Every long-term relationship goes through periodic lulls – bad patches when you’re irritable and lack feelings of closeness and warmth towards each other. Here are some solutions to try.
Take a break from discussing inflammatory topics. When you’re feeling disconnected, there is a temptation to bring up topics you know are likely to lead to arguments. To re-establish closeness, press pause on mentioning these for a period of say two weeks, while you quietly work on restoring your bond.
Don’t fantasise about jumping ship. It’s easy to see leaving the relationship as the most obvious solution to problems. However, if you spend your time fantasising about leaving, you won’t fully invest in reconnecting, and that’s setting up a self-fulfilling prophecy. Leaving or staying is a deeply personal choice but make it a conscious, deliberate decision rather than just sliding into it.
Understand when your relationship feels most and least valuable to you. If your partner is amazing at taking care of you when you’re sick, being sick will be one of the times you appreciate your relationship the most; if they’re completely hopeless, you might find yourself wondering “Why am I with this person?”. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your partnership can help prevent you panicking when you feel less bonded, taken care of, and in-sync.
Nostalgia. While you’re pausing from talking about topics that trigger bickering, try talking about positive memories from your shared past e.g., the birth of your children and vacations.
Recreate conditions from happier times. When were you both happiest in your relationship? What was different about how you spent your time then? You won’t be able to completely turn back the clock but there may be elements you can recreate. For example, you remember you used to cook together at the weekend.
Discover new things about each other. Knowing a lot about someone enhances feelings of closeness, but perceiving that you know everything there is to know can lead to a sense of staleness. Discover things you didn’t previously know. What are their happiest memories from their childhood? What was their first car? A barrage of these questions isn’t pleasant, but a sprinkling often is.
Do the basics right. Certain basic principles are extremely important for relationships. In brief, these are: mindful greetings and partings; having a 20-minute conversation each day that helps you both de-stress; expressing admiration, appreciation and affection daily; and having a two-hour period of quality time together once a week. These principles are known as the Magic Five Hours, because they take about five hours to complete each week, but make the difference between happy and unhappy relationships.
Another hugely important foundational relationship skill is perspective-taking. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes regarding your areas of tension. What are your misreads? For example, you think your partner has changed but actually they’re the same as they’ve always been, but it’s bothering you more now. Partners in long-term relationships frequently fail to do deliberate perspective-taking when it’s needed. Doing so can quickly dissolve tension, and increase empathy, compassion, and warmth.
Alice Boyes, PhD, is author of The Healthy Mind Toolkit and The Anxiety Toolkit.