Rob Pascale and Lou Primavera Ph.D.

So Happy Together

Drifting Apart

How couples can find their way back to each other.

Posted Dec 09, 2019

There are lots of reasons why couples might drift apart and become disconnected. Sometimes it springs from resentments and disappointments stored up over the course of a marriage. There can be hardships, such as financial difficulties or personal problems that make it difficult to see beyond our own circumstances. Then there are children, and while they enhance a sense a family, nothing can disrupt a warm and loving relationship between two people like kids. And let’s not forget our jobs. Raising kids and working take up so much time that we can be distracted from other aspects of our lives.

In some cases, it’s the result of the trajectory of our lives. Partners might get along just fine, but their lives had taken different paths. So, while the relationship is not confrontational, partners are just not connected to each other. Sometimes partners may not even be aware that they’ve drifted apart. Preoccupations with day to day living issues can mask the fact that we've drifted apart.

However, two events eventually will force many couples to come face to face with their relationship—when they retire and when their children leave the nest. At that point, two people have to deal with the reality of who they are, and who they are together. There may be an emerging and uncomfortable sense from each partner that they don’t really know the person they’re married to, and maybe don’t have as much in common with each other as they once thought.

One of the individuals we interviewed, Michael, had retired but his wife continued to work. Michael found his wife’s continued employment to be acceptable, since he could spend his time as he liked. However, at the same time, he began to wonder whether he and his wife were marching to the same tune, and that left him concerned as to how they will live together once they are both retired:

“Looking ahead, I have some trepidation about the time when my wife does decide to retire. In particular, I have come to realize that my wife and I are very different from each other. She loves the big house in the suburbs and wants to stay indefinitely. I, on the other hand, would love to move to a smaller place, preferably an apartment in the city. I love all types of music and am a big fan of NPR and PBS; she's indifferent to music, listens to books on tape while driving, and is addicted to crime shows on TV. My ideal retirement has European travel as its centerpiece; hers, I suspect, is centered around grandchildren and home improvement projects.”  

Now, for sure, some couples live mostly separate lives, and their marriages are successful and happy. But others may feel that, while they’ve ended up apart, it’s not what they would prefer. For those couples, it’s a good idea to take steps to break down the walls that have led to separateness.

Now, this is not to suggest that partners shouldn’t pursue their own interests—that’s healthy. But a mix of joint and separate activities is best. In fact, the evidence suggests that, while a good marriage leads to more joint activities, taking part in activities together can improve a bad marriage. That’s why many therapists will ask about how much time couples with chronic problems spend together, and suggest they do more couple things as a way to improve their relationship. If partners can accumulate some good joint experiences, they’ll come to feel better and closer to each other.

If this is an issue for you, here’s a simple approach recommended by therapists you might want to try. Each of you makes a list of what you might like to do. Compare your interests, and those that overlap are ones you can do together. Then it’s important that you schedule regular playtime to carry out these activities.

It's also important that you be creative—don't just come up with the same old stuff. You should try to come up with activities that are new—some of the best are those that neither partner has tried before. What makes a new activity so beneficial is that it’s owned by the couple and not one partner; it's uniquely specific to their relationship. Additionally, when we’re involved in something new, we have to work our way through it together with our partner, and that can make us feel more bonded. Besides, doing something you haven’t done before not only can add to personal growth, the awkwardness that’s often associated with learning new things can be amusing, and laughing with and at each other can definitely make you feel more connected.

Whatever you decide to do together, you have to approach it with the right attitude. If you’re resentful, dismissive, or bored when participating in your partner’s activities, you’ve defeated the purpose. Commit to the idea of opening your mind and having fun with each other.

Read our book on marriage here.