Help, Dr. Greg! My Husband and I are Growing Apart

Dear Dr. Greg,

My husband and I have been married 15 years.  We have four children ages 13, 10, 7, and 3.  We’ve always been a close couple, but lately, we seem to be drifting apart.  His work is demanding more time and between school and activities, the children are taking more and more time.  Both my husband and I are exhausted a lot of the time, and we sometimes go the whole week without talking beyond telling each other what happened and saying “good night.”  I used to be fairly judgmental about those couples who got divorced because they had “grown apart” but now I feel like we’re becoming one of them.  What can we do?

Every marriage travels through various stages as the years go by, and each stage has its challenges as well as its lessons that can strengthen the relationship.  Your marriage is in the stage I refer to as “the Creative Phase.”  This is the point where careers are well-underway and families are growing both in size and/or in the amount of time and effort it takes to keep them running smoothly.  The benefit of these years is that it is often a time filled with excitement and challenges that can keep life interesting and fresh.  The challenge is that the couple can become so outwardly focused on activity and other commitments that they forget to take care of each other and the marriage.

The good news is that this is a normal stage of marital evolution and that a savvy couple like yourselves who is aware of the challenge can identify the problems and make important changes before things become really complicated.  Here are a few tips that can set you right.

Rituals and Routines

Research has shown that those couples and families who make a commitment to protecting the rituals and routines of marriage and family life weather the years of the Creative Phase better than those who do not.  Make sure that you and your husband are intentionally scheduling time in your day for prayer and that you are having meals together several times during the week (daily if at all possible). Even if you can’t go out, schedule time where you and your spouse will get some time alone to do things you enjoy. These should be activities that are apart from your sexual relationship. If you have a hard time getting these things to happen, make sure you sit down with your spouse and your planners and write down these activities and the times when you will meet.  Treat these times as you would any other important appointment.  If something else comes up that threatens these marriage and family appointments, find some way to say “no” to those outside commitments.  The future of your relationship depends upon your ability to be faithful to putting your marriage first today.

Lovelist

As couples become busier, the second thing that gets crowded out (beyond rituals and routines) is thoughtfulness.  Couples become so focused on taking care of business that they take an “every man for himself” attitude toward taking care of each other.   The more a couple does this, the more a marriage becomes two disjointed people living under the same roof.

One way to combat this is to generate a lovelist.  This is where both the husband and wife write down a list of those things that make them personally feel loved on a gut level.  These are the kind of things that make you feel like saying, “Oh!  That was really thoughtful!  Thanks you!” The things you write down shouldn’t take a lot of time, effort, or money, but they should require some degree of thought. For instance, you might list items such as, “I feel loved when you find me to give me a kiss and say you love me before you leave the house.”  Or, “I feel loved when the garbage is already at the curb when I get home.”  Or, “I feel loved when we sit together on the couch instead of across the room.”  Or, “I fell loved when you call from work (or at work) to say you were thinking about me/praying for me.”

The list will be harder to make than you think—I suggest identifying at least 25 things.  But once the list is completed, exchange them and hold yourselves accountable for doing at least 2-3 items for each other each day.  At first you will feel like being thoughtful to each other is “just one more thing to do in a busy day”  which will just highlight how much you’ve let your relationship slide on your list of priorities, but stick with it.  You’ll find that in the weeks you and your mate stay on top of your lovelists, you will feel much more connected, and there will be much less conflict or tension between you.

 Know when to Seek Help.

Of course, if these techniques aren’t working for you, or you are having a difficult time employing them, make sure to seek faithful, professional marriage counseling. Though not counseling,  Retrouvaille is also a very effective program to help couples get started down the road to recovery.   Research shows most couples wait 4-6 years before seeking professional Intervening early can prevent you from growing so far apart that you lose any sense of what you are doing there.  Being serious about never growing apart means taking steps early enough in the game to be effective.  If you can’t make it work on your own, seek competent, faithful help from someone who can help get your marriage back on its feet again.

For more information on Catholic Tele-Counseling through the Pastoral Solutions Institute at 740-266-6461 or online at www.CatholicCounselors.com

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About Dr. Greg

Dr. Gregory Popcak directs the Pastoral Solutions Institute, an organization dedicated to helping Catholics find faith-filled solutions to marriage, family, and personal problems. Together with his wife, Lisa, he hosts More2Life Radio. He is the author of over a dozen books integrating psychological insights with our Catholic faith. For more info about books, tele-counseling and other resources, visit www.CatholicCounselors.com.

  • Guest

    The first thing I would do is have a regular “date night” each week where you get a babysitter and go out alone to dinner or some other activity where you can talk – preferably not just about the kids or problem-solving, but about your hopes and dreams for your life together. Make it sacrosanct and don’t let anything other than a true emergency cancel it. It may feel awkward and even strained at first but you will come to treasure it and protect it and look forward to it all week long if you keep at it.

    This situation is exactly why no-fault divorce is so tragic. It makes it too easy for spouses to give up during the normal down cycles of all life-long marriages. She is already thinking about divorce as an option and she is the mother of 4 young children! I remember my sister and bil going through a rough patch that lasted many years and my sister actually got to the point of wondering if she wanted to stay married after the kids had all left home. Fortunately, they did and today they have one of the best marriages I know of.

    • pittsburgh mama

      I like this idea, but at the same time it’s not always practical (and I would say not necessarily advisable with very young babies). My husband and I don’t have the money to go out every week, much less hire a babysitter and go out even if we did something free. But we do make time together in the evening after our two-year-old goes to bed, for more than just spacing out in front of the TV. Baby #2 is due in a few weeks and I know that will put a strain on our ability to be completely without our kids for quite a few months, but we’re okay with that and don’t think it has to negatively impact our marriage. It just means we have to shuffle around a bit to figure out how to best maintain our intimacy.

      • http://www.catholiccounselors.com Dr. Greg

        I agree. Date night is what everyone grabs for but they often don’t work like they’re supposed to–especially with a couple that is drifting apart– and they certainly don’t work, consistently, for couples with young children. Dr. Greg

      • Guest

        I actually strongly disagree this is not always possible. Almost anything is possible if you want it bad enough. It would be a rare situation in which a couple could not find any way to get away from the kids and focus on their relationship together for a couple of hours each week. There are co-op babysitting situations that need not cost any money. A picnic in the park or sitting in a car at the park if it’s raining is cheap – you were going to eat a meal at home anyway right?

        It’s exactly the procrastination of “We can’t do that right now” or “We’ll do that in a year or two when the baby is older” that insidiously leads to the problem of growing apart, day by day, week by week. Time has a way of marching on and years can pass, one day at a time, before you look up and realize what has happened. Truly, if you can’t make finding time to be a couple a priority this week, there is little reason to think it’s going to be a priority somewhere down the road because life is always going to be there to interfere.

        • pittsburgh mama

          I agree with you that carving out specific time as a couple is important; but I think that it might look incredibly different from one stage of life to the next, and used very young children as an example. My first, for example, had several weeks where he nursed nonstop from 6pm to 10pm, which is pretty typical of children that age (he was 2-3 months old at the time IIRC). It would not have been possible for me to be separate from him during that time because he needed me. But my husband and I were able to take him with us on outings, or if we were at home, we could still do things together, with baby in a sling nursing happily away. We found a way to make time for each other without sacrificing our child’s needs. And it was important to both of us to find a way to make it work for all of us, so we did. When our second is born, we’ll likely do the same thing if and when we do go out as a couple – babysitter for our older child, but bring the baby with us until that’s no longer necessary.

          (Similarly, I had several people tell me that it was “impossible” for DH and I to maintain a “healthy” sexual relationship if we continued to share sleep with our son and that it would negatively impact our marriage to do so. But we’ve found the opposite – it inspired us to be more creative and to think purposefully about how we would find that time to be together and be ready when we had it.)

          I don’t disagree that there are spouses out there who use the “well, we can’t do this now because we have kids” excuse and that it does lead to/exacerbate drifting, but I’ve found that it’s also very possible to say, “Well, we may not be able to do this the exact way we always have, but this is still important so let’s find another way to do it.” It needn’t be, “date night with no kids or bust.”

  • Theodore Seeber

    I’m looking forward to this weekend. Being the parents of a rather needy special-needs single child, our date night is now once a year- for her birthday, I take her to her favorite hotel, grandma watches the kid, and we have a nice evening and morning reconnecting. We really need it this year as a very divisive Presidential election cause a bit of a rift I find discouraging to say the least.

  • http://www.catholicap.com Kim Cameron-Smith

    When my husband and I are parenting infants and very young children we either don’t have “date nights” away from our kids or we take the baby with us. We don’t want to leave our infants and tiny children with a sitter and we don’t have family nearby. That doesn’t mean we don’t take special time for one another. Our together time might be playing cards after the kids go to bed, gardening together while our oldest child watches the kids in the house, that sort of thing. Now we have a teenager and our youngest is 3, so we have official “date nights” (or date afternoons) now. The most important thing to the health of our marriage hasn’t been the “big nights” we take to play together; it’s been the deep respect and love we display in small ways — these small things have set the tone for our relationship, making all those special play times even more fun.


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