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Q: My wife and I, both 40, have been married for 16 years and have three young kids together. She gave up her job as a teacher to be a stay-at-home mom when we first became parents. The experience has been positive, but the negatives are starting to take a toll and I feel as if she’s lost her way and identity. At the same time, this seems to have a bad effect on our relationship. I’ve encouraged her to go back to work, but she hasn’t taken any major initiatives. I feel like I’ve tried many things, from weekend getaways to social outings, but nothing seems to be working. How do you infuse engagement and romance back into a marriage when your spouse seems overwhelmed and frustrated by her current life stage? —K.B.
A: It sounds like you’re desperately missing feeling connected to the woman you married. Like many couples I see in my office, the two of you have probably put your relationship on hold while building your beautiful family. The Gottman Institute’s research shows that almost two-thirds of couples report a decline in marital satisfaction after having children, so it may help to know that your feelings are echoed by many couples in this season of your relationship.
I would venture to guess that the two of you are not the same people you were when you got married 16 years ago. You’ve both changed and evolved into a mother, father, schedule keeper, party planner, cheerleader, librarian, nurse, personal shopper, cook, and housekeeper. The transformation of parenthood is unimaginable and ever-changing.
With each child's personality, temperament, challenges, and interests, many parents continuously adapt and adjust their own needs to benefit their offspring. Just when we feel we have mastered parenting babies, we are met with the challenges of toddlerhood, followed by the adjustment to parenting school-aged children, then tweens, teens, and emerging adults. Many parents envelop themselves in the experience of mothering or fathering thinking it would be best for their children, but in the process stop caring for themselves.
Perhaps through this journey, your wife has lost sight of who she is and has stopped paying attention to her intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and relational needs. It may be that she is not engaging with you because her mental health has deteriorated and she isn’t capable of better connecting with you because she has forgotten to connect with herself.
So what can you do? Here are three tips.
1 - Encourage your wife to see her physician or a mental health professional about how she has been feeling.
It would be advisable to start by ruling out the diagnosis of Major Depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 16 million American adults, almost 7 percent of the population, had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.
Common symptoms of depression include changes in appetite and sleep patterns, loss of enjoyment and interest in events or activities that you used to find pleasurable, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, feelings of excessive guilt, decreased libido, and the inability to concentrate or make decisions. People suffering from depression frequently isolate themselves and pull away from loved ones.
If your wife had a baby in the last year, it’s extremely important that both partners look out for signs and symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. While many women experience mild mood changes during or after the birth of a child, 1 in 7 women experience more significant symptoms of depression or anxiety. The good news is that with specialized treatment one can fully recover. You can find more information about Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders here.
2 - Empathy, Empathy, Empathy.
It sounds like you really care about your wife and that you have been actively trying to cheer her up by taking her out or suggesting she go back to work. Although your intentions are pure in trying to get her out of her slump, she may need something more than sympathy. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has studied empathy for the past 20 years. She states, “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection.”
Your wife may appreciate it if you try to put yourself in her shoes and validate her feelings of being overwhelmed and frustrated before jumping into finding solutions to her problem. This may look like, “It sounds like you are struggling right now, I am here with you.” This type of statement allows for emotional connection and stays away from judgment.
When we try to fix a loved one’s feelings by offering a solution, we may be undermining their ability to do so themselves. Although your sympathetic response of asking her to go back to work is coming from a good place, she may need you to be ok with the feelings she is experiencing before she is ready to move forward.
3 - Rebuild your friendship.
The Gottman Institute’s research shows that the couples who appear to have a strong marital friendship are the most resilient to the decline in marital satisfaction when they became parents.
Although you have been with your wife for 16 years, and feel like you know her very well, it is important to reassess the foundation of your relationship: your friendship. Most couples naturally build their friendship in the beginning stages of the relationship by the virtue of the time spent with each other. This initial stage is often referred to as limerence, the state of deep obsession and infatuation with another person. When we meet someone we are attracted to we naturally long to know everything about them. We are curious and open-minded rather than distracted and judgemental. We create a safe environment to help our partner let their guard down and let us in.
In order to ignite emotional and physical intimacy, we need to continue to invest in learning and re-learning about about our partner’s complex inner world (We describe getting to know your partner’s inner world as building Love Maps). This would include knowing the cast of characters in their daily life, hobbies, interests, ambitions, worries, failures, and successes. We need to ask questions that are more than “What time will you be home tonight?” or “Do we need more milk?” These questions, although necessary, don’t help deepen our relationship.
In this season of your marriage where the focus is on parenting, it can be very easy to lose your way in truly knowing each other. By showing your wife that you are interested in her deepest fears and her greatest desires it is likely that she will feel closer to you and perhaps begin to open up and let you back in. Once your friendship is back in line, romance is sure to follow.
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