When couples come into my office seeking to reconnect, they have often gone months or years drifting further and further apart. Unchecked, this process can leave them feeling like roommates living parallel lives, rather than engaged lovers. Under these circumstances, efforts to revive sparks often feel awkward, forced and unnatural. It’s hard to feel physically or emotionally close to someone with whom you have completely lost connection.
I think that time often plays an important role in these situations. The longer the relationship has drifted, the harder it is to get back on track. Take a look at my previous articles on this topic for greater depth. This particular article will focus more on preventative strategies to prevent relational drift, although these same behaviors can assist if the relationship has veered off course. Again, the further apart the partners have drifted and the more time that has elapsed, the harder it will feel to achieve actionable results. Patience and strong desire will be required for sustained improvement in these cases.
Fundamentally, one of the most important and powerful ways that we can show a strong interest in another person is to maintain our curiosity about that individual. Too often folks feel, after spending a number of years with a person, that they know everything there is to know, and they start to lose all sense of curiosity. But relationships are not stagnant. People never stay the same. Often one individual is experiencing a growth spurt, while the other may be in a holding pattern, never evolving much past the honeymoon phase. In these situations, the growing individual may seek to experience growth with their partner, but may feel disappointed and rejected when their partner shows no curiosity or interest. They then learn that any further personal growth or development has to happen outside of the parameters of the relationship. This is often the beginning of a downward slide for the relationship.
In these situations, I would clinically describe one individual as “practicing” while the other is “symbiotic,” meaning that the first individual has decided to look to get their needs met outside of the relationship, while the other person is stuck trying to hold on to preventing change at all cost. I often see relationships in a wide variety of configurations. Sometimes both individuals are symbiotic, too afraid to reveal themselves for who they truly are, and too afraid to hear authentic truths and vulnerabilities from their partner as well. Sometimes these types of relationships are labeled “co-dependent,” in that both partners are actively trying to suppress individual growth in the other person. These relationships can be very stormy and turbulent or bored and apathetic, but the common denominator is that each individual cannot tolerate differences within their partner; instead they attempt to impose their own preconceived notions or fantasies of what they wish their partner to be.
Often one partner attempts to make a move and assert their individuality. If their partner is unwilling to listen and truly see them in an authentic way, they may find themselves stuck in a power struggle to express or “differentiate” themselves. As mentioned before, if they are met with resistance, they may avoid all further vulnerable discussion and jump to practicing individuality outside of the confines of the relationship, and often without knowledge or consent of their partner. Sometimes a person immediately jumps into the practicing stage if they feel too fearful, whether for valid reasons or not, to openly and authentically express themselves. And sometimes both people just give up and each finds themselves in the practicing stage, living separate but parallel lives from each other.
Most commonly I see these situations play out sexually, as many relationships seek me out, at least initially, for sexually related issues. For example, someone who is seeking to try out new sexual experiences or open up the relationship and comes to their partner with these desires is clearly in the “differentiation” stage. Their partner, if they too are differentiated, may be open to hearing out what their partner wants and negotiating from there. A more symbiotic partner, however, would be more likely to shut the door on any further discussion, forcing these desires underground. The differentiating partner may then decide to suppress these desires or just bypass all manner of consent and engage in these behaviors behind the partner’s back. Most forms of infidelity occur when at least one partner is “practicing,” and most commonly, the other partner is stuck in “symbiosis.” I’m not blaming anyone for another person’s behavior, and everyone is responsible for their own choices, but I am also looking at this through a systemic lens, trying to understand how the entire system influences individual choices and behaviors.
However, sexuality is just one dimension of any relationship. The same principles extend to all other aspects of the relationship, from hobbies to friends to time allocation. As partners drift, their hobbies and social circles and time spent together also drifts. Sometimes people are not meant to be together. People do evolve and change over time, and that is healthy and to be expected. But I suggest that these changes be processed and addressed in mindful ways, rather than allow the currents of time and apathy to do their dirty work on their own. Unfortunately, sometimes folks have been coasting for so long, that it takes a crisis such as a health scare or infidelity for them to wake up and realize they’ve been living separate lives. They may look back and regret just how automatic and unreflected they may have engaged in important relationships.
Regret may be a toxic anchor or a powerful motivator. But I counsel couples to avoid regret entirely by mindfully and intentionally staying open and curious to each other. For those who struggle to do so, I provide graded exercises, modeling, and skills development, so they can then talk productively at home. It doesn’t take much effort to ask a few well-meaning questions and show genuine interest in what one’s partner has to say. It may not be easy to do, but it is well worth the effort and is very rewarding to learn to tolerate one’s partner’s differences, even if they feel uncomfortable or threatening. That doesn’t mean that anyone has to agree with those differences or engage in anything they don’t want to do, but what it does mean is that creating a non-judgmental, receptive, and affirming environment just could be the exact antidote that individuals need to ensure sustainable connection and the success of the relationship.