Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When it Feels Like Nothing Happened

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Did you almost cry but pretend like you weren’t because crying over a volleyball feels REALLY stupid when you watched our boy Tom lose his only friend in the movie “Cast Away”? Whatever. That’s what I did. (Image/newsmov.biz)

I almost wrote something outrageous about how Galileo Galilei’s and Isaac Newton’s first law of motion was effing up relationships.

The first law of motion—also called the “law of inertia”—states that a body or object at rest remains at rest, and that a body or object in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force.

Or, in regular-speak: If shit doesn’t happen, nothing changes. At least that’s how I always thought about it. If I set a lamp on a bedroom nightstand and never touch it, the expectation is that the lamp will sit still—right there—forever.

Applying that to my marriage, I believed stillness—inactivity or uneventfulness such as going several days or weeks without an argument or negative incident—while not necessarily a positive, was at worst—a non-event. Harmless. Benign. Safe.

If my wife was watching something on HGTV in the living room, and I was watching basketball in the basement rec room, NOTHING was happening. Thus, in my brain, nothing bad happened.

I was going to quibble immaturely with Galileo and Newton. I was going to say that their laws of motion don’t apply to movement within our human relationships.

But then I realized I was the one getting it wrong (shock).

The laws of motion absolutely apply to our relationships. My mistake was thinking of the people in the relationship as being still.

If they were still—then nothing happening would be totally harmless.

But they’re not still. In our relationships, we are not at rest. We are CONSTANTLY adrift, and in my estimation, slowly drifting away from one another when we don’t have a strong tether. It’s only now occurring to me how apt the metaphor “tying the knot” is.

And since a body in motion continues to move at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force, two people doing nothing AREN’T sitting still. They’re drifting apart at a constant velocity until someone does something about it.

Moving Toward Each Other vs. Moving Away From Each Other

This was the running theme of both of my coaching calls yesterday.

While we’re busy at work, distracted by our personal stresses, tasks, hopes, and dreams. While we’re busy simply trying to stay alive, do a good job at work, keep our bills paid, etc., we are drifting away from our romantic partner.

A visual aid:

I <——> I

Connected.

A month later.

I <————————————> I

Drifted apart a little.

Three months later after a great vacation, a nice anniversary dinner and gift exchange, mind-bending orgasms, and a job promotion for one of them which alleviated financial stress.

I <–> I

Boom.

Four years later after a new baby, a blown anniversary by the husband because ANOTHER promotion made him super-busy and away from home a lot, five consecutive months without sex, and quiet avoidance of one another at home.

I <—————————————————————————————————————————> I

On the brink.

If they continue to avoid the growing distance between them, they will continue to drift away from one another. The further they distance themselves, the weaker their connection—their bond—becomes, which then makes it vulnerable to outside forces. (Traumatic illness, a death in the family, sexual affairs, etc.)

Every Day—Every Conversation, Every Moment—is an Opportunity to Move Closer to One Another or Further Apart

Doing nothing is a death sentence.

Because when we do nothing, we are NOT sitting still, biding our time waiting for something to happen. While we wait, we move apart. And I think couples—often men—are unaware of this drift that’s constantly occurring.

This is why focused, connected, mindful, present dinner conversations are so important.

This is why six-second hugs are significant.

This is why planning activities to do together—often and intentionally—is fundamental to the health of the relationship.

And most notably, THIS is why being competitive with one another—trying to WIN debate points in your next emotion-fueled fight with one another is, as Galileo famously said: “totally fucking stupid.”

His mother was very disappointed in his word choices.

The Objective is to Connect—Not to Teardown or Dominate Your Partner

We are always moving away from each other. Always. So we need to row our little boats against the current back toward each other. Tie knots. Tether ourselves to one another. Anchor ourselves to one another.

The goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can be to try to win debate points with them, while you essentially shove them further away from you. Or, maybe the goal of an emotional conversation with your partner can simply be to decrease the distance between you two.

Maybe the merits of right vs. wrong—the value of being “correct”—is a big, fat zero when it comes to your relationship.

Maybe the only thing you should be measuring is the gap between you, and constantly fighting to move toward the other.

Just maybe, that shift alone would change everything for you.

When you wake up in the morning, you can make the choice to connect. A kind word. A thoughtful action.

When you’re sitting at the office, or hiking in the park, or waiting for the doctor’s appointment, or standing in line at the grocery store, you can make the choice to connect. Maybe I can text her right now to let her know how important and beautiful she is. Maybe I can remind her today and every other day, how grateful I am for her to choose me and sacrifice for me.

When we’re tired after a long day at work, or irritated by our unsympathetic children, or in the middle of something at home—maybe we can strengthen our capacity for awareness, for patience, for mental discipline.

Maybe we can NOTICE the things in our lives that are All The Time. The stuff we look past. Forget to feel grateful for.

Forget to hug.

Forget to nurture.

Forget to love—not the feeling. We think and feel love, and forget that other people don’t always know that we think and feel it. We forget to love—the action. They NEVER misunderstand love the action.

We forget every day to prioritize that which matters most to us.

It’s so hard to be a person and juggle all of the things.

We grew up with no one but ourselves to care for and our parents and guardians did most of the heavy lifting. It takes work—guts and work—to show up every day for the unpleasantness of adulthood.

And it’s even harder to be that person when caught up in the vortex of life and dysfunctional relationships, and trying to put our families and jobs ahead of our personal wellness, and then wonder why we don’t have anything left to give our marriages when it feels like our spouse thinks we’re constantly letting them down anyway.

But it’s almost impossible when no one sees you. When everything you live for and invest in every day—your reason for living—goes unnoticed by the people who matter most. If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all of the invisible parts.

This is why relationships are a thing. This is why marriage brings beauty and value and enrichment to people’s lives when it’s done well.

Because all of this shit is hard, but we can do it when we have people in our corner, lifting us up, and helping us carry things when our piles get too high.

The inevitability of doing nothing—of inertia—is a broken relationship. The inevitability is broken people.

When we’re not moving toward one another, we’re moving away.

Love is a choice.

Please choose it.

25 thoughts on “Drifting Apart: How Bad Things Happen Even When it Feels Like Nothing Happened”

    1. Kind of you to ask. I don’t understand why people wouldn’t want you to. If you think I said something worth sharing, then I am so grateful, and really appreciate you wanting to tell someone else about it.

      Yes. Please. Thank you for reading and wanting to share it.

      1. I read lots of your stuff all the time, I have a very small private blog but I think it would be appreciated by my readers

        1. You’re kind. Thank you for the time you’ve invested reading stuff I’ve written. Amazing that that’s a thing that happens.

          Don’t be a stranger unless you want to be.

          1. I comment when I can. My current relationship status is single and happy about it so this is more of an aspirational reminder type reblog.

          2. So these aren’t your first comments. You’ve just gone rogue and covert for this one with a new screen name. Dig it.

          3. correct. I was creative ——// rational … I think I have commented before? I dunno, but I have read for awhile. Stopped commenting and changed handle when I realized ex was searching the internet for said comments. Just too weird

          4. Noted. Sorry that happened. Exes will do exy things, I guess. One hopes those days are behind you.

  1. “If my wife was watching something on HGTV in the living room, and I was watching basketball in the basement rec room, NOTHING was happening. Thus, in my brain, nothing bad happened.”

    Yeah, this. I sometimes see couples where I ask them how the week has been, and they tell me things are better, because there have been no arguments. Primarily because they haven’t talked very much. One of them, sometimes both of them, think this is progress. Every week where nothing bad happens, seems like progress to them. They may even think their problems are solved, that it’s time to quit therapy.

    What it means is they are ready to START therapy, because now they have managed to calm themselves to the point where they can avoid fights, by not getting carried away. Now we can actually start to do some work.

  2. losing my mind

    So apt for not just the marital relationship… also works for any relationship including adult children and parents. Thank you for continuing to write such great articles.

  3. Dear Matt,
    Outstanding post. You are able to explain something so complex in such a simple way that has so much impact. This is absolute truth. You look around and your partner is like hundreds of miles away from you. Your marriage is so lonely.

    I’m watching Chip & Jo on Fixer Upper & the way they interact is so beautiful and wonderful. You can tell they stay so close and put their relationship first. You can see how much they love each other. I watch their show to remind me what a ‘real’ marriage looks like. Thank you most sincerely for your writing. Thank you for caring about other people and their relationships. Your insights are brilliant if people are open to what you are saying.

    1. Thelionsleeps

      Agree with Chip and Jo modeling good marriage behaviors. Loving and respectful, supportive but not codependent, able to kid with each other and also walk through stress hand in hand.
      You never see any passive aggressive or covert behaivor. Just open love, vulnerability and trust with one another.

  4. Another amazing post that I want to share with my children when they are older.

    “Doing nothing is a death sentence.” – Six words that explain so succinctly why I divorced my ex.

    “If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all the invisible parts.” – I had a friend who was in a marriage similar to mine, and she said it was like another piece of her died a little bit every day. (She divorced her ex.) When she vocalized that, I realized that that described perfectly what I had experienced too.

    Thank you for continuing to blog.

  5. Matt, I enjoy your site and ideas alot. I will say this though, since it really is true: men and women are 50/50 to blame for marriages failing. Your insistence on blaming men mostly is very honorable, don’t get me wrong, but often false. Furthermore, I’d argue that women are high maintenance compared to guys these days, guys are more laid back. I feel bad for women in light of the #MeTwo movement given it encourages them to become man-haters to fit in with current trends etc. Women also need to do more reading before they get pregnant.
    Keep up the great work and cheers, Chet.
    P.S. I’m not a guy btw – I’m a woman who dresses as a man and own my own perfume line and therapy practice. Just call me your average American oddball.

  6. “But it’s almost impossible when no one sees you. When everything you live for and invest in every day—your reason for living—goes unnoticed by the people who matter most. If it doesn’t physically kill us, it kills all of the invisible parts.”

    I’ve been working so hard to not need anyone to validate what I know to be true. Those two sentences above are my truth and although I no longer need to make someone acknowledge this, it sure is nice to know there is someone, somewhere who gets it. Thank you

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