Married for the last 33 years, Dr. Paul Standal has experienced the developmental stages which inevitably are a part of all marriages. All of these stages of marriage engender both deep times of engagement and intimate connection as well as times of separation and drift. In today’s busy and pressured world, it is easy to lose the essential connection with ourselves and with our partner, sometimes without even realizing or acknowledging it.
Every marriage has these times of drift—when you and your spouse are moving away from, rather than toward, each other. A cycle of closeness and disconnection is normal and part of even the most healthy and happy of marriages.
External circumstances, life transitions or internal feelings affecting one or both spouses can disrupt periods of closeness and lead to marital drift. Spouses can become inattentive to each other because work obligations and demands of childrearing take up all their time and energy. Even secure and comfortable marriages can experience this disengagement when one spouse is pursuing an agenda like further education, while the other has a different agenda. Life transitions can contribute to or threaten the relationship. New career choices, growing through new interests or projects, becoming an empty nester, or retirement are such transitions.
Keeping Your Love and Friendship Alive and Well
As a family psychologist for the past 35 years, Dr. Standal has talked with hundreds of people who have sought his help with relationship problems. There are several things that couples, friends and parents can do to strengthen their relationships. Among these are the following:
1. Keep your friendship alive and well. Dr. Standal is amazed by the number of couples who forget that their spouse is their best friend. To make matters worse, these folks often don’t know what they are missing. All they know is that they are depressed and downhearted and have a deep loneliness and lack of life satisfaction. He often shocks these folks by saying to them, “You should be depressed…you have taken for granted a very important part of life.” He then explains that humans are social creatures. They do not do well when they are alone. People who recognize and nurture a genuine friendship with their spouse enjoy a far richer and more meaningful life. He reminds them to:
• Be tolerant and patient. You are not perfect and your significant other will not be perfect, so don’t give up on them during the down times. No relationship can exist very long without apologizing, making up, forgiving and forgetting.
• Make simple gestures such as smiling, saying hello and calling them with plans for fun. These simple actions go a long way toward sustaining a meaningful relationship. You can’t be passive about reinvigorating or sustaining this friendship; you must reach out.
• Find one activity that you love so much you can’t wait to do it. A whole new world of friendship and connection can open up to you when you find an activity for which you both have a passion.
2. Nurture the love that brought you together as a couple. Many people, after marrying or becoming a couple, do little to nurture their love for one another. There seems to be a common misconception that intimate relationships will thrive automatically without any effort. Remember that love is about providing reciprocal positive regard. Displays of loving might include an act of service, gift giving, physical touch, words of love or validation and having intimate meaningful time together.
Suggestions for Nurturing Your Love as a Couple.
• Surprise each other every month with plans for having fun as a couple.
• Make every birthday, anniversary and holiday a time to celebrate your relationship with each other.
• Become true partners in planning your future together, because fulfilling your dreams nurtures the love that once brought you together.
• Let your partner know as often as possible what you admire, respect and love about him or her, just like you did when you first fell in love.
• Encourage each other to grow as individuals. This growth, in turn, will strengthen your union as a couple.
3. Keep your love alive while raising children. Resolve the differences you have as parents, either on your own or with professional help. This will help you become a parenting team, and not competitors. Bickering and arguing over the raising of their children is a huge source of conflict between spouses. Parents have a special challenge in keeping their relationship with their spouse alive and well because parents experience a lot of disagreements about the parenting of their children. Burnout and anger can easily result and take their toll on couples with children.
• Become each other’s cheerleader so the children hear from Dad what is so great about Mom and hear from Mom what is so special about Dad.
• Keep in mind that there is no better way to live your life than to be a generous, loving person. When you are generous of heart and loving in spirit, all your relationships will flourish.
4. Getting your marriage back on track. Often, this cycle of closeness and disconnect goes unnoticed, particularly over the short-term. But when periods of drift bring about feelings that your relationship is off-track, heed this intuitive alarm; it is alerting you to take action before any destructive relationship patterns or negative emotions like hurt feelings, resentment or jealousy go unchecked and potentially derail your marriage. Sometimes, feelings of disconnect are one-sided. It’s very important that you not let your spouse convince you that your feelings are unfounded and don’t require attention.
Many single people want very much to be married or to develop some kind of long-term, committed relationship. The natural issues that singleness brings up for us are just the ones that each of us needs to confront and to learn from in order to develop highly positive and mutually fulfilling relationships. Many marriages are founded on the need of both partners to find strength in another that they lack in themselves. Marriages built on an exchange of strengths for weaknesses are often rocky and difficult to sustain. Two incomplete people find it hard to maintain the give and take necessary to solve problems, to grow, and to maintain intimacy. In order to achieve a balanced, harmonious, and pleasurable life as a single person, one must of necessity become whole. When two whole people form an alliance, the issues they confront as partners will be fewer and more readily resolved. They each have strengths to bring to the relationship and to complement one another’s continued growth
To renew a sense of closeness when you feel adrift—or to ensure that you will reconnect after normal (even predictable) periods of drift, you must set aside time to be together. Although a weekend away from the kids or life distractions is a good way to renew intimacy and open the lines of communication, incorporating “together” time into your everyday routine is much more effective. Doing so requires that you protect this time by not overcommitting yourself and your family members.
Psychologist and marriage coach, John Gottman, suggests an approach called “The Magic Five Hours,” which incorporates five hours of together time into the course of a week. Here’s how it adds up:
• Partings: Before you say good-bye in the morning, find out at least one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day. (two minutes per day, five days a week = 10 minutes)
• Reunions: Engage in a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday. (20 minutes per day, five days a week = one hour and 40 minutes)
• Admiration and appreciation: Find some way every day to communicate genuine affection and appreciation toward your spouse. (five minutes per day, seven days a week = 35 minutes)
• Affection: Kiss, hold, grab and touch each other. (five minutes per day, seven days a week = 35 minutes)
• Weekly date. (two hours once a week)
5. Marriage enhancement programs and support groups. Marriage enhancement programs and support groups can help facilitate the renewal of communication and intimacy, as well as help you to build skills in resolving conflict when your marriage is strained. Religious and community-based programs offer free or low-cost weekend retreats, weekly meetings and workshops that foster marriage building. Some mental health care practices also offer such programs. At-home programs are also available through relationship-enhancement program providers and self-help books.
6. Marriage counseling. Marital drift that goes unchecked can build momentum, essentially making a mountain out of a molehill. Marriage counselors often can provide the direction and framework to help couples identify the core issues and resolve them. When seeking the advice of a therapist, however, make sure to ask if the therapist is oriented toward helping couples stay in the marriage.
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