In ordinary day-to-day life, what tells you that your intimate relationship is okay?
I’ve been practicing couples therapy for ten years, and I’m encountering more and more relationships with a low level of conflict but a high level of emotional detachment. Think of it like high-functioning anxiety: these couples are communicating pretty well, solving everyday problems, but internally they feel disconnected from their partner, at best running on a neutral “autopilot” and at worst feeling a persistent dread that something just isn’t quite right.
Couples with busy work and family schedules can be particularly prone to running on autopilot or being in “survival mode,” but this can spell disaster if left unchecked over months and years of a relationship. In fact, couples that “never fight” or who have a dynamic of conflict avoidance and/or passive aggression are often more at risk for separation or divorce than couples with a more volatile conflict style.
Bottom line: the absence of conflict does not always signal that a relationship is going well, and in fact it could signal the exact opposite.
Here’s a helpful exercise to assess your everyday connection with your partner: what are the daily/weekly minimums that tell you that your relationship is being prioritized?
Examples: kiss goodbye before work, watching a TV show (actively!) together, playing a videogame, pillow talk before going to sleep, texting memes throughout the day, working out together, checking in when making plans
Your minimums will be unique to YOUR relationship. Your love language, your shared couple culture, preferences and interests. If life has gotten in the way and your minimums have been slipping, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your partner about getting back on track. Assessing and renegotiating minimums is going to be particularly important during times of stress and transition, such as the birth of a baby, a peak season at work or job change, or when mental health challenges arise. If you’re feeling generally disconnected, it may also be harder to feel safe communicating your needs, leading to resentment and possibly even profound relationship dissatisfaction and contempt.
Consistent, simple points of connection are the glue that holds you both together, and build the foundation for more advanced levels of intimacy and resilience.
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