Welcome to 2019: Alongside bailing and self-care, the once-stigmatized act of going to therapy has become the stuff of memes, the crux of Bumble banter, and the premise for many a comedy sketch. And yet, among the many forms of psychiatry the “Therapy Generation” has willfully embraced, one remains curiously mysterious: couples therapy. It’s hard to say why—perhaps the odd glamour that accompanies talking to an analyst fails to translate to struggling couples. Or maybe we’re all narcissists and someone else hogging air time holds less appeal than that of our own, singular narratives.
Either way, it’s a little ironic; it would seem that love has never been more confounding than it is right now. In the era of app dates, open relationships, and rampant ghosting, “commitment” is a watery concept. And as younger generations continue to rewrite the process of courtship—while older generations grapple with shifting expectations—it seems only natural that we might need a little help navigating our way through it all.
So for those of us who are curious about what goes on in couples therapy, I asked renowned, New York-based couples therapist, Dr. Irina Firstein, about the most common relationship mistakes she confronts in her work with long-term couples—and how we all might do better.
1. Don’t Spare the Niceties
Conventional appeal aside, there are plenty of unsexy elements to cohabitation: shared bathrooms, dirty dishes, the expectation that you actually deposit your dirty socks into a laundry hamper upon removal. Often, you trade in “I’ll pick you up at 8” for “can you pick up milk?” It’s not that the so-called flame can’t, you know, keep burning, even through all the dairy purchases. It’s just that, at some point, the novelty of occupying one another’s space is lost—you begin to coexist in a more prosaic format.
At this stage in a relationship, Dr. Firstein recommends paying attention to the way you acknowledge all the unexceptional daily occurrences with your partner. “It’s very important to mark normal transitions in a day,” she explains. “Waking up, leaving for work, greeting after work, going to sleep: These transitions are events in the course of a day—and they’re important opportunities to connect.” That acknowledgment can manifest in any number of ways: a kiss, an exuberant hello, maybe an endearing, “I know you had a hard day so I brought you that thing you like from the Thai food place.” There’s no formula here—it’s just the effort that’s important.
Among her own patients, Dr. Fierstein finds that the failure to make those tiny acknowledgements leaves couples feeling like their relationships resemble practical partnerships more than they do romantic unions. That surprise takeout order might be a good first step in reversing the damage.
2. Keep Your Partner Close and Your Friends…Also Close
Whenever I encounter a couple jogging together, I find myself deeply nauseated. This has something to do with me and my personal problems, and something to do with the unrelenting togetherness such an activity suggests. I always wonder: Wouldn’t a conversation over lunch be that much more stimulating if you and your partner had both gone on different fitness journeys?
“I often see couples putting too much pressure on one another to be their everything—which is an unfair burden for your partner to carry,” says Dr. Firstein. In her work, she finds that pushing patients to pursue individual interests or friendships can relieve the tension that comes along with relying too heavily on a partner for personal satisfaction or validation. The truth is, nobody is prepared to shoulder the responsibility of being anyone’s everything.
It’s not that jogging with your significant other is a problem, of course, but as is uniquely conveyed by the canonical Paul Rudd/Jason Segel film, I Love You, Man, having your own friends and hobbies separate from your partner bolsters your relationship. These are the things that enrich your lives as individuals so that your life together is one of two whole people.
3. Money Is a Thing. Talk About It.
When you’re involved with another person, you’re going to spend money together: dinners out, nightcaps, trips, groceries, potentially even rent. So if you don’t find channels for monetary communication that feel approachable, those expenses add up to a weird, enormous, dollar-sign-shaped wedge between you. Dr. Fierstein says it’s common to see couples who can’t seem to place why it is that they’re fighting—or why the premises of these fights are so menial. Reliably, the thing that’s left unsaid often has to do with money.
4. Love Languages Are Not a Myth. Acknowledge Them.
When I first learned about love languages, I dismissed them in much the same way I dismiss almost any sentence with “based on your astrological sign.” But as it turns out, love languages do not fall in that species of pseudoscience.
“Love languages are helpful in terms of understanding how your partner loves you,” says Dr. Fierstein, “but also, how they want to be loved.” Among her patients, there’s often a gap here—a sense of miscommunication where two individuals both want to give and receive love, but are attempting to do so through different mediums.
It’s not expected that we’re attracted to people with identical love languages. Part of the give and take of committing yourself to another person is identifying their love language and operating accordingly, even for all the ways it might feel unnatural.
5. And a Wild Card: Stop Being Late.
Here is a thing I do with unfortunate frequency: Send a text that says, “Getting on the train!” while pantsless in my apartment, listening to a podcast about the optics of restaurant music, lazily contemplating what sort of sartorial mood I’m in.
As it turns out, people on the receiving end don’t love this. But for all the ways the habit makes me an asshole, it’s an even more egregious offense in the context of a romantic relationship—purely for quantitative reasons. If you’re the sort of person who generally keeps people waiting, it’s likely that your significant other is doing more than their fair share of waiting (if any share is fair).
“We often take for granted our partner’s time as well as their patience,” says Dr. Firstein. “It’s a sign of respect to be in touch about delays or changes even if they are minor.” She says this is often among the first complaints couples communicate to a therapist. Respect is central to a healthy relationship, and timeliness, however minor it may sound, is a major pillar of that.
Feature graphic by Dasha Faires.