Is your marriage on empty?
Not long ago, a colleague, Bill, shared with me his sense of loneliness in his marriage. He and his wife, Sarah, have been married for many years, raised a family, and enjoy spending time with their two grandchildren. Bill worked long hours on his career. It was important for him to provide for his family and save money for his kid’s college education. Through hard work, he accomplished those goals. Now, on the doorstep of retirement and looking ahead, he’s worried about the state of his union.
Their interests have grown apart. He’s an avid bike rider and enjoys taking long rides into the mountains. Sarah likes to run but doesn’t like to bike. His wife loves to travel, but that doesn’t appeal to him. Over the years, their interests have diverged and today there is little that they do in common. He frets— “What will happen when I retire? How will we get along?”
Neither Bill nor Sarah are inclined to accommodate the other’s wishes. Bill doesn’t want to go jogging with his wife. Sarah won’t go on a bike ride with Bill. Sarah wakes up in the morning and thinks— “What has Bill done for me lately? Nothing! All he cares about his himself”. Bill has the same thoughts about Sarah. Each is waiting for the other to reach out. The net effect—no one does.
Over the years, I have seen many couples in their 50’s and 60’s who are more like roommates than romantic partners. They have mastered the business of living together—but they’ve lost the spark and connection that they had when they were younger. This doesn’t happen overnight—but slowly, one inch at a time, this growing disconnection can become a chasm that is hard to bridge. They can go weeks, months, and even years without making love.
In addition to feeling lonely, partners can start to feel resentful. They wonder if their spouse is still in love with them. Both Bill and Sarah feel rejected and hurt by the other. They compensate for this loneliness by living parallel lives. Bill joined a bike club and spends weekends on rides with his friends. Sarah and her running friends train for marathons. Their lives intersect but they do not connect.
So how can couples turn this around?
Goodwill, generated by deeds of loving kindness and appreciation, is the fuel for the marital engine. When the marital tank of goodwill is full, all things are possible—including participating in activities that might not be your favorite. But when that tank is on empty—even a Rolls Royce sitting in your driveway won’t make it to Taco Bell. There will be no fuel to work through conflicts and differences. There is no inclination for compromise. So, the first order of business---pump goodwill into your relationship.
When you wake up in the morning, consider one act of loving kindness that you can perform for your partner, and then do it.
Bill called up his wife and told her how much he loved her, he brought home some chocolate that he knew his wife loved, he went on a short bike ride with her over the weekend, he arranged a date for them to go to dinner and a movie, he folded the laundry and put it away, and he sent her a card--through the mail! Most of these acts were small and inexpensive. But it’s the small things that matter. And slowly, many small things can become one big thing—love and connection.
Perform these deeds without expecting anything in return.
Performing and receiving an act of kindness is gratifying, in and of itself. Don’t look for something in return! That will tarnish its goodness and can feel manipulative to the other person.
Be persistent and patient.
When our hearts ache and we have come to expect indifference, it takes time to heal. We are fearful of experiencing disappointment once again. But if both partners perform these deeds, their goodwill will grow. And then, it is far easier to solve differences.