Are You and Your Spouse Like Ships Passing in the Night?

“I’ve made up my mind,” Dana sighed deeply. “I’m going to stick it out–for the kids. I won’t cheat. I have no intention of that and I don’t believe he would either. We are two straight-arrow people. But there’s nothing there. We have nothing, absolutely nothing to say to each other. The marriage is basically dead; we just didn’t plan the funeral.”

“That is tragic. Marriage is supposed to be a friendship, not a zero,” I said. “How did this happen?”

Dana didn’t know. At first, she couldn’t put her finger on it; then she hesitantly said, “Maybe I withdraw when I get hopeless. Maybe that’s it.”

She explained how, in the early years, she would tell her husband many times what she wanted, needed, thought, or felt. And when nothing changed, she eventually gave up. “It just dried up like an autumn leaf,” she sighed again.

Dana’s situation is typical of many couples—and it needn’t be.

Here are six questions for Dana to consider:

1. Was there a time when she and her husband were able to talk?

Looking back at the early days, most people can remember that talking to one another was not a problem, that there were always things to say and lots to hear. If listening was once fun and talking felt like there was a real audience, then there is hope. If you once had a connection but lost it, then that connection can be found again. Instead of thinking about not getting her own needs met, perhaps Dana can start listening to what her husband is saying. If she can understand what he wants, then perhaps that can be a starting point for later requesting he listen to what she wants.

2. If there was a time when Dana and her husband could talk, then is there something she may have done to contribute to the current problem?

If indeed Dana and her husband enjoyed talking to each other, then honesty requires some soul searching. Perhaps if Dana looks inside, she will notice that things shut down when she started to ask for what she wanted but her husband was unable to do the same thing. Or maybe they both asked for what they wanted but each person was thinking more about their own unmet needs than fulfilling those of their partner. Alternatively, maybe each would have liked to fulfill the partner’s needs but lacked the tools to know how, or even to understand what the partner wanted. Bridge the gap with some good, strong questions. For example, ask your partner: “Do you know what I want in this marriage?” Or, better yet, ask: “Is there something I could do differently to improve things?”

3. If Dana and her husband could not talk, did they feel close anyway?

There are people who were never good talkers, but they had great sex or lots of affection and that made them feel close. Just having shared life experiences can bring people close. And if that is the case, then maybe expecting to talk later on is not quite fair. If Dana knew that her partner was not a big talker going into the relationship, then now isn’t the time to say, “Oops, I made a mistake.” Perhaps Dana can consider how to re-capture the original affection. How about taking time to date? Dates that don’t call for talking but do call for interacting such as bowling, miniature golf, rowing, and rollerblading come to mind.

4. What do Dana and her husband both care about? Do they have values, passions in common?

Even if the relationship was never close, can this couple start from the ground up and build on commonalities? Dana mentions that neither one of them will cheat because they are both “straight arrows.” That’s a pretty important value in common. What goes along with that? How could they make that the basis for creating something good out of things that they never considered before?

5. Is there one quality in Dana’s husband that she admires or respects?

Good marriages are built on respect. So, even though Dana and her husband could not talk, it could be that there is something respect-worthy in Dana’s spouse, but she was so focused on not getting her needs met that she lost sight of that. Perhaps Dana could give some thought to what other people like in her husband so as to be able to view him with fresh eyes. How do the children view their dad? How about lifelong friends? Co-workers? Extended family? Neighbors?

6. Has Dana’s husband introduced her to something positive that she can appreciate?

Dana might ask herself if her husband gave her some “gift,” an interpersonal gift, not a tangible thing, that was special. For some people, it could be a sense of humor; for others, it could be the ability to stand up for oneself; for still others, it could be the ability to organize. It could be a silly thing or a heavy thing. Regardless, I’ve noticed that nearly everyone, no matter how annoying, distant, even mean, that they can be, has a gift to offer. It’s not something they even intend to give, but just by being whom they are, they demonstrate a good trait, a trait that their partners would love to have. So can Dana fish out from within her what it was that she “got” from her partner that she never had before?

In this list, you may be surprised that one question I did not ask was, “Do you love him?” That is because feelings change instantaneously. I was at a workshop recently where therapists were learning a new technique. They had to pretend to be one of their clients and express their clients’ feelings about some problem. It was fascinating how negative all the attendees in the room felt after that! And everyone was a therapist! When you get into a negative mood–even when you’re pretending—something bad sticks. Moods fluctuate depending on how the relationship is going at that time.

Love – or the absence of it — is the same way. We can think it’s gone, but that may only be a function of this disconnect you’re experiencing right now. Dana and her husband can work on the suggestions here; watch to see what improves, and then see if their attitudes don’t change, too. Maybe then the ships would consider dropping anchor, sending up flares, and finding out what’s going on.

© Copyright 2011 by By Deb Hirschhorn, PhD. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Jerry

    September 8th, 2011 at 12:31 PM

    The thing that you have to look at is whether you ever had a strong relationship with one another, and if so, if there is any chance that you might be able to recapture that.

    I think that many of us at some point get married for all the wrong reasons- we think that is what we are supposed to do, or all of our friends are doing it, or you really like this person. But then you wake up one morning and it hits you that this is not the one that you are meant to spend the rest of your life with.

    But the trick is to recognize this and to then determine amicably if this is worth sticking it out and trying to make it work or if it would just be for the best to turn and walk away.

    Too many people try to tough it out when really there is no hope for the relationship at all and all would be better off just to end it.

  • Gabe H

    September 8th, 2011 at 5:29 PM

    The key is to be able to freely communicate with one another. A happy couple is one that is able to both respectfully remind their partner of what they forgot to do, and also is also capable of telling their partner what they like and what they want.

    Here are some good lines to use, in as respectful of a manner as possible. I’ve been using them with my wife for years, and with 23 happy years under our belt, you could consider us pretty successful.

    [husband/Wife’s name], I really like it when you ______ would you doing it more often, it makes me really happy?

    [husband/Wife’s name], I know you were busy but yesterday you forgot to ________ we agreed that you would do this since I can not handle it anymore due to __________

    Lines like these can keep a marriage strong. If you’re marriage is slipping away I would try to consider the questions in the article but do it with your partner. This way you can decide as a team what isn’t working.

  • Marina D.

    September 8th, 2011 at 6:23 PM

    At least that couple have decided they’ll stick it out for the sake of the kids. Good for them! So few do now or if they do they cheat on each other.

    Sticking it out for the kids while remaining faithful despite being in a loveless marriage is a mature decision. It’s definitely better than being that woman who goes and has sex with another man (or vice versa) because she’s not had any in months.

  • Eliza

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:04 PM

    I would not have been able to survive a week with a husband who doesn’t connect. I mean, yeah some people are kinds reserved and do not know how to express their feelings but being this way in a marriage is only gonna kill the connect and the relationship with the spouse!

  • Harry Bryson

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:26 PM

    @Marina-Well, in the same breath she admits that she withdraws when her husband isn’t catering to her needs. I don’t know what they are exactly. I do know that makes her come off as quite high maintenance.

    I don’t think she’s the breadwinner in that family if she has to go to her husband every time cap in hand.

  • Kristen Crowe

    September 8th, 2011 at 7:35 PM

    @Harry: Why is her status as breadwinner or not relevant? She never said her needs were financial. They probably aren’t! I’d bet my bottom dollar she’s talking about wanting her emotional needs being met, not her material ones.

    Money cannot, as the old saying goes, buy happiness. Earner or not, she deserves to be treated right.

  • PD

    September 9th, 2011 at 4:12 AM

    many couples are doing this you-do-your-thing-and-I-will-do-mine now.they live in the same house and the same kids call them parents but they are nothing more than people who share their bedroom.Hey wait, some couples don’t even sleep in the same bedroom anymore…and they are okay with that kind of a setup!

  • Celeste G.

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:28 PM

    The kids have to have an adult at the house to take care of them, which is why many women with kids don’t do any work outside the home. Some states have their citizens so paranoid that people will call Child Protective Services on your family if you leave them unattended for more than two minutes. That’s why some moms are terrified to not be there 24/7.

  • fiona n.

    September 9th, 2011 at 7:37 PM

    Wives do get a bad rap. They hold the family together, not the husbands. It’s the men who clam up and won’t meet you halfway when you want to talk. The older they get, the grumpier they get. Once the wooing is over and done with, they treat you like crap and expect you to accept that’s how it is. Don’t do it!

    And don’t let them lay all the blame on you either. Why is it always US and not THEM that needs to do better if the marriage is falling apart????

  • H.N.

    September 10th, 2011 at 3:19 PM

    I’d rather be a single parent than stand by as a dutiful wife with my chin quivering telling everyone I’m such a martyr. Doing it for the kids, my butt. That’s spineless. If they’ve been married a long time their kids are mostly grown up. She can’t be bothered with the upheaval of a divorce and admitting her marriage is a sham publicly.

    I know many women that stay in rotten marriages because they don’t want to give up their nice house or lose face with their churchgoing neighbors. It’s nuts.

    Don’t waste your time trying to recapture what’s long gone, lady, cos it ain’t coming back.

  • Cathleen B.

    September 10th, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Communication is so central to relationships many feel it’s over when it slows down or even stops completely. When you can’t communicate, you have nothing left they’ll say. It’s not true.

    They were clearly close before so can rebuild that communication. Raising kids is hard. Mothers often feel their own wings are clipped because of their loss of independence or even having a moment to call her own. That can harm the relationship too.

    I know I felt I’d lost my identity within a year of having my daughter. I was “Mom” or “Keren’s mom”. I remember one day realizing I didn’t remember when I’d last been called by my first name by my husband or anybody and how shocked I felt. I cried all day.

    The key is not to panic. Once the kids are old enough to need less supervision, to be left with a babysitter and/or have flown the nest, the problems begin to smooth themselves out in time. It’s about rediscovery of you as a couple and yourself.

  • Luke R.

    September 10th, 2011 at 5:44 PM

    You need to decide at the beginning when you’re having children to not lose sight of the two of you anytime between the diapers and diplomas. My mom and dad had a date night every Friday. When we were very small, they had it at home because they couldn’t afford a babysitter: they made a special dinner together, had candles and flowers on the table, the whole nine yards. We knew not to disturb them once they sat down to eat.

    When we got older, they would go out to dinner and a movie or dinner and a show. They always dressed up for it even if they were staying home so they would look nice for each other.

    In our teens we made fun of them about it. Now, my own wife and I do the very same thing! It keeps us connected and close.

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