© Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Jan Hanson, L.Ac. 2001, 2002
Dear Dr. Hanson,
When John and I got married, we were so happy. Ten years later, we have kids, jobs, and tension. Our love is a faraway feeling. We argue and it doesn't settle much. Sometimes things feel good, but mainly we are polite and sort of distant. We just function and get through the week. There is a lot going on inside my head that I am not saying. Where did the love go? What can we do?
Keeping romantic love alive in the midst of raising kids and earning a living is one of the hardest things that anyone can do.
Studies show that the most influential event in the life of a couple is usually the arrival of children. Often, the mother withdraws energy and attention from the father for the children, and the father withdraws from the mother both in reaction to her withdrawal and to provide for the family. Kids can also be the innocent catalysts of conflicts over money, schedules, values, religion, etc.
These are real events with real consequences that require real action.
You have already taken the most important step: acknowledging the problem. It is all too easy to kid ourselves. The other day our two year-old didn't want her cornflakes, so she did the (to her) logical thing . . . and pushed them off the table! I could see her thinking: 'They are not in front of me any more, so what's the problem?' Adults can be like that too. Unfortunately, the cornflakes -- or the disappointments, the hurts, the resentments -- are not really gone. And after awhile they start to smell.
Sometimes it is possible to fix things with small changes: getting a babysitter and scheduling a 'date night' each week or so, etc. If that works, great. But it often takes larger steps.
More than house or IRAs, family is our greatest investment. The tentpole of family, upon which all else hangs, is the parental relationship. With all respect, my advice to couples is to do whatever you need to do to get that tentpole straight. Do it for yourselves and do it for your children. Spend the time, the money, the energy. Take breaks if you need to, but don't quit.
It needs to feel safe to talk with your mate about the relationship, safe to take risks and make changes. Obviously, there must be no actual or threatened violence; if family life is scary, get help immediately from an agency like Marin Abused Women Services. Lead with respect in your dealings with each other. Expressing anger is often necessary, but no mean-spirited attacks, overt or covert. Restoring trust is important, so make clear agreements with each other and keep them.
Buffers help; couples are often 'metal on metal.' Take a big breath before you speak. Practice civility. Spend time apart that is rejuvenating, and deepen friendships with others of the same gender. Write in a journal to clarify thoughts and feelings. Write letters to each other, some of which will never be sent.
If you are not resolving things on your own, involve a professional such as a minister or therapist. A third party can offer a neutral perspective and practical suggestions based on years of experience. Many therapists, including myself, will do an initial screening at no charge and help you to identify the true problems and find what you need. Money is not a legitimate reason not to get professional assistance; there are plenty of sliding scales in Marin, including A.P.P.L.E. (which has an excellent counseling program).
Tools to restore and deepen love are available from professionals, other couples, and solid books such as Getting the Love You Want. The right tools are going to depend on your exact needs. Much as one reads in books on exercise, I advise you to use these tools under a professional's guidance.
In general, I suggest first that you and your mate take some serious time to write out answers to questions like these: What did you see in the other that made you want to get married? What did you expect in family life? How have you felt disappointed, wronged, or even betrayed? What underlying wounds or issues in you have been reactivated? How have you let down your mate? What needs to change in your home life? How do you feel about the areas of money, schedules, sexuality, childrearing, or equitable sharing of childrearing? What do you need in order to trust him/her? What do you want from him/her? What do you like, respect, or value about the other? What are you prepared to give, to forgive, to change in yourself to improve the relationship?
Second, in a safe environment with plenty of time to talk, take what Steve wrote and read it to him (and vice versa). Let it sink in. Tell each other your understanding of how they feel, and why. Focus initially on their side of the story, not your own. If you feel your mate is still not getting something, tell him/her in as clear and non-hostile a way as possible. But don't get involved in defending yourself: concentrate on empathy and understanding.
Third, pick one or two simple things which you can agree on changing. Write down what the changes will be and actually do them for a couple of weeks. When you start restoring trust, it is important to keep your agreements. If either of you wavers, talk again about your commitment to the family and your relationship. Get some momentum going of positive change. And then pick something else to change and repeat the process.
Fourth, increase the positive. Praise your mate. Do fun things together again. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to tell each other what you appreciate. Touch each other more. Exhange backrubs daily. Give gifts, large and small. Now that you know more clearly what they want, make real efforts to give it to them. And in a loving way, tell them explicitly and concretely what you want.
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Love is like a fruit tree: if we water it, it will bear fruit for a lifetime, but with neglect it will wither and even die. Every year, millions of couples make positive changes and things get better. They did it. And so can you!