I see a great many couples in my private practice. Lately, there seems to be a theme: couples who have been together or married for many years, who have “grown apart”. This feeling is usually expressed by one partner, while the other is caught somewhat off-guard, not realizing things have gotten as bad as they are until the unhappy partner suggests a separation, divorce, or counseling.
The expressions of incredulity on my clients’ faces is real – they really don’t get how their partner is ready to walk out. For the partner, they don’t understand why their mate is so slow to understand how unhappy they have been. How does this happen? How is it that in one couple each partner’s experience of the relationship is so vastly different?
Easily. Add to a typical marriage kids, dual careers, a home to maintain, family to deal with, and friendships to sustain and you have a perfect recipe for how couples grow apart. Life happens, and it is crazy busy. This is not an excuse – it’s reality. The question really isn’t “how does this happen?” – it’s “how do we prevent it?” and “what do we do once it has happened?”
Let’s tackle these one at a time. First, prevention. The greatest antidote to growing apart is to spend time together – alone. Not time talking about bills or kids or when the hot water heater needs to be replaced. Those things are real and valid and need their due attention, yes. But the time I’m talking about is investment time. This is time spent together talking about each other and ourselves. Here’s a starting list:
- What’s been the high point of my life recently
- What’s been the low point
- What am I struggling with on an emotional level – doubts, fears, anxieties
- What am I looking forward to/excited about
- What has made me feel really good about myself recently
- What I like most about spending time with you
Prevention is a program, not a one-time event. Investment in your relationship, much like your retirement fund, has to be consistent to yield gains and positive results. It’s not easy, but it is definitely worth it.
Now, on to what to do once your spouse has already said they are unhappy and might want a separation or divorce. Every situation is of course different, but some things are usually consistent – such as one person feeling neglected over a long course of time. As difficult as it may be, it’s up to the shocked spouse to get more information:
- How long have you felt this way?
- How have you tried to tell me this?
- How have I missed it?
- What can I do now to show you I want to keep our relationship?
As a marriage therapist, I believe there are two vital variables at this stage. One is how far out the “out” partner is, and the other is how hard the other partner is willing to work and change, to show their spouse that things can be different.
Because that’s really what we are talking about here – a whole different relationship moving forward, not just returning to the past, even when times were good. If that was our goal, the couple would just land back in the therapy office once the cycle went around again (and it would take a lot less time to cycle again). Instead, our mutual goal as a team is a new marriage, a new commitment to being known to the other person, and making the relationship a priority. Assessing each partner’s commitment to this goal is the first step in couples’ therapy.
What do you think? Have you been there? If so, what has helped? If you’re there now, what’s going on? I would love to hear from you, and I will do my best to respond to your comments. You can also email me at laurel(at)laurelfay(dot)com.
It can get better. It will be very difficult work, but I’ve seen it many times. Act now before the window of opportunity is closed.