One of the things about life is that it’s impossible to know exactly what it’s going to be like until you experience it. And so it is with marriage or committed relationships. For most people reading this, you married with the lion’s share of your lives ahead of you. Imagining, either consciously or subconsciously, the great places you’ll go, the things you’ll accomplish, the rewarding experiences you’ll have, what the best version of your life will be like.
But then life really happens. While trying to advance in your career, you get caught up in work. You have children and it sucks up all your time, leaving little quality time to spend alone with your partner like you did when you were first together. You find new individual passions that absorb you and leave you less mental energy to spend on the relationship. These things aren’t all bad, but they tend to have negative consequences on the relationship. One day you may look up and realize you aren’t feeling as connected with your partner as you want to. You feel less like a team, and more like roommates that get annoyed at each other more than you enjoy time together. Instead of genuinely relishing your relationship, you feel like you’re going through the motions. If you’re reading this, chances are this is exactly how you feel.
Does this mean your relationship has entered an irrecoverable death spiral? Hopefully not, but you’re going to have to engage in some serious, intentional course correction to get back on track.
So, how do you do this?
Trying to do this all by yourself is going to be a much harder task than engaging the cooperation of your mate. Chances are, this will involve some form of that dreaded “We have to talk” moment in a relationship. But there are ways you can bring up the issue so that it’s not so threatening.
First off, ask your spouse or partner, in a non-threatening way, if they have time to talk to you about something important. This request doesn’t have to happen at the same time as the actual talk– in fact it’s probably better if the initial request is more about arranging when that time will be.
When you have the actual conversation, start off by saying how much you value the relationship and want to improve it. This is important to set the emotional tone, as something you want to work together on, rather than having your partner worry that it’s going to be all about their faults.
So, what should you be discussing? The metaphors I’ve been using thus far give a hint to the answer. It should be about where you’re headed. When was the last time you had a conversation about what your dreams and aspirations were? The things that give your life reason for optimism; the things that make you look forward to positive experiences in the future. Everyone deserves to have this feeling. Discuss your life goals together. What you want to be able to say about your life after all is said and done. You could talk about the most meaningful items on your “bucket lists” if that seems helpful. (If one of your bucket items is, say, to enter a hot wings eating competition, but it’s not particularly meaningful to you, maybe save that discussion for another time.). If these dreams include your spouse or your family, all the better. You should let each other know that it’s okay, in this conversation, to stay true to your dreams and not be overly concerned with practical considerations. The goal for this conversation is not to talk about what your partner is doing that’s preventing you from achieving your goals; instead it is to talk positively, without resentment, about what your hopeful visions for your life are.
Part of the point is to let your partner know who you are on the inside– not just what you think you are obligated to do in your life. Are you measured only by what you are obligated to do? No. (Are obligations important? Yes, they shouldn’t be discounted. But that’s not what this first conversation is about.)
What happens when you have this conversation is that you find out what’s important to your partner. And they find out what’s important to you. Who are you on the inside after all this time together? Life’s responsibilities and trials have a way of beating that out of us. But if all we are is how we react to the things we have to deal with, that’s probably not a very good version of us. Instead, we need to retain this hopeful, dreaming version of ourselves to be our best. And when you see that side of your partner, you are more likely to see them in a positive light than just as the person who doesn’t take the trash out in time for weekly pickup. And they will see the side of you that is warmer and fuzzier. The best way to do this is not to pour a cold bucket of water on their dreams- engage with them in a positive way and they’ll be more likely to take that stance with you as well..
You can’t just stop at this first conversation though. Later conversations involve figuring out what dreams are the most important, and which ones are more pie-in-the-sky. And then which actions you collectively need to take to make the important ones come true. The actual course correction comes when you take those steps instead of continuing to go the direction that has gotten you into this funk. Those conversations can be tricky too. If you find that you can’t problem solve the actual steps, then seeking out a professional relationship counselor might be worth the time and money.
You have to take the first step though if you’re going to make the course correction. And luckily, these kinds of conversations can be really refreshing and rewarding, if you go into them with the attitude of wanting to help your partner achieve their dreams as well as yours.