My husband and I were determined not to let this happen to us—we had even discussed this when we were dating—but 15 years later, here we are. We’re in our late 30s. We have four healthy, great kids. We work hard at our jobs, but we both enjoy what we do. We own a comfortable home in a community we like and are involved in, with good neighbors and friends. The kids are doing well, and while we’ve had our ups and downs over the years, for the most part we realize how blessed we are.
Our lives are going well, but it feels like it’s “our lives,” not “our life.” It’s not that we’ve grown apart, exactly. It’s more that we’ve become like pleasant roommates—who share the responsibilities of our children, home, and bills—more than romantic partners. There’s nothing blatantly missing; we do all the regular things that spouses do, but I’ve noticed we’re just not so close or excited about each other anymore.
I think that when the kids were little, we didn’t notice, because we were kind of on a hamster wheel: sleepless nights, early careers, saving up for the house, and then moving in, juggling responsibilities … just the hectic survival mode of building our lives.
But now that the kids are becoming more independent and our youngest is in school for most of the day, I think we’re feeling the void of a marriage that got neglected over the years. I’ve mentioned it to my husband a couple of times, and he agrees. What usually happens is that then we plan a “date night,” like everyone says to do. It’s generally nice. If we do a cool activity, we have fun. If we go out to eat or have a long drive, we both feel the strain to make good conversation. We do “date nights” for a couple of weeks, but then we just lose interest again. We both have a lot on our plates—mostly normal, good things, but we’re tired by the end of the day.
We’ve also been told to go away on vacations, just the two of us, which we didn’t do much while the kids were little. But we tried that twice, more recently. It was nice because it was relaxing, and maybe we felt a little more connected while we were away, but it didn’t last; the minute we got home we fell back into our distracted routines.
We’re not fighting, other than the occasional irritation. There isn’t any blame or resentment. We do respect and love each other. But it makes me sad that our relationship already feels a little stale. We know we’re not unique; we hear about this phenomenon among people our age, or maybe a little older. I wonder if this is just the natural next phase, or if it shouldn’t be like this. I don’t want our love to fade.
Other than “date nights,” which we don’t seem to be very good at, is there something we can do to reignite the connection?
Missing the Spark
Dear Missing the Spark,
As you acknowledged, this is a common challenge. It sounds like you have a healthy perspective about it: you’re not blaming or catastrophizing, but you’re also not giving up on the goal of cultivating a deeper connection. It’s a credit to both of you that after all these years and kids, and all this time on “autopilot,” you still love, respect, and treat one another well. It sounds like you function well as “teammates,” which is an important part of a stable and healthy relationship. At the same time, we tend to want more than “just” stability from marriage, especially if the “spark” has been there before and you know what it feels like.
Relationships, like most important endeavors, need to be maintained and nourished so they don’t wilt and fade. You are correct that date nights and vacations are often offered as standard advice to revitalize romance. For some couples this might help. But I’ve found that many young couples, who tend to be busy, tired, preoccupied, or stressed, don’t find it so useful or practical. Dates and vacations require energy, planning, babysitting, expense, and disruption of routine, which often create more hassle than they’re worth. And, as you said, they don’t always go to the core issue of personal connection. We can’t eat a big meal once a week, or twice a year, and expect not to feel hungry the rest of the time. (For anyone reading this who finds that date nights and vacations give you exactly what you need to keep your spark alive, by all means keep it up.)
Fortunately, I do believe there are other steps you can take to rebuild your emotional intimacy. I’ll share some advice which I offer many couples who present with this goal.
I have a three-part intimacy-building exercise. It’s not magic or relevant for everyone, but it’s a powerful tool. I’ve found that stable, motivated couples who use it consistently, even imperfectly, almost always report back that they’re feeling more hopeful and connected, even within as little as two weeks.
What I love about it is that it can potentially breathe new life into a relationship in less than 15 minutes a day.
There are some caveats though. The main one is: only do this if both partners are on board and see potential benefit in doing it.
It’s best to do all three parts, but if one or both of you aren’t ready for or comfortable with all of them, then even doing just one or two could make a difference. It’s best to do it daily, but even 3–4 times a week can help.
Here’s how it goes:
Choose a time of day when you’re both likely to be home, awake, available, and not interrupted. (I know this isn’t always easy.) Set your phone alarms to ding at that time daily and choose a spot in your home where you’ll meet then. Then remove your phones and other devices out of reach, so you won’t be distracted.
I suggest using the same time and place daily so that it’s built into your routine, and doesn’t get procrastinated. The alarms are so you don’t forget, and so that it’s not one partner’s job to remind, pursue, or nag the other; you both just show up if you’re committed to doing this together.
Step 1: The learning reset. Choose a book, course, or video series to study together—something about marriage or healthy relationships. It doesn’t need to be written by a therapist, but something that’s interesting to both of you. In Jewish learning there’s a concept of chavrusa, a two-person interactive study group, which, when executed well, can create a powerful bond. Studying this material this way can make the learning become part of the relationship and vice versa. Read or study together and discuss for about 5–7 minutes daily. (Less won’t feel substantive; more would give you an excuse to skip the next day.)
Step 2: The cuddle. 1–2 minutes of affectionate, nonsexual touching. It’s important that this be non-erotic and not lead to anything erotic immediately afterward. This could mean massages, snuggling, playing with each other’s hair, or just holding each other. You can do this quietly, or with music playing, but ideally not too much talking—try to focus on the warmth of loving touch without distraction. This invites oxytocin, comfort, simple pleasure, and keeps the physical lines of communication open.
Step 3: The five-minute share. This is what you’re probably missing the most. Spend five minutes talking about anything that’s not practical, planning, the kids, finances, the house—anything that feels like a business meeting for your family or home. Just chat like friends, no agenda. Share anecdotes, thoughts, something you’ve read, an interesting conversation, humor, inspiration, feelings, or a memory from the past. It could be deep and meaningful, or light and playful. Just be mindful not to pick a subject that’s a sore point in the relationship. This exercise can feel awkward at first but gets more comfortable with practice.
The first exercise, the learning reset, generates intellectual and spiritual intimacy, enhancing and deepening the relationship, not just from a place of problem solving or subjectivity, but by introducing fresh new content to process and experiment with together. Growing together intentionally creates bonding. Some great authors for this are John Gottman, Terrence Real, Sue Johnson, Gary Chapman, Esther Perel, or Matthew Kelly. You may need to try a few to find one that speaks to you both. (Visit elishevaliss.com for a fuller list of recommended reading.)
The second exercise, the cuddle, generates physical intimacy, but not only the way it’s usually used as a euphemism for sexual activity. On the contrary, it’s using the sense of touch to convey love, affection, warmth, safety, and connection just for its own sake, not as a means toward anything else in that moment.
The third step, the five-minute share, builds emotional intimacy by encouraging you to open your hearts to each other regularly, undistractedly. It also keeps you thinking about your partner during the day, looking for points of interest to share. If you have trouble with this step (many couples do, at first) there are games and books that offer nice prompts of topics to discuss. One I’ve discovered recently is called Pando.
In working with couples, I found that I was recommending this intervention often, spending about 10–12 minutes of session time explaining it. So I created a video I could send couples to watch on their own time, as an optional homework assignment. That video is available on my YouTube channel and elishevaliss.com, if you’d like some more information on the “how and why” of these exercises, which many couples find transformative. I hope you and your husband can try using them to reclaim that connection you desire.
Elisheva Liss, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist in private practice. She not only treats a variety of mental-health concerns but also shares psychoeducation via her blog, her book—“Find Your Horizon of Healthy Thinking”—digital courses, and a new virtual wellness program. All can be accessed at ElishevaLiss.com.