Relighting The Fire

A Flickering Relationship Needs New Fuel

by Douglas LaBier

A shorter version of this article appeared in somewhat different form in The Washington Post, November 12, 2002

Nora, 43, has a successful career as a free-lance magazine writer. Married 14 years, with two children, she and her husband, Ken, a media executive, are typical of many couples today — committed to their relationship and family as much as to their careers. Yet something troubles them. It’s what’s happened along the way to their marriage.

There’s nothing “wrong” with it, exactly. But the excitement and energy, the feelings of connection and passion that were once there have gradually faded over the years.

“The old feelings haven’t exactly disappeared,” Nora says. “Now and then it feels something like it used to. But mostly it feels like our relationship has ‘bottomed out.'”

Another person, David, who recently celebrated the eleventh anniversary of his second marriage, describes a similar shift a bit more sardonically, saying that his relationship has settled into a state of “depressing comfortableness.”

If these laments sound familiar, it’s likely because most men and women find that their long-term marriages (and I’m including here equivalent committed relationships, straight or gay) tend to head south over time. Gradually, they descend into what I call the Functional Relationship.

There, the relationship “works” fairly well, but mostly in a transactional way, around the logistics of daily life: “I thought you were taking the car in for repair.” “Whose turn is it to take the kids to soccer practice on Saturday?” Sometimes, it becomes more adversarial: “Why did you schedule the plumber for tomorrow when you knew you couldn’t be here? I told you that I have a meeting I can’t miss.”

But even when “functioning” goes fairly smoothly, feelings of passion or even fun just hanging out together are diminished, especially in contrast to the way it was early on in the relationship.

While conducting a study of contemporary marriage in the early 2000s, I’ve seen couples experience this diminishment in three major ways: Decreased emotional intimacy and sharing of feelings. Less equality in decisions and daily interactions, which are often tinged by power-struggles and silent maneuvering for the “upper hand.” And dampened sexuality, both in quantity and quality. Even when arousal is jacked up by Viagra or the new products purporting to enhance women’s desire, your libido — desire for the person you’re with — remains diminished. And that’s no surprise, because the latter is relationship-dependent. It remains unaffected even when you are physiologically aroused.

Overall, couples in a Functional Relationship report a diminished sense of connection with each other; often a feeling of not being on the same “wave-length.”

Now most people assume that the Functional Relationship is completely normal, just a sad reality of adult life. Some accept it as just one more part of the “long slide home,” as one 47-year-old corporate executive described his experience of midlife. Of course, not everyone feels so bleak, but many would agree with Ann’s lament about her 18-year relationship. She says that “what was once a bright flame has turned into a pilot light.”

Your own experience of this decline may be more moderate or severe than these. But you, too, probably assume that romantic and sexual connections are supposed to fade over time. Common sense seems to tell you so. After all, you’re seeing the same person day-in and day-out, not just when he or she is most attractive. And like the majority of couples today, you’re probably dealing with the impact of multitasking, dual-career lives. Raising children in addition absorbs enormous time and energy.

If everyday experience doesn’t convince you that the Functional Relationship is inevitable, there are the pronouncements of various experts. For example, some researchers claim that brain chemicals such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine, associated with sexual excitement or desire, decline with familiarity. At the same time, oxytocin and endorphins, which generate feelings of quiet comfort and calm, rise. Therefore, they say, you are going to feel diminished desire for your partner over time.

Many marriage and relationship experts advocate accepting this decline and learning to be happy with it. For example, in her recent book Surrendering to Marriage author Iris Krasnow advocates learning to appreciate and live with the security and comfort that come along with the “inevitable” decline — unless, of course, you want to go down the slippery slope of an affair, or dumping your partner altogether and look for a new one. “Dr. Phil” McGraw, Oprah’s relationship guru, also promotes his own version of this through his “tough love” command to “get real.” It’s easy to hear this as a command to stop complaining about what you don’t have and learn to live with lowered expectations.

The bottom line? If all of the above is really true, then you’d better resign yourself to the fact that a “passionate marriage” is an oxymoron.

But before you do that, consider this: Descending into the Functional Relationship is neither natural nor inevitable. True, the experience is widespread. But it’s a product of how we learn to “practice” love relationships within our culture to begin with. In the course of my project, I have sought to understand how and why some people are able to defy the norm and generate new energy and vitality within their long-term relationships. I’m convinced that there’s a way out of the Functional Relationship. There’s even a way to avoid it altogether.

The Love Project

Most people descend into the Functional Relationship because it’s the natural outcome of how we learn to engage in love relationships in our culture. It’s a version of adolescent romance. Its features — like intense arousal by a new person; infatuation, often followed by deflation; manipulating and game-playing, are part of normal adolescent development. But we carry them into our adult experience. And this model of love can’t sustain long-term connection and vitality, which are among the requirements for adult love.

I began this project because conventional thinking about long-term relationships, rooted in the adolescent model, didn’t make sense to me in the light of current knowledge about adult development and the interactions of living systems. Nor did it match what I or other clinicians and researchers had observed in the lives of real people over the years.

As a psychologist, I have worked with hundreds of men and women, as individuals and couples, over nearly 30 years. I undertook this project from three vantage points: As a psychotherapist helping patients resolve conflicts affecting their lives and relationships; as a business psychologist conducting programs, workshops and consulting projects with men and women seeking new growth in their careers and personal lives; and from research into adult development — studying what enables people to grow and evolve emotionally, creatively, spiritually and in other ways during the decades beyond their twenties.

Having spent several years studying the link between careers and emotional conflict in our culture, in the late 1990s I began to shift my attention to what happens within long-term love relationships. This became the focus of my work for the next five years.

As my work continued, I began to see examples of couples able to create a healthy adult love relationship – one that is energetic, alive and growing over time, like a self-sustaining energy source. A healthy love relationship is marked by increasing mutuality, openness and connection. Couples who develop adult love move closer to the “soul mate” ideal that most long for but which seems more elusive and unrealistic the longer you and your partner stay together.

Overall, couples that learn the ingredients of healthy adult love deepen their connection at all levels — emotionally, sexually and spiritually. But most important, they are not joined at the hip, as you will see.

Daring To Disengage

The path to long-term relationship vitality involves a paradox that may sound counterintuitive. And it’s likely to upset, even threaten, some people: You have to “leave” your relationship in order to transform it.

This process, which I call “Constructive Disengagement,” becomes the foundation for a healthy, vital relationship that restores and increases intimacy, equality and sexuality. What does it mean to “leave” your relationship in order to build an integrated life and transform your Functional Relationship into healthy, adult love?

It means shifting gears entirely. Rather than constantly trying make your relationship work better through adopting the latest “how-to” technique; rather than responding and reacting in ways that have become habitual, perhaps frustratingly repetitive despite being convinced that you are “right” — rather than any of this behavior which drains away energy and keeps you locked within the Functional Relationship, Constructive Disengagement is very different. It is a means by which you learn to move “away” from your relationship in ways that come back to revitalize it.

In Constructive Disengagement you shift your focus away from your relationship — the way you have been engaging in it; and toward newly created goals, values and behavior, both inside and outside your relationship. This shift is independent of what your partner does or doesn’t do regarding his or her own, habitual reactions and conduct. It’s not designed to change any of that. That’s up to your partner.

The objective of couples that learn Constructive Disengagement is to build the necessary foundation for transforming your relationship into adult love. The paradox is that by acting upon a vision of the person you wish to be for your own sake, you open up new energy for change within the relationship.

Only with the foundation that Constructive Disengagement provides can you revitalize and deepen your relationship — whether you use any of the various relationship-improvement techniques in books or programs; couples therapy; or even choose to work on things without outside help. Without that foundation, whatever you try won’t work well or last very long, as most couples discover.

Constructive Disengagement is a practice — like learning to play a musical instrument or a new sport — because it is a mixture of things: A shift of your attitudes, perspectives, goals, vision and actions that you keep working on. It begins with the awareness that you can never make your partner change or be different. You can only change how you deal with, respond to, and conduct yourself towards him or her. This is what is meant by “leaving” your relationship in order to transform it.

Constructive Disengagement consists of two parts: Learning “Creative Indifference” within your relationship; and Reclaiming Your Own Life — both within and outside of your relationship. Both are necessary because the reality is that you can’t change your relationship without changing the rest of your life.

“Creative Indifference”

First off, this doesn’t mean you stop caring about your partner or your relationship. To the contrary, “Creative Indifference” helps you care in a deeper, more genuine way because you become less reactive to your own and your partner’s behavior. It opens the door to positive change.

It means using creative imagination to disentangle yourself and step away from your habitual ways of and perceiving and reacting to your partner. The “indifference” is toward your own internal emotional reactions and habitual responses, especially in situations in which you typically feel disappointed, defensive or critical towards your partner.

Most of us tend to see things through the lens of our own needs, hurts, conviction that we are “right,” and so forth. These are aspects of our “ego-self,” the narrow part of the self, which tends to predominate in our perceptions and actions. They fuel the Functional Relationship, and drain energy and interest from your relationship.

Habitual reactions within the Functional Relationship usually include emotions and perceptions of your partner as a person, or of a situation involving the two of you, which are negative and have a dampening effect on the relationship. For many, they include ongoing resentments and disappointments in your partner’s “failure” to provide you with what you want. Or, they may involve negative emotions associated with the conviction that you are “right” and your partner “wrong” regarding some issue of disagreement or difference.

Through Creative Indifference” you interrupt this. Couples who use “Creative Indifference” learn to observe their internal reactions as learned responses, without acting on them towards each other. You observe your partner’s behavior in the same way. You step back from both.

With “Creative Indifference” you are separating who you are — what you think, feel, and believe — from who your partner is. That is, you are separating your own reality from that of your partner’s. In this sense, you are giving greater respect to each of you, as separate people.

Next, you create a new response that reflects the kind of person you wish to be, at that moment, regardless of how your partner is behaving; and which also serves some positive quality in the relationship that you would like to see grow — such as openness, warmth, or eroticism.

An example: One night after dinner Joe’s wife, Mary’s brought him a list of some domestic things that had piled up and required some decisions and logistical arrangements. She wanted to resolve all of the items right then and there — that’s her style.

In fact, Mary tends to become anxious about things that feel to her “out of control.” On his part, Joe tends to react defensively and passive-aggressively when Mary reminds him about things he has agreed to do, but has put off. This interplay typically leads to nagging, from Joe’s perspective; and to unreliability, from Mary’s perspective.

For example, Joe might make promises, but fail to “remember” to take care of them. Mary would become angry and distrusting. And she would show it, in spades. Each of their individual issues would reinforce the other’s through this little minuet.

But this time something different occurred. Using “Creative Indifference,” Joe first observed his usual internal response to Mary – resentment, feelings of being controlled, that she’s a shrew, and so forth. He then stepped outside of this perspective — he didn’t deny it, but just acknowledged it, with “indifference,” as a part of his own individual conditioning, residue of old childhood issues, and so on.

He shifted focus to perceiving himself and the interaction first, from Mary’s perspective, and then from an even broader perspective of watching the two of them together. This enabled him to see her anxiety without reactivity. It was simply her issue. With “Creative Indifference” to the pull of old emotions and behavior, he did not engage in the old ways.

Joe was able to feel some empathy for her experience, and could see how his own tendency to put things off contributed to it. This allowed him to find a creative response to the situation. He told her that he understood how frustrating it is for her to not know when these items will be taken care of. This acknowledged her anxiety and need without agreeing with their “validity.” Then, he clearly stated that he give her a time-frame for doing the items that he could commit to, but in the context of his own needs and schedule. He observed but didn’t react to an old feeling, that he was “giving in.”

He knew that Mary might not like his response, but, maintaining “indifference” to her reactivity, he stayed consistent with who he wanted to be in that moment — respectful of her issues, but very clear about himself. No anger, no retaliation, no submission.

“OK, I’m glad you told me,” Mary replied. “Now I feel we’re making pro-grass.”

With “Creative Indifference” you’re not trying to get or produce a particular response from your partner; nor act with self-righteous about your own. This keeps the ball in your partner’s court because you are not defending yourself, attacking, or trying to persuade him or her that you are “right.”

Then, you can use creative imagination to envision what qualities you would prefer to see in the interaction. For example, perhaps closeness and respect, rather than distance or annoyance. Next, you act in a way that demonstrates it yourself. You inject it into the interaction right then.

Some key practices of “creative indifference” are:

Expand your perception: Practice looking at yourself and your relationship from “outside” yourself, as though watching the two of you interact in a movie or play. Use creative thinking to imagine various ways you might interpret the “action;” different ways to understand the larger picture.

Step outside your own perspective: Most of us are convinced that own position and perception, our own reality, is the correct one. Consider, instead, that you may be only partially right; or even wrong, altogether. What would a broader under-standing of your situation look like?

Step into a totally different point of view: Use creative imagination to view things from your partner’s perspective, even though you may totally disagree with it, or believe it is “wrong.” Think of your partner as simply being him or herself; just as you are. Envision yourself from your partner’s viewpoint, without feeling you have to change your own. What information does that give you?

Practicing “Creative Indifference” helps you let go of your focus on your own self — on getting your “needs” met, you resentments or disappointments about how your partner behaves, your own reactivity to what he or she is reactive to These are all products of your “ego-self,” which is distorted and narrow, by definition.

“Creative Indifference” helps you disengage from your ego-self and expand your perceptions, emotionally and cognitively. You learn to be less reactive, and expand towards a broader “human” self. That is, you move towards the realization that both you and your partner share legitimate concerns, desires and vulnerabilities that are part of your common humanness. Then, you can hone in on what best serves the relationship between the two of you, rather than the ego-driven needs of either of you.

“Creative Indifference” disrupts the entrenched pattern. It is why couples find it liberating. It lays the groundwork for generating new energy and positive change between the two partners, by being better able to see your partner more as he or she really is, as a whole being, not just as a source of providing or withholding your “needs. It can also help you see how differences between you can be stimulating rather than frightening or disappointing.

Reclaiming Your Own Life

This brings us to the other part of Constructive Disengagement: Simultaneously “growing” your own life as a separate individual while you practice “Creative Indifference” within your relationship. This part of building the foundation for a healthy relationship also involves a shift of attitude and action.

I have found that it works most effectively when each partner formulates specific new, modest (i.e. realistic and doable within a reasonable time-frame) goals and actions steps in six interconnected dimensions of life, “outside” of your relationship. They form a kind of latticework of new growth.

This step enables you to reclaim your capacity for personal “evolution” and rescue it from the stagnation that we all tend to sink into, given the external demands, pressures, and conventional values of daily life within today’s culture. These individual goals and actions that support them lay the second half of the necessary foundation for adult love.

The six key dimensions include:

  • Intellectual – Identify a subject area of new learning of any kind.
  • Emotional – Choose some aspect of your emotional experience that you want to develop. For example, becoming more empathic, or more emotionally expressive towards others.
  • Relational – Define some quality of a relationship that you want to strengthen, whether with a family member, a friend, even a stranger.
  • Creative – Choose an area in which to develop or enhance creative expression. Preferably, make it something not directly work-related.
  • Spiritual – Choose a goal through which you will build a greater sense of overall life purpose and meaning; of connection with God, if you are a believer; or with the Cosmos, if that frame of reference is more congenial.
  • Physical – Select an objective for your physical health. It may be a new goal or maintenance of a current one that is worthy of sustaining. Be mindful of the mind-body connection.

Why Change Is Subversive – In A Good Way

Men and women who practice this part of Constructive Disengagement choose a specific new goal, and then one action-step that supports that goal, for each one of the six dimensions. That is, six different goals. As you do this, you discover two things. First, pursuing each new goal affects, and is affected by, what you are doing in each of the others dimensions. They are synergistic. This helps create the integration and connection within yourself. And this, in turn, prepares you for stronger connection between yourself and your partner.

For example, Jim chose a relational goal — he wanted feel more engaged with and aware of the needs and life dilemmas of other people in his life. As he created a step in this direction, he found that this made him think more about his spiritual goal of building a greater sense of purpose and meaning in his life, beyond career, through family and friendships. This, in turn, strengthened his actions supporting his physical goal of losing weight, because he experienced more directly the mind-body-spirit connection. He wanted to feel at his best, overall.

Ken discovered a similar interconnection when he established an emotional goal of strengthening his empathy with colleagues and subordinates at work. He saw that he couldn’t do that and remain in the same patterns with his wife. It was a visible gap. This strengthened his use of “Creative Indifference” with her, by enabling him to see things more from her perspective and experiences, not just through the lens of his own ego. Connecting in this way also generated feelings between them of being more closely attuned, spiritually. New growth was underway.

Robin established a goal in the creative dimension, to take a painting class. This opened up new sources of pleasure and beauty, introduced her to some new people, and generated more vitality in he life. She discovered that she felt happier interacting with her husband, because she was feeling more alive in her own life. This spilled over into the relational dimension.

Similarly, Jeff decided to learn flower arranging, as a creative goal. It became such fun for him that he found himself becoming more emotionally expressive and lively in his relationship with his wife — which was a goal in his emotional dimension. It also increased his desire for more knowledge about flowers and plants — an intellectual goal.

Another person, Tom, set up an intellectual goal of reading one book per month in various subject areas he had long-standing interest in. With more ideas now circulating in his head, he discovered he had more to talk about with his wife — a relational goal. To his surprise, he discovered that she had ideas and thoughts that she had not been sharing with him. Both benefited.

Reclaiming your own life allows you to discover that your new growth in areas outside your relationship has impact within it, especially if your partner is also pursuing his or her own goals of new development.

What this does is force a disruption of the closed system that you and your partner have been living in. This reinforces the disruption that you have already been creating from your practice of “Creative Indifference.” Whenever you change your own conduct or input within an established pattern of relating, it forces some kind of change in the other person’s behavior as well.

In short, as either of you begin to grow and change, individually, new energy is generated. This automatically infiltrates your old patterns of relating, where it disrupts and then and opens up the potential for new growth between the two of you.

So This Is Midlife…

Most people are already aware that our capacity for growth doesn’t end with biological maturity. Accumulating research shows that the decades of adulthood beyond the mid-30s are a period of opportunity for significant growth and positive change – cognitively, emotionally, spiritually, creatively — even physically.

This is what we have called “midlife.” In my view, that’s a misnomer. So-called midlife is really the beginning of full adulthood, in terms of the potential for full flowering and integration of our emotional, mental, and spiritual capacities — our capacity to become more fully human, more evolved.

What we haven’t done very well is apply new knowledge about adult growth and development to relationships, and abolish old myths about emotional, sexual and behavioral decline in long-term relationships. But couples that lay the foundation for healthy love relationships through Constructive Disengagement are doing exactly that.

In a broader sense, the most important product of Constructive Disengagement is that it gets you excited by a sense of possibility. Whenever the feeling of possibility is aroused — new visions of what could be — it will generate new energy. That energy pulls you towards the future, while loosening the hold of the past.

Love Practices That Work

Both parts of Constructive Disengagement — “Creative Indifference” and “Reclaiming Your Own Life” — provide a strong foundation for “returning” to your relationship. Now the stage is set for using the best available practices which enhance emotional, relational, and sexual connection and energy in an integrated fashion –and which can transform the Functional Relationship into adult love.

The following are descriptions of what I have found to be the three most essential relationship practices that move couples into adult love. Each strengthens connections in specific ways, and each also moves your relationship out of the Functional Relationship in a specific way.

For each, I have listed one book whose techniques have been helpful to many, and which also recognizes the holistic, interlocking nature of these three core love practices. For additional references, contact the Center.

 Radical Exposure – The practice of full emotional disclosure in your communications. It means defining yourself, showing yourself, but not with the aim of dominating, silencing or manipulating your partner. Rather, the goal is to expose and disclose to each other what is true and real about your emotional reality.

Radical Exposure builds connection in the form of deeper emotional intimacy. It encompasses your desires, fears, vulnerabilities, and dreams. It includes being open to each other into two senses: openness expressed outward, through revealing your inner thoughts and feelings; and openness in the form of receptivity to your partner’s doing the same to you.

Radical Exposure is different from “letting it all hang out,” because some forms of exposure can undermine intimacy. That is, it’s not the same as free-associating out loud to your partner, with all your fantasies. Save that for your therapist.

Learning Radical Exposure helps a couple let go of fear of showing each other who they are to each other, as well as of the learned tendency of hiding out, concealment, or secret manipulation — all parts of conventional, adolescent-based love and romance. In this way, Radical Exposure builds increasing respect and trust. It transforms the fear and isolation of the Functional Relationship into self-sustaining intimacy and emotional connection.

One useful book for techniques and strategies supporting Radical Exposure is Passage To Intimacy, by Lori Gordon, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist.

 Words-Into-Actions – Integrating reciprocity and mutuality in daily conduct. Words-Into-Actions strengthens connection through equality and reciprocity in daily behavior. It means demonstrating equality through actions, not just words, or through behavior which occurs only on special occasions.

In short, it means finding ways to show the mutuality that both men and women want in their relationships today, and therefore move beyond old-style relationships of domination and submission. This means figuring out how to share power around decisions or differences in daily life. It includes demonstrating consideration and respect of each other, not just as a provider of “my” needs. Jockeying around to be the dominant player in the relationship is more characteristic of the Functional Relationship.

Words-Into-Actions is also more than just compromising around situational differences, because it requires ongoing action that shows you recognize your partner as an independent “subject” in his or her own life, not an “object” that either serves or thwarts the needs of your ego-self.

Words-Into-Actions shifts you away from the limitations of conventional gender roles that we are socially conditioned into, the roles that polarize people into typical stereotypes and extremes, which some then justify as “natural.”

For the man, this means support of the woman’s autonomy, independence, and competency in direct, concrete ways; while openly valuing her emotional sensitivity and responsiveness. For the woman, it means supporting the man’s emotional connection, openness and vulnerability, while also valuing his strength and solution-oriented tendencies.

That is, each supports growth in the other within areas what are traditionally not part of your conventional gender socialization. Here, think of the conventionally socialized man and woman as representing skewed forms of human development. Therefore, you strengthen mutuality and equality by encouraging and supporting your partner to stretch in the direction that is underdeveloped, given his or her gender.

The practice of Words-Into-Actions transforms the power-struggles and adversarialness typical of the Functional Relationship (“me vs. you”) into shared power (“me and you”). A useful guide to building equality in relationships is Love Between Equals, by Pepper Schwartz, Ph.D., a sociologist and relationship expert.

 “Good Vibrations” in the Sexual-Physical Connection – Heightening the intensity and energy within your sexual/physical connection. Building “Good Vibrations” strengthens connection through increased pleasure within the sexual and physical realm. It includes learning to let go of inhibitions and guilt about your physical body; and letting go of using your sexuality as a vehicle for unspoken emotional grievances.

It includes specific mind-body practices that both intensify and reveal your sexual and physical desires for your partner; making them known and visible within a setting that the couple creates to enhance erotic and intimate exchange. The practices integrate knowledge of mind-body sexual energy-building from Eastern traditions with Western scientific knowledge about sexual arousal, relationally and physiologically.

I call this the “sexual/physical” connection because long-term healthy relationships require a shift towards more “whole body sex.” This is a focus that includes, but extends beyond genital, orgasm-focused sexuality. Eroticizing the physical connection more broadly keeps energy and passion alive between partners over the long run.

This can be important to couples who may have diminished capacity or desire for intercourse, per se, because of illness, medications, or hormonal shifts. It allows for continued physical pleasure with each other’s bodies in whatever context exists.

A useful book that combines the best of both Eastern and Western techniques from a holistic perspective is The Art of Sexual Ecstasy, by Margo Anand, Ph.D., an expert in integrating sexuality and spiritual growth.

The “Soul-To-Soul” Connection Of Adult Love

A healthy love relationship remains alive and growing. It is resilient through all of the changes and challenges that people face along the path of life. Couples who build a healthy relationship feel enduring connection and sustained passion emotionally, relationally, sexually, and spiritually.

That’s what adult love is. But keep in mind that it is different from the short-term arousal-then-deflation of adolescent romance. It’s something like the difference between the brief exhilaration of a short sprint vs. the “runners high” that emerges from the sustained pace of a longer run. Or, like the difference between the effects of taking a drink whenever you feel stressed-out vs. the results of practicing meditation.

When you learn to transform love into its adult version, your relationship becomes a portal into continuous spiritual growth for yourselves as a couple and the two of you, individually. Couples who practice healthy love relationships gradually realize that their deepened connection is a microcosm of a greater unity and integration between themselves and the larger universe. They reach the plane of that sought-after “soul-to-soul” connection.

From this larger perspective, think of human love as a conduit between the human spirit and the universe. Love is the experience of that unity. As current science confirms, we are parts of a larger whole; made of the same material. In some philosophical and religious traditions the direct experience of this is described as “universal love,” or, as the Sufi poet Rumi described, “looking through the eyes of the universe.”