What strategies do you employ in your relationship to rebuild closeness in your long-term relationship/marriage?
November 20, 2012 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Some weeks/months, you feel closer to your partner. Other weeks/months, not as much. Time and the natural course of things usually propel the cycle back around – is there anything you can do to hasten the process? What strategies do you employ in your relationship to rebuild closeness in your long-term relationship/marriage?

I have been with my boyfriend for seven years – we live together and think of ourselves as de facto married, and so do our friends. I think he’s fantastic – funny (until my sides hurt), kind (e.g. doesn’t like cats, but amazing with our cat), hard-working, ambitious, and really good looking and has a hot accent to boot. I’m very lucky. Our sex life isn’t as great as it could be, but we communicate pretty openly about it, and as it has in the past, it will rebound, so I’m not worried. The last time was recent, and it wasn’t mind-blowing, but it was sweet and nice.

What bothers me more is that, recently (past 4 months or so), I’ve felt emotionally distant from him for no apparent reason. This happens – you get busy, wrapped up at work, wrapped up in other life stressors, and work through things individually and together, and usually, within a month or so, the sense of closeness naturally returns. It has been a little too long this time, and I’m starting to wonder what I can do to rebuild our closeness more proactively. The usual strategies of scheduling date nights, making vacation plans for us, physically reaching out to hug him more, and just talking it through aren’t working this time.

Compounding the issue is that his annoying little habits are getting to me more than usual. I think when you love someone, once you get used to their little habits, the initially annoying ones become kind of funny – for example, he leaves his socks…just around. It really annoyed me when we first moved in together (I’m a bit of a neat freak), but now it makes me smile when I randomly come across a pair of socks, and I just pick them up, no big deal. Recently, my tolerance and patience for his idiosyncrasies have been wearing thin – things that didn’t bother me before are really getting to me. For example, when he shaves, he leaves water all over the counter and doesn’t put away his razor and shaving cream – it takes me all of one minute to clean up after him, but am I going to have to remind him / clean up after him the rest of our lives?

So, folks in long-term relationships, two questions for you:
1. What little strategies do you employ to proactively rebuild closeness when feeling distant?
2. How can I approach his idiosyncrasies with patience, acceptance and equanimity?

Please don’t blow this out of proportion – no, I don’t want to break up with him over his shaving habits. No, we don’t need couples or sex therapy. But any suggestions you have to share about little things you can do to improve your relationships/marriage and weather those times you feel more distant from each other are greatly appreciated. Thank you!
posted by booksandwine to Human Relations (28 answers total) 85 users marked this as a favorite
I have a metaphor for LTRs that has helped me to keep my sanity:

A long-term relationship is kind of like having an older car that you want to keep viable and on the road. You have to know what stuff to fix and what stuff you can just let go. You need to do basic maintenance, such as oil changes, tires, brakes, etc. You need to change a timing belt when it comes due. But random rattles, squeaks, a torn seat or headliner, a dent here and there can be lived with.

True of marriage, or any LTR's. You need maintenance, which means being kind to one another, continuing to make time and energy for sex (even when it does not happen spontaneously like it used to), and to LISTEN on one another.

His shaving habits may or may not change, and I am sure that there are a lot of other little glitches on both sides. But if the big picture is still wonderful, and you still make time for one another and, again LISTEN to one another, well, this makes for a fine, if not perfect time aging together.
posted by Danf at 2:53 PM on November 20, 2012 [8 favorites]

My go-to and (for me) fail-proof method is to do something (or lots of somethings) nice for him. Service really goes a long way in our marriage. Our marriage goes through phases like this - everything he does will grate on me. But when I get to feeling that way I try really hard to do nice things for him - make him his favorite meal, iron a bunch of shirts (ok, I did that once), etc. Just doing something for him makes me love him and like him more.

The usual strategies of scheduling date nights, making vacation plans for us, physically reaching out to hug him more, and just talking it through aren’t working this time.

These are great strategies and necessary in relationships, but throw some really good service in there, and I think you're golden. Wake up each day and think of ways to make HIS day awesome. Pretty soon you'll be seeing him in a different light. It's hard to explain how that works, but it works so well for our marriage.
posted by Sassyfras at 3:05 PM on November 20, 2012 [44 favorites]

I agree with Sassyfras - people tend to unconsciously mirror what behavior is given to them. When I'm in a relationship and my S/O is treating me well, I'm practically the best boyfriend ever, but once they start nitpicking stuff about me that they don't like I start doing the same thing back and it just collapses into a negative feedback loop. If you want to feel closer to him, try to find ways to make him feel closer to you.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 3:17 PM on November 20, 2012 [10 favorites]

Compounding the issue is that his annoying little habits are getting to me more than usual. I think when you love someone, once you get used to their little habits, the initially annoying ones become kind of funny – for example, he leaves his socks…just around.

There will come a time when he doesn't leave his socks around. That's what I pause and think of when shaving bits in the sink have me grar-y, or I see that schmear across the steamy bathroom mirror again that means I have to windex it again. There will come a time when there are no more hairs in the sink.

It only works when I really do pause, and consciously say the full sentence in my mind. But if you want to truly appreciate and be grateful for the person who is at this moment on your very last nerve, it works.
posted by headnsouth at 3:28 PM on November 20, 2012 [16 favorites]

You've known this person for seven years, it's like there's not much left to say because you can finish each other's sentences. What can you do to introduce something totally new into the relationship, even if it's temporary?

I mean like taking a class where you do something physical, like craft or cook or dance? Membership to a wallclimbing facility? Volunteering somewhere for the arts/community? Christmas is coming up, decide you're going to learn to make something together (if you can work well like that). Facing challenges together builds team spirit. Seeing your S.O. doing something new, seeing a spark of excitement or a focused look, that can bring up the feelings of "I love seeing that smile".
posted by ergo at 3:58 PM on November 20, 2012 [5 favorites]

Let him post about all the things you do that annoy him, but yet he tolerates. You will find balance and patience through this perspective.

As for your other question ... when you feel emotionally distant, do you think of another man (fantasy or real) or do you think of being alone?
posted by Kruger5 at 4:33 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Have (more) sex. Sex breeds (pun intended?) emotional intimacy.
posted by wrok at 4:34 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

Think about dating. Remember how much it sucks. Read some obnoxious self-help books intended for women who are looking for a mate.

If socks on a floor are your biggest problem, you're doing pretty well.

(This is a bit tongue in cheek, but still, it helps to be reminded how good your problems are. :) )
posted by 3491again at 4:41 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I like the doing nice things for him idea - that resonates with my experience too.

Also the doing a new activity/class/volunteer project together.

Maybe work on the sexual connection as well. Suggest an activity you don't do but have fantasized about, or offer to do something he's been fantasizing about. Watch some porn together or read some erotica out loud. Make a deal to have sex every day for a week. Ask him to switch roles: you pretend to be the man, he pretends to be the woman [assuming you are a woman]. Go to a sex-related event (sex party if you can find one) and just watch, then talk about what you each liked. These are just some ideas - obviously not all will work for you. It's just that having a sexually connected moment can often help me reconnect to other parts of an intimate connection with someone.
posted by latkes at 4:48 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I agree that more sex helps with a stronger connection. But for those times when every little thing is irritating, I find it helps to see more of my own bad habits. Like, sure, I have to clean the sink if I really want every last hair gone, but on the other hand, I leave my socks on the floor, am needy when sick, and lose my temper more than I should. Remembering you aren't perfect either helps.
posted by Margalo Epps at 5:01 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've posted these before, but my husband and I learned these tricks in couples counseling. They won't fix a broken relationship, but they will definitely improve closeness in one that's fundamentally OK but just feeling a bit distant or threadbare.

1. Touch each other. Not like sexytimes touching, just a hand on the shoulder when you leave for work, or a hip bump when you walk behind the other person, or hold hands while watching tv. Just to remind yourself that you are two physical people in a physical relationship, not just brains in a jar.

2. Say "Thank you." When your partner picks up milk on the way home, or does the dishes, or fluffs your pillow, or washes out the sink, or whatever -- say thank you. It goes a long way towards helping people feel appreciated, which in turn helps people be willing to participate in the relationship.

3. Say "I love you." Even if you don't really feel it. Obviously, don't say it when you're spitting nails with anger, but before you leave the house, or when your partner comes home, or before you turn off the lights at night. Just say it. It reminds you that, hey, you DO love this person.

4. Go to bed at the same time. The minutes spent in bed before falling asleep are very personal, and even if they're spent in mutual silence, it helps to build intimacy to spend them with your partner.

5. Get up at the same time. When you get up together, it helps reinforce the idea that you two are part of a team, you're in this together, you're starting the day at each others' sides. Obviously, this one and the last one are difficult if you work very different shifts, or if there are new babies, or anything like that, but it really does make a difference. Apart from anything else, making sure your sleeping time overlaps as much as possible means that you'll have as much time awake together as possible.
posted by KathrynT at 5:13 PM on November 20, 2012 [27 favorites]

I'm so glad you asked, because I'm going through nearly the exact thing, with the added bonus of having just started a new job and developing a crush on a coworker. Whee! This may not be you AT ALL (!!!) but for me, after 6 years I am irritated that we're not married, and it is making me SUPER resentful. Some of it is that our friends are all doing it and I don't want to be left behind, and part of it is dude, 6 years? If he's not sure now I want to break up and find someone who IS sure, and if he is already sure then what is the hold-up? Anyway, maybe you don't want to be married but maybe there is some similar-level commitment you'd like him to reach that he isn't?

In my case talking about it hasn't helped, but it's probably a good place to start, if you can identify the problem. Reading other people's answers has inspired me, though. I'm going to the store for ice cream but I am going to pick him up a card to say I love him, too. Because even though my coworker is cute, he would come with a whole slew of problems I wouldn't want to deal with, and maaaan is the lack of drama NICE.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 5:16 PM on November 20, 2012 [2 favorites]

Slightly tangental but related:

I was at the thrift store today and I saw the world's ugliest couch. I think I actually recoiled when I saw it. It was so ugly I couldn't stop looking at it, so I got closer.

When I got closer, I noticed that it had a really unusual shape; I think it was specially designed to fit in a bay window alcove. I'm moving to a place with a bay window and I have no furniture, so this is perfect for me. I instantly started trying to figure out how I can like this couch. It's in good shape, it's shockingly comfortable, it's sturdy, solid wood, and the frame's really actually quite nice- it's older so there's good craftsmanship there. It's so unique too! And really, it's just the upholstery that's ugly; I could have it reupholstered. Although, come to think about it, with the right colour scheme this piece might look kind of eclectic and nifty the way it is...

I'm sure you see my point here. Try to figure out what you can find to be pleased or excited about instead of annoyed. What things about him make you smile? What's great about him? How can you like him?
posted by windykites at 5:18 PM on November 20, 2012 [6 favorites]

There are some studies that show that activities with novelty, danger, and intensity can increase feelings of closeness and bonding in couples more than other types of activities. So, instead of "taking a class," doing something a bit thrilling can supposedly help. E.g., hike a mountain in the winter, get training in krav maga, etc.

Agreed with the above that service has a basically magical way of making good feelings grow. Good feelings in general. Service for your boyfriend can help, and so can service to others. I really don't know how that works. It's magic!

For me, any sort of hard work is similar. Working super extra hard at the office (or any task on my agenda) has a way of making everything else, including my relationship, seem more treasured.

Also: intense physical exercise. If your sex life is kind of meh, I would almost guarantee that if you work through the weightlifting book, "Starting Strength" you will be fucking like bunnies in no time. (This might be because weightlifting increases testosterone even in women. Not enough to make you grow chest hair, but it can affect your sex life.) Bikram yoga (the hot kind) works well for me, though weightlifting is probably the best. At times I have spent the whole day ruminating about something annoying about my BF, and after intense exercise, the bad feelings were just gone just like that - poof!

And lastly: sounds like you were planning a vacation with him. How about a solo trip? I have taken solo vacations before, especially ones to do thrilling things, and that definitely brought me closer to whoever I was dating when I got back.

It's about finding good energy in the outside world and making it part of yourself. Then you can then bring back to your relationships (whatever kind of relationships).
posted by kellybird at 5:35 PM on November 20, 2012 [4 favorites]

I'm curious if he feels the distance you do or if he withdraws on purpose to get space. I say this mainly because you've been together for a very long time and are not married (which is totally fine) but you're feeling distant and you're taking on the burden of fixing it alone. I don't think resolving the distance is going to work if you're the only one worried about it/affected by it.
posted by discopolo at 5:37 PM on November 20, 2012

Are you up under each other all the time? Maybe you need to find some separate space as well as doing new things together.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 5:41 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Hi everyone, thanks for all the suggestions so far. To answer a few questions:

1. I do think he is starting to notice the distance -- we're both fairly independent, I've always thought in a good way, and recently, it has been all too easy for me to make even more plans without him when I feel like I need to get away. He commented recently that we haven't been spending as much time together as usual. With the upcoming holidays, that will fix itself in part, but I will also make more of a concerted effort to make plans involving him instead of making plans with my friends without him.

2. Related point: we're not on top of each other all the time, BUT he does work from home (I work at an office and long hours -- sometimes really appreciate the feeling of walking into my office), so he's always there. I have been thinking that it would be nice to have time in the sanctuary of home alone. How do you do this when you live in fairly tight quarters with one spouse/partner always there?

3. We don't fight about getting married -- we discuss it a lot, and definitely will get married and likely soon. It is more that we have a lot going on right now (starting/growing a business, finishing grad school, family members' health issues, etc) and since we know we will always be together, it just seems like a mere formality. Plus I've been a bridesmaid a bajillion times so weddings have lost their appeal to me..almost entirely.

Thank you for the reminders that my problems are quite minor. I recognize this, but would still like to proactively address these feelings nevertheless.

And thank you also for reassuring me that this is not an uncommon feeling in long term relationships. To add to my questions:
3. Any anecdotes of when you were feeling this way, and the 1 or 2 things you did that seemed to make the most difference in bringing you closer?

Thanks again!
posted by booksandwine at 6:12 PM on November 20, 2012

2. Related point: we're not on top of each other all the time, BUT he does work from home (I work at an office and long hours -- sometimes really appreciate the feeling of walking into my office), so he's always there. I have been thinking that it would be nice to have time in the sanctuary of home alone. How do you do this when you live in fairly tight quarters with one spouse/partner always there?

I get up early to have quiet time to myself in the morning. Just me and the dog and my coffee and the sun coming up and the light changing ... about an hour to myself before anyone else is up, and I have kids too, and work full-time, so I really need that time. Even on cold winter mornings it's easy to get out of bed when you have drowsy solitude and a warm mug of coffee waiting for you.
posted by headnsouth at 6:48 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

2. Related point: we're not on top of each other all the time, BUT he does work from home (I work at an office and long hours -- sometimes really appreciate the feeling of walking into my office), so he's always there. I have been thinking that it would be nice to have time in the sanctuary of home alone. How do you do this when you live in fairly tight quarters with one spouse/partner always there?

Funny you should mention this. Just last night Mr. Sadtomato and I discussed how he's always at home and I couldn't think of the last time I had some time to myself in my own home. I felt bad asking him to not be at home sometimes but he said he could totally see my point and that he understood that it's important to have that down time on your own. He committed to being out one evening a week. He's going to try to find something fun to do, like rock climbing or a meet-up group of some sort but tonight he's gone to the local coffee shop for a couple of hours to get ahead on some work.

Have you talked about this with your partner? He'll probably be quite understanding.
posted by sadtomato at 7:07 PM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

John Gottman's book Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work is all about what goes into making a great (long, happy) marriage/relationship. Definitely worth reading, reflecting, acting on.
posted by Sublimity at 7:19 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Once my husband noticed that there was a toothbrush "standing" on the bathroom counter with folded arms and feet. He was quite tickled by it. I actually hadn't noticed it was supposed to be a person? I had just bought it to clean with (you know, in the cracks and crevices that only I clean...).

So the next day, I heard laughter coming from the bathroom. "Babe, the toothbrush is wearing a bow tie." He got a good laugh, and I did too.

A few days later, "Babe, he's got a gun!" And we just laughed hysterically.

And if we hadn't have been moving the following week I would have added that fedora.

Sometimes it's just good to have a laugh together.
posted by it's a long way to south america at 8:26 PM on November 20, 2012 [3 favorites]

We lived together for some 16 years and have been married for five.

Being able to get away from our everyday life and do something fun, just us, not worrying about work or anything, is great for us. An actual vacation is best, but just a road trip or doing something touristy in our own town. Ymmv, but we do best when we spend a lot if time together, like on a road trip.

And definitely sex. If we haven't had sex for a couple of weeks, finally getting at it really brings our perspective and affection back into focus.
posted by Occula at 10:22 PM on November 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

Think about either starting a project together, or sharing your thoughts and ideas about something you're working towards with your partner. A challenging project you can work on together is always going to bring people closer. Do you have shared goals? Paying off student loans, paying off a car or a mortgage? Are there any renovation projects you want or plan to do around your home? Are there things in the community you're both concerned about, like local politics or literacy or helping the homeless/vulnerable populations in the area? Maybe you're doing something in a low gear, like saving for the future or buying a house, that you could shift into a higher gear that would take some real effort from both of you.

I read something once, a long time ago, about how infatuation is two people looking at each other, and love is two people looking forward in the same direction. I've always felt closest to people when we're working hard on something together. It forces a richer level of communication than "Hi, how was your day" and gives you a common purpose, and challenges to overcome, and a nice reward at the end.

Even if your goals or dreams are individual ones, sharing them with each other and talking about what you've done today to get closer to achieving them, what you plan to do tomorrow, is a great way to build a sense of common purpose and a sense of supporting one another and being supported.
posted by kythuen at 6:46 AM on November 21, 2012 [3 favorites]

My husband and I have a similar living situation - we live in a one bedroom apartment that we switched around into a studio-plus-office. He works from home, which presents a few challenges, not least of which is a similar feeling to yours - he's always there when I get home.

I find that during the periods of time where he has evening activities - band practice, hanging out with friends, classes or community meetings - we sometimes get along easier. It's as simple as me having a couple of hours to myself before he gets home. Sometimes I get tons of stuff done. Sometimes I watch TV or read all evening. But it's nice for me to get alone time, and him to have social engagement, so when we come back together we're in a similar place.

Related to that, I get home around 7 PM, and we try to share many household duties, and I hate having to cook dinner RIGHT when I arrive. If he stays out until 9, we usually postpone the evening meal until then, which means on those nights I can relax for a bit, then cook dinner.

The other thing we did was really take a look at our space. Even though I don't work from home, I need to have my own space, a place to which I can retreat and that feels like mine. When I first moved in, I didn't have one at all. Then I had a desk - but I never used it. What works for me, now, is a sun corner in the office - a shag rug covered with pillows in the sunniest spot in our apartment, where I can read, draw, edit photos, wrap presents, write, eat a snack, watch TV on my laptop, and just generally hang out. Also, designated, easy-to-reach spots for all my stuff - computer, lap desk, drawing supplies, etc.

I sometimes have to force myself to go there in the early mornings or evenings, when I'm more tempted to just sit and watch Star Trek with him, but I always feel better when I do!
posted by Isingthebodyelectric at 7:14 AM on November 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

Relationships have an ebb and flow. I think that is just how it works. Maintaining closeness, though, I think can be relatively easily done throught small things.

This is what my fiance and I do (and this is the same as other peoples):
1. We touch and have a lot of non-sexual physical contact. There is something very powerful in simple touch, but there is also an element of announcing (quietly) to the world that "Yes, this is my partner, I love them, and I like to hold their hand."
- We hold hands when we're out and about.
- When we're out driving the passenger usually has their hand on the thigh of the driver.
- We fall asleep with him wrapped around me, spooning and snuggling me. We never wake up that way, but that is always how we go to sleep.
- The morning alarm goes off 10 minutes earlier than it needs to, and he snoozes it and then pulls me in for a morning snuggle.
- When we're reading in bed at night we touch feet (my left foot touching his right foot) so that we're still "together" even though we're reading separate books and not talking
- At home we go in for hugs multiple times an evening and they are fairly equally initiated. We do it for no reason other than because hugs feel nice.
- We watch movies holding hands and sitting so close that our legs are touching. Sometimes I lay across the couch using his lap as a pillow

2. We say I love you a lot. I mean, probably 20 times a day. Whenever we feel it or think about the fact that we are in love, we say it. Today while we were eating lunch he stopped mid-taco and said, "Hey. I love you." and then resumed eating his taco. It was lovely. :)

3. We take nothing for granted and are careful to always thank each other for the things they do. Showing appreciation and recognising effort means more than you'd think, and knowing that your partner not only SEES but APPRECIATES the things you do is important. He may be the only person who has and ever will mow the lawn and it may be a total given that he is the one that will mow it and he may enjoy doing it, but I thank him every time for it because it is (in my opinion) a crap job that sucks but does a lot for making our home look nice.

4. We schedule "schmoopy nights" at least once a month. Life gets busy and our relationship can sometimes get pushed to the backburner while we're trying to manage our jobs and raising a kid and just sorting out day to day things. Schmoopy nights are basically when we just focus on us and our relationship and being grown ups in love. Sometimes we dress up and go out for a nice dinner, sometimes we play board games, sometimes we just have lots and lots of sex. It doesn't really matter what we do as long as the point is to be romantic with each other and that our focus is on each other, not on all the other stuff going on in our lives.

5. We have a lot of sex.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 11:55 AM on November 21, 2012 [7 favorites]

6. He and I enjoy each other's company a little too much, and we are a little too happy spending all of our time together, so we make a point of having some time apart with our respective friends. They aren't terribly frequent, maybe once a month each or so, but often enough. He had a "boys night" last week where we went out and ate wings and played pool with a friend. I'm going out for dinner tomorrow evening with a female friend of mine. The go-outer enjoys the time to hang out with friends on their own and do things we probably wouldn't do as a couple, the stay-homer enjoys the time to just relax quietly at home for a spell. Total win win.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:03 PM on November 21, 2012

7. We go out of our way to do kind things for each other, both small and big things. For example, he makes me all of my morning hot drinks. Every weekday morning he makes me my tea and puts it in my travel mug to take to work. On the weekends he makes me my morning tea/coffee and brings it to me. Even when we're visiting family or out on vacation he always makes my morning hot drink. Small deal to him, but makes me feel super loved and taken care of. He was home sick with a bad cold and was craving a Wendy's Hamburger but didn't feel up to going to get one, so I used my lunch hour to get him one and drive all the way home to deliver it to him. I basically only had time to buy it, drive out, drop it off, give him a hug, and then hop back in the car to get back to work, but he really appreciated it and it made his otherwise pretty miserable day a little better.
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:17 PM on November 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh man, today at work my work crush got really angry about something and like, slammed stuff down on the desk and got all scary. And not only was it scary, but it was also kind of funny because everyone looks terrible when they're angry. And you know what else it was? Unattractive as hell! My boyfriend is very easygoing and rarely gets angry, and I really appreciate that about him. I know you don't have a crush or anything, but it might help to think about bad traits in other people that your boyfriend doesn't have; bad breath, weird toes, drinking problem, annoying family, etc. I have a slew of exes that had some idiosyncrasies I am really glad to be rid of. Remembering all the awkward/terrible things about every guy who isn't my boyfriend makes him that much more attractive.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 1:16 PM on November 21, 2012

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