"I'm just not in love anymore."
I used to be afraid of these words, uttered by timid clients who enter therapy alongside their eager partners who have dragged them here, hoping for one last shot. I'm not intimidated by anger. Conflict, I can deal with. I know what to do with tears, and I know how to coach couples to attend to each other's needs. But when one partner offers me a signature tepid shoulder shrug, a lazy and casual explanation that they're "just" no longer in love with their spouse or partner, a pregnant silence usually follows.
Because the mythology of love in America is responsible for more couple distress than I can measure. We believe that as long as we sustain that burning passion that fueled the birth of our relationship, we are a healthy couple. As long as we want each other just as bad as we did on our first date, everything will be fine.
Love requires action and choice.
But research demonstrates that this kind of intoxicating, ecstatic, and infatuating love changes over time, and if you're not careful, your once passionate relationship can transform into lukewarm bathwater love. Research reveals that love is a verb. To sustain love, you act lovingly.When love dies, it is not because you passively fell out of it, as if from a net. Rather, you may have accidentally created circumstances for love to erode. Distressed relationships look like this. You stop touching. You find ways to keep yourself busy. Conflict becomes intense...then you tire of it and just avoid interaction altogether.
So how do you keep your relationship alive? Choose to go beyond the minimum standard. Only you know your partner well enough to love them how they need to be loved. To get you started, here are five of the best ways I know to sustain a thriving relationship.
1. Tune in
Think of marital and intimate conflict like steps on a ladder, except that on this ladder, there are only two steps. Step one is called content. Content is the thing you fight about. Can you take the trash out? Can you please clean the kitchen? Did you do that thing I asked you to do? No? Why not? These are simple questions that can lead to big disagreements. Why? Because of step 2, which is called process. Process is the drama that occurs inside the content. You not taking the trash out when I asked you tells me you don't care about me. I'm not mad that you didn't take the trash out, I'm mad that you don't care about me.
If you feel under attack, it can be difficult to tune in to your partner to listen for the process needs beneath the content. But doing so can end an argument quickly so that your forgetfulness does not erode into relationship apathy. Empathy always overcomes relationship drama.
Even when you don't want to. Touch when you fight. Touch when you're bored. Touch when you're on the couch and watching television. Touch randomly. Touch without the expectation of sex. Touch during sex. Did I mention you should touch when you argue? There's a science behind this. During conflict, your brain releases all kinds of nasty hormones that you need in an emergency, but if released too much and for too long, can cause chronic health problems. Touch from your intimate partner releases soothing hormones that can counter the negative conflict hormones.
Seems like this one would be a no-brainer, right? If you have children, however, you know how difficult it can be to find a few hours, much less an evening to spend together. But intentional time together is vital for the health of your relationship. Time spent together is like water to the roots of your relationships. Sacrifice other areas of your life to spend time together, even if that means spending fewer hours with your children. It may feel wrong at the time, but what your kids need more than you at home for an evening is the safety and security of a stable parental relationship.
Did you think this was a list of T's? I tried to get this one to follow the pattern, but couldn't swing it. Sometimes we measure conflict by its frequency and duration. But healthy relationships thrive by repairing after conflict. John Gottman, a marriage researcher, discovered that for every one negative relational interaction, we need five positive. The best apologies are those that involve understanding how your actions inflicted pain on your partner, and feeling pain because your partner is in pain. Make your repairs meaningful. Don't rush to apologize, but rush to understand and repair during and after conflict.
5. Don't Wait
This one hits home. I've met with too many couples that should have called me five years earlier. My favorite answer to the quesiton of when someone should call for therapy is when it hurts. When do you go to a doctor's office? Do you wait until that sore festers and grows infected? Why would you do the same with a relationship? Health couples reach out for help. I provide relationship tune-ups for couples who aren't sure whether they need therapy, but might benefit from a check-in.
Feeling out of love?
It's not something to be afraid of. Love lost can be love rediscovered. Take action and see if your feelings don't follow. For more difficult situations in which trauma or loss has occured within a relationship, therapy may be appropriate. Call me for a free couple therapy consultation, and get back to a vibrant intimate relationship.