Relationship Problem Solving -- Kelly Johnson, MD -- June 10, 2003

By Kelly Johnson
WebMD Live Events Transcript

Every relationship has problems at some time. Whether it's a simple disagreement or a major case of infidelity, having the right tools to address and solve the problem can mean the difference between a stronger relationship and one that's fatally wounded. Relationship therapist Kelly Johnson, MD, joined us to talk about working through your love, dating, and marriage issues.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live. Our guest today is Kelly Johnson, MD, author of The Relationship Problem Solver: For Love Marriage and Dating. Dr. Kelly, as he is known on the radio, has joined us to answer your questions about working through your own relationship issues. Welcome to WebMD Live, Dr. Kelly.

Johnson: It's great to be with everyone today.

Moderator: Dr. Kelly, in your new book, the first chapter, under the heading of "What Are You Fighting About?" is about money. Is that the biggest issue that comes between couples?

Johnson: Absolutely. They've done a lot of research in the past on issues that couples fight about, and money always shows up as the number one issue. And I think the main reason why people fight about money so much is that money symbolizes a lot of other difficult concepts for people, such as control, power, emotions like jealousy and envy, and for some couples, unfortunately, the old adage, "He with the gold makes the rules," comes into play. So money becomes for some folks the main issue that they fight about.

Moderator: What is the secret of couples that DON'T fight about money?

Johnson: Well, couples that successfully deal with money issues do a couple things. First, they decide very specifically who will handle the money. Every couple needs a banker in the relationship, that is, someone who deals with the finances day to day, but this doesn't mean the other partner can't have free access to all the financial details.

The other thing that successful couples do is they sit down every month and decide exactly how their money will be spent so there are no surprises for either one. Unfortunately, this is not fun and it's not romantic, but it's a necessary chore and it can literally save your relationship.

Member: My husband says he doesn't love me anymore. We've been married for 8 years and have a 7-year-old girl. I feel as though he wants to just stay in the marriage for our child's sake. Some days are better than others where we really get along and other days I just feel so disconnected. Help! How do I continue in a relationship with no love?

Johnson: Well, first of all, every person in an intimate relationship deserves love. And it's obviously a very bad sign when your husband says he doesn't love you. So it seems to me that the first step will be for you both to sit down and try to understand why your husband has fallen out of love and hopefully you can convince him to go with you to some marital therapy to try to put things back together. Sometimes in the course of a relationship one person will lose feelings for the other, but this doesn't always mean that the relationship is over. And I think that you and your husband owe it to your child to do everything you both can do to save the relationship.

However, and some people disagree with me on this concept, I believe if a relationship has no love left and the couple is arguing frequently or they simply feel as if they can't be together any longer, I believe that it's OK to move ahead in different directions, because you can still both be parents to your child without having to be together. I need to say here that I'm not a big fan of divorce, obviously, but sometimes if there's simply no love at all in the relationship, I believe that both people should have the chance to go out and pursue another relationship that could be fulfilling.

Member: Hi, I have been having a problem in my relationship with my husband. He has been suffering from PTSD for over three years now. And has literally driven the kids and me away and is not living in the house with us now at my request. But what do I do now? I feel sorry for him and angry because he is not the man I fell in love with, and has lied to me for 10 years!

Johnson: The first question I would ask is, is the husband in any psychiatric or psychological treatment?

Member: He was and on medication but he stopped taking it and has fallen right back into the same behavior; I can't get him to see that he needs help.

Johnson: Sometimes in a relationship one partner will either be engaged in self-destructive behavior or refuse to get consistent help for psychiatric symptoms. Unfortunately for you, there may not be a lot you can do to force him to continue to get help. What you can do is make it very clear that unless he continues treatment for this illness, that it's going to be very difficult to have any type of intimate relationship, and the tough lesson to learn here is that you simply may not have power to force a partner to do exactly what you need them to do. Then you have to tell him that it may be impossible for you two to continue unless he tries to help himself first.

Moderator: Ok, let's go to a question about the No. 2 issue your book says people fight about: sex.

Member: I have a SERIOUS problem with my marriage sexually. My husband has been holding back sex from me. He uses the reason that I am being too grumpy or moody. I have many happy days and he still won't give me sex, I may have some days that I am not a bouncing, jolly person, as I am home all day raising my daughter from this, my second marriage (she is only 5 years old), plus I have full custody of my grandson who is 2. So my day is really busy. But I always say that I am interested in sex. He has now been holding back sex for the past year. If I don't push for it, it doesn't happen.

Johnson: People withhold sex in a relationship for a variety of reasons. Usually it's not because they don't enjoy sex when they have it, but there are other emotional and psychological issues at play. However, with that said, sex is not a competition in which there's a score card so that one partner says, "I'll only have sex with you if you act a certain way." At some point you're going to have to tell your husband that sex is very important to you and if he continues to withhold or refuses to talk about the issue, then there's going to be trouble ahead. So I think the answer for you is to do your best to communicate that you do want to have a great sex life and that you both have bad days and that withholding sex is not going to make the relationship any stronger, and ask him if there's anything happening during sex that could be different so that he can enjoy the experience more.

If at that point he continues to withhold, then I think you have to decide whether this is something that is a potential relationship breaker, since some people simply lose interest in sex during a relationship and then never regain their desire. So the question for you is, "Can I go on potentially the rest of my life not having good sex?" If the answer is no, then you have to tackle the issue very aggressively and tell your husband sex only symbolizes other problems in the relationship that need to be examined.

Moderator: What is your definition of a healthy relationship? Can you list maybe the top five or 10 things you feel make a relationship successful?

Johnson: A healthy relationship is one that is obviously based on mutual respect, love, and honesty. I believe there are a few characteristics of all couples that have a healthy relationship. And here are a few bullet points. In my first book, A Relationship for a Lifetime, I talked about these characteristics in chapter 17 and I call them the five C's of a healthy relationship.

  • The first C is consistency. This means that your partner does things in a certain pattern that's predictable over time. This leads to security and peace of mind for both people in the relationship.

  • The second C is commitment. Commitment means that your partner actively works to solve problems in the relationship and treats you well in the process.

  • The third C is caring. And the obvious question you must answer honestly to myself is, does my partner truly care about me. This word implies that your beliefs and your feelings are on an equal par with your partner's. This also means that your partner cares about your own personal growth.

  • One distinction here must be made between caring and control. Control is not one of the C's. In a controlling relationship all major decisions such as what car you'll drive, what job you'll have, how many children you'll have, etc., are made by your partner because they say they "care" about you. This is not caring. A caring partner consults with you on life decisions and wants to understand your feelings.

  • The fourth C of a healthy relationship is compatibility. Your relationship will be much easier to manage if you're able to find someone else who shares your goals, values, and interests in life. Sometimes opposites attract, but don't necessarily don't stay together long-term.

  • And the fifth C is compromise. Remember, it's not about who won the last argument or who lost out on a decision; it's about how well you both work together in a spirit of fairness and compromise. Remember in a good compromise the relationship wins, which, after all, is the most important victory.

Member: Is there something written that states what the man and woman's duties are in the home?

Johnson: I wish there were, but I've never seen anything written that is probably acceptable to both people. That's part of the challenge of a relationship, to sit down and define exactly what each partner needs to do. For example, I personally have somehow been assigned the task of taking out the garbage every Friday. My wife bags up the garbage and then sits it by the back door so that if I don't pick it up, I'll trip over it. I therefore have resigned myself to this duty. But, the good news is, that she's compromised and decided one thing she does is to make sure all of my clothes are clean. Otherwise, I probably would be wearing the same pair of socks all week. But this came about because we sat down and essentially made out a list of all the household jobs and then both agreed to split them up, which was not a fun thing to do, but saves us a lot of pain in the future. So to answer the question, the rules must be written by you, not someone else.

Moderator: And no assuming whose job is whose, right?

Johnson: The key is strictly defining who does what.

Member: How do you know for sure your marriage is over?

Johnson: I tell most couples that once they've made the commitment to be married, they should do everything in their power to save the relationship. This means that if there's a serious issue, such as a partner with addictions, self-destructive behavior, serious sexual dysfunction, physical or emotional abuse, or with a pattern of withdrawal and non-communication, these things are obviously symptoms of a relationship going bad. This type of relationship needs significant help and in some cases, if one or both partners are willing to look at the issue and get outside help, the relationship can be saved. If, however, there is a refusal to seek help, or the pattern of behavior continues, at that point the relationship is certainly in serious danger of ending.

One other thing I should say here is that sometimes two people are individually decent and caring, but together they are just not a good match, and over time they lose any feelings of love towards each other. I still encourage them to try to get help to work out issues that may be impacting their love, but once in awhile, people do fall out of love and need to move on.

Member: My husband was involved with cyber sex and that led to phone sex. I do not believe he met anyone in person. Is this cheating?

Johnson: Absolutely. And I'll tell you why. Here's a great definition for cheating: Cheating is anything that your partner does of a sexual or intimate nature, either in person with someone else, or just by communication, such as letters, chat rooms, etc., that your partner cannot or will not tell you about. I believe that inherent in the definition of cheating is the effort to hide other relationships, whether it be with a coworker, a friend, or someone on the Internet. Therefore, this is a form of cheating that needs to be dealt with, whether your husband actually met this person or not, because these communications were done behind your back.

Moderator: So what's the first step toward fixing this problem? Confrontation?

Johnson: The first step would be for you to say, "I know that you're doing these things on the Internet behind my back, and we need to sit down and talk about the reasons why you feel you must interact with someone else for emotional support and/or sexual needs." Do not get into an argument about whether he is doing this or not, because obviously he'll probably deny it; instead, tell him that you know about the behavior, that it must stop immediately, and that you both need to focus on what's missing in the relationship, so that there will be no need to engage in the behavior again.

Member: My fiance's family lies to me and does everything to hurt me and have been doing so for past three years. My fiance knows about it. Now I have come to a point where I can't stand them anymore because they did so many bad things to me. He says he will protect me but when I see him trying to please them it hurts me because he knows how evil they are. He is having a hard time coping with the fact that his parents lied and cheated him too so he is in depression. I don't know what to do.

Johnson: Let me propose a few steps that they can take that can make this a lot better.

  • Step one: Communicate to your partner that the two of you are now a team and MUST make all major life decisions on your own. This means that you have now assumed the number one position in your partner's life, and that he or she must attempt to treat you as a top priority. I'm not saying that your partner should ignore the parents, but needs to start making decisions on their own.

  • Step two: Ultimately you may have to accept the fact that no matter how you act, your in-laws may dislike you for a number of crazy reasons, none of which may have anything to do with your personality.

  • Step three: Tell your partner that you will do everything in your power to get along, but if they continue to be mean to you or interfere with your life, that you will need to minimize contact with them to preserve your own sanity.

  • Finally, step four: You must convince your partner that all major life decisions must first be discussed with you. If he or she wants to have the in-laws involved for advice, that's OK, but you must have input.

Ultimately, if your partner is still overly dependent or attached to the parents, you must decide if it's OK that you'll be relegated to number two for the rest of your life. If this is not alright, then I hope that you encourage your partner to get help to begin to separate more from his parents.

Member: On your advice to the cybersex issue, does this apply to viewing pornography as well?

Johnson: Yes. I am not someone who is adamantly opposed to a couple using pornography in their relationship, but I believe that if pornographic material is going to be present, both partners need to know that it will be used. Some people are OK with this. The problem becomes when one partner is exclusively using pornography for his or her own gratification and then not having sex in addition. When this happens, I believe there is a more significant problem, and I think at that point I think it's reasonable that you demand your partner stop using or viewing the pornographic materials. If he or she continues to do this behind your back, I believe at least you're being cheated out of intimacy and a good sexual connection.

Moderator: Dr. Johnson, we are almost out of time. Before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Johnson: Yes. I believe that every person is entitled to a loving relationship that's based on fairness and respect. If this is not happening for you currently, I hope that you won't give up, because I've counseled many people who have gone through many bad experiences, and then were able to find a relationship that changed their life. So I wish good luck to everyone today, and I hope that my books can help you on the path to great relationships.

Moderator: Thanks to Kelly Johnson, MD, for sharing his expertise with us today. For more information, please read The Relationship Problem Solver: For Love, Marriage, and Dating, by Kelly E. Johnson, MD.

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