Jessica* and Thomas* have been married for 12 years and have two young children. Early in their marriage, the couple enjoyed a close bond, with plenty of satisfying sex, intimate conversations and fun moments. A few years ago, however, Jessica started noticing changes in her relationship and the way she and Thomas related to each other. It worried her.
“My husband felt more like a brother to me,” says Jessica, who turns 38 this year. “The spark between us was no longer there and I felt quite detached from him. We were still having sex but it became less frequent and wasn’t as emotionally fulfilling as it used to be. I also stopped confiding in him because I didn’t feel close to him anymore.”
Thomas, too, noticed changes in his marriage. “Our talks often centred around our kids – we were just parents trying to look after our family, no longer lovers or romantic partners or husband and wife,” he explains. “Sex with Jessica was like going through the motions and it felt like our close bond had been lost somewhere along the way. This terrified me because I thought we were losing ‘us’ and the special connection we shared.”
Signs your marriage is more like a brother-sister relationship
It’s not uncommon for a marriage to devolve into something that feels more like a sibling relationship. Sometimes, the attraction fades when there is a breakdown in communication, or when both partners take each other for granted, stop showing appreciation for each other or don’t show consideration for each other’s feelings.
“When this happens, there’s a risk of the marriage losing its spark,” says Jean Chen, a psychotherapist and director at Relationship Matters. “Meaningful conversations and sex can make a relationship feel alive. The spark fizzes out when there’s not much satisfaction in trying to please the other partner, no desire to be emotionally close, or when one or both partners is focused solely on trying to achieve their other objectives, like being a good parent or dutiful family member.
“When one partner stops talking about how they feel, feels stressed or detached when having sex, stops feeling admiration towards their spouse, or no longer feels like having sex at all with their spouse, the marriage may start to feel like a brother-sister relationship.”
Bringing the spark back is not just about having sex regularly again. Jean says it needs meaningful and honest communication.
“To bring loving messages across is to talk about how we feel inside, beneath the anger and pain, with phrases such as ‘I feel misunderstood’ or ‘I feel hurt’. It’s crucial to allow yourself to connect with your underlying vulnerable feelings and let your spouse see your hurt.”
When sharing your feelings, you could say something like, “I hear you. You think this cartoon is bad for our son because it’s violent. But when you yell at me about it, I feel hurt. iIt makes me feel like I am a bad parent.”
Such a statement, says Jean, is far more helpful than angry outbursts like, “You don’t know what it’s like to be a mother!” or explanations like, “You don’t understand, I chose this cartoon for our son because…” This only focuses on one spouse’s logical reasoning and dismisses the other person’s preferences or logic. When one or both partners feels wronged or like they are under attack, they may withdraw emotionally, leading to a breakdown in communication.
When your spouse hears your pain instead of your anger, he is more likely to reciprocate lovingly by comforting you, says Jean. This helps close the emotional gap between the two of you. When there’s emotional closeness and intimacy, you will both also have a greater desire to connect sexually.
Tips to prevent your marriage from feeling like a sibling relationship
Make good and meaningful communication a priority in your marriage.
Here’s how: Express appreciation for each other. It makes you both feel good and increases your love and admiration for each other.
Express your needs and underlying emotions without the anger. Being vulnerable is important if you want to foster emotional intimacy.
Accept your spouse’s help and love. Don’t turn him away when he tries to be close to you or offers to be your listening ear. Let him know how happy his support makes you feel.
*Names have been changed