“So, what is it that we’re doing here?”

Sooner or later most every relationship reaches that “we’ve been dating for a while now…” decision-making moment. At this point, change is inevitable. Is it time to move on, or are you ready to get married?

To answer that, says Jeffry Larson, Ph.D., author of Should We Stay Together?, you must first ask yourself: What are our “couple traits” and how do they influence our relationship?

Unlike individual traits, which focus on your personality or family background, couple traits focus on your relationship. They include degree of acquaintanceship, similarity of values and attitudes, communication and conflict resolution skills. They are also a good indication of whether you will be happy in marriage says Larson, a marriage and family therapist.

“Acquaintanceship is a combination of how well you know your partner and how longyou’ve known your partner before marriage,” says Larson. “The longer you become acquainted with someone before marriage, the better you know them, understand them and understand your couple strengths and weaknesses.”

Marriages that endure involve spouses who know each other on many levels. Each person knows much about the other’s likes, dislikes, personality quirks, hopes and dreams.

Much of this friendship should develop before marriage, which takes time.

To develop the acquaintanceship, “Ask your partner: What are your three most important goals in life?” says Larson. “Hear their fears, their plans. Ask him or her to tell you about their most important values.”

If someone is not willing to be open, consider it a red flag.

“It would make me suspicious if, for instance, the person couldn’t tell me their three biggest fears,” says Larson. “Although I don’t think you have to pull out all the skeletons from your closet.”

In his book, Larson recommends dating for at least a year before deciding whether to marry. “Get to know someone during all four seasons because a year gives you a chance to have a crisis or two. You can see how your partner responds in a crisis and handles stress, how he relates to his family, how he deals with important dates like your birthday, how the two of you handle conflicts. All of this cannot be learned in a few months.”

Use this time to get to know your partner and yourself better. Communication skills should include self-awareness. Ask yourself: What am I thinking? What I am I feeling? What do I want? And once you answer those questions, can you effectively tell your partner in a way that does not offend him or her?

Well-matched couples communicate effectively and solve problems without letting them drag out. They are each willing to accept their partner’s weaknesses without becoming distraught. They learn to accept certain qualities and not try to change their partners.

Strong couples also listen actively. This means hearing the content of what someone says and also listening to the tone of voice and noticing nonverbal cues.

If there is a conflict between verbal and nonverbal messages: The nonverbal never lies. Facial expressions are a true indicator of feelings.

In the end, whether or not to marry is a cognitive decision as well as a decision of the heart.

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What to say and how to say it

Each week, I speak to both patients and doctors about sex. Unfortunately, they don’t spend nearly enough time talking to each other.

Many patients say they’re waiting for the doctor to open the subject. Besides, they don’t want to embarrass the doctor or give him/her the wrong idea about who they are: “kinky,” “frigid,” a “slut.” Doctors say the same thing. They don’t want to embarrass their patients or offend those who might think they’re being called kinky, frigid or a slut.

When it comes to sex, what should you be talking to your doctor about?

  • Side effects of medications, particularly antidepressants, anti-hypertensives, diuretics and hormones.
  • Age-related changes. While changes in desire, arousal, orgasm and satisfaction aren’t inevitable, you should know what to look for and what to do about it.
  • What to do if you don’t like the way you function. There are simple ways to diagnose sexual difficulties. If your desire, arousal or orgasms aren’t what you want them to be, find out if there’s an organic basis.
  • Making sex more comfortable. Sex should never hurt. Painful sex can indicate a sexually transmitted disease, endometriosis, fibroids, tiny genital cuts or the need for a lubricant.
  • Questions about sexually transmitted disease and contraception — yes, even at your age.
  • Perimenopause. The early stages of menopause usually begin in a woman’s late thirties. A simple blood work-up can indicate where you are in this 10-year process.
  • A referral to a sex therapist, marriage counselor or psychologist. Many sexual issues are best handled by a therapist. Don’t hesitate to ask for a referral.

Health-care providers, like doctors and nurses, are there to serve you. If you’re uncomfortable talking to the ones you have now, get new ones. On the other hand, we all have to educate our health-care providers about our unique sexuality, whether our practices are exotic or ordinary. If all patients teach their medical professionals about sex, all of us would be better off.


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When George W. Bush accepts his party’s nomination tonight, he will stand with the person he believes makes him a better candidate.

Selecting and keeping a partner in love and romance is a little like choosing a political running mate: You want someone who balances the ticket.

Just as VP nominee Dick Cheney, a former defense secretary, makes up for Bush’s observed weakness on international issues, partners in any walk of life ought not be carbon copies.

Differences between you and your mate bring new skills, ideas and talents to your team.

Consider these five pointers on creating a balanced relationship ticket:

  1. Agree on the big stuff.
  2. The Democrats and Republicans may talk about big tent philosophies, but they don’t ignore their party platforms. “Sharing core values provides a foundation of mutual interest for a good relationship,” says Kevin Gogin, a marriage, family and child counselor in San Francisco.

    Core values include everything from religious orientation to views on child-raising and life philosophies.

    Who’s neat or messy has nothing to do with core values, explains Carol Kaplan, a marriage and family counselor in Monterey, Calif. It’s like Felix and Oscar of Odd Couple fame. They get on each other’s nerves, but they agree on underlying politics, morals and ethics.

  3. Discuss issues together.
  4. Specialization in a relationship is terrific. But it only works so long as you include your partner in decision-making.

    You may be an expert on antiques, but your partner has to sit in that old chair every day. Your spouse handles all the finances, but you still ought to know where your retirement money is invested, the name of your mortgage company and the balances of your various accounts. Each has a vested interest in every decision.

  5. Enjoy togetherness and separateness.
  6. Couples with children know about specialization. He does laundry; she watches the kids. But your differences may even affect leisure time. When your spouse has to attend a networking event with business associates on a Friday night resist the temptation to tag along.

  7. Throw guilt and resentment out the window.
  8. Your partner cooks, cleans and does the dishes. You take out the trash. Before you feel guilty, look at the big picture. You also fix things around the house, oversee contractors and run the broken cars to the shop. Are you both happy with this arrangement? Talk about it.

    If there is an imbalance, real or perceived, someone is going to feel resentful. Bring those feelings out in the open.

  9. Don’t try to change your partner.
  10. It’s a mistake, Gogin says, to assume you share values with your partner if they’ve never been expressed. It is also unwise to hold out hope for a miraculous change in your significant other. If he’s a heavy drinker who stays out late, don’t expect his behavior to change after you marry.

    Negotiation is the alternative to change, says Kaplan. Your partner can learn to wash every dish he uses, even if deep down he’d rather let them pile up in the sink. That’s called a concession, not a change.

In the end, you may appreciate those quirky personality differences. The neatnik may need to loosen up, and the slob may need to straighten up. If you form a well-balanced ticket, you will always have something to learn from each other.

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