BY RUTH L. SCHWARTZ, Ph.D.
My last three relationships all lasted less than a year. I thought my most recent ex was “the one,” but three months in, she stopped wanting to have sex with me! I know sex dies out after awhile, but three months?! Plus she didn’t work out much, she ate a lot of junk food and she was a slob. At the beginning I didn’t care because she was really hot, but after the first couple of months she was never in the mood.
I bugged her to work out more because I’ve heard that exercise increases sex drive, but she was always making excuses. I’m starting to think intimacy just doesn’t last.
– J.D. in Philadelphia
Ouch. As I read your letter, I find myself wanting to get away from you! But it’s nothing personal, really. It’s just that criticism is not exactly a way to win friends and influence people, much less create lasting love and intimacy. In your short letter, you slammed your ex four times. If I were her, I might have stopped wanting to have sex with you, too!
I get the feeling that you may not realize just how critical you are. If you grew up with critical parents, it may seem normal to you. But John Gottman, who has studied thousands of couples over the past few decades, identifies criticism as #1 in what he calls “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” (The other three are Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling.) So I have to wonder whether criticism might have been the kiss of death for your other relationships, too.
Now, it’s true that hot chemistry can lead us to temporarily ignore issues that are actually problems for us. It’s certainly your right to decide whether someone’s gym, housekeeping and eating habits make her a rule-out for you. It’s best to get clear on what matters most to you and then take stock early on, so you can simply avoid getting involved with women who aren’t right for you. But the other side of the coin is that none of us can ever find anyone who’s 100% compatible with us in every way, so if there’s a heart connection (as well as a heat connection) there, you can nurture and grow intimacy in the following ways:
1. No criticism. None. She gets to keep her house however she chooses, eat what she pleases, and work out according to her own whims. All of her other personal habits are off-limits for comments, too.
2. Lots of acceptance and appreciation. If this is a new habit for you, it might take some effort at first. Actively look for things you appreciate about her, and then tell her. Of course compliments on her physical appearance are nice, but make sure you go beyond that. Does she listen well? Did she make you a cup of tea? Did she go out of her way to meet you somewhere? Does she make you laugh? Did she cook dinner for you? Did she help you think through a thorny situation at work? People open up when they feel acknowledged and thanked.
Even when you’re not appreciating, work on accepting. Each of us contains both “positive” and “negative” qualities (which vary according to the eye of the beholder, of course.) Strive to let yourself take in the whole package with more tenderness and compassion. I think you’ll find that this change pays off big time, by keeping alive both your closeness and your sexual connection.