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4 Road Signs You're in The Land Where Love Dies

Avoiding the crushing weight of loneliness.

John Gottman and others have described the isolation and distance that comes from years of disengagement as the place where love goes to die. The question is, are you living there? And if so, why?

Some Key Signs of Love on Life Support

Pain Overrides Kindness

We all use our emotional reactions to inform. When love is working, even momentary breaches in connection don’t become a problem, because we override that breach with positive feelings. We excuse our partners and decide that stress, or something else, led to the bump in the road. But when love is barely breathing, even the nice things our partner does are overwritten with negative emotion. This negative override leads us to pull away and puts distance between the two of us.

Turning Away

All couples look to each other for connection and help. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of times each day when little things matter: “I had a bad day” is really “Ask me to talk about my day;” “You look sad” is really “Open up and talk to me;” or “I’m having a hard time getting the laundry done” is really “Help me, please.” When we and our partner reject those little “asks,” turning away has occurred. And if we turn away enough, isolation and emotional distance grow.

Fights Don’t End Well

Fights are often great ways to connect. Through them, we find out what our partner needs. But far too often, fights turn ugly and negative emotions explode. The wave of contempt floods us and we don’t want to fix things. We’ve begun to believe that our partner has turned into someone we can’t trust. The pain from the ugly fights causes us to pull away, and isolation sets in. We save our own emotional life by avoiding our partner’s “mean-spiritedness” by creating distance and isolating ourselves.

The Density of Loneliness

Physicists tell us that something’s density creates its gravity, and denser planets can crush. Distance, isolation, and hostility accumulate like a vat of molten iron; and, when it cools into despair, the density of loneliness crushes love. Love just dies.

How to Revive Your Love on Life Support

It goes without saying that the following tips are easier said than done. The work to turn off cascading distance and isolation requires strength, resolve, and risk.

Turning Toward

We turn toward each other when we express our feelings and fears about the relationship, and in turn when we really hear that openness from the other person. Doing so requires that we overcome our tendency to be defensive, and instead accept responsibility for our role in the pain we both pour into our relationship. We both must unpack for each other the dirty laundry of our deeper pain and disappointments to clean things up.

Look for the Dreams

Isolation and distance develop partly from hurt feelings and arguments over “little” things. But, those little things likely don’t cause the hurt... there’s a deeper meaning or longing that those little things represent. We fell in love with dreams about our love, our partner, and ourselves. Little disappointments hurt us often because they tell us that our dreams won’t come true.

However, the bright side is that we can use arguments over seemingly insignificant things to find out something deeper about those dreams. The fights can open a window into our partner’s, and our own, soul (where the dreams reside). If we listen to the dreams under the fights, we begin to learn more about what really matters to each other.

Accept the Connection Bid

We make hundreds of bids for connection every day as we dealt with each other—mentioning a bad day, talking about missing a deceased loved one, crying while watching a TV show. These requests are subtle, but not invisible; and if the connection is to be revived, that resuscitation requires connecting when given the opportunity. We reenergize love when we say yes to those bids most of the time.

Building Trust

Trust develops from believing that you can count on the other person to have your back, even if it means they occasionally self-sacrifice. Trust survives when we know each other well enough to anticipate needs before they are expressed, and then we meet them whenever possible. If we become really good at performing not-so-random, random acts of kindness, then trust has a chance to grow (and love with it).

The End of the Story

Genuine love can flourish or die, depending on how we treat each other and build mutual trust. Arguments that contain critical attacks, defensiveness, emotional ignoring, and flat-out contempt lead to the accumulation of greater and greater amounts of isolation and distance—killing love at the end. Gottman calls these the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse because they signal the destruction of love.

In contrast to those harmful patterns, fulfilling relationships require that we attend to each other, express ourselves kindly, and care about each other’s deepest hopes and dreams. When distance does occur, we can learn to recognize it as a chance to repair the missing connection and use that signal to find our way back to love.

More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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More from Kevin D. Arnold Ph.D., ABPP
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