Loss of intimacy – ‘we seem to have just drifted apart’

So many couples say those words almost as soon as they sit down in the counselling room.  ‘We don’t know when it started to happen, but it must have been a while ago now’.  ‘We are like two strangers in the same house’.  ‘We are more like brother and sister these days’. ‘We never seem to find time to have sex anymore’. ‘We both just sit there with our phones/ipads after tea every day’.  ‘We have forgotten how to talk to each other’.  I could go on…….and on…..

The reasons for this loss of intimacy are as varied as the couples I meet; every couple’s story is different, and private.  Sometimes it is one partner having an affair that wakes the couple up to the fact that their relationship has been ‘drifting’, but otherwise it can take a long while for it to become clear that something is wrong.  Often one partner begins to feel unhappy, but isn’t sure why; just knows their relationship isn’t like it used to be and may blame the other for not trying harder.  The couple may start to scrap, to fight, or alternatively become silent with each other.  Eventually both are aware that something is seriously not right, but it may take an affair, or one partner threatening to leave before they look for help. By the time we meet, neither has any idea when they last felt happy together; all either can remember is the multiple reasons why their partner is making them feel angry, frustrated, or alone.

There are deep reasons why some couples are unhappy; stuff left over from childhood for one or both partners, which has never been resolved, and which is now surfacing, once the excitement of being ‘in love’ has gone, and the stresses of living together on a daily basis bring vulnerabilities to light; that’s not my focus here.   I’m talking about the couples I meet who have simply let their intimacy drift away, without realising what is happening until it’s almost gone.  There has been no dramatic, sudden change, rather the increasing demands of family life, maybe both trying to hold down stressful jobs, one working long hours, or shifts, or regularly away from home, one feeling ‘taken for granted’, sometimes the development of separate social lives, have altered the relationship little by little, until, suddenly, one, or both, realise there is very little holding their relationship together.

What hope is there for couples who are feeling this way?  Lots, I believe. For me, the primary aim of  couple counselling, relationship therapy, whatever you want to call it, is to help a couple to find ways of being intimate again, of talking openly and fully, of hearing each other’s needs and feelings, of understanding where the other is coming from, and of feeling heard and understood in return.  Not every couple I see stays together; sometimes the difference is too great, occasionally it’s simply too late, and too much damage is done, but many, many couples do grow closer in therapy, do find a way forward together.