Sometimes I speak to couples who can’t describe why they feel so out of sync with their partner. There was no specific violation of trust or trauma that occurred in their relationship. There wasn’t constant fighting or lack of interest in each other. So what was it?
Matthew Fray explains how bad things happen in your relationship even when nothing is happening between you.
Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When It Feels Like Nothing Happened
I almost wrote something outrageous about how Galileo Galilei’s and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion was effing up relationships.
The first law of motion — also called the “law of inertia” — states that a body or object at rest remains at rest, and that a body or object in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.
Or, in regular-speak: If shit doesn’t happen, nothing changes. At least that’s how I always thought about it. If I set a lamp on a bedroom nightstand and never touch it, the expectation is that the lamp will sit still — right there — forever.
Applying that to my marriage, I believed stillness — inactivity or uneventfulness such as going several days or weeks without an argument or negative incident — while not necessarily a positive, was at worst — a non-event. Harmless. Benign. Safe.
If my wife was watching something on HGTV in the living room, and I was watching basketball in the basement rec room, NOTHING was happening. Thus, in my brain, nothing bad happened.
I was going to quibble immaturely with Galileo and Newton. I was going to say that their laws of motion don’t apply to movement within our human relationships.
But then I realized I was the one getting it wrong (shock).
The laws of motion absolutely apply to our relationships. My mistake was thinking of the people in the relationship as being still.
If they were still — then nothing happening would be totally harmless. But they’re not still. In our relationships, we are not at rest. We are CONSTANTLY adrift, and in my estimation, slowly drifting away from one another when we don’t have a strong tether. It’s only now occurring to me how apt the metaphor “tying the knot” is.
And since a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force, two people doing nothing AREN’T sitting still. They’re drifting apart at a constant velocity until someone does something about it.
Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other
This was the running theme of both of my coaching calls yesterday. While we’re busy at work, distracted by our personal stresses, tasks, hopes, and dreams. While we’re busy simply trying to stay alive, do a good job at work, keep our bills paid, etc., we are drifting away from our romantic partner.
A visual aid:
I < — → I
A month later.
I < — — — — — — — — — — — → I
Drifted apart a little.
Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When It Feels Like Nothing Happened
Three months later after a great vacation, a nice anniversary dinner and gift exchange, mind-bending orgasms, and a job promotion for one of them which alleviated financial stress.
I <–> I
Four years later after a new baby, a blown anniversary by the husband because ANOTHER promotion made him super-busy and away from home a lot, five consecutive months without sex, and quiet avoidance of one another at home.
I < — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —— — — → I
On the brink.
If they continue to avoid the growing distance between them, they will continue to drift away from one another. The further they distance themselves, the weaker their connection — their bond — becomes, which then makes it vulnerable to outside forces. (Traumatic illness, a death in the family, sexual affairs, etc.)
Every Day — Every Conversation, Every Moment — is an Opportunity to Move Closer to One Another or Further Apart
Doing nothing is a death sentence.
Because when we do nothing, we are NOT sitting still, biding our time waiting for something to happen. While we wait, we move apart. And I think couples — often men — are unaware of this drift that’s constantly occurring.
This is why focused, connected, mindful, present dinner conversations are so important.
This is why six-second hugs are significant.
This is why planning activities to do together — often and intentionally — is fundamental to the health of the relationship.
And most notably, THIS is why being competitive with one another — trying to WIN debate points in your next emotion-fueled fight with one another is, as Galileo famously said: “totally fucking stupid.”
His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.
The Objective is to Connect — Not to Teardown or Dominate Your Partner
We are always moving away from each other. Always. So we need to row our little boats against the current back toward each other. Tie knots. Tether ourselves to one another. Anchor ourselves to one another.
The goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can be to try to win debate points with them, while you essentially shove them further away from you. Or, maybe the goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can simply be to decrease the distance between you two.
Maybe the merits of right vs. wrong — the value of being “correct” — is a big, fat zero when it comes to your relationship.
Maybe the only thing you should be measuring is the gap between you, and constantly fighting to move toward the other.
Just maybe, that shift alone would change everything for you.
When you wake up in the morning, you can make the choice to connect. A kind word. A thoughtful action.
When you’re sitting at the office, or hiking in the park, or waiting for the doctor’s appointment, or standing in line at the grocery store, you can make the choice to connect. Maybe I can text her right now to let her know how important and beautiful she is. Maybe I can remind her today and every other day, how grateful I am for her to choose me and sacrifice for me.
When we’re tired after a long day at work, or irritated by our unsympathetic children, or in the middle of something at home — maybe we can strengthen our capacity for awareness, for patience, for mental discipline.
Maybe we can NOTICE the things in our lives that are All The Time. The stuff we look past. Forget to feel grateful for.
Forget to hug.
Forget to nurture.
Forget to love — not the feeling. We think and feel love, and forget that other people don’t always know that we think and feel it. We forget to love — the action. They NEVER misunderstand love the action.
We forget every day to prioritize that which matters most to us. It’s so hard to be a person and juggle all of the things.
We grew up with no one but ourselves to care for and our parents and guardians did most of the heavy lifting. It takes work — guts and work — to show up every day for the unpleasantness of adulthood.
And it’s even harder to be that person when caught up in the vortex of life and dysfunctional relationships, and trying to put our families and jobs ahead of our personal wellness, and then wonder why we don’t have anything left to give our marriages when it feels like our spouse thinks we’re constantly letting them down anyway.
But it’s almost impossible when no one sees you. When everything you live for and invest in every day — your reason for living — goes unnoticed by the people who matter most. If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all of the invisible parts.
This is why relationships are a thing. This is why marriage brings beauty and value and enrichment to people’s lives when it’s done well.
Because all of this shit is hard, but we can do it when we have people in our corner, lifting us up, and helping us carry things when our piles get too high.
The inevitability of doing nothing — of inertia — is a broken relationship. The inevitability is broken people.
When we’re not moving toward one another, we’re moving away. Love is a choice.
Please choose it.
Don’t miss your chance. Sign up today for Getting The Love You Want workshop for couples to drift back to your partner.