When I tell people what I do one of the questions I’m most often asked is “why do couples seek therapy”. The most common couples reason couples offer is communication, but in my experience the real reason most couples come to therapy is that they’ve forgotten how to be a couple with everything else being a symptom of romantic disconnectedness.
As the excitement of a new relationship begins to wear down, all those things that made you fall in love in the first place – the drive to be romantic, to be sexual, to go out of your way and do special things for one another – starts to wane. On top of this you’ve got the demands of real life pressing in on you. All of a sudden you’re sharing a house, you’ve got bills, you’ve got kids, you’ve got in-laws and family, friends, work; all of these things pulling at you.
So you start to drift apart. And because things start to feel like they take effort, you either cut down on or stop doing the little things. You’re just so exhausted that you feel like you don’t have the energy to do the things to show your love for one another that you used to do effortlessly. You become two people running a household instead of a couple in love.
The thing most people miss is that this is normal! It’s another trick your brain plays on you. All those yummy neurochemicals that made it so effortless to stay up all night start to wane a little bit after a few years (in fact there is evidence that the seven year itch correlates with the depletion of a certain neurochemical) and things suddenly things that used to come so easily feel like they take effort. But we think they shouldn’t. Or we want to make the effort but we tell ourselves we are too tired, too busy, too angry, too whatever to do the things that will make us feel loved again.
It does take some effort, but not that much. The purpose of this newsletter is to introduce you to 5 simple, scientifically validated things to do to help you feel more connected to and supported by your partner.
But let’s be realistic about this: It’s never going to be that intense crazy kind of love that you once may have felt or that you may think you should be feeling. Instead it’s going to be a deeper, richer, less dramatic kind of love. It’s not going to be the rocket ride, but it can feel like you are floating together very pleasantly in zero gravity.
1) Small Things Often
Make an effort to do simple expressions of kindness and love daily. Small changes in the way you treat one another can often create big changes over time. It sometimes helps for each of you to exchange a list of 20 very simple things that your partner can do that will make you feel loved or supported. Its important that these things be very concrete, specific and measurable so that there is no doubt if your partner is doing it or not.
A good example of concrete, specific and practical may be “fixes me me a bowl of ice cream after dinner”. Notice that its very specific and very measurable (there’s no doubt if someone is giving you a bowl of ice cream or not). A bad example may be something like “shows me that he loves me”. There is no specific way to show the love in this example which may lead to one partner trying like crazy but the other is missing his/her efforts.
Prioritize practicing expressions of kindness daily. It’ll help you remember that you like each other.
2) Process is Everything
I believe that the end of therapy is when the couple can process the relationship without the therapist. This means that couples need to focus on HOW they talk to one another matters far more than WHAT they say. Process basically consists of knowing (a) what you’re feeling (b) why you’re feeling it and (c) what that feeling means. As you develop this skill, you will dramatically shift the quality of conversation in your relationship.
3) Most Relational Conflict is Not Resolvable
Research conducted at The University of Washington revealed that roughly ⅔ of all relationship conflict (whether the couple stayed together or not) is perpetual. It’s sort of the price of admission to being in a relationship. Given enough time we are going to find things about living with our partners that irritate us to no end. People will readily accept this statement. We tend to sometimes struggle with the idea that we can sometimes be a pain to be with too.
This can be good news or bad news depending on how you look at it. My bias is that it’s a powerful secret to know that you literally can’t solve most of your issues…and that you’re not alone in that fact. The goal then is to solve your solvable problems and create dialogue around your lasting issues.
4) Understanding Must Precede Advice
Especially when it comes to perpetual issues, it’s critical to understand that “solving” is a bad strategy. Empathy and understanding is always the first step to resolution. Get really good at saying, “I can appreciate how you’d feel that way because…”. Start by trying to understand. Check if you got it right. Then try to understand some more. Understanding leads to trust. When you and your partner both trust enough to discuss your differing views on an issue, it opens up the door to creative problem solving together.
5) Successful Couples Seek and Offer Forgiveness.
They may not forgive and forget, but they do forgive and let it go. When they have done something wrong or hurtful, they offer an apology. When they are the wronged party, they accept the gift of an apology. Researchers have discovered 4 steps towards forgiveness practiced by successful couples:
— Forgo: Take a break from thinking about the person or event for a while.
— Forebear: Abstain from punishing, neither thinking about it nor acting on (the offense) in small or large ways. Give a bit of grace to the situation.
— Forget: Refuse to dwell; let go and loosen one’s hold, particularly on memory. To forget is an active — not passive — endeavor.
— Forgive: Make a conscious decision to cease to harbor resentment, which includes forgiving a debt and giving up one’s resolve to retaliate.
Five Secrets. It’s a lot to remember. The good news is that you can start anywhere. Anytime. It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture. But there’s no reason it shouldn’t be today. Try a small act of kindness. Maybe a surprise gift. Maybe just say “thank you”. Even the simplest gesture can initiate a positive feedback cycle which builds trust and intimacy and, ultimately, happiness.