The key to relationships: shared connections

It’s true in both monogamy and consensual non-monogamy

In my therapy practice, I have come to be known for my focus on consensual non-monogamy.  That is, dealing with clients who are considering everything from swinging, to opening a relationship, to polyamory. Many of us in the therapy field acknowledge there can be problems stemming from the cultural expectations that all our needs can be met by just one partner.

Reenforcing this conviction, I’ve seen increasing numbers of people in recent years who are seeking alternatives.

There are two kinds of monogamy: The first is the one in which two people agree that they both want it. They may have strong religious or cultural values that insist upon it, and they behave as expected. The second is monogamy in which one or both partners may agree with the idea only because they think that the other partner would never agree to something else. The latter is prone to problems down the road. It always is important that couples talk about what monogamy means to them in the beginning and reach a mutual agreement. For couples pursuing consensual non-monogamy, maintaining their shared connections becomes perhaps even more important.

I see many couples who are dealing with one partner who goes outside their implied monogamy to have a clandestine affair but still hope life remains in their relationship, and that it can be saved with therapy. In this case, it becomes essential to uncover what it was that caused the partner to seek attention, intimacy, or connection with someone other than their partner. There may be something in their past, for example, that causes them to act out, or there might be something lacking in either partner’s actions or attitude that causes the other to feel victimized.

I have found that the number one reason for someone to step outside the boundaries of a relationship is loneliness, feeling as though they have been abandoned in some way. Perhaps their partner has become consumed with their job, or caring for their children or aging parents. Unfortunately, the couple’s connection in the beginning of their relationship – sex, shared interests or values, stimulating conversations, or similar kinds of work – has fallen victim to routine. If their sexual encounters in the beginning were multiple times a week and are now once a month, or even not at all, or if they no longer can find topics of easy conversation, then one partner begins to feel alone. They begin to feel they are not loved or valued. They begin to question everything about themselves, and it becomes easy to seek those lost feelings outside their relationship.

A slow process

This disconnect rarely happens all at once. Rather, it happens in small steps. One partner is consumed by children who require enormous amounts of attention, for instance, and their partner no longer enjoys the attention they once got. The couple no longer has time or desire for intimate conversations, and thinks, “I already know what they’ll say, so why have the same conversations?” Consequently, they’ve put the relationship on autopilot.

Believe it or not, I have heard a flood of complaints that one partner spends too many hours in a day playing video games. They have substituted time with their partner for game-playing community connections, or they spend their spare time playing or watching sports. This is how the small steps away from intimacy start.

Our need for that feeling of connection doesn’t fade because we’re not finding it where we used to. When we think we’re not number one in our partner’s world, we are more likely to find convenient alternatives.

Finding a way back

Just like it takes small steps to lose our connection, the same is true for building it back, but it requires intention.

You can start by talking about memories of positive experiences you had together. What was it that attracted you when you first met? What was a funny or meaningful story that happened while on a trip? If you are standing at the kitchen window and see a beautiful bird in the back yard, you can call your partner over to enjoy the view together. What about texting a message of affection a few times a day? These are all simple ways to begin restoring healthy communication and rebuilding a connection.

I’m very fond of John Gottman’s book, Eight Dates: Essential Conversations for a Lifetime of Love, and often recommend it to my clients. In it, he suggests one date for each topic such as finances, sex, and future dreams. If it is a couple’s intention to strengthen their bond, it can be very helpful to have a structure like this to pursue their goal.

However, not every couple I see because of infidelity or other ruptures in their relationship is prepared to make these commitments. For some, things have gone too far. One or both may be unhappy 90 percent of the time in their relationship, but because of guilt or societal expectations, they are thinking they should press on despite these issues. To them I might say, “You have only one life to live. Are you willing to live with only 10 percent happiness?”

There is a path back to love, but only if one is true to oneself.