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.
The poignant truth is that some of these marriages have also lost their sense of intimacy, partnership, and overall coupledom.
What do these relationships sound like in therapy?
“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
“No, together. By yourselves.”
“Well, that’s not been in the budget.” Or, “Just keeping up with the kids’ schedule keeps us busy..” Or, “It’s been ages; not sure exactly when the last time was. It just hasn’t come up.”
Trying to stay positive, I ask, “So what are your goals as a couple?” And what I see are blank looks.
“You wouldn’t believe how hectic it is.” Or, “You know, 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 great 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.”
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. Things had turned sour; there was silence where there used to be laughter, resentment where 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.
Happiness research has shown that curiosity and caring go hand in hand. What new thing do you want to look for and learn about your partner?
2) Confront the awkwardness of not touching, and begin to regain physical connection.
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. Maybe awkward at first, but very important.
3) Plan a few hours together (and you can’t talk about the kids).
This can be eye-opening for sure. You might flounder for topics. But keep at it. What is there new to learn about your partner?
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, 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.
I’ve given this assignment in therapy when a couple seems stuck. “Go home and plan your divorce.” Some couples return and have discovered new reasons to stay together; others find it more simple than they’d imagined.
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’s so common it has a name – “exit relationship.” But it can make things much more complicated.
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.
You can hear more about mental health and many other topics by listening to my podcast, SelfWork with Dr. Margaret Rutherford. Subscribe to my website and receive one weekly newsletter including my weekly blog post and podcast! If you’d like to join my FaceBook closed group, then click here and answer the membership questions! Welcome!
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Originally published on February 3, 2018; updated and republished on December 11, 2022.