The Love Doctor Terri Obruch says healthy expectations make a healthy relationship: Part II

In addition to her role as a research scientist at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, psychologist Terri Orbuch is also a professor of sociology at Oakland University. Her studies focus on marriage, divorce, romance and relationship patterns. She has published over 40 articles, written five books and has been featured in USA Today, The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Reader’s Digest.

Dr. Orbuch offers her relationship advice to OU students:

OP: Do platonic relationships work — can men and women ever be just friends?

Orbuch: The age-old classic question. The answer is yes — but it is very challenging.

When college students are asked (this question) the majority, 84 perent, say yes. Both sexes.

For many people that is surprising. Mainly, I think, because men and women think they are very different in their answer.

I usually talk about it in terms of the challenges. It is challenging to have an opposite-sex friendship because men and women do friendships very differently, something that happens very early in childhood.

Men do friendships side-to-side and women do friendships face-to-face. Men do friendships by doing activities, and women are much more likely to do friendships involving talk.

When a man and women get together and do a friendship together, that can be difficult because their friendship up to that period in time is very different. One is based on activity and one is based on intimacy.

Men report that their platonic relationships with women are much closer than their friendships with other men.

A romantic attraction can develop between the two people. This is problematic if one or both of the friends have romantic partners. Partners can become uncomfortable. So it can be problematic because the partner has a problem with that, or because romance may arise.

Research shows that men versus women have more difficulty keeping romance out of the friendship, or fantasizing about sex within the friendship.

Women are more likely to report that attraction has been a challenge in a friendship.

It is possible that other people outside of the friendship might romanticize the relationship. Other friends or family members may want to know: “what’s going on,” “what’s happening,” “are you sure?” — and they might consistently hassle the friends. That doesn’t make the friendship impossible, but it is challenging.

But opposite-sex friendships have many benefits and many advantages. Opposite-sex friendships can help you understand and learn more about the opposite sex. You can help gain perspective from the female or male perspective from talking with your opposite-sex friendships.

You have to be very clear about what you want in these friendships though. And if you have a romantic partner, you want to make sure that you are clear an that you communicate clearly about your opposite-sex partner. Secrecy and not including that information just makes people unsure and insecure.

OP: When in a relationship, how can we help our partners deal with a large-scale life changing experience like death, changes in physical appearance, etc. ?

Orbuch: You need to communicate and talk to one another — and communication goes both ways. You want to make sure that you are a good listener as much as you are a good talker. Often time when someone goes through a big life transition, you what to make sure you are really hearing what your partner is saying — what are they saying about the life transition and how does it make them fell?

Oftentimes we need to put ourselves in our partners’ shoes and not assume that we know how they feel, and not assume that our partner is reacting or feeling what we would feel in that situation.

Oftentimes we give support. There are two types of support: emotional support, which is listening and understanding; and instrumental support, which is giving them advice, helping them cope, etc.

Oftentimes what happens, as a partner, is we give the kind of support that we would want. It is very important that we ask our partners what kind of support they want or need. First, recognize that they may not know, or that it may take them a while for them understand what you even mean, or to understand what they need. It is common, it is difficult — but tell them, “I want to give you what you need.”

Sometimes it just means just waiting a little bit. Sometimes people cope with a big life transition, depending on what it is, by needing to be alone for a bit. It doesn’t mean you don’t trust them, or you don’t communicate — just that you wait a little bit before giving emotional support. It is really important to understand that.

Also, people change. Check in, communicate and ask questions — it is okay to keep asking, because what they need may change.

OP: How important is the physical or sexual aspect of a relationship?

Orbuch: Sex/physical components mean different things to different people. For some people touch, a hug is a physical component. For other people it may go farther. Sex can mean different things to different people as well — it doesn’t have to mean sexual intercourse — it can mean touching, oral, it can mean lots of different aspects.

People have different attitudes about when physical components and sexual components are appropriate in a relationship. Some people feel that you need to have a commitment or monogamy before you have a physical or sexual aspect for a relationship. Some people feel that either marriage or a ceremony of a long-term commitment (must happen) before entering into those terms of a relationship.

At the same time, a physical component is an essential ingredient of a long-lasting relationship. There are different times and different stages of a relationship when that is included, and depending on your attitude, religious affiliation, or values that can enter in at different stages. I

It is not the only or most essential component — but it is one of many essential components.

OP: Is it possible for a couple to overcome acts of infidelity, and how?

Orbuch: There is sexual infidelity and there is emotional infidelity — both are cheating. Can a couple recover? Yes. They need to rebuild the trust. Is it extremely difficult? Yes. We know that about 1 out 4 or 25 percent can recover after infidelity.

Trust is difficult to build the first time around, so it is even more difficult when it is broken and needs to be rebuilt. People can forgive, but it is very difficult for people to forget. So because you will probably never forget, it becomes very challenging.

Those partners have to work and commit to working on the relationship at the same time. Oftentimes, after a betrayal, partners are at different points. One will say, “Yes, I am so ready to commit and work on this relationship again. I’m sorry for the betrayal.” And the other partner says, “I need time to think about this.” Then when the other partner comes back to work on it, the other partner may be at a different point. Both partners need to be at the same stage and they need to commit to working.

The person who betrayed or cheated needs to give a sincere apology, and that can be hard. Sometimes that person doesn’t know what that means. A sincere apology means they first say the apology with nonverbal (body) language as well as (with) words, and that person needs to take responsibility.

Relationships are about two people, but an apology is taking responsibility over your own actions. A sincere apology means that you have a plan for the future. So that means you give a specific apology: “I’m sorry for this, and in the future, here is what is going to change.”

All four things can be difficult and challenging, but yes I do believe it can be done. But it is very challenging, which is why in 3 out of 4 of these occasions, it doesn’t work.

The earlier you apologize, the better. The longer you wait, the more difficult it is to apologize and the more difficult it is for the other person to begin the process of recovery.

You want to be the person, if you can, to tell that other person. When people hear about cheating from others, it is more difficult for that person than when they hear about it from the partner themselves.

Each person has to make that decision on how long you stay, how long you try to recover. Many times a third party (such as) a counselor or a therapist is needed because you need that person to help you get out of the pattern (anger) that you have got into.

Partners need to remember the positives in the relationship and focus on the positive. If both partners are working on the relationship and both are committed to working on it — that is a good sign. When I work with couples where this happens, I set a specific time period and both couples agree to. It could be six months; it could be a year. It’s really up to the couple, but you work on setting a specific time period to rebuild that trust.

More information

Dr. Terri Orbuch can be reached via email at [email protected]