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Do Couples Grow Apart or “Fall Asleep”?

You’ve probably heard people explain their divorce by saying, “We grew apart.”

I wonder about that.

I’ll explain with a personal example that on first glance has nothing to do with marriage, but you’ll see …

When I got my first car, I was thrilled. It was cute and just right for me. I liked its sturdiness, its comfort and its soothing, taupe color. A match made in heaven! That expression fit because I was single and marriage was in my distant future.

Our relationship was good until it blew up after eight years. We’d had some ups and downs, but mostly ups. The car took me from San Francisco to ski at mountains in California and Utah. It survived a couple of minor accidents. I was thankful for having such a solid car.

Initially, I’d been careful to maintain it and changed the oil regularly. Eventually, as a young, first-time car owner, I forgot about that. I started taking my car for granted, thinking all would be fine without my needing to pay attention to its upkeep. Finally, the engine blew. The car wasn’t worth keeping.

The car taught me a lesson: Be proactive. Change the oil as instructed and follow the maintenance schedule. Like many lessons, this one was expensive. It cost me my car.

An All Too Familiar Story

Jennifer told me she wanted to see me for therapy to gain clarity about whether or not to divorce her husband. “We’ve grown apart,” she said. Both in their forties, they’d been together for twenty years and have three teenage children. “We haven’t had sex for over a year. He wants to stay married. He talks about how we’ll spend our retirement years. I don’t want to be with him. I no longer have feelings for him. I feel like I’m in prison.”

Jennifer said she and her husband had been in love when they married. Once the children came along, they focused all their energy on raising them. About five years ago, she realized that she wasn’t happy with her marriage.

“Did you two go on dates together for just the two of you?” I asked.

“I wanted to,” she said. “Every night he watches TV and I read. I’ve told him that I’d like us to have one night a week when the two of us do something together; go out to dinner, stay home and play a game, or just talk. He said okay, but then something would come up for him and we wouldn’t do it.”

“Then what did you do when he didn’t keep the agreement?” I asked.

“Nothing.”

“Did you consider rescheduling your date?” I asked, and she shook her head.

How Women Can Be Proactive

I explained that the woman often needs to be the one to keep the relationship on track. It’s not about whether or not this is fair; it’s more about the fact that the female brain is generally better than the male one concerning relationship matters.

A spouse who values her marriage and has a partner who doesn’t keep an agreement, might say to him (or her) something like, “We had an agreement. Keeping agreements builds trust. We want to trust each other. I need you to keep your agreements with me, if you want me to trust you.”

Many couples see me for therapy because they need to learn how to communicate constructively. The next step in the above conversation could be, “If one of us isn’t going to keep an agreement, for one reason or another, I’d like for us not to think that it’s okay to just let it slide. I’d like for each of us to tell each other in advance if something comes up that gets in the way of carrying out a plan we made earlier. Then we’ll be able to negotiate and make a new agreement that that fits for both of us.” When this happens, the couple might decide to have their date on Sunday evening instead of Thursday, the day they’d agreed on earlier.

Overcoming Obstacles

What prevents couples from doing this kind of marriage maintenance?

Typically, it’s about how they were raised. Jennifer grew up with a violent stepfather and an emotionally distant mother. As the oldest child, she protected her younger siblings from her step-father. “I was a good girl,” she said, so he wasn’t violent toward her.

Jennifer knew it wasn’t safe to make waves as a child. Similarly, as an adult she didn’t assert herself in a healthy way by following up with her husband about agreements he hadn’t been keeping. Instead, she let her hurt feelings accumulate. Consequently, she distanced herself from her husband emotionally, and therefore, sexually.

“I wish I’d seen you for therapy four and a half years ago,” Jennifer said, implying that if she’d gotten help sooner, she might not be considering ending her marriage now and worrying about how doing so would affect their children.

Being Proactive Keeps Relationship Thriving

It may seem strange to compare marriage maintenance to car care. We don’t communicate with our cars (at least most of us don’t!) the way we would ideally talk to our intimate partner. Yet in both situations, being proactive is crucial. I couldn’t save my treasured first car because I stopped paying attention, I fell asleep. Instead of remembering to change the oil regularly. I took it for granted.

Using positive communication skills in marriage keep spouses feeling connected. It’s easy to fall asleep in marriage, to forget to use these skills, let things slide downhill, and build grudges when misunderstandings aren’t cleared up promptly.

Couples who hold effective weekly marriage meetings, as explained step by step, in Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted, keep romance and intimacy flowing, create good teamwork, and resolve concerns promptly. If they get stuck on an issue, or need help to hold constructive marriage meetings, wise couples seek professional counseling soon rather than when it might be too late.  

If we can be as proactive in marriage as we’ve learned to be with our cars, while experiencing the inevitable ups and downs, we’re likely to succeed in creating our own version of happily ever after.

Do Couples Grow Apart or “Fall Asleep”?


Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW

Marcia Naomi Berger, MSW, LCSW, author of Marriage Meetings for Lasting Love: 30 Minutes a Week to the Relationship You’ve Always Wanted (New World Library, 2014), has a private psychotherapy practice in San Rafael, California. She offers and workshops for couples and singles, and continuing education classes for therapists at NASW conferences and online. She has taught also at the UCSF School of Medicine, UC Berkeley Extension, and Alliant International University. A former executive director of a family service agency, she earlier held senior level positions in child welfare, alcoholism treatment, and psychiatry.


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APA Reference
Berger, M. (2018). Do Couples Grow Apart or “Fall Asleep”?. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/do-couples-grow-apart-or-fall-asleep/
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 18 Nov 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 18 Nov 2018
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