Are you in a career that is growing or even thriving because you put effort into it? Think about how you became successful in this area of your life. Most people who decide a relationship is important enough to get married would say that relationship is one of their most important values. When we do not act in accordance with our values we do not feel good about ourselves, which is what usually pushes couples or individuals to see a therapist. The ironic thing is a lot of couples are very successful in other areas of their life, but have not thought about applying those same ingredients for success to their relationship.
Why do we neglect our relationships?
In the first 18-24 months of the relationship you do not need to apply much effort. The relationship is easy because our brain is flooded with neurochemicals that cause us to “lust” over one another; this phase of the relationship is referred to as the limerence phase. In this phase of the relationship, communication, desire, and getting along can be fairly easy. Then we have engagements and weddings that keep us flying high. Once all the dust settles and our brain shifts over to secreting neurochemicals of attachment, we all of a sudden find ourselves having to work at a relationship that we likely did not have to put much effort into until this point. If the couple has decided to have kids, this reality hits sooner and harder. We start to shift into autopilot, which might mean we act out ingrained schemas we already have for marriage. Schemas are internal frameworks we have acquired through our past that contributes to our understanding of what something means or represents: meaning a lot of us start to play out the kind of marriage we saw our parents have. Did we learn by watching our parents talk or treat each other a certain way? Did we watch them neglect each other or engage in novel activities to spark that lustful feeling again? Besides the marriage our parents modeled for us, where do we learn how to keep a relationship or marriage strong, in school, a class? Sometimes we see a relationship at a distance that we want to be like, maybe grandparents, a friend’s marriage, a couple on TV, but we do not often see the ingredients that make it successful. Further, neglect, while often overlooked in a relationship because it is not thought to be as harmful as abuse, can inflict deeper psychological wounds than some forms of abuse. If we feel neglected emotionally or sexually in our relationship, and especially if we experienced parental neglect, this could send very damaging messages like our needs do not matter, or we do not matter. Because the trauma of neglect is invisible, the signs are usually more subtle like silence or detachment/avoidance- less visible is the trauma (or overwhelming experience) of not having that connection in the relationship.
Get help before it’s too late
Couples often postpone therapy until they are at their wit’s end, frozen from neglect or almost done with the relationship. A lot of times it is not a lack of ability or want for the relationship to work, it’s that the couple did not have the tools and knowledge to consciously apply effort and work at it. They somewhere acquired an unrealistic expectation (maybe from watching those idealized relationships from afar) that if they just loved each other enough it would work. Instead, it is almost like they unknowingly have been working at letting the relationship deteriorate, while effort is poured into kids, work, house, fitness and health goals. Yet when we think of questions like, “What do you want to be able to say to your kids, your grandkids, or yourself at the end of your life about one of the most important, longest, relationships you have had?” All of a sudden things snap into perspective and we feel a sense of urgency to work at it, fearful of the response being, “uh well I kind of tried, I was busy, I had a lot going on, we just kind of drifted apart I guess.”
If you value your marriage, then work at it. If you don’t know where to start, ask for help. You need to be aware of your standards in a relationship, monitor it, and cultivate willpower and motivation to keep it strong- just like you did to be successful in your career.