In the dual-earner family children and jobs vie for top priority in the daily schedule. Try squeezing in time for yourself and the day ends too soon. Think about spending time with your spouse and it’s overwhelming. Most of the couples I’m seeing these days are suffering from a lack of time invested in their marriage. It keeps getting pushed off by other needs that appear to be more urgent, especially the priority given to the needs of the children. Yet, in the long run, there is probably nothing more important you can do for your children than to invest in your marriage. Otherwise children are likely to be exposed to excessive conflict and possibly a traumatic divorce.
Since a majority of mothers now work at least part-time, most families have dual-earners. It has created a “transition generation” of families because it also coincides with a steadily increase in father’s being involved with parenting. In other words, the roles of today’s marital partners are different from that of their parents, forcing them to invent solutions as they go along. Lots of books on the topic but not memories of a model to fall back on.
The case of Ellen and Frank illustrates how one family improved their relationships by addressing these issues. Ellen and Frank sought help because their two children, ages seven and four, were constantly fighting. It went beyond typical sibling rivalry and nothing seemed to make it better. When the family converged at the end of the day, everyone was worn out from jobs, school, after-school care, and day care. The priorities were well established: attend to the children’s needs, complete the essential chores, complete work-related tasks for the next day, then crash. These parents made a point of setting aside some time to play with their children in addition to helping the oldest with her homework, and trying to spend some quiet time with each child while saying goodnight. Both initially expressed positive feelings about their marriage but a lot of frustration about the ongoing problems with the children.
As we talked, however, a different picture began to emerge. “I feel like I hardly know him anymore.” “We haven’t made love in weeks.” “She’s always saying I still don’t do enough. I do much more than my father ever did.” “We just don’t seem to have fun anymore.” They attempted to talk to each other and often had intentions of making love, but by the time they got around to it, one or both of them was fading out and not very accessible. Falling asleep on the couch was a common occurrence. Rarely did they even go to bed at the same time. Weekend evenings were more likely to be spent with the kids, underscoring the parents’ guilt that they weren’t around much. “A pizza and a movie rental is our big Saturday night event!”
The problem of no time for the marriage is commonplace. Most couples are aware of it but believe it is unsolvable – there’s neither the time nor the energy. They joke about the lack of sex as the price for joint careers and having children. But the lost intimacy is no joke and the problem is usually much worse than the parents admit until the marriage really starts to come apart. Warning signs that this system needs repair include: an increased rigidity about roles; an exaggeration of existing differences in style or personality (polarization); increased curtness, criticism, and impatience in communication.
Frank and Ellen agreed to make some changes. First, they reaffirmed that their marriage was a high priority and required an increased commitment. They planned a twenty-minute conversation after dinner, right after putting the children to bed but before dealing with household and job responsibilities. Putting a time limit on it helped in making the commitment as well as ground rules of no TV or answering phones during that time. They scheduled sex once a week, sort of a date night. It may not sound romantic, and it didn’t happen every week, but it really helped improve a sense of closeness. They also arranged some time alone every weekend. They had neglected the activities they used to enjoy before work and children had become so demanding. It varied from taking a walk to getting tickets for a show, exercising together to a quiet dinner.
The key strategy to take note of here is that Frank and Ellen stopped relying on their marriage sustaining itself spontaneously. A busy life demands planning and scheduling. So does a successful marriage.
In the following months, they discovered several things. As they had some fun together, it became easier to listen to each other in a more open, positive way. As they grew more intimate, emotionally and physically, they were more successful at confronting some difficult issues and finding solutions. They became true partners again – perhaps, to put it better, they became best friends again. Not surprisingly, the children fought less because they had been reacting to a tension in the family that the parents hadn’t been attuned to.
The process is best summed up by Frank’s comments in our last meeting. “I came home exhausted from a late dinner meeting the other night. Ellen was also late getting home and the kids were still up. After we got them to bed, Ellen had chores to do and my head was pounding. A few months ago we wouldn’t have stopped to make contact. But we this night we sat down together and ended up talking for more than a half-hour. Then, before I tackled my paperwork and she did some chores, I gave her a strong hug and kiss just because it felt so good to have her there with me. We go to sleep and wake up feeling closer now – and life seems just a little bit easier.”