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Focused CoupleIt seems almost magical when we first fall in love. Suddenly, we no longer feel alone in the world.  We feel we have found "that special someone" who completes our sentences, meets our needs, and makes us deliriously happy.  Suddenly all those movies and fairy tales about a couple living "happily ever after" no longer just seem like a distant childish fantasy.  We are living the dream!  And we entirely expect that easy, automatic ecstasy we experience with one another to last forever.

During that magical time, other relationships, projects, and responsibilities often fall by the wayside.  We may neglect our friends and family members.  It becomes hard to study, hard to work, hard to do anything except enjoy unhurried time with our beloved.  We feel exquisite pain - even physical pain at times - when we have to be separated for a while.  It's agonizing to say goodnight; or to say goodbye if one of us needs to leave on a trip or spend some time away.   We are so naturally focused on one another during this time, that it can be very challenging to tear ourselves away from one another to attend to other things.  We suffer deeply when we are apart.  When we are reunited again, we feel renewed and full of joy.

This is a time when neither of us has to tell the other what to do to make us feel loved.  Somehow, we just know.  We feel driven to do kind things for our each other - buy a special gift; scrawl out impassioned words on a special card; extend a special kindness; perform a special service.   We hold each other close, look into each other's eyes, tell each other how grateful we are for that sweet love that has so transformed us.   If we watch TV during this time, we watch it together, still focused primarily on the experience of being together - cuddling, talking, laughing, enjoying our relaxed time in each other's company.

What happens, after a few months or a few years?  Nearly all couples experience a waning of the initial intensity and excitement that brought them together in the beginning.   Feelings diminish, or disappear completely.  We may still love each other dearly, but we may perhaps no longer feel "in love."  When offenses occur - as they seem to, more and more often - we have a harder and hard time forgiving and moving on. We may remain committed to one another, because of the kids, or because of our religious commitments, or because divorce is just too expensive.  But the fire of connection we started with, all too often, goes out, leaving us both in the dark and the cold of missing what we once had. 

If you have ever experienced this distressing turn of events with your beloved, take heart!  You are not alone; and this dreary disconnecteness does not have to be the ultimate destination of your relationship.

Why Do Couple Relationships Change Over Time?

What happens to the easy, untroubled "magic" we so often experience in the early stages of our relationship?   Once that special feeling grows dim or cold, is it lost forever?  Is there any way we can get back to the closeness, unity, and joy we experienced early on?

In all situations of life, the most effective solutions come from the clearest identification of problems.   Once we understand what has happened, then we can figure out what to do about it.   So let's look at several almost-universal factors that affect satisfaction in our relationships over time:

1) We become more authentic and complete around one another.   Almost universally, in the beginning of a new relationship, we try to be on our best behavior - we seek to make the best first impression.  So we put on our nicest clothes, wear our nicest cologne, and exhibit our very best manners.   We go out of our way to be considerate of one another, often putting aside our own needs and interests in order to be available and attractive to that other person.   We put aside other priorities and other relationships, to make room for that one special relationship that is at the center of our world during that time.  Experts in the field of relationships sometimes call this phase "Stage One - The 'In-Love' Stage."  Our focus on one another is intense and super-charged, virtually robbing every other interest in our lives.

This intense focus and "best behavior" that so commonly characterizes "Stage One" is delicious and exhilarating while it lasts.   But for most couples, the day comes when they can no longer give their partner the kind of laser-like focus and attention they once did.   This is not because there is less love; but rather because there are more realistic demands to attend to and balance in after marriage.  Bills need to be paid - sometimes requiring long and stressful hours away from each other in order to meet those financial obligations.   Jobs, church and community responsibilities, and often children begin to require larger and larger chunks of our attention and focus.  Those long-neglected friends and family members we paid less attention to for a time now approach us again, seeking to renew the closeness they had once enjoyed with us. 

As we (necessarily) expand our focus to address these other needs, it inevitably draws a certain amount of focus and attention away from our partner.  This is an important but potentially dangerous time for our marriage.   Also, in the face of so many competing pressures and responsibilities, when we go home at night, we don't necessarily want to be on our best behavior.  We want to relax and be ourselves.   We want to wear our sweats, and unbutton our top button, so to speak.   We want to be loved for who we are, rather than just adored for the perfect but partialized image we strove so mightily to establish in the beginning.  

As these normal (and inevitable) changes occur, in the face of expanding realities and pressures in our lives over time, we may experience a new sense of crisis in our marriage.   Where is the closeness and connection we once felt?  Where is the love?  Where is that perfect person who met our needs and completed our sentences?  We enter what experts refer to as "Stage Two" of our relationship - "The Power Struggle."  Consciously or unconsciously, we struggle to define who we really are, how we want and need to use our time and financial resources, what values we are going to embrace and live.   "The Power Struggle" can be a challenging and difficult phase in our relationship.   But we can learn to recognize it for what it is - a normal and inevitable result of spending lots of time together.    

2) Entropy - "What does not get cared for consistently becomes a problem over time."  We see this with gardens, cars, dishes, and children.  If we neglect to provide continuous needed care to something or someone, over time, almost always, it becomes a problem.  Our relationships are no different.  Unwatered plants die, and cars we forget to fuel and change the oil on begin to sputter and fail over time.  

So often, the longer we are together, the more we may be inclined to take each other for granted, and give other things primary focus.  This might be the job, the kids, the religion, the hobby, or the "must-see TV" or ongoing torrent of social media chatter.    If we do not make special, dedicated effort to care diligently for our marriages, they can become spindly and frail, and ultimately fail.

3) Encountering our genuine and heartfelt differences.  Over time, it may become clearer and clearer to us that our partner is not a replica of ourselves.  He or she may want different things, possess different needs, express different opinions or values.    More and more, we become aware of male-female differences, personality differences, background differences, and love language differences, just to name a few.  

Again, this development is inevitable and universal in any relationship that lasts for any length of time.   While it can feel like a devasting crisis at first  ("Oh no, we're not compatible - we have irreconcileable differences!") ultimately those differences can become some of our greatest strengths as a couple.    His strengths can fill in her blind spots, and her strengths can fill in his.   But this requires a great deal of openness, humility, and trust, which we may not have at first - we may have to build it, with care and with patience, over the process of time. 

What Can We Do to Restore Focus, Fill in the Gaps, and Experience Joy Together?

How can we best address these challenges to our relationship?  How can we rebuild that sense of joy and connection we started with, and preserve that which is good in our relationship?  In short, how can we move on to "Stage Three - Mature Love" - dealing with the expanded responsibilities we face after marriage, without losing the bond of closeness we once felt with our partner?

1) First, recognize that "Stage Three" is not intended to be the same as "Stage One."   Once the children are born, they are here for the long haul.   Our natural differences and preferences are likewise here for the long haul.   Closeness that can endure for a lifetime is no longer about just putting on our best behavior, or eliminating other needful things from our lives. Somehow, we must learn to balance and blend all the many rich aspects of our adult lives, including our relationship. 

2) Consider - what were the activities we shared when we felt close in the beginning?  Often couples can rebuild much of the closeness they initially experienced, by intentionally, conscientiously repeating behaviors that helped create closeness in the beginning.  The special notes and gifts; the long conversations; the physical sharing; the consideration and kindness we started with, can take more effort and require more sacrifice in this later stage.  But we will find that because of that increased sacrifice and effort, the gift is even more meaningful now than it was back then.

3) Intentionally strive to give primary focus to each other - at least a few minutes every day and every week.   No matter how many new pressures may descend upon you, make sure you are taking time to put first things first.  You might not have two or three hours anymore to have that extended conversation or meaningful date.  But you can at least take a few minutes each day and a few hours each week to give 100% focus to your spouse.  Turn off the TV, leave your cell phone in another room for awhile, hire a babysitter - whatever it takes to carve out some focused time with your partner.  

You don't have to flood a potted flower to keep it alive and vibrant.  You don't have to change the oil in your car every day to keep it running smoothly.   And you don't have give your spouse 100% of your time and attention every day.   But give 100% of your focus and attention for at least part of every day.   Share your love, extend yourself in kindness to your partner.  Before long, you will realize that "Stage Three" can be every bit as joyful as "Stage One" - if not more so, because of the richness and synergy of all all the diverse pieces - the grand kalaidiscope your lives entail at that point.  

We enjoy, in our time, more opportunities and more options than any previous generation of human beings.  This can bring great danger to our close relationships - or, it can bring vastly expanded growth and enjoyment.  Protect your marriage - cultivate and nourish it intentionally - and it can remain strong, joyful, and unified.

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Author: Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW,    counselinglibrary.org,    Aug. 26, 2014