Real life, not therapy

“Real life is not like couples therapy”, Greg says. “There isn’t a free hour in our week to talk about feelings or needs. We have kids. We have jobs.”

Touché. And come to think of it, this morning was filled up with my three year old in kitty mode, my five year old earnestly telling me about a new paper airplane design, and me trying to calm my puffy hair so I looked more like a professional and less a crazy mom. Amidst the chaos, did I exchange any words with my husband?

Most of us live in the real and messy world (often just a real messy world). Over the past several decades, both men and women have experienced an increase in the amount of time they spend at work. Workdays are longer, bureaucratic red tape takes up ever more of our day, and the blessed magic of technology makes us too easily available to our colleagues and clients. The demands of professional life feel endless.

At the same time, child rearing has evolved into an increasingly time consuming task, with greater expectations on both fathers and mothers to maximize the development of our children. We feel intense pressure to be feeding our kids organic home-cooked meals, to set their chubby toddler legs on the path toward ambitious academic pursuits, and to nurture their nascent talents in the art of cup stacking.

With all of those pressures, who has time to talk to their partner? Plus—let’s be honest—with the exception of us therapist types, finding the time to engage in soul baring discourse isn’t cause for merrymaking. You might conclude that your time is better spent elsewhere.

Still, clinical experience and research data show that investment in our partnerships matters a great deal. For one thing, we expect a lot from them. While marriage in the 1800’s was critical to individuals getting basic needs met, the institution has since matured into an entirely new creature. As America industrialized in the 1900’s, marriage became a structure that afforded companionship to individuals who were freer to pursue their personal goals. Yet another distinct transition in marriage occurred in the 1960’s Cultural Revolution, with growing expectations for marriage to provide a platform for self-expression, validation, sexual excitement, and psychological growth1.

We continue to hold onto these lofty expectations. We long for our relationships to be a place where we can become our best versions of ourselves, be understood, accepted and loved, experience sexual fulfillment, and have support and encouragement to maximize our unique potential in the world at large. It’s a tall order for any relationship, but particularly tricky with limited energy to input.

But like anything we value, if we want to reap the rewards, we need to divert some resources into it. You won’t be ready for swimsuit season by watching the cardio pilates video from your couch with a box of thin mints in your lap, and you won’t get a partnership full of love and understanding if you never lean in to an affectionate embrace. And yes, just as physical fitness requires you to work out even when you’re not in the mood, it may be important to offer your partner a foot rub even if you’d prefer to be playing Candy Crush. When we really value something, we sometimes have to dig deep to nourish it.

But where will the time and energy come from? After all, we have firmly established that we are already too busy to add another item to our to-do list.

And here we come to the value of moderation. This approach, backed by scientific findings, suggests that we might steal time away from the important tasks that consume our time to make room for other things that we also value. A recent study examining the value of time spent with children concluded that “in childhood and adolescence, the amount of maternal time did not matter for offspring behaviors, emotions, or academics”.2 Of course, this overarching finding obscures some of the details of children’s age, unique needs, and parental circumstances. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that our perceptions of what it takes to be an excellent parent may be unhelpfully exaggerated.

Similarly, when it comes to work, data suggests that time away from the office can increase creativity and motivation. And even if we could increase productivity by staying one more hour, it may be helpful to acknowledge that we lose out on time spent on other things we find valuable.

This way of thinking contradicts our cultural beliefs about the gifts of intensive parenting and the importance of all-in work ethic. Yet it may provide some reprieve to know that moderating your approach to work and family can create more time and energy in your days. And it’s helpful to remind yourself that moderately dialing back does not mean annihilating your offspring’s development or your professional success.

With the resources freed up from moderating your workplace and parenting efforts, you could consider pursuing some coveted ‘me’ time. You might leisurely moon over the fancy cheeses in your local grocery which you haven’t spent time with since your oldest discovered string cheese. And with a dairy section recharge under your belt, you might feel inspired to give a little attention to your partner by initiating some soul baring conversation, or at least inviting them to join in on your game of Candy Crush.

Be bold, and experiment with dialing back, even just a little. And as you discover some pockets of free time and energy, consider offering some of it up to your relationship. It might give you back as much as you hope it will.

References

  1. Coontz S. Marriage, a history: From obedience to intimacy or how love conquered marriage. New York, NY, US: Viking; 2005.
  2. Milkie MA, Nomaguchi KM, Denny KE. Does the amount of time mothers spend with children or adolescents matter? Journal of Marriage and Family. 2015;77(2):355-372.