Marriage isn’t always easy. Whether you are in a long-term marriage, or newly married later in life, many couples struggle with communication or get distracted by stress, social media or busy days. Even if a couple has a strong foundation of love and respect, repairing conflict can feel arduous and elusive.
As a relationship and sex therapist, I regularly see couples in my office seeking solutions for how to feel more connected. They often say they feel like they coexist as roommates. Even for couples who are less specific, I can sense the emotional and physical space in their body language and tone.
It’s helpful to recognize danger signs that might indicate when a couple is becoming distant, and even better to have accessible tools for how to fix this when it happens.
Here are five red flags that I see often in my practice:
1. Sleeping in separate bedrooms
When couples have given up on one another, one partner often moves to a different bedroom. Sometimes this looks innocuous — a partner attributes moving to snoring or restless leg syndrome. Whether benign or not, once people get used to sleeping apart, it’s far harder to come back together. Sexual contact, and even affectionate cuddling, becomes scarcer and the connection inevitably starts to fade.
What to do: Get back in the same bedroom. If you loathe each other too much to share a bedroom, then it’s time for a therapist. If you find yourself using medical excuses, then get creative. Use earplugs, lay down a body pillow barrier after you have cuddled and kissed goodnight, or go to the doctor for sleep supplements, sleep medication or a CPAP machine to address apnea. Our bodies crave contact as we sleep to solidify our partner bond. If you really must sleep separately for medical reasons, then at least do daily cuddle dates in one person’s bed.
2. Significant drop in sexual contact
When couples stop having sexual contact, their energy is typically pointed somewhere else. This can be toward work, toward themselves, toward juggling stress and fatigue, or toward someone outside of the marriage. Restarting a sex life is just as difficult as getting back in the same bedroom: We tend to avoid it because breaking the ice can feel awkward.
What to do: Break the ice anyway. You may need to approach this with baby steps if things feel really uncomfortable. Start by coming together in a relaxed way with no agenda for actual sex. Try a meditation where you face one another. Take a bath together. Cuddle in bed. Give a few pecks on the lips and focus on hugging. It may take weeks or even months for contact to build toward more intimacy, but there’s no rush. As long as you have a frequent and intentional practice that brings your bodies together for skin contact, you will be on the right track toward rebuilding.
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3. Constantly calling, texting or communicating with someone other than your spouse
Your partner is someone with whom you build a life. If your first instinct is to reach out to someone else to vent struggles, seek solace or share excitement, then your partner ceases to function as your priority. Sometimes a spouse will reach out to their child too frequently, sometimes a friend. Others may avoid confiding in their spouse because their feelings are met with too much judgment, criticism or shame. When any of this happens, the relationship ceases to be a high priority.
What to do: Aim to make the relationship a place of refuge or comfort. This may first mean exploring why you turn away from your partner for contact or conversation, versus toward them. What do you need to feel emotionally safe and vulnerable? Some couples may need a structured method of conversation if each partner processes information and emotions differently. One person may need time to think before deep conversations. Another may want to talk in the moment to address difficulties. Having a structured method of conversation may mean using a timer, so one spouse doesn’t interrupt another, or incorporating deep breathing when feeling misunderstood or frustrated.
During these discussions, which can be intense and emotional, try sharing your thoughts by focusing on your own feelings and eliminating the word “you,” which can feel accusatory. (“I feel ignored” instead of “You always ignore me.”) Don’t feel embarrassed to use a third party like a therapist to navigate safe passage through these conversations.
4. Preferring quality time by yourself
A subtle but risky red flag is when couples stop spending quality time together — from going on dates, to taking walks, to having sex — and prefer to spend time alone. It essentially signifies a parallel living experience where couples are coexisting without the companionship of a strong marriage.
What to do: Find new, fun outlets together to create shared experiences. Couples will shed a layer of their previous existence as they grow and change through the years. If you’ve grown more apart than together, be intentional about finding new hobbies and activities to create alignment and quality time. Some couples sign up for cooking classes. Others do partner dance. Some start a garden or travel to new places.
5. Building a pile of unspoken resentments and secrets
Of all the possible danger signs, this one may be the most destructive. When one person gets angry at another, it is often because they want more connection or a different kind of connection than what is being offered. But when people start to store their anger quietly, building a list of wrongs in their head, then the anger can morph into deep-seated resentment. Resentment becomes a form of permission to keep secrets or to feel entitled to step out of the marriage altogether.
What to do: Clear out the resentments, then get laughing. With this red flag, a therapist can be particularly helpful. A professional can help you sort out the origins of resentments and cause for secrets and can facilitate the delicate conversation that is often needed if there was a betrayal by either or both parties. A therapist can help create a new pattern of interaction — one that doesn’t lead to resentments by either person. Whether you choose professional support or not, make sure you try to add more laughter to your life. Couples often make the mistake of having hard conversations about their rock-bottom status and forget to add laughter and fun to their healing process. Those lighter moments allow for happy chemicals to flood your brain, body and relationship, thus giving you more hope. Don’t know where and how to laugh? Find a TV comedy series or buy tickets to a live comedy show.
Think of marriage as a verb rather than a noun. When you are struggling in the trenches of distance and resentment, remember why you chose this person. Consider the larger purpose of the life you have created together. What are your shared dreams, values and beliefs? What is unique and special about your shared life together? Remember, every day is a new day to turn toward your partner, choose them with intention and offer a generous act of love.
Jenni Skyler is a certified sex therapist, a board-certified sexologist and a licensed marriage and family therapist. She has been director of the Intimacy Institute for Sex and Relationship Therapy for more than 12 years.