There are thousands of couples whose marriage has turned into a business.
Don’t get me wrong; all couples are running a business. There’s the business of household chores, of coordinating kids’ schedules or work trips out of town, of paying bills, or of taking care of aging parents. Times and places have to be negotiated. Jobs assigned. Divide and conquer is a common motto.
Sadly, some of these marriages have lost their sense of intimacy, partnership, and overall coupledom.
What do these relationships sound like in therapy?
Me: “When’s the last time you’ve gone for a weekend, or even a night, together?”
“Last year we went with friends to Kansas City.”
Me: “No, together. By yourselves.”
“Well, that’s not been in the budget.”
Trying to stay positive, I ask, “So what are your goals as a couple?” And what I see are blank looks. Some discomfort. A shrug of the shoulders.
“Well, we both love the kids. You wouldn’t believe how hectic it is.”
Or, “Well, I’m mostly busy with the kids, and his (or her) job takes up a lot of time.”
You don’t talk much. You don’t laugh anymore at each other’s jokes. You don’t share disappointments or frustrations. You certainly don’t enjoy regular sex. Your lives intersect only around the kids, the holiday office party, or when planning a family vacation.
Marriage has become a list of tasks to be accomplished.
The problem with living parallel lives…
Other than being parents, you’re living parallel lives – individual lives that influence the other, like two opposing magnetic fields running alongside each other. One moves, and in response, so does the other. But you’re largely unaware of that connection and you remain focused on your own needs, or the needs of the kids, rather than the needs or desires of the other.
It’s not only a big mistake, it can lead to the death of your relationship.
I’d rather have two people come in screaming at each other than two people who look at me, and say, “I don’t really know what he/she thinks anymore. I still have feelings but they’re not at all what they used to be. We’re here to see if there’s anything we can do because it would hurt the kids if we divorced.”
It feels like trying to kick some life into a dead horse.
When two people forget to care…
Years ago I worked with a couple whose first marriages had ended with their spouses dying. After several years of being alone, busy with children and family, they found each other. He delighted in her hobby of sculpting, and would watch as she molded clay into a piece of art. She spent time with him out in his garden, trying to learn the difference between a gladiola and a hydrangea. They married and settled into life together, feeling that at long last they’d found happiness again.
They came to see me about five years into their marriage. Everything had turned sour; there was silence where there used to be sharing and there was resentment where efforts at empathy had existed.
“We don’t know what happened. We’ve even talked about divorce. But now, our kids really care about each other.”
As I sat and talked with them, what I heard them describing was losing interest in each other.
“Do you ever go out in the garden anymore?’
“No, I just get bitten my mosquitos and my knees don’t do well anymore.”
“How long has it been since you’ve watched her sculpt?”
“I don’t know… it’s cold out there in her shop. And I love watching sports. She’s not into that.”
The apathy in their relationship was palpable.They were giving each other the message, however unintentionally, “You’re not important enough to me to go out of my way to be interested in you.”
Apathy can be more harmful than conflict…
So what should a couple do who may be in this very painful and lonely boat?
1) Rediscover what interests you about your partner.
You don’t have any control of what your partner does or doesn’t do but you can look at yourself honestly. If you’re sorely lacking interest or support for him or her, then you can either try to remember what you used to do or you can outright ask them, “How can I show you that I care?” If they answer with sarcasm, or hurt, (“Well, it’s about time you showed some interest…”), try not to be defensive. Stay your ground, and simply say, “I want to get to know you again. And I’m sincere.”
2) Confront the awkwardness of not touching, and begin to regain physical connection.
If you have to start out with lying by one another quietly, clothes on or off (dependent on where you are with each other…), get used to having that experience together. Start to reclaim what’s enjoyable about hanging out in one another’s company, bodies touching. It’s often very awkward at first. What used to be natural and easy feels strange.
3) Plan a few hours together with the rule you can’t talk about the kids.
This can be harder than it sounds, especially if your current connection is mostly about kids. It will be eye-opening for sure. There might be some awkwardness as you flounder for topics that will take hold and bloom into an actual conversation. But keep at it.
4) Confront your own avoidance of conflict.
Anger that’s resolved can help you feel closer to someone. Avoidance of conflict, on the other hand, can lead to resentment and/or the silent treatment. Look at your own beliefs about anger and what you learned about conflict in the family you grew up in. See how you may be repeating that pattern, or acting in ways that serve to keep you and your partner from moving through conflict, and landing on the side of a sense of partnership and mutual respect. Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you’ve made, and sincerely apologize.
You may have to agree to disagree, but that’s better than not talking about it at all.
5) See what it feels like to be divorced.
This may sound a bit tricky or dangerous, and it can be. However, projecting yourself into the future and imagining spending half the time without your children, for example, can be very enlightening.
You’d probably find out one of two things. It might be easier than you think, and it could be a sad reality that there’s “too much water under the bridge” and the trade-offs are worth it.
6) Avoid getting too close to someone else.
When you’re feeling disconnected or even demoralized about your relationship, it’s far too easy to find someone who thinks you hang the moon, that you’re funny, or that you’re “so easy to talk to.” It can be quite seductive, in many senses of the word.
7) Find a way to laugh. Be more in the moment. Risk silliness and vulnerability.
Have a water gun fight. Leave a funny sticky note on their steering wheel. Give them a foot rub. Bring their lunch to them at work. Pick up their favorite chips (or fruit…) at the grocery store. Ask them to go for a walk.
Most importantly.. tell them you want to find a way back to them.
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Originally published on February 3, 2018; updated and republished on August 28, 2020.