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10 Issues That Can Drive You Apart, and How to Beat Them

Most of us are guilty of at least one. Are you?

Source: ProStockStudio/Shutterstock

We all go into new relationships with high hopes, one of which is that, as the connection matures, so too will our sense of closeness. When we commit to another person, our hopes stay the same, with an eye to the long-term. But many of us discover that love can falter and intimacy disappear in the day-to-day busyness of life, and the pressures of work and family. It’s not that we want our connections to diminish—we don’t—but sometimes we have trouble seeing not just what’s going on but what needs to be done.

Research on happiness goes a long way toward explaining the inertia that sometimes afflicts long-established relationships . Two concepts in particular—hedonic adaptation and intentional activity—seem extremely valuable. Humans are an adaptable lot, and get used to their circumstances. This is, in the main, a good thing ,especially when things go south. But when it comes to happiness, or the things that are hedonic or pleasurable, that adaptability means the buzz from positive experience is short-lived. That’s why the fancy car, the new house, or the promotion that was supposed to make you happy forever doesn’t. Eventually the car is just a vehicle needing maintenance, the house is where you live, and the job is something that eats up 50 hours of your week. Hedonic adaptation happens with a mate, too. Remember how you felt just seeing each other when you first were dating? Ask yourself if that’s true today.

Hedonic adaptation (or "the hedonic treadmill," as it’s also called) can be beaten. That’s where intentional activity comes in, according to the work of Kennon M. Sheldon and Sonja Lyubomirsky. It’s a way to keep your good fortune fresh, even if that happens to be your choice of a partner. You can work on actively appreciating the relationship and the person, feel grateful for the advantages the connection has given you, and be active in creating positive experiences, rather than focusing on the negatives. (All of this assumes, of course, that you want the intimacy back.)

Keeping those intentions in mind, here are 10 common barriers to intimacy—and what you can do to counteract each one.

1. Blaming and disparagement

Yes, things go wrong all the time—your boss screamed at you, a bill went unpaid, the car got dinged at the mall, the roof’s leaking, or one of the kids is acting up all over the place. It’s called life, and most of us will end up blowing up either at or in front of our partner at some time or another. What’s key here is that while you are free to blame the vagaries of life on the third rock from the Sun, you can’t make blame personal, even if your spouse is at fault. Going global is an intimacy slayer, a surefire way of turning your partner into a defensive fortress.

Stop starting every sentence with “You,” which automatically makes whatever has happened a matter of personal fault. If your partner is responsible, talk about whatever happened, without making it a dissertation about his or her character flaws. The experts make it clear: Causal attribution is a strategy that will only drive a wedge between you.

2. Lack of sharing

Have the conversations between you and your partner become more like a recitation of facts than not, or are you still engaging in the kind of deep dialogue that was once part of forging your connection to each other? If the silence is deafening when the two of you are alone together, or you simply bark monosyllables at each other, your capacity for intimacy is getting whittled away by the moment.

Recently, the 36-question study by Arthur Aron and colleagues has gotten a lot of buzz—it’s the series of queries that made unacquainted people feel a close sense of connection in a lab—and it’s worth keeping in mind that even in an established relationship, continuing to share is a key to maintaining intimacy. There was an article in The New York Times about the actor Alan Alda and his wife, Arlene, a photographer, who have been happily married for 58 years. They still both work in separate rooms in their homes, each pursuing different goals, but they keep all the doors open so that they can talk to each other. Are you keeping the doors open? Do you have anything to share?

If you’re not sharing your thoughts, you need to discover why—and look at the patterns of behavior, on both your parts, that get in the way of a continuing dialogue. Remember that this is a dyadic exchange—it’s both about talking and listening—so if you’re cutting your spouse off when he or she begins to share, you need to take responsibility.

3. Unresponsiveness

Here’s the yang to the yin of the previous item: When you or your partner tries to share, what does the other do? Does he or she listen thoughtfully and carefully, and then respond in kind—the kind of dyadic exchange that builds intimacy—or does your partner say nothing or, worse, say something dismissive, such as, “Not that again. You’ve told me about how Helen treats you over and over and it’s getting old,” or, “I think you’re making a mountain out of a molehill.”

Self-disclosure is a building block of intimacy, as is each partner’s sense of knowing the other. Verbal put-downs or dismissive behavior when your spouse tries to share is akin to renting a billboard that says: “You’re not important to me.”

4. Lack of touching

This isn’t about sex, but about communication. Humans, like their simian brethren, communicate and establish connection through touch; famously, the psyches of infants are shaped by the amount of touch they receive. Studies show that, when touch is involved, we tend to be more generous (in one experiment, a waitress’ tips increased when there was touch), more compassionate, more helpful—and we feel a greater sense of connection. (It’s worthwhile to note that these are all positive touches; touch can also be used to intimidate and overpower.)

Studies confirm that couples who touch each other more in non-sexual contexts report greater marital satisfaction and greater intimacy; in a similar way, studies also demonstrate that observers are able to “read” how intimate a couple is by looking at whether they make physical contact. Most of us will confirm, having watched strangers in a restaurant or in airport, that touch—or the lack of it—is highly revealing.

So, what’s the touch story at your house? Are you spending more time touching your screen than your partner?

5. Gatekeeping and territoriality

These behaviors significantly contribute to the decline of intimacy in couples with children. It’s true enough that chores and duties need to be allocated and split in any household but gatekeeping—claiming a piece of turf as yours—erodes both the sense of being in life together and, by extension, intimacy. Studies show that women are often gatekeepers when it comes to children and home which, unfortunately, doesn’t stop them from complaining that their spouses don’t pull their weight—and sometimes extrapolating from that into a more global point of view (“It’s typical of how self-involved you are that you make no effort to help me out.”) Men gatekeep too, though in other areas, and not nearly as much.

The bottom line is that being territorial cuts down on shared space, and sharing is the hallmark of intimacy.

6. Inattention

Ignoring or paying no attention to your partner is a good way of eroding intimacy because it’s another way of isolating him or her within the relationship. Studies also show that boredom is a robust and significant factor in predicting future marital dissatisfaction and divorce. So if you’ve disengaged on some basic level—no longer sharing your thoughts, not listening, not touching—you need to find ways to re-engage with your spouse and get back into the relationship with your head and heart.

One recent study showed that something as simple as watching movies about love and relationships, and then talking about them, could actually strengthen marriages and “divorce-proof” them as effectively as therapy. (It’s much cheaper, too.) These results really underscore how important engagement is to a long-term relationship; among the questions the married participants answered were, “What main problem(s) did this couple face?", "Are any of these similar to the problems that the two of you have faced or might face as a couple?” and, “ Did the couple have a strong friendship with each other, and were they able to support each other through bad moods, stressful days, and hard times?”

So think about renting a movie or doing something that engages both of you in dialogue on a level that isn’t superficial. It will bring you closer.

7. Frequency and patterns of arguing

It’s true enough that some friction is going to exist between two people—whether spouses, lovers, siblings or friends—no matter how close they are. People assume that couples will argue but how often the argue, and the way they clash, matter a great deal. Research shows that it generally takes five good experiences to outweigh the effects of one bad one, so paying attention to the ratio of fights to pleasurable times is key. If you’re fighting more than you’re spending time sharing and enjoying, intimacy is on the decline.

Studies also how that how you fight counts too, especially if your arguments fall into the pattern of Demand/Withdraw, which is highly predictive of marital dissolution. In this scenario, one partner makes demands on the other—typically, to change his or her behavior in some way—and, in response, the other partner stonewalls or withdraws. What makes this so toxic is that both partners will feel wronged: The person in the demand role will feel ignored, marginalized, and unheard, while the other will feel put upon and assume a defensive posture. This pattern has escalation built into it—the demanding partner will feel thwarted and frustrated and inevitably amp up the volume of complaints which, in turn, evokes greater withdrawal on the part of the other. Each party will feel utterly justified as well, which effectively destroys all possibility of real communication and resolution. Nothing good comes out of Demand/Withdraw, unless both members of the couple consciously decide to put a stop to it, which often involves therapeutic intervention.

8. "Winner’s mindset"

Repetitive arguments about specific issues—money and spending habits, sex (or lack of it), the handling of the kids—are the hallmark of marriages in potential distress, and it is horrifyingly easy to let yourself lose sight of the prize—marital happiness—and instead get into an “in-it-to-win-it” mindset which simply guarantees that you are laying sticks of dynamite under whatever goodwill and intimacy remain.

Years ago, a therapist told me that when I was in a dispute, I should “Stop. Look. Listen.” Research shows that you can stop a downward spiral by pulling back from it with consciousness. Marital expert John Gottman suggests four simple strategies to break the cycle of negativity:

  • Calm down. If you have to, call a time-out but do not let yourself get emotionally flooded because that will only lead to more negative, destructive, and reactive behavior on your part.
  • Speak without being defensive. All of your defensive behaviors, whether they are aggressive in nature or part of a pattern of withdrawal, will only add fuel to the spiral.
  • Use validation. This sounds difficult if you’re in the heat of an argument, but instead of ignoring or attacking your spouse’s perspective, try to validate parts of it.
  • Keep practicing. Gottman points out that if you’re used to arguing or fighting in one way, it’s going to take time to unlearn that behavior and not lapse into the old mode by rote. Stay conscious and hone your skills.

9. Pornography

Before everyone tells me I’m a prude—which has happened when I’ve written about porn—let me just say that if your intimacy is already weak or threatened, watching porn is probably not a good idea, unless you are both equally comfortable with it and, more important, watch it together. A number of studies, conducted with younger participants (under 35), showed that those who watched no porn had higher commitment; that said, it was watching porn alone that seemed to degrade the relationship quality and intimacy the most. Another study, by Franklin Poulsen and Dean Bushy, focused on 617 couples that were either married or living together. Interestingly, use of porn differed vastly by gender—94% of the female partners used it rarely, if all; and while 27% of the male partners reported no use, 31% used porn once a month, 16% two to three times a week, and 10% three or more days a week. In other words, male use of porn was solitary, not dyadic.

What the researchers found was that male use of pornography had a consistently negative association with both male and female sexual quality—which seems to confirm that when men watch porn alone, it can damage relationships. As the researchers write, “It is possible, at least for men, that pornography use changes perceptions of female partners, the sexual relationship, or both such that they are less satisfied with the sexual experience in the relationship.”

All of this is worth keeping in mind if increased intimacy is your goal.

10. Lack of empathy

This seems pretty obvious, but if you have lost the ability to feel your partner’s joy and sorrow as if it is your own, there are barriers to intimacy. Enough said. And likely as not, most of the barriers listed above are to blame.

Copyright © Peg Streep 2015. VISIT ME ON FACEBOOK

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