Preventative tips to keep things from going too far
I have been practicing couple’s therapy exclusively for over 35 years. I have treated couples of all races, creeds, colors, and sexual orientation. And in that time I have never seen one partner retain loving, intimate feelings for the other once they had completely lost them. And if they never had them, it was that much easier to pull away. The scariest thing I have encountered in trying to help a couple salvage a relationship is when one partner tells the other: “I love you but I’m not in love with you.” Or, “I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you, but I don’t feel about you the way I should.” Privately—in an individual session—the threatening partner might be more emphatic in confessing to me that they no longer have any sexual desire for their paramour. Many have told me that they even detest the thought of kissing, and often fantasize about leaving the relationship.
Usually there are signs that the relationship will eventually end up in this sorry state, but they are not always pronounced. Many partners avoid confrontation. They prefer a more passive or passive aggressive approach such as distancing. The emotional distancer can make an unwanted partner feel quite alone. One female client told me that living with her husband was like “living with a zombie,” a passive one I suspect. A male client said that he went to the movies with his partner and felt as if he had gone alone—his partner offered little interaction and much preoccupation.
Although it is hard to compartmentalize physical and emotional distancing—they tend to be intertwined—some partners prefer physical distancing to give them a much needed respite. Many of these individuals believe that legitimized, intermittent space allows them to better tolerate their partners. A colleague once told me that if it were not for his extensive business travel he would be divorced. He had no desire to be in the same country as his wife let alone the same house, but the thought of divorcing turned his stomach.
On a less dramatic note, some individuals insist on sleeping in separate bedrooms—some have sex and some refrain. Others conveniently come up with an excuse to avoid their partners: “I can’t go to the party with you. I don’t feel well.” Some are even more vague: “I can’t go to the party with you. I don’t know why.” I’ve seen partners use anxiety, depression, and a host of other ills to escape any semblance of closeness in their relationship. “I just can’t go on vacation this year. I’m too depressed.” Of course being trapped might have something to do with the depression but this is rarely admitted until a split is inevitable.
Some partners prefer an overt, aggressive style. They may create an argument over relatively insignificant issues, or make an issue much bigger than it merits. “I can’t stand living with you. You never put the toilet seat down.” Yep, I have heard that one. Having stirred the relationship pot, it is easier for the accusing partner to “project” their desire to escape the relationship onto the befuddled mate. “You’re the problem…not me. No one could live with you.” Those no longer in love may send a message of impending doom by chronically picking on their partner. A male client exclaimed, “I can’t do anything right. I’m trying hard to please her but she keeps upping the ante.” Uh oh!
In my experience, women play the terminator role far more often than men, but men are adept at forcing their hands. Research bears this out. Nevertheless, people who withhold their feelings regardless of gender are more prone to eventually reach the point of no return. Contrary to popular belief, not all women are great communicators, but men in particular don’t seem to be that good at reading between the lines.
How can one prevent a partner from reaching the point of no return? I would first suggest being nice. It sounds simple but it works. Complement your mate and if you have a complaint…lead with a compliment. A female colleague once told me: “It’s not that hard to get one’s wife to have sex. Being nice is a really good start.” Also, give your partner a pass on the small stuff. We all have annoying quirks…and so do you. What would it be like to live with “you?” As a balancing tool, I try to envision myself married to each of the partners I see in couple’s therapy. This way I can usually empathize with what each are saying about the other. I realize this is hard to do if your partner is acting mean and unfair, but why add fuel to the fire? Why continue to feed a destructive cycle?
If you simply cannot seem to bring yourself to be nice and thoughtful, then maybe you should seriously question whether you truly value your partner. Far too many people marry or enter long-term relationships absent of physical or emotional attraction—a disaster waiting to happen. Under these circumstances it is hard to go out of your way to please your mate—to do the little things that score you points and lead to reciprocity.
Another recommendation would be to frequently check in with your partner and to treat all their words and behaviors with respect—considering them important messages about your future and the future of your relationship. Ask if your partner is bothered by anything…and what you can do about it. Avoid becoming defensive or rushing to lay blame on your partner. This is especially important if you are with someone who is unassertive and self-contained. And don’t be afraid of bad news; it is a lot better to have a battle than a nuclear war. Also, see yourself: if you are too difficult or scary to approach, the less chance your partner will open up, and the greater the odds that they will retaliate passive aggressively.
In sum, the best way to prevent a partner from going AWOL or what I call “over the hump,” is to pay attention. Once your partner reaches a saturation point it may be impossible to save your relationship…no matter how many counselors you see. Dostoyevsky wrote: “Much unhappiness has come into to the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.”