“What brings you here today?” I ask the couple in their early 30s sitting in my therapy office recently.
The wife reports while the husband stares at the floor, “Well, we bought into the get married, have two kids and live happily ever after fairytale. But really, the live happily ever after part just isn’t happening.”
“Tell me more,” I queried.
She elaborates, “He spends more time at work or after work with his colleagues, and on weekends with his friends, than with the kids and me. I used to be his lover and his wife. Now I’m the just the mother, the maid, and the babysitter. All I’m asking is for him to be home at a reasonable time and to spend more time helping with the children and around the house.”
“Humph,” he rebuts, “I’ll never get promoted if I blow off work stuff. Sure, I love my family and all that, but this is how it is. I want our marriage to work, and I bring home decent money, but I don’t set the rules of the workforce. I can’t be there every time my wife gets tired of changing diapers.”
Time out: I give them a task, an easy one. “Hire a babysitter Saturday evening, go out and have fun. The only stipulation is that you need to spend at least two hours alone together. Come back next week and tell me how it went.”
At the next therapy session, they reported back that they were unable to complete the assignment. The couple didn’t go out together. Instead the bought take-out and sat in front of the television watching a movie while the children slept.
I wondered, what’s stopping them from going out on a one-night date? probing with my customary, “Tell me more.”
The husband answered with logical assurance, “Well, I did the math. Paying for a babysitter and going to a reasonably priced restaurant would cost around $200 bucks. That’s a lot of money. We talked, and she agreed.”
Hm…There is more going on here I thought, so I pressed on, “Might there be cheaper date options? Perhaps a walk along the lake; Lake Michigan is beautiful in early fall. Maybe cut out the dinner part and just spend some time alone together outside of the apartment.”
“Oh, I that thought never crossed my mind,” the husband responded.
The wife interjected, “Well he spends money every night without thinking about it; drinking with his buddies thinking this is how to get ahead at work. He only whips out his calculator and does the math for the one date we planned in the last three months. I guess I’m not worth it.”
The husband shot back, “But you agreed. You suggested we stay at home. Besides, what’s the point of blowing $200, to go out and endure sitting in silence waiting for the last course, so we leave and go home.”
Aah… At that moment I realized that this man is anxious around his wife. His doing-the-math was his way of calculating himself out of spending quality time alone with her. I verbalized my observation.
He said, “Yeah when I’m with my buddies I get to be myself. We have a few drinks, and we have fun. At home, there’s always issues, and chores, and keeping score, and something with the kids. It’s not fun at all.”
She’s sobbing now, “Oh my God; this relationship is never going to change. I’m sentenced to a marriage prison, devoid of passion. Sure, I’m safe and financially secure, but locked out of intimacy. I didn’t sign up for this.”
This is how a marriage that lacks a strong emotional connection looks. Around friends and family, they appear happy. When alone, the tension settles in. They avoid being alone together because they have nothing in common. Realizing this is a sharp blow. Seven years and two children into the marriage, the impact is significant.
The husband, sounding defeated responds, “I don’t want to waste a lot of time and money for nothing. If we work on this relationship and start finding ways to connect emotionally, and we dig up some shared interests, and it’s all great for a few weeks, then what? Isn’t it kind of forced and contrived? What’s going to make it stick? Like really, is it worth the effort?”
That concern is why many couples get stuck in their relationship. They are afraid of trying, scared of taking the next step because deep down they fear they or their partner will never change.
This couple’s marriage lacks compassion, emotion, and intimacy. They are stuck. They don’t have habits for building intimacy. They need to cultivate them. Habit building starts with actions. It requires work to develop the muscle for the new practices to feel natural and for those new habits to overshadow the negative ones they are replacing.
By making themselves a priority, thinking about activities and actions designed to develop compassion, and emotional intimacy, over time these habits and actions will become part of their marriage DNA. Hopefully, it will not feel like a chore. Then they are on the right track.
Relationships are organic; they are not static. Sometimes we forget that, and we neglect to do what it takes to make each other feel important and do the things that matter to keep a relationship working. So, like a dead car battery, we jump-start it. We recommit and get back in the action of keeping the spark alive in a relationship that is meaningful and worth having.