While all couples need some sense of autonomy and closeness, many couples are chronically disconnected and dissatisfied with their degree of intimacy. The most common reason why couples develop serious difficulties is because one or both partners withdraw and go into the “silent treatment” mode due to feelings of hurt, anger, and resentment. In a recent landmark study of 14,000 participants conducted by Schrodt, women are usually (but not always) the ones who demand or pursue and men tend to withdraw or distance.
Then what couples tend to do is blame the other person and a pursuer-distancer dance follows – which intensifies the pattern. According to psychologist Sue Johnson, this dynamic happens when one person becomes somewhat aggressive in their pursuit and the other partner becomes defensive and distant.
Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples in his Love Lab revealed that couples who get stuck in this pattern the first few years of marriage, have a 80 percent chance of divorcing in the first five years. Typically, couples literally report having the same fights over and over again. After a while, they are no longer addressing the issue at hand and it becomes a vicious cycle of negative feelings that never gets resolved.
A typical example is Stella and Patrick, both in their late forties and married for eleven years. “I’ve been unhappy for some time,” complains Stella. “I feel rejected by Patrick emotionally and sexually. I can’t remember when the last time was when we had sex or were close.” Patrick responds: “Stella is never happy and she complains non-stop, especially about me so it’s no wonder we don’t have sex anymore. She keeps talking about leaving, and honestly divorcing may be the best option.”
While it’s natural to want to throw in the towel when your partner becomes distant, reacting in kind furthers the divide between you. Instead, Dr. Harriet Learner recommends that you take responsibility for warming things up and increase positive reinforcement. This can be done by saying things like “You’re so thoughtful to cook a nice dinner” which highlights their positive qualities and things you appreciate about them.
8 Skills to Promote Emotional Connection with Your Partner:
- Don’t criticize your partner. Instead, let your partner know what you need in a positive way. For example, “I’d really like it if we could plan to go out to dinner,” is more effective than “You never make plans with me.” Dr. Gottman reminds us that criticism is damaging to a marriage. Talking about specific issues will reap better results than attacking your partner.
- Resolve conflicts skillfully. Don’t put aside resentments that can destroy your relationship. Experiencing conflict is inevitable and couples who strive to avoid it are at risk of developing stagnant relationships. Avoid defensiveness and showing contempt for your partner (rolling your eyes, ridicule, name-calling, sarcasm, etc.).
- Boost up physical affection. Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss. Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, increasing physical affection (try doubling the time spend in physical contact) can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
- Cultivate shared interests with your partner. Try a variety of activities that bring you both pleasure. For example, some couples take up yoga or take a dance class together. Don’t forget to show interest in your partner’s hobbies even if you don’t share them.
- “Nurture fondness and admiration”: John Gottman’s principle works like a charm. Remind yourself of your partner’s positive qualities – even as you grapple with their flaws – and express your positive feelings out loud several times each day. Search for common ground rather than insisting on getting your way when you have a disagreement.
- Be vulnerable and communicate honestly about key issues in your relationship. Be sure to be forthcoming about your concerns and be assertive in your communication. Express thoughts, feelings, and needs in a respectful way and use “I” messages such as “I worry when you are late so please remember to check in,” rather than a “You” message such as “You are so selfish and never think of me.”
- Take responsibility for your hurtful actions or words. Acknowledge that you messed up by saying something like “I take responsibility for my actions and I’m sorry that they hurt you.” One person’s ability to do this can change the dynamic of the relationship. ’s Julie and John Gottman write: “one person’s response will literally change the brain waves of the other person.”
- Apologize and practice forgiveness. Saying you’re sorry even if you don’t hurt your partner’s feelings on purpose with help you move on after a dispute. Try to remember you are on the same team. Accept that people do the best they do and try to be more understanding. This doesn’t mean that you accept your partner’s hurtful actions. You simply come to a more realistic view and give them less power over you. After all, we all have flaws.
It’s understandable that you might feel hurt, frustrated, resentful, or rejected if you perceive that your partner doesn’t understand you. But don’t let wounds fester. Instead, the next time you have a disagreement with him or her, stop second-guessing their reactions and examine your own responses. Listen to your partner’s side of the story and don’t assume the worst. Your focus needs to be on working on ways to repair hurt feelings and to get back on track. Real love starts with you. The more you know and understand what makes you tick and take ownership of your actions, the better prepared you’ll be to invite your partner to create a successful relationship.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website. Feel free to ask a question here.
Terry’s forthcoming book, The Remarriage Manual: How to Make Everything Work Better the Second Time Around, was published by Sounds True in February of 2020.