By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Does familiarity breed contempt? The adage holds true for some couples. Now that they have raised their children and have more time for each other, they may realize that their spouse seems like a stranger.
“It sounds cliched, but it does happen,” said Jon Loomis, licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Auburn. “People can take one another for granted over time and really get stale based on that.”
In part, the phenomenon of marriage becoming boring by midlife has to do with the changes going on at that time. It can feel like one’s sense of purpose is slipping away. Trying to find that purpose in another person places undue pressure on their partner.
“For many of us in our culture, we’re such a work-oriented that retired people can find themselves depressed because work is a big part of our self-definition,” Loomis said. “If we can accept the aspects of who we are and we can find useful volunteer work, that help people maintain a sense of purpose.”
Finding purpose independently leaves some breathing space within the relationship to rekindle the romance.
“The best definition of a healthy relationship I’ve heard of is two people who are generally happy who want to get together to share that happiness and well being with the other,” Loomis said. “The culture promotes the idea that if you’re unhappy alone that finding the right person will fix that.”
While the busyness of rearing a family and building a household and career may have distracted from that fundamental unhappiness with one’s self, it becomes much more apparent once the demands of family and career start to wind down. That is why finding fulfillment and happiness independent of the partner is so vital.
Rekindling the romance starts at a much more mundane level: trying to learn about the other person. When you first dated, you wanted to know her favorite flower, song and food. You wore the dress he liked and baked him his favorite cookies. After 35 or more years of marriage, it may feel like all the mystery and excitement is gone. Learning about the spouse requires communication.
“I look at relationships as living entities in need of ‘feeding.’” Loomis said. “They will need the kind of care any living thing requires. That means regular communication, and to the best of anyone’s ability finding time for each other and participating in activities they may have found enjoyable together as a couple earlier on if they’re physically able to and can afford to”
To get the communication going, Jodi Mullen, Ph.D., at Integrative Counseling Services, PLLC in Oswego, recommends doing something together, whether it’s playing cards or cooking together like you used to or trying something mutually new together.
“Make doing something with your partner part of your routine,” Mullen said. “We’ll go out for a walk at least once a week, but don’t make it, ‘Oh, I have to do that walk with my partner.’ It’s very easy to get lost in your own endeavors. Make sure you have opportunities to do things together.”
Mullen recommends reading “The 5 Love Languages” by Gary Chapman, a book about how people perceive and express affection in a relationship. The languages are: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch.
“You can Google assessments and quizzes you can take to find out what your love language is,” Mullen said. “Some couples have very different love languages. Take a quiz and talk about it. It can be really eye-opening, too, because you have been together so long.”
Sometimes, only one spouse perceives the difficulty in the relationship while the other claims it is just fine or that the other spouse is “too romantic” or even that romance is for young people only.
It is helpful to use “I” statements that are very specific, such as “I always liked how you would write me a little note each Saturday” or “I like spending time with you and want to do things together more” instead of statements like, “You never show you care about me” or “Why do you always work late and go fishing with your friends every weekend?”
Mullen said that it’s important how the other spouse frames it. Instead of complaining about the lack of romance or demanding what you want, it is better to suggest trying something new for fun.
Above all, never drudge up the misgivings of the past (“You forgot our anniversary last year; you don’t care about me at all.”) during conversations about your relationship, as that creates the impression you only care about past failures.
Complement the behaviors that make you feel loved and your spouse may take notice, such as, “Thank you for filling the car with gas; that helped me out a lot” instead of only general statements like “You’re the best” to show a deeper level of appreciation.
Avoiding conflict will not mean a strong relationship. In fact, it can mean just the opposite: a boring relationship where real needs are stuffed down and resentment forms. For some, seeking counseling may help.
Christopher Battles, licensed mental health counselor and owner of Equanimity Counseling in Oswego, said that rekindling the flame of romance “can take some unexpected and exciting turns,” he said. “Couples rediscover themselves and their desires through recommitting to trust and openness. I invite clients to look at ‘the flame’ as a sign of the health and balance of their self-concept.”
Battles also recommends Gary Chapman’s love languages, as well as the work of Drs. John and Julie Gottman. They co-founded and lead a relationship company and therapist training entity called The Gottman Institute. John Gottman was recognized in 2007 as one of the 10 most influential therapists of the past quarter century. He wrote “The Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work,” among other books.