Sunday, March 20, 2011

"Hey, Remember Me?" Getting Your Partner's Attention

Whether it is our hectic lives, a conflict in schedules, diverging interests or more serious disruptions in our lives, it can be distressing to feel disconnected with our partner. We began our relationship hoping for a partner who would be “there” for us, who would anticipate our needs, and who would be responsive to our efforts to connect. We are especially sensitive to those feelings of emotional disconnect during unanticipated personal crises, such as infertility or cancer, which may render us unable to cope and reluctant to confide in others. What do we make of it when those connections with our partner feel frayed?

Perhaps the first thing is to see whether the two of you can have a conversation about your perception, to see whether your partner feels at all as you do. If so, then ask whether you can both find a time to talk more about what changes you would like to see in your relationship. If not, you should still propose that you find some time to talk, but be prepared to be the one taking the lead. And in either case, there are a few areas to acknowledge as potentially sensitive:
You do not want to convey to your partner a sense of blame for the distance that you perceive has been growing between you. Instead, you want to enlist creativity and cooperation to draw you closer together.
You do not want to come across as being a nag. “You never…” or “You always…” or “Why don’t you ever…” are key phrases to avoid.
It is possible that the two of you actually have different needs for emotional closeness. So at the very time you are feeling left out, your partner may be feeling as if the closeness/distance balance is just right.

So, starting at the beginning, you already are moving in the right direction if you and your partner agree on making some time to talk about the emotional disconnect that at least one of you is feeling. A caution here: it’s best to have this discussion in a private, neutral space (not the bedroom, not the table/countertop where you eat your meals, not in a place with distractions like riding in the car, and not a place that is physically uncomfortable or where you cannot easily make eye contact). Turn off all ringing, buzzing objects/alarms, so the message you give to each other is that each of you is the other’s priority.

Once the time and place have been set aside, since you’ve taken the initiative, you’ll want to explain why. How about finding an upbeat way to begin? “I’ve begun to realize that I miss the times when we had more chances just to relax and talk/ problem-solve/snuggle/hike/have a candlelight dinner/ be intimate together” would be one way to open the conversation, followed by something like “Do you ever feel this way?”

If your partner agrees, then you both can begin to explore what you would like to do to create more time together. And you’ll also need to figure out what are the factors that have contributed to the emotional disconnect you’ve been feeling. Those factors may be real life issues, like high maintenance family members/friends/co-workers/bosses/or even pets! Other factors may be physical exhaustion, illness, emotional distractions, job or school obligations, work-related travel, or any number of things that have crept unnoticed into your lives. So the combination of a mutual wish to recapture calm time together, paired with a recognition of the factors you think get in your way, should set the stage for a productive discussion on what both of you can do to set the stage for more attention to each other.

But what if your partner doesn’t perceive the emotional disconnect that has been worrying you? You still are entitled to your feelings, but understanding where your partner is coming from becomes especially important. Is it that your partner may be worried that there will be an expectation that some favorite activities will be sacrificed? Perhaps that you may want some changes that would be unwelcome? Maybe that your partner has a real commitment to some of the high maintenance people in your lives and is apprehensive you may demand equal time? As you can imagine, it’s really important to ask your partner’s help in understanding why only one of you is feeling this emotional distance. Here your partner may actually be relieved if you offer your perspective first, which may turn out to be not nearly as difficult to address as your partner initially anticipated.
So if you begin by offering that you find yourself missing the times when you had more time to spend together, and that you want to nurture that closeness and not take your relationship for granted, your partner will hopefully take that as a positive message and not a competitive one. Then, in the spirit of enlisting your partner’s participation, you might ask “I wonder what we could do to recapture some of the special times together that we used to enjoy so much?” Hopefully both of you could begin to explore together your ideas, acknowledging the inevitable demands that have interrupted efforts to spend time together. Trying to figure out how you both can shuffle/reschedule/ re-prioritize those demands will be important. You may need to call on others to help create the space you need for yourselves: parents, siblings, best friends, a religious leader or a counselor all could be resources to consider.

Realistically, we also must consider the possibility that your efforts to re-engage emotionally with your partner may be met with denial, side-steps, avoidance or disregard for your feelings. If you genuinely have avoided blaming or nagging, then your partner’s lack of responsiveness is a serious signal that you are not going to be met half way. This would be a time to encourage your partner to come with you to a marriage counselor to sort out your different perspectives on your relationship. And if your partner is unwilling, then you should seek counseling for yourself (see some of my earlier blogs or my book When You’re Not Expecting for how to find a therapist).

Relationships are sensitive territory, often changing and often needing ongoing attention. And, since the need for attention to the relationship may coincide with life changes, personal crises, family losses or other emotion laden events, you and your partner can potentially benefit if you develop a style of connecting that is open and responsive even in trying times. So if you begin by using your current perception of wanting to nourish your relationship, hopefully both of you will develop and nurture ways of staying emotionally resilient and connected for many years to come.

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