End of a Generation

EndOfEra

It was almost 25 years ago when I first started to become aware of mortality; of life and death.

I remember sitting at the food court of a downtown shopping mall with my buddy Scott.  We were young, just out of high school, at an age we believed we were invincible.  And for the first time we were faced with death.

One of Scott’s grandparents was sick, and dying.  I can’t remember which one and I can’t remember if any of my grandparents had passed yet.  But I remember Scott and I talking, and him saying that in life you largely have three generations – the young people, the adults, and the old people.

Up until that time we had always been the young people, our parents had been the adults, and our grandparents had been the old people.  Yeah, sometimes you get a fourth generation in there; but usually it’s not for very long.  Most of the time you only have three generations overlapping – young, adult, and old.

And that day at the food court, we recognized that a transition was starting.

Our grandparents’ generation was starting to go, and with that Scott had started to see his parents in a different light.  They were still the adults, but suddenly he was starting to see signs of age with them that he had never noticed before.  And he recognized that before too long they were going to be the old people.  The new generation of young people was still a number of years away (for us), but it also meant we were starting the transition to becoming that middle generation – the adults.  And it was a change that neither of us were sure we were ready for.

 

This afternoon my Grandmother passed away.  Peacefully, at the age of 98 with some of her family at her side.

I’m not sad for my Grandmother, as it was her time.  She had a good, and incredibly long life.  The last few years were hard for her, and she’s now at peace.

But it’s hit me – she was the last of that generation, and now the transition is complete.

My parents are now “the old people”, I am part of the “adults”, and there is a new generation of “young people” that my own kids are a part of.

 

I look back at the last 25 years; from the people Scott and I were that day at the food court to the people we are today.

Since then we have finished school, started careers, and had relationships come and go.  We each met people who we thought would be our “forever person”.  We were each other’s best men when we married, and then we lost touch for a number of years as we built up our own lives and families at slightly different speeds, putting us at different stages of life.

We’ve both had our marriages fail, and it was happening at the same time, though neither of us knew what the other was going through at the time.

25 years of lives filled with experiences.

With emotions.

With happiness, joy, pain, sadness, anger, fear, and love.

I don’t think life has gone where either of us thought it would that day.  I’m not sure if that’s a good thing, but it’s also not necessarily a bad thing.  Because really, I doubt anyone’s life goes quite the way they once expected.

But the passing of my Grandmother has served as a reminder of what is important in life.

 

In my Grandmothers last few months there were periods of confusion where she didn’t know who people were and seemed to be living out her past, and there were also periods where she was lucid and able to laugh, joke and even sing (and play the harmonica, though I missed that).

A few weeks back during one of the periods of confusion, my Grandmother thought my dad was her husband (who has been gone for over 20 years).  She told my dad “thank you for finally coming to take me with you”.  I find that sweet, sad, and beautiful all at once.  All these years have passed, and as she was dying she wanted to be reunited with the man she loved.

Her last few weeks on this earth, my Grandmother was surrounded by her family.  At least one of her children was almost always by her side, and there were also visits from her grandchildren, and even her great grandchildren.

That is what is important.

 

I’ve been writing about relationships for a long time now; about how I believe they should be one of the most important things in our lives.  And nothing I have seen over the past few months has changed that belief.

Our relationships with friends, family, children, and especially our chosen partners should be important to us.  And our actions should reflect that.

So if you have someone in your life, hold them, tell them you love them, SHOW them you love them, and don’t let them go.

 

Goodbye Grandma.  Grandpa is waiting for you.

Advertisements

Relationship Limbo

Cracked clay landscape in the Atacama desert.

One of the main premises of my blog is, although each relationship is unique there are often common problems and issues affecting many of us.

So by looking at those “common problems”, in theory there will be many people out there who will be able to relate to what I’m trying to say.  Some of what I write is from experience while some is from things I have read or even just from personal observation.  But in my writing I try to look at things in terms of ideas, or beliefs.  I try not to write about me or my experiences directly.

 

In that regard, today’s post is a bit different.

Like many, my marriage was challenged; and that became the flashpoint event that caused me to turn to writing.

When I found out my wife was unhappy in our marriage; I wanted to understand, and to make things better.  I knew there was a lot of good, and I believed that if we could go back and find that good our life could be great again and we could have the “forever” we once promised each other.

So I fought for us.

I tried to grow to be a better person, and in that regard I would like to think I’ve succeeded.  But even though I grew personally, I still failed and our marriage failed.

Today I hope to share lessons I learned, painfully.

Every situation is different and what is right for me isn’t necessarily what is right for others, so everyone needs to judge for themselves what is right in their own situation.

But for me, these are “truths” I wish I had learned earlier.

 

My story

A number of years ago my wife told me she was no longer happy in our marriage.  She didn’t feel she loved me anymore, questioned if she ever “truly” loved me, and wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore.  I’ll guess she felt that way for a while, but it was over 4 years ago when she finally told me those things.

“Why” doesn’t really matter, and honestly I don’t actually know if she or I will ever really understand it.

I was caught off guard, as I hadn’t seen it coming.  To me, marriage was forever.  We had been together a long time and had a young family; so I didn’t want her to do anything rash.

I wanted to understand what was wrong, thinking if we could identify the problems we could improve them.  After all, isn’t that what you do?  Try to be there for each other and try to be better?

She told me she didn’t want “us” anymore, and further she didn’t even want to try because “what was the point”.  She had never communicated this to me before, but apparently for her she had been feeling this way for a while.

I was able to convince her to stay, but it was only ever in body.

She never seemed to buy in to the notion we could still be happy, and she never seemed to *want it* the way I did.

It felt like a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be married anymore, so her effort was sporadic, and never sustained.  And not putting in consistent effort undermined our ability to ever improve.

She wasn’t sure if she wanted to be married anymore, and after that day we really never were.

I continued to love her, but she didn’t seem to love me back.  Instead, we were in this limbo state where we were a bit more than roommates who co-parent, but not really a couple.  Any passion she once had for me or for us had long been gone.

In that situation, it was a struggle to remain positive and stay strong, holding on to hope things would get better.  But I tried.

Occasionally things would improve for a day or two; sometimes even weeks at a time.  During these moments I would feel connected again, and get a glimpse of what our life once was and what I felt it could be again.

But these moments were always fleeting, then her body language would change and the walls would come back up.  Emotional walls, where I could feel her holding back.  She either didn’t love me, was unable to express it, or didn’t believe she should have to.  But in the end it amounted to the same – my perception had been one of a number of years in a relationship where my love was not returned.

 

John Gottman (Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work) said a successful marriage needs 5 positive interactions for every negative interaction.  I disagree.  Tension and negative interactions may be bad; but apathy is worse. Living in limbo, without expressions of love and affection was a slow death, and in some ways I think a major issue or incident would have been better.

 

Limbo

Limbo is defined as:

“an uncertain period of awaiting a decision or resolution; an intermediate state or condition”.

And that’s what my life had become.

A life where I was married, but not.  I was with someone who wouldn’t commit to me, but was also unable to let me go.

In those early months and years, I thought I was doing the right thing.  I stayed with her, and accepted the lack of reciprocation of my love.

I told myself she just needed time.  I knew what we had, and I knew how great our life could be.  So all I had to do was stay positive and I would be able to get her to come back to me.  I could be the light that would bring her out of whatever dark place she was in.

So I waited.

I had visions of those romantic stories where people are separated by circumstance, and eventually they are reunited in their love.

I told myself that would be us.

One day she would see me again with fresh eyes, and she would love me again.  I even imagined us one day renewing our vows together.

I was an idiot.

 

What I failed to see was, this was different.  We weren’t separated by circumstance, this was choice.  This was someone who knew me, and knew everything about me.  She had every opportunity to be there and to choose me.  But she wouldn’t, or couldn’t.

She was a priority to me, but for her I wasn’t a priority anymore.  For whatever reason, I was just an option.  She wanted time to “figure stuff out”, to figure out what she wanted out of life.

And while she figured stuff out I was supposed to sit there and wait; and be there IF and when she decided she wanted us again, no matter how long that took.

option

 

In staying with her I thought I was doing “the right thing” for us and our family.  I thought I was respecting my vows, and being there for her in good times and in bad.  After all, marriage was supposed to be for life.

But the reality is, I wasn’t doing the right thing.

I wasn’t respecting myself.

By allowing us to stay in this limbo state where I wanted things but she didn’t, I was enabling this.  I was saying “this is alright, it’s okay for you to feel this way.  It’s okay for you to treat me this way”.

It wasn’t.

 

I needed her to make a decision.

I needed her to recommit to us.  To work on improving whatever was wrong, and to choose me, each and every day.

And if she couldn’t, I needed her to let me go.

 

limbo2

 

Establishing Boundaries

What does a relationship mean to you?  What do you need from your partner?  What behaviors from them are acceptable, and what aren’t?

I don’t think most of us know that.  I don’t think we understand what those things mean to us.

I know I didn’t.

I believed I loved someone, and she loved me, and that should be enough.  With that, everything else would just fall into place.

But I was wrong.

 

Living in limbo was difficult, but the one positive is it allowed me to try and understand those things.  I didn’t just mope at how sad my home life had become.  I took the time to understand who I really am, and what I need out of life and love.

There are things we want, and there are things we need.  Learning what these are is part of understanding ourselves, and establishing our own boundaries.  And once we’ve established them, we need to enforce them.

But nothing is either/or.  Everything exists on a spectrum.

Love, affection, kindness.

All of these things exist on a sliding scale.  Some days you will have more, other days less.

You can always have more, but at what point do you have enough?

 

My broken marriage was an awful experience, but it allowed me to learned what enough looks like for me.  I’ve learned what things I need, and what things I can’t and won’t do without ever again.

 

Finite Resources

In the investment world, people talk about how property is one of the safest investments you can make because there’s a finite amount of it.

And that’s true.

 

But there’s another thing there’s a finite amount of.

Time.

We have a finite amount of time on this earth, and each day should be precious.  Things aren’t always easy, they aren’t always fun, and that’s alright.  Getting through the hard times with someone you love is part of what makes a couple stronger.

But you have to believe in what you are doing.  You have to WANT it – even when it’s hard.  And if you DON’T want it?  That’s when you fail.

 

When things start to fall apart, it doesn’t mean you need to bail right away (if people did, I doubt ANY marriage would last).  When you have history together, it’s always good to give things a bit of time to turn around.

So the question becomes, when things aren’t working how long do you hold on?

I think that’s a question there’s no right answer for.  Initially I told myself I was going to give things 6 months.  That became a year, and then two.  Eventually we hit four years in this limbo state, where we were more roommates that co-parented then we were a couple.

And other than a handful of little moments, there was no real sign we would ever be able to find middle ground which would allow us to both be happy.

If we were actively working on things together, that time would have been an investment in a better future.  That’s not what happened though.  She just wanted more and more time to “figure things out”.  Her way.  At her pace.

Me, and my needs ceased to matter.  And I never got the sense that she actually wanted US.  She would “say” she wanted us, but her actions never reflected her words.

And as time passed, nothing changed.

 

Maybe it would have come had I waited another year.  Another 6 months?  Another week?  Who knows.

That’s the thing, you never know.  You can only ask yourself if you’ve done “enough”.  To that I can definitely look my children in the eye and tell them yes.  Their daddy did everything he could to keep his family together and hold on to his dream of forever.

But my best wasn’t enough.

I’ve learned you can’t make someone else love you.  And you can’t make someone else want something they no longer want.

But you CAN make it clear that certain things aren’t acceptable, and that you matter too.  You CAN stand up for yourself, and what you need out of life.

 

To the woman who was once my wife, and anyone out there in the same situation I say:

No one is entitled to a relationship.  If someone isn’t sure about what they want, they need to make a choice.

Commit, or get out.  Don’t hold people lives hostage because of your own uncertainty.

Because time wasted is time you will never get back.

 

Time-decides-your-life.jpg

Sorting Things Out

self-doubt_header

In the past I’ve written about relationship doubt and some of the things that can cause it.  Broken trust, anxiety issues, a belief that there may be someone out there who is *better* for you; all of these things can cause doubts.

Doubt is understandable but it’s also very dangerous, as belief is tied to effort.  At both a conscious or an unconscious level, the more someone doubts the less they put INTO the relationship.  As a result, if doubt is not dealt with it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, destroying the relationships.

 

In this post I want to look not only at the person having doubts, but also how it impacts the other person in the relationship.

 

 

If someone is having doubts about whether or not they really want their relationship or if it is the right one for them, there are a few things to think about.

First is the nature of the relationship.  It’s one thing to have doubts if you are casually dating, as those doubts are part of determining if it’s a relationship you actually want to commit to.  Once you have committed, things change a bit; and if you are living together, married, and/or have kids together then the complexity of the situation increases significantly.

Even in complex situations it is important to remember that a relationship involves two people.

If you are having doubts, you owe it to your partner to be honest with them.  Any problem or doubts you have affect them too – they NEED to know about it and they need to have an opportunity to be part of any solution.

 

I can understand the idea that sometimes we want to keep our thoughts to ourselves, especially when periods of doubt can be times when we don’t even really know what’s going on in our own heads.

However it’s pretty common to hear stories where one person thought that things were going pretty well, until one day they find out their partner has decided they want a divorce and they have already made up their mind.

To me, that should never, EVER happen.  Relationships are based on communication.  No one should ever be blindsided by these types of things.  If there is a problem, they have a right to know about it, and to at least have an opportunity to try and work on things; instead of being faced with a position where by the time they know it’s too late.

When someone doesn’t share their doubts, those doubts tend to grow and deepen.  And when that happens a distance will form, as the person with the doubts will naturally tend to withdraw and detach themselves from the relationship.

Some people may claim that their partner knew there were issues.  They had to, because they obviously saw the changes in behavior.

Well yeah, maybe.  I’m sure they did know something was up.  But unless it was communicated to them they had no way of understanding the severity of the doubt.  Relationships go through ups and downs all the time, frequently someone thinks they are just going through a down time – and then one day they wake up to find they are facing a divorce they never saw coming.

doubtpoisons

 

Time to Figure Things Out

Relationships change, things happen, and sometimes people question whether the life they have is really the one they want.  When it happens it sucks for everyone involved, but it’s part of life.

And when this happens, the person with doubts often wants some time and space to “figure things out”.  I get that.  It’s understandable that they can’t be fully engaged in a relationship if they aren’t sure they want it anymore.  And depending on the source of those doubts, I think most people’s partners will try to be understanding and give them a bit of time.

Here’s the problem though – a (committed) relationship isn’t a part time gig.  It’s not the sort of thing where you can just take a sabbatical, and come back when/if you decide that yeah, you are actually committed to it.

There has to be some empathy and understanding on both sides, but people need to find a way to continue the relationship even during this time.

If they can’t?  If they really need to “take a break”?

In my mind, that is what separation is for.

It is completely unfair and selfish for someone to expect to be able to “stay” in the relationship that they aren’t committed to it anymore.  People can’t just pick and choose the parts they feel like dealing with (usually the security of home, and family) while checking out on the parts they don’t want to deal with (usually emotional and physical intimacy).

To the best of their ability they need to find a way to do both.

 

In these situations the person with the doubts often wants time to figure things out in their own way, at their own pace.  They want their partner to give them time and space with no pressure.  To wait for them.

In a way there is something romantic about the notion of waiting for someone.

It brings to mind stories of WWII, where soldiers would go off to war and their girlfriends would promise to wait for them.  And the joy they would have when they were finally reunited.

This is different though.

In those cases the relationship was separated by circumstance; and the person waiting believed they would be coming back.

In the case of someone having doubts, why should the other person wait?  They are essentially being told that the person they love is “no longer sure if they want to be with them”.

Think about that for a moment.

No longer sure.

So they love someone and have committed to them, but that person isn’t sure they want things anymore.  Instead of being committed to getting through anything together, the person they love sees them as simply an option – not a priority.

Yet they are expected to just put their life on hold and wait, in the hopes that maybe their partner will continue to choose them.

And if they don’t?

Then that time spent waiting was time wasted.  Time of their life they will never get back.

 

You Can Never Go Home Again

Doubts happen, and as noted there can be all sorts of reasons that aren’t even directly related to the relationship.  Identity issues, depression, anxiety – all of these can cause doubt.  And sometimes those doubts will never go away.

But you need to identify the real cause of the doubt and actively fight back against it.  Because when someone checks out of a relationship because of those doubts they fundamentally alter the relationship forever.

Once you have been made to feel like an option, things are never the same again.  They can still be good, or even great.  But that magic of knowing that you will always be there for each other no matter what life throws at you?

Once that has been broken it’s gone forever.

 

I recently read a blog written by someone who’s partner had checked out on the relationship, and he wasn’t sure what to do.  One of the commenters told him that he should use this time to show his wife how much he loves her, because (in her words) “women like to be chased”.

Sorry, I can’t disagree with this more.

Maybe he had been taking his partner for granted and that was contributing to her doubts.  If so, and those doubts made him realize he had been taking them her for granted (sadly something that is natural in relationships), that’s one thing.  Then he should use this as a wake up call, and adjust his behavior appropriately.

We all want to feel valued, and appreciated (that applies to women and men).  But “chasing” accomplishes nothing.  Someone has to be there because they want to be there – not because they like the thrill of being chased.

It’s like an addict chasing the next high.  If someone is only there when they are being chased, how long will it be until they check out and are gone again?

No, if someone needs that thrill and that rush, then I would say let them go.

 

 

All sorts of things can cause doubt, and at times they can be crushing.  But if you are in a relationship the worst thing you can do is keep it to yourself.

It may seem like a deeply personal thing but it doesn’t just affect one person, so both people have to be involved.  The doubts may originate with one person, but both people need to be part of the solution.

Doubt can destroy relationships but it doesn’t have to.  In fact love can be strongest when it can accept those doubts and continue to thrive in spite of them.

DoubtingLove

Is It Better To Be Single?

guys-drinking-bar-rotator

A while ago I was out with a buddy, and while we were eating he looked at me and asked “do you ever miss being single?”

That’s a pretty loaded question, so I had to get a bit of clarification on what he meant.  He wasn’t talking about dating, or looking for other women.  He was talking about simply being able to do what we were doing – being able to go out and grab some food with a buddy.  To not have to worry about kids, or when he needs to be home, or feeling guilty about leaving his wife alone with the kids while he goes takes time for himself.

Looking at it that way, do I miss being single?

Truthfully?

Of course I do.  But maybe it’s better to say that I miss certain aspects of it.

 

The Traditional Path

Growing up many of us follow the template:

  • Finish high school
  • Get a post-secondary education
  • Start a career
  • Date, with the hopes of finding that someone you want to build a life with
  • Get married
  • Raise a family

We follow the template because we see it.  It’s been modeled to us our whole lives – from parents, grandparents, friends, the media, etc.  And although people may not say it explicitly, at least at a subconscious level we are taught that this is “the best way”, or “the right way” to live.

Is it TRULY the best way to live?

Personally I like the template, but divorce rates (that continue to hover around 50% for first marriages) would seem indicate that it’s not necessarily an easy way to live.

So best?  Who knows.

At the very least, I can say it’s not the only way to live.

 

Different “Ways” To Live

There are other ways to life your life.

Some choose to remain single (with no relationship).

For people who do, I suppose you can question if they actually want to be single or if they have just resigned themselves to it.

I suspect it’s probably a mix of both.  Really, for the people who are married I wonder how many actually want to be married and how many are simply scared to be alone.  In any case, remaining single is a viable choice, and is the one that provides the greatest amount of personal freedom.

You may never actually be able to do whatever you want, but your choices impact less people when it’s just you.

 

Others may stay single yet date casually.  I guess this is way of trying to have some of the benefits of a relationship without the expectations commitment brings.

 

Then you have others who are in exclusive relationships, but have no interest in marriage or even living together.  I know a guy who’s been with his girlfriend for a few years now.  Both are divorced, have their own kids, and love each other.  But they still value living independently, and their relationship is mainly characterized by getting together a few nights a week and vacationing together periodically.

According to him this approach helps reduce the effects of taking each other for granted (hedonic adaptation), because they only see each other when they want to.

Personally I don’t get it, but hey, it seems to work for them.

 

For each of these approaches you can also add a variation – with kids and without.  If you’re raising a family together, I would think that probably works best for all involved if you are living under one roof.  But kids bring with them a whole other set of challenges.

Really, the life of a married couple with no kids generally looks VERY different from the life of a married couple with kids.  And even comparing couples with kids, the number of kids and their ages can have big impacts on what the couple’s lives look like.

 

Choosing a Path

So what approach is best?  To stay single (and not date)?  Date casually?  Get married?  Have kids?  Not have kids?

There’s no right or wrong answer here.

  • If you stay single you have the greatest control over your own life.  And although you may not have a “partner”, you probably have friends, family, coworkers, etc to provide much of the connection that people often look for in a relationship.
  • If you date casually, your relationship life is probably more “exciting” (speculating here, as I really wouldn’t know).  The early phase of a relationship is often referred to as the discovery phase, or the passion phase.  It’s a phase that can’t last though, so having a number of new relationships ensures you are always having new experiences.
  • If you are in a long term committed relationship where you are living with that person/married, you will have a partner in life, and someone to share experiences and “grow old” with.
  • If you have children, you have the experience of truly developing and shaping another life to be the best it can be.  And there is a certain level of pride and joy in being a parent that is difficult to articulate, and can only be understood by someone who is a parent.

 

Each approach to life is different.  They each have a number of strengths; but there are also a number of challenges and struggles inherent to each approach.

There is no perfect approach that can give you the good without the bad.  Being a parent has some incredible and rewarding moments.  But man, it also involves a lot of sacrifice and challenges.  Getting married and having a partner in life can be great, but it can also be very difficult.

Each choice involves making some sort of sacrifice, and giving up something else.  It’s part of the trade off.

 

Grass is Greener Syndrome

Where we get ourselves in trouble is when we start comparing, or looking at “the road not chosen”.

When times are good, we don’t even think about our choices (which sadly means we actually taking them for granted and not appreciating the good in them).

When times get hard though?  Well, during those times the sacrifices and challenges or our chosen road often stand out.  And it’s easy to start to question if it’s worth it.

 

Imagine you have chosen one road, and you find yourself talking to someone who has chosen another.  It’s really easy to look at their life and see primarily the good parts.  The freedoms they have that are different from yours, the sacrifices you make that they don’t seem to have to make.

Remember though – two people can go out who have chosen different roads, and talk.  And each can head home envious of the others life.

The grass isn’t really greener on the other side.  It’s just a bit different.  With both strengths and weaknesses – just like the life we have now.

 

Going back to the start, do I miss being single?  Sure, sometimes.  I would be lying if I said otherwise.  I also sometimes miss the freedom from my life before I was a parent.

Hell, I miss the days I lived at my parents – where I had no job (beyond my paper route), no responsibilities or bills, and not a care in the world.  Did I appreciate that life at the time?  Of course not – because that life was just what I knew.

And that’s the sad part.

Often you don’t appreciate the things you have until they are gone.  We shouldn’t HAVE to lose things before we can appreciate them.  We should be able to take time out every day, and be truly grateful for the things we DO have.

If we could do that, maybe the bad times wouldn’t feel so overwhelming.  Maybe we wouldn’t get to the point where we are looking longingly at the road not taken.

 

So instead of looking at what we don’t have and what we are missing, perhaps we should be trying to remember and appreciate the strengths of the road we have chosen.  And focusing on making it the best life it can be.

justNeedToWaterIt

 

 

How Does Parenting Affect Your Relationship?

HappyFamilyHeader.jpg

A while back I read a post where someone was wondering how kids change your marriage. The guy who wrote it was fairly recently married.  He and his wife were thinking about starting a family and he was worried about how it would impact their marriage.

It was a thoughtful question.

What do kids do to your marriage?
Do they make it better, or worse?
Do they alter the bond between husband and wife?

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people don’t even consider this. They just think hey, we know we want to have kids one day (though they probably can’t say why they want them).

And so they do.

And then they find themselves woefully unprepared for what comes next.

At first, it would seem as though children should make the bond between a couple stronger; after all, children are a product of your love for each other, right? Fine, they may also be the product of one night of bad decisions; but let’s assume for the moment that they are wanted by the couple who decided to have them.

In that case, do they strengthen the bond?

Well, it seems the reality is a bit complicated.

In fact most studies state that relationship satisfaction decreases after kids are born. According to The Wall Street Journal:

About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child, according to data from the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening families. Conflict increases and, with little time for adult conversation and sex, emotional distance can develop.

In theory a baby can help strengthen the bond between a couple. But for some reason when I think of “strengthening the bond”, emotional distance is not one of the things I think of.

So why does this happen? What changes?

 

Life Changes

When you go from being single to being part of a couple your life changes. But for the most part, you are still you. Yeah some people lose themselves too much in the relationship, but their identity is still as a person (who is fitting someone else into their life). When you need some “me” time, it’s usually not that difficult to do.

When you become a parent however, your life changes irrevocably. You are now a parent fulltime, 24-7, every day of the year.

And for the next however many years, the needs of the child will always trump your own.

It’s not better, or worse (though I suppose it could be argued that some aspects are definitely better while others are worse). Looking at it on the whole though, the best way to describe it is that it’s simply different.

And in addition to your life, it also fundamentally changes the nature of your relationship.

The needs of the baby/toddler/child don’t just trump the needs of the individual – they trump the needs of the couples as well.

So as a couple one of the biggest and most noticeable changes is that you no longer have nearly as much time for each other as you used to.

This seems obvious, and something people should know going in. I mean, it’s simple math. People only have so much time and energy, and kids take time and energy. So adding them to a relationship will reduce the amount of time the couple has to focus on each other.

But I don’t think most people really realize exactly how much it changes their “couple time”, or how much of a toll it can take.

 

Increased Stress

A while back I posted on stress, and on the impacts stress can have on relationships.

Basically, stress is corrosive to relationships.

When stressed, we tend to become inwardly focused. We see how the stress is affecting us and tend to forget that it is also affecting our partner as well. We are also more likely become more sensitive to and notice smaller things and allow them to become blown out of proportion. There are other issues, but basically high levels of stress can kind of make us selfish jerks.

Well, kids can be rewarding but they can also be a great source of stress.

First, they are a responsibility that doesn’t go away. In the early years they basically need us 24-7, and the weight of this responsibility can take a toll. We want the best for our kids, and we want THEM to be the best they can be. This leads to immense pressure on our ability to be a parent. When we are struggling, it can make us feel like we are failing our kids and this can make us feel like failures as parents.

Add in things like kids getting sick, fighting, trying to figure things out on their own and just being kids? Well, it can be at once stressful and exhausting.
All of which can make us less patient with our partners.

And this is even before you start looking at the breakdown of who is taking on the lion’s share of parenting duties (hint – it’s usually the woman).

 

Parenting Conflicts

Which brings me to the next fun part – parenting conflicts, which tend to come in a few different ways.

The first of these is the approach to parenting. It would be great if parents agreed on “how” they wanted to parent in advance, but chances are they haven’t even thought of it. Instead we often just go with what was modeled to us growing up without even thinking about it.

When we do this there are bound to be differences, and these conflicting parenting styles can cause serious conflict.

It’s usually pretty easy to accept that your partner is different from you and has different outlooks on the world. When those differences impact your children however, it’s easy to become possessive and defensive (mama/papa bear will ALWAYS protect their cub). Approaches to discipline is often a prime example of this

When we can’t agree on an approach to parenting, often each side is convinced that their way is right while their partner is wrong. This attitude is terrible for a couple, as instead of being a “we” it becomes a case of you vs. me.

 

Changing Roles

Perhaps the biggest change that happens when a couple becomes parents is a change in roles. Before they were both individuals and a couple – probably in fairly equal parts. This is not only a life change but also a role change, as the role of parent becomes the primary one.

As a couple you likely started as friends and lovers, but now you are primarily parents and this change can result in a sense of loss and cause conflict in couples.

Marriage counselors talk about how one of the biggest complaints couples have is that they don’t feel their partners make enough time for them anymore. While they understand that the kids are the priority, they don’t feel like they are a priority anymore.

Maintaining being a couple even after kids is extremely important, and many counselors talk about the value of ensuring there is still time for the couple by carving out time in the schedule for things like date night.

Although most couples seem to understand why that’s important it is still something that often goes ignored. It’s one thing to understand why it’s important, but actually making time is not always easy when there seem to be a million other things that need to be done.

 

Diminished Sex Life

Going hand in hand with the changing roles comes a diminished sex life. This is an unfortunate yet understandable side effect of having kids – especially in the early years. It’s hard to feel sexy when you are always exhausted or worried about the kids. Stress has huge negative impacts on sex drive, and as discussed earlier kids are a source of stress.

Many couples say that after the first few years of kids they see their sex lives bounce back somewhat. Likely not to the levels they were at before kids, but generally to a level both partners can accept.

In some cases however, the sex drive doesn’t come back at all.

This is usually (though not exclusively) an issue faced by women. Last I checked I’m not a woman, so I won’t pretend to understand all the reasons. But from what I know it can be a combination of things, from body and hormonal changes, to feeling solely like a mom instead of feeling like a woman, to sheer exhaustion and resentment from the unequal burden that is normally faced by women when it comes to child rearing.

Sexual problems are often associated with feelings of guilt and shame, so this is an issue that often goes ignored. Some couples convince themselves that it’s not that important, or that it’s just a natural part of getting older. Or things will just come back on their own if they give it time.

It’s only true that it’s not important if both people in the relationship agree with that, and a lost sex drive is not simply a natural part of getting older. If this loss of sex drive occurs it shouldn’t be ignored as it is often a significant factor in the breakdown of relationships.

 

Support Systems

In a relationship it’s always important to have time for “me”, and making time for yourself is even more important once kids are in the picture as it allows people to retain a bit of their own identity and not get completely lost in the role of parent.

It’s still very important to balance this with time as a couple (without kids) though.

A challenge here is that many couples don’t have a strong support system that allows them to get time as a couple. So each partner ends up taking turns, going out as individuals while the other partner watches the kids.

This time is valuable, and important. The danger is that without sufficient couple time as well, each persons only real break or “fun” time comes as an individual. And when you start to associate fun, and a freedom from the stress and responsibilities of kids as also being time away from your partner it can start to create doubt about the relationship.

Family time is not couple time. And couple time is not me time. Finding a working balance between all three is needed to keep the relationship alive and well.

 

Financial Impacts

Another challenge presented by kids is financial. Adding kids to a family adds a new expense center. Food, clothes, activities; all these things cost a fair bit. And maybe it’s just my job, but I don’t think people get pay increases to offset these costs. So the end result is couples have less money to do things.

They also have less freedom, as things like holidays soon are limited to times that they kids aren’t in school.

It’s not that you can’t do the things you did before. It’s just that it takes a lot more planning, and you probably can’t do them as frequently.

 

Adding It All Up

Reading over this it probably seems as though I have a negative view on having kids, and that’s not the case at all. I’m a father, and I love my kids and wouldn’t change a thing. In fact I believe my children have enriched my life considerably.

Kids do introduce all of these things though, and they all require adjustments and take a considerable toll. In fact, indirectly I’ll go so far as to say that the additional stresses caused by kids are probably one of the leading causes of divorce. Which is ironic, as they are a product of the love a couple shares.

Kids put additional stresses on relationships, but I want to be clear that I don’t think this has anything to do with the kids themselves. They aren’t to blame, ever. What IS to blame is that people generally don’t talk about these things, so couples aren’t prepared.

They run into these challenges, and they start to believe that something is wrong. And since people rarely walk away from their kids the relationship is often blamed, when what they are going through is actually fairly normal.

Being a parent is a fantastic experience, and it can be very rewarding. But it can also be very hard, and many couples can’t handle the strain it puts on their relationship.

 

Making it Work

I’ve heard a lot of couples who have “made it” confirm the challenges of being a parent. And often I will hear them say things like “stick it out, and things will get better”.

Sometimes couples that are having troubles stay together “for the kids”. 90% of me is completely against that. You need to stay together because you love each other, and want a life together. If you no longer love each other for whatever reason, then it does the kids no good to have a loveless relationship modeled to them as they grow up.

The remaining 10% of me thinks that if kids give you another reason to stay together and stick it out through tough times, then that can be as good a reason as any. But that’s only if you then use this time the kids have bought you to actively work on and improve your marriage. I’ve heard of some couples who stayed together “for the kids” who then learned to love each other again and rebuild, and were happy they had done so. I think that’s great.

Ultimately you need to be with each other because you still love each other, and still want to share your lives.  Not just because of kids.

More often though I think couples who split up do still love each other. And it’s really just the stress that comes with being parents that has put emotional distance between them. I think often they do still want to love each other, and have just lost sight of how. In being parents and not making time to be friends and lovers, they have lost each other.

What If?

what-if header

When I was a kid I used to read comics, and although I didn’t read it on a regular basis I always enjoyed a series called “What If”.

The premise of the series was great. Comics have their own history and continuity, so the “What if” series was a way to explore alternatives to that history. It allowed writers to imagine how the current comic world would look if just one event happened differently, or one decision was made differently.

For example, the Hulk is the typical Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story. He’s a brilliant scientist to transforms into a powerful yet relatively mindless creature. What would happen if he could maintain his brilliant mind while adding the power of the Hulk? How would that change that character, as well as the universe he lives in?

WhatIf

These stories imagining alternate realities in the world of comics were usually fairly silly and often a lot of fun.

 

I think in some capacity, we all play the “what if” game with our own lives. What if we had made a certain decision differently, or what if one event happened differently.

What would it mean to us today?

How would it impact our lives?

Usually if we are having these thoughts, it’s because something about how are lives are “today” hasn’t worked out quite the way we thought it would. After all, there’s not a lot of need to look back and imagine what things would be like if you are happy with where you are now.

 

I recently saw the Disney/Pixar movie Inside Out (great film by the way), and there is bit about this thinking that becomes a recurring joke. There’s a scene where a family is having dinner and the mom is concerned about how their daughter has been behaving. She turns to her husband for support with their daughter, and is disappointed by how he handles things. In her disappointment, she has a memory about a Brazilian helicopter pilot who appears to be straight out of a romance novel.

At the moment the mom seems to be thinking, “I chose you when I could have had him”.

InsideOutHelicopterPilot

As comedy relief, it was a funny scene.

But really, “what if” is a very destructive form of thought.

It’s an exercise in mental futility, because you can never know how any other scenario would have played out. If today hasn’t worked out the way you thought it would, what makes you think any “what if” scenario would have worked out the way you think it would have?

Sure, you can tell yourself “things would have been better if…”. But you will never know. It may have been better and it may have been worse. At the very least, you wouldn’t be the same person you are today.

What would have happened if the mom from Inside Out had gone with the Brazilian Helicopter Pilot?  Her life would have been completely different.  Chances are there would have been good, and some bad.  The relationship would have had some excitement, and some struggles.  Plus, any good experiences she has shared with her husband would never have happened, and that includes their daughter.

 

I know, I know.  It’s a cartoon.  But we all think this way from time to time.

I’ve imagined, what if I stuck with drawing?  What if I started playing basketball at an earlier age?  What if I would have been willing to leave town to go to school?

There are always “what if’s”.  Truly though, they don’t matter.

Sure, maybe X or Y would have happened if you had made certain choices differently, or if events had worked out differently.

But they didn’t.  Where you are today is where you are.  And the past can’t change that, only the future can.

 

“What if” is a waste of time, and it can cripple people. It can not only trap you in re-examing past decisions, but it can also prevent moving forward with current decisions. After all, if you are ruminating over past decisions what if your next decision doesn’t turn out the way you want?

What really matters is where we are today, and what we are going to do with our present state.

Are you happy with where you are, and is your level of happiness enough? There are so many different aspects to life that I don’t believe anyone will ever be totally happy, and that’s alright. Are you content though?

If not, what are you doing about it?

If you are dissatisfied with your current situation, getting caught in the past accomplishes nothing. What matters is how you move forward. How do you improve upon your current situation? Does the situation need to change? Or is it enough to change your thinking and your level of acceptance of the current situation?

I truly believe that is what life is really about. Making decisions, and then doing the best with the decision you have made. If you aren’t happy, change your situation.

And accept that no matter what road you have taken in the past, or whatever road you take in the future, there WILL be surprises. There WILL be disappointments. Things aren’t going to work out exactly the way you had planned, and that’s alright.

We adapt, we adjust, and we keep going.

Because often the most important part about happiness is not worrying about disappointment. Not worrying about what is missing. Instead, happiness is about focusing on what you do have, and appreciating the little moments each and every day.

Escape With Each Other

Hug

In my last post I presented the idea that relationship issues are frequently (and perhaps usually) not actually issues with the relationship. Rather, they are issues with stress management.

I think it’s safe to say the following is true:

  1. people have different amounts of stress in their lives
  2. we are different in how well we manage the stresses we do have
  3. some ways of coping with those stresses are healthier than others

We all have stress in our lives, and studies show just how damaging stress is. It’s extremely bad for your own health, and it’s also extremely bad for relationships. In fact, high stress jobs tend to also be associated with high divorce rates.

So stress management is pretty important for both your own health and the health of your relationship. We all have things we do to de-stress. Ways to escape, however temporarily, from the stresses of life.

My idea in my previous post was that over time, in our heads our partner comes to represent our stress. We start to incorrectly see them as the source of our stress instead of seeing them as someone who is dealing with the same (or at least similar) stresses as us at the same time.

In a healthy relationship, our partner is our shelter in the storm of life. They are the first person we go to in order to let go, or relax. So once we’ve started to associate them with the stresses of life, our relationships get into trouble.

It is often said that bad relationships cause stress. That may be true, but stress doesn’t only happen in “bad relationships”. People can have relationships that have all the ingredients to be amazing, but they can still be destroyed by stress.

Allowing Escapism

In my last post I talked about escaping from stress, and how many forms of escapism are unhealthy ways of dealing with stress. For example, I believe this sense of escapism is actually one of the leading causes of affairs. But there are also healthy forms of escapism.

One reader (bac4sccr) made the following comment:

I believe the trick (I am no expert though) is to allow the escapism. You may think I am crazy but if it is allowed you can get away from the stresses of life. The catch is can you do the escapism together as a couple. Zombiedrew2 already used sex as an example of escapism. I agree that it can be used but it cannot be the only form. It could be weekly dates where you are not allowed to talk about money or kids or your car breaking down. You do something with your partner to escape. You associate this escapism (positive) with your spouse and then your relationship grows because you associate it and your partner with positive thoughts and feelings.

I absolutely love this comment, and wanted to expand on it a bit – stealing some of my reply to his comment.

As a side note, many thanks for the people who write in and leave comments. I try to respond to every comment I get, and feel it is the interaction between bloggers and readers that really drives a site. If you have any thoughts on any of my posts I encourage you to write in. I am always interested in different ideas and insights, and believe we can learn a lot from each other as well as provide a bit of support for each other at the same time. Plus when you comment (or even just hit the “like” button) it lets me know someone is actually reading – which is always nice.

Back on topic, I think escaping together is probably the lifeblood of a relationship. And it’s also the area that MOST couples fail.

Miserably.

Escaping Alone

The hardest part of a relationship is balancing the “me” and the “we”. It’s not healthy to completely lose yourself in your relationship, but at the same time you don’t want to be roommates who simply share bills and sleep in the same bed.

It’s important that you maintain the couple. You should never use the excuse of there being “not enough time”, because it’s pretty damned important. Important enough that you need to MAKE time. And when you actually do have time, you need to let go of the distractions of life. Turn towards each other and focus on each other.

Yeah, you still need to do things as an individual. It’s important to have time to yourself, away from your partner. But when most or all of your escape time is as a “me”, here’s what happens…

Your escape time is when you can let go of the stress of life. So when your escape time is usually on your own (or at least away from your partner) at a subconscious level you start to associate the feelings of being relaxed, and being free from stress with the times that you are away from your partner.

If you had already started to associate the stresses of life with your partner, this just deepens it.

And if those stresses have led you to have any doubts about your relationship? Well, this will just “prove” those doubts to you.

I think this happens to couples with kids more than couples without, and there’s a reason for it that is at once sad and ironic.

Kids are awesome, but they require a lot of care and attention. Often it can be hard to find care, so one parent ends up home with the kids while the other is off having “me” time. So they are able to relax on their own.

Why?

Because they actually trust their partner with the kids.

They can relax because they know that their partner will take care of the kids. This sense of trust allows them to relax. But if they only relax when they are away from their partner, over time that negative association is made.

Hmm, I have fun and I can relax on my own. But when I’m with my partner I’m stressed and can’t relax. Shouldn’t I feel differently? Maybe this indicates a problem in our relationship? Maybe I’m better off on my own?

Yeah, when it comes to the health of the relationship that’s not really a good association to make.

Trends in Divorce

Divorces can happen to couples at any time, and for any number of reasons. But if you look at stats on divorces you will see that there are a few trends, and times in life and marriage where they happen more frequently.

The first group are marriages last less than two years. Chances are those are couples who were simply a bad match, and they couldn’t get along.

The next group is probably in their late 30’s to early 40’s. They are hitting midlife, and are probably at one of the hardest stages in life for dealing with the stresses of “day to day” life. This is when people are most likely to have young kids and tighter cash flow. But it’s also when they are most likely to question “is this it” about their relationship and life in general. If your marriage is going to fall apart, chances are this is when it happens.

And the last is after the kids have grown up and moved out. This couple was probably in trouble when they hit group 2, but due to the kids they were able to hold on and get by. Suddenly they look at each other and realize they have grown apart and the only thing they had in common over the past 15-20 years was the kids. Some stay in the marriage and live largely independent lives. Probably because they’ve invested so much time and they don’t want to start over.

Holding On

I guess my point in all this is that you start a relationship because you saw something in each other once.

Something wonderful.

Something beautiful.

Something you wanted to hold onto, forever.

But a lot of us screw things up. We lose the very things that brought us together, and we don’t realize it until things are in a bad spot – and for many it’s too late.

And when it fails, often it wasn’t the relationship that was the problem. It was the stress of daily life, and the fact that instead of tackling it together stress caused us to retreat into ourselves and focus more on being an individual.

Finding time as a couple and making it a priority is the ONLY way out in my opinion. But to do that you need to recognize the difference between relationship stresses and life stresses. The life stresses are ones you are both experiencing at the same time, and changing the relationship won’t make them any better.

So yeah, you will need to escape sometimes.

But do it together.

Focus on each other, and always make time to connect (or reconnect if need).

Remember that you are supposed to be each others shelters from life. When times are hard, don’t turn away from your partner.

Turn towards each other, and just love each other.