[O]ur marriage wasn’t hellish, it was simply dispiriting. My wife and I didn’t hate each other, we simply got on each other’s nerves. Over the years we each had accumulated a store of minor unresolved grievances. Our marriage was a mechanism so encrusted with small disappointments and petty grudges that its parts no longer closed. — John Taylor, Falling: The Story of One Marriage
So go love’s small murders, tiny, everyday escalations of injury reacted to by disconnection, causing more injury, until one fast-forwards to a couple whose initial passion has become so “encrusted” with disappointment that they barely function as a couple any longer. …[I]n relational recovery we are drawn to the cumulative effect of such everyday lesions […] they are also the media through which the couple’s unique downward spiral plays itself out. The degeneration of connection that spans years is made up of tiny incidents of disconnect that span mere moments. — Terry Real, How Can I Get Close to You (pg. 147-8)
Many different kinds of precipitating events might be called “crisis” when it comes to managing the breakdowns in intimate relationships, unmaking love, but comparatively few relational crises actually arrive on the heels of catastrophic events like a death or disclosed infidelity. Perhaps the more heartbreaking stories are the ones achieved by the slow erosion of intimacy in a relationship. Rather than a swift, surgically-precise sword stroke dismembering the partnership, there is a glacially slow process by which the thousand tiny cuts of our daily interactions go unaddressed until the cumulative pain of the unrepaired hurts becomes too much to bear.
Most intimate relationships begin with a degree of delight in responsiveness to each other. There is passionate connection and a willingness to be vulnerable, each to the limits of their own comfort and skill with vulnerability. Sometimes there is a discrepancy in those limits, or the responses aren’t what we anticipate or expect. Someone begins to push a little, and the recipient of the push resists, reacting or withdrawing; Harriet Lerner refers to versions of this dynamic as the “distancer/pursuer” dance, in which one might return the push with something that also stings the initiating partner. Little resistances, little jabs. Things our culture has taught us to shrug off, but not so much how to repair, become over time a pattern of behaviours that “encrust” the relationship so heavily that, as Taylor writes from his own experience, “its parts no longer close”.
Sometimes we allow the gulf to grow because the risk of of failure or pain in a connection attempt is too high, if we anticipate rejection and have no resiliency to hear another “no”. Sometimes we actively withhold connection once the pain of myriad little hurts becomes burdensome. One of the ways this withholding most commonly occurs in partner relationships is the demise of a sexual relationship. As Dr David Schnarch says, “If you’re going to torture your mate, sex seems to be one of the most popular ways to do it, whether it’s by the partner who wants more sex or no sex at all.”
There is a cliche that surfaces from time to time in heteronormative relationships to the effect that, “women need intimacy to feel safe in sexual desire; men need sexual connection in order to feel safe enough to consider emotional vulnerability.” It’s not limited to heteronormative relationships; it’s an endemic behaviour, rooted in simple power struggles, across ALL types of intimate sexual relationships. When the sense of vulnerable connection in a relationship begins to slowly erode, one of the first lighthouse indicators is the slow but pervasive shift in a couple’s sexual activity. That’s not to say it’s the only, or even the strongest indicator; there are a LOT of factors that can impact relational desire and sexuality, especially over time. But the connection between a lack of emotional intimacy and a lack of sex in relationships is extremely common. I’ve been in relationships myself where the dynamic has been a partner saying, “I don’t feel close to you, I need sex to feel like we’re all right”, and me saying, “I don’t really like you right now, so no, sex isn’t going to happen,” but with neither of us doing a particularly great job of circling back to address whatever the initial hurtful cut was. We fixate instead on the pressure for/absence of the superficial connectors instead; we treat the symptoms, rather than the dis-ease.
“We never have sex anymore,” a wife in a couple said to me on intake not too long ago.
“She’s never interested when I offer, so I just stopped offering. I can only hear no so many times before I get the hint,” said the husband. “Rejection’s *SO* not sexy.”
On further discussion, it becomes readily apparent when couples don’t have anything else in their relationship to hold them together, either. Often, they used to do a lot of things together, in the early dating years, but as time progressed other things–work, kids, extracurricular volunteerism or family support commitments–claimed their attention and they had little or no time in which they made an effort to stay *together* as partners. One partner’s distraction or exhaustion became another partner’s sense of rejection, and the unaddressed rejections became the reason why the hurt partner withdrew from the distracted partner, who then had to deal with their own sense of rejection and bewildered hurt…
This is, in a nutshell, the dance of intimacy, as Harriet Lerner describes in her series of relationship books. As partners recognize this sense of disconnect, they might begin to act out in small ways as an ineffective means of hurting their partner as they perceive themselves to have been hurt. Schnarch says: “your partner probably already knows what you want, and the fact you’re not getting it means he or she doesn’t want to give it to you” (as quoted here). There may be a sustained distancer/pursuer dynamic in which one partner pursues the other partner into retreat for a while, then gives up and withdraws themselves, which lures the distancing partner into a pursuing role-reversal. But each retreat, each breach of intimacy, is a small rejection or cut into the body of our attachment. The resulting hurt is cumulative and, by the straw-on-camel’s-back breaking point, utterly catastrophic.
There are a lot of ways in which therapists work to bring this dynamic to heel, hopefully bringing the couple back in intimate connection in the process. The hardest part of reopening connection is the need to recreate vulnerability, something that is acknowledged by clients as their greatest therapeutic struggle. Reopening vulnerability means talking about the pain of those thousand cuts, addressing and validating how much it hurts to be out of the intimate loop, and how much fear is in the picture when it comes time to talk about scrambling over the hurdle towards reconnection. This is John Gottman’s “repair attempt”, writ large across the face of the relationship. We HAVE TO talk about grief, shame, the responsibility for decisions made. I have clients who are looking at 30-40+ years of slowly-dissolving intimacy through a sequence of tiny, silent decisions on both sides of the divide, and struggling to see any value in even trying one more time to make things better. I have clients who are a year or two into dating someone who struggle with the same issues. The work of triggering intimacy is the work of *Romance*, but the work of maintaining and repairing intimacy, like maintenance and repair on a vehicle, is the ongoing work of *Relationship*. That’s the part many people seem to overlook, or forget. Once Romance has sealed us into a pattern, we assume the work is done.
And in those moments of faulty assumption… that’s where the unmmaking of love, the death of a thousand cuts, begins.
In the end, we can look at all the different ways by which a couple can find themselves poised on this brink of catastrophe but the most important choice clients, individually or together, can make here is, “Are we here for marriage counselling, or marriage cancelling?” (Hat-tip to my own therapist of many years, the Satir expert Gloria Taylor, for pinning me on my own intake with that question, a million years ago. It’s been an important tool in my own intake repertoire ever since.) Sometimes the work of re-attaching what seems like a fully-amputated limb is too much to face, and sometimes both parties remain hopeful AND willing AND *capable* of doing the reconstructive, “re-intimating” work. We work with what’s in the room, what the clients bring in themselves. Sometimes it’s rage and pain, sometimes fear and shame, sometimes frustration twined in hope and desire. We start where we are, and to quote Pema Chodron:
When things are shaky and nothing is working, we might realize that we are on the verge of something. We might realize that this is a very vulnerable and tender place, and that tenderness can go either way. We can shut down and feel resentful or we can touch in on that throbbing quality. ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heartfelt Advice for Difficult Times