There are thousands of couples whose marriage has turned into a business.
Don’t get me wrong. All couples are running a business. There’s the business of household chores, of coordinating kids’ schedules or work trips out of town, of paying bills, or of taking care of aging parents. Times and places have to be negotiated. Jobs assigned.
Divide and conquer can be a typical motto.
Sadly, some of these marriages have lost their sense of intimacy, or partnership as people.
What do these relationships sound like in therapy?
Me: “When’s the last time you’ve gone for a weekend, or even a night, together?”
“Last year we went with friends to Kansas City.”
Me: “No, together. By yourselves.”
“Well, that’s not been in the budget.”
They don’t talk much. They don’t laugh anymore at each other’s jokes. They don’t share their disappointments or their frustrations. They certainly don’t enjoy regular sex. Their lives intersect only around the kids, the holiday office party, or when planning a family vacation.
Marriage has become a list of tasks to be accomplished.
Trying to stay positive, I ask, “So what are your goals as a couple?” And what I see are blank looks. Some discomfort. A shrug of the shoulders.
“Well, we both love the kids. You wouldn’t believe how hectic it is.”
Or, “Well, I’m mostly busy with the kids, and his (or her) job takes up a lot of time.”
The problem with living parallel lives…
Other than being parents, you’re living parallel lives – individual lives that influence the other, like two opposing magnetic fields running alongside each other. One moves, and in response, so does the other. But you’re largely unaware of that connection.
Your mind remains much more focused on your own needs, or the needs of the kids, rather than the needs or desires of the other.
It’s not only a big mistake, it can lead to the death of your relationship.
I’d rather have two people come in, screaming at each other, than two people who look at me, and say, “I don’t really know what he/she thinks anymore. I still have feelings but they’re not at all what they used to be. We’re here to see if there’s anything we can do. It would hurt the kids if we divorced.”
The expectation can feel like I’m supposed to help them kick some life into a dead horse.
Years ago, I worked with a couple whose first marriages had ended with their spouses dying. After several years of being alone, busy with children and family, they found each other. He delighted in her hobby of sculpting, and would watch as she molded clay into a piece of art. She spent time with him out in his garden, trying to learn the difference between a gladiola and a hydrangea. They married and settled into life together, feeling that at long last, they’d found happiness again.
They came to see me about five years into their marriage.
Everything had turned sour. There was silence where there used to be sharing. There was resentment where efforts at empathy had existed.
“We don’t know what happened. We’ve even talked about divorce. But now, our kids really care about each other.”
As I sat and talked with them, what I heard them describing was losing interest in each other.
Apathy can be more harmful than conflict…
“Do you ever go out in the garden anymore?’
“No, I just get bitten by mosquitos and my knees don’t do well anymore.”
“How long has it been since you’ve watched her sculpt?”
“I don’t know… it’s cold out there in her shop. And I love watching sports. She’s not into that.”
The apathy in their relationship was palpable. They were giving each other the message, however unintentionally, “You’re not important enough to me to go out of my way to be interested in you.”
So, what should a couple do who may be in this very painful and lonely boat?
1) Rediscover what interests you about your partner.
You don’t have any control of what your partner does or doesn’t do. But you can look at yourself honestly. If you’re sorely lacking interest or support for him or her, then you can either try to remember what you used to do, or ask them, “How can I show you that I care?” If they answer with sarcasm, or hurt, (“Well, it’s about time you showed some interest…”) — try not to be defensive. Stay your ground, and simply say, “I want to get to know you again. And I’m sincere.”
I’ve often said that marital therapy can happen if I only have one person in the room. That’s because, when one partner begins to change, the other will likely respond. Not always positively, mind you. But they’ll respond. And with enough time, the other partner can begin to risk reconnecting as well.
2) Confront the awkwardness of not touching, and begin to regain physical connection.
If you have to start out with lying by one another quietly, clothes on or off (dependent on where you are with each other..,) get used to having that experience together. Start to reclaim what’s enjoyable about hanging out in one another’s company, bodies touching. It’s often very awkward at first. What used to be natural and easy feels strange. One or both of you may have body issues, or some other kind of problem that’s also gotten in the way of remaining close sexually.
Making that time, taking things slowly, learning to reconnect physically — all of that can build trust.
3) Plan a night away. Or even a dinner. Have the rule you can’t talk about the kids.
This can be harder than it sounds, especially if your current connection is mostly about kids. It will be eye-opening for sure.
And it actually can be fun.
4) Confront your own avoidance of conflict.
Anger that’s resolved can help you feel closer to someone. Avoidance of conflict on the other hand, can lead to resentment and/or the silent treatment. Look at your own beliefs about anger and what you learned about conflict in the family you grew up in. See how you may be repeating that pattern, or acting in ways that serve to keep you and your partner from moving through conflict, and landing on the side of a sense of partnership and mutual respect. Take responsibility for whatever mistakes you’ve made, and apologize.
You may have to agree to disagree, but that’s better than not talking about it at all.
5) See what it feels like to plan your divorce.
This may sound a bit tricky or dangerous, and it can be. You’d probably find out one of two things. It might be easier than you think, and it could be a sad reality that there’s “too much water under the bridge.”
However, you can also discover that divorce isn’t what you want at all. Connecting with it as a reality helps you and your partner become more clear and can motivate you to fight harder for your marriage – to either brush up on relationship skills that you used to practice, like really listening or showing gratitude, or learn new ones.
6) Avoid getting too close to someone else.
When you’re feeling disconnected, bored with, or even demoralized about your relationship, it’s far too easy to find someone who thinks you hang the moon, that you’re funny, or that you’re “so easy to talk to.” It can be quite seductive, in many senses of the word.
If you find yourself attracted to someone else, use that as motivation to take more risks with your own partner. The fact that someone else interests you doesn’t mean your marriage isn’t any good, or should be discarded.
7) Find a way to laugh. Be more in the moment. Risk.
Have a water gun fight. Leave a funny sticky note on their steering wheel. Give them a foot rub. Take their lunch to work. Pick up their favorite chips (or fruit…) at the grocery store. Ask them to go for a walk.
Most importantly, tell them you want to find a way back to them.
Perhaps you can’t. It takes two. But tell them you want to try.
Previously published on Dr. Margaret Rutherford
Photo: Getty Images