For Greater Intimacy, Stay in Touch With Hopes and Dreams
“Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.” W.H. Auden
Any committed relationship involves struggle and growth. Handling conflict successfully together, though, both depends on and helps produce a deep knowledge of your partner—and that will surely make for an interesting marriage.
Psychologists use the term “presenting problem” to refer to the reason people seek therapy. In couples counseling, the presenting problem is likely to be some crisis such as an affair or a problem with a child. But often it is the underlying lack of emotional and sexual connection that brings people to counseling.
During the initial interview, a couple will often say some variation on “We feel like roommates; there is no excitement or passion anymore.” They are living parallel lives, focusing on their kids or other pastimes that don’t involve connecting emotionally to each other. They come to therapy with patchy knowledge of each other’s hopes and dreams.
Work-Life Balance in Relationships
Sherry and Tim are an example of a couple that has lost touch with each other. Sherry explains, “My job demands all my attention. When I come home, I’m exhausted—all I want is to have some time alone. Being close feels like an effort, like another job. Even just sitting next to Tim on the sofa, I can’t relax because he might take that as a sign I’m willing to have sex.” By avoiding sex, which has come to feel like another demand on her time, Sherry actually avoids even physical contact—the hugs and kisses that express and maintain affection. The unintended result of months, even years, of avoiding Tim is what makes these spouses feel like roommates. Feeling alone and unloved, Tim gets cranky and argumentative. Small disagreements escalate, leaving both Sherry and Tim disillusioned with their relationship.
Staying Close after the Initial Romance
In the dating stage and through the early phases of a relationship, couples share their life aspirations, hopes, and dreams. Staying connected comes naturally. In time—after years of working and making a home to provide shelter and comfort, after surviving the early years of adjusting to having children—life’s challenges wear away at a couple, and they can wake up one morning and feel at a loss. Who is this person I married? (This question may be accompanied by an even deeper disconnect from one’s own inner life, but that’s a subject for another post.)
In couples counseling, one of the first steps is to find ways to get to know each other again. Couples therapists often suggest having a date night once a week. While it is important to spend time together regularly, often date night becomes just another stress in itself. Someone has to schedule it, someone has to arrange childcare, husband and wife may both be tired, and a movie plus dinner plus babysitting isn’t cheap, which may add financial stress. Add a few glasses of wine, and the table is set to rehash lingering hurts. The Four Horsemen come charging out across the restaurant and crashing into the dinner table. The date ends in disappointment, and worse, in more resentment. There’s nothing like resentment for an anti-aphrodisiac, so date night becomes fight night.
For Sherry and Tim to reconnect, they needed to remember why they married. During our sessions, Sherry and Tim were able to talk about what they appreciate about each other. Using a variety of Dr. Gottman’s interventions, such as “Expressing Fondness and Admiration” and “Relationship Enhancing Thoughts”, they were able to build back feelings toward each other that had become mired in the morass of negative thinking. Once they began to deconstruct the walls they had built, they were able to share hopes and dreams, leading to a deeper understanding of each other. Intimacy is grounded in honoring dreams and creating shared meaning in relationship.
Self-Care is Essential to a Close Relationship
Lifestyle changes, such as exercise and meditation helped Sherry to manage her stress from work and enjoy relaxing with Tim, instead of always needing alone time. Tim was able to see that Sherry’s way of de-stressing was to spend a little time alone after a hard day. Tim’s acceptance helped Sherry to feel understood, and Sherry’s relaxing helped Tim to feel loved.
These insights came because they took the time to face the scary thought that they had drifted apart. Couples therapy may not be easy, but it is often a relief to look each other in the eyes and talk about the difficult things in a safe setting. That’s important in moving toward intimacy after a long hiatus focusing on everything except each other. Rediscovering your friendship, and finding ways to talk about your hopes and dreams, will lead to honoring those dreams—and each other.
As Auden says, the marriage that has evolved through the creation of time and will is infinitely more interesting than any fleeting romance, no matter how passionate.
I will add to this by saying that a marriage can become both interesting and passionate. Getting to know each other’s hopes and dreams deeply, facing down life’s challenges together, both creates and sustains intimacy.