When we all seem to be spending considerable energy trying to find the right partner, why do couples grow apart?
There are several reasons that couples tend to grow apart. One has to do with how our brain processes information. The human brain is set up to “automate” as much as possible. This is because if you had to think about everything you do in a given day it would take you an hour to get out of bed and walk across the room. Automation causes us to assume that we can anticipate how things will go. If I reach for this cup of coffee I assume it will not move away from me as I grab it. Unfortunately these kinds of assumptions, which we do thousands of times each day, creep into our romantic relationships. I start to assume that I know what my partner will think, feel and do and I stop actually observing them or listening to them. This causes us to be primed to misunderstand them much of the time. If we are having a good day and feeling generous towards them we may not care if they defy our assumptions but if we are having a bad day, stressed out or annoyed with them then the misunderstandings can erupt into major blowouts.
Another reason we grown apart in coupleship is that we may have learned from our families of origin that the way to be “nice” to someone is to not need much from them. If we had parents who were chronically tired, preoccupied with their own difficulties, struggling with addictions or just working 3 jobs we may have learned early on that it was our responsibility to take care of ourselves. While we do this with the intent of being “easy” for our partner it causes our partner’s to feel disconnected and distant from us. For those of us with this type of upbringing (often associated with the Anxious-Avoidant or Dismissing attachment style) the more distant our partner becomes the more we try to be “supportive” of them by taking care of ourselves. It can become a vicious cycle of trying to make yourself “easy” but instead sacrificing connection. Humans actually need to be needed, that is part of what creates intimacy, so be not “needing” your partner you actually increase the distance between you both.
While these two reasons are not exhaustive they are two that I see frequently come up in couples that seek my help.
Ok, so how can you avoid growing apart in a long-term relationship?
To combat the problem of automation it’s important to take the time to have face-to-face conversations with your partner as much as possible. When we are face-to-face with someone it’s harder to automate them because we are getting lots of different data— their words, their tone of voice, their facial expressions and their body language. This will help you to pay closer attention and not misunderstand what is being said. At the first sign that people are feeling annoyed with each other I always advise that they stop what they are doing (often one is in the kitchen doing a chore and the other is across the room doing something else) and sit down face-to-face for a minute to continue the conversation. Don’t over-estimate the accuracy of human communication. Studies actually show that most people are not nearly as good at communication as they think! Be humble and willing to consider that you are not doing a great job of communicating and that you also may not be doing a good job of listening either. Of course the same is true for your partner.
To combat the problem of having grown up with an anxious-avoidant/dismissing attachment style you can seek out an attachment-based individual or couples therapist who can help you re-train yourself to lean in to relationships more. You can also try throughout the day to check in with your partner to say hi, see how their day is going and generally connect. Rituals of connection like having coffee together in the morning (before any kids are up!) or a glass of wine or tea at night (after any kids are in bed!) can help you stay connected. As best you can try to go to bed at the same time (and sleep in the same bed!) as that helps our mammalian brain recognize this person as our “mate” and therefore special to us. And always great each other with a full body hug when one of you is arriving home to the other. Again this is part of our mammalian heritage and helps our nervous systems get synchronized so that we can be more receptive to each other.
Here are a few tips to help you reconnect with your partner after growing apart. Note, these are NOT a substitute for couples therapy!
1. I find that if there has been substantial distance growing between partners, you often need time away from your normal routine to start to forge new patterns. A weekend trip away (or longer if you can manage it) can help to shake things up and create a new sense of possibilities. When we are in familiar settings we tend to be routine-driven, and if our “routine” is to not feel close to our partner it can be harder to switch the train to a new track in the old familiar setting. While you are away talk about what matters to you, what your hopes and dreams are for the next 5 and 10 years.
2. If you can’t get away, try to do something novel together like take up a new hobby or go to a part of town you never visit. Make a commitment to keep adding new things into your relationship to help you see your partner in a new light. And have that conversation about hopes and dreams, and look for ways to support your partner in what is important to them.
3. Make a deliberate effort to have conversations about what you want and need from each other going forward, being careful not to pick at scabs from the past. We can’t change the water under the bridge but looking forward we can set a new course. If there have been significant hurts in the past, then you may need help from a seasoned couple’s therapist to help heal old wounds.
4. I am stealing this from a couple that I worked with years ago, so credit to them— every night have a ritual of asking your partner what is on their plate for the next day, and what can you do to help them make their day a little better? Be willing to follow through on these conversations so that your partner sees that you are invested in what matters to them. This also helps promote healthy inter-dependency which is foundational to a feeling of closeness.
When should you seek professional help? If you have tried to work on the distance between you and your partner, and either you are not making progress or, worse, it seems to bring up old wounds and everyone feels even more distant, then it’s time for professional help. Research shows that most couples wait until they have been struggling for 6 years before going to couples therapy. That is NOT a good idea! The sooner you get help, the sooner you can begin to get traction and make improvements. Even couples who are dating can benefit from therapy, you don’t need to be married or even living together. For an attachment-based couples therapist consider looking at the PACT Institute Directory. This type of couples training emphasizes both attachment theory and brain science to help couples un-learn bad habits and re-learn adaptive ones.