John and Julie Schwartz Gottman, authors of “And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives” (Crown, 2007), have been researching marital stability and divorce prediction for more than three decades. Their 2007 data revealed that 67 percents of couples expressed marital dissatisfaction during the first three years of their baby’s life.
A big part of a couple’s discontent has to do with sleep deprivation and how hard they work in the early years of parenthood. Finding time to meet your needs as partners — not parents — can feel challenging.
A contemporary of the Gottmans, Harville Hendrix, author of “Getting the Love You Want: A Guide for Couples” (Holt Paperbacks, 2001), came up with something called Imago theory to explain why men and women have so much trouble being together. Through his work with couples, he proposed that individual healing comes through the process of relationship and not through individual understanding.
We are initially drawn to our mates, Hendrix says, when we feel an unconscious pull that works like a “love-hormone.” This chemistry is activated when the person you are attracted to has similar psychological traits to your own parents.
He says when we fall in love with our partner we get the chance to rework whatever trauma or injury (usually unintentional) that our parents caused us growing up. As we move out of the romantic phase of new love (read: after the kids arrive) we start to see our partners’ faults in addition to all their wonderful qualities, and we feel let down.
That phase is called the “power struggle” and it’s where many of us wind up. It’s also where the Gottmans’ dissatisfied 67 percent comes in and where most divorces start to happen. It may take a few years; usually it’s when your child is in kindergarten that you will notice a lot of couples breaking up.
So, where does this leave us?
Does this mean we should all race to our nearest couples counselor and sign up for therapy? There certainly are many excellent options out there for repairing a relationship, including but not limited to Gottman , Imago and Emotionally Focused therapies.
There are also things you can do right now to feel closer to your partner. First, focus on what feelings come up when you are having a strong reaction towards your mate. Next, learn how to ask for what you need. And lastly, view your mate and his or her needs as they relate to the family he or she grew up in. It is important to de-personalize the struggle because in some ways it isn’t about you.
Creating space for just the two of you is also key. Even if there is some resentment built up, finding small ways to turn towards each other can help fill the emotional bank that is your relationship.
Start by giving each other a hug or kiss as you greet each other at the beginning and end of the day. Or, find a sitter to watch the kids so you can have a date night or an afternoon coffee. Having time at the end of the day that is about connecting instead of to-do lists can also start to help you feel closer.
Feeling lonely within your most important relationship is not ideal, but it is extremely common. Taking the initiative to change the status quo will bring the two of you closer together.