How to talk about relationship issues
The Most Common Relationship Problems, and How Talk Can Help
Expert Advice for Readers Who Need Help Broaching Sensitive Subjects With Loved Ones
Relationships can be wonderful—and challenging. We all feel uncertainty or dissatisfaction in our relationships from time to time. Some of the toughest conversations we have are with those we love the most.
Readers often ask me for the right way to handle a relationship problem or broach the subject with a loved one. I took the most-common questions I received this year and asked experts for advice.
My loved one won’t put down his or her phone (or tablet or laptop) and it is ruining our relationship. What can I do?
Tell your loved one that you want to talk for a few minutes without any phones on, and that the discussion is very important to you, says Sharon Gilchrest O’Neill, a marriage and family therapist in Mount Kisco, N.Y.
Ms. O’Neill suggests telling “in a story fashion” how nice it used to be when your phones didn’t disrupt wonderful conversation and fun exchanges. But it has been awhile since your great conversations could go uninterrupted by your loved one picking up the phone and chatting or texting with someone else.
Refrain from using words such as “offend,” “disrespect,” or “terrible behavior,” she says.
Make the point that we all have times when we are waiting for an important call from a doctor or from work, and you understand everyone needs to take those calls.
Another helpful line, she says: “Can we just keep our phones in our bags? I’m so happy we found the time to meet, and I am looking forward to making the most of it.”
For families, Ms. O’Neill suggests setting some rules: The family meal must happen with all technology turned off. Spouses set a curfew for turning off technology. Shut down everything one night a week.
Watch your own behavior. If you want people to put away their screens, you need to put away yours.
How can I get my wife to have more sex with me?
The best place to discuss sex is outside the bedroom, says Barry McCarthy, a Washington, D.C., psychologist and sex therapist who has written books about nonsexual marriages and how to prevent them. (I have heard from women with this question about their husbands. This advice works for that scenario, too.)
Never talk about sex right after sex—unless you have only good things to say. The discussion may take more than one conversation. It took a while to reach an impasse, and it will take some time to move beyond it.
First of all, you need to sleep in the same bed, says Dr. McCarthy. Then get out of your “all or nothing” mind-set. A lot of couples avoid touching if they aren’t going to have intercourse, he says. But touch itself it can bring on desire.
Schedule times to be physically intimate—80% of married couples do, Dr. McCarthy says.
If there is something you are embarrassed to talk about, get a how-to book. Put sticky notes on pertinent pages. And add a message: “This embarrasses me to talk about, so I thought I would show you.”
Don’t blame your partner. Just describe the problem—“You seem so much less interested in sex than you used to be.” Ask if your partner has noticed this as well. Never say, “If you loved me you would…”
Tell her what you love about her. Remind her of times when you had great sex and both loved it. Get the conversation flowing first.
How can I get my husband to go to therapy?
Many men agree to go to therapy only after their wife mentions divorce, says Howard Markman, professor of psychology at the University of Denver and co-author of “Fighting FOR Your Marriage.” (Once in a while I hear from a man who can’t get his wife to go to therapy. This advice works in that scenario too.)
The first step is to find a therapist who focuses on building skills, creating ground rules, talking more and fighting less, Dr. Markman says. Men are goal-oriented, so find a therapy that has an end in sight.
Many men feel they will be blamed. It’s important to explain that the goal of therapy is to give you tools to cope. “Husbands hate to come to therapy, pay high fees and then fight,” he says. In his practice, Dr. Markman focuses from the first session on stopping the fighting and increasing fun and friendship. He gives homework: Go on a date, give each other a massage, take a few walks, watch a movie at home.
If your partner still refuses, suggest a relationship education class. Relationship education classes focus on ground rules for handling conflict, as well as on fun, friendship and sensuality, but partners don’t discuss personal issues. Often, if a husband feels that the couple benefited from an education class, he will be more open to therapy, says Dr. Markman, who runs a research-based relationship program you can take online.
Consider going to couples therapy alone. This is different from going to individual therapy. Set up a time you think is convenient for your partner, in case he decides to attend.
Research shows that often just one partner going to couples therapy can help the couple, because that person will go home with new relationship skills and teach them to her husband.
How can I tell if the person I met on an online dating site is fake?
As with many relationship issues, the first step is to listen to your gut. If something seems off, it probably is.
Does the person change the subject when you ask detailed questions? Have you noticed inconsistencies? They comment about being an only child, only to gripe later about an argument with a sister. Do they make excuses as to why they can’t send photos, talk on Skype or meet up?
These are all questions to ask yourself, says Tyler Cohen Wood, a social media expert who works as a cyber branch chief for the Defense Intelligence Agency. “It is very hard to keep up a fake persona and inconsistencies will slip out,” she says.
Check that the person has an appropriate number of “digital puzzle pieces” on the Web. Does he or she have social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other sites? Does he banter with friends, exchange inside jokes or get tagged in photos?
People who are telling the truth are more likely to discuss details of their job, relate funny anecdotes, mention deadlines or give other details about their day, says Ms. Cohen Wood, author of a 2014 book “Catching the Catfishers: Disarm the Online Pretenders, Predators and Perpetrators Who Are Out to Ruin Your Life.”
Ask the person to send you photos. Do a photo search using a tool such as Google Image Search to determine if that photo appears on someone else’s social-media site.
Copy the person’s email address or parts of his or her profile or messages and paste them into a Google search to see if they show up elsewhere.
Make sure the person shows up in public searches, Ms. Cohen Wood says. If he says he owns a house, does it show up on Zillow.com?
Perhaps the biggest red flag is if the person asks a lot of questions about money or asks you to send money. “Do not ever send money to anyone you meet online unless you have first vetted them,” Ms. Cohen Wood says.
—Write to Elizabeth Bernstein at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter or Facebook at EBernsteinWSJ