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:
- Why does the spark fade? Is inevitable?
- How can we navigate the transition (from super-hot to less-hot) gracefully, in ways that promote a deepening connection?
- 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.