Life gets busy. Kids, job requirements, house maintenance, individual hobbies, outside friendships and extended family obligations all take a piece of the pie. Our committed relationships get pushed further and further down the priorities list and before you know it, there is no more pie.
More commonly, women notice first (not always in a kind way!) with men for various reasons leaning toward a minimizer approach to a couple's issues. In many couples, this combination can become extreme with more yelling matches about who ate the last piece interspersed with days of silence or bare tolerance of the hunger. Weeks turn into months, turn into years. As a couple feels increasingly helpless and the results of long-term hunger pile up, escape to forage elsewhere or to just focus on your own needs may feel like a matter of survival.
Not a pretty picture but remember it didn't start out this way. So let's back it up a bit.
John Gottman, a researcher and marriage expert has identified 7 crucial ingredients necessary to have and sustain a good couple relationship. One ingredient that seems intriguing is that couples in positive relationships make and take opportunities to turn toward each other. What that means is that they develop a rhythm of connection for daily tasks, sharing good news, venting about external stresses and leaning on each other when life is tough.
In Gottman's book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country's Foremost Relationship Expert, #4 is Turning Toward Each Other. Gottman offers a list of ideas for those who may need some suggestions but whatever you do it is the together that is the key. Getting support when there is outside stress and a partner to share you good moments with reminds you that your mate is a keeper.
Date nights, daily stress debriefings, even going to a funeral together can remind you of your love. While the busy couple may divvy up the chores thinking this is the most prudent use of time, multitasking for the relationship might be a better idea. I know of a couple with a great solution - they do their food shopping together. After seeing them together several times I finally asked the woman what was up and she said, 'It's just something we do. We're so busy so we use shopping to find time to talk about our days, what we want to eat, plans that are coming up.' Brilliant!
I know another couple who took a dance class together. This was a wife who was feeling like her marriage was dying a slow death. But the class helped her get a fresh image of her husband. They laughed, got exercise and met other couples investing in their relationships. And while one class can't be the end of it, it got the ball rolling.
The challenge is often in finding the energy to move in this direction. Women, by far majority, instigate much of the connection in a relationship. And as long as both partners feel good about this dynamic this can work fine. However, often it becomes a power struggle filled with resentment. Women can begin to feel resentful of the burden of being responsible for the relationship while men may resist because they feel controlled. This brings up Gottman's Principle #5 which is also very interesting: Let Your Partner Influence You. Are you open to your partner's ideas, suggestions, needs? If not, marriage just got harder.
And while Gottman states that both parties can struggle with this, he notes that men are much more likely to have trouble in this area. Often when I discuss some of the strategies used in positive relationships women complain that their partners would never do many of these. So husbands may really need to explore this one. What does allowing your partner to influence you mean? Can you find a way to be more open?
Of course this is not just an article to challenge men. One reason a husband may resist is because of HOW his partner tries to influence him. Gottman also talks about Soft versus Harsh Start-Ups and their different effects on relationships. Criticism and shame, anger and put downs will not help, and need to be reconsidered. YOU are responsible for what comes out of your mouth. So if this is an issue for you, work on being more kind and even appreciating your partner! Remember each partner, in every interaction chooses the direction of the couple's energy.
Obviously there is more to marriage than spending time together. Handling conflict well, treating each other with respect and making yourself someone that your mate wants to spend time with are pretty important too.
Bottom line is this. If you want a strong, positive relationship you need to invest in it. So if you don't want your marriage to be about coming apart then consider making it be about coming together. One suggestion? Bake a pie together...and start at the supermarket.
Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Relationship Consultant based in Ann Arbor, Mi and appreciates how challenging couplehood is. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org