all of the time, but I am not attracted to him/her anymore.
- I’m not sure I love him/her anymore.
- She spends too much money. Or, he doesn’t ever want to spend any money.
- She is too emotional. Or, he never shows any emotion.
- We are fine as parents, but as a couple, there’s nothing there anymore.
- We don’t talk about the big issues–we just pretend everything is fine, but it isn’t.
- He/she has an illness and refuses to address it.
- I can’t imagine getting a divorce, but there are real issues in our relationship that are not getting better. He/she refuses to go to counseling with me.
If you see one or more of the issues you and your partner have in your relationship, congratulations: You are normal!
You and your partner have various options for working through the conflicts and issues in your relationship. The key is that both of you need to be committed to making things better. Something I often say to the client I have in my office is, “What incentive does your partner have to make changes? Because if they are comfortable with the way things are in your relationship, why should they want to change?”
Let’s say your partner does recognize that your relationship needs some work. Here are some options to consider:
- Discuss what the issues are and come to a consensus. You might be surprised to learn that what you think the issues are is not how your partner sees it. You can’t discuss a plan of action until you know what exactly it is that needs correction. If he’s saying it’s a lack of sex, and you are saying he works too late and doesn’t pay enough attention to you, there are three issues to address, not one.
- Brainstorm some ways to address the issues. I know you are waiting for me to say, “Go to couples counseling,” but first, you have the tools to at least try to fix things on your own. It may be that you eventually need the neutral third party to help you and your partner figure things out, but you can at least try to negotiate the issues yourselves before calling a counselor for an appointment. Focus on one change at a time, not the entire list. Prioritize and give the top issue the most attention.
- Give the proposed solutions a try. Like any habit, it takes a few weeks for it to become permanent, so agree on a timeframe with your partner to work on fixing the issue(s). If after that length of time, things are still not going well…
- Call a couples counselor. This person will listen to your stories, and help you and your partner negotiate for change. In addition, the counselor can help you improve communication, give you a safe space to talk, and mediate, if necessary.