Martin and Tony had long been in what looked like an intimate relationship. Over time, however, a distance had developed between them that they were unable to explain to themselves or each other. They had talked about their seeming to have grown apart in couples’ therapy, trying unsuccessfully to overcome it, but they’d never figured out why it was happening. 

“The disappearance of closeness may seem to have happened when you weren’t looking. But it just might have been engineered accidentally on purpose.”Daniel

They knew something had subtly shifted since they’d first known one another and enjoyed a deep romantic and sexual connection. Initially, they explained it to themselves as the natural consequence of increasing professional responsibility, busy social lives, and of adopting two children. “Of course we’re exhausted at the end of the day,” they told themselves.

On one of the rare nights that they went to bed at the same time, Martin turned to Tony and said, “What has happened to us? Where has the we gone?”

As Martin and Tony became less and less a part of one another’s everyday lives, they didn’t share with one another the pain each was feeling — pain growing from fear that the other was rejecting him. This gave way to smoldering anger, resentment and, finally, contempt that neither could explain to himself. For both men, this tapped wells of unresolved pain from past relationships, which they misdirected onto their marriage, creating even greater unconscious distancing.

With no other target available, they blamed each other for the disappearance of intimacy and support they’d shared early in their life together. Something very like hatred filled in the gap and threatened the survival of their family.

What did this look like day to day? Bickering, petty disagreements, chilly family outings and cold shoulders; misunderstandings and difficulties when making plans together; explosions of accusation; and, not least, unease and even acting out in their children. 

“The UK non-profit Early Intervention Foundation’s 2016 research report underscores that positive parental relationships support healthy development, and negative parental relationships cause preventable harm to children.”Grant

Still unable to confide in one another their fear of losing each other, Tony and Martin began to wonder if separation was the answer, despite how distressing the idea was to both of them. Instead, they tossed around possible alternatives to their current life that didn’t really interest either of them — ideas such as finding “better” relationships in which they weren’t “fighting all the time;” living unpartnered lives, finding fulfillment in work and other types of relationships; or even retiring to a monastery to cultivate self-knowledge and serenity.

Their irrelationship-based “busy lives” allowed Tony and Martin to sidestep the scary aspects of deepening connection that comes with long-term commitment to another person — connection that brings about intimacy, compassionate empathy, vulnerability, and emotional investment.

Clues that a couple (or individual) may be opting for irrelationship instead of deepening commitment may include:

  • Repeating behaviors or finding excuses that prevent sharing of experiences
  • Repeating relationship “mistakes” or always ending up with “the wrong person”
  • Feeling a vague distance or disconnection from the people we’re supposedly closest to

Though they’d tried self-help books, individual and couples’ therapy and even relationship “gurus,” Tony and Martin kept hitting a dead-end. Then, by chance, they discovered a technique for candid, heart-opening sharing with one another that dissolved the barriers they’d unknowingly created in their relationship. This technique not only helped them discover where their marriage had gone off track, but also how to find their way back.

Called the “40-20-40,” the technique uses two skills that sound simple, but aren’t easy to stick to without practice: listening to hear; and speaking with compassionate empathy. Basically, the technique involves taking turns listening and speaking in ways that help us to drop the all-too-convenient devices of blame, self-recrimination and unconstructive use of conflict. With practice, through the 40-20-40, we become able to see what’s really happening and not happening in our relationships and to figure out why. 

“Even with those with whom we are ostensibly close, it is sometimes hard to register how and when we start missing each other. Innocent as it might seem, however, “missing each other” is often an endeavor driven by the anxieties of both--or all--parties about maintaining intimacy in our everyday lives.”Mark

Also called “Self-Other Assessment,” the 40-20-40 is a deceptively simple recipe for learning mutually respectful, hospitable communication. It’s described in more detail here.

Fortunately, Tony and Martin were able to recover their deep sense of connection, and now enjoy greater closeness than ever, as well as rekindled sexual intimacy. Equally importantly, the 40-20-40 has become the foundation of shared, ever-increasing appreciation of the challenging and rewarding work of making and being a family.


Harold, G., Acquah, D., Sellers, R. & Chowdry, H. (2016). What works to enhance inter-parental relationships and improve outcomes for children. A report of research carried out by the Early Intervention Foundation.

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