One of the most unpleasant experiences a couple’s therapist may encounter is when one partner—the initiator of a split—has already decided the fate of the relationship prior to couple’s treatment. Oftentimes the only reason initiators even come to therapy is because they are worried about the non-initiator’s reactions to the split. To avert a crisis, the initiator drops the non-initiator off at the therapist’s office—like baby Moses left in a basket in the Nile. The message is: “I am out of here; he/she is in your lap now Doc.” Make no mistake, most initiator’s do not wish that a tragedy should befall the person they are leaving, but they do want out with as little chaos as possible. Other initiators will claim that they “think” they want out, but are not quite sure. They say that they owe the relationship time, just to be certain. Many of those that are engaged in affairs cannot wait to be free to pursue their neurotic fantasies.
In my experience, most therapists are afraid to ask the initiator: “Are you still in the game?” Therapists hate to feel helpless. They do not want to consider that they may be on a sinking ship. And like the initiator, they do not relish the potential trauma that may follow. Nevertheless, if they fail to see each partner individually and pose this question to the initiator, as well as gauge the level of the non-initiator’s denial, they will only serve to enable a fruitless process. It is not so unusual for couples to remain in a state of suspended animation so-to-speak, for years. But what are the signs that point to the end? What should therapists and partners alike consider before overworking to salvage the unsalvageable? The following are a few indications:
1. A significant increase in emotional distance: Clients often look to computers and cell phones, a partner’s weight loss, or hotel receipts to determine if an affair is brewing. I urge them to consider emotional distance. Once a mate begins to act indifferent, it could mean that he/she does not care about the future of the relationship, whether an affair is operating or not.
2. A lack of, or a change in physical affection: Some partners are simply less physically affectionate than others. They may avoid caressing or touching, hand holding, snuggling or sitting close, or spontaneous kissing. The degree to which they can show physical affection oftentimes depends on the level of affection they were exposed to in their respective families of origin. But when there is a noticeable “shift” in physical affection, something is usually amiss.
3. No interest or passion in sex: When your partner stops demonstrating a desire to have sex with you, or seems to be going through the motions with little passion, you are probably in trouble. Ironically, if there was never any great desire to begin with you might be in a less precarious situation, that is, unless your partner was never attracted to you—then you may be in “big” trouble. But this case scenario may also indicate that it has very little to do with you. Your mate may have always had this problem—even with others—a situation that may be remedied with a good course of couples/sex therapy. My point is: If a desire that was once present has significantly waned or is missing completely, a shift has occurred, and danger might be lurking.
4. An increase in squabbles about minor issues (sweating the small stuff): Partners who are on their way out may feel guilty and assuage their guilt by manufacturing things to be irritated about; they may also make small issues large. The objective is to convince themselves that leaving is the best choice under such conditions.
5. You never seem to be good enough: If you feel that your partner keeps “upping the ante” or “moving the goal posts,” he/she may be sending you the message that you will never be good enough. This might also be code for their desire to be with someone else.
6. If your partner refuses to discuss the future: Some partners who are considering a move elsewhere avoid discussing the future because they do not see one with you. This may include talk of future travel, retirement, or even making an addition to the house.
7. If your partner refuses to work on the relationship: If your partner shows no interest in making the relationship better, this might mean that they do not care about its future. If for example, your partner insists on seeking individual rather than couple’s therapy for what seems to be a relationship issue, it might mean that the partner does not want you to know what he/she is struggling with. In this case, a serious affair may be a factor, and/or your partner is looking for a way out of the relationship.
8. If your partner asks for a separation: While your partner may only have a trial separation in mind. Beware that some partners who request a separation do so as the first step to a divorce. One way to determine the difference: If your partner maintains contact during the separation, stays exclusive, and demonstrates a sincere desire to work on the relationship.
These signs do not indicate that your partner “will” leave you. But I do think they merit attention. Albeit scary, the most efficient way to handle most of these situations is to gently confront your partner about his/her lack of desire for you, sexually and otherwise. Do not fall for any explanations that do not make sense to or fail to prove consistent. For example, if your partner tells you that “work has been tough:” Okay, but has it caused this level of distance in the past? Or, “I need my space:” Okay, but why and how much? It is best to let your partner know that you are not interested in being punishing. Rather, you only want the truth so that you can either try and improve your relationship or move on with your life.