What to Do When Your Relationship Feels Unsteady

couple walking around lakeWhen a relationship feels stuck or distant, it is hard to know how to rekindle the connection and create a sense of shared closeness again. You may have the same reasons for feeling disconnected as your partner: working too much, poor sleep, and too much time spent on electronics are common explanations for couples drifting apart. You may be puzzled at your partner’s remoteness and seeming disinterest in your relationship. If you’ve made gentle inquiries and are not getting anywhere, you’re probably trying to figure out how to take more direct action without adding to the tension. Maybe you’re worried he or she is involved with someone else or even having an affair.

Direct questions about inflammatory topics such as affairs are likely to cause a defensive reaction and shut down dialogue. Asking your partner to go on dates or get intimate may backfire if you’re living in an atmosphere of buried resentments.

You may find you get more productive results if you choose a time to talk when there are few distractions. Early in the weekend, you could ask if Sunday afternoon would be a good time to go someplace for a walk or get a snack at a place you both like. While a glass of wine or beer may be a pleasant relaxant, it is a potential distraction in this kind of conversation, so doing some light outdoor activity may be your best bet.

Starting off with some appreciation can help: “I know you’ve been working a lot lately. I just miss taking our special time together.” Or, “The kids take up a lot of space in life. I want to make sure we stay connected.”

If that doesn’t go anywhere, you can offer low-key overtures: “I’m feeling a bit adrift here.” Or, “I notice I’m kind of hesitant to talk to you right now. I’m not really sure why, so I thought I’d go ahead and try anyway. Are you up for that?”

Other conversation starters might include: “I’m wondering how you think we’re doing these days.” Or, “When I think about how things were this time last year, it is feeling pretty different. What’s your perspective?”

If the response you get is anything other than warm or concerned, you’ll need to manage your own reaction. Getting anxious or demanding will not be useful. Wrap up with something like this: “I guess now is not a good time. Let me know when we can connect. It seems like you’re not happy, and I’d like to know what I could do to make things better.” Or, “Wow, I’m kind of taken by surprise here. I thought we could check in is all. Maybe we both need some more time to put our thoughts together.” Or, “I’m concerned that I opened a can of worms. I don’t want to keep talking if it doesn’t feel right. I bet we can come up with some good ideas later, when we’re not upset.”

Doing this successfully takes self-control and the ability to calm yourself; we develop these capacities over time, with practice. However, these skills are worth developing for many reasons and will serve you well in various areas of life, including your career, so starting with your personal relationship is time well spent. If you can show this kind of maturity and behave reasonably with your partner, he or she is more likely to want to talk to you, especially if he or she is somehow struggling in life or in the relationship. Managing your own responses is the best way to gain your partner’s respect and affection.

© Copyright 2013 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kate McNulty, LCSW, Gottman Method Topic Expert Contributor

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

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  • tinsley

    November 21st, 2013 at 2:24 PM

    I definitely agree that much of this and the success of your relationship is about managing your own anger and reactions. It is about finding that balance with letting your voice be heard while at the same time noot blowing a gasket! I know that there have been times when I have modulated my own anger and my own feelings to keep my husband in check, but as long as i still get to say what’s on my mind then I don’t feel as if I am neglecting my true self. I don’t think that you have to sacrifice your own needs to make someone else happy; but I do think that you have to be aware of how much your own responses can feed into another’s and think about that before letting yourself react without thoughtfulness.

  • Annie

    November 22nd, 2013 at 4:42 AM

    One of the most difficult things is being able to sit down with your spouse and have this really honest conversation. You don’t want him to feel blindsided but you do need to make your feelings known.
    It doesn’t have to be done in a threatening or intimidating manner but it does have to be in a way that lets him or her know that you are serious and that you are concerned with the direction that the relationship is going.
    No matter what happens being honest with your partner is far better than sitting on it until it all comes pouring out, probably not in a very productive way.

  • lenny

    November 23rd, 2013 at 5:01 AM

    What do you do?
    I guess that a lot of that depends on what you ultimately want from the relationship.
    Do you want it to thrive or do you want it to end?
    If you want the former, then you work hard to save it, do what needs to be done.
    If you choose the latter, then you ignore it and know that it is going to die a slow death.

  • Liv

    November 25th, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    It takes two to tango, so really no matter what you are feeling, where the relationship ultimately goes is going to be largely determined by what both partners decide together that they want. It can’t just be that only one side is communicating and doing all the work.

  • Dustin R

    November 30th, 2013 at 5:08 AM

    The way I see it, there are always two players in each scenario, but more often than not one is going to make themself the martyr, the victim, when they are generally just as much at fault as the other partner in the relationship. They may not be doing the hitting or the drinking for example, but are the ones enabling this person so that he or she can continue this behavior? I think that a lot of times people willingly stay even when things are too unbalanced just because this is the role they play, the one that they feel comfortable with, so they are just as resistent to change as the other. It becomes a real trick to have people admit at the same time that there are real issues here and that they need to be resolved for both to be healthy and strong and really invested in the success of the relationship again.

  • Kaye

    December 3rd, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    For so many couples I think that the tendency becomes to ignore it all and hope that it will either magically go away or that things will get better on their own.

    Rarely does this happen. These things can become like open wounds, and when they are not tended and taken care of they only tend to get worse and worse. Before you know it your marriage is ending and you look back and really have no idea how you got to that place at all.

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