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Drifting Apart and How to Reconnect

Pat LaDouceur, PhD, helps people dealing with anxiety, panic, and relationship stress who want to feel more focused and confident. She has a private practice ...Read More

Drifting apart

“We’re drifting apart,” Sara said during our first meeting. Her husband, Daniel, agreed. They got along well enough, but lived more like roommates than a married couple.

It’s not just couples who drift apart, of course. Friends lose touch, colleagues move on, children forget to write home. The process feels inevitable, and sometimes it is. But much more often there are reasons for the greater distance.

Sara and David each had a story about how it happened. They were incredibly busy once their kids were born. Sara was a stay-at-home mom for five years, and struggled alone with infants and toddlers. That made David the sole breadwinner. He worked long hours a technology startup, and the two of them rarely saw each other.

By the time their lives became easier to manage. the pattern had taken hold. They were no longer sure it could change. “We have different personalities,” Sara said. “We have completely different interests,” David added.

They made these statements as if they were road-blocking obstacles, landslides that covered the path ahead. In my experience, though, there are different personalities and different interests in the best of relationships. I thought there was more to their drifting apart. The events that shape relationships are usually hidden in the mundane interactions of daily life.

A small miscalculation

Remember the Mars Climate Orbiter that was lost on Mars in 1999? It cost $193 million to design the spacecraft, $91 million to launch it, and $42 million to operate it once it was in flight. Everything worked well until it finally reached its destination…and was torn apart by atmospheric pressure. How could a mission this well-planned go wrong?

The problem turned out to be a small arithmetic error. One piece of software used a certain unit of measurement (pounds), while another piece of software used another measurement (Netwons,, the metric version). The miscalculation itself was a small error, one a high-school physics student might make. But this lack of communication was enough to spell the end of a $327 million mission.

The smallest details often lead to the success or failure of a project…or a relationship.

A new theory of love

Professor Barbara Fredrickson, author of Love 2.0, studies the tiny moments in relationships and the feelings they create. She says that when it comes to what creates love, we have it backward. A strong commitment and deep affection are the products of love, not the causes.

What makes relationships strong, she argues, is not big acts of passion, but rather the “micro-moments of warmth and connection” that happen every hour of every day. These moments steadily change relationships over time, as a trickle of water shapes the bedrock as it travels. Small positive moments are create the strong bond of connection that happy couples savor.

Marriage researcher John Gottman found something similar – that taking a few moments to connect with your partner many times every day is essential in building close relationships. The sense of a shared journey comes from how you say goodbye in the morning, whether you’re home for dinner when you say you’ll be, the tone of your voice when you’re frustrated.

There’s room for mistakes to be sure. Even so, it’s the sum of all those simple actions over the hours and days of your relationship that bring about the feelings of love and commitment. Tiny choices

Let’s look at a few examples:

1. Dinner is at 7:00. David gets a last minute phone call at work, and makes it home at 6:45 PM. He heads into another room to answer a few last minute emails before sitting down at the table at 7:05.

Let’s look at David’s choices here.

  • He could have ignored the call and left work on time.
  • He could have walked over to Sara as soon as he got home, and given her a hug.
  • He could have set down his briefcase and started helping Sara with dinner.

None of these choices are “right,” and what he did was not “wrong.” However, he did miss an opportunity to show love and support.

2. Later that evening David told Sara he was tired of long work hours. He said that his dream was to be out of the rat race, and talked about moving to the country, building a cabin, and getting off the grid. Sara thought about how isolated she would be in an off-the-grid cabin, and started to feel anxious. “Not going to happen,” she said, and started to get ready for bed.

Now let’s look at Sara’s choices.

  • She could have supported David by listening to his dreams without comment.
  • She could have connected with him by saying that she too wanted a more relaxed way of life.
  • She could have said that she was too tired to talk about it now, but perhaps they could talk more on Saturday while taking a walk together.

Once again there is no right or wrong, but Sara too missed a chance to connect.

These moments of choice come up all the time. Sara says she’s worried about an upcoming dinner with David’s mom, and David dismisses her worry. David let’s Sara know that he had a rough day, and she says, “well at least you got a lunch break.” David’s too tired to watch a movie. Sara’s too distracted to make love. If these moments are in the majority, couples like David and Sara are likely to feel that they’re drifting apart.

Connecting Moments

It’s not the size of the gesture that matters, nor is it the outcome. Sara didn’t need to agree to move, and David didn’t have to give up his job in order to forge the bond of love for which they both longed. Rather, it’s how often those moments of connection happen, how many there are in a day.

Love, says Fredrickson, “is something that we should re-cultivate every morning, every afternoon, and every evening. Laugh together. Cuddle. Bring something up instead of letting it simmer inside you. Go out on a date. Make eye contact. Give a compliment. Smile.

Sara and David are learning to reconnect. The process is simple…and difficult. They each have to recognize their own contribution to the pattern of drifting apart. They each have to let go of excuses, stop waiting for the other person to change, and learn to show up in a different way.

A path to reconnection

Sara and David’s experience shows a drifting apart that happens in not only marriages, but also with friends, colleagues, and family. When people try to understand the reasons for the drifting, they often chalk it up to life circumstances, personality, or their partner’s behavior. These things play a role, to be sure.

In reality, though, the the quality of a relationships is the sum of the small choices each person makes every day. Sometimes tiny miscalculations can be expensive, as they were for the Mars mission.

Most of the time, though, it’s no single choice that determines the outcome. Instead, opportunities for connection are everywhere. Once you understand this principle, you’ll realize that drifting apart is neither random nor inevitable. Each small choice can help nudge you along the path to connection and love.

Exercise:

Choose a relationship where there is some distance. What are three simple actions that you could do in the next few days that would help the two of you reconnect?

i Fredrickson, Barbara. Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Think, Do, Feel, and Become. New York: Penguin Group, 2013. Print.

ii Gottman, John Mordechai., and Nan Silver. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. London: Orion, 2000. Print.

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