Money, sex, household chores—couples fight about all of those things, often at the same time. “One argument segues into another,” says counselor Walter Ciecko of Wilmington’s Delaware Relationship Center, “and all of a sudden, you’re spewing a long list of resentments at one another.” Been there, done that? Relationship experts say that many people face the same problems because of the way we communicate—or don’t.
Shouldn’t couples talk about their challenges before they get married? Absolutely, therapists say. Plan the marriage while you plan the wedding, advises Richard Brousell, a counselor who works with engaged and married couples at his office in Wilmington. “People might not think that therapy is romantic, but it definitely is,” he says. “It creates emotional intimacy between couples.”
Couples can have conversations on their own, but a therapist’s guidance fosters honest, substantive communication, says Carly Miller, a marriage and family therapist and co-founder of Cape Integrated Wellness in Lewes. “If you’re having the conversation between yourselves, that’s better than nothing,” Miller says. “But a lot of people agree to whatever they hear just to make it OK for themselves and their partner. I know because, years later, they come into my office and say, ‘You said X Y Z was OK before we got married.’ The other spouse will say, ‘Yeah, but…’ And, people change their minds about things over time. ‘You said you didn’t want kids,’ or, ‘You said one child was enough.’ Those are biggies.”
Therapists agree that the roughest period of a marriage is when babies are born. “No matter how prepared you think you are, having kids is a total game changer,” Miller says.
For fathers, many of these changes come as surprises. Men don’t typically have detailed conversations with other men about the topic, and if they do, it’s with sympathy and humor, neither of which is helpful. “This is a very real thing that men experience,” says Brousell. “It’s not just, ‘Dude, you’re not going to have sex for months,’ but how men can cope with the change in intimacy with their wives—and the change in her priorities. The mother is tied up with the child physically and emotionally. While she is bonding with the child, she may be un-bonding with the father. The father may feel a real loss. It doesn’t mean you are falling out of love and it doesn’t last forever.”
Brousell tells men to read up on the postpartum period, including warning signs of depression and postpartum adjustment disorder; create a support system of friends; and learn strategies for coping with exhaustion, anger and frustration—their own and the mother’s.
Most important, “Don’t neglect your relationship because you had a baby and expect it to be healthy when you turn around in three years,” says Kristin Stonesifer, a licensed clinical social worker at the Mind and Body Consortium in Dover. “By that time, you’ll have a host of other challenges.”
When is money not money? When it’s an emotional trigger. “You may think that you’re arguing about money—and you are—but the conversation escalates because one person has an emotional response to the spending or saving of money,” Ciecko says.
How did your parents handle money and what kind of home environment did that create? Does money give you control or freedom? Talking about money in those terms gets at the heart of emotional reactions to money, Stonesifer says. Identifying those responses and their sources is the first step to changing behavior. “Couples see the negative emotional impact their actions have on the other person,” Stonesifer says. “It’s very often, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize it meant that to you. I’ll stop doing that.’”
There is no doubt that bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan is exhausting for modern women. “But men have their own demanding careers,” Miller says. “Finding the balance in household responsibilities is a challenge.”
There’s help, Brousell says. First, women have to stop trying to be perfect in every realm of their life and allow for the messiness of life to invade their homes. On the other hand, sloth is not sexy. Men have to pull their own weight and, at the very least, not add to their wives’ list of chores. And both partners have to put the kibosh on comments like, “But my mom and dad did it this way.” The entire world is different, Brousell says. “Why would your marriage be the same as your parents’?”
Next, get emotional about household chores, says Stonesifer. “It’s not just the laundry and grocery shopping, but that having to do them makes a woman feel overwhelmed,” she says. “Knowing that creates the emotional motivation for men to help with errands and chores. That’s better than having a chart and showing him the division of labor. In that case, the man is only doing something because the therapist told him to. That won’t last long.”
That said, women have to accept men’s help. “Many men say that their wives make them feel that they do everything wrong, so they stop trying,” Stonesifer says. “We call that learned helplessness. If women want men to cook dinner twice a week, they can’t complain about how the onions are chopped.”
Talk all you want, Ciecko says. Is your spouse listening? Have a conversation about how to have a conversation. “My approach is have people take turns being the sender and the receiver,” Ciecko says. “One person talks while the other receives and listens, then communicates back what they heard. That gives the sender the chance to say, ‘Actually, that’s not what I meant’ and correct the statement. Or you can confirm the statement and feel the message has been be received.”
Ciecko also has a separate-and-equal rule about communications. “In couples, there’s a tendency for one person to under talk and the other to over talk,” he says. “You’d be amazed at what people learn about each other when they are given the opportunity, or challenge, to speak openly.”
Do you think sex would be higher on the list of problems that couples face? Lack of intimacy is the result, not the cause, of problems, therapists says. “Intimacy falls apart because of difficulties of daily living,” Brousell says.
The most common homework Brousell gives couples? Schedule 20 to 30 minutes of daily talk time—“not once a month or once a week, but every day,” Brousell says. “Turn everything off. Put a video on for the kids if they are awake. Sit in the kitchen, just the two of you. Have a glass of wine if you want to. You can talk about something serious or not: what happened at work that day, that the garage door needs to be fixed, a funny commercial you watched, whatever. Say what’s on your mind. Have air between you. Make eye contact. Hold hands. Connect. Doesn’t that sound wonderful?”