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Cycles of Intimacy

Falling in love again... and again...

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Many years ago, when I was young and single, I watched wistfully as a happily married co-worker received a flower delivery from her husband.

“What must it be like to love and be loved all the time?” I asked.

All the time? That’s a fantasy!" she said, smiling. "There are times when we're not so loving. There are times when my husband and I get angry with each other or just need our space. But we always reconnect with love.”

Several years later, on the eve of my wedding, I got a letter from the wife of my best friend from college. My friend was — and is — a man I’ve always considered to be a wonderful and loving person. I thought that his wife must be the happiest and luckiest woman in the world. But her letter set me straight. She cautioned me about the importance of having realistic expectations of my husband and of marriage. “Marriage does not preclude times of depression, loneliness, or other emotions endemic to the human condition,” she wrote. “Going into marriage knowing this gives you a better chance of building a relationship that is close and meaningful.”

Her words — and those of my co-worker — have resonated with me many times in the years since, not only through my marriage of four decades, but also in my work with couples in my private practice. Sadly, I’ve seen far too many couples panic at the first disappointment, or those first or recurring feelings of distance, and wonder whether this means they don't belong together and need to part sooner rather than later.

What can you do when your ardor seems to be fading? Do you find yourself wondering, as you begin to feel the first hints of distance between you, what has gone wrong?

  • Don’t panic. Cycles of intimacy — times of closeness and times of distance — are common and natural in a relationship. You may find that one of you needs more alone time than the other. There may be times when the demands of jobs or kids come between you and shake up the balance in your shared lives. There may be times when you differ so much in opinions, world views, or life goals that you wonder if compromise and an enduring relationship are possible.

At these junctures, too many couples think about giving up. But with a loving commitment to struggle together through times of trouble or distance, you can rediscover the love that brought you together in the first place. You can build the trust that it takes to get through those times when you’re not feeling so close or optimistic about your relationship.

  • Be proactive. When you feel yourself drifting apart, reach out to your partner. Check out what he or she may be feeling or needing. There may be anger and an issue to be solved. Your spouse may be feeling depressed or discouraged about something that has little to do with you, and may need comfort and reassurance. Or it may be that he or she simply needs some emotional space. Some people need more alone time than others. One couple I worked with discovered that they were picking fights with each other to get some distance — and decided to build a meditation room in their basement, where one or the other could get some time alone without having to fight for it.

When hurt, anger, or misunderstandings fuel a cycle of distance, the sooner you can clarify and discuss the situation and make amends or find a compromise, the better.

If it’s a matter of one partner needing alone time or time apart, perhaps with a close friend, that’s important to understand, too. It’s always good to know what’s going on and to show that you care, respecting space when needed and bridging the distance between you when you both want to be closer.

  • Seek growth as individuals as well as a couple. Loving couples share some pivotal and enduring life experiences, memories, and dreams. But most don’t share all of the same interests or like all of the same people equally, or agree on every issue. It’s important to develop a rich inner life and a satisfying blend of time together and time apart to pursue individual interests and see some friends and family members on your own. No one can be everything to another. Pursuing your own interests, dreams, and friendships gives you more to talk about and share with your partner when you come back together.

While each relationship is as unique as the two people sharing their lives, those that endure have some special qualities — mutual respect and encouragement of each other to grow as individuals as well as part of a couple; tolerance of differences and comfort with independence, as well as intimacy with each other; the expectation that the other will be a source of loving support — but not nonstop happiness — through all the good and challenging times; and, finally, the joy of falling in love, not just once, but many times through the years.