Is your marriage suffocating?

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Never before have so many couples expected a marriage to accomplish so much with so little. In my grandparents’ day people got married to take care of their basic needs: the physical care of a home and family, maybe a farm. Generations since have looked to marriage for romantic love, intimacy and companionship. But today’s couples are expecting more than that when they walk down the aisle: a relationship that will nurture their personal growth.

You can see it from the choreographed proposals on YouTube to the elaborate wedding websites to the Vows column in the New York Times, which take details of the engaged couple’s life that used to remain private out under the celebrity spotlight (here’s a very funny post about that on Jezebel). .

And yet, all the focus on personal growth — work, fitness, helicopter parenting — can make it tough to stay married. I see it every day: Couples sit down across from me in my office and I ask them what they’ve been working on in their marriage this week. They exchange sheepish glances. “Between work, traveling and the kids,” one of them says finally, “we haven’t actually spent any time together since the last time we were here with you.”

I’m all for celebrating love and a full life. But the mythology that surrounds today’s marriages — two fabulously interesting people who will stride forward into an amazing life together — never seems to leave much room for the diaper pail, not to mention unemployment or getting sick. And when the inevitable hardships do come, they get in the way of writing a novel or doing a start-up or living on three continents. Even when times are good, such an intense focus on personal achievement, with less emphasis on nurturing the relationship itself with tenderness, time and mutual generosity, leaves many marriages starved. The risk is that partners live in parallel universes.

Just read a new paper by a team of Chicago researchers that described this transformation of marriage in the U.S. through the past three centuries. The researchers, led by Eli Finkel at Northwestern University, used a different metaphor. They concluded that marriage is suffocating because partners’ expectations have climbed sky-high without supplying the “oxygen” — the time and energy — a relationship requires in order to thrive. Our marriages are gasping for air.

Focusing on the “fabulous” means missing an important step. If we want a marriage to nurture us, we need to nurture it. Simple as that.

A few ideas on how to get more “oxygen” into your relationship:

  1. Devote 20 minutes a day to couple time. No electronics, no work, no children. If you haven’t done this in a while, you’re likely to start out feeling awkward. Stick with it. As it becomes a ritual — part of your day’s rhythm — you’ll start looking forward to your moments together. Start by taking turns talking about one thing you genuinely appreciate about each other — the way you look or smell or taste, a recent act of kindness, a simple moment you enjoyed.
  2. Share your dreams. Instead of expecting your marriage to catapult you onto the next level of achievement, recognize that just confiding in your partner about the next step you have in mind is, in itself, a way to nurture your relationship. It’s an opportunity to reveal what’s in your heart and to consider how you can help each other reach your goals, big and small.
  3. Know that nurturing your marriage leads to personal growth. Listening to a partner, being sensitive to his or her needs and feelings, expressing wishes and vulnerabilities clearly and calmly, developing compassion: none of these abilities comes easily or naturally. Over the years of a marriage, we practice them. We learn how to be honest, kind and close. Now that’s amazing.

More thoughts on this topic on my Real-Life Relationship Repairs blog.


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