Have you ever felt disconnected from your partner? Have you ever thought, My partner isn’t the person she used to be? Or maybe you’ve wondered, How did we get here? We used to be so close?
If any of these sound familiar, you’re not alone. As both an individual and couples therapist, I frequently hear “we’ve grown apart” from clients who are describing the unfortunate state of their relationship.
While common, growing apart doesn’t have to be inevitable in your relationship. Every day you make choices about how to act towards your partner, and these micro-choices are actually determining the trajectory of your relationship.
Of course everyone has bad days, and no one is expected to be loving all the time. But the more frequent rejections and dismissals become, the more likely it is that a couple will eventually say, “we’ve grown apart.”
Like a garden, relationships don’t tend themselves. They need proactive care in order to thrive. So how do you keep things fresh and blooming?
Here are 6 things you can start doing today to help you and your partner from growing apart.
Address conflict head-on.
Conflict resolution is an essential component of a healthy relationship. If conflict isn’t addressed and resolved, resentment will build and lead to emotional distance.
Like growing apart, resentment doesn’t appear overnight. It’s a slow and steady process. When wounds aren’t healed, when hurtful behaviors aren’t changed, and when feelings are consistently dismissed, resentment creeps in and naturally distance develops in the relationship.
For some, addressing conflict is difficult. It requires emotional safety within the relationship as well as vulnerability and the courage to bring up issues. And, of course, the tools for how to navigate these difficult conversations which you may not have learned growing up.
It might help to remember this phrase: conflict leads to connection. When you and your partner face your issues and overcome them together, you’ll likely find that you’re closer and more connected than you were before.
How to do the work: Start by recognizing if there are specific topics that are difficult for you to talk about. Then explore what emotions come up for you regarding those topics. Is the challenge in not knowing how to share how your feelings or perspective, or is it more about how your partner responds when you share how you feel?
Respond to your partner’s bids.
A bid is when your partner reaches out to you in some way, either emotionally or physically.
While certain gestures, like a hug, rubbing your back, or saying ‘I love you’ might seem small and insignificant, they’re actually really meaningful. These behaviors are attempts at connection, and when rejected, they can, in time, deter a partner from making future bids.
Think, for a moment, how you’ve felt when someone you love has denied your loving gesture. Did it make you want to do it again? Probably not, at least not very soon. Because it hurts. When we’re rejected, we feel hurt, and by nature we want to protect ourselves from more hurt.
And the opposite is true. A loving gesture has the power to heal, restore, and grow a relationship.
How to do the work: Take notice of opportunities to give a bid to your partner and watch for bids from your partner. How does your partner respond to your bids, and how do you respond to your partner’s bids?
Show love in the way your partner best receives it.
Chances are, you’ve heard of the 5 love languages — acts of service, physical touch, quality time, gifts, and words of affirmation. Maybe you even know what your love language is. (If you haven’t identified yours, you can take the quiz here.)
Often times we give love in the way that we want to receive it. For example, if you crave physical touch from your partner, you are likely to give affection to them. But if this isn’t your partner’s love language, you might be surprised when he says that he doesn’t feel loved by you.
It’s important to recognize that it might take effort for you to adjust your loving gestures to what your partner wants rather than what you want from your partner. (Unless you’re one of the lucky ones where your love language is the same as your partner’s.)
How to do the work: First, take the love languages quiz and have your partner do the same. Then discuss the results together and provide specific examples of how your partner can show you love in the way you desire.
Not only does gratitude have proven mental health benefits, but it’s also relationship gold. Studies have shown that couples who express gratitude to each other are more likely to stay together long-term and more likely to be responsive to each other’s needs.
Gratitude activates the pleasure center of the brain and releases dopamine, which is otherwise known as the “feel good” hormone. So when we express gratitude for our partner, this increases the positive feelings within the relationship.
When we feel appreciated, we are also more likely to take negative feedback or requests to change from our partner.
How to do the work: Pay attention to the ways in which your partner contributes to the relationship, even in ways that you would consider “expected” or “givens.” Give praise or appreciation for those behaviors and see how your partner responds.
Recognize that your partner will change.
Humans are meant to grow and change, and as we go through different life stages and gain new experiences, our perspectives, outlooks, and priorities may shift or even change completely. This is normal.
However, as you and your partner both change, this may cause some friction. You may have liked who your partner was before and may struggle with the ways in which your partner is changing. This is normal as well.
Change is difficult for all of us. But the more that we accept that we are meant to grow and change, the more we’ll be ready to do the work to adjust and adapt as change comes.
How to do the work: Communicate often about you are changing and the ways in which your partner is changing. Ask questions to understand. Share the impact of your partner’s change. Encourage them to grow in the ways that they seek.
Go to therapy.
For some couples, therapy feels like a last resort. They see it as their only hope to save their relationship. But in actuality there are no rules for when an individual or couple should go to therapy. No issue is too small to say, “I think I want to talk to someone about this.”
Pre-marital counseling is an example of when a couple might go to therapy simply to give them a dedicated space to gain tools to stay connected and feel more equipped to work through the hard stuff together. It can also help them flesh out the strengths and areas of grow in their relationship.
Therapy is also a great place to check in on the pulse of your relationship. Some couples like to schedule periodic “wellness checks” where they meet with a therapist regardless of whether or not there’s a current issue to discuss. It’s a way for them to pause and reflect on the relationship that many couples struggle to make the time for outside of therapy room.
Growing apart is a slow process. If you think about how weeds show up in a garden, they don’t appear overnight. They grow, little by little, day by day. It’s the same in a relationship. Micro-moments matter. Whether you’re turning toward or away from your partner, these small choices can lead you closer to each other or be a step toward one day saying, “We’ve grown apart.” The choice is yours.