The theme of World Mental Health Day this year is psychological first aid. The idea is to identify the practical things we can do to help ourselves and others at times of emotional or psychological difficulty. As a sex and relationship therapist my response to this call for first aid was to think about the simple, easy to access and no cost things we can do to apply first aid to our intimate relationships, if they are flagging. Of course, ideally, we would notice any decline in the quality of our relationships before first aid is required. However, with the daily grind of life in the West, with our focus on doing over being, work over play and screen focussed transactions over genuine intimacy, it's no surprise that our relationships can suffer from time to time.
I think people leave one another by small degrees. Of course the big ticket event of finding out about an affair, if your relationship code is monogamy, can seem like the 'cause' of a relationship breakdown, but, inevitably, the trouble started way before then. The busyness of life combined with poor communication and unaddressed resentments leads us to gradually distance ourselves from our partners, way before anyone else comes onto the scene. Crucially, we gradually reduce our sensory contact with our partners; we stop looking at them, touching them and listening to them. And it is these non sexual, sensory aspects of our relationship that we can restore with relative ease, at no cost and in very little time. I'm not generally a 'hints and tips' kind of person, as I believe that relationships are far too complex to reduce to a 'top ten ways to relationship success' kind of list. I am also acutely aware of never dishing out advice that I can't, won't or don't apply to my own relationship or of cringingly creating the impression that I have a perfect relationship myself. So, I'm just going to share my personal and professional first aid cabinet 'go to's', for those times when we realise our relationships are starting to suffer.
It is surprisingly easy to go about daily life and not look our partner in the eye. Those 'conversations' we have whilst one is cooking or loading the dishwasher or, more commonly, messaging a friend on your iPhone or checking out FaceBook. It is easy to dehumanise our partners when we don't actually look at them. We can start to believe that they are the source of all of our problems rather than a living, breathing person going through their own challenges with life. Eye gazing is a route to love, utilised famously by Dr Arthur Aron in his experiment to see if he could make strangers fall in love. Looking into the eyes of another is simply respectful on one level and deeply intimate on another.
So, look your partner in the eye when you speak to them or are listening to them and ask them to look at you.
Touch is a loaded subject in many failing relationships as it is inextricably connected to the question of sex and its initiation or rejection. What I am referring to here though is non sexual touch, the touch on the shoulder or waist as you pass in the kitchen, the hand holding whilst watching TV, the welcome home kiss on the cheek. Many couples find sexual frequency an issue, not always through lack of desire, often through lack of opportunity, privacy and energy. These little touches keep the bonding hormone, oxytocin, flowing between us, increasing good will and connection. They hold the promise of a sexual encounter at some point in the future when the teenagers aren't in or the baby sleeps or the overtime ends. They confirm that love, respect and consideration are still in evidence.
So, when you next see your partner, assuming that you have a generally good relationship that just needs a little first aid, greet them by touching their face and looking into their eyes. In the couple of seconds that it takes you to do this, you will communicate volumes about your commitment to your relationship.
With the pressure of day to day living, it is easy to miss opportunities to catch up with our partners day and, thereby, their world. Half listening, whilst having part of our mind on the email we need to write or the dinner that needs cooking, is a familiar experience to many of us. Leaving too long between check in's and updates with one another, however, can quickly lead to a loss of connection and a sense of alienation. Our check in's don't necessarily need to be every day and they don't need to be just about 'how was your day?'. Offering our partner our full, undivided attention and interest at regular intervals demonstrates the importance they have in our life, something we are often quicker to do for our work colleagues and bosses than our lovers. Resisting problem solving the challenges they share and showing empathy and support for their perspective on a situation before launching in with advice, takes our listening to another level of value.
So, if you can't easily say what is going on in your partner's world right now, apply the first aid step of taking the time to ask them ... And just listen with love.
If you have read this and realise that it's too late for first aid and metaphorical surgery is required to re-establish your relationship, please consider approaching a qualified sex and relationship therapist. Contact the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists for a list of practitioners in your area or, if you are based in Hertfordshire, contact Local Counselling Centre, for a referral to low or full cost therapy options.