Until the child do us part?
Why does the love-aspect of a relationship take such a back seat for many parents?
Children change the world, most of all our own. When the tasks of parenthood are added to those of work, many couples forget about being a couple. If you want to keep love alive, you must see it as an active undertaking, not a state of being. At first glance, partnership and starting a family look like the ideal combination of wishes, like something that fits together. But the real common ground lies in the fact that no one has ever really learned to do either. That no one is prepared, that even though we may have had a good relationship so far, we don’t really know what to expect when we have a child.
You are a couple yourself – how has it been for you personally?
As couple therapists, we are not afraid to talk about our own relationship, which has now lasted 43 years. When our first son was born exactly at the beginning of our third year of marriage, we had already gone through enormous turbulence. It was in couples therapy, after about ten sessions, that we realised that the eternal separating and reuniting also means being maximally suitable and maximally unsuitable for each other at the same time. No sooner had we sorted this out than the child we wanted came. We were asked by our family if we were crazy when we sought an outpatient birth. Or irresponsible, or all the above.
AS COUPLE THERAPISTS WE NEVER GET TIRED OF EMPHASISING: LOVE IS AN ACTIVITY, NOT A DESCRIPTION OF A STATE OF BEING.
So, the family system is really interfering with relationship life?
The power of the family system is exhausting, you are already exposed to it as an individual, as a couple even more so, and as parents to an extent that no one can expect. Becoming a parent is like set theory: if you draw a circle around the couple, a second circle is added, in which not only the couple is, but also the child. Then there are other circles: the family, friends, professional contacts. As a couple, you need a clear boundary around your own circle, your innermost circle. This can demand a lot from young parents. The family gives tips, interferes, slays with advice – and the parents are already busy defending their own family system.
How challenging is a clear boundary around the innermost circle?
If the boundary of the circle around the couple is violated from the outside or from the inside, it can be that the whole system already tilts at the moment of the birth of the child or even before. That the couple’s circle is broken and only the circle around parenthood remains. That love is sunk in the first nappy bin and can only be retrieved at the last parent-teacher conference with a lot of effort. The crux is also that for many couples a lot comes together in a short period of time: becoming a couple, getting married, becoming parents, building something professionally, creating a living environment. These ten to 15 years are called the rush hour of life, and it is a demanding time. Also, one’s parents may become sicker, causing worries about siblings, in short: there is always something.
Does anyone else have sex?
A birth is a major emotional event for a woman. Let it be said to the fathers: one has respect for this achievement. A birth is a miracle of nature. But it can take a whole year before a woman is sexuality ready again. Why is it important to talk about sexuality or the lack of it as a couple? Because it takes the pressure off when it is clear that the woman is not holding back sexually because her partner has suddenly checked out or is no longer attractive to her.
WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO TALK ABOUT SEXUALITY OR THE LACK OF IT AS A COUPLE? BECAUSE IT TAKES THE PRESSURE OFF.
How do you find your way back, sexuality?
One solution may look like this: Decide together to wait. Sexuality in general changes with children. Maybe at one point you just want to cuddle. Maybe in another phase it is suddenly time for development, for example experimenting with new forms of sexuality. Whereby the new can also just mean buying erotic toys or having fun in an unusual place. Even in the best partnership there can be phases without sexuality. Do I talk about it, or do I repress it? The goal is to actively bring sexuality back into the couple relationship over time.
How can couple therapy support in relationship life?
Nowadays, couples often come to us prophylactically during pregnancy because they know: It is important to do something to be well prepared. They want to keep an eye on their relationship during the intensive time with the baby. But even at home and without therapeutic support, a lot of good can be done for the couple relationship. Those who become parents can help themselves by vowing to each other to remain a couple. We have devoted a separate chapter to this topic in our book “Love, how do you do?” When the months full of endorphins are over, you say to yourself: now, we’ll nurture our couple relationship again. What does it take for that? That’s exactly what we do then.
How can that work?
A couple needs pure couple time away from parenthood, without children. Establishing at least one evening a week doesn’t sound very romantic or spontaneous at first – but it’s something to look forward to. The babysitter only has to be organised once right away for every Thursday. Spontaneity is not a prerequisite for exciting experiences. If someone is having a secret affair, the meetings are usually also well planned and still exciting. We need dates with each other as a couple, forever. And unless half the world comes to an end, these dates are to be kept. What it’s all about is creating space where the couple relationship is possible. If you sit next to the child all the time, who might wake up, you don’t have that space.
When is support important?
Couples and parents do well to allow themselves support. There is a beautiful African proverb that says: “It takes two to have children, and a whole village to raise them. If you don’t have a village, make one: from friends, other parents, the most suitable part of the relatives, babysitters, and household help, which is usually also financially cheaper than couples therapy later on. Couples therapy can of course be useful or even necessary. The following always applies: Keeping at it is a big part of successful partnerships. In addition, it is an eternal learning process – and in the end it is always a bit of luck.