How to Fight Disconnect in Marriage
Dr. Brent Potter
Though marriage is one of the most beautiful of all God-given relationships, it is also one of the hardest, if not the hardest. When people get married, they are often so in love that it can feel like a high. Nothing and no one can stand between them. They are happy and together, and the world is at their fingertips. All things feel possible in that state of bliss. They say forever and they mean it, and their emotional connection is strong like it can stand against anything and survive.The years tick by, and things change. Maybe the couple walks through difficult seasons or transitions with jobs or where they live. Maybe they become parents. Maybe they walk through financial hardship, or they get into such a busy routine that they begin to neglect one another.
Maybe something tragic has happened or trust has been broken. Life has happened to the couple, and the world no longer feels like it’s at their fingertips. They feel exhausted by life and are fighting to keep their heads above water.
All of this can lead to an emotional disconnect in one’s marriage. Emotional disconnect, or emotional detachment, is when one or both persons in the marriage begin to pull away from the other. Their intimacy is surface level at best.
Other things could lead to emotional disconnect: one or both spouses may not love the other as they need, one or both are inundated with work, dates are few and far between, infidelity occurs, one or both suffer from depression or other forms of mental illness, and loss can all lead to emotional disconnect as well.
According to leading marriage researcher and author, John Gottman, this can also be considered “stonewalling,” which is one of the main signs that a couple is on the road to divorce. When a couple stops connecting, this is not good. It often can mean that one or both people have given up, are too tired to keep fighting for the relationship, and are simply ready for it to end so they can finally be free of the emotional exhaustion.
However, one can still have hope that his marriage is salvageable unless it is time for it to end (for example, a partner has a long-term affair that he won’t give up). If there is still any spark of life, any chance for restoration, the couple must do what is possible. People need to know what to look for (what are the signs of this kind of emotional disconnect or detachment) and some ways for them to reconnect.
Signs of Emotional Disconnect or Detachment in Marriage
A loss of interest in one’s partner
Partners stop asking one another about their days, how they are doing, what they are doing, what is wrong, etc. Maybe one partner stops showing any interest in the other’s work, dreams, and goals. It could also be a lack of interest in spending time with the other, or just simply not spending time with the other. It is important for spouses to be genuinely invested and interested in each other, to want to be around each other and know each other.
Vulnerable conversations are not happening
One’s partner stops sharing what is wrong, what he is struggling with, what she is thinking or feeling, what she needs. One or both people stop confiding in one another, to the point of barely knowing what is going on with one’s partner at any given time. These conversations require trust, safety, and energy, which may not be present anymore for whatever reason.
A lack of interest in sex
Sex is the height of vulnerability and trust, and when there is a disconnect, sexual desire and drive can decrease significantly, especially for women. Consistent, satisfying sex can increase emotional connection in a marriage, but when one is not feeling loved or wanted or known in her marriage, sex is not something she can always push through.
Apathy about resolving conflict
When one or both either stop disagreeing on things completely (in a way that is out of character for the couple) or stops caring to resolve the conflict, it is an issue. There is no “fight” left, which could be due to several things. One partner will begin to solve problems on his own without consulting the other, things that the person would normally do with his partner.
Lack of empathy or emotional understanding
There is a kind of numbness that settles in when there is an emotional disconnect – a lack of feeling altogether sometimes because feeling is too hard. When this happens, empathy for the partner often goes, too. If a person does not feel her spouse attends to her emotional needs, she will stop caring as much about his. He shares something frustrating about his workday with her, and she keeps a blank face and doesn’t even respond.
One or both people are “checked out”
They no longer talk about anything other than what is necessary. They no longer spend any time alone together. They do not connect during the day. They are like roommates, ships passing through the night.
Ways to Reconnect with Your Spouse
If any of these signs of disconnect in marriage are present in one’s relationship, it is time for a major overhaul or that marriage will not survive. No marriage can survive with these behaviors for long. So, what can be done?
Seek couples and individual counseling
This seems like the easy answer – just go to counseling. However, at this point, the issues run deeper than most couples can salvage on their own. It is time to dissect the problem, get to the heart of it all, and allow a counselor to walk the couple through the healing process, creating an atmosphere of emotional safety where it is safe to connect.
Individual therapy is also mentioned here because there may be things that an individual needs to deal with, such as his or her depression or other types of mental illness, his hurt or his story, and the reasons why he has withdrawn from the marriage. Counseling may not solve the problem, but it can help provide a space for couples to reconnect in whatever way possible. If there is hurt in the marriage, this step is a must.
This is a principle from John Gottman, but it implies that each partner is intentionally paying attention to the other person. Even if uninterested, pay attention to their behaviors, feelings, and needs. Pay attention to how they are trying to love, even if it isn’t in the way you need.
Recognize when they need you when they make bids for connection. Make eye contact and be attentive in conversations. Put down your phone. Turn off the TV. Put down the book. Lean into those moments as much as possible.
Learn to ask intentional questions
Instead of “how was your day?” ask, “what do you need from me right now?” If your spouse is trying to communicate, practice active listening and hear him out. Then ask follow-up questions to get to know him better at that moment, to know what he is thinking and feeling.
Asking the right questions can help another person feel loved, seen, and wanted. If you are not in the headspace to ask the right questions, table them for later, but don’t forget to come back to them. When you ask the questions, remember their answers. This shows respect and love for the other.
Express gratitude and admiration
When marriages are falling apart, couples often only see and point out the bad. There is so much power in words. Words can build up, and words can tear down. Words can build an emotional connection, and words can tear it apart. Find words of gratitude every day. Tell your spouse what you love about him, and why you chose him in the first place. Tell her you love her. Though these words may feel impossible to say right now, say them anyway.
Emotional disconnect in marriage can be the end of a relationship, but it doesn’t have to be. If couples pay attention and notice that it’s there and commit to reconnecting and building safety in the marriage, their marriages can last a long time.
Marriage is an other-centered union
It’s easy to see why God designed an other-centered union for a me-centered world. Living that way is a challenge when bills pile up, communication breaks down and you’re just plain irritated with your husband or wife. For those days, Thomas offers these reminders to help ease the tension:
- God created marriage as a loyal partnership between one man and one woman.
- Marriage is the firmest foundation for building a family.
- God designed sexual expression to help married couples build intimacy.
- Marriage mirrors God’s covenant relationship with His people.
We see this last parallel throughout the Bible. For instance, Jesus refers to himself as the “bridegroom” and to the kingdom of heaven as a “wedding banquet.”
These points demonstrate that God’s purposes for marriage extend far beyond personal happiness. Thomas is quick to clarify that God isn’t against happiness per se, but that marriage promotes even higher values.
“God did not create marriage just to give us a pleasant means of repopulating the world and providing a steady societal institution to raise children. Further,He planted marriage among humans as yet another signpost pointing to His own eternal, spiritual existence.”
Serving your spouse
He spends the entire evening at the office — again. She spends money without entering it in the checkbook. He goes golfing instead of spending time with the kids. From irritating habits to weighty issues that seem impossible to resolve, loving one’s spouse through the tough times isn’t easy. But the same struggles that drive us apart also shed light on what we value in marriage.
“If happiness is our primary goal, we’ll get a divorce as soon as happiness seems to wane,” Thomas says. “If receiving love is our primary goal, we’ll dump our spouse as soon as they seem to be less attentive. But if we marry for the glory of God, to model His love and commitment to our children, and to reveal His witness to the world, divorce makes no sense.”
Couples who’ve survived a potentially marriage-ending situation, such as infidelity or a life-threatening disease, may continue to battle years of built-up resentment, anger, or bitterness. So, what are some ways to strengthen a floundering relationship — or even encourage a healthy one? Thomas offers these practical tips:
- Focus on your spouse’s strengths rather than their weaknesses.
- Encourage rather than criticize.
- Pray for your spouse instead of gossiping about them.
- Learn and live what Christ teaches about relating to and loving others.
Young couples, in particular, can benefit from this advice. After all, many newlyweds aren’t adequately prepared to make the transition from seeing one another several times a week to suddenly sharing everything. Odds are, annoying habits and less-than-appealing behaviors will surface. Yet as Christians, we are called to respect everyone — including our spouses.
Marriages need God’s grace and mercy
Thomas adds, “The image I use in Sacred Marriage is that we need to learn how to ‘fall forward.’ That is, when we are frustrated or angry, instead of pulling back, we must still pursue our partner under God’s mercy and grace.”
Lastly, Thomas suggests praying this helpful prayer: Lord, how can I love my spouse today like (s)he’s never been loved and never will be loved?
“I can’t tell you how many times God has given me very practical advice — from taking over some driving trips to doing a few loads of laundry,” Thomas says. “It’s one prayer that I find gets answered just about every time.”
While other marriage books may leave us feeling overwhelmed, spotlighting our shortcomings and providing pages of “relationship homework,” Sacred Marriage makes it clear that any couple can have a successful, happy and holy marriage.
With a Christ-centered relationship, an other-centered attitude and an unwavering commitment to making it work, you can fight disconnect in marriage and flourish — just as God designed.
Heffernan, C. (2002). God’s Design for Marriage. Available online: https://www.focusonthefamily.com/marriage/gods-design-for-marriage/
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