How to Reignite Connection in Your Relationship
Lately, you’ve been feeling a little alone.
You go home to your partner each night, ask each other how your day was, respond with a platitude, and scroll through your phones. Sometimes, when you do try to engage in conversation, it feels like you’re communicating via broken telephone wire: you hear every fifth word, and then one of you gets frustrated and hangs up. On top of this, it is Valentine’s Day “season,” and there are constant reminders all around you of how everyone is seemingly happier in their relationship than you are.
Your disconnection manifests in long silences and a lack of intimacy. How has this become the only alternative to attempting to communicate about something as benign as your day? You’ve decided arguments are a drain of energy. You already work a full time job and may even have kids to take care of. How are you supposed to focus on feeling more connected to your partner when every other aspect of your life requires all of your energy? How do people do this?!
Okay yes, this all sounds pretty drab. Keep in mind that just because you’ve temporarily stepped out of your relationship emotionally does not mean you cannot step back in, especially if both you and your partner are game. So instead of focusing on disruption from your relationship, lets shift gears and place the spotlight on a few ways to help you enhance your connection.
Fire up curiosity
As couples therapists, this is something we hear from peers and supervisors all the time. “Stay curious; ask questions!” This feels next to impossible for new and anxious therapists, and may require a lot of effort from a seasoned but routine-stuck and burnt out therapist.
I write this to help you understand that curiosity is not necessarily something that comes naturally, and this is not indicative of failure. It does not mean you are doomed to a life of minimal passion and disconnection. Sometimes it may feel like you are too on guard with frustration or anxiety to open yourself to new understandings of your partner. On the opposite end of the spectrum, sometimes you and your partner may be too ingrained in your routine to remember that every day is not the same, and deserves some exploring- no matter how mundane it feels.
Try switching your questions up. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” try remembering something specific you know from the week prior, and ask about that. Or, better yet, ask about your partner’s thoughts or feelings instead of events. In this article, Dr. Carol Bruess explains that loneliness in a partnership comes from lack of emotional connection and openness. So, she suggests, ask about emotions! This may feel strange at first, but it is a great way to step out of the pattern of disconnection.
Gift yourself with honesty
It is relatively easy to slip into the “blame game.” How many times have you and your partner been off the mark on something you truly thought you were on the same page about, and wound up feeling hurt and alone? Instead of honing in on your individual responsibility for miscommunication, it is much easier to blame your partner for the confusion and disconnect. In fact, it is so much easier that sometimes you won’t even realize you’re doing it.
Chances are good that your partner had some responsibility here, but chances also pretty good that you missed the mark as well. Instead of evading accountability, try to reflect on what you could have done differently. For example, lets say your partner said he was going out to the bar until 10pm, but came home at 11pm. This infuriated you on a surface level, and left you feeling abandoned and alone on a deeper level. You immediately either escalate to yelling, or shift into a shut down and silence. After all, your partner lied and abandoned you! How are you supposed to forgive him?
Lets take a moment to reflect- yes, your partner definitely could have communicated better. In addition to his difficulty with communication, maybe there are some steps that can be taken to avoid this in the future. For example, did he say he was leaving the bar at 10, or would be home by 10? Did you find a moment to express that it was important he be home by 10, or were you already feeling a little shut down and frustrated from an earlier argument that was not repaired?
Remember, the direction towards acceptance of accountability is not an extension of the blame game. It is an understanding that both parties hold responsibility in each misattunement, and being the first to break the cycle of blame and accept accountability may allow your partner to feel safer and to follow suit.
Let go of myths, comparisons, and where you “should” be
This is one that my clients quite literally roll their eyes at. Humans are driven to compare themselves to others. It is totally adaptive, in that it helps you understand what is missing in your life and allows you the space to grow. However, the comparison approach is absolutely not helpful for relationships.
Why, you ask? As I’m sure you conceptually understand but may not connect with emotionally, what you see in other’s relationships in not a reflection of their reality. It is really difficult to scroll through Instagram and see constant floods of seemingly flawless relationships, especially when you are feeling lonely in your own, and especially when there are not footnotes at the bottom of each post stating, “we do not look this happy all the time.”
Here are some suggestions to counter the comparison virus: First, try putting social media away for a few days to recalibrate. Does your thought process shift at all? Next, try exploring what you do have instead of what you do not have. Yeah, maybe your partner constantly forgets to do her dishes. But she is also so supportive and responsive when you have a tough day at work. And lastly, try expressing gratitude for the moments you do feel connected to help both you and your partner notice and build on them.
Make a plan for your inevitable future of disconnected moments
As mentioned, it is okay to be a little off or to feel disconnected! You both have full, individual and private lives. A successful and fulfilling career and friendships outside of your relationship are actually important for making your relationship thrive. It is not beneficial to depend on your partner to fulfill all your needs. This being said, this creates room for connection with your partner to expand and contract over time.
Fortunately, relationships are less about avoiding misattunements and discomfort, and more about the reparative moments. Reparative moments build trust and help you feel validated and understood. They allow your relationship to grow, and are most effective when done consistently and during small misattunements rather than waiting until a massive blow out (see this article for deeper dive into repairs).
So, the idea is to plan for these moments of disconnect rather than unrealistically avoiding them entirely. Help your partner understand what you look like/what you say when you are feeling unheard or dismissed. Tell your partner what you need for a repair- whether it’s a small joke, a silly face, or an acknowledgement of your feelings. And, of course, don’t forget to stay curious about what your partner needs during moments of misattunements as well.
If you are going to take away one thing from this article, please let it be the fact that disconnection is completely normal for two people with busy, successful and individual lives. There are ways to repair these moments, and techniques to prepare for them in the future.
If you feel you are out of your depths and have given the repair everything you’ve got, consult a couples therapist, a couples workshop, or any third party to help you understand where to go from here. You and your partner deserve to feel connected and in love- your partner is your biggest supporter, best friend, and intimate lover, and you are theirs. Together you’ve earned a relationship where you can feel loved and connected. So, take the steps to get there and give it your best shot. You can get close to that relationship you’ve always dreamed about with some effort, commitment, and the desire to get there.