Maintaining intimacy in your marriage can prove difficult when life gets busy. I see a lot of couples in therapy who are overwhelmed by the sheer number of tasks they must deal with every day. Overwhelm can be the result of major life events, such as a new baby, or it can be caused by on-going tasks, such as running a business or caring for aging parents. Whatever provokes this state of exhaustion, the results are generally the same: energy that was previously focused on the primary relationship now turns outward, becoming more depleted as the number of activities and demands for time increase. The previously strong, intimate, connections begin to weaken.
When a couple comes to me with this problem, we typically concentrate on rebuilding intimacy. Recently I worked with a couple who had a six month old baby. Their biggest obstacle was time. They employed a full-time babysitter, but between their careers, evenings spent caring for the child, and prepping for the following day, they had absolutely no energy left for each other. By the time the weekends rolled around, they were exhausted. Caring for a newborn is a 24/7 job, and neither were prepared to cope with those demands.
It might seem absurd, but intentionally carving out time to be together is the first step toward regaining intimacy. For the new parents, I instructed them to calendar a date night. Their assignment was to go out for dinner or coffee, and just sit, talk, and reconnect. They were willing, but it never happened. By the time they got through the day they were mentally rundown, and there was simply no enthusiasm for adding one more task to their daily list. For this couple, I had to create a lifestyle shift.
Does not Compute
Consider this analogy: You are like a computer. Your brain is the hardware, and your mind contains all the different applications you use during the course of the day. What happens to a computer when you try to load several applications simultaneously? That’s right – the operating system can’t handle the onslaught of commands, and it either stalls or completely shuts down. The human brain acts in a similar way. If you wake up in the morning and begin thinking about all your responsibilities, chances are good that your mind shuts down to the possibility of adding a new task. Your operating system is already full, and no matter how important the task, there simply isn’t room.
But what happens if you only load a specific number of programs instead of opening everything at once? What if there is more space available in your brain? You can begin to focus and execute on the most important tasks, manage the overwhelm, and introduce new activities.
Divide and Conquer
For the new parents, we needed to create more space in their days for them to connect. So we made a list of everything that needed to be accomplished, and we looked at each partner’s skills and interests. From there, we assigned a leader for each task or group of tasks. For example, the wife chose to take the lead on child care, because she is very nurturing and good at organization. Her husband chose to be in charge of household activities, such as paying bills and buying groceries. If either needs help, they can reach out to their spouse for assistance. But with each taking on specific areas of responsibility, it frees the other from having to think about it, and there is no duplication of effort. She doesn’t wake up worrying about how to get the baby to the pediatrician and stop by the store for broccoli, because she knows he’s got the groceries handled. She can close down that application and make time for her husband instead.
A second technique I introduced for them is mindfulness practices. Mindfulness is the human equivalent of a computer reboot. It is most effective first thing in the morning, but it can also be helpful when you get home from work, before you get involved in household activities. The intention of mindfulness is to be fully present in the moment – you shut out everything you’ve already done or everything you need to do, and you concentrate on your breathing and your body. You become still and allow your body and mind to recharge. There are thousands of guided meditation programs, as short as five minutes and as long as an hour. Guided meditations provide relaxing, empowering, and uplifting instruction, and some include a mantra that you repeat silently to yourself to help maintain focus. Some people find their mindfulness practice easier if they are moving, and yoga can be an effective reboot for them.
Maintaining intimate connections is a very important part of your relationship. If you are beginning to see them slip, try implementing one or more of the techniques outlined above. Make time for one another by calendaring time together, whether you go out for dinner, coffee, or even a walk around the neighborhood. Make sure the majority of that time includes talking about things that are important to you, and not silently staring at a movie screen. Certainly that can be part of it, because it’s important to have fun together, but make sure the focus is on the two of you and your relationship. Outline the major areas of responsibility in your household, and divide the leadership between you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it, but commit to upholding your obligations so your spouse can let go of those tasks. Finally, take a few minutes each day to reboot your mental computer. Practicing very simple mindfulness exercises will help you reduce overwhelm, and make it possible to connect on a more intimate level with your spouse.