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Growing Apart? How Couples Can Revive Their Emotional Connection

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Gay couple cooking dinner together

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Has your once passionate relationship morphed into a roommate marriage? Try these five tips from licensed psychologist Beth O’Brien to get your relationship back on track and more intimate—both physically and emotionally.

“What am I going home to?” Mindy wondered. On Friday evening, when friends were out having fun, Mindy remained at her office desk. She wasn’t in any hurry to get home. Josh, her husband of 12 years, was probably in the study staring at his computer screen. The couple had no plans.

It had been years since Josh asked her to spend time together. Mindy dealt with the empty space by spending more time going out with her girlfriend. Josh didn’t seem to mind. Mindy used to make plans for him and Josh to go out, but she was tired of initiating so stopped. Sex? She could count on one hand how many times they had sex in the last year. Things felt so quiet, so empty between them. When had they grown this far apart?

You’re not alone if this scenario sounds familiar. According to researchers, about 20 percent of married couples are in sexless relationships. Their once romantic, passionate relationship has morphed into a roommate marriage.

Couples experts Gay and Kathlyn Hendricks, authors of Conscious Loving, point out that in modern society we have new expectations of marriage. Previously, coupling was primarily focused on survival and continuation of the species. Today we want emotional closeness and intimacy that goes beyond physical touch. In his book The Seven Principles that Make Marriages Work, Dr. John Gottman states that in happy marriages, partners “know each other intimately...their likes and dislikes, quirks, hopes and dreams.” They find ways to stay connected.

What Does It Mean to be Emotionally Intimate?

Dr. Stan Tatkin, founder of PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) and author of We Do, promotes the idea of the couple bubble. The couple bubble is a mutually constructed zone that holds couples together. In this safe space, partners feel both protected and cared for, can be themselves, and feel accepted.

Within this bubble, couples learn to soothe one another, make repairs, and resolve conflicts quickly. Instead of hiding, partners rely on each other for emotional support by freely opening up and easily sharing with their significant other.

In Mindy and Josh’s relationship, both partners have opted out from closeness. They have erected a protective wall between them and have disengaged emotionally. This is the opposite of relating from a couple bubble position. At this point, the relationship is vulnerable to competing interests taking hold: an addiction creeps in, work becomes primary, a friend becomes an exclusive confidante, or an affair emerges.

If your relationship has similar dynamics to Mindy and Josh’s relationship, here are five steps you can take to get back on track.

1. Establish we-ness. 

Dr. Gottman stresses the importance of shared meaning in relationships. This involves creating an inner life together: a couple culture with shared beliefs, compatible roles, and customs. One way to create we-ness is to discuss your life dreams together.

I often ask couples do a vision board or collage of what they want their couple life to represent. This fun exercise creates shared meaning and strengthens the couple bond.

2. Know what you stand for as a couple. 

What are the principles of your relationship? What makes you tick? Talk with your partner about what you both stand for. According to Dr. Tatkin, one principle that stands for security in couple relationships is to be transparent and tell each other everything.

Couples often exchange vows or verbal commitments when they decide to partner. I suggest my couples review their past vows or commitments and see if they are still accurate. Be creative and explore what current principles matter to you both.

3. Commit to being close. 

Reveal, don’t conceal. As Drs. Hendricks note in Conscious Loving, it takes courage to be vulnerable, to take risks with one another and not keep secrets. When we hide from our partner, we may feel safe, but also lonely. Why not take the best relationships have to offer and be open instead? Risk your heart to your partner. I often ask my couples to turn toward each other and confide their biggest fears, or what makes them feel most loved. The next time you are upset, tell your partner instead of confiding to your friend or keeping your hurt locked up inside you.

4. Re-introduce shared activities. 

Dr. Gottman reminds us that “couples who turn toward each other remain emotionally engaged and stay married. Those that don’t eventually lose their way.” Ideally you are connecting with your partner in big or small ways daily.

I encourage couples to take turns initiating regular dates and selecting an activity their partner would enjoy. The initiator also makes reservations, engages a sitter, and plans transportation. Couples can also share smaller activities such as enjoying favorite take out or reading out loud to one another. I recommend couples keep a mason jar of favorite date night ideas to draw from.

5. Touch daily. 

Has physical touch with your partner been reduced to a sideswipe on the cheek? Your relationship deserves more than that. Dr. Tatkin emphasizes the place of ritual morning greetings and evening good nights through eye-to-eye, face-to-face, and skin-to-skin contact.

Physical touch such as sustained hugging, releases the bonding hormone oxytocin. When you hug your partner, try hugging long enough until you feel yourselves fully relax in each other’s arms. Emotional intimacy benefits physical intimacy, and many couples whose sex life has become stale or routine are delighted by this outcome.

When each partner knows what the other stands for, is willing to be vulnerable, prioritizes making time together and uses daily touch, the couple can invest more fully in their relationship. They create their own couple bubble. And that leads to increased couple satisfaction.

In becoming emotionally close, we know with certainty that we have a partner we can count on. We face the joys and challenges life has to offer—together.

Want to work on making your bond with your partner stronger? Read “3 Steps to Rebuilding a Relationship.”


Dr. Beth O'Brien

Dr. Beth O’Brien, Licensed Psychologist and PACT Level 3 Couple Therapist (www.bethobriencounseling.com), has been in private practice for over 25 years. She assists couples with communication problems, intimacy concerns, and enhancing long term relationships.


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