Overcoming Disconnection in a Long-Term Marriage
4 reasons couples may hit a wall after decades of marriage
Mark B. Borg Jr., licensed clinical psychologist and co-author of Making Your Crazy Work for You, examines causes and solutions for disconnection in a long-term marriage.
After decades of marriage, it’s no wonder that some couples feel disconnected from each other. After contending with the highs and lows that come with raising children, the loss of loved ones, and a host of other challenges, couples sometimes discover that the distraction of life’s demands results in a loss of connection.
At some point along the way, long-married couples may lose a sense of “us-ness.” “Us-ness” develops when two people commit to growing and nurturing their relationship together and creates a life-of-its-own quality. It is a dynamic system that needs attention, care, and love if it is to thrive – and couples often neglect it when so many other things require their focus and energy.
When they ignore that “us-ness” for a long time, couples may find that they hit a wall in their relationship. This wall, reflecting disconnection in a long-term marriage, appears when:
- Partners don’t allow enough space. Research suggests that the healthiest way to be in a long-term romantic relationship is to have a good balance of being together and being apart. However, some people can misinterpret what is otherwise a very healthy separation as a form of abandonment. This is especially true for those in long-term relationships because, when couples have been together for a long time, they can develop a sense of overdependence upon each other. So, when one partner seeks different kinds of stimuli (including, especially, other relationships that might become significant), the other partner may become anxious or insecure.
- One devalues or disparages the other partner. The level of emotional investment that accumulates throughout a relationship’s history is intimidating for some partners. Couples may unintentionally find themselves heavily relying on each other, making some feel like there is an imbalance in power. And this can feel like an immense risk. To minimize the genuine risk that their hearts are in, some people will devalue and denigrate their partners or their relationships. Instead of focusing on themselves and taking inventory of their own part of the problem, they feel threatened by owning their role in it. To deal with this discomfort, they turn the tables and look for fault and blame in their partners, which of course, only serves to drive them further apart.
- A couple takes the relationship for granted. It’s easy to understand how this can happen after decades of marriage. And when people feel emotionally distant from their partners, they no longer view each other with a sense of wonder and interest. Instead, they tend to read intentions into the distance (such as, “this person is distant because they no longer care for me”) and psychologically defend themselves against being hurt. This becomes a form of over-protection that disrupts curiosity, which is the generator of wonder. And when a couple fails to sustain this sense of genuine interest in each other, it’s easy to hit a wall in the relationship.
- Couples stop investing in their relationship. People in long-term relationships may lose their sense that what works in their relationship does so because they work it. In other words, long-term love’s best defense against hitting a wall occurs when both people in the relationship consciously acknowledge and agree that a budding, blooming relationship with a life of its own requires the ongoing participation of both parties. Collaboration requires continuing maintenance, which involves attention to the partner and the relationship itself; a commitment to ensuring the other partner feels cared for; and open communication about what each partner needs.
Repairing disconnection in a long-term marriage
These four reasons why couples hit a wall in long-term relationships are, of course, serious threats to the ongoing sense of “us-ness.” Yet, when rupture is met with repair – when couples can address and mend the hurts they cause each other – these “walls” can work as a powerful source of reconnection and commitment to long-term love. Rather than swallowing the resentment, anger, and pain, couples seeking to reconnect need to work together to address the issue at hand. This “rupture and repair” may look like:
- Hitting pause. Taking a moment to ensure that neither partner is acting out from a place of fear, hurt, or anger. This pause can then be a way of experiencing the value of separation, which can help the couple hit the reset button.
- Discussing their part in the problem. By being honest with each other and discussing how they have contributed to an issue, conflict, or distance, couples take the first step to resolving the problem at hand. As counterintuitive as this might seem, by accounting for one’s own part in the problem, that person then has some sense of how the problem started, what triggered it, and how to contribute to its solution. In other words, it gives couples power to solve – rather than avoid ¬– conflicts when they arise.
- Voicing insecurites. If a partner feels anxious about separation, the couple needs to work together to understand better where that insecurity is coming from. If a partner is devaluing and disparaging the other, the couple should call this behavior out and commit to new ways of relating to each other. Taking this essential step will allow couples to see and experience the value of their own – as well as their partners’ – contributions (good and bad) to the relationship.
- Committing to a new way of communicating. Couples need to commit to the work of rupture and repair so that it becomes integrated into how they relate to each other. Over time, they will see that the repair after a rupture is evidence that their relationship will continue to grow stronger and better with each passing year. And while this process might feel daunting and challenging (and it is), it is also the most sure-fire way for couples to recover the “us-ness” that can sometimes go missing from long-term relationships.
Mark B. Borg, Jr, PhD is a licensed clinical psychologist/psychoanalyst who has been in private practice in New York City since 1998 and the co-author of Making Your Crazy Work for You (a Central Recovery Press Paperback, on sale January 2022).