February 1, 2020 | by brooke wagner | photo by jana graham photography
The invitations have been sent; the rings have been purchased, the white gown hangs fresh and crisp in the closet, carefully protected behind a veil of plastic. Vows will be spoken - promises to love forever and cherish - with a determination that nothing will ever subdue the flood of emotion that exists in those early days of dating and engagement. And then...life happens. Careers, hobbies, unexpected bills, and stressful life events begin to gradually take over the minutes and hours that were devoted to each other in the beginning. Little footsteps scurrying down the hall replace the sound of whispered conversation in the midnight hours, and the connection between married couples begins to feel more like a disconnection.
Many things can lead to a lack of connection in marriage or other relationships. No matter the cause, experts agree that this rarely happens from one significant occurrence. Couples drift apart over time, in a gradual day-to-day erosion that may not even be apparent for years. Sheri Mitchell, a local Billings resident who counsels young, and seasoned, married couples alike, says, “Every day is a brick that you get to choose how you will place. Will you use that brick to begin to build a wall between you and your spouse, or will it be used to place a wall of protection around your marriage and family?” She also notes that “...too many couples don’t realize there is a wall between them until it seems insurmountable.”
Mitchell says that the cause of the problem can also be a part of the solution. Since small, daily choices to turn away from our partner lead to the wall that can form between us, small, daily choices to instead turn towards our partner can be the first step in chiseling away the barriers to intimacy. She notes that wives are often the “relational part of the equation,” and may be the first to notice that something is amiss in the relationship. Rather than waiting for your spouse to plan a special evening out, Mitchell encourages wives to arrange a date night, even if it is just tucking kids in bed and ordering pizza in with a "No Vacancy" sign on the door. Discuss "off-limits" topics beforehand, including anything that could lead to added stress or conflict, to ensure that the evening fosters connection rather than increases the divide. Mitchell urges husbands, in turn, to find ways to connect with their wives in little ways throughout the day, even if it's a simple text to say, “I love you.” Instead of rushing through a generic, “How was your day?”, reserve the first 15 minutes after you walk through the door to Face Time the old-fashioned way - face to face.
Most relationships thrive when a sense of security in that relationship is established. Security can be fostered through spending time together, enjoying meaningful conversation, and extending a sense of selflessness to the other person (putting their needs and desires above our own.) When we begin to feel disconnected in a relationship, our brain goes into panic mode. We grasp at anything that will help to restore that sense of safety we felt when we were unified with our loved one. Often the breakdown is short-lived, and we are quickly able to find unity and reconnect with our partner. If the sense of isolation that frequent disconnection brings should continue for extended periods, however, it can be a long and winding road to find our way back to our loved one.
Dustin Lehman is a Marriage and Family therapist with Northwest Counseling Center. He says, "The primary obstacle I observe in the couples I work with, and even in my marriage, is selfishness. It's clear that people are missing many opportunities to build on the investment of loyalty and intimacy in their relationships because the focus becomes self.” This self-absorption creates isolation in the relationship, which leads almost inevitably towards a breakdown in communication and connection.
He asks couples to define what loyalty and intimacy look like in their own lives and notes a common response. Loyalty is typically viewed as being true to someone, and intimacy is often defined as "trust.” Lehman notes, "Intimacy can be pictured as 'into-me-see.' It's a unique and deep understanding, a strong connection, and proficiency in the knowledge of a person. If you have intimate knowledge of how to build a house or how to crochet, then you have special knowledge of how to complete that task more effectively than others could. The same is true in marriage - if you are unyielding in your pursuit of each other, intimacy will be the fruit, allowing each of you to engage one another in a way that no one else can."
The buzzword for today's culture seems to be busy! We are busy with our jobs, busy with our commitments, busy with our recreation and hobbies. Often, we think we have more time, more energy, more to give than we actually do. If nothing is reserved for the people closest to us, the relationships will suffer. Taking time to look into our significant other's eyes and ask what would make them feel valued and seen can go a long way towards rekindling that connection that seemed so simple at the start of the relationship. Make a mental or written list (especially if you have gotten a bit out of practice) of things that are important to your partner and be intentional about doing them. Be patient with one another, especially if the relationship has been adrift for a while. It may seem impossible, but over time, a strong fortress of connection and intimacy can be rebuilt - one brick at a time.