How do you sustain attraction in your relationship over the long term? What can you do if you no longer feel “the spark” with your partner? And, what can you do if your partner no longer feels attracted to you? In today’s episode, we’re going to cover the mysterious force that brings us together when it’s there (and sometimes tears us apart when it’s not there): Attraction. And to celebrate the 100th episode of the Relationship Alive podcast, we are joined by two very special guests: John Gottman AND Sue Johnson. John Gottman and Sue Johnson have both been with us here on the podcast before, and our conversation today will reveal to you some surprising, well-researched truths about what fuels the spark in your relationship.
The good news: While most relationships go through difficult times in which one or both partners can feel disconnected, the good news is that desire and connection can be rebuilt. This is almost always the case, even after a major betrayal. That said, while most couples can go from disinterest and disengagement to passion, it is difficult find desire from a place of disgust. When a person is repulsed by another’s appearance, taste or smell, there is no a lot you can do. If, however, it is just that the attraction has waned then there is much to rediscover and rekindle!
Not quite feeling it? Are you experiencing a lack of desire in your relationship? Does it seem like the spark is dim? Research shows that when desire is missing it is due to the fact that one is not being responsive to their partner. It is not, as many assume, caused by a deficiency in your partner but rather in yourself. In some ways it is like the old mother’s quip about “if you are bored it is because you are boring”. So much of what we experience in relationships is a reality of our own making. While this realization can feel daunting and humbling, it is also the key to feeling empowered and remembering we are agents of change.
Unpack low desire and understand where the shutdown is coming from: A decrease in attraction to your partner should be viewed as a symptom, rather than a cause. You have to unpack the symptom of not being a attracted and look at the anatomy of it. What is at the core root of this? What might be causing this reaction? Often it has to do with responsiveness and the following trio of relationship dimensions:
The Trio: Responsiveness is the key to rekindling passion and connection in a relationship. Responsiveness can be broken down into the following trio of key relationship dimensions:
- Building Trust: Trust is built through attunement and transparency. There should be no hidden agendas or secrets. You must take care to see each other and to truly listen. Tune in and receive each other and each other’s words with openness. Listen reflectively, with compassion versus defensiveness.
- Building Commitment: The key to building commitment is to make positive comparisons to real or imagined alternatives. You can build commitment by cherishing your partner and what you have and by nurturing gratitude for what you have together. When, instead you do the opposite and make negative comparisons to real or imagined alternatives you begin on a pathway of nurturing resentment for what is missing in the relationship and you begin on the pathway towards betrayal. Come back often to gratitude and appreciation for what is.
- Building Physiological Calm: Building physiological calm is a complex thing, however it is the crucial third leg of the stool that makes relationships solid, satisfying, and sustainable. Find mutual ways of relating to each other that are soothing and non-arousing. Through collaboration and togetherness you can create an experience of co-regulation in which you can feel calm, playful, and open.
Respond to your partner: This trio of attunement, commitment, and calm must be constantly tended to. Be sure you are noticing and responding to your partner’s needs and emotions. This tuning in will in fact increase your attraction and your sense of closeness. By actively cherishing your partner you actively build passion! So don’t wait for moments to emerge to notice each other- build these moments into your everyday.
Post-betrayal growth: Growth and reconnection are possible even after the most difficult of experiences. In the case, however, of trauma – which many affairs can create – trust will not be rekindled unless the symptoms and effects of PTSD are addressed. PTSD- which involves a constellation of symptoms and emotions, is a natural reaction that occurs when someone is faced with an experience that overwhelms their ability to manage in a regulated way. To address PTSD for partners who have been betrayed due to an affair there must be a supportive process that involves the following 3 phases:
- Atonement- The person who had the affair needs to listen openly and compassionately to their hurt partner and begin to create an emotional bridge
- Attunement- Strengthen the bridge and build trust by listening to each other and navigating conflict with non-judgement and non-reactivity. Really hear each other and work through accumulated regrettable instances that have not yet been processed in the relationship
- Attachment- Invest in the relationship- commit to each other daily and rebuild through responsiveness.
Grass is greener/Down the Cascade- It is helpful to know that when you notice yourself making comparisons you are already a ways down the cascade towards disconnection, and even betrayal. This is true because you have likely been investing less in the relationship as you are protecting yourself by imagining the ‘other’. When we do so we are not open or willing to be vulnerable, and this leads to feeling unfulfilled and imagining the grass as greener elsewhere. You can do something about this! Tune back in. Truly listen. And turn towards your partner’s bids for connection. As you invest more attention and intention in the relationship you will begin to see your partner through fresher and more appreciative eyes, therefore making the grass over there less green and inviting.
Keep stoking the fire- That incredible sense of being in love does not have an expiration date or a shelf life! You can keep this spark going indefinitely. Research shows that couples who have vibrant and fulfilling sex lives continuously incorporate the following 13 behaviors/actions:
The Baker’s Dozen:
- Say I love you every day and mean it
- Kiss one another passionately for no reason at all (6 seconds at least)
- Give each other surprise romantic gifts and give compliments on regular basis
- They know what turns their partner on and off erotically and have a love map
- Physically affectionate even in public
- Keep playing and having fun together
- Cuddle often (gateway to great sex!)
- Make sex a priority
- Stay good friends
- Talk comfortably about their sex life
- Have weekly romantic dates
- Take romantic vacations
- They turn towards their partner’s bids for connection
Not rocket science! Put this list on your fridge! Celebrate it and become an expert at it! Make it your own! Stay mindful that courtship does not end after you say “I do.” Vibrant and fulfilling shared lives requires that trust building and commitment building gestures occur daily. Choose your partner each day, and remind them time and time again that they are the one you choose, they are the love of your life.
And then…SUE JOHNSON!
Lost attraction? Attraction can be lost for many different reasons. One of the main reasons is that people have gotten caught in a negative emotional ‘dance’ and they are left feeling exhausted, abandoned and rejected. This can be so painful that people start to feel helpless and begin to grieve and give up. When people say they have fallen out of love or that they aren’t attracted to their partner, what they are really often trying to say, but do not know how, is more like “Our dynamics have left me feeling overwhelmed, and lonely and so I have detached more and more and am now not feeling the attraction”. If you are feeling less attracted to your partner, ask yourself if perhaps you are caught in a dance of disconnection.
Pull towards: Attraction is about much more than sexuality! Attraction is about being pulled towards someone. We are drawn in by their presence, their openness, and their responsiveness. Because attraction develops from how we engage with each other, it makes sense that when we begin to pull away from our partner whether due to frustration or protection, we don’t feel as drawn towards them sexually.
Disconnection happens in all relationships. Feeling disconnected and then losing a sense of attraction happens often- the key is not to avoid this, but rather to know how to turn it back on. It’s not that happy couples don’t fight or get disconnected, of course not, it is that they know how to turn towards each other and feel safe enough together to risk reaching and re-engaging with each other.
Pull your partner in. What do you do to help pull your partner towards you? How do you help make them feel safe and connected? Openness and receptiveness are part of the basis of building secure bonds and can help put your partner at ease. Risk being vulnerable by sharing how you feel with transparency and responsibility. For example, instead of saying “why don’t you talk to me more?” (which turns off their attraction neurons because it is threatening) try “you know, I was realizing today that I have this longing for us to talk the way we used to. I have this longing just to feel you close to me and to know that I have your attention. It is scary for me when I feel this distance between us.”
Allowing yourself to admit your feelings vulnerably (using I statements) will draw your partner in as they will be curious and compassionate, rather than defended. You can even allow yourself to share with them that you are feeling confused and don’t know what to do about the fact that you feel less attracted to them. Sharing in this way can allow the two of you to heal each other and learn from each other so you can reconnect and this alone usually solves the problems.
NOTE: If this open dialogue is a new way of communicating then be patient and don’t expect your partner to respond in new ways immediately. Even if they don’t get it the first time, with repetition their nervous systems will pick up on the fact that you are coming from a loving place, rather than a blaming one.
Love CAN be a safe adventure- Think of the way babies pull us towards them- their wide eyes, outstretched hands, cooing… and then think about how you can’t NOT respond and engage. This emotional dance of responsiveness and synchronicity is intoxicating, and leads to the most rewarding moments in human life. Finding these moments with your partner will re-engage them out of shutdown.
We are wired to feel thrill when we are reached for. Reaching can look like many different things- everything from asking your partner to engage in a project/adventure/task/moment, sharing bravely and openly in a way they feel trusted, or even asking your partner to help with something and letting them feel needed. Relationships that cultivate connection thrive because they have the safety needed for play and new possibilities of intimacy.
Present not perfect: Thankfully you don’t have to be perfect in love! In fact, you can mess up often as long as you are dedicated to creating repairs after ruptures. In order to work through the fears we are so often present with in our relationships when it comes to conflict and disconnection, fears of not being good enough or not knowing how, try taking on the mantra “I don’t have to be perfect, I just have to be present”
Give attention to grow attraction: Attraction fades when there is not enough attention and attuning being given in the relationship. Do not let your relationship run on empty- find ways, daily, to fill up your tank by giving each other time and attention. Do things together! Be together! Love each other up!
Learn more about Gottman’s work and find extensive resources on his website
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