Is Your Relationship Neglected?
Does It Need a Charge? Will a Jump Start Help?
The Neglected Relationship
Sue started her first couples therapy session by telling the therapist that she and Jim have lived like roommates for many months. Except for taking care of their two kids, they pretty much live separate lives. Jim agrees and says they don’t even sleep in the same bed any more. Both look sad, depressed, helpless and hopeless that their neglected relationship has deteriorated to this level. They have sought couples therapy as a last resort before moving to divorce. As they talked about ending their relationship, Sue cried and Jim began to tear up. Upon further inquiry by the therapist, both reported that in the past year they hardly spent any time together alone. They both work, come home, take care of their kids with dinner, baths and bedtime, and then crash. Jim sits in front of the TV and Sue reads and plays with her computer. They both say “we don’t fight!” This is followed by “we never talk!” They both agreed that before this last year their relationship was much better. They said they talked about their day, joked and teased each other in playful ways and even made time on weekends for dates. They felt like best friends and had a satisfying sex life as well. What happened?
Both Sue and Jim are in an emotionally starved relationship. At this point, little positive energy passes between them. Is their relationship doomed to fail? Is it over? Can it be salvaged?
Many couples have entered my therapy office with what I call a “neglected relationship.” While many couples struggle to make ends meet, much of their energy is consumed by work and the business of keeping their family running. I often see two tired partners talking about all the fun and excitement having left their relationship. It is not a surprise if someone started to pay some attention to you at work or elsewhere that you would be tempted to accept it. If you were starving in the desert and someone offered you water and food, no matter how little or bad it was, you might take it. Most people, if not all, need a certain amount of physical and emotional stimulation in order to thrive. Studies have shown that infants and young children fail to grow and develop as a result of emotional and physical neglect. The same goes for grownups. The consequences are usually depression, anxiety, loneliness, anger, substance use/abuse, affairs, etc. Studies show that people in happier satisfying relationships are mentally and physically healthier.
What can be done?
Partners must decide whether they want to invest in reviving their relationship. I find that one partner is often more eager to do this than the other who may be withdrawn and angry. Often there has been one partner who has tried to reach out to his/her partner only to be rejected and now is in an angry protective mode so as not to get hurt. One partner alone could start this process of rehabilitation, but it may mean preparing for resistance and rejection from her partner.
Start the process by doing the simple things that can rebuild your relationship.
- Give a hug and kiss both morning and night. If you have not done this it will feel awkward at first. You can request that you feel you need a hug and kiss daily and is it OK with your partner?
- Do “check ins” daily. Start to talk about your day. Talk about anything. What’s happening at work or with a friend or family member. At first don’t expect your partner to share back. If it happens, great; if not, you continue to share.
- Make time to talk more. Try to set times where there is no interference from children, TV, phone calls etc. This is important and it should get the time it deserves.
What should you talk about? This depends on how direct and open you are and want to be. You can talk about how you would like your relationship to be better or simply plan on doing some things that you have not done together. Plan a date, watch a movie, go for a walk.
There needs to be a slow thaw to an ice cold relationship. There has to be some stimulation and strokes exchanged.
Make a short list of things you want and like. A nice dinner, building something together, doing something recreational…biking, skiing, hiking etc. Be creative! Remember the goal here is to get reacquainted with your partner…not to see who could “win the race!”
I have worked with hundreds of relationships that fall into the neglected category and have managed to not only survive but begin to thrive again. At first it may feel “like you are just going through the motions,” but after a while you may catch yourself getting lost “in the moment” and actually enjoying yourself with your partner. Many “re-stimulated” couples have vowed to not let their relationship suffer neglect again and many have succeeded.
It is important to keep expectations low to start. Ice melts slowly. Accept what you get and watch out for being too critical of too little at first. Also, partners come around differently as one of you may be more motivated to “get back to how it was or how you want it to be” faster than your partner. Remember a little goes a long way to get things started.
Working with a counselor, educator or any objective third person as well as reading or working with educational/self-help materials can be helpful to “recharging” your relationship once again.