‘Good night,’ I said, trying to smile and drum up some enthusiasm. I’m not really sure what my wife said in return, but it was probably something similar. In reality, I had already moved on.
On the inside, I was hurting. Frustrated that my wife seemed disengaged. But I didn’t want to admit it. And neither one of us was brave enough to move beyond the status quo.
We were moving toward apathy, an ongoing state of dismissal and distance from each other, accompanied by a lack of emotion that was getting (honestly) kind of scary.
And I didn’t know what to do about it.
Apathy Ought To Scare You
If apathy doesn’t scare you, it should. It’s how those seventy-year-old couples you see at McDonald’s wound up staring at their fries and barely acknowledging each other.
Marriage expert Dr. John Gottman puts apathy (‘stonewalling’) at the end of a journey that predicts divorce with a ridiculous degree of accuracy.
- Criticism: Stating your complaints as a defect in your spouse’s character. For example: ‘You never clean up after yourself. You’re so lazy.’
- Contempt: Claiming that you’re superior. For example: ‘You’re a jerk.’
- Defensiveness: Instead of listening to your spouse’s critique, defensiveness redirects criticism by proclaiming your innocence and their guilt. For example: ‘If you didn’t work so late all the time, maybe we’d have sex more often.’
- Stonewalling (apathy): Withdrawing emotionally from interaction with your spouse. Instead of getting angry or defensive, you just don’t care. For example: Even though your spouse is trying to communicate with you, you don’t give them the normal feedback that conveys interest, concern, and respect.*
When our relationship is stuck in this last stage, it’s either on – or heading toward – life support.
Other Warning Signs
What are some other warning signs that apathy is present in your relationship?
- Lack of physical intimacy: When we’re not physically affectionate or having sex with our spouse, it’s a clear sign that something deeper is going on.
- Date nights disappear: Sure, it’s hard (and expensive) to find a sitter, but if you’re not making an effort to date your spouse like you used to, it’s another clue that something isn’t quite right.
- Doing your own thing: We all need our own space, interests, and friends, but if our discretionary time rarely involves our spouse, it’s an obvious sign we’re struggling with apathy.
- You’re so busy with your kids that you don’t have time for your spouse: It’s fine for your kids to be involved in extracurricular activities, but do they really need to play violin, star on the traveling soccer team, and be the first child to land on Pluto? Maybe our kids’ frenetic schedules also allow us to avoid connecting deeply with our spouses.
There’s Hope! Rescuing Your Marriage From Apathy
If you’ve read this far, I’m guessing you’re either looking for solutions or you’re doing okay but have seen enough signs of apathy to know you need to be on guard.
Here are seven ways we can fight apathy today:
- Admit you’re vulnerable: Even if you have a great spouse (like I do), you’re not above this.
- Get a jump on it: Apathy is a journey, not an event. It’s far better to address it as soon as you see the warning signs instead of letting it go.
- Let it hurt: If you’re in a tough season of your marriage, don’t shut your heart down and tell yourself you don’t care. And if you’re someone of faith, have an honest conversation with God about it (see 1 Peter 5:7).
- Go first: Someone has to take a risk and go first. Your spouse might not reciprocate, but this is your best shot. ‘Hey, I know we’ve been distant, but I love you and want things to improve.’
- Work at it: Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. We need to get creative and put regular effort into our marriages.
- Involve others: If you can’t work things out with your spouse, involving your friends, church (or faith community), and seeking counseling may help.
- Pray: This may not resonate with all of you, but my wife and I encourage couples we work with to ask God for help. Even if your spouse won’t pray with you, you can always pray for your spouse (see James 5:16).
My wife and I still need to guard against apathy, but we have a healthy, growing marriage. By recognizing and fighting against apathy in its various forms we can watch our marriages move in a healthier, more satisfying direction no matter where they are today.
Question: What signs of apathy have you seen in your own, or others’, marriages? What are other ways we can fight against it? You can leave a comment by clicking here.
*Source: Dr. John M. Gottman and Nan Silver, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, (New York: Harmony, 2015).