As a therapist, I hold the incredibly privileged position of being a confidante for many people who trust me with things that they perhaps they’ve never told anyone else. And while no two people ever have the same life stories, there are some questions I find myself hearing from many of the individuals, couples, and families with whom I work. In today’s post, I share some of these frequently asked questions and how I usually respond.
“Am I normal?”
Given that mental health concerns remain a private topic of conversation, many people have no reference point for what’s “normal” or not. Do other people worry about this? Are other couples dealing with the same issues? Am I crazy? A vast majority of the time, people’s concerns have been echoed by others countless times. For example, while socially anxious people might think that they’re “crazy” for always being worried about what people think of them, the next three people that come into my office might talk about having the exact same concern. People also tend to be quite surprised when they find out that their sexual frustrations, fantasies, or fetishes are also not all that unique.
The trouble is, “normal” is a tricky adjective. For example, someone who experiences severe symptoms of anxiety that are disproportionate to the situations at hand certainly isn’t abnormal… after all, many people have very similar experiences of anxiety on a day-to-day basis. And at the same time, the reaction is problematic given that it is causing a significant amount of stress in their personal life. So, just because something isn’t necessarily abnormal doesn’t mean it isn’t problematic—and just because something is uncommon doesn’t mean it’s problematic.
2. “Are we a good couple?”
As annoying as this answer might be, I usually tell couples that they’re the only ones who can say whether or not they’re happy in the relationship. At the end of the day, no one knows what it’s like to be in a relationship other than the two people in it. I can highlight strengths and growing points that the couple has, but at the end of the day, they’re the only people who can decide if they want to accept or work on those growth areas.
3. “How often do most couples have sex?”
Statistically speaking, a study of just over 13,000 adults in 13 countries found that Canadians between the ages of 46 to 60 are having sex an average of 1.35 times per week—slightly less than the global average of 1.41 but ahead of Americans, who have sex 1.19 times per week.
That being said, I’m usually hesitant to tell couples this statistic because, quite frankly, I don’t think it matters. Here’s why: research tells us that it’s the quality of sex that matters rather than the quantity. Secondly, there’s nothing sexy about having sex just so you can keep up with a statistic. Thirdly, the amount of sex a couple has doesn’t necessarily indicate how healthy or unhealthy their relationship is. You can have a couple that’s miserable but having lots of sex and a very healthy couple who only has sex once a month. Finally, everyone has different preferences when it comes to sex that might be entirely okay for them. Whether you're having sex once a week or once a month, if you and your partner are content then that's all that matters.
4. “So how do I fix this?”
People will tell me about years and years worth of hardships they’ve gone through and then proceed to ask me for a “tool” that will make everything better. This isn’t how therapy works. While there are certainly times where I might be able to provide you with a “tool” like a grounding exercise, therapy takes a lot of work that you have to initiate to see changes. I can offer you a different perspective, ask thought-provoking questions, and invite you try things you mightn’t have thought to do, but at the end of the day, there’s rarely an overnight fix. I’m a therapist, not a magician.
5. “How long should I stay in this relationship before calling it quits?”
Quite honestly, there is no way for me to answer this question given that I’m not the one in the relationship. Only you know what it’s like to be with your partner. Only you know the feelings and thoughts you have on a daily basis about your significant other. At the end of the day, it has to do with what you’re willing to accept or not accept—and you’re the only one who can draw that line.
The Bottom Line
I’ve noticed that the questions people ask me in therapy mostly have to do with comparing themselves to others. Do other people do this? What are other couples like? What do other people argue about? It’s not uncommon for me to remind people that it doesn’t matter what others are doing; the only thing that matters is how you’re feeling and how you’re behaving in your relationships and life in general. I invite people (and couples) to reconnect with what it is that they value and create their own expectations of themselves and others. This is actually easier said than done. So many of us have absorbed values from our family, friends, and society that we forget to actually ask ourselves what we think or what we want. So, the next time you find yourself asking if something is normal or not, it might be worth asking that question a little differently: Is this behaviour problematic? Is it making me happy? Are there negative consequences of this behaviour for my partner or me? The answers to those questions will be a lot more revealing and important than, “Am I normal?”