Janet looked out the window of the airplane as it was making the final decent back into the Miami airport. The familiar tall buildings and view of the ocean as they approached the airport looked familiar but felt very different. She and Sam just dropped their youngest son off at college to begin his freshman year. She looked over at Sam, “I guess we are now officially empty nesters”, she said with a sad look on her face. “I guess you’re right”, Sam replied as he turned back to the email he was writing for work on his laptop. Janet never felt more alone than she did in that moment.
Sam and Janet have been married for 20 plus years. They met in grad school and fell in love almost instantly. “It was her beautiful smile that first attracted me to her”, Sam says as he recalls their first meeting. “We used to talk, just talk, for hours about anything and everything”. “Nothing else seemed to matter when I was with her”. “It was like time stood still”. “I could just be myself”. “I just, I don’t really know how to describe it., ” Janet continued, “Being with him just felt like, home, we just connected”, she said with tears in her eyes as she remembered what it felt like to fall in love and be so close with Sam. What Sam and Janet are describing is the emotional connection that “attaches” us to another in adult love relationships. The capacity for this kind of strong connection is something that is hard-wired in our human brains as an important part of our nervous system and as social beings who depend on one another for survival. The description of their relationship when they first met is one that I have heard hundreds and hundreds of times in my office as I meet with couples for the first time.
So, what happened to Sam and Janet? How could their once close connection that bonded them together grow so distant? They are still together, how can Janet feel so alone?
Unfortunately, Sam and Janet’s story is all too familiar. When couples first fall in love, it feels so easy. They have hopes and dreams of building a beautiful life together. It goes something like get married, have a great career, buy a house, have kids; and they quickly get to work on it.
Steve was an attorney. He dreamed of making partner one day. This would allow him to provide for his family and allow his wife to stay at home and raise their kids. Jacob was a bit of a fussy baby. The doctor said it was colic and that he would grow out of it. Sara couldn’t help but blame herself and feel like a failure when she couldn’t get Jacob to stop crying. She became consumed by her quest to find a way to help her baby and be the best mom she could be. She read all of the parenting books, took several mommy-and-me classes each week, and even made her own baby food with all organic ingredients. Sara felt so proud to be a mom, especially when Jacob began to excel in preschool and then later on in sports and academics. A few years after Jacob was born she and Steve decided to have another baby. With two little ones under the age of four, she and Steve officially had their hands full. Steve worked long hours as he excelled on the “making it to partner” ladder. He would come home every night exhausted to an exhausted Sara. Daily living focused on survival and trying to find ways to get enough sleep to get up and do it again the next day. On the weekends they tag teamed to be able to get a little “me” time for each of them. Over time Sara began to resent all the time that Steve spent at work. She repeatedly asked him to cut down his hours to spend more time with the family. “I will, I promise”, Steve assured her, but never did. With Steve focused on work, and Sara on the kids, they began to grow emotionally distant. Each felt misunderstood by the other but never talked about it. Or at least not successfully because every time one of theme brought it up it always ended in conflict and unresolved.
Sophia entered middle school with confidence. She gave Kim a quick peck on the cheek and waved good-bye. “Bye mom”, Kim heard as she drove off. Sophia didn’t even look back. What happened to the days when Sophia, her youngest of three, wanted to her mom to walk her into her classroom, Kim wondered. She used to beg mom for one more kiss before she made her way to her desk and the teacher closed the door. As Kim drove away a rush of sadness came over her and her eyes filled with tears. All of the sudden she felt so alone and without purpose. She called Tim to tell him about how she was feeling. “Can’t talk right now” immediately came up on her phone. Feeling even more isolated and alone, she began to weep. Her mind wandered back to the days when she and Tim first met and fell in love. What happened to us, she thought. She hadn’t thought about those early days with Tim for many years.It was as though she just woke up after 16 years of focusing on being a mom. Tim had noticed the distance between them years ago but never brought it up. He was really good at compartmentalizing his emotions and focused on the area of his life where he felt the most competent and successful; work.
Each of these stories paints a familiar picture of how couples go from deep, close connection to cold distance and emptiness in their relationship. And distance, by the way, always precedes conflict and destruction in any relationship. Of course, it is normal to feel a sense of loss when the children have all grown up and left home. But for couples who are still together, the nest is not actually empty. This distance between couples is part of what can make the nest feelso empty even though you still have each other. There is nothing more isolating than being physically present with your partner and experiencing them as inaccessible; emotionally shut down and shut out.
So how do couples just starting out avoid creating this kind of marital chasm? According to research conducted by John Gottman, one important rule to follow in creating a lasting satisfying relationship, is finding small ways to connect every day. Sure, grand gestures, big gifts, and long getaways are great for relationships, but these do not even come close to the impact that “small things often” has on a relationship. This is part of the “work” of relationships which might not be so obvious, especially in the beginning. Remember Steve and Sara? Both highly intelligent, they knew exactly what to do to build a successful career, raise responsible children, and their dreams for the future definitely included staying married and living happily ever after. Yet somehow, as a couple they grew apart. By finding ways to come together each day in small ways, the relationship breeds more positivity and closeness.
Positivity in a relationship doesn’t mean that it is without conflict. Conflict is actually a healthy part of any relationship. Couples get in trouble because of the way they engage each other in times of distress finding themselves in a destructive pattern of communication that leaves each partner feeling misunderstood, unimportant, and alone. It’s like having the same fight over and over again without any resolution. Relationships typically have one partner who is more of a pursuer and brings problems up for discussion. While the other is more of a withdrawer tending to be more emotionally distant pulling away from conflict or just avoiding it at all cost. Unfortunately, this sets the couple up for growing distance as the more the pursuer pursues, the more the withdrawer withdraws, and around and around they go. In her book, Hold Me Tight, Dr. Sue Johnson refers to these destructive patterns in relationships as “demon dialogues” when we cannot connect safely with our partner, and categorizes them into three distinct patterns of “Find the Bad Guy”, “Demand-Withdraw”, and “Freeze and Flee”. The key to success in conflict is finding a way to step out of these negative patterns and dip into the vulnerable, softer emotions that typically underlie anger such as hurt, sadness, fear, and feelings of inadequacy, and to be able to reach for our partner in a way that allows them to respond to our need for comfort, security and a sense that you matter. In fact, that felt sense of knowing that you matter most to your partner, that they are emotionally attuned and accessible is what leads to security in any relationship.
Knowing what it’s like to walk around in each other’s world and being able to consistently reach and respond to each other’s emotional needs is the absolute key to lasting connection in relationships. Imagine if Sam would have been attuned and responded to Janet’s sadness about dropping their son off at college, with tenderness and eye contact that communicated to Janet that Sam saw her tears and felt her deep sadness. The gentle touch of his hand holding hers would have been enough soothe and comfort her with a felt sense of connection to Sam. This translates emotionally, as “I am not alone in the world”, and “I am here with you”. In other words, our nest is not full anymore, but it is far from “empty”.
Thankfully there is hope for each of the couples mentioned here, to find their way back to the emotional connection that bonded them together in the beginning of their relationship. Emotionally-focused Couples Therapy is an evidence-based therapy grounded in attachment science that helps couples heal past hurts in relationships and close the emotional gap bringing back the close connection and security in the attachment bond that is the basis for all healthy relationships. Research from the Gottman Institute provides practical tools and resources that couples can use to improve their relationship.
Dr. Lisa Arango is a licensed psychotherapist and the only certified Emotionally-Focused Couples Therapist in Miami. She is also trained in Gottman Method Couples Therapy. She provides individual and couples therapy and leads workshops and retreats for couples and individuals. Her private practice office is located in South Miami Florida. Visit her website www.RelationshipCounselingMiami.com. For more information of Emotionally-Focused Couples therapy and Gottman Method Therapy visit https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/types/emotionally-focused-therapyand https://www.gottman.com/