The decline of a relationship is an awful thing to experience. More often than not, the process starts slowly, and we hardly notice little ways we may be pulling back or growing apart. Eventually, negative dynamics start to evolve, then persist for so long that we have trouble knowing where to start when it comes to repairing the relationship.
When thinking about where things went wrong, it's important to recognize that a lot of what we do to ruin our relationships has to do with us. Much of how we act is based on programming from our past and defenses we've built that cause us to overreact, distort or even provoke the people we feel closest to. Because the only person we can control or change in a relationship is ourselves, it's almost always worth it to do what we can to develop ourselves before we throw in the towel with our partner.
When things get complicated with someone we love, sometimes the best thing to do is go back to the basics and keep things simple. We can start by setting aside that giant case we've long built against our partner and starting fresh with simple acts of kindness, affection and love. This doesn't mean living in a fantasy or avoiding dealing with real issues, but it's a means of reconnecting with warm, loving feelings we may have cast aside. It's a quest to reignite what worked about the relationship, so we and our partner are on the same team and in a better place when it comes to dealing with problems. Here are five things that can help any couple turn this important corner.
1. Express love in a way your partner would experience as loving
This may not sound like a very specific or especially scientific suggestion, but so often we forget to attune to our partner and do the things we know make them feel loved. Particularly when there's tension in the relationship, we tend to focus on what we're getting (or not getting) over what we're giving. We build a case against our partner, and as a defense, we withhold our affections and resist being open and vulnerable.
The more distance created, the more ready we are to feel critical or put our guard up. We start to live more inwardly, getting in our own heads, quantifying, judging or indulging in a tit-for-tat mentality about what our partner does and doesn't do for us. The truth is, it feels really good to be loving. Studies even show that people get more pleasure from giving than receiving. It's important to pay attention to our partner and engage in kind actions that he or she would perceive as being cared for. For instance, getting flowers or going out to dinner may feel like romantic gestures to us, but to our partner, they may prefer taking some time to joke around or be affectionate. Try to offer something that you know will have unique value to them. Engaging in such loving acts actually makes us feel more in love.
2. Be affectionate
Most couples wonder how they went from not being able to keep their hands off each other to rarely making physical contact. Unfortunately, society tends to justify this pattern, reinforcing the idea that long-term couples are unsuitable for "puppy love" or PDA. Yet, this elimination of affection is a sad and slow progression that often starts when a couple transitions from being a "you" and a "me" to becoming a "we." Of course, finding a connection with someone is thrilling and meaningful, but losing yourself and your separate identity in the mix is paving a dangerous road. People feel most attracted to their partner when they see them as someone separate from themselves, someone they are able to love, respect and appreciate for their unique qualities.
When couples replace substance (real acts of love) with form (the practical roles of being in a relationship), they enter into a "fantasy bond." This bond represents an illusion of connection that actually kills off passion and attraction. We can keep the spark alive by refusing to give up our own, natural desire to express love on a physical level. Hold hands, kiss in public, sit close on the couch, touch casually in passing, and you'll be surprised to see the depths of desire and feelings of intimacy that arise.
3. Slow down
We hear these two words all the time, but we rarely live by them. For most of us slowing down means plopping on the couch or zoning out to the TV the minute our chaotic to-do list is done. No matter how hectic our schedule, there are ways to take pause within our own minds and reconnect with ourselves throughout the day. Mindfulness provides a way of checking in with ourselves, which is one of interpersonal neurobiology expert Dr. Daniel Siegel's essential aspects on his "healthy mind platter."
Mindfulness allows us to breathe and be present in the moment. In these times of reconnection, we are not only more in touch with ourselves, but we are better able to recognize and be attuned to our partner. We are more mindful of our actions toward them. We are also more aware of our feelings of desire and attraction.
When we are more present, we can make an effort to really connect, communicate and make eye contact. Again, this may feel like a no-brainer, but in truth, looking each other in the eye is one of the things we forget to do on a daily basis. Just looking at our partner and really seeing him or her as a whole person, separate from ourselves, can further rekindle our empathy, interest and attraction.
4. Try something old
As a relationship advances, it becomes all too easy to make excuses not to make time for each other. When we do get together, we may do things out of a sense of form or obligation. Relationships tend to start fizzling out when we stop sharing the lively things we used to share with our partner. Moreover, once things start to fizzle out, we become even less inclined to share these activities. The cycle that's created forces more and more distance between partners. We can challenge this by making a commitment to take part in activities we and our partner used to share and enjoy together. If we used to go on walks, we shouldn't let a long workday dissuade us from getting outside. Participating in activities that light us up or that light our partner up helps us stay close with our partner, while feeling the most ourselves.
5. Try something new
When people first get together, they often grow each other's worlds, introducing each other to new people, places, interests and activities. When we fall in love, we are in a state in which we feel the most open and alive. As our relationship progresses, and the more we replace real love with a fantasy bond, the more we tend to resist anything new. Especially as we get older, we can become more self-protective or further drawn to routine. We may start to feel more entitled to our partner or more jealous or possessive and, therefore, put restrictions on each other. In effect, we start to limit or shrink each other's worlds, rather than expanding them. We can keep love alive by continuing to be game to try new things. The more adventures we can create with each other in our day-to-day lives, the more awake we will feel to everything we experience, particularly intimacy and closeness.
In almost every relationship, there comes a time when we are challenged to the point of questioning whether to walk away. In fact when I interviewed my friend Jim Gilligan, who has been married to his wife Carol for almost 50 years, he said "you are not really married until you realize you can leave, and you don't." I encourage every couple I meet who has ever felt truly happy and alive with each other, who once felt like the best version of themselves, while being in the relationship, to stick in there and try to develop themselves. Otherwise, they are very likely to repeat the same patterns in yet another situation, perhaps one that isn't even as meaningful or rewarding.
Relationships are a great place to work on ourselves. There is no harm in trying each of the above steps, as you truly have nothing to lose. The worst case scenario is that you will have grown your own capacity to be loving, vulnerable, passionate and lively. The best case scenario is that you and your partner will grow closer and rekindle your loving feelings for each other.
Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org