When my friend Annie was in couple’s counseling with her husband during the last year of her marriage, the counselor would frequently encourage Annie and her husband Brad to do things that were loving or caring or affectionate, even if they felt awkward at the time due to the stresses and strains their relationship was experiencing. The idea being that, with enough practice, feeling warmly toward one another would start to become natural again and some equanimity would be restored to their stumbling, increasingly tense marriage. For example, the counselor suggested that Annie come up behind Brad sometime when he was cooking dinner and whisper something in his ear that she’d like to do to him later that evening after the kids were in bed…. Surely by being fun and playful and intimate with each other, some of the tension would dissipate and love would be encouraged to prosper…?
I had similar thoughts during my own marriage’s death throes. The idea that somehow the warmth of love can be rekindled if you just give it a start — however forced that start may feel — is a very seductive and powerful idea. In my case, it took the form of being more loving and attentive than I actually felt, in the hopes that by doing so, I would somehow actually begin to feel those feelings again, and feel them being reciprocated by my husband.
Well… Annie and I are both divorced, so it’s not difficult to draw your own conclusions about how well that approach worked for either of us….
But since my separation, I’ve realized that it wasn’t the concept of going through the motions that was wrong; it was the application of it to our situations. Here’s what I mean:
By the time that Annie and I were individually trying to apply this idea to our marriages, it was too late. The loving, admiring, tender feelings for our husbands were not dormant, they were not being held back or suppressed, they were gone. Plain and simple. Under those circumstances, trying to recreate that connection is like fanning a fire that has been out for days. Futile. Being playful when one feels dead inside from years of built up resentment isn’t authentic or real or effective. Pretending that you’re still attracted to someone you can barely carry on a civil conversation with is likewise disingenuous. So, the idea of “going through the motions” can, in those circumstances, feel more than uncomfortable. It can feel downright false.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Just that it doesn’t work when things between you are already over.
I think that the important pivot for the success of the “going through the motions” theory is the basis for the discomfort between you. In some of my relationships since my separation, there have been times when hurt or frustration would cause me to pull away from my partner. He would likewise retreat and a chasm would open between us. But I wasn’t withholding from him because I wasn’t feeling anything for him, but rather because I was feeling so very much. Showing him affection or tenderness didn’t feel uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be affectionate or tender toward him, but because I was scared of the vulnerability inherent in offering that connection. Indeed, I have found myself, even in the midst of my anger with my partner, wishing that he’d put his arms around me or call me so that I could hear his voice. I still wanted him, in a very real, very honest way. So putting myself out there, while uncomfortable, was also very natural and authentic. It wasn’t fake. It was just damn hard.
You see, there is a difference, I believe, in those small gestures feeling uncomfortable and them feeling unnatural. And I have begun to wonder if that small difference represents the big difference between a relationship that is injured and one that is dead. At the end of my marriage, my ex-husband’s therapist convinced us to try dating again, but I realized as our first “date” approached that I was dreading it with a sense of mounting panic. It wasn’t that deep down I still loved him and wanted to connect with him anymore — I genuinely didn’t even trust him or like him at that point. Going out on a date was not going to change that. Likewise, Annie’s counselor’s suggestion that she be sexually playful with her husband would certainly be helpful if both people still wanted that connection, but in Annie’s case, she would have been faking those feelings. They were not natural to her anymore; they were false. And I just can’t believe that something false and unnatural could possibly be a good basis for intimacy.
So maybe going through the motions doesn’t work when making those motions is false or unnatural. But even when the desire to recreate that connection is there, it can still be very hard to reach out past the hurt and the pain. Maybe the key to successfully going through the motions is being what I have started thinking of as “aggressively vulnerable”: throwing yourself out there even when — or perhaps most importantly when — you are most afraid to do so, but deep down you really wish you could.
We’ve all been in that place — where emotions are raw and stinging and we’ve talked about the issue until our tongues are tired and our heads ache. Neither one is pulling the trigger to end the relationship, but both are feeling weary and uncomfortable and unsure of what can be salvaged or how to do it. Here is when I think it takes one or both partners to be aggressively vulnerable to close the gap and begin knitting the shredded relationship back together. It is so easy to withdraw when we are hurt, to want the other person to move toward us and close the gap so that we needn’t risk our hearts in their direction. But what if they are hurting or mistrusting, too? Then the gulf widens and solidifies and you eventually find yourselves on either side of it, wondering how you got there.
So, instead of backing up further, pushing yourself to call him and tell him you were thinking about him, or putting your arms around her so that she can relax into you, can work wonders. I think of being aggressively vulnerable as carrying on in the relationship as though everything is okay and the hesitance or mistrust or discomfort is not there, in the hopes that the sense of normalcy will invite you both to relax and sink into the relationship again in a very authentic way. I’m not talking about ignoring the problem. I’m talking about taking a break from the problem to come together again so you can address it productively.
One of the difficult things for most of us, I suspect, is figuring out if we’re truly “done” or if we’re just hurting and pulling away. I know that I was still telling myself that I wanted to save my marriage long after all evidence suggested that I had emotionally unplugged and begun to move on. It took my skilled therapist to help me understand that what I was clinging to was the marriage, not the man. I didn’t want to hurt him or my children or lose the life we’d built, but my relationship with my husband was dead and cold. And for me, just the marriage shell would never be enough. I was done. No amount of date nights or going through the motions or was going to change that.
On the other hand, I have seen how going through the motions can work when the underlying feelings are still vital and alive. Forcing myself to be aggressively vulnerable, rather than retreat and hide has carried me over some interesting hurdles since my separation and made me a believer in the concept. I think that sometimes we have to simply push past our fears and insecurities and reach out to that other person, even if they aren’t reaching for us right away. When they don’t reach back, it most definitely hurts. But when they do, it feels wonderful and hopeful and reassuring. And that’s a damn good start.