Sara and Tom have been together for seven years. They get along, rarely argue, socialize with friends, and have sex regularly. But despite all this, both would say that they’ve lost the emotional intimacy they once had. While they’ll eat dinner together, occasionally watch a movie, most of the time, they are each doing their own thing, living in their own worlds.
Sara and Tom, like many couples, are living parallel lives. For some, it’s not a problem. They each agree that they need a lot of individual time, are heavily involved in their careers, or expect and can get many of their needs met through friends and family rather than their partners. But for many more couples like Sara and Tom, this way of living represents not a choice but a deterioration of intimacy and closeness over time. Here are some of the common causes:
Fear of conflict
Problems between partners are, by definition, about conflict on some level. If one or both of you are uncomfortable with confrontation and strong emotions, even common, everyday problems can raise too much anxiety. Rather than voicing your complaints to solve problems and ultimately get what you need, you pull back, settle for what you get. Distance becomes that way of coping with both conflict and difficulties.
Struggle with emotional regulation
Other couples are not afraid of conflict, but they, too, fail to solve problems. Why? Because their arguments are often explosive. Once they calm down, they may make up—apologize the next day while making coffee in the kitchen—or give each other the silent treatment for a few days and eventually warm up and pretend nothing has happened. What they don’t do is circle back and talk about the problem that started the argument. Again, why? Because they are afraid that it will lead to replaying the awful argument all over again. As a result, they, too, sweep issues under the rug.
Where are they both getting stuck? The conflict-avoidant couples struggle with approaching complex issues while the arguing folks struggle to regulate their emotions so arguments aren’t so hurtful. What they have in common is that these unsolved problems become landmines that they, you, constantly need to step around. Because you are always walking on eggshells, the openness and honesty that intimacy requires withers as unspoken resentments accumulate. You only talk about “safe” topics—office gossip, logistics, the weather. Rather than focusing on your relationship as a couple, you both become work or child-centered, which only pushes you further apart.
Lacking common interests
Finally, some couples can solve problems but have become distant because they lack common interests. Common interests are what bind us together at the start of a relationship, but over time this bind can weaken simply because you each grow and change. If you have taken the path of building your relationship around work or children, these fragile ties can dissolve altogether with retirement or children leaving home.
Getting reconnected: The way out
The way out is to address these drivers. If you are conflict-avoidant, you need to challenge yourself to step up and speak up to let your partner know what you need. If arguments are out-of-control, your goal is to learn to self-regulate—realize when you are becoming too upset and call a time-out. This is not about giving in but being emotionally responsible: calming yourself so you can get out of your emotional brain and into your rational one.
Next, you need to tackle problems head-on and resist the urge the sweep them under the rug. If it is too overwhelming to do face-to-face, write out your thoughts in an email or go together to a couple’s therapist for a few sessions to have a safe place to start your dialogue. No, you don’t need to drudge through the past, but instead, your goal is to create win-win solutions that allow you to be sensitive to the other person’s needs without dismissing your own.
Finally, if you find that you have little in common, be bold and talk about that elephant in the room: I feel that we don’t have enough in common. Next, explore: You can’t discover what you might enjoy by sitting on the couch and thinking about it, but only by actively trying new things together—take a class, or volunteer together, take a trip to someplace you both have never been, reignite what you used to do when you first met. Keep expectations low, approach new adventures with an attitude of curiosity and experimentation.
Living parallel lives is a bad solution to anxiety and underlying problems. Reconnecting and regaining intimacy comes from approaching your fears rather than avoiding them. Baby steps are allowed.
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