Staying Tethered: Fighting Marital Atrophy After Children
As I counsel couples with young children, the most common denominator is a feeling of disconnect in marital closeness. Of course having children brings a sweet bond that can’t compare to anything else. At the same time, never has the relationship been as tested as it is alongside sleep deprivation, the potential of special needs, postpartum emotional adjustments, changes in libido and intimacy rhythms, financial new normals, and the thousand other changes that happen as you grow a family.
I call this effect “marital atrophy” - literally the muscles once used to hold marriage together strongly are now worn out and flexed to take care of babies and toddlers. Arms that used to mostly reach out for hugs and tender touches are all touched out and in need of space. Bodies that found one another in the early light of day are often waking up begrudgingly to take their shift. Doesn’t it make sense that our intimacy is put to the test??
How do we fight this atrophy? How do we even address such a vulnerable topic in our relationship not knowing if we have the energy to try anything new? Or to even hope for change? Here are a few suggestions to consider as you and your partner feel ready.
Ask yourselves first what it might be like to approach this subject.
Do you ever do this? Talk ABOUT the thing you want to talk about before you talk about it. Confused yet? Well, this is a tried and true strategy to moving toward hard conversations. Ask your spouse first, “Are you in a place to talk about how WE are doing?” or “What do you think will be difficult about talking about how we’re doing?” These are softer ways to begin what can feel like a daunting conversation.
Keep short accounts.
When you’re living with a lot of deprivation, it is incredibly easy to hold grudges and be quick tempered toward your spouse. Over time this erodes the feeling of trust and openness with one another and creates volatile and defensive habits. Try finding three things you are thankful for about your spouse each day and trust that you are both doing your best under the circumstances. This may help you keep shorter lists of offenses; or shorter accounts on the relational ledger.
Look for places that you are on the same page.
When you are in the thick of the early years of parenting, what typically stands out are the places you don’t agree or where your spouse frustrates you. I often coach parents to notice that they often have the same feelings about their children. Both spouses love their kids and are driven crazy by the same issues. It can feel uniting to come together and acknowledge that you both feel exhausted by something. We’re used to being excited together about a vacation or something overtly positive. Well, we can also bond over things that are hard or places where our frustrations overlap.
Practice as much empathy as possible.
One amazing tool that can short circuit marital atrophy is to offer yourself and your spouse empathy. Giving the gift of understanding and assuming the best of your spouse, while often humbling for us, deescalates anger, shame, and defensiveness. When we are kind to ourselves instead of judgmental, and bring that same spirit to our spouse, we are creating more space to connect in the midst of the chaos. We so desperately need any help we can get, right?!
Ask for forgiveness when you need to.
Gulp. I said it. Ask for forgiveness. As humans, this is one of the hardest things to do; to recognize where we’ve gone wrong, misstepped, hurt feelings, or withheld something needed by our spouse. We all make daily mistakes. However, it never seems to get easier to own up to those and bring them to our spouse in need of forgiveness. Our bodies were made to purge and detox that which is harmful. In the realm of relational health, the act of asking for and receiving forgiveness is like a balm to our nervous system and a detoxing of negative emotional energy.
Remember that you are in this together; the good, the bad, and the hundreds of diaper changes in these early years. Carve out short amounts of time for things like a long hug, a few statements of what you’re grateful for about each other, or even a high five when the day has just gone completely terribly. Join each other any place that you can and continue to fight for the connection you need and long for in this journey.
Leslie Bley, LPC
Leslie has been counseling for over 13 years and earned her MA in Counseling in 2004. She currently practices in Austin, TX and she is a mother to two wonder twin boys. Leslie believes we were made for MORE and she provides counseling for individuals and couples. Her focus areas are motherhood challenges, sexuality, couples counseling, shame recovery, and female life stage transitions. She runs a counseling group called Brave Motherhood where she helps moms navigate through the many challenges of motherhood.