By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
The most common complaint of couples today is that they have fallen out of love. However, falling out of love usually does not occur overnight. Likewise, relationship repair takes time and effort on the part of both partners and includes rekindling sexual intimacy and emotional attunement. There are not any foolproof ways for couples to fall back in love but ending destructive relationship patterns is a good first step.
Put an End to Harmful Relationship Patterns
Mariah puts it like this: “I love Jackson, but I’m just not in love with him anymore.” When Mariah drops this bombshell, Jackson responds, “I know we don’t have sex much anymore – but it just seems like a phase we’re going through. I was shocked when Mariah took our kids and slept at her mom’s house for a few days.”
Mariah explains that her feelings have been building up for years and she feels guilty because she is starting to fantasize about being with other men. Jackson says, “I’m devastated and feel so betrayed. You have no loyalty to me and our sons – there’s no way I saw this coming.”
As Mariah and Jackson describe their typical pattern of relating during their ten years of marriage, it amounts to Mariah seeking out Jackson for emotional and sexual intimacy and Jackson withdrawing. Jackson describes his disengagement from Mariah as a struggle. “It just feels hard to meet her expectations for always being so close. By the time, I hit the bed most nights I’m dead to the world. I just don’t have the energy I used to because I’m a manager at an exclusive restaurant and on-call several nights a week.
According to experts, the most common reason couples fall out of love and divorce is because of a pursuer-distancer pattern that develops over time. Dr. Sue Johnson identifies the pattern of demand-withdraw as the “Protest Polka” and says it’s one of three “Demon Dialogues.” She explains that when one partner becomes critical and aggressive the other often becomes defensive and distant.
Renowned relationship expert Dr. John Gottman’s research on thousands of couples discovered that partners that get stuck in this pattern the first few years of marriage have more than a 80% chance of divorcing in the first four or five years of marriage. He posits that men have a tendency to withdraw and women to pursue. This pattern is wired into our physiology and reflects a basic gender difference. In his classic “Love Lab” observations, Dr. Gottman noted that this pattern is a major contributor to marital breakdown.
Nurture Emotional Intimacy
If Mariah and Jackson want to fall back in love again, they need to stop focusing on each other’s flaws and spend their energy fostering a deeper connection. In other words, stop assuming the worst of each other and put an end to demanding their partner change.
In over 40 years of research on couples in his “Love Lab” Dr. Gottman discovered that the two leading causes for divorce are criticism and contempt. In his book Why Marriages Succeed and Fail, he reminds us that criticizing our partner is different from offering a critique or voicing a complaint. The latter two are about specific issues, whereas the former is an attack on the person. For instance, a complaint is: “I want to be included in financial decisions. We agreed that you’d discuss big purchases with me.” In comparison, criticism might be: “You never consider my needs, you’re so selfish.”
Instead, couples who want to rekindle their passion and love need to “turn towards” each other. In The Science of Trust, Dr. Gottman explains that practicing emotional attunement can help you stay connected in spite of your differences. This means “turning toward” one another by showing empathy, and not being defensive. In other words, both partners need to talk about their feelings in terms of positive need, instead of what they do not need. The speaker is really saying. “Here’s what I feel, and what I need from you.”
Ignite Sexual Passion
During the early phase of a relationship, many couples barely come up for air due to the excitement of falling in love. Unfortunately, this blissful state does not last forever. Scientists have found that oxytocin (a bonding hormone) is released during the initial stage of infatuation – which causes couples to feel euphoric and turned on by physical affection – such as touching and holding hands. Oxytocin works like a drug, giving us immediate rewards and binding us to our lover.
Author Teresa Atkin advises couples to rewire their brains to experience feelings of pleasure so they can experience emotional and sexual closeness. She reminds us that the human brain, while wonderfully complex, does not always work in our best interest and we need to rewire it in order to experience pleasurable feelings. She writes, “Research shows that we get a healthy shot of dopamine (the feel good hormone) when we are seeking reward, and when there is something new to experience. Also excitement is transferable, so the heightened arousal that follows say, a roller coaster ride, can be used to rev up your sex life.”
The struggle between Mariah and Jackson is a common one for hard-working couples balancing jobs, parenting, and intimacy. Sex therapist Laurie Watson, author of Wanting Sex Again: How to Rediscover Your Desire and Heal a Sexless Marriage writes, “Most sexual concerns stem from an interpersonal struggle in the marriage.”
7 tips rev up sexual intimacy and fall back in love:
- Get in touch with your pattern of relating. This include ways you might be denying your partner or coming on too strong sexually. Avoid criticizing each other and stop the “blame game.” Mix things up to end the power struggle. For example, the pursuer can try being shy and quietly seductive – perhaps encouraging the distancer to move toward him/her.
- Break the pursuer-distancer pattern. Distancers need to practice initiating sex more often and pursuers need to find ways to tell their partner “you’re sexy,” while avoiding critique after sex.
- Increase physical affection. According to Kory Floyd, physical contact releases feel good hormones. Holding hands, hugging, and touching releases oxytocin (the bonding hormone) causing a calming sensation. Studies show it’s released during sexual orgasm and affectionate touch as well. Physical affection also reduces stress hormones – lowering daily levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Dr. Michael Stysma recommends couples double the length of time they spend kissing, hugging, and touching each other if they want to improve their marriage.
- Allow tension to build. Our brains experience more pleasure when the anticipation of the reward goes on for some time before we get the actual reward. So take your time, share fantasies, change locations, and make sex more romantic.
- Vary the kind of sex you have: (gentle, loving-tender sex; intimate sex; highly erotic sex, etc.). Break up the routine and try new things as your sexual needs change.
- Make sex a priority and set the mood for intimacy before TV or work dulls your passion. A light meal and your favorite music and wine can set the stage for great sex.
- Separate sex from routine. Try a variety of activities that bring you both pleasure. Avoid discussing problems, household tasks, and your children if you want to bring back the sexual chemistry with your partner. Have fun courting and practice flirting with him or her. Don’t forget to cuddle on the couch and surprise your partner with a kiss.
It’s a good idea to make time for physical affection if you want to enhance the quality of your marriage, according to experts. It can also reduce your stress level so you feel happier, more loving, and satisfied with your partner. Even if you’re not a touchy-feely person, increasing affectionate touch can help you to sustain a deep, meaningful bond.
Follow Terry Gaspard on Twitter, Facebook, and movingpastdivorce.com. Her book Daughters of Divorce: Overcome the Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship is available on her website.