Have you ever sat on a park bench and watched people? You’ve seen recently committed couples entwined, glowing, oblivious to the rest of the world, enveloped in a private bubble of infatuation. Contrast these love-birds with the older married couples, silently tolerating the other’s presence, alone together in separate shrouds of physical and emotional isolation. Have you ever wondered what transpires between that goo-goo eye beginning of a relationship, and that sinking state of loneliness in a decades-long marriage?
In my profession, I frequently see couples whose marriages have lost their connection. Affection is lacking, specifically physical touch and emotional intimacy.
The partners have drifted apart, believing that they are giving each other independent space, seeking fulfilling interaction with friends and co-workers, connecting with each other more over logistical concerns like children and household chores, than intimate matters. They don’t bother to share their feelings with each other. They find someone else with whom to confide, putting their relationships at risk.
When one partner talks to a third party about how they feel about their spouse and marriage, they set themselves up to being found out. Should the other partner discover that the couple’s “dirty laundry” has been aired, they feel betrayed. Now the relationship is even more vulnerable.
Introducing Anna and Jason
Jason and Anna’s relationship revolves around giving each other space and keeping to their established routines. They don’t touch each other physically or seem particularly interested in one another. Their nine-year-old daughter is the glue that holds their marriage together. When they talk, it’s usually about their daughter and her needs.
Jason is a fiercely independent person, set in his ways. He arrives home at 6:00 on the dot every night, anticipating the downtime he requires to block out his day. The last thing he wants to do is talk to Anna about what happened at work or how he feels about this or that.
Anna, on the other hand, wants to share about her day. He hates it when she interrupts his valued peace and quite with her chatter. The thing Jason despises the most, is her asking him if something is wrong. That triggers total avoidance, a dreadfully quiet dinner, and an early retreat alone to bed for sourpuss Jason.
I met Anna and Jason in therapy where their public persona is such that they smile at one another, are respectful, and friendly. One would think that nothing is wrong with their relationship. When asked about their marriage, they say that they are happy together but would prefer to be a little closer.
Anna shares that to fill the gap left by not being as close as she would like to be to Jason, she has built a supportive network of friends. Monday nights she talks on the phone with her best friends and Thursday evenings she gets together with her college roommates. Jason is all for this. He has no interest in making friends or doing things socially with anyone.
When Jason feels down or stressed, he reports that he gets support from two co-workers, women, whom he considers to be great friends. They are relaxed around each other and can talk about anything. News to Anna. She’s shocked that Jason is more comfortable confiding in co-workers than in her.
How’s this independence thing working?
Jason values his freedom and believes it to be the foundation of their relationship. He loves to spend time on his own; running errands, shopping, even being with his daughter, he’s happiest when there are no other people involved.
Jason’s version of independence has denied Anna access to him. He does not think that touching Anna or talking to her is all that important. Adults shouldn’t have these needs. Anna inadvertently has agreed to this behavior. She has given him space because she loves him. Anna is starved for a connection but copes by relying on her circle of close girlfriends.
So what’s the big deal with intimacy?
If being happy means that a couple has learned how to tolerate one another and work around what isn’t working well, Anna and Jason are doing that. But, even if they are content enough, they have allowed the physical and emotional intimacy, the kind you can only get from a committed partner, to slip away. They are so rigid with one another they are afraid to look into intimacy of this degree; afraid the relationship would end.
In any marriage, it is normal and even healthy to have independent interests and time apart from each other. However, if there is an imbalance between fulfilling your individual pursuits and the physical and emotional needs of your partner, the relationship is vulnerable to someone entering who fills the void for one spouse, leaving the abandoned partner emotionally deserted.
We marry to be happy and to make our spouse happy. We marry to touch and be touched, to be supportive and supported, to grow together, to share, to talk, to play, to love and experience love in return. We marry for that deep level of intimacy. No marriage can survive physical and emotional isolation for long.
Time for reflection
Think about your current relationship. How often do you caress each other, laugh together, and share personal stuff with each other? Do you think it’s childish or silly to do this; that adults don’t need this kind of interaction? If so, please reconsider. Seek to hold onto the physical and emotional intimacy for which you married in the first place. Stay connected. Allow your relationship to thrive.