Why Counselling Fails

therapistoffice

Picture this scenario:

There’s a couple, who love each other; but one day they realize they are having problems.  Or maybe they aren’t even having problems, and instead they find themselves thinking that maybe there should be more to life.

Whatever is going on starts to put stress on their relationship, and they are starting to question if they really want this relationship any more.  Or maybe they know they still want the relationships, but not as it currently is.  They want to see some sort of changes that they believe will improve the relationship.

So, either because they think it may help or because other people are suggesting it is a good idea, they decide to see the help of a couples counselor.

 

The problem is, counselling often doesn’t work.

 

I don’t have any real hard numbers here, but from what I’ve seen only around 10% of couples show any sort of improvements in their relationship after seeing a counselor.  And for people who choose to see a counselor, around 50% of the relationships end up failing.

That 50% number is right in line with overall divorce rates, so really, what’s the point.  If seeing a counselor doesn’t really improve the success rate of relationships, it looks like it’s just a waste of time and money.

 

Why?

 

Is counselling nothing more than a waste of time and effort?  Or can it actually help relationships?

I happen to believe counselling CAN be very valuable – both individually and as a couple.  But you need to be doing it for the right reasons, and you need to go in with the right mindset.

 

 

Prevention or Cure?

The first big problem with counselling is, couples often go to a counselor WAY too late.  In fact, many counselors feel that a couple has gone to see them a year or two later than they probably should have.

In many ways this is understandable.  Our personal issues are, well, personal.  Communication is hard at the best of times, which probably the biggest reason that couples get into trouble in the first place.  Yet couples who are struggling with some sort of issues are supposed to now go to see some third party (with their partner) and talk to them about the exact issues they find it hard to talk to their partner about?

Ummm, yeah.  Not fun, or easy.  So it’s easy to see why people often opt to instead do nothing, and hope that this is something that will pass, or something they can just live with.

Except it doesn’t work that way. Ignoring things doesn’t work, and will never make things better

As the saying goes:

prevention

Yet most couples see counselling a last resort, so what may have been fairly manageable issues tend to grow and become magnified.  Resentment often sets in, and by the time people are willing to accept that it’s a big enough problem that they need to do something, there is a lot of damage that needs to be undone before any true improvements can be made.

 

Problem?  What Problem?

Another big problem with counseling is, in order for it to be effective BOTH people must want it, and see a need for it.  Unfortunately relationship issues often don’t work that way.

Commonly one person is actually pretty happy (or at least content) with the things that are a problem for the other person.  This can make it very difficult to see any real improvements, because the person who wants to see changes needs to get buy-in from someone who doesn’t see a need for any changes.

 

An important thing to remember is, a relationship involves two people and both peoples needs/wants have to matter.  If one person believes there is a problem (lets just call it an opportunity for improvement) – then guess what, there’s a problem.  The other person who doesn’t really see this as an issue can’t just convince their partner it’s not an issue, or wish it away.  Whether they like it or not, if their partner believes there is an issue then there’s a legitimate issue.

In fact, one of the WORST things they can do is try to convince their partner it’s not an issue.  By doing that, they are invalidating their partners’ feelings and beliefs (hopefully unintentionally).  And doing that will only serve to widen any gaps between a couple.

 

 

What is your Goal?

The last (and largest) problem I see with counselling is the reason people go.

See, we have this (broken) notion that unconditional love means you are being accepted “as you are”.  And being accepted for who you are means you shouldn’t have to change.

But if a couple is talking about going to counselling, generally there is a reason.  Something is not working, or could be working better.

And how is that supposed to happen without change?

I’m pretty sure a couple doesn’t expect to go to a counselor, describe their issues, and then have the counselor say something like “Sounds great, keep doing what you’ve been doing”.  That won’t address anything.  That won’t allow anything to improve.

No, couples go to counseling usually because one person is pushing them there, and on at least some level the person pushing for counseling is expecting the counselor to side with them.

They are expecting to go in and tell their story, and have the counselor “fix” their partner for them.  They want the counselor to tell their partner to change their behavior in ways that better accommodate them, and their needs.

 

And that is where I think counselling really starts to fall apart; because that’s not what it’s for.

 

To me, counseling is not about determining who’s right or wrong.  It’s not about having one person change their behavior to accommodate the other person.

It’s really about trying to understand the conflicts facing a couple, the gaps between their needs and wants, and trying to find a path forward works best for BOTH people.

And that will almost never involve change on only one side.

 

For counseling to be successful, I think both people need to be willing to face some potentially uncomfortable truths about themselves, and their roles in the problems their relationship faces.  Yeah, one person may be “more to blame” than the other, but that doesn’t really matter.  If you are looking for who’s to blame, you’re already in trouble.

What’s really more important – for things to be better, or for you to be right?  People often say they want things to be better (for both people), but really they usually want to be right.  Because accepting that they have contributed to the problems means they have to change too.

It’s easy to see how and why our partners should change to accommodate us, but looking at our own part in things?  That’s hard.  It means we may have to change some things too, and no one wants to change – because change is scary as hell.

 

 

Maintaining Relationships

If we buy a car, we understand we need to do periodic maintenance or it will break down (seriously, just try driving your car and never changing the oil.  I promise it won’t be fun).  If we buy a house we understand there is yard maintenance that needs to be done and general repair.

Hell, we understand that doing something like taking a bath or a shower on a regular basis is fairly important to personal hygiene.

Everything wears out, gets dirty or breaks down over time if you don’t maintain it.  But our relationships?  In theory they should be one of the most important things in our lives – yet most of us do a TERRIBLE job of even maintaining them (never mind growing them).

 

Counselling is often seen as a last resort for couples who are searching for how to “save” their relationship, or make it better.  And often even when we do go, it’s more about how we can make the relationship better for us than it is about how to make life better as a couple.

 

So what is your goal?  Do you truly want to grow old with your partner?  If so, wouldn’t it maybe be a good idea to try and make your relationship the best it can be – for both of you?

If so, putting in effort and working on your relationship a little be every day may go a long way towards keeping it strong.  Trying to truly listen to your partner, and acknowledge when problems exist (even when it doesn’t seem like a problem for you) and show willingness to work on them may also help.

Sometimes it’s hard to work through things together.  Sometimes we do need a bit of help – and that shouldn’t be something to be embarrassed about or ashamed of.

Divorce rates continue to hover around 50%.  And success rates for couples who seek counselling are also believed to be around 50%.

But if you could quantify the success rates for couples who are able to put ego aside and really focus on doing what’s best for “us” instead of what’s best for “me”, I’m confident the numbers would be considerably higher.

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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

 

 

Are You and Your Partner Compatible?

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I’m a big believer in marriage, and I’m pretty sure most people go into marriage with the belief that their marriage will succeed.

Yet roughly 50% or all first marriages fail.

And in the vast majority of divorces is North America (and presumably more of the world), the reason given for the divorce is irreconcilable differences.

So, what exactly are irreconcilable differences?

Yeah, the words tell you this means the couple has differences they can’t figure out, but what does that even mean?

I tried to find a good explanation for irreconcilable differences, and at this site (a divorce law site of course) I found the following:

 

What that this means is that you and your spouse’s basic fundamental differences make it impossible to stay married. For some couples, arguments over child discipline, politics, finances, or religion are severe enough to drive a permanent wedge in the marriage. Other couples may want a divorce because they fight a lot, have personality conflicts, or simply don’t trust each other. Whatever your differences with your spouse, they must be permanent enough that your marriage has become irretrievably broken.

 

So basically, at some point in time a couple comes to a determination that they aren’t compatible, and this incompatibility is significant enough that they can’t handle being together anymore.

 

How Does Compatibility Break Down?

You know, I’ve never gone to a wedding where the couple said things like “I’m looking forward to the start of our next few years together, until we realize our differences are so significant we have to hire lawyers to break down the life we will be building together.”

Guys supposedly aren’t very good at listening though, so that could be on me.

Realistically though, when a couple gets married they believe they are compatible.  I’m pretty sure they know they have differences, but when they stand up there and pledge forever to each other, they believe they have what it takes to make it.

Yet almost 50% of marriages fail.

What the hell are we doing wrong?

How does compatible become irreconcilable?

 

I guess at least part of it is change.

People are constantly growing and evolving, so the couple who stands there and exchanges vows is likely quite a bit different from the couple who later find themselves dealing with divorce lawyers and legal fees.

They changed.

They may have believed they were compatible on the marriage day, but as the years went by they were no longer those same people.

Another problem could be they knew they had differences, but thought they could “get past” them.  On the wedding day they figured those differences weren’t a problem, but over time they were proven wrong.

Thing is, people are different, and people change.  Those two things are among the few constants in life.  So unless we are willing to accept the idea that the institute of marriage is broken (and I’m not willing to accept that), we need to figure out how we can do a better job of accepting change, and find ways to stay happy together in spite of it.

 

Accepting Influence

A little over a year ago I wrote a post called Accepting Influence, and although my thoughts on it have changed a bit in the past year I think accepting influence is probably the most important thing you can do in order to have a successful relationship.

In fact, I think accepting influence is what relationships are really all about.

A marriage isn’t just a way of sharing living expenses, or having someone there to take care of you.  A marriage is not just about having your needs fulfilled.  In fact, it’s not about a “me”, and it’s not about a “you”.

It’s about an “us”.

When two people meet, it’s often some of their shared interests that bring them together.  They have some things in common, and these common interests give them things to talk about and experiences to share.

When talking about compatibility it is often these common interests that are talked about.

Hey, we both like to travel, we both like similar foods, movies, music… whatever it is.

But no matter how similar you are, people also have differences.  AND, they change over time.

 

Accepting influence is all about learning to navigate those differences, and expanding your world so that you start to care about things you normally wouldn’t have – BECAUSE they matter to your partner!

At a superficial level this can be things like activities and hobbies.  You aren’t trying to become your partner, or force yourself into all aspects of their life.  But you ARE trying to understand them, and have more common ground to share with them.  Maybe to be able to hold a conversation with them about one of their passions, even if you don’t share it.

At a deeper level this is something as important as love languages.  Couples don’t always share the same love languages – the things that make one person feel loved and valued don’t necessarily match their partners.  But it’s important to try and understand what matters to your partner and give them what they need to feel loved – even (and perhaps especially) when it doesn’t match your own.

This is a form of accepting influence.  Really, it’s about saying to your partner YOU matter to me.  I care about you.

On the flip side, refusing to accept influence is kind of like saying “Sure I care about you and your needs – as long as they line up with mine”.

Relationships shouldn’t be just about your needs.  You should derive happiness from seeing your partner happy and from contributing to that happiness, even when it doesn’t line up with something you personally need.

What if the happiness of your partner doesn’t matter to you?  Well, if that’s the case you probably shouldn’t be in a relationship.

 

Building Compatibility

The reason given for most divorces is “irreconcilable differences”.  Aka “we weren’t compatible anymore”.

However compatibility doesn’t just happen, it’s something you build into the relationship every day.  Every time you accept influence from your partner by putting their needs at the same level as your own and trying to do things for them, you are building compatibility.

And every time you put me ahead of we, you are building in incompatibility.  I’m not saying you should do everything together or never have time to yourself, as individual time and space is important to the health of a relationship.  But the needs of your partner should always matter.

 

When people cite irreconcilable differences, I think what they are REALLY saying is “I was no longer willing to work with you and try to meet your needs.  I was no longer willing to try and find a solution that works for both of us.”

Personal boundaries are good, and are a healthy part of relationships.  When those personal boundaries collide however, often the inability to find a solution together is more a testament to one or both sides wanting things their way.  To putting me before we.

Sure, they want to get to forever and they want the happy ending.  But they want it on their terms, and aren’t willing to move their position to meet their partner and find a place where both people can be happy.

And if you are in a relationship for you?  Then you’ve already failed.

 

Successful relationships aren’t about you, and they aren’t about me.  In successful relationships there is a recognition that both you and me matter, and the only way to do that is by putting we first.

If requires communication, negotiation, and accepting influence.

I think it’s best summed up by a line in this article:

Compatibility is an achievement of love; it must not be its precondition.

We start with a certain degree of compatibility, but after that it doesn’t just happen on it’s own.  It’s up to us to maintain it, and it’s up to us to build it.

So irreconcilable differences doesn’t mean there was an inherent problem with the couple. A lack of compatibility really means the couple couldn’t, or wouldn’t, build it in.

This Is Just Who I Am

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Recently I was looking at my kids’ baby pictures (nah, not my kid up top), and it got me thinking about growth and maturation.

It’s amazing how much children change in those early years.

In one year they went from toothless chubby little babies who did little more than sleep, eat and poop; to little people who started to expand their world, learning to walk on unsteady little legs and exploring everything around them (often by trying to eat whatever it is).

Their photo albums are a window in time, showing milestones and transitions as the years go by.  They became toilet trained, learned to talk, went off to school, learned to ride a bike, gained friends and went on vacations.

With the turn of pages I saw them change, and grow.

Look at my kids, the changes in the past 10 years are significant and impossible to miss.  They have gone from babies to pre-teens.

Thing is, it wasn’t just my kids that were changing during this time.

In the pictures there are others.  I see myself, my wife, parents, siblings, cousins, friends, grandparents, etc.  We’ve all changed, and some of those people are now even gone.

When I look at pictures of me, the changes aren’t as readily apparent as the changes in my kids.  I’m definitely a bit older, with a bit more grey in my hair, and a few pounds heavier.  But I look largely the same.

 

Growing Up

At a subconscious level, I think there is a notion that most of our growing is done in our early years.  As children, we are in the process of becoming adults – with everything that means.

We finish high school, and probably go to university.  These post high-school years are very important, as we are young adults and the world is a blank slate.  We have a few years to figure out “who we want to be”, and decide on our future path.

By around our mid-twenties, we usually have this figured out.  School is done and we are starting careers, and often families.

We’re adults now, and we’ve made it!!!

We’re on a path (whatever it may be); and we are a finished product – or at least pretty close.  At this point who “we” are internally is seen as set.  We have established our identity, and any changes from here on are incremental and largely superficial, more the result of age than of any real growth.

I’m not sure if most people have really thought through this idea that our identities are established by our mid-twenties, but I think at some level most of us believe this (I know I did).

And I think this idea is totally wrong.

 

Who Am I?

One of my recurring themes in these pages is identity, and the question “who am I?”

I think this is a really important question, with far reaching implications on our lives.  But at the same time it’s a question for which there aren’t any easy answers.

What exactly are we?  Are we just a collection of the different roles we play?  Are we a combination of interests and hobbies?  Of habits?

All of these things make up components of who we are, and if we strip those away then what is left?

Our personality?  Our moral core?

Even these things don’t really seem “fixed”.  Sometimes peoples personalities have dramatic changes due to traumatic experience.

While trying to understand what we are, it truly seems to me that much of what we are is learned.  In fact I often think of people as the sum of their experiences.  We are shaped by everything we go through, and if our experiences had been different we likely wouldn’t be the same person we are today.

And our experiences never stop, no matter what age we are.  So although it may feel like we’ve stopped changing and growing when we became an adult, that’s not true.

We’re still changing all the time, sometimes in big ways and other times in small ones.  The changes just aren’t as easy to see as when we are kids.  We may no longer have noticeable physical changes, but the changes inside of us are always happening.

 

Relationships and Change

This idea of change as adults can have adverse impacts on relationships.

Sometimes couples get into a spot where they wake up one day and feel they no longer recognize the other person, and you hear things like “He/she isn’t the person I married.”

If you feel that way guess what, you’re right.  And guess what, you aren’t either.

As the years go by, you each experience things that change you.  Hopefully you are able to change and grow together, and hold onto the love and bond that brought you together.  But it’s also possible for you to change in ways that pull you apart.

Change is going to happen. 

To stay together you need to find ways to continue to learn each other, and continue to fall in love with each “new version” of your partner as the years go by.  You may not like everything, and you don’t have to.  But you need to accept that they are growing, not expect them to always be the exact same person they were when you first met.

Paradoxically, although we are always changing we have a tendency to get “stuck” in routines and patterns that are unhealthy for relationships.  And once in these routines, it often feels like things are hopeless and things will never be able to change for the better.  We get into these downward spirals where it can feel like the only choice left is to leave the relationship.

Often this is because we feel like the issues are due to fundamental differences between people.  Things that are “just the way they are”, or “just the way WE are”.

 

 

Embracing Change

Change is a funny thing, because it can threaten us if someone has changed too much or in ways we don’t like.  But it can also restrict us, as we can feel stuck in situations where change doesn’t seem possible, and where there is no hope of improvement.

Part of us wants stability.  We have visions on what we want things to look like, and we want it to be that way forever.

But really, the one constant in life is change so we need to accept it.

And when situations feel hopeless, we have to recognize that change CAN always happen.

Much of what we “are” is learned, and that means it can be unlearned and new paths can be found.

Change is hard though so often it won’t happen until we have real reason for it to happen, because someone has to WANT it to happen.

 

In relationships, much of how we act and interact is actually skills that we have developed subconsciously over time.  But instead of thinking of them as skills, we think of them as personal characteristics or traits.

How we communicate, how we deal with conflict, how we cope with stress.  These things aren’t inherent.  They aren’t who we are.  They are “part” of who we are, and they are part of who we have been.  Additionally, after many years these learned behaviors can be difficult to change.

 

Is This REALLY Who I Am?

To anyone who says “this is just who/how I am,” I say no – this is who you are today.  Tomorrow has yet to happen.  It’s a blank slate, and it’s up to you to decide how you want it to look.

Anything can change, and anything can get better.

If we feel stuck, our relationships can improve, and we can also improve.

We shouldn’t have to change for someone else, but that shouldn’t be how we look at change.  If we take a hard look at ourselves and are able to identify attitudes or aspects of our personality that are causing us problems, why would we want to improve?

Shouldn’t we always strive to be the best possible version of ourselves?  And if those improvements also help reduce conflict in our relationships, all the better.

 

We aren’t a constant – we are always growing and always becoming.  Being an adult doesn’t mean our growth and development is done.  It never stops, it just slows down a bit and becomes harder to see.

So instead of saying “this is just who I am” ask yourself, who do you want to become?

How Does Parenting Affect Your Relationship?

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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 Affects One Person Affects Both

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I recently read an article on differing sex drives in a relationship, and while the article wasn’t anything new I thought the comment section was fascinating.  In the comments there were women talking about the changes their bodies go through after childbirth and the toll that being a mother takes on their sex drive and desire for any physical intimacy in their relationship – often extending to cuddling, hugging and basic touch.

There were a number of women commenting (at least I assume they were women, you never know online) and a few guys chiming in as well.  What struck me was a particular back and forth.

One lady mentioned that her husband wanted sex as part of the relationship, and that she just had no interest any more.

Another lady replied she had been through the same feelings, and she recommended the first lady “just do it”, as from her experience it was something her husband needed and cutting it out completely would put additional stress on the relationship.

The first lady was pretty incensed by this, saying that feeling like she needed to do something she didn’t want to felt like “emotional rape”, and that it wasn’t something her husband “needed”.

I have written in the past about the benefits of sex in a relationship. I have also written about the importance of sex to a relationship (from a guys perspective), and how sex isn’t really about sex. So yes, I’m definitely in the camp that feels sex is an important (and even necessary) component of a relationship – for both the physical and emotional benefits that it brings to the individual and the couple.

That said, I completely understand the first lady’s perspective. She’s right to say that she shouldn’t feel she has to do something that she doesn’t want to. Yeah, sometimes there are things in life you “have to do”, but doing so can breed resentment. Sex is supposed to be a form of connection and communication for a couple, and having it feel like a “duty” can destroy the connection that it is supposed to bring.

But although I believe I can understand her perspective, I think she’s overlooking one very important point.

Sex is not an individual act.

Making Choices

A marriage (or any relationship) is a partnership, and one member should never unilaterally make choices that affect both members of the relationship.

Imagine you are in a relationship and a great job opportunity comes up in another city or country. In a healthy relationship, you don’t just take the job. Instead you probably discuss it with your partner, and try to get their buy in. If you really want the job you try to sell your partner on it. Your partner needs to understand and agree with the move, and see how it benefits either them or the relationship in the long term. If, after discussion they don’t want to make the move you have a decision to make. You either don’t make the move (because although it may be what you want, it’s not right for the relationship); or you do it anyway. But if you do it anyway, there needs to be an understanding that it may cost you the relationship.

This applies to all sorts of things, and really is the primary “limitation” in a relationship.

When something affects both people, no one should expect to just do what they want. The wants and needs of the other person HAVE to matter. If they don’t, it’s not a relationship.

And I’m pretty sure sex affects both people.

So it’s not fair for one person to simply say that sex (or anything for that matter) is something that their partner doesn’t need. They can say that they don’t need it. And they can say that they don’t understand why their partner feels they need it. That’s all.

Differences in sex drive are normal, and are something most relationships find a way to navigate. Usually this results in one person having it a bit less than they would like, and the other person having to “just do it” sometimes when they might not really want to. As long as there is empathy and kindness for each others needs and some kind of compromise can be found, it isn’t a huge issue for most couples.

If a compromise that works for both people cannot be found however, then the relationship is very much at risk of failure.

 

Fidelity in Relationships

Most relationships have an expectation of monogamy. Personally I feel that’s a good thing; and when people step outside the relationship and have affairs or open relationships, I think they are kind of missing the point of sex. Sex isn’t just a physical act and it’s not just about your own pleasure. It is an act of intimacy, sharing, vulnerability and trust; and is symbolic of a special connection that a couple has.

Casual sex reduces it to a physical act, while in a committed relationship it is something more.

So monogamy is valuable component of a relationship (to me at least). But a sex drive is also a physical urge that differs from person to person. And for many, its presence in a relationship IS seen as a need.

When someone commits to monogamy they are committing to their partner, and from that point on their partner is the only person they will have sex with.

The unspoken part of that agreement is that sex will be part of the deal. It’s supposed to be a vow of monogamy – not a vow of celibacy.

 

Communicating and Caring

This brings me back to the lady who said that she doesn’t feel she should have to do something she doesn’t want to – especially something like sex.

She’s 100% right. Sex is something that should have connection and intimacy (at least most of the time). So if she’s not “feeling it”, she shouldn’t have to do anything to “appease her husband”.

At the same time, it’s perfectly reasonable for her husband to want and expect sex as part of the relationship.

Both people are right in this case.

This problem has a few layers to it. How big is the gap between what they want? What is the husband expecting? How often does he want/expect it? And how often does the wife want sex?

If one person wants it as a daily occurrence while the other person wants it weekly, that may be a problem they can figure out. If one person wants it daily and the other person want it…

…never. Well, that’s a bigger issue.

And truthfully, it’s probably not even an issue about sex.

It’s an issue of communicating, and listening to each other. And caring about and respecting each others needs. As a member or a relationship, you should care about your partners wants and needs – even when they don’t line up with your own.

That doesn’t mean you always have to meet them. But you do have to meet them sometimes, and you have to find a balance where each of you feel valued and respected.

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If someone no longer wants to meet their partner’s needs, then that indicates something has broken down. Either they don’t feel valued and respected themselves so it’s a form of punishment (he/she doesn’t do things for me, so why should I do things for him/her). Or the connection in the relationship has broken down to the point that they simply don’t feel enough for their partner to care about their needs.

Either way, if the relationship has hit that point the question has to be asked – why is the couple still together? If someone either no longer cares about their partners needs, or they feel that withholding affection as a form a punishment is acceptable, then the partnership has broken down.

A relationship has to be about more than just two individuals looking out for themselves.

 

Meeting in the Middle

A while back I wrote about the three keys to a successful relationship. Love each other, don’t be selfish, and communicate.

If someone wants sex on a daily basis and they expect their partner to meet their needs in that way, I see that as being selfish and not very loving.

However, I also feel the same way about someone saying sex isn’t a need and they should never have to have it if they don’t want it. If there is a large gap in sex drives that stance not very loving and is just as selfish.

If you want to be loving and unselfish, you communicate and find something that works for both people. One person should never be dictating terms of anything that impacts both people.

That’s not what a partnership is about. The couple needs to communicate, show empathy and caring for each other’s needs, and try to find a compromise.

Everyone has their own beliefs and boundaries; and establishing your own boundaries and sticking to them is important. So I understand the idea of never having to do anything you don’t want to.

But when those boundaries put a couple in continuous conflict, something has to give. They either find a way to make their boundaries overlap, or they need to accept that their relationship will not work.

To the lady who said she should not have to do anything she doesn’t want to – she’s 100% right. But that doesn’t mean she can expect things to be her way and also expect to hold onto the relationship. That’s a fairly one sided approach to relationships.

To hold onto the relationship, both she and her husband need to find a way that they can both be satisfied. He could accept things only on her terms (which will likely cause resentment). She could accept things on his terms (which will also cause resentment).

Or they could both love each other, not be selfish, communicate, and try to find a path that works for both of them.

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Relationship Doubt

 

Conflict between the man and the woman

Most single people hope they will one day find someone that they will be able to share their life and grow old with. And most people in relationships hope they have already found that person.

I think this is a natural desire for people. And it’s understandable, as relationships can be great. Ideally they are places of safety and trust; where you are partners who care for and support each other, while simultaneously growing individually and as a couple.

They are also full of challenges though, as you are two different people trying to build a life that works for both. And this will naturally give rise to highs and lows.

Beyond the normal challenges and conflicts though, there is one thing that can completely derail a relationship:

Doubt.

Doubt can come in many forms, such as doubt that the other person really loves you, doubt that you can trust the other person, doubt that you still love the other person, and doubt that they are “the right person” for you.

It doesn’t matter if the couple has been together 2 months or 10 years. No relationship is immune to these feelings.

If and when this happens, it’s important it is discussed and addressed. Because when it isn’t, doubt can often cause the relationship to fail.

In life, belief or “buy in” is very important.

When people buy into something they understand the value of it. They understand its place in their life and their place with it. This is always valuable, and especially so in relationships.

Doubt is corrosive to buy-in, and puts a relationship in limbo, preventing it from moving forward in a positive manner.

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The One?

I believe one of the leading causes for doubt in a relationship is unrealistic expectations and understanding of what a relationship is; or an immature understanding of love.

We are frequently exposed to the idea of a soul mate, or “the one”, the idea that every person out there has a perfect match somewhere. This idea may seem romantic at first, but it is ultimately destructive.

An unspoken extension of the idea of “the one” is that if/when you find this person, the will complete you and everything will be happy and wonderful.

This becomes an issue when relationships invariably run into problems or conflict, or when they fall into a rut where the spark has faded. When this happens, it’s easy for the attitude to become:

Hmm, we have problems. Maybe he/she isn’t the one. Maybe this isn’t the right relationship for me. Maybe I would be happier with someone else.

This sort of thinking can create doubt about the existing relationship.

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Newsflash for you – there are millions of people out there in the world, and you have varying degrees of compatibility with every single one of them. Even if you filter this list down to your gender or preference, age (plus or minus some sort of tolerance level), and some sort or radius from where you live; it’s a pretty safe bet that no matter who you are with, at any given point in time there is *someone* out there who is a better match.

To that I say, so what?

Who really cares if there is someone out there that is a better match?

The question I have is, are you largely happy in your current situation? If you are having doubts, then probably not. But if not, what are you doing about it? Is your partner aware of your concerns, and are they taking actions to improve things? Or are you just letting the doubt fester?

When you doubt, it impacts your buy in. And over time, this impacts your body language and the effort you put in. Sometimes the mere seed of doubt can actually be the catalyst that causes the relationship to fail.

Reasonable Doubt

If you have doubts, you need to be able to articulate what the source of the doubt is.

There are reasonable doubts. Things like your partner being controlling, cruel, aloof, coming home at odd hours or being inconsistent or not forthcoming in what they say. There are all sorts of “warning signs” for relationships, and it’s important to not turn a blind eye to them when they occur.

But doubts can also be of your own making.

We all have our insecurities, and it’s important to understand ourselves and our insecurities in order to get a handle on them and prevent them from poisoning our relationships. Especially when we carry the hurts of past relationships into new ones.

For example, someone who has been cheated on in the past may be hypersensitive to any actions that could suggest an affair, and they may see things that aren’t there.

It’s important to communicate these things to your partner. If they understand where you are coming from, they may be a bit more conscious of how their actions appear. But over time trust needs to build. If someone is constantly doubting a person who hasn’t given them cause to doubt, this will damage the relationship.

One of the big problems with doubt is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Someone has doubts, and as a result they start to hold back and build walls. Often this is done as a way of “protecting” themselves from potentially being hurt.

However building walls and holding back creates distance, and this distance will take a toll.

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Making a Choice

It’s one thing to doubt if you are compatible, or doubt if you will make it. These are normal doubts that can crop up from time to time.

But if you are having doubts about whether or not you really want to be with the other person anymore, I believe you need to make a choice.

You need to choose to accept them for who they are, and commit to making the relationship the best that it can possibly be; or get out of the relationship and move on.

Some people stay in a relationship they “aren’t sure about” because they are scared to be alone. Or they feel they have invested a lot of time into the relationship, and they don’t want it to have been wasted.

But being in a relationship where you are not fully committed (and likely holding back) due to doubt is completely unfair to the other person.

If you have doubts about your relationship ask yourself this; what is the one thing you never get back?

Time.

Time wasted on doubt is just that.  Wasted time.  And it’s time you never get back.

Sometimes people have doubts, and they want space or they want time to figure things out. And to a degree that is reasonable request for someone to make.

But it needs to come with a limit.

If someone has doubts – they don’t know what they want. So for the person who is “waiting”, the person they are waiting for is trying to figure out if they want a life with them or not.

Taken another way, they are an option to this person, and not a priority.

So why? Why should someone wait?

Why would someone possibly want to waste of their life – time they will never get back, over someone who isn’t able to commit to them?

There’s a saying, Get busy living, or get busy dying. And in the case of relationship doubt I think it’s very relevant.

Doubt destroys relationships. So the person who has the doubt needs to make a choice. They need to get busy living, or get busy dying. They need to either accept their relationship and make it the best it can be, or they need to let it go and move on.

Either way, they need to make a decision and then take action.

Limbo helps no one. It just results in people wasting their lives. And life doesn’t magically get better on it’s own.

So although doubt can be normal, if you have doubts you really need to make a choice. You need to be able to commit in spite of the doubt, or you need to move on.

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