Interview with Toronto couples counsellor Beth Mares on building long term same-sex relationships
Love Takes Time
Long-Term Partnerships Demand Hard Work
by Josh Murray
Snail mail, face-to-face meetings – and now meaningful relationships? Society’s increasing dependence on instant gratification is racking up victims faster than a slasher film. According to a 2007 study of relationships in the modern age, the seven-year itch of the 1950s is long forgotten – replaced by a newer, faster five-year model. Therapists and experts in the field have not changed their advice for those working to maintain long-term relationships, but that advice has been forced to adapt.
“It is normal for the type of bond to shift,” explains Beth Mares, an analytically-oriented psychotherapist based in Toronto with years of experience in same-sex relationship counseling. Mares’ practice welcomes relationships that require simple tune-ups as well as those with deep-seated problems. In her two decades of experience in Ontario, she has seen countless examples of couples that exemplify the course of (so-called) average relationships.
“The initial ‘falling in love’ is typically extremely exciting and highly sexual, sometimes even obsessive, desperate and full of drama,” Mares says. “For some people, when the drama goes, the spark goes; but for people who are capable of healthy and mature attachment, their attachment deepens over time if there is a good basis for it.”
Even with a solid foundation, the stresses and changes of modern life can take a toll. “There is surely less social pressure to stay together than there used to be. It’s hard to say how our innate sexual interest works, because it is so confounded by culture; but I think it’s a good bet that if a relationship is based only or mainly on sexual attraction, it won’t last very long,” explains Mares.
Since sexual attraction does play an important role in the success or failure of a relationship, the stresses of a long-term partnership can often take centre stage in the bedroom as well. “[Even] in good relationships, sex has its ups and downs. There are many reasons why this can happen – the most common being environmental: work stress, lack of sleep, lack of privacy, being too busy. Some couples are able to get back on track when the stressor is removed, but some get into the habit of not having sex or not enjoying sex and need professional help.”
And those bored by their partner may be more inclined to stray – at least in spirit, if not in body. “Some people always have a wandering eye, and some never do,” says Mares. “However the average person is more likely to notice other attractive people when they are past the stage of being obsessed with a loved one. And they may pay even more attention if the couple is not getting along very well or is not having a good sex life.”
In an odd twist, the intricacies of that sex life may also add extra pressure – with gay men and lesbians typically avoiding some of the pitfalls of similar, straight relationships. “Same sex couples are less likely to be raising children together so there tends to be less likelihood of maintaining a relationship that is not satisfying,” Mares says.
While that may sound like a relief to those schooled in the power-single world of Sex and the City, Will and Grace and countless other sitcoms, the biggest problems in relationships – both new and old – can’t be easily solved in a pat 30 minutes. Blossoming loves can be tested by issues with former partners, fears of betrayal (also related, of course, to former partners), common insecurities, immaturity and self-absorption. As relationships progress, though, one major challenge poses the biggest threat. “Sweeping problems under the rug,” explains Mares. “Over time, unresolved conflicts cause a downhill spiral. Studies conclude that what predicts success in marriage is a couple’s ability to handle differences and conflict. Communication in a close relationship requires a lot of awareness and skill. It does get easier over time, though, if the relationship-building is successful.”
Making the foundation of any partnership solid is not an easy task – though the best tips are so time-tested, they almost come across as clichéd to those living in a world more familiar with the ‘tell-it-like-it-is’ nature of Dr. Phil than the behind-closed-doors mentality of earlier generations. “For some couples making regular time to be alone together is all that is needed,” says Mares. “It is always important to discuss the problem. If a couple can’t – or has tried and it hasn’t helped, the best thing would be to see a good marital therapist to help sort out what is causing the problem and what to do about it.” And, in case a romantic escape from stress seems like a much more simple solution, it should also be noted that quick fixes seldom do the trick. “The romantic dream vacation is not likely to work. The causes of the problem need to be found and addressed,” Mares states.
Despite dedicated work – discussions and debates, trials and tribulations – any partnership can undoubtedly be tested. It may take the traditional seven years, a shorter five year span or even just a matter of months. In the end, with mutual respect, honest and open communication and a valued equality between partners, long-term relationships can provide a reward worth all of that effort. Even if they do come with a little bit of homework.
Reprinted with permission from Outlooks, GLBT community magazine
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