A lot of people believe it’s the big things that kill a relationship, such as an affair or abuse. Others figure relationships that fail suffer the “death of a thousand cuts” demise, crumbling beneath the weight of multiple small offenses and betrayals accumulated over time. Often, however, a slow drift apart is often the culprit and couples fail to notice before the gap between them is too great or troublesome to overcome. Then the big betrayals or series of small cuts begin that signal the end of love.
In our last article, Salvaging the Police Marriage we began looking at how drifting apart is one of the biggest threats long-term relationships face, and also how the best way to combat it is to rethink the idea of what it means to love. Specifically, we stressed that, contrary to how most people like to think of love as a noun - as simply an emotion we feel – instead it is a verb, or something we continuously do. Here, we are going to give some direct, but general (you can fill in your own details of how you go about accomplishing them), steps you can begin today to defeat the threat of drifting apart.
Acknowledge the problem
The first step in fixing any problem is always the same, whether it’s that strange noise coming from under your car’s hood or that you and your spouse are becoming little more than cordial roommates. We must first acknowledge that the problem exists. Unfortunately, too many of us prefer turning a blind eye to the difficult or inconvenient issues that spring up, hoping they just go away. A little less easy-listening and a little more Black Sabbath, played very loudly, and maybe that noise will just go away! All couples go through times like these, right? We’ve always been best friends as well as lovers, so this will straighten itself out, won’t it?
Okay, just keep telling yourself that.
No, you have to acknowledge the problem. Admit it. Confront it. Vow to beat it and come out stronger on the other side!
Practice talking to each other
You’ve been together for years so what could be so hard about talking to each other? Sounds too simple? Well, maybe not so much when talking to each other about the problem of drifting apart, or when initiating the talk precedes making difficult relationship decisions and changes.
Have you ever noticed that we, as cops, are perfectly happy and confident to dig in and confront the maladaptive behavior of others, to the point of tossing their silly butts in jail for very long stretches of time, if it happens to fall within the scope of our job? Or to get in the grill of a stranger or neighbor who doesn’t play well with others, in order to stick up for other folks who are less bold or assertive, despite being just as happy to stick our heads in the sand if confronting a personal problem means we will experience personal discomfort? I have. We need to practice bringing up the hard conversations with the ones we love and care for the most, even when doing so might hurt. We need to be able to say, Honey, I think we have a problem. I feel like we’re growing apart in order to reverse the current dynamic.
Start dating again
One of the things we have always encouraged couples to do is to never stop dating, no matter how far into the relationship you are or how long you have been married. The problem for most people is they think dating is something reserved exclusively for the early stages of a relationship. They become satisfied with the comfort and safety – and sometimes the resultant low expectations – of a long-term relationship. What happens is the long-term couple falls into a rut with nothing new or exciting to look forward to, no expectations of nights out or special occasions, and that comfortable (but often boring and predictable) old married couple routine. It does not help when one or both of you are cops, with strange and sometimes unpredictable hours, and the idea of home as a knowable refuge is so comforting. Home becomes a cave – a hideout from the capriciousness of work – in which to recharge.
But you have to date. You have to be deliberate in making time for each other to discover and rediscover each other. You have to put as much effort into fostering your relationship as you do your career. You have to continue to court each other.
So many people become quite satisfied with what they know. Like a real-life Bilbo Baggins, the individual – or pairs of individuals – resists adventure and opts for the comfortable and known. They like this kind of music, this kind of food, this kind of vacation, this kind of movie, this kind of… Ask them to try something new or different and they will have a litany of reasons why it simply will not do. And again, cops are no different and may be even more reserved and staid than most.
If you happen to be an adventurous type, good for you! If you are not, we understand, but consider trying at least a little adventure in your life. Try a new look, take up a new sport, get a little loose and sing karaoke, book a vacation somewhere you have never gone (or dreamed of going), become nerdy tourists in your own city, or accept an uncomfortable challenge. Better yet, lay down that challenge to your partner and see where it goes.
You might be surprised just how invigorating adventure can be to a relationship.
Develop shared rituals
Rituals are sort of the opposite of adventure but still very important for couples. These are the shared experiences that help cement relationships. Perhaps they are how you spend your holidays, or celebrate birthdays, or how often your spouse does a ride along with you. For us, they are often silly (each night before I work, when I go to bed I tell Althea, “See you in the morning” and she always replies, “You’ll see me!” – you see, I get up at 0430. She’s not stirring at that time. And then she always adds, “Be safe tomorrow, and have fun!” – I can’t fall to sleep until I hear those words. Okay, we’re dorks).
Rituals are relational glue and extremely important for the long-term health of relationships. Figure yours out, or create new ones, and celebrate them.
Although very good ideas themselves, we’re not talking about going to the gym or taking up racquetball together. Both excellent couple’s activities that we strongly endorse, by the way! But no, what we’re talking about here is… well… is sex.
Strange and conflicting schedules, job pressures, kids and school activities, the responsibilities of keeping our heads above water, and the resultant preoccupations they bring all conspire against us in the bedroom (or wherever you weirdos like to do it) and make sex (or lack thereof) one of the biggest relational stumbling blocks most couples face at some time or another.
Most couples find years into a relationship that the passion and easy spontaneity of early attraction has cooled. Synchronizing libidos is difficult, so most couples have to take on a more deliberate approach, wither in terms of being willing to find that lost spontaneity in order to accommodate each other when the mood strikes one of them, or even setting aside prearranged times for intimacy. Others may seek out books or other resources, even going so far as to hire professional (trained, licensed, and completely legal!) specialists to guide them through intimacy issues. No matter what you do as a couple, do something; physical intimacy is, for most couples, an important or necessary component of emotional intimacy.
Do frequent “check-ins” with each other
One of the best - and simplest – ways to make sure you stay close and maintain intimacy is to do frequent “check-ins.” Ask frankly, “How do you think we are doing with ______? How am I doing as a husband/wife? Is there anything I can do better or different? Am I being supportive of you and your needs?”
These check-ins do three things: First, and most obviously, they provide the opportunity for direct and timely feedback to which you can instantly respond by either seeking clarification or enacting change; second, they demonstrate concern and awareness for the feelings and needs of your partner and; third, they automatically create intimacy merely by being voiced.
Simply drifting apart is one of the most inconspicuous ways a relationship can die. It is also one of the most preventable. None of us is perfect at relationships but we can constantly work toward becoming better at it. Staying engaged in a lifelong courtship is one of the surest ways to prevent it.
About The Authors:
Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.
Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.
Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.
Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.