How emotional distance ruins marriage

Suggestions for staying close with your spouse.

Today's couples are quick to squelch the urge to argue with each other. But just because you seldom argue doesn't mean your marriage is strong. The real silent killer of marriage is distancing yourself from your partner.

The solution? Don't worry so much about your fight response – that instinct to duke it out verbally. Instead, focus on your flight response – the instinct to avoid your partner. If we can learn to spot the distancing pattern in our relationships, we can help prevent family problems and divorce.

Recognizing flight mode can be tricky: things like working late, switching on the TV, or spending more time with the kids may seem harmless, but they can be a slippery slope leading to a distant marriage.

When families come to me for coaching, their symptoms vary but there is often a simple distancing pattern that causes much of their suffering. Here's a classic example:

Mr. and Mrs. Smith come to me trying to save their marriage. Mr. Smith has had an affair. Mrs. Smith, devastated, seems to be the hapless victim.

Certainly, cheating on one's spouse is not something to rationalize away, but behind such behavior there's a common pattern:

Soon after they married, Mr. and Mrs. Smith were surprised at some of the tension and dissatisfaction they felt with each other. At first, they tried to talk it out. Over time, this didn't seem to be working, so they'd lose patience and argue more often. But open conflict is unpleasant, and pop psychology has taught us that arguing and anger are bad things that doom a marriage.

So the Smiths (subconsciously) decided to keep the peace, and avoid the touchy topics. They communicated less of their true thoughts, feelings, and dreams to each other. As they distanced themselves from each other, he filled the gap by focusing on his career and she focused on the kids. Everything seemed fine, because he was succeeding at his career and she could meet her need for affection with the children. But over the years, this pattern slowly, insidiously, became a problem. Mr. Smith's job obviously couldn't meet his intimacy needs, so in a moment of temptation he unwisely stumbled into an affair.

Mr. Smith's affair is a symptom of the distancing pattern that's been going on between them for years. By the time a couple call me, however, all they focus on is the affair, which they believe is the problem. Neither party is aware of their distancing, or its consequences over time.

Both spouses play more of a role than we realize in the development of a marital problem. But the good news is that once we understand distancing, we can prevent future problems by taking steps to build an intimate friendship that lasts a lifetime.

Here's how we can eat, walk, and talk our way to a happier marriage and family life:

Eat. At mealtimes, have each family member share their highlight and "lowlight" of the day. Rather than saying, "I enjoyed my walk from the train to the office," try to focus on one moment in time. For example, "I was walking to work when I noticed a lovely oak in all its fall colors. I felt one of those 'happy to be alive' moments!"

Sharing the lowlight of our day feels good because if we commiserate with our partner, we won't feel so alone in our suffering. Instead of muttering, "I had a crummy day at work today," try to capture a moment in time: "When I borrowed the office projector for my presentation, the receptionist grilled me about how long I'd keep it, as if I were some kind of selfish jerk who hogs everything. It really ticked me off."

Sharing one's highlight and lowlight at meals may sound simple, but it can become a pleasurable habit that gives a sense of shared intimacy and preempts future problems.

Walk and talk. The greatest gift to modern marriage is a walkie-talkie with a voice-activated switch, because it works like a high-tech baby monitor. After the kids fall asleep, set the monitor beside them and then take a stroll around your yard with your spouse. Stay close enough that, if a kid wakes up, you're never more than a 20-second sprint from them. Some people may be afraid to leave the kids sleeping, but you can probably hear more through this walkie-talkie than a parent who's watching TV downstairs.

Every night couples can enjoy 30 minutes of exercise, fresh air, and the chance to share what they're thinking, feeling, and dreaming.

Sure, avoiding our partner feels easier in the short term, so we may have to force ourselves to interact at times, but putting our spouse first is win-win: Building a dependable friendship with our spouses stops us from "marrying" our children, and it frees up our kids to learn self-reliance. What a great example for their future relationships!

David Code is an Episcopal minister, family coach, and author of "To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First."

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