Written By: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT
Over time, partners frequently lose the fervor they once had to understand and actively appreciate the other. This is partially due to simply knowing your partner better. After being with this person for so many years, day in and day out, you certainly learn a thing or two about your partner’s likes, dislikes, annoyances, and dreams. The danger in falling into this crevice of passivity is that you may miss important changes and opportunities for connection.
Couples who present in therapy complaining of distance and lack of emotional intimacy rarely became that way overnight. More often, the partners recount a story of gradual decline in effort, and they frequently have good reasons: work stress, transition to parenthood, loss of a parent or other relative, etc. But instead of rejoining after the stressor has passed, partners can find themselves increasingly distant and afraid to initiate a closure of the gap due to a fear of rejection, resentment towards the other partner’s lack of effort, or some other emotional constraint.
While all couples fluctuate in closeness and experience intervals of perceived distance, it is within each partner’s control to close that distance. One easy way to prevent distance is to develop the habit of inquiring about your partner’s perception of the relationship. Get in the habit of asking your partner the following questions.
1. How close or distant have you felt in the relationship lately?
It is important to regularly check in with your partner about how he or she views the relationship, and it is normal for partners to not always feel the same way. For example, a partner who has recently been distracted by a project at work may think the relationship is doing well while the other partner feels distant and dismissed. By letting your partner know when you feel distant (or appreciating when he or she does things that make you feel closer), you give your partner important information for how he or she can remain connected with you.
Inviting this discussion does not necessitate conflict. Continuing with the above example, the other partner may understand the necessary and temporary distance in the relationship, but talking about it gives the working partner a chance to address how the partners can reconnect following completion of the work project.
2. What are some things in our relationship that you would like me to understand better?
An important piece to this question is for the asking partner to remain open and nonjudgmental of any complaints or requests for change. This question lessens the likelihood for conflict because the goal is not to agree or disagree but simply to inquire and understand. Too often in emotionally distant relationships partners only worry about conveying their point of view and express little patience for empathizing with the other. Asking questions that promote empathy also promotes connection and can help you discover an element of your relationship that needs your attention.
3. What would the changes you want to see in our relationship actually look like?
To avoid the pitfall of expecting your partner to read your mind, this question allows partners to feel confident in their understanding of the other and to feel heard. Building upon the earlier questions, it moves beyond the “what” that exists in the relationship to tackle how things need to change in order for both partners to feel closer.
Many partners become frustrated if they feel that they constantly need to provide step-by-step guides for how a partner should act. Of course you want your partner to just know how to please you and act respectfully, but it sets both of you up for failure if you do not provide any concrete insight into what you would like to be done differently. At the same time, it is up to the asking partner to genuinely take in and follow through with requests for change. Again, this is an opportunity to establish a connection, and you have the power to make it happen.