Couples complain frequently our private couples counseling and couples therapy retreat that they’ve grown distant. They find themselves living parallel lives under the same roof. They’re lost in routines and TV and feel no real connection. Lost is the simple joy of being together and even the idea that spending time together might be “fun”. The person who was once their best friend is a stranger or worse an enemy. Sex has been put on the shelf gathering dust like an old trophy. Many numb themselves with alcohol or other substances to avoid dealing with the painful reality of their relationship. Often they unite against a common enemy (i.e. a friend or neighbor with whom they have a conflict, step-children, their kid’s coach, in-laws) as a last ditch effort to feel some emotional connection in their marriage. Usually, that house of cards doesn’t last.
There are many reasons that partners become distant over time. The thrill of infatuation inevitably gives way to the regularity of daily routine. That is normal. The combination of work, family obligations, children, finances, and friends all conspire to drain a relationship’s vitality. So are all long-term relationships doomed? Do we submit and suffer in silence? The question is, with the demands of life, how do you keep relationships moving in tandem?
There’s a dangerous myth in the ether that will bring down a relationship before we know it’s happening. I’ve heard this myth expressed repeatedly in couples counseling. It goes something like this. People assume that because they were really close to their partner at some point in time, that intimacy will last forever like words engraved in concrete. This is romantic hogwash. When relationships no longer soothe, stimulate and reward, partners attempt to get their needs met elsewhere. Fact. It is human nature. And yes, that was intended as a wake-up call.
Why is it that what began as effortless pleasure, fun, and deep satisfaction turns out to be so much work? And so painful? Realizing your relationship is off track, can be like waking up on Christmas Eve and seeing your father putting your new train together. No one ever told you that your relationship would take this much effort. Like a garden, it is not enough just to plant. If you don’t water regularly, the plants will die. Without daily attention and conscious awareness of the proper nutrients, partners will drift apart, and move further and further from deep connection into loneliness and despair.
Is it hopeless? Absolutely not. At the risk of extreme corniness, the situation reminds me of the old Ben Franklin proverb, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. Each person is unique and relationships are all different. There is no one fix that will work in every instance, but here are a few gems and reminders from my years of couples counseling for you to avoid the trap of disconnection. Don’t let their simplicity fool you. These suggestions work as long as you’re consistent, keep the faith, and have patience things will turn around.
- Be a best friend.
- Try to find ways to connect with your partner everyday. Reach out in teeny, tiny ways.
- Make time for each other. Go out on a date.
- Let your partner know how special and important they are in your life. Start with words of gratitude. No big deal. Thanks for…I love how you…These are like deposits in the emotional bank account of your relationship–a principle used by Dr. John Gottman who has spent years conducting research on habits and behaviors of contented couples.
- Be kind and compassionate and expect the same in return.
- Recall the qualities you saw in your partner when you met. Focus on them until you see them again. They’re probably still there, hidden behind the barriers intimates build over time if they stop being conscious about their relationship.
- Stop criticizing your partner. Even for small things. Criticism is a withdrawal from your relationship bank account. (Is it in the red or black?)
- Don’t go to sleep angry. Try to resolve problems as they arise.
- Be positive.
- Be persistent.
Don’t wait ‘til it’s too late or too hard. The earlier you use these types of strategies, the better. The wider the chasm of disconnection, the harder it is to build a bridge. Make your relationship a priority in your life. Start today with tiny shifts and before you know it you’ll be reconnected in a way that makes your heart feel glad.