Dear Neil: Please help me understand what happened to my marriage. In the beginning of our relationship, we were so close with each other: we spent huge amount of time talking, going to movies and new restaurants, traveling, sharing hopes and dreams, romancing each other, continually making love. We were always affectionate—touching each other, holding hands, cuddling—and it was easy to let go of whatever grievances, annoyances, irritations or differences we had with each other.
Now, ten years later, we barely talk with each other, we sleep in separate bedrooms, we rarely touch and there is constant angry tension between us. We haven’t had sex in almost three years, and there is virtually no romance in our relationship at all. We are like brothers and sisters with each other: there’s a shared household, shared chores and shared lifestyle, but without the closeness, friendship, affection, sexuality or sweet intimate connection.
This is my second marriage, and I promised myself that I would never allow this relationship to resemble my last one. But it does. How can I again be doing what I most don’t want? What happens in intimate relationships that seems to take close friends and lovers and turn them into autotrons with no heart, no soul, no spirit and no passion with each other?
Bewildered and Disheartened in Vail, Colorado
Dear Bewildered: Most men and women don’t know how to sustain friendship, romance, intimate connection and passion over time. Love, which takes much less effort in the beginning of a relationship, increasingly requires far more patience, effort, effective communication, the ability to address, resolve and then to let go of and forgive hurts, effective compromising, problem solving and negotiating skills, the assumption of good will, trust, sustained romance and affection over time.
It’s the unusual relationship—one the common one—that does all of that. As a result, because of the myriad of ways two people can hurt each other, act selfish or insensitive, annoy, irritate and grow more distant from each other—couples begin to feel less close, less connected, less giving, less responsive. They quit trying as hard as they once did, are more withdrawn and they put less feeling into their relationship.
So of course romance, passion and sexuality wane. Both people may be feeling that they have given more than they’ve received. And many people just don’t have the stick-to-it-ness or the patience to work through the various demands, requests, hurt feelings and angry retorts that are inevitable for two people who are attempting to blend lives. This steady erosion of intimacy, closeness and passion has a very strong effect on how people feel about their relationship over time.
So what can you do about all of this? You could sit down with your wife and tell her you know that things have grown more distant between the two of you—and then tell her you want her back and that you’ll do whatever it takes to make your marriage warm, affectionate, close and intimate again. Ask her if she is open to becoming close friends and affectionate lovers again, and if she is, set some time aside and invite her to speak about what has happened for her through the years and why she has felt the need to distance things between the two of you.
Your job is to respectfully listen, not to talk—not yet. It’s to crawl into your wife’s feelings and to really understand what occurred for her and how she got hurt or disillusioned. No defenses, no retorts, and no “you did that too” comments are allowed. Your job is to first understand why she withdrew. Then ask her what she needs in order to let go of these grievances so that she can kiss and makeup with you. Again, listen respectfully—and if you can—agree to what she asks of you.
Now it’s your turn. Ask her to listen to you the same way you listened to her—and talk about what happened to you that led you to withdraw—and tell her what you would like from her in order for you to fully come back to her with your whole being.
This is an intimacy skill, and most couples have a hard time talking this reasonably and civilly, but you could try. If you guys get into trouble, find a marriage counselor to help you, and do so right away.