Relationships go through all kinds of phases, and as time passes, our personalities and interests shift. That’s totally natural. The goal (which is easier said than done) is to stay connected with your partner through these changes.
Some of these shifts are good and healthy, yes, but sometimes there can be subtle signs that you and your partner have a disconnect. It’s a hard sensation to put into words. There’s just a feeling you get, like your partner is more distant than before. You’re not on the same page. You’re on different wavelengths.
We spoke with two relationship experts to learn some tangible signs that you and your partner are facing a disconnect and what you can do about it.
You make less eye contact
“One of the most subtle and first things and probably the most subtle to shift is the amount of eye contact they have,” said Kate Balestrieri, a licensed clinical psychologist and executive director of Triune Therapy Group. Not every couple exchanges a ton of eye contact, and that’s fine, she says, but if you’re noticing a significant increase or decrease, it’s “a good benchmark to suggest that something is off.”
You make more plans without each other
Maybe you keep making solo weekend trips, or maybe your partner has ramped up the amount of time he’s spending with coworkers after work. Again, this isn’t to say that couples have to spend all their time together — the question is whether is this different than before, Balestrieri emphasized. You should also notice if you are or your partner is “making more excuses… about not making time to connect,” she said.
You do things together but don’t interact
You might think you’re hanging out all the time, but how often are you and your partner in the same place but not really interacting? Think watching TV together, going out to dinner with friends or playing video games. Although these are fine to some extent, they can also be signs of disconnection. “As adults, when we are feeling disconnected, we don’t really interact but we might do an activity in parallel,” Balestrieri said. “It can be really insidious.”
You keep looking at your cell phone
Notice how often you’re picking up your phone when your partner is in the room or vice versa. In an increasingly smartphone-centric world, this can be difficult to spot, but it’s also a really strong indicator, Balestrieri said. “If your partner walks in the room and you pick up your phone because you don’t want to talk to them or you’re nervous about something or you’re feeling depleted, that’s a big sign that you’re feeling disconnected,” she advised.
You’re fighting more
When you’re feeling disconnected from each other, one partner might end up nitpicking at the other. If that’s the case, Dr. Fran Walfish, Beverly Hills family and relationship psychotherapist and author of The Self-Aware Parent, says to face it head-on. “Always ask, ‘What’s up? Are you mad at me? Let me hear about it.’ It’s much better to hear about it directly through straight talk instead of passive aggression.”
Sex has dwindled
“The first thing that goes when there’s trouble in paradise is sex,” said Walfish. “Most people don’t want to open up their bodies and be intimate when they’re angry. But it’s not that you need to jump into bed to remedy your connection. Instead, figure out what’s bothering you and making you not want to be intimate. The fix is to go to the root cause, and sex is not it,” she added. “Sex is a symptom.”
How to reconnect
If you’re noticing these signs in your relationship, there are several small things you can do to start to reconnect with your partner. Balestrieri recommends setting a timer on your phone and committing to a few minutes of uninterrupted eye contact. “It activates different parts in both your brain and your partner’s brain that signify empathy and connection, and that’s what we’re really looking for,” she said. Balestrieri also recommends creating a nighttime ritual of checking in with each other about how your day went and what tomorrow has in store for you.
If you need to work through some specific challenges, Walfish says to practice listening. “Make sure you take turns listening without interrupting and giving each person a fair chance to speak and be heard,” she suggested. She also said it’s important not to get caught up in trying to fix whatever underlying problem is there. “Instead, each partner can narrate out loud, like a mirror, what they hear the other person saying,” Walfish said. What each person really wants is to be heard.
It’s also important to check in with yourself. If you or your partner are feeling burnt out and not taking time for self-care, it’s going to be extra challenging to show up for each other. “It’s up to each of us to take care of ourselves, ask for what we need and take breaks, so that we can stay connected to what we need and who we are,” Walfish said. “That allows us to be more present for our partners.”
Of course, if it continues to feel like you’re drawing away from each other and these steps aren’t helping, an objective third person like a therapist, rabbi or counselor can be key, Walfish said. “Talking is the glue that holds people and relationships together,” she concluded. “So talk, talk, talk.”
A version of this story was published May 2019.
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