What happens to our BC marriages (Before Children) that our tender devotion degrades into tag-team task-a-thons? We greet our kids like they are indeed beloved family members,--with joy, hugs, kisses, animated questions about their day,-- BUT we greet our spouses as chronically late service providers whose value lies primarily in relieving us of our parenting burdens. “You’re finally here! Amy needs a bath and Jake has a vocab test tomorrow. Oh, and Fido crapped on the dining room carpet again. I’m outta here.”
We wince at our mean-spirited words to our kids, but don’t blink at barbed hostilities leveled at our spouses. Heck, we wouldn’t even treat Fido or a complete stranger as shabbily as we treat our parenting partner, the “love of our life.” While we're at it, it seems to me that parents treat themselves even more shabbily than they’d treat anyone else, including their spouses. What’s with that? Does compassion for oneself and one's spouse get leeched out of parents upon delivery of their firstborn? This post is the first of a two part installment on infusing loving kindheartedness into marriages depleted by parenting. Part One identifies one particularly insidious process that erodes marital happiness once children invade the scene. Part Two proposes a Bakers-Dozen 12 Step Summer Program to combat this damaging process.
How is it that the mutual devotion of our Before-Children marriages degrades into tag-team task-a-thons? (Hint: think lobster submerged in a pot of cold water on a burner that is then turned on to high...) Below is a collapsed version of marriages’ decline from romantic exuberance to dully pragmatic coexistence (obviously exaggerated for dramatic effect).
A) We are smitten by a swooning attraction, succumbing to the blinding derangement of falling-in-love. Rosy emotions take over the wheel of the brain’s control center, while cognition takes a back seat. We lose ourselves in enthralled infatuation
B) At this intersection, Mother Nature plays a dirty trick via hormonal subterfuge. Generally speaking, men having stronger sex drives than do women, given their higher levels of testosterone, which heavily fuels sexual appetite. However, there’s a hormonal reversal among men and women when they fall in love. Women’s testosterone levels rise, thereby increasing their sexual desire, while men’s diminish as ocytocin the bonding nurturing hormone rises, averting sexual interest in other women so they have eyes only for their beloved. The cement of bonding sets.
C) Then you marry, the baby arrives, and cozy newlyweds give way to frazzled fretful parents. The newborn is an anti-aphrodisiac birth control agent with sole proprietorial possession of Mom’s body. Biologically, Mom’s sex drive is overridden by her drive to nourish and protect her offspring. Breast feeding’s prolactin further suppresses sexual appetite. Mom exists only for her newborn, on-call and exhausted, while Dad feels starved of intimacy and marginalized to second class citizen, provider and lowly gopher.
D) Then there’s the next child, and maybe the next. Each parent is overextended by day, craving off-duty peace at night. Greetings at day’s end resemble a game of hot-potato: who’s going to get burned tonight, stuck with kid-detail? A resentment borne of shared exhaustion brews as each sees the other as the only one to rescue and relieve them from their duties. Both parents are in the same boat all right, but rowing in opposite directions, straining against each other for the rest and peace s/he craves...and going nowhere fast.
E) Add work worries, daycare debacles, health ordeals, financial strains, school stresses, family feuds, teen toxicity, mid-life crises, world worries, and jumping out of the boat can look mighty appealing.
Of course with the onset of parenthood, there are many marital moments of inexpressible joy, tenderness, hilarity and sublime bliss. But there’s a reason why 90% of couples report decreased marital satisfaction upon the birth of their child. The Before-Children cozy routines of second nature simplicity is upended by a stunning Act of Nature. Becoming parents is a life crisis of staggering proportions; a tremendously positive one, yes, but one that disrupts virtually every pre-parenthood routine. Gone is the soul-soothing predictability of a calm morning routine, an uninterrupted meal, an uninterrupted discussion, an uninterrupted phone call, an uninterrupted solid night's sleep. Having children means saying good-bye to uninterrupted EVERYTHING!! Think of it: this newborn’s arrival is the most massive game-changing disruption of roles and routines a couple has ever had to confront together in their lives (except for the misfortune of a tragedy). They scramble to cobble together new behavior patterns centering around the survival and care of their newborn.
Of course it is imperative that parents abandon all previous routines that had no place for babies and invent new ways to organize their relationship around shared parenting. It becomes a problem when these new patterns, laid down to meet the urgent needs of a helpless newborn, outlive their necessity and congeal into a calcified mindless HABIT of spousal neglect that persists well into the baby's childhood and teens. Over the ensuing years, the post-baby habit of neglecting the marital relationship can take on a life of its own. Marital complacency becomes a reflexive default mode that robs marriages of intimate vitality, leaving behind only drab tedium and estrangement.
FACT: Married couples spend on average 4 minutes per day alone together.
Parents get thrust into this new set of habits by the dramatic crisis-like upheaval of the newborn's arrival (when "the flame under the lobster-pot" was ignited). What offsetting game-changing life event will knock parents OUT of the habit of complacency and back into mindfully attentive realignment as a married couple? After all, without a precipitating crisis that wakes us out of our deadening routines, we keep persisting in sameness. As that sage philosopher Anonymous said, "Bad habits are like a comfortable bed, easy to get into, but hard to get out of."
Of course one could view the empty-nest phase, with its sudden stunning silence and surreal order, as a sort of counterpart or bookend to the baby’s discombobulating arrival. But surely we don’t want to wait until our nests are empty to nourish our marriages; by then, the love for each other might be empty too. That would be like neglecting to water a plant week to week, presuming that you can just "catch up" with watering it in a few years and it will still be viable.
The only way to rid of outmoded habits is to supplant them with new ones. It takes deliberate and sustained effort to strain against surrendering to complacent passivity. Making the effort to enhance marital satisfaction is just like committing to regular exercise and nutritious eating to enjoy better health and longevity; doing so promotes vitality, flexibility and overall sense of well-being, while neglecting to do so yields rigidity, self-criticism and negativity. (Where it comes to marriages, are we Americans like smoking, fast-food-addicted, exercise-allergic heart-condition-impaired, arthiritic couch potatoes?! …)
"A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit." Erasmus
Coming next: a Bakers Dozen 12 Step Summer Program to Reinstate The Marital Habit of Loving Kindness.