In the first part(s) of this series I talked about how relationships go through stages, and over time passion can be lost as the emotional connection between a couple breaks down. Some people respond to this loss of passion by looking for it outside the relationship, either through an affair or divorce (with the hopes of finding it in a subsequent relationship). Other people stay in the relationship but accept the loss of passion as an inevitable outcome for long term relationships.
I don’t believe this has to happen. The intense hormone driven passion during the infatuation stage of a relationship is gone, but a healthier long term passion can still be nurtured. The love in a marriage (or any long term relationship) should still be a beautiful, wonderful thing. Maybe I’m just naive, but I believe your feelings for your partner should still be able to take your breath away whether you’ve been together 2 years or 60.
In this final part I want to discuss how emotional connection can be rebuilt and passion can be found. Most of the ideas here have come from a variety of sources; books, articles, counselors and even talking with other couples. I believe strongly in long term relationships and marriage, and I believe no matter how hopeless things may seem it is never too late.
When passion breaks down it can often feel like the death of a loved one, and in some ways it is. Your partner may still be there, but there is a sense of loss for the relationship that previously existed. When this happens it is common to look for something to blame. What happened? How did it break down? Was there something wrong with your partner? Was it because they simply didn’t show you enough love? Was there something fundamentally wrong with the relationship? Was there something wrong with you?
First it’s important to acknowledge that yes, in some ways the relationship IS at fault. But a question to ask yourself is, is the problem something inherent about the relationship? Or is it perhaps the way one or both parties have approached the relationship? If it is a flaw with the way the relationship has been approached then it can be improved. After all, you loved each other once. So why can’t you go back there?
But you won’t actually go “back there”. The patterns of the past are what got you to your current state. So your future must be different. Different isn’t bad though, and it can in fact be better.
You may believe the current state of the relationship is largely due to your partner, which may be true. In some ways however, that doesn’t matter. You do need to understand how you got to your current state in order to avoid making the same mistakes again. Beyond that though, you have to be able to let go of the past and move on. If you want to rebuild, blame simply puts up barriers.
In addition to not blaming your partner, it is important to acknowledge that there are two people in a relationship and you played a role in any issues.
When you are in denial about your part in the relationship then you are no better than a child flinging sand at another child in a sandbox. When you take responsibility for your part in the marriage, only then will you be able to connect with your partner in a mature, intimate way. – Carin Goldstein, LMFT
Believing in Change
For things to change, you need to believe things CAN change. There are two primary mind sets people can have in life, fixed and growth mind sets. I will write more on them in the future, but in order to truly believe in change you have to embrace a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset people often don’t believe change is possible. Problems are seen as a sign of a fundamental flaw, and there is a belief relationships should not require effort (because if it requires effort then it’s not true love). Hate to say it, but if your relationship is in a tough spot and you have a fixed mindset you WILL fail unless you can change that mindset first.
Even without a negative mindset, when you are in a bad spot the situation can poison any effort and make it hard to believe things can improve. In the sports world Phil Jackson recently made the following comment about this negative mindset:
Losing breeds more losing. It’s hard to work out of a funk when the team doesn’t have any sort of confidence. The self-perpetuating cycle just keeps on churning, pushing a squad into a deeper and deeper hole.
The comment was about a basketball team, but it applies to any interpersonal dynamic. Things won’t turn around on their own, and the longer you wait before taking action the deeper the issues get until eventually they seem hopeless. The truth is, everything can improve with effort.
Putting in Effort
Have you seen the movie the Matrix (part one of course, as I will deny the other parts exist)? In it, Keanu Reeves is able to learn anything by simply getting the information he needs uploaded into his head. He needs to learn to fight? No problem. Just upload a Kung Fu program into your brain and voila, instant black belt!!!
Guess what, life’s not like that. Even if you truly believe change is possible it doesn’t just happen on its own. You need to be willing to put in the effort.
Imagine you want to get into better shape. How do you do it? Do you sit at home thinking “I wish I was in better shape” while popping another Dorito in your mouth? I’ve tried, it doesn’t help. What about if you want to learn a new language? Does it suddenly come to you one day? If you have a post-secondary education, did a degree show up in the mail one day causing the knowledge to just appear in your head? No. All of these things require time, effort and dedication; and rebuilding your relationship is no different.
There are no magic wands, and no shortcuts. If you truly want to make changes in your relationship (or any aspect of life), you need to put in effort in order to facilitate those changes. This isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t have to be difficult. Think of it like riding a bike. If you haven’t ridden a bike in a long time, the first few attempts will be shaky and may feel a little unnatural. You may even fall down a few times and wonder if you’ll ever be able to do it again. But if you keep at it, it will come back and eventually it will feel natural again.
Effort is key here, and mindset is everything. There will be setbacks, but you can’t give up in frustration every time things aren’t going well. You need to commit yourself to re-igniting your relationship. It will take time, and require SUSTAINED effort.
Alright, you need to put in effort and you need to believe. But what do you actually have to do?
Take Care of You
One important, and often overlooked thing is taking care of yourself. It’s kind of like the reminders you get before a plane takes off – “In case of a drop in cabin pressure, put your own air mask on first”. This is the same. Basically, you can’t help your relationship if you can’t help yourself. Of course it’s also important not to take this too far, and you can’t ignore your relationship while focusing only on you. But in order to get your relationship to a healthy place you also need to be in a healthy place (or working towards one).
Find Each Other Again
The biggest thing with lost passion is that the couple has “lost each other”. Part of this may be due to different roles. All couples start as friends and lovers, but over time life starts to get in the way. We have jobs, mortgages, bills, and families; and time is quickly filled up with routine. If you don’t devote time to each other it is very easy for the emotional connection to break down, and the relationship to devolve into simply being roommates. When this happens you need to rediscover each other and find each other again.
How do you do this? First, you need to start prioritizing time for each other again. Life is full of routines and things that have to be done, so if you don’t “make time” for each other you will never have it. There will ALWAYS be other things that get in the way. If your relationship is important, then make it a priority in your life. If you haven’t made each other a priority then that’s probably a big part of how you got into this spot.
One of the best resources I have found for rebuilding is John Gottmans book “The 7 Principles for Making Marriage Work”. One of the ideas Gottman has is that when connection has broken down, a couple can actively work on rebuilding their “love maps”. The book contains a number of questionnaires and exercises for couples to do, ideally together. The basic premise behind them is about learning who your partner is again. Engaging them, exploring your hopes and dreams together, and re-learning each other.
Gottmans books has 7 principles for rebuilding an nurturing your relationship:
- Enhance Your “Love Maps”. This is about re-learning each other and ensuring you continue to stay in tune with your partner’s life
- Nurture Your Fondness and Admiration. This is about thinking about the positive sides of both your partner and your relationship, and taking time to appreciate them
- Turn Toward Each Other Instead of Away. This is about actively expressing appreciation for each other (side note, I thought I came up with the marital bank account idea used in prior posts on my own, but apparently I read it here first)
- Let Your Partner Influence You. Learn from each other, and be willing to make changes for each other
- Solve Your Solvable Problems. Learn how to deal with issues in a non-judgmental way, and learn to compromise
- Overcome Gridlock. Some problems will never be solved, and will be perpetual issues in your marriage. This is about learning to accept and live with that problem in a way that you both can talk about it and accept that it’s there, and is simply an acceptable difference between you
- Create Shared Meaning. To me this is about emotional intimacy. Finding the deep inner meanings that you can agree on that bond you together, and trying to learn and understand your partner at a deeper level
It had been a few years since I had read this book, but reviewing it for this post reminded me of just how much relationship gold it contains. It should really be a must read for anyone in a relationship, but it is especially good for “distressed” relationships (side note – why is it that you need a license to drive a car, but you don’t need to demonstrate any ability to work as a team prior to getting married?).
Focus on the Positive
Looking at your problems it’s easy to get caught up in who has done what, or what is wrong. So one of the biggest suggestions you will find for repairing and rebuilding a relationship is to remember the good, and focus on it. When you can see how much good you have, it can put into context the things that need improving.
Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough – Paul Pierce
Make lists of all the positive things you can think of about your relationship and your life together. Things like your happiest moments and characteristics that you love about your partner. Then invite your partner to do the same, and share the lists. Sometimes when the relationship is tense it can feel like nothing is going right, so it is important to reminder yourself about what you love about your partner. But sharing this allows you to remind them of the things that you love (and vice versa). This should increase feelings of warmth between you and help rebuild the bond.
Bring Back the Fun
Fun. It’s so important, and so easily lost when things are in a bad place (think of the losers mentality from above). Think of the last time you and your partner had fun together. Has it been recent, has it been a long time?
In part 1 I talked about Robert De Niro’s character from Analyze This. He had lost sight of his wife, and only saw her as the mother of his children instead of his friend and lover. It can be hard to do in the early years of being a parent, but it’s important to always make time to be a couple and not just family.
Go on regular dates, and try to bring back a sense of fun and romance (both partners are equally responsible for this). Find an activity you can both do together on a regular basis and do it. If all you are doing is stuff as a family, then you are simply reinforcing the idea of partner as family. You NEED to be a couple, and be able to have fun as a couple again. To do that you need to spend time alone, away from the kids. And importantly, you need to get out of the house!!!
I mentioned a couple I knew who tried this, and they found they didn’t know how to talk to each other anymore. In addition to taking time as a couple, find other “friend couples” that you can go out with. This allows you to interact as a couple while still being in a social setting, and it takes some of the pressure off of having to “fill the silence” with each other. This can be things like going to dinner or events, playing cards/board games/whatever. Couple dates and joint friends allows socializing in a fun/friendly atmosphere, and helps reinforce the sense of team. This is invaluable for helping to build and maintain bonds.
In addition to rebuilding a feeling of closeness, you have to become lovers and place a priority on maintaining physical intimacy. This can be one of the hardest parts of rebuilding, but being lovers is a natural extension of emotional connection. As emotional connection is rebuilt this *should* come back naturally. That said, it’s a sensitive and complicated topic (which I believe it warrants it’s own post), so I’ll leave this one alone for another day.
Final Word on Passion
It’s human nature to want a fulfilling relationship, we all want it. If you are in a long term relationship, you came together for a reason. When the connection has broken down remember why you came together. Rediscover each other, your passion for each other, and work to maintain it. It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that relationships must be maintained, and it is the responsibility of both parties to keep the spark alive. It requires commitment, and it requires effort.
There are many ways to show your commitment to improving your relationship, and what works for one couple may not work for another. Take a look and pick what you think may work for you. Try it, if it helps great. If not try something different. But the key is you need to take action, try different things, and put in effort.
I like to think of a relationship as a plant. With water and sunlight the smallest seed can grow into a strong beautiful tree. In a relationship, the water and sunlight is the tenderness, affection and effort that we put into each other. Once plants have had time to establish their roots, they can weather all sorts of storms. Times of drought can take a toll, and without care eventually the strongest plants will die. They are remarkably hardy though, and even when they appear dead the roots may still be alive. As long as the roots are alive it’s never too late, and if given the attention it needs the plant will return. The new plant may look a bit different, but it can still be just as beautiful.
Long term relationships require effort, but I believe they are worth it. A close friend once compared rebuilding passion and emotional connection to trying to get an iceberg moving. At first it seems like an impossible task, and the effort to get it moving is considerable. Slowly though it will start to move, and as it moves it will gain momentum. But that momentum requires effort and commitment on both parts. Commit to your partner, and together you can achieve anything.
I’m interested in what YOU think, and if you have any ideas or suggestions for maintaining the passion and emotional connection that keeps us together.