Relationship Connection: How can my husband and I get out of our ‘feast and famine’ pattern?

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Question

Our relationship seems to always be feast or famine. We’ve talked about it on multiple occasions, yet we continue to be stuck in this pattern. Surely it must be indicative of something. It certainly doesn’t seem healthy, even for a marriage recovering from betrayal. What can we do? 

As an example, in terms of physical intimacy we might go stay at a hotel, and in that time we will give each other massages, make love, cuddle, kiss, hold hands, et cetera. It doesn’t feel forced, but feels good and connecting. There is intimate conversation with it, including talking about wanting this sort of thing more regularly.

Within a day of coming home, there will be maybe a kiss on the forehead goodnight or the occasional hug. If something is initiated at home, it may be like that for a day or two, and then it’s right back to little to no contact.

Similarly, with conversation, it may be very surface level for weeks or even months at a time. Sometimes that seems to be perfectly acceptable. Other times it reaches a breaking point — or there is some inevitable outside catalyst. Then there is some deep, intimate, connecting conversation. It may be hard, but it’s still good.

We have weekly dates. Even though he goes to sleep well before me, I hang out in the bed so that I’m available for conversation or anything else. I try to be around when he’s home from work. Sometimes I work nights, so I understand in those situations and hate that it seems to stress it – at least for me anyway.

Sometimes we both seem to be fine with it. Other times, we definitely aren’t. Yet we keep finding ourselves back in it.

Answer

The fact that you’re asking this question is actually a hopeful sign that you and your husband still long for closeness and connection with each other. I don’t worry as much about the marriages that are trying to find each other. I worry more about the couples who have given up trying to connect and accept a parallel existence as their marital fate. I’m confident you can find connection with each other, even though you’re frustrated with the current pattern. 

I do think it’s important to normalize what you’re experiencing in your relationship. Long-term marriages require more intentionality to maintain a close connection, as there are more forces pulling at you the longer you stay married. Dr. William Doherty, a professor of marriage and family therapy in Minnesota, shared the following analogy to describe this phenomenon: 

Getting married, I say, is like getting into a canoe in the Mississippi River at St. Paul, Minnesota. If you don’t paddle you go south. Not that I have anything against the south, but if you don’t want to go there, you’ve got a problem. If you want to stay at St. Paul it’s a pretty powerful river, so you’ve got to paddle. And if you want to go north you have to have a plan.

To grow closer over the years, you have to be mindful and intentional not only because of the pace and distractions of life, but also because of what research has shown is the loss of intensity that occurs from daily living over many months and years, from sleeping beside the same person every night and having sex 3.25 times a week in the first five years and then 2.5 in the next five years. (I never knew what those decimals meant in the studies. False starts, perhaps?)…

Going on automatic pilot is not about being dysfunctional; it’s about focusing on other things. That’s even before we have kids. But after we have children, the current gets really swift. With new babies, our first priority is naturally the care of a creature that nature has programmed to get our attention. And our second priority is self-care. We tradeoff child-care so that we can get some individual down time.

We end up borrowing on our marriages, not just for a short time but for a long time. We borrow on each other’s good will and time and energy in order to do our job as parent and in order to have down time for self-care. We evolve good parent-child rituals, but we lose our marital rituals. People can be quite gifted at family rituals with the whole family, and quite dumbfounded about what they would do as a couple.

Couples who courted through having long, romantic dinners are sometimes nervous about dining alone because they are not sure what they would say to for an hour or more. So they make sure they invite other people along for company. And so, our marriages go on automatic pilot.

During courtship the marriage is figural in our lives – front and center, if you will – and the rest of our lives are ground. When we get married, and particularly after we have children, this reverses: other things – the children, our work, our hobbies, our religious involvement – become figural and the marriage moves to the background and only gets our attention when there’s something wrong. The antidote to becoming an automatic pilot couple, I am saying, is to be an intentional couple who cultivates rituals over the years.

Since you’re not interested in settling for a disconnected and distant marriage, you can build in some specific rituals that will help you both consistently find your way back to each other on a daily basis. The key is to not get discouraged when you find yourself drifting apart from each other and recommit to your rituals. If you personalize the drift every time it happens, you’ll end up working against each other instead of using it as a reason to come back together. 

Life is full of rituals that anchor us and help us remember our most important relationships and values. Holidays, birthdays, vacations and other regular rituals keep us from forgetting and add more meaning to our lives. We’re more likely to have relationship rituals for our children or our community but neglect to do specific rituals for our marriages. Our relationships require rituals to stay strong. 

The quote I referenced above comes from an informative keynote address Doherty shared at a conference where he outlines how to establish marital rituals. I recommend you read the full address and commit to building rituals of connection into your marriage. Meaningful rituals will always be there for us when we experience drift. They reconnect us to what matters most to us. 

My wife and I have cycled through countless variations of our rituals over the past 23 years of marriage, but we’ve always worked hard to create some type of ritual that reconnects us. There were phases of our marriage when a weekly date night was the glue that held us together. Other times we had daily rituals that nourished our connection, such as pillow talk at night after the kids were down.

Currently, we have a mixture of daily, weekly and annual rituals that bring us together. The most important thing is that the ritual has meaning for both of you. If talking at night in bed is meaningful to you, but your husband is indifferent to it, then keep working to find a ritual that you’ll both look forward to.

You’re both susceptible to the pull of distractions and other forces that seem to conspire to split up your marriage. If you find that one of you is more likely to drift, then take an honest inventory of what might be causing that.

Sometimes one partner has undiagnosed ADHD, addiction, depression or other mental health challenges that make it hard to connect. Sometimes there are temporary and contextual struggles like work challenges, health issues, parenting struggles or other stressors that tax your marital resources.

And if there are deeper unresolved injuries in the marriage that keep you in an avoidant pattern with each other, then have the courage to get some professional marriage help so you can clear the way and find each other again. I believe the work of marriage is to constantly eliminate any distractions that get in the way of your closeness. 

These moments of crisis when you’re both feeling so lonely and disconnected are good opportunities to evaluate whether the rituals you had set up were working for your relationship. Perhaps you go back to what you were doing, or you decide to create new ways of connecting with each other.

If you want ideas for rituals, then you can reference the keynote address I mentioned earlier where Doherty has couples share examples of what they’re doing to maintain their connection. Please don’t get discouraged and believe that something is deeply wrong with your marriage. Every couple who wants to stay connected will need to do this work, so take heart and stay with it!

Have a relationship question for Geoff to answer? Submit to:

Email: geoff@lovingmarriage.com

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