I was speaking to a wife some years back who was talking about a newly found feeling of caringshe was feeling for her husband. Their conflict had been increasing over the previous 2 years about sex. He wanted it and was the only one to initiate it. She loved him and enjoyed sex, but it just didn’t cross her mind a whole lot. He was increasingly confused about what he felt was her lack of interest, and he grew increasingly withdrawn, moody, and hurt. The more he behaved in this way, the more uninterested she became, the more he behaved this way.

After their last blow up, he calmed down and started talking to her about himself. Normally he complained to her about her apparent lack of interest. This time, he was complaining about his part in the problem—the ways he was stuck and couldn’t see a way out. She felt like she understood him better—understood that it wasn’t just about sex for him but also about affection. After this, the two were enjoying the kind of honeymoon that occurs after this kind of settling down to talk. But in listening to her I wondered, was she being caring or careful?

Caring is a fairly high ideal when it comes to married life. Sometimes…OK…a lot of times it can be hard to do—and very quickly turns into being careful. Especially when the kind of tug of war around sex comes up like the couple above. If it’s not a tug of war around sex, it’s around sharing loving feelings (you never tell me you love me) or giving gifts (you never think of ME in your choice of gifts) or spending quality time (we might actually get a divorce because I want to spend more time with you and you won’t freaking initiate it—ever!!!). When we realize we’ve hurt or could hurt our spouse’s feelings (or they could hurt ours), we tend to start being careful around them, rather than caring.

It’s a joint process that creates more and more distance in the relationship. The more you are careful, the more your spouse is careful, the more you are careful, etc. And the more careful we become, the more distance creeps into the relationship.

But before you go trying to get closer to your spouse to remedy the situation, consider this: The opposite of distance isn’t closeness. It’s calm.

 Closeness vs. Calm

When stress and anxiety are low, couples seem to be more capable of caring. When stress or anxiety are high or chronic, couples get into being careful with each other. And being careful, is about being distant.

During the high stress/low resilience cycles, couples start down a black hole of sorts, feeling like they must have married the wrong guy or gal, or like the situation is hopeless. It’s hard to step back to a more objective view where we can see that the feelings are related to an automatic process of sorts, and not to your spouse being a sorry-son-of-a fill in the blank.

When we think in terms of process, the scope of the problem broadens. It’s not about a lack of love or about something we should take personally. It’s about a process of anxiety and what happens between 2 or more people on an automatic, unconscious level.

If you are caught in a cycle of high conflict with your spouse, consider how much stress is skewing your view of him or her or the situation. Consider that the actual stress in your life—whatever the source—is making you see things in highly subjective and possibly inaccurate ways. After all, your spouse has a side too.