There are many hurdles for couples to clear during the course of a partnership. See them as opportunities to grow, and your bond can only get stronger.
Fourteen years and two sons into my relationship with a man I love, I chatted with one of my girlfriends. She was asking me how much of my personal territory had been compromised by my relationship. During the course of her questioning (she's a lawyer by profession), I had to admit that it felt like I was facing another round of the seven-year itch; a phase when the earth feels like it has shifted, and it is time to reflect and renegotiate. These feelings are natural.
Most couples aren't fully aware of the unrealistic expectations they have of each other, especially when they first get together. And it's only as the relationship evolves and the partners re-establish and strengthen their individual identities that the union can deepen.If couples aren't aware of these dimensions, it inevitably leads to difficulties.
Below we identify some of the more common conflict zones and suggest expert ways to negotiate them.
The ‘We argue all the Time' Itch
Author Leah Jansen, 46, and her actuary husband, Colin, 40, have been together for 12 years. Their love is strong, but in the past few years bickering has become their default mode of communication. ‘Colin will make a comment about the way I pack the dishes or drive. I'll blast off with 'Are you trying to tell me what to do and how to be?'' She cringes a little at her disproportionate responses, but explains that being treated like a child upsets her.
The turbulence between Colin and Leah signals a painful yet natural evolution in their relationship. You begin to recognize you married a real person, not the romanticized projection. This discovery exposes the reality that your partner is not the answer to all your needs. It is natural, therefore, for anxiety to arise or a disconnection to occur.
Leah has learnt that when there is hurt in the room, she needs to get out. ‘In that solitude, even if it means spending a night on the couch or taking a drive, I consider other ways to say what I mean in a neutral space, where I'm not feeling attacked or having to make a retort.' Sometimes Leah writes down what she wants and needs out of the situation. ‘This means I can return to Colin calmly, and confidently express myself with the faith that I will be heard.'
The ‘We're parents and can't remember when we last had Sex' Itch
Linda and Dave Morgan, both in their mid-thirties, live in Maryland and have three kids under the age of 7. They are both self-employed and share a home office. In the gaps between the births of their children, Linda found herself recoiling at the thought of sex.
‘It wasn't only in the early stages, when my body was recovering from pregnancy and birth, but also in those first years of mothering, with breast-feeding, broken sleeping patterns and answering to the demands of a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a newborn, plus trying to do some work in between.' It's been quite awhile since she's had the urge for physical intimacy, and Dave's hints at needing more have made her feel resentful instead of desirable.
The issue here is not about Linda's missing need for sex as it is about a struggle to meet her basic needs. Linda needs sleep, alone time, intimacy, domestic and child-care support, good nutrition plus exercise and relaxation. Only after her energy is replenished can she honestly assess her longing for sex, rather than answering to a marital obligation.
And talking is crucial. Linda recently shared her frustrations with some new friends at a Moms and Tots playgroup. Some women found that speaking to their partner about how normal this ‘not now' phase is, and assuring him that it doesn't last forever, really helped. Another described how, one night in bed, she had asked her partner to close his eyes and imagine in detail what his body would feel like if it went through all hers had been through. He got the picture. The tension eased up and slowly she felt there was room and energy for a bit of playfulness.
The ‘Everyone else is getting Divorced' Itch
When couples all around you appear to be falling apart or taking strain, it's natural that you begin to reflect on what's not working in your own relationship. When other partners split, it can be felt as a loss. When your peer group's marriages don't last, it can be deeply disappointing, particularly if you've formed friendships with these couples. However, this should not prompt you to doubt the strength of your own relationship. If anything, it's a reminder to evaluate whether you are happy and your needs are being met, and should encourage you to be honest with each other about what issues really need to be addressed.
The ‘I feel the need to be Me' Itch
Recently I realized that I'd neglected some vital aspects of myself as I surrendered to the flow of being part of a twosome and juggled the demands of working motherhood. Walking in nature and seeing exhibitions, for instance, are passions that my partner doesn't share to the same degree. My personal boundaries had slipped, and I realized I was becoming slightly resentful about it. Whenever I feel a spell of self-pity creeping in, instead of blaming my husband and kids, I ask myself what's stopping me from getting what I want and need. Usually I'm the only one standing in my way.
So I treated myself to a weekend retreat on a farm. Besides the therapeutic value of nature's healing embrace, I was curious about the work of the workshop facilitator, Gillian Barton, a counselor in psycho-synthesis. Says Gillian: ‘If you feel you're in a cul-de-sac and want to rebuild your life, you must satisfy all four corners of the 'Square of Life' by addressing the body, the heart, the mind and the spirit. Ask yourself, 'What are my expectations, and what is the reality?' Accept the reality, make one small move and then allow one thing to lead to another.'
The "Seven-Year" Itch
The seven-year itch (or, in my case, the second round of it) is notorious for its association - with infidelity and breakups, but extramarital affairs or spending time away from home may all be used as distractions from the real work that is needed on a relationship. Even if life at home is relatively peaceful, couples often state that they no longer have anything in common and so lead pointed or angry coexistence. The premise of image therapy is that pain and conflict in committed relationships arise out of a misunderstanding of the meaning of romantic love, rather than a lack of love for our partners. In fact, ‘the source of the tension can be the very fuel for the fulfillment you seek.' The seven-year itch, therefore, should be seen as a chance for growth, not as an opportunity to look outside the relationship to have your needs met.
The ‘Children have left Home' Itch
Often, children become the buffer for conflict or the sole reason for communication between their parents. Once they leave home, the problems that have been swept under the carpet begin to show and many couples hit a crisis. Partners who have used their parenting role as a substitute for something missing in their relationship will find it much harder than those who have consistently worked at filling those gaps with the children around.
One couple who have successfully navigated the empty-nest syndrome are Mark and Erica Daniels, both in their mid-fifties. Instead of feeling loss at their children's absence, they find themselves rejuvenated. And, with more money and time on their hands, they are able to plan for more weekend getaways and overseas travel.
Their secret? Mark and Erica have always had a once-a-week date night; they've spent time sharing their favorite TV programs and books, and exploring their common interest in museums and heritage sites, as well as walking regularly along the beach, cycling, playing games, like Scrabble and chess, and having long, relaxing, Sunday afternoon chats. This has built a foundation for a relationship where they feel there is still much to explore and enjoy with each other.
The ‘Dealing with Change' Itch
Marianne and Gert, both 39, have been together since their last year of high school. A few months before they married, Marianne's mother died of cancer. Soon after, they were in a car accident that left Marianne with permanent back problems. They moved to a new city and Gert started his own business. In the same year, they had their first child. Soon after, Marianne's 18-year-old brother came to live with them. She and Gert had never fought as much as they did in that period of radical change in their lives.
‘Before we had our son, Gert was working long hours, trying to get his business off the ground. I was at home in a new city, always waiting for him,' remembers Marianne. ‘Eventually, I made new friends and started going out on my own, but that didn't work for him. It brought up insecurities that he wouldn't talk about.'
With Marianne forcing him to communicate about his feelings, the couple found a way to renegotiate the way forward. ‘If I look back at all we've been through, I realize I am more flexible and open when it comes to change, whereas he feels safer when things are stable, even predictable.' Talking was the key.
If you, like the couples above, are also experiencing a relationship itch, consider this: Such stages are wake-up calls that keep the relationship alive and facilitate more authentic connection. These great events in the story of a couple's life together are usually the catalysts for their mutual emotional and spiritual growth.