Suzanne just learned that her husband no longer finds her attractive. Their evening was completely ruined. But this very fortunate couple was able to make this horrible experience into the first day of a brand new relationship. How did they do it?
Not accepting "I'm not in the mood"
Suzanne's husband, Robbie, had just finished brushing his teeth and was getting ready for bed. Suzanne hinted that she was interested in going to bed with him. She didn’t want to go to sleep. It was when he hesitated and took a deep breath that she made up her mind that she wasn’t going to ignore any longer her feeling rejected after initiating sex. She turned her back to him as she leaned up against the bathroom door, lowering her head. For a moment she flashed through dozens of images in her mind of when she wanted to bring this up. Now, she decided, is the time. She clenched her teeth.
“Is there another woman?” she asked. “Tell me, I need to know what is wrong with you!”
Robbie looked at her for a second as his blood went cold. He silently continued brushing his teeth, wiped his hands, and began to walk past Suzanne who had turned toward him. She thrust her hand out in front of him, grabbing the door frame and cutting Robbie off. An already thorny exchange just got sharper.
Robbie felt cornered and throttled his anger, not wanting to hurt her physically. His face was still as stone, expressionless as he stared back at her. Robbie wasn’t involved with another woman but his reaction was so flat and void of emotion that it seemed to confirm Suzanne’s worst fear about him cheating. The more stoic and withdrawn Robbie became, the more Suzanne’s anxiety grew.
On the inside, Robbie was boiling with feelings. It had been months since they’d had sex. He felt equally rejected and was just as discouraged as Suzanne about their lack of intimacy. On the outside you couldn’t tell he had any feelings at all, yet he desperately wanted to get through to her and get relief from the pressure he felt from constantly failing to connect. Then, all of a sudden, like a damn breaking, Robbie blurted out the only thing that he could think to tell her that would stop the uncomfortable feelings that were ratcheting higher and higher inside of him.
"I'm not attracted to you physically," he said, making eye contact with Suzanne for the first time during their exchange. His eye contact was a clue that Robbie wasn't trying to hurt Suzanne. In fact, as he said it he began to feel softer toward her, compassion surging forward, confusing him. But their interaction was moving too fast for either one of them to notice this opportunity. Suzanne was quickly flooded with shock--Robbie had gotten through to her but it brought her down involuntarily into his frozen world. They were still worlds apart.
The point of no return
With such a sequence of negative events, could you possibly imagine this couple learning how to have such a difficult conversation and feel closer to each other? Could they somehow bridge the gap between them? We now know from research about couples that there’s a predictable tipping point any relationship can reach that, without corrective intervention, results in real separation. Marriage researcher John Gottman calls this progress to the point of no return the “distance and isolation cascade.” Did Suzanne and Robbie reach this point of no return?
The predictable road of distance and isolation
Research tells us that the distance and isolation cascade happens in four stages: Physiological flooding…emotional disengagement…parallel lives…loneliness…divorce.
Physiological flooding: The first stage of the distance and isolation cascade occurs often in many couples. Anger and frustration are so built up that the slightest offense triggers the physiological fight/flight stress response.
Emotional disengagement: Unresolved anger leads to both partners belief that the other is incapable of change. Feeling hopeless, you no longer expect your partner to be a reliable person. This fundamentally redefines the relationship.
Parallel lives: This is the phase of emotional separation that precedes physical separation. You’ve ceased sharing meaningful details of your life with your partner and limit conversations to mundane or only the most necessary information. You’re just roommates. As a result you find other sources of meaning in your life—turning to other friends, work, or hobbies.
Loneliness: Deep, crushing loneliness haunts many unhappily married couples. This is perhaps the most painful and the most difficult to tolerate and maintain a normal life together as a couple. When this point is reached many couples have developed problematic symptoms such as infidelity, substance abuse, and depression or anxiety.
Cheating the inevitable, getting quality help
The good news is that if you find a couples therapist that’s trained to properly recognize and intervene at these phases of disconnection, you can stop the distance and isolation cascade. That’s exactly what Robbie and Suzanne did.
I have the fortunate vantage point of hearing couples describe their tipping point—that moment when they realized their ship was sinking and they needed help--and I get to see them reverse course and stop the inevitable from happening to them. Couples wait an average of six years before calling for help according to one study.
I can tell you the exact moment when I realized that my own marriage needed professional help. Like the many couples I’ve helped over the years, my wife and I were able to reverse the downward course we were on. But not every couples therapist is trained to intervene with the quickness and efficiency needed to provide real help. That’s why I wrote Love Under Repair: How to Save Your Marriage and Survive Couples Therapy. It’s a guide to help you know how to choose the right kind of marriage therapist that could help you.
Putting the broken pieces back together after a hurtful comment
Robbie and Suzanne were looking straight down the barrel of marital doom on the night Robbie told Suzanne he wasn’t physically attracted to her anymore. His confession touched a very sensitive spot for Suzanne. That night she couldn’t stop crying. Robbie had never seen her so upset and her reaction reinforced his rationale for resolutely keeping his feelings to himself. But what happened the next day changed the course of history for this couple. Suzanne called in sick to work . She wanted to call her sister and tell her what horrible person her husband was. But instead she called an attachment-based couples therapist—the kind of therapist I describe in detail in Love Under Repair that’s especially able to help couples like Robbie and Suzanne learn to reconnect when difficult emotions arise.
Later, in the safety of the therapist’s office Suzanne confided why Robbie’s not feeling attracted to her hurt so much.
“The other day,” she began, starting to sob, “someone on the subway offered me a seat on the subway because they thought I was pregnant. I was completely humiliated." Their therapist provided leadership and clear instruction, coaching Robbie to listen with assurance that he wasn’t to blame for her insecurity, but he could respond in a way that helped, much to his relief.
Suzanne and Robbie wouldn’t have been able to begin the repair of their relationship without the help of a skilled professional. Because they had the right information about how couples therapy actually works, they knew there was someone out there that could help them. Together, they opened a new chapter in their relationship that changed the course of their family's life. In the end, Robbie was able to hear all of Suzanne’s feelings about what hurt her without shutting down emotionally the way he normally did to avoid blame. For the first time in many moons, Robbie and Suzanne felt on the same team.