Research proves conflict is normal but if the argument steers toward sex, Nadia Bokody says your relationship may be in trouble.
I made lots of questionable decisions in my twenties.
One of them was moving in with a boyfriend who, after losing his job, embraced my offer to cover his bills a little too enthusiastically.
Each day I’d return home from work to find him in the same spot on our couch, surrounded by empty take-out containers and Cheetos crumbs, tapping away furiously on his PlayStation controller – the job ads I’d emailed, still unopened.
Unsurprisingly, his lack of contribution to the household became a sticking point, and something we argued about frequently. Almost as much as we argued about sex (he wanted it, I didn’t).
Neither his domestic apathy nor our differing ideas on what constituted enough nookie were ever resolved, and we broke up a few months later.
While we evidently weren’t meant to be (and not just because he needed a mother, not a girlfriend, and I was still in the closet about being gay), we may have saved ourselves a great deal of stress and heartache had we known then what I do now: roughly two-thirds of the things couples fight about aren’t resolvable.
At least, that is, according to research by Dr John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, who coined the term “perpetual problems” to describe the futility of the stuff many of us battle over with our significant others.
Gottman’s findings essentially confirm something most people in long-term relationships learn over time: it doesn’t matter how passionately you feel about certain shortcomings in your partner – some topics are best left off the table.
And this is backed by a study published in the journal Family Process, which looked at over a hundred happily married couples and how they fought. It discovered content couples sidestep so-called “perpetual problems”.
Strikingly, even though these pairs ranked physical intimacy as one of the most important issues in their relationship, they identified it as something they avoided quarrelling over.
Which actually makes sense, when you consider problems surrounding sex are one of the most cited reasons for divorce.
However, there’s a big difference between communicating your sexual needs and bickering over them; a critical distinction often overlooked.
I know this because, if there’s one question that comes up most in my emails, it’s people asking me how to tell their partners they’re not satisfied in their sex life.
(It’s at this point I usually feel the need to reiterate I’m a columnist, not a sex therapist, or an expert in anything for that matter – except maybe buying shoes I don’t need after I’ve had one too many wines).
I sense these people have the idea the sex won’t improve unless they give their spouse a critical rundown of everything they’ve been doing wrong – or not doing – in the bedroom. In convincing themselves of this, they assign immense amounts of negativity and stress to sex.
The subject becomes something they either resentfully stifle discussion of, or eventually explode about during an argument.
Thankfully, Gottman has an alternative. And that’s having an ongoing healthy dialogue about sex.
“By talking openly about sex, couples can build a thriving relationship inside and outside of the bedroom,” he writes on The Gottman Institute blog.
And if your partner isn’t doing what you like in the sack, or doesn’t initiate sex as much as you want? You might stop the discussion from veering into an argument by focusing on the positives.
Praise your SO for what they’re getting right, instead of what they’re getting wrong. Switching antagonistic terms like “you always” and “you never” up for “I’d love it if we” and “I really like it when you” can also go a long way to ensuring the conversation remains positive.
And look, I’m hardly an expert on relationships, but while most arguments are best avoided, I do think some things are worth fighting for.
Like having the kind of sex you deserve, and (and this one is really just from personal experience) the freedom to come home to a partner who isn’t covered in Cheetos dust.