“Change is the only constant in life.” An ancient Greek philosopher said that, and we still hold it as one of the facts of life. Things inevitably change, and relationships get shaken up.
There are three periods of change, life cycle transitions, in a marriage where a couple is at a heightened risk of divorcing. The first is 18 months after the couple has had their first child. The second, when the kids leave home in pursuit of independent lives, and the third is when couples retire and try to spend their golden years together.
Life cycle transitions are challenging for couples. The reality of having a needy baby to care for, or of living in the quiet of the empty nest with a refrigerator still stocked for feeding teenagers, or of the ever present retired spouse with a void to fill cause significant shifts in a couple’s relationship. The household dynamic is different. Former routines no longer suit the new situation.
And baby makes three
Ron and Sarah’s first born is 18-months old and since her birth has been their only focus. They’ve established a routine where they share the chores and baby responsibilities. Except for work they are together all the time with the baby.
Pre-baby days, Ron would spend time after work with his workmates a couple of evenings a week. Thursday was Sarah’s girls’ night out. As a couple, they connected over regularly scheduled dates and an occasional weekend away. Their lives had structure and balance. Now, with no alone time and no connection time, the “all baby all the time” routine is challenging their relationship.
Sarah and Ron are having an especially difficult time because they had never talked about how they were going to handle their relationship or expectations from each other. They just let things happen. Sarah is more of a homebody, content to be at home. Ron is an extrovert who feels stifled not being around others. They have been arguing and have little experience communicating effectively.
In haste and out of sheer frustration recently Ron lamented, “I wish we had waited longer to have a kid.” He immediately regretted saying that. Sarah is angry about his words and remorseful about getting married too quickly without considering their expectations.
The couple is struggling to adapt. All the love, attention, and energy in the household have been channeled toward the new baby. They stopped addressing their individual needs and needs as a couple. What connection they have, fragile and without communication fluency, is tenuous, leaving them unable to communicate about how to treat one another and define expectations for their marriage going forward as a family. They are at a vulnerable place.
All’s quiet in the empty nest
Tracy and Michael’s twins recently went off to college. Throughout the children’s formative years, Tracy and Michael’s life centered on their kid’s activities. Now the family dynamic has changed. Suddenly the energy level has been sucked out of their home, like the air out of a deflated balloon.
An eerie quietness has settled in around the house. Michael has thrown himself into his work and stays at the office later into the evening. Tracy catches herself grocery shopping for four and preparing enough dinner for a full house. She misses the children and calls them repeatedly throughout the day.
Without the kids around Tracy and Michael don’t know what to talk about. When they do, they have the same conversations over and over again. Small talk they call it. They don’t know how to relate to one another in a way that makes them feel intimate and connected. They are drifting in separate directions, Tim off to the golf course and Tracy to the mall or weekends away from home. Their relationship at this point is vulnerable.
Managing Life Cycle Transitions
There have been significant changes in the family dynamic of these couples. Couples are at greatest risk of losing their intimate connection with one another at times of life cycle change.
One way to deal with this is to recognize what is going on and plan at least one activity a week together as a couple. The act of building a habit for connection keeps a couple together in the midst of the family evolving.
As you transition from one stage of life to another, you are not the same people you were at the previous point in your relationship. You have changed, evolved and grown and have different needs. If you can let go of the old expectation and rebuild new ways of connecting and falling in love again, then you have a good chance of reconstructing a marriage that lasts. Remember, change is a constant in life. Embrace it if you can.