Relationships: Engagement with your Partner

When we hear about the end of a long-term relationship, we usually want to know what happened.  We expect to learn of the momentous event responsible for the demise of a once beautiful partnership.  We anticipate hearing about the colossal lies and cheating; the infidelity; the secrets.  If confirmed, we make judgments about the behavior: “How could he do such a thing? I can’t believe she did that!” 

Relationships End Long Before the Final Headline

While we tend to attribute the end of a long-term relationship with these more visible acts of betrayal, a nuanced look reveals that the end likely came long before; from subtle acts of everyday disengagement that elongated the emotional distance between the two people.  We often hear people say, thoughtfully in retrospect, that their relationship ended long ago.  In other words, in time, we usually recognize that the end of a relationship wasn’t reflected in the final headline; but rather in the countless tiny stories on the back pages; day after day. 

We have all heard that infidelity and other betrayals are symptoms of something else gone awry.  Yet, we don’t seem to focus on that something else.  Rather we often prefer the more concrete and explosive finale.  Perhaps it’s easier to digest.  Someone cheated and now the relationship is over.  Easy.  Simple.  We can now readily apply the lesson to our own relationship; all we have to do is not cheat and we will be fine.  I can feel secure.  I can feel safe. 

Burying our Uncomfortable Emotions

I understand the allure.  If the answer to the equation was simple, we wouldn’t need to dig deeper into less secure and uncomfortable territory.  We could place the daily challenges aside and pretend that they don’t exist. 

We can ignore all the tiny moments that lead to the more explosive betrayal; pretend that we don’t feel the tiny grievances gnawing subtly within the depths of our chest.  But we should take notice; listen to that little voice inside us that says for just a moment that something has gone slightly eschew.    

Tiny Moments are Huge

Those daily tiny moments are screaming at us to pay more attention but are muffled under the weight of emotional avoidance we throw upon them.  These are the instances that often go unrecognized but build over time to create a chasm between two people. 

Choosing Disengagement

For example, suppose I am feeling a bit down one day.  My wife returns home from work and offers a friendly greeting.  In response, I hardly look up from my computer screen where I’m reading an interesting article related to my current mood.  Even if I provided a lazy “hello” as a response, it would still be laced with a degree of disengagement.  Distance!

Maybe, she feels slightly ignored and annoyed but our evening continues as if nothing has occurred.  Later that night while she is watching the Game of Thrones finale, I tell her that I’m going to bed.  She senses that I might be feeling a bit off.  However, instead of asking me about it, she says “goodnight” and returns to the program already in progress; thinking that whatever is wrong can wait until tomorrow, some other day, or maybe never.  Distance!

Perhaps her decision to disengage is partially influenced by the remnants of annoyance and hurt from feeling ignored earlier.  If so, this adds an equally toxic layer of retribution to the ongoing interaction; infecting the possibilities of future moments as well.  Distance!

Choosing Engagement

Each of these moments is an opportunity for us to engage with each other; to connect rather than disconnect.  When I returned her greeting without looking up from my computer screen, I made the subtle choice to disengage ever so slightly and create more distance between us.  If I had embraced the encounter more fully, I could have created a moment of fuller engagement; bridging the gap between us.  Couldn’t I have achieved a richer connection by rising from my seat to greet her; looking her in the eye and inquiring about her day?  Perhaps the chain of events from that evening would have unfolded differently. 

She wouldn’t have felt ignored.  Maybe she chooses to pause her show and follow me into the bedroom to ask how I’m feeling.  From there, perhaps I open up about my troubled feelings and this leads to a broader conversation; all of which brings us closer.  Maybe this leads to sex; a good night’s sleep; sending ripples through the pond of next day’s tiny moments. 

Recognizing Moments to Connect

Each moment in isolation is almost nothing; barely a blip on our emotional and relationship radars.  But an accumulation of missed opportunities for engagement creates a separation where two people may no longer see each other.  We need to develop the awareness to recognize the opportunities for us to see each other more fully.  None of these moments are screaming for attention as they occur, but collectively they gnaw at the fabric of a relationship.  At any instance within a chain of events, we can make the powerful decision to engage and create a new path that brings us closer together. 

None of us are perfect and there will certainly be moments when we unwittingly choose disengagement.  However, if we can develop an awareness of these moments and see them as opportunities to connect; even if it’s ever so slightly, perhaps we won’t allow as many chances to slip past our notice; creating a pathway that allows us to accumulate quality engagement with our partner to maintain a more intimate connection.  We can transform our thinking to recognize small moments as huge opportunities; acknowledging the accumulative value of engaging with our partner; allowing them to feel seen, heard, and appreciated; to know that their arrival home is an opportunity for a quality interaction; that they are more significant than a TV show.