What Happened To The Spark?

Here’s a common relationship problem, and a frequent question I get from relationship therapists: What do you do when the “spark” fades from the relationship? 

This is an interesting question, because it is actually several questions disguised as one. Here is my rundown: 

  1. Why does the spark fade? Is inevitable?
  2. How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?
  3. Is it possible to get the spark back after it is gone?

This week, I’m tackling part 1. In the next two weeks, I’ll address numbers 2 and 3.

Let’s imagine a couple who has had a blissful first year or so of their relationship. They fell in love. Everything felt like a romantic movie. But now, they are starting to have some uncomfortable feelings, experience some disappointments, or notice things about their partner they don’t like so much. Maybe one notices their sweetie leaves socks in the middle of the hallway as a regular practice, not just once in a while. Or they don’t carry their dishes to the sink, or are obsessed with sparkling clean counters in a maddening way.  Or maybe one partner starts to miss their friends, who they haven’t seen much of lately during the flurry of new love. 

Or…maybe some issues are showing up in the bedroom. Often this starts with one partner realizing they are slightly (or not-so-slightly) dissatisfied sexually. They don’t know how to talk about it, they worry about hurting their partner’s feelings, they think there is something wrong with them, they think there is something wrong with their partner, or they don’t think it is ok to discuss sex for any number of reasons. Here are some common scenarios:

  • One partner realizes there is a sexual activity they used to really enjoy, that their new partner doesn’t seem to like, or doesn’t often engage in. 
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, and one or both are distressed about it.
  • One partner either takes hardly any time to reach orgasm, or “too long”, and it is distressing
  • One partner hasn’t been experiencing orgasm, but the other partner thinks they have; discussing it will reveal the deception.
  • One partner experiences painful sex and is afraid to bring it up 
  • One partner has anxiety about sex that results in various misunderstandings and difficulties
  • Erectile difficulties or other sexual function challenges create misunderstandings 
  • They don’t know how to talk about a perfectly normal difference in level of desire
  • Now that sex has settled into a routine, one or both partners are a little bit bored 
  • Something one partner is doing in bed is somewhat anti-erotic to the other, and the sexy-hot vibe has cooled enough for this to be a problem. 

I could go on, and on. There are many, many sex-related issues that crop up at this stage of relationship.

Now let’s go back in time, to the earlier stage of the relationship. Our couple has been dizzy with love for several months. They have eyes only for one another. They play together, look forward to seeing one another, talk about everything under the sun, revel in every discovery of commonalities. They are having so much fun together, they don’t want this stage ever to end. They are also becoming exhausted by staying up too late at night and they haven’t been able to find time for friends, or mundane tasks of daily living. 

This is the first stage of relationship, and is referred to as symbiosis. (I’m deeply indebted, by the way, to Ellyn Bader and Pete Pearson for this concept, and for creating the Developmental Model of Couple Therapy!) In the symbiotic stage, we look for, notice, and maximize all the ways we are similar to one another. We bond. We give and receive love, and feel cherished. We create as much same-ness as we can, in an effort to create emotional safety. We stretch ourselves to get curious, agree, try new things, explore. We want to share activities and interests with our new love, even if it is a bit of a stretch, and this can produce some pretty amazing personal growth outside of the previous restrictions of our comfort zone. All of this bonding is very important; it creates a foundation that is (hopefully) solid enough to hold us together as a team as we face life’s inevitable challenges. But symbiosis is only the first stage; there are other stages still to come, and each stage has some important aspects that lend support to subsequent stages.

The next stage is differentiation, and it usually starts when one or both partners start to notice some differences between them. Remember the dishes left out, hyper-clean counters, and sexual disappointment? If the couple succeeded in creating some significant amount of emotional safety in the symbiotic stage, it can feel like there is a lot to lose if the relationship doesn’t work out. That fear, the fear of losing the relationship, acts as an inhibitor to disclosing things we think our partner might have a hard time hearing as we start noticing differences and feeling uncomfortable feelings about it. (Refer back to the list of sex issues that often crop up, and consider the many other aspects of life in which such differences might emerge.)

So, now we have a couple who are disappointed, in love, fearful, hopeful, exhausted, probably somewhat out of touch with their friends, and sexually frustrated. They are trying to figure out how to stay connected while making sense of sudden realizations of differences between them. They might be questioning their judgment, making decisions about whether to stay or leave, or just trying to figure out how to have a conversation about sexual pleasure in a culture where we don’t generally do that. For most people, not much in life has prepared them to be able to do this easily, or in a way that fosters connection and increased intimacy. 

So you can see, sometimes the spark just gets lost in the shuffle. None of the above are sexy scenarios, and most people are terrified to talk about sex under even the best of circumstances. 

That’s why, even if it’s not entirely inevitable for the spark to fade from a relationship, it’s extremely common–and it’s pretty hard for people to know what to do about, especially since what will ultimately help (speaking up and saying the scary thing you’re afraid your partner won’t want to hear) feels like the worst possible thing to do, as it threatens the comfortable illusion of sameness that was created during the symbiotic phase. 

Things look tough for our couple now–but hope isn’t lost! Tune in next week, when I’ll discuss how couples can navigate the tricky transition from dizzy-in-love into a more mature stage of their relationship–and what you, as a therapist, can do to help. 

Working With Relationship Problems in Individual Therapy

A few weeks ago, I asked my readers to answer this question: “What is your single biggest challenge when working with clients with sex issues?”

I’m so grateful for all the thoughtful, nuanced answers I received. I’m still sorting through them (and they’re still rolling in; bring it on!). Over the next few months, I’ll be answering as many of those questions as I can, beginning today. 

A few people wrote to me about the challenge of working with an individual client whose partner has problems that they are unwilling or unable to work on in therapy, and which are negatively affecting the relationship dynamic. This can manifest in a huge variety of ways. Perhaps the partner has a medical problem that is affecting both their lives, but they are unwilling to seek treatment. Perhaps they have difficulty self-soothing and managing emotions, and that’s contributing to unnecessary stress and tension in the household. 

In any case, it can be a tremendously frustrating position to be in as a therapist. What do you do when you know that you have interventions at your fingertips that could help your client and your client’s partner, but you’re unable to directly reach the person who needs them the most? 

  • Consider bringing them in for a joint session. This hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. But if it’s an option in your case, it’s a great idea. You can get a fuller, more accurate picture of the dynamic at play, and speak directly to the partner. I often provide a bunch of psychoeducation about sex in this manner, so one partner isn’t in the position of carrying information home to their partner from me, some of which might be a little challenging to hear, and some of which might lose something important in translation. In particular, if sexual satisfaction, desire, orgasm, or consent/willingness are part of the issue, I always prefer to see both partners together if possible. 
  • Consider collaborating with a relationship therapist. Again, this hinges on your client’s partner being willing and able to access therapy. 
  • Get some inspiration. I often suggest the book It Takes One to Tango to clients in this situation. It’s written by a Developmental Model therapist, Winifred Reilly, and is about how she used the Developmental Model to transform her relationship–all without her husband’s participation. If you want to help your client feel empowered to make a change in their relationship single-handedly, in ways that are compatible with the Developmental Model, this is a great place to start. 
  • Focus on your client’s part. Part of the challenge of being an individual therapist is that, when you’re talking about relationship dynamics, you only get one part of the story. Everything you hear is coming through the filter of your client, and they are almost certainly missing important aspects of their partner’s perspective. It is incredibly tempting in individual therapy to focus on the many annoying things their partner does. Don’t do it! Instead help your client identify their own meaningful goals for change…within themselves. If their primary distress is relational, ideally the things they decide they want to change will have something to do with improving how they show up in their relationship. At the end of the day, all any of us can change are things that lie squarely within us. 
  • Help your client show up as the partner they aspire to be in their relationship. If your client lacks insight into what they might be able to change that will make a difference in their relationship, here are some very common areas of potential focus:
    • Does your client self-soothe well? 
    • Are they able to figure out what they want, feel, and think? 
    • Are they able to communicate those things to their partner in non-dramatic ways?
    • Can they tell the difference between things that are about them, and things that are about their partner? 
    • Can they hold steady when their partner is telling them something they find difficult to hear? 
    • Can they take action on their own? 
    • Can they recognize a desire to set a boundary, and then set one? 
    • Can they hold that boundary warmly if pushed by their partner?
    • Does your client listen well, and then are they able to get curious about what their partner’s experience is?
    • Can they express empathy, even if they don’t agree?
    • Can they show love even when they are annoyed or disappointed? 
    • Can they feel their partner’s love even when they are annoyed or disappointed?

Three Aspects of Differentiation of Self: Part 3

This is the third post in a three-part series about differentiation of self. Earlier, I discussed the first aspect of differentiation of self, which is the ability to look within yourself and identify what you think, believe, feel, and prefer; you can read that post here

In my last post, I wrote about the second aspect of differentiation of self, which is the ability to express what you think, feel, believe, and prefer, even if you think the person you’re expressing it to won’t agree. The third (and final) aspect of differentiation of self is the reverse of that equation. It’s the ability to hold steady when someone expresses their feelings and beliefs to you, even if you have some uncomfortable feelings or don’t like what you’re hearing.

Before I dive into how you can develop this aspect of differentiation, I’d like to discuss a bit about why it’s so important. Think back to the second aspect of differentiation. Have you ever told a little lie to avoid starting a fight? Have you ever hastily changed what you were about to say after seeing a certain look in your partner’s eye? Have you ever decided to postpone a conversation when you just know it’s not going to be received well, and then somehow forgotten to get back to it? 

Now put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Do you want to be in the position where your partner isn’t telling you everything, or is avoiding bringing up important topics, because they’re worried about how you will respond? 

Developing the third aspect of differentiation of self is about creating an atmosphere of safety in your relationship. It’s about being a person who encourages others to identify and express their truth. 

Consider the kinds of reactions and responses that are likely to discourage honest disclosure. If you happen to have a conflict-avoidant partner or loved one, pretty much any dramatic response will do it. For some people, even a small gesture, like an eye roll or crossed arms, can result in them deciding not to talk about a difficult topic.

Having an emotional response to something your partner is saying is probably not going to change your partner’s opinion or behavior. It’s more likely that they’ll continue to think whatever they think, and even possibly dig in a little deeper–and they might decide to stop telling you about it. 

If you want to get the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, you need to show your partner that you can handle hearing it. 

Of course, aspiring to hold steady when your partner tells you something it is hard for you to hear is easy enough. But in the moment, when you’re blindsided by a hurtful revelation, and your mind is leaping ahead to all sorts of horrible conclusions, it’s a different matter. Fortunately, just like the other two aspects of differentiation of self, this gets easier with practice. Here are some tips to get you started:

    • Get clear on why you want to get good at holding steady. This may be the most important part. How will your life, level of happiness, and relationships improve when you are in control of your reactions? Get specific. Make a list. “When I am great at managing my automatic reactions, my life will be better because…”
    • Come up with a mantra, power word or image to remind you of why you want to do this. When your brain is in freak-out self-protective mode, and you would prefer not to go along for the ride, you will need some strong motivation to do something different, and it will need to be something you can grab onto with half your brain tied behind your back. What word or image would get your attention and remind you of your “why”? Cement it in your brain. Think of it often. Use it frequently, including in less extreme situations, over and over. Train your brain.
    • Recognize your reaction. Notice very early body signs that indicate you are starting to get activated. Do you feel nauseous? Tension in your neck or shoulders? Headache? Get familiar with your earliest possible warning signs, and take a small breather when you first experience them. Waiting will result in you needing a huge time out to hit “reset;” while that strategy is fine if you need it, it is not really the goal. The ultimate goal is to learn how to calm while the action unfolds so you can stay in the game. 
    • Calm your body. When you notice your emotions rising, and you are practicing managing your automatic reactions early, try breathing with a long exhale. Also try blinking slowly. Use your mantra or power word; call your image to mind. These are all strategies to tell your body and your brain that you are safe. Look around for evidence of safety. Put your feet on the floor. Breathe. Take a bathroom break and splash water on your face.
    • Take a connection break. Ask your partner for a little safety break; just hold hands and connect without talking, hug for two minutes, or maybe put on some music and do a little dance together. You could walk the dog together, or make a nice soup before you continue. Not exactly a time-out, but a break in which you work together to change the atmosphere to something relaxed and positive. Reassure yourself and one another that all is well; you’re just having some conversation and some feelings. You’ve got this. 
    • If you’re really having trouble, take a time-out. Sometimes despite trying all of the above, we just need a time out. Here are a few signs that indicate you could benefit from a substantial break:
      • You or your partner are getting mean
      • You or your partner are having trouble thinking
      • You feel confused and can’t figure out what’s going on
      • Your heart is racing, or your face is flushed
      • You are pointing your finger at your partner and saying “You….” at the start of your sentences, or your partner is doing that
      • You are thinking your signature negative thoughts that you have come to realize are probably actually catastrophizing
      • You feel like you might be digging yourself in a hole or making it worse

 

 

For more on how to use time-outs to work through conflict effectively, check out this post.