When the "All About Us" newlywed bliss comes to a screeching halt, how does a couple move forward?
Marriage is tough — especially when there are children involved. Couples who manage to stay together have the wisdom to understand that happiness is fluid and that all relationships have growing pains.
Jeff and Susan began their weekend couples retreat with a declaration — they were no longer happy. Their married life was dull and stale. They were in their early thirties, married for three years, had dual careers, and were parents of a one-year old. The couple had reached a crossroads in their relationship.
Susan was upset that Jeff was often in a bad mood and irritable. He was distracted and perhaps workaholic. He seemed turned-off by her new Mama's body. Jeff felt neglected and coveted the attention Susan lavished on their son. He felt like a third wheel, no longer part of a couple. Always ambitious, he decided to hyper-focus on his career where he "at least is acknowledged and appreciated." Susan nodded in agreement when Jeff said, "All I want is for our relationship to be like it was in the first year of their marriage. We were so happy. It was effortless. If we can go back to that, we'll be satisfied."
As we delved further, we discovered that an unplanned pregnancy had catapulted Susan and Jeff's relationship out of the infatuation stage. Susan was ready; Jeff was not. In the struggle, Jeff learned that Susan tends to get angry when she doesn't get her own way. Susan saw that Jeff can be self-absorbed and has difficulty with empathy. They decided to go forward with the pregnancy. Susan took a six-month leave of absence, and Jeff turned his man cave into the baby's room.
Susan and Jeff's relationship was squarely in the stage of "reflection and reevaluation." They'd been together long enough to see one another's flaws and get through the inevitable tug-of-war, in which couples are hell-bent on getting their partner to change into the person he/she thought they had married. Susan had harped on Jeff's self-absorption, while Jeff reacted to Susan's willfulness with the stock answer "no" to almost everything she asked of him.
They were done with that. They had stopped struggling and instead were distancing themselves. Their relationship entered a dead zone. They wondered if getting married had been a mistake. Jeff and Susan were stuck. Their misguided attempts to get their relationship back to the way it was in the beginning had failed. They did not know what to do.
We helped them to understand that infatuation is a wonderful yet fleeting time, a sweet and enduring memory in our storyline, like our memories of childhood. But inevitably, just as a child grows into an adult, a lasting relationship grows into something deeper and more wonderful than infatuation. So, if a return to the stage of infatuation was not available, what options were available to Susan and Jeff? We delved into the "reflection and reevaluation" phase and moved them through it. They decided to accept their flaws and acknowledge their transition through a normal stage in the evolution of their relationship.
By the second day, the couple was ready to move into the more advanced stage we call "transformation and commitment." No longer blinded by infatuation or threatened by power struggles, Jeff and Susan re-chose one another with wide open eyes. They felt ready to end the period of emotional disconnection and felt the urge to re-merge. We helped them build a bridge to reconnect and observed the return of warmth between them.
Although not as thrilling as new love, Jeff and Susan committed to take the long view — that mature love is better. They decided the trade-off would be worthwhile and opted for the comfort and deep intimacy of long-time love. In the end, the promise of being known and accepted and loved despite their imperfections seemed more like true happiness to Jeff and Susan. Who doesn't love that old pair of slippers you want to last forever?