It’s relatively easy to point out the signs of an emotionally disconnected couple: They stonewall (i.e., give each other the silent treatment), lose interest in the details of each other’s lives, and feel unmoved by shows of affection from each other.
Although we hear a lot about the signs that a marriage is in rough water, we rarely see how couples get through those rocky moments.
What do those “Are we OK?” conversations sound like? What kinds of compromises do they make? What changes do they make to ensure the issues don’t crop up again in the near future?
In an effort to find out, we asked marriage therapists to share what relatively happy couples they work with do when they’re feeling out of sync. Read what they had to say below.
1. They address the disconnect quickly.
To get to the heart of a problem, first you have to recognize there even is a problem. Giving something a name makes it real, as opposed to an unstated, gnawing feeling that something is off in your relationship.
“Instead of holding in whatever’s bothering them and letting it fester, couples who feel safe and secure in their relationships bring it up in a non-critical manner as soon as possible,” said Danielle Kepler, owner and therapist at DK Therapy in Chicago.
“They might say something as simple as, ‘It feels like we haven’t had any time this week to connect. Can we take some time just the two of us this weekend?’” she continued.
2. They also make it a ‘we’ problem instead of a ‘you’ problem.
Couples in solid relationships try their hardest not to lay the blame on the other. To that end, they’ve made some tweaks to the way they speak to each other: Specifically, when discussing any thorny issues, they use “we” language instead of “you” language, Kepler said.
For instance, “It’s important to me that we’re in agreement on what we do for child care when I go back to work,” not “I really need you to get with the program on this child care thing.”
“This helps to reduce possible defensiveness and one partner feeling ‘blamed’ for the disconnect,” Kepler said. “Connection works both ways; both partners are responsible for turning toward their partner.”
3. When disconnection happens, secure couples are more likely to respond versus react.
As human beings, we’re hard-wired for connection as a means of survival. When we sense a disconnection from our partner, the survival, primal part of our brain lights up and we have an automatic fight-or-flight reaction, said Jennifer Chappell Marsh, a marriage and family therapist in San Diego.
Secure couples notice when they’re feeling triggered and instead of yelling, fault-finding or withdrawing (reacting), they warmly reach for their partner and communicate their needs for harmony and connection (respond).
“Then they communicate their needs for connection in a healthy way,” Chappell Marsh said. “For example, instead of saying, ‘You never spend time with me anymore,’ a partner may say, ‘I’ve noticed we haven’t spent much time together. I miss you. I’d love to plan a date this weekend.’”
4. They make a plan to reconnect.
After calling out the problem and getting a handle on their fight-or-flight reaction, happy couples brainstorm ways to foster reconnection, said Ryan Howes, a psychologist in Pasadena, California, and the author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.”
“Do you need to talk more, have more focus on intimacy, or hang out with others socially?” he said. “Much of this depends on your own wants and needs, and how these mesh with your partner, but if you work collaboratively you should be able to get back on track with your relationship.”
5. They recognize the problem may be unrelated to their relationship.
Sometimes, it isn’t about you; your partner might be going through something wholly separate from your relationship, said Beatty Cohan, a psychotherapist and author of “For Better, for Worse, Forever: Discover the Path to Lasting Love.” It could be a full plate at work or that they’re feeling estranged from a sibling they’re usually close with. Happy couples ask open-ended questions to get to the bottom of things (“I’ve noticed something seems off. Is everything going OK?”) rather than jumping to self-centered conclusions (The classic “Are you mad at me?”).
“Happy couples talk openly about why they may be feeling the way they’re feeling,” Cohan said. “Maybe the disconnect is not about the relationship, but about some individual problem, past or present.”
When a partner pushes away or otherwise creates distance, the secure person tries not to immediately take it personally, added Susan Pease Gadoua, a therapist in Northern California.
“Happy partners understand that they are not the cause of the issue,” she said. “They trust that their partner would talk to them about the issue if it did involve something they did. Happy partners communicate openly and honestly so when there are breaches in their connection, they can withstand them much better than if they were conflict avoidant, for example, and had no foundation in trust because they lacked honesty.”
6. They handle their partner’s feelings sensitively and are quick to ask, ‘How can I help?’
Those in healthy relationships find it easy to put themselves in their partner’s shoes ― or else they’ve learned how to do it with time and practice.
“A little thoughtfulness in this conversation can make a big difference,” Howes said. “Are they overwhelmed at work? Are they experiencing grief, anxiety or self-esteem problems?”
Rather than blasting them with, ‘I need more from you!’ the therapist said you might soften this with something like, ‘I know work has been a mess for you lately, is there anything I can do to help so we can free up some time to connect?’”
“This is an appeal for partnership, and if both of you hold this mindset you may be able to support each other on multiple fronts,” Howes said.
7. They know the disconnect is only temporary.
Attachment styles ― how we’ve been taught to emotionally bond and show affection to others in our adult lives ― underlie our dating and relationship behavior. When there is a foundation of secure connection versus insecure, disconnection isn’t experienced as the end of the world, Chappell Marsh said.
The therapist said there are three main components of maintaining a generally secure connection with your partner. You can remember it by thinking of the acronym ARE.
“Availability, Responsiveness, Emotionally engaged,” she said. “Essentially, couples who feel their partner is available for them when they need them, responsive to their needs, and care about them are more securely connected.”
8. They follow through.
Bridging the divide here isn’t solely about good communication; happy couples back their words up with measurable actions, Howes said.
“You have to set realistic goals and follow through to get back on track,” he said. “Will you actually make that camping trip or date night happen, or were they just empty words?”
The happiest couples even check in with each other with a “state of the union” every week or so, regardless of how the relationship seems to be going.
“This brief chat usually starts with one person saying, ‘So, how are we doing this week?’ and then talk about the ups, downs and areas to work on for the coming week,” Howes said. “If this is done regularly, and not only when there is a problem, it tends to keep things running smoothly.”