After a rough day at the office and a hellish commute, you can’t wait to get home to a relaxing evening with your family. But when you open the door and yell, “I’m home!” no one seems to notice. The house is a disaster, the kids are running wild, and the kitchen table is buried under a pile of homework and dirty dishes. Looks like you missed dinner again.
Your spouse brushes past with a grunt, eyes and thumbs glued to a smartphone, on the way to the bathroom. “Nice to see you too,” you reply, but your sarcasm is met by a slamming door. Irritated, you drop your things, head to the fridge, and make yourself a sandwich, trying to ignore the mayhem around you. After a half-hearted attempt at small talk with the kids, you head upstairs and shut yourself in your bedroom with a bad taste in your mouth. As you reach for the TV remote, a sad thought suddenly pops into your mind, stopping you in your tracks: “My partner doesn’t love me anymore. How did it come to this?”
If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re not alone. As a couples therapist, I’ve heard countless versions of this story from my clients over the years. They often tell me that they’ve “fallen out of love,” but that’s not really what’s happened. Couples don’t suddenly “fall” out of love. Rather, they tend to grow apart gradually over time. This occurs as a result of many missed opportunities to connect with each other. At first, these missed connections may be occasional, but slowly they become habitual, and eventually they become the norm.
When distance creeps into a relationship, partners may feel lonely, abandoned, disconnected, and bitter. Stuck in this negative mindset, they may give up trying to connect altogether. But all is not lost. It is possible for couples to reconnect. The key is for both partners to take control of the situation, taking actions that lead to meaningful connections instead of withdrawing at the first sign of a disconnect.
In my practice, I often advise couples to take four specific actions that can help them reconnect with each other.
1. Ask questions to find out—not to confirm
Showing a genuine interest in your partner is an important first step toward reconnecting. Asking about your partner’s day—whether challenges they’re struggling with or things that are going well—can go a long way toward helping you reconnect. Couples who have been together for a long time often stop having these conversations, assuming they already know everything there is to know. But these are missed connections. Make a conscious effort to build in time for these questions (over coffee in the morning, via texts or emails during the day, whatever works for you) and make it clear that you really want to know—you’re not just asking to confirm what you think you already know.
2. Be brave but vulnerable
When you have concerns about your relationship, opening up to your partner about these concerns can be daunting. What if it leads to a fight—or worse, to a breakup? Isn’t it better to avoid rocking the boat? In a word, no. Withholding your concerns is a serious misconnection that can damage your relationship. Sharing your concerns requires bravery because it puts your relationship in a vulnerable position, but it’s essential to open up if you want to reconnect with your partner.
To help my clients take this important step, I recommend a technique called Soften Startup, devised by Dr. John Gottman, founder of Gottman Method Couples Therapy. Soften Startup is a strategy for opening a difficult conversation in a way that avoids criticizing or blaming your partner. It opens with an introspective statement, something along the lines of “I’ve been worried lately, or “I’ve been lonely and missed you lately,” or “I’m feeling a little overwhelmed right now.” Next, you explain the situation, focusing what’s causing your feelings—but NOT in a way that casts blame on your partner. For example, the person I described in the opening scenario might say something like, “When I got home, I was really tired and stressed out from work. When I saw the kids running around and how the house was a mess, it just made things worse.” The last step is to communicate what you need or want: “What I was really looking forward to was a relaxing evening with you.” The idea here is not to list specific actions you need from your partner (put the kids to bed, do the dishes, etc.). It’s more important for your partner to know what you actually want—an important connection that is missed more often than you might think.
3. Show appreciation
When we receive appreciation from our partner on a regular basis, we tend to be very generous in giving it back. On the other hand, when we feel unappreciated, we tend to be very stingy expressing our own appreciation.
If your relationship has fallen into an appreciation rut, try this: Close your eyes and think about the past week with your partner. Hold on to all the moments your partner was there for you, did something nice for you, or said something that made you smile. Now ask yourself whether you expressed your appreciation to your partner in these moments. If not, these are missed connections that you can easily repair by consciously making an effort to express appreciation.
I like to share an example from my own marriage. My husband leaves for work very early every morning. When he makes his coffee, he always makes enough for me so there’s a hot cup waiting for me when I wake up. It’s a small gesture, but it shaves a few precious minutes off my morning rush and makes my day just a little less crazy; more importantly, it shows me that he’s thinking of me and appreciates me. So every morning I express my appreciation for him by sending him a text thanking him for the cup of coffee.
4. Spend time together
It may seem like you spend lots of time with your partner simply because you see him or her every day. But how much of this time is spent meaningfully connecting with your partner? Many couples struggle to find time for each other because they always allow other time commitments to take priority. In my practice, I often ask couples to keep track of the amount of time they actually spend connecting with each other each week. We often start with seconds, then work towards minutes, and eventually get to hours. Once we get to hours, the frequency of our counseling sessions starts going down. Dr. Gottman recommends that partners spend “5 Magical Hours” of time together each week. This may sound like a lot at first, but it’s a great formula for reconnecting with your partner.