By: Dr. Gregory Popcak
Find below an e-mail I recently received from a concerned woman regarding her marriage. If you or anyone you know are struggling with any of the issues described below, then this article is for you.
“Dear Dr. Greg,
My husband and I have been married 15 years. We have four children ages 13, 10, 7, and 3. We’ve always been a close couple, but lately, we seem to be drifting apart. His work is demanding more time and between school and activities, the children are taking more and more time. Both my husband and I are exhausted a lot of the time, and we sometimes go the whole week without talking beyond telling each other what happened and saying “good night.” I used to be fairly judgmental about those couples who got divorced because they had “grown apart” but now I feel like we’re becoming one of them. What can we do?”
Every marriage travels through various stages as the years go by, and each stage has its challenges as well as its lessons that can strengthen the relationship. The above marriage is in the stage I refer to as “the Creative Phase.” This is the point where careers are well-underway and families are growing both in size and/or in the amount of time and effort it takes to keep them running smoothly. The benefit of these years is that it is often a time filled with excitement and challenges that can keep life interesting and fresh. The challenge is that the couple can become so outwardly focused on activity and other commitments that they forget to take care of each other and the marriage.
The good news is that this is a normal stage of marital evolution and that a savvy couple like these who are aware of the challenge can identify the problems and make important changes before things become really complicated. Here are a few tips that can set you or any couple you know in this stage in the right direction.
Rituals and Routines
Research has shown that those couples and families who make a commitment to protecting the rituals and routines of marriage and family life weather the years of the Creative Phase better than those who do not. Make sure that you and your spouse are intentionally scheduling time in your day for prayer and that you are having meals together several times during the week (daily if at all possible). Even if you can’t go out, schedule time where you and your spouse will get some time alone to do things you enjoy. These should be activities that are apart from your sexual relationship. If you have a hard time getting these things to happen, make sure you sit down with your spouse and your planners and write down these activities and the times when you will meet. Treat these times as you would any other important appointment. If something else comes up that threatens these marriage and family appointments, find some way to say “no” to those outside commitments. The future of your relationship depends upon your ability to be faithful to putting your marriage first today.
As couples become busier, the second thing that gets crowded out (beyond rituals and routines) is thoughtfulness. Couples become so focused on taking care of business that they take an “every man for himself” attitude toward taking care of each other. The more a couple does this, the more a marriage becomes two disjointed people living under the same roof.
One way to combat this is to generate a lovelist. This is where both the husband and wife write down a list of those things that make them personally feel loved on a gut level. These are the kind of things that make you feel like saying, “Oh! That was really thoughtful! Thank you!” The things you write down shouldn’t take a lot of time, effort, or money, but they should require some degree of thought. For instance, you might list items such as, “I feel loved when you find me to give me a kiss and say you love me before you leave the house.” Or, “I feel loved when the garbage is already at the curb when I get home.” Or, “I feel loved when we sit together on the couch instead of across the room.” Or, “I feel loved when you call from work (or at work) to say you were thinking about me/praying for me.”
The list will be harder to make than you think–I suggest identifying at least 25 things. But once the list is completed, exchange them and hold yourselves accountable for doing at least 2-3 items for each other each day. At first you will feel like being thoughtful to each other is “just one more thing to do in a busy day” which will just highlight how much you’ve let your relationship slide on your list of priorities, but stick with it. You’ll find that in the weeks you and your mate stay on top of your lovelists, you will feel much more connected, and there will be much less conflict or tension between you.
Know when to Seek Help.
Of course, if these techniques aren’t working for you, or you are having a difficult time employing them, make sure to seek faithful, professional marriage counseling. Though not counseling, Retrouvaille is also a very effective program to help couples get started down the road to recovery. Research shows most couples wait 4-6 years before seeking professional help. Intervening early can prevent you from growing so far apart that you lose any sense of what you are doing there. Being serious about never growing apart means taking steps early enough in the game to be effective. If you can’t make it work on your own, seek competent, faithful help from someone who can help get your marriage back on its feet again.
For more tips on how to cultivate life-long and intimacy, be sure to check out For Better…FOREVER! A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage. To talk to someone one-on-one about any and all of the challenges discusses in this article that you might be facing, contact your PaxCare Tele-coach to get the skills you need to succeed.