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A Declining Relationship? Recharge It Through "Indifference"

You can revitalize your relationship by learning to become "indifferent."

My posts about building the New Resiliency have focused mostly on relationships—looking at what's wrong with our model of adult love; the psychology of affairs; healing empathy deficit disorder; and creating a true soul mate. Here's one more in that same theme. It's about a paradox I've found that can restore passion and connection in a declining relationship.

First, I'll describe some versions of the problem—and you're likely to identify with some of them yourself. For example, Nora, 43, who has a successful career as a free-lance magazine writer and has two children. She's been married for 15 years to Ken, a media executive. They're typical of many couples today—committed to their relationship and family as much as to their careers. They want to stay that way. Yet, something troubles them. It's what's happened along the way during their marriage. There's nothing "wrong" with it, exactly. But the excitement and energy, the feelings of connection and passion that were once there have gradually faded over the years. "The old feelings haven't exactly disappeared," Nora says. "Now and then it feels something like it used to. But mostly it feels like our relationship has ‘flatlined.'"

Another person, David, recently celebrated the eleventh anniversary of his second marriage. He describes a similar shift a bit more sardonically, saying that his relationship has settled into a state of "depressing comfortableness." He's thought about having an affair.

If these laments sound familiar to you, it's likely because most men and women find that their long-term marriages (I'm defining "marriage" to describe all committed relationships, straight or gay) tend to head south over time.

Gradually, they descend into what I call the Functional Relationship.

Most people think it's inevitable, but there's a unique way to liberate yourself from it. It's learning to "leave" your relationship in order to transform it. You do that through becoming "indifferent."

In order to explain what I mean, let's look first at what typically happens in the Functional Relationship. The relationship continues to "work" fairly well, but mostly in a transactional way, around the logistics of daily life: "I thought you were taking the car in for repair." "Whose turn is it to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday?" Sometimes, it becomes more adversarial: "Why did you schedule the plumber for tomorrow when you knew you couldn't be here? I told you that I have a meeting I can't miss."

But even when "functioning" goes fairly smoothly, feelings of passion or even fun just hanging out together diminish, especially in contrast to how it felt early on in the relationship. As I've studied contemporary marriages in our post-9-11/post-economic meltdown-world of the 21st Century, I find that couples experience this diminishment in three main ways:

  • Decreased emotional intimacy and sharing of feelings.
  • Less equality in decisions and daily interactions, which are often tinged by power-struggles and silent maneuvering for the "upper hand."
  • And dampened sexuality, both in quantity and quality.

A note about that third item: Even when arousal is jacked up by Viagra or the new products purporting to enhance women's desire, your libido—desire for the person you're with—remains diminished. That's no surprise, because the latter is relationship-dependent. It remains unaffected even if you're physiologically able to become aroused.

Overall, couples in a Functional Relationship report a diminished sense of connection with each other. Sometimes it's a feeling of not being on the same wave-length.

Most people assume that the Functional Relationship is completely "normal;" just a sad reality of adult life. Some are resigned to it as just one more part of the "long slide home," as one 47-year-old journalist described his experience of midlife. Of course, not everyone feels so bleak, but many would agree with this woman's lament about her 18-year relationship: "What was once a bright flame has turned into a pilot light."

You, too probably assume that romantic and sexual connections are supposed to fade over time. Common sense seems to tell you so. After all, you're seeing the same person day-in and day-out, not just when he or she is most attractive. And like the majority of couples today, you're probably dealing with the impact of multitasking, dual-career lives. Raising children in addition absorbs enormous time and energy. Just trying to carry on in this uncertain, unpredictable world adds another huge layer of stress.

If everyday experience doesn't convince you that the Functional Relationship is inevitable, there are the pronouncements of various experts. For example, some researchers claim that brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine, associated with sexual excitement or desire, decline with familiarity. At the same time, oxytocin and endorphins, which generate feelings of quiet comfort and calm, rise. Therefore, they say, you are going to feel diminished desire for your partner over time.

Many marriage and relationship experts advocate just accepting this decline and learning to be happy with it. For example, in her book Surrendering to Marriage Iris Krasnow advocates learning to appreciate and live with the security and comfort that come along with the "inevitable" decline—unless, of course, you want to go down the slippery slope of an affair, or dumping your partner altogether and look for a new one. It's easy to think it's best to stop complaining about what you don't have and learn to live with lowered expectations.

If all of the above is really true, then you'd better resign yourself to believing that a "passionate marriage" is an oxymoron.

But before you do that, consider this: Descending into the Functional Relationship is neither natural nor inevitable. True, the experience is widespread. But most people descend into the Functional Relationship because it's the natural outcome of how you learn to engage in love relationships to begin with. As I wrote in a previous post, it's a version of adolescent romance. Its features—like intense arousal by a new person; infatuation, often followed by deflation; manipulating and game-playing—are part of normal adolescent development. But we carry them into our adult experience. And that model of love can't sustain long-term connection and vitality.

Becoming "Indifferent"
Through my research and clinical work, I've been discovering how and why some people defy the norm and generate new energy and vitality within their long-term relationships. I'm convinced that there's a way out of the Functional Relationship. There's even a way to avoid it altogether. I call it the art of Creative Indifference.

It's the alternative to constantly trying make your relationship work better through finding the latest technique; the alternative to responding and reacting to your partner in ways that have become habitual or frustratingly repetitive, convinced that you are "right." All of those kinds of behavior drain energy and keep you locked within the Functional Relationship.

Through Creative Indifference, you learn to disengage from your relationship in ways that circle back to revitalize it. It doesn't mean you stop caring about your partner or your relationship. To the contrary, Creative Indifference is a way to become less reactive to your own and your partner's behavior. It opens the door to positive change. Ultimately it helps you care in a deeper, more genuine way.

The indifference you build is towards your own internal emotional reactions and habitual responses, especially in situations in which you typically feel disappointed, defensive or critical towards your partner. That is, most tend to see things through the lens of your own needs, hurts, or conviction that you're "right." This reflects the narrowest part of the self, your ego-self. It's the narrow vantage point that tends to predominate in your perceptions and actions.

For example, maintaining resentments and disappointments in your partner's "failure" to provide you with what you want. Or, negative emotions resulting from the conviction that you're "right" and your partner is "wrong" regarding some issue of disagreement or difference.

With Creative Indifference, you observe your internal reactions—recognizing them as learned, conditioned responses—but without acting upon them. You observe your partner's behavior in the same way. And you step back from both.

That is, you separate who you are—what you think, feel, and believe—from who your partner is. You separate your own internal "reality" from that of your partner's. This begins to fuel greater respect for each of you as separate, individual people.

Mary and Joe
An example: One night after dinner Joe's wife, Mary's brought him a list of some domestic things that had piled up and required some decisions and logistical arrangements. She wanted to resolve all of the items—right then and right there. That's her style.

In fact, Mary tends to become anxious about things that feel "out of control." On his part, Joe tends to react defensively and passive-aggressively when Mary reminds him about things he had agreed to do but keeps putting off. This becomes their dance, in which Joe sees Mary as always nagging; and Mary fumes at Joe's unreliability.

For example, Joe might make promises, but fail to "remember" to take care of them. Mary then becomes angry and distrusting. She shows it, very clearly. In response, Joe withdraws and sees more evidence that she's a constant nag. Each of their individual issues reinforces the other's through this little minuet.

But this time something different occurred. Using Creative Indifference Joe first observed his usual internal response to Mary—resentment, feelings of being controlled, that she's a shrew, and so forth. He then stepped outside of this perspective—he didn't deny it to himself; just acknowledged it as a part of his own individual conditioning, the residue of old childhood issues, and so on.

He then imagined looking at himself from Mary's perspective, and then from an even broader perspective of watching the two of them together, like in a movie. This enabled him to see her anxiety, without his own reactivity. He saw that her reactions were simply her issues. With Creative Indifference to his old emotions and behavior, he refrained from engaging in those old ways.

From that perspective, Joe could feel some empathy for Mary's experience. He recognized that his own tendency to put things off triggered her issues, her vulnerabilities. This enabled him to create a more positive response. He told her that he understood how frustrating it is for her to not know when these items will be taken care of. This acknowledged her anxiety and need without agreeing with their "validity." Then, he gave her a time-frame that he could commit to, within the context of his own needs and schedule. He observed but didn't react to his old feelings that he would have to "give in."

He knew that Mary might not like his response, but, maintaining indifference to her reactivity, he stayed consistent with who he wanted to be in that moment—respectful of her issues, but very clear about himself. No anger, no retaliation, no submission.

"OK, I'm glad you told me," Mary replied. "Now I feel we're making progress."

With Creative Indifference you're not trying to get a particular response from your partner; nor acting with self-righteousness about yourself. This keeps the ball in your partner's court because you're not defending yourself, attacking, or trying to persuade him or her that you are "right."

From that position of indifference, you then demonstrate the kind of person you wish to be, at that moment, regardless of how your partner is behaving. That is, envision qualities in your relationship that you'd like to see grow—such as openness, warmth, or eroticism; closeness and respect, rather than distance or annoyance. Start demonstrating those qualities yourself. Inject them into your relationship, unilaterally. That's not easy, but most people are capable of doing it.

Here are a few practices for building indifference in your relationship:

Expand your perception: Practice looking at yourself and your relationship from the "outside," as though you're watching the two of you interact in a movie or play. Use creative thinking to imagine ways you might interpret the "action" from a larger perspective.

Step outside your own ego-focus: You may be convinced that your own perception of reality is the correct one. But that keeps you locked inside your head. Consider, instead, that you may be only partially right; or even wrong, altogether. What would a broader understanding of your situation look like?

Step into your partner's point of view: Use your imagination to view things from your partner's perspective, even though you may totally disagree with it, or believe it's "wrong." Think of your partner as simply being him/herself; just as you are. Envision yourself from your partner's viewpoint, without feeling you have to change your own. What new information does that give you?

Practicing Creative Indifference helps you let go of your focus on your own self—on getting your "needs" met; your resentments or disappointments about how your partner behaves; your own reactivity to what he or she is reactive to. All of those are products of your "ego-self," which is distorted and narrow, by definition.

Disengaging from your ego-self while expand your perceptions—emotionally and cognitively—activates the realization that both you and your partner share legitimate concerns, desires and vulnerabilities. They are part of your common humanness. That, in turn, allows you to hone in on what best serves the relationship between the two of you, rather than the ego-driven needs of either one of you.

Couples find it Creative Indifference revitalizing because it disrupts the entrenched pattern. It enables you to see your partner more as he or she really is—a whole being, not just a source of providing—or withholding—your needs. It helps you realize that differences between you can be stimulating rather than frightening or disappointing.

You can never make your partner change or be different. You can only change how you deal with, respond to, and conduct yourself towards him or her. That's what I meant at the beginning of this post about "leaving" your relationship in order to transform it.

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© 2010 Douglas LaBier