In my psychotherapy practice recently, I have worked with a number of clients on issues of how to strengthen their relationships with a partner. In my experience and observation over 20 years of doing couples therapy, and individual therapy with clients who are working on relationship issues, I think managing a relationship comes down to four different domains to evaluate: Emotional, Physical, Domestic, and a category I call "Managing the 'Other'".
Managing the Emotional component is to what degree your relationship, and the actions of your partner, meet your needs emotionally. The need for companionship, to feel understood, to feel supported, to feel loved, to be respected, and even to be entertained or delighted. It's understanding to what degree your relationship helps you to feel fulfilled in regard to your emotional well-being, day-to-day.
The Physical component is all about how you relate to a partner physically — which can mean sexually, of course, but also how you share your physical environment and how you relate to one another in "casual affection." I have noticed that the classic "healthy, happy, solid" couples I have worked with (on things other than the quality of their relationship, such as overcoming a trauma) usually demonstrate quite a bit of casual affection with one another. They hold hands, they generally orient their body language to one another, they cuddle up while watching TV, they kiss goodbye each morning and hello each evening, they cuddle up in bed, etc. Casual physical affection helps foster intimacy. This can also help keep the sexual fires alive — and while sexual frequency can vary widely (MANY couples, if not most, that I see, cite infrequency of sex as a common complaint — this is true for gay and straight couples). Evaluating the physical component also involves to what degree you are having the frequency and type of sex you want, and to what degree these meet your individual sexual needs and interests. Troubleshooting this can often be a focus of couples therapy, and is usually a complex combination of physical, medical, and emotional/psychological issues.
The Domestic component is more subtle. I have worked with a number of people where the Emotional and even the Physical sides of their relationship are actually quite sound, but how they manage their household in All Things Domestic really needs some work. How do the two of you manage household chores, for example? How is money earned, budgeted, and spent in your house? What is the quality of the space that you share? How do you handle differences in decor taste, level of neatness/cleanliness, and management of the "stuff" that accumulates over time?
The last component, "Managing the 'Other'", is often a source of conflict in couples. Would it be OK for your partner/spouse to have lunch with an ex? How do you handle it if one of your mothers is intrusive, such as how the wonderful Doris Roberts played buttinsky TV mother "Marie" on "Everybody Loves Raymond"? Or how Agnes Moorehead played "Endora" on "Bewitched"? What do you do if one of your fathers or mothers is holding your relationship hostage in some way with money issues? Is there a friend, sibling, niece, nephew, or other relative who lives with you, or is somehow intrusive into your relationship because of borrowing money, being an addict, or being in trouble legally? How do you handle it, as a couple, when you're out in public and someone flirts inappropriately with either you or your spouse/partner? How do you balance your free time between your spouse/partner, and friends you might spend time with alone? All of these questions can have different answers that will work to resolve the problem, but they are such common scenarios (OK, maybe not the "Endora" example) that I think a couple needs to be prepared, through communication and discussion, about how others "impacting" the relationship will be handled. Both partners need to keep in mind that their primary commitment needs to be to each other. "Cut the apron strings" is a term that comes to mind when a person needs to stop demonstrating their primary loyalty to their mother (or father) and establish a solid home of their own as an adult with a partner/spouse instead (the one huge exception to this is in cases of couples facing domestic violence/abuse).
Like most relationship issues, the biggest key to solving problems is communicating about them. Discuss the issue keeping in mind your commitment (and your partner's) to the relationship. Be able to discuss the challenges and brainstorm, creatively, with your partner, some potential solutions in behavioral terms that you both can live with and sustain over time. I call much of this process the "Three C's": Commitment, Communication, and Compromise. I think also the "Two R's": Respect and Regard, come into play as well. Couples therapy can help you strengthen where you and your partner are the least adept in the Three C's or Two R's, and these often require a third-party observer to help you identify where the gaps are.
Think about your own approach to the Emotional, Physical, Domestic, and Managing the Other in your relationship, or the relationship you would like to have. With these building-blocks solid, you are on your way to having the kind of relationship that is extremely rewarding.
If you would like help with any of these concepts, please let me know. Email me at Ken@GayTherapyLA.com, or call 310-726-4357, for either more information on my services or to schedule an appointment.