Lovers, or just friends?
For most of us the idea of our long term partner being our best friend is pretty close to the ideal scenario - after all, who wouldn’t want to navigate life with the person they like most in the world by their side. However, in long term relationships it is easy for the relationship to transition from being lovers who are friends, into being ‘just friends’. While friendships and romantic relationships have a lot of similarities, both requiring a sense of closeness, similarity and fun, the added element of passion and intimacy help tip a good friendship over into a romantic relationship. So how can you tell when the balance tips from lovers into ‘just friends’?
Let's get physical
An obvious difference between most romantic relationships and friendships is the addition of a sexual relationship. While sex doesn’t mean that your relationship immediately changes from a friendship - it is usually a major indication that one or both of you wants to be more than just friends. For many, a lack of physical intimacy in a romantic relationship can often be a first sign that all may not be well but equally, reduced intimacy doesn’t immediately mean that your relationship is doomed. This is where communication skills come in - talking to your partner in a non judgemental way can help you to understand each other and serves to improve your relationship. If your partner is feeling overwhelmed or stressed with work (for example) then their desire for intimacy will likely reduce. Being able to talk about this means that you are both on the same page, and you can work as a partnership to fix the issues.
You may have already noticed that your relationship feels more like you’re friends than lovers, or even more like siblings. A change in how you interact with each other can show this, maybe affectionate nicknames for each other have devolved into something more platonic or the goodnight kiss you used to share has slowly stopped. You may have even stopped feeling attracted to each other, and being romantic with each other feels silly. Long term relationships need a solid bedrock of affection and friendship, but without the ‘extras’ that come with a romantic relationship it can easily start to feel like that is all there is.
When things feel like they’re changing within your relationship it is easy to have conflicted feelings and to be confused about how you feel towards each other. There are many types of love, as we know. We do not feel the same type of love towards our lover as we do towards our parents, children or platonic friends. Identifying that the love you feel for your partner has changed into a less passionate love can be sad, but can also be an understandable circumstance. It may also be that you feel like you’re the only one putting any effort into your relationship - almost all of us want to feel cherished in some way, and when your partner is happy to sit back and let you do all the running it can make you feel taken for granted and thus breed resentment. Pulling away from each other can be a natural response to confused feelings, so if you notice that you and your partner are both acting in a similar way then it could be that you’re both feeling confused in your relationship.
A feeling of partnership is hugely important in a romantic relationship - people regularly say ‘we’re a team’ of their spouse, and feeling like you’re both on the same side is a big indicator of this. The feeling of being on the same side can indicate that you feel a commitment to each other - in the same way that teammates feel a commitment to fellow teammates. For most people, a long term partner is very much their support system, and if this is lacking it can show that there are deeper cracks in the relationship that should be addressed.
Communication is key
In longer term relationships it is easy for the familiarity and routine of life to take over. Life is busy, and more than likely you’ve built a life together - jobs, kids, family commitments - which can be exhausting in the day to day. Before you know it, it’s been a week, a month or even longer before you had a date night or just sat down and communicated on a deeper level than ‘the dog has a vet appointment tomorrow’ or ‘we’re out of milk’. Communication is an essential part of any relationship, but it is particularly important in a romantic relationship. Being able to communicate effectively with your partner means that differences and problems can be ironed out far faster than if you avoid talking to each other, and communication between romantic partners should have a deeper level than friends talking.
It can be hard when you feel like a long term relationship is changing, and not necessarily in the way that you would like. Talking to your partner can help - as has been mentioned in this blog, communication is a vital part of all relationships and feeling safe to tell your partner how the situation makes you feel can be a huge aspect of overcoming hurdles. Without the ability to communicate, any other attempt at overcoming difficulties in the relationship can be a lot more difficult. Try to think about what you feel is missing from the relationship. It may be that there is a lack of physical intimacy, or that you don’t feel like you make each other a priority any more. If you know what you want, and what you’re missing, then it becomes a lot easier to communicate these things rather than trying to express something that you can’t quite put your finger on.
Try to carve out some time together, that is just for you as a couple. Plan date nights, and make sure that you both minimise any potential interruptions so you can focus on each other. Treat it like a first or second date - work on really getting to know each other again, ask questions and show an interest in the other person just as you would have done in the early days of the relationship.
If you find that you’re struggling to work on what you feel is missing from your relationship as a couple, then consider counselling. Counselling can offer you a dedicated space to focus solely on your relationship, under the guidance of a trained professional who can help you navigate the difficulties. If you decide that saving your relationship isn’t what you want, then a counsellor like myself can also help you to manage a break up and understand your emotional response to that.