Our connection with our partners waxes and wanes. After all, we regularly get disconnected from ourselves. When you add another person to the mix, along with the many variables of life, it makes sense that on some days you feel incredibly close and connected as a couple, and on other days, you feel worlds apart.
This is normal. And understandable.
Thankfully, it’s also something you can change and improve. Below are three challenges that often chip away at a couple’s connection, along with the practical, concrete things you can do.
Relationship Challenge: Competing Demands
It’s hard to stay connected to your spouse when you’ve got a demanding career—and you never really clock out—and a child or two (or five). As clinical psychologist Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, said, many jobs today, with their mobile/virtual offices, bleed into our personal/family time and space.
So when 6 p.m. hits, one spouse might still be working (or traveling for work), while the other quickly prepares dinner, and possibly eats alone. Or one spouse might be helping the oldest with homework, while the other is doing bath, books and bed with the smaller kids. Which might be followed by more work, and eventually some sleep.
It’s all-too easy to take our relationship and our partner for granted—and to let everything else fill our days.
Irwin suggested setting firm boundaries around work—when possible. For instance, maybe you can put your phone in a drawer in a different room for an hour or two so you can spend uninterrupted time with your spouse. “Even if you don’t respond right away to texts and emails, your brain has received the alert and resources are being dedicated to either suppressing the desire to respond, or to thinking about how/when you are going to respond,” Irwin said. Which takes that attention and resources away from focusing on your spouse.
She also stressed the importance of scheduling sex. Which might sound terribly unromantic. However, research has found that people in long-term relationships who schedule intimate time actually have the most satisfying sex lives. If you wait for spontaneous sex, amid a full schedule, you might be waiting a long while. Plus, spontaneous desire naturally drops after the honeymoon period is over, which is about 6 to 18 months, according to Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counselor and founder of Clinton Power + Associates in Sydney, Australia. He also underscored making sex a priority: “When you think about the top 10 things that you need to prioritize in your week, make sure that having sex is somewhere in that list.” If it’s not, he said, figure out what you can remove, and replace it with.
Other important ways to maintain your connection include talking about how you’re doing (not just what you’re doing) and creating small rituals. Irwin, co-founder of the EFT Resource Center, shared these examples: having a cup of coffee every morning or taking a walk together; waking up early to make love before the kids are up; or snuggling in bed for a bit, whether you go to bed at the same time or not.
Relationship Challenge: Stress
Stress can show up in many forms—financial, familial, professional. And it can make you less resilient, less rational, less patient and more likely to lash out at your spouse. “When stress is not adequately managed by a couple, it can affect the mental, physical, and spiritual health of both partners,” said Power.
He suggested readers work on relieving stress both on their own, and as a couple. For example, participate in anything that has a calming effect on your nervous system, such as attending a yoga class or listening to relaxing music. Then, as a couple, create shared pleasurable experiences, such as: walking in the park, getting coffee at your favorite café, attending a new art exhibit, he said.
Physical gestures also are great. According to Power, you might look into each other’s eyes, touch your partner’s arm or shoulder, hug them when they get home, and hold hands as you’re walking down the street. “All these physical gestures have a soothing effect on your nervous system and will calm the stress response.”
And, of course, it’s important to reflect on the specifics of your stress, and identify potential solutions. Can you do anything about the tough spot you’re in? Can you talk to your supervisor? Can you create a budget? Where can you save? What can you let go of? Where can you simplify? What do you have control over? What can you change?
Relationship Challenge: Avoiding Conflict
Many, many couples avoid conflict. Maybe it’s because they’re afraid to discuss difficult issues. Maybe it’s because they assume avoiding conflict is good for their relationship (“Oh, we never fight!”). But avoiding conflict actually creates more conflict, Power said.
It also becomes problematic when you turn to other people—friends, family, coworkers—to talk about your relationship problems. Many conflict-avoidant couples “mistakenly believe that by offloading to people other than their partner it will help with their difficulties and they won’t have to address them head-on with their partner,” Power said. However, “raising and resolving issues with your primary partner will always be the best way to improve your connection and strengthen your relationship.”
Of course, the key is to fight right. For instance, Power has recommended that conflict-avoidant couples schedule regular “state of the union meetings.” This is when each partner thinks of one or two concerns they’d like to raise (since their last meeting) in a clear and compassionate way. They each take turns listening with empathy to the other person. They don’t interrupt, minimize or criticize. Instead, they summarize and reflect back what they’re hearing to make sure they truly understand their partner’s perspective.
Communicating in this way helps both partners to feel safe and closer and to develop a deeper understanding of each other. After all, we grow, as individuals, as a couple, when we explore and resolve our differences. And we feel more connected when we know that our partner has our back, and they care to take the time and space to really hear us.
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