We’ve drifted apart since having children

Q: I feel very unhappy in my marriage and have done for some time. My wife and I seem to have drifted apart over the years. We are rarely sexually intimate and our relationship has become a bit routine and monotonous. We have three beautiful children – a five-year-old and twins, aged three – and this is the one blessing in our marriage. We are both involved, committed parents and this is probably part of the problem. Everything is centred on the children and our relationship has always taken second place. We rarely go out together and tend to attend respective social events alone. Any time I try to raise a problem with my wife, she gets angry and says I am selfish and don’t appreciate how stressed she is. She has rejected me so many times sexually that I have given up reaching out to her. We don’t actively row that often, though there is a lot more tension recently and sometimes whole evenings go by without us talking. I have now started fantasising about leaving, thinking about how we could separate. The thing that holds me back are the children, not to mention the enormous cost. However, I have confided in no one about my unhappiness and find it deeply depressing that I am stuck in what feels like a loveless marriage and don’t see a prospect of it changing.

A. Couples often underestimate the stress of having children and how much it takes out of their marriage. While children can potentially bring a couple closer in the long term, in the short term it can put stress on relationships and this stress can increase with the birth of subsequent children.

Reduced personal time, conflicts over parenting styles and neglect of the couple’s relationship are all common problems after the birth of a baby.

While many couples can learn to find a way of adapting to their new role as co-parents, unfortunately for many, the birth of children marks the start of a decline in their marriage which, if unaddressed, can start them on the road to dissatisfaction and separation in the future.

The good news is that there is a lot that can be done to address problems especially if you become aware of what is happening and take action. It is important to realise that the problems you are experiencing are relatively normal and not necessarily a sign that there is something fundamentally wrong in your relationship.

You could view the fact that you are “fantasising about leaving” as an early warning signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. Certainly, it provides you with a moment of choice, either to continue to disengage and give up communicating or to turn back towards your wife and to redouble your efforts to redeem your marriage.

Tune into how each other is feeling
The first step is to try to understand things from your wife’s perspective. Tune into how she is feeling and what are her sources of stress or dissatisfaction? What does she need and what is missing for her in the marriage at the moment?

The common marital dissatisfactions that mothers report to me are feeling unsupported with domestic chores, missing the closeness and affection of the marriage and feeling personally stressed by parenting. If you begin to understand her needs, she may begin to understand yours.

Start communicating
The second step is to try to increase the communication between the two of you. It is best to start with ordinary daily chats, rather than necessarily deep conversations about your relationship. Intimacy is built in everyday contact and time spent together.

Happily married couples usually have daily rituals spending time together such as reviewing the day when the children are in bed or taking time to talk over dinner or during a shared chore. During the day or the week when do you have shared time with your wife that you could build upon?

It is also important to find a way to raise the subject of improving your relationship with your wife. It can be easy to avoid this if it has led to rows or conflict in the past. The key is to try to do this in a positive way and to avoid using it as an opportunity to list a series of dissatisfactions and complaints about the other person.

Rather than saying “you never want sex anymore”, it is can be better to say “I miss the close times we had in the past, and I would love more of these back.”

Pick a good time to talk to your wife about your hope to improve the relationship and try to invite her to consider this goal. Be prepared to listen to her dreams and requests and try to make shared plans. It can help to make a simple commitment to do at least one nice thing for each other a week or to work towards ring-fencing a special evening together or to take up a project or new interest together.

Relationship Counselling
If it is hard to talk through issues, it might be useful to consider relationship counselling ( accord.ieor relationshipsireland.com) which could be used preventively to make positive plans for improving your relationship. After becoming parents, the big challenge is to keep your marriage and relationship vital and alive.

Whereas this might have felt effortless when you were childless and first in love, with the humdrum and stress of being parents this requires much more careful attention and effort. Your personal needs and your relationship with your partner needs to be prioritised as well as the needs of your children. Ironically, one of the biggest gifts we can give our children is the model of a real loving relationship between their parents – this gives them a deep sense of security and a guide for their own future relationships.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, December 2012.  John writes in The Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.