There’s an idea going around that if your marriage is strong enough, then it should be immune to certain vulnerabilities. For instance, if you’re attracted or drawn to someone other than your spouse, you should still be able to spend time with that person, and your marriage should be unaffected. Or, if you both pour your energy into raising children, then you can simply go back to focusing on your relationship after they’ve gotten older. This, unfortunately, is a dangerous way of thinking. The truth is, your marriage won’t wait for you. Your marriage is like an 8-year-old, you may be able to leave her at home for a quick jaunt to the drugstore, but leaving her to her own devices much longer than that isn’t a good idea. Read on as we talk about some of the ways in which couples neglect to protect their relationship, and what you can do instead.
Andy in the Next Cube…
After the initial, all-consuming in-love phase we often experience in intimate relationships, it is almost inevitable that you will find yourself attracted to someone else. A friend of a friend who runs in your same social circle, a coworker on a joint project, or a fellow bibliophile in your book club will seem appealing to you. The question becomes how you handle these interactions once you’ve realized that you kinda-sorta might have a thing for this person. And while I’m certainly not advocating that you seclude yourself from all potential love interests, I do think it’s wise to exert some caution.
To prevent your relationship with this person from becoming inappropriate, set clear boundaries and shine sunlight on your interactions with them. You can do this by avoiding spending time alone together or communicating with them in private spaces, like email and text. If they’re a co-worker and you must interact with them alone, be cognizant of getting too flirty or talking about deeper topics with them. Also, tell a trusted friend, or if possible, your partner about your attraction. Taking these steps will keep you accountable, and help your dealings with this person stay on the up and up.
If you notice yourself beginning to transcend these boundaries, pay attention. Most of the couples I’ve worked with where an affair took place was because of an inappropriate relationship that slowly deepened over time. The key is to cut this off at the head, when your heart is not as invested. It’s easy to avoid setting these boundaries under the guise of telling yourself this isn’t that big of a deal, or I’m not the kind of person who would cheat. But, in reality, most people don’t go into these situations wanting or planning to cheat—they gradually push back the boundaries until the relationship becomes more than friendly. Further, while being attracted to someone else is natural and unavoidable, choosing to act on these impulses may indicate that something else might be going on in your relationship. Ask yourself if you’re feeling disconnected from your partner, and think about what you might need to get your relationship back on track.
Rx for Fun
We all are busy, and we all have phases in our lives where time is an extremely limited commodity. That said, your marriage won’t stay afloat without regular infusions of fun and connected experiences. Frankly, why be married if it’s never fun? Moreover, when you’re dealing with conflict and other challenges, it’s hard to face them if you can’t remember why your relationship is worth fighting for. Enjoying your partner’s company helps remind you why you chose this person (presumably because you like them), and can help serve as a buffer when things get tough.
While it’s hard to say precisely how much time couples need to spend together in order to ensure a healthy, functioning relationship, ideally you’re taking at least fifteen to twenty minutes each day to talk to one another, and spending longer, more-dedicated time together multiple times per month. If you have children, then it’s important to let them know that your relationship is a priority, and that there will be times where just the two of you will be together, without them.
The bottom line is that no matter what challenges make it difficult for you to get together (parenting responsibilities, work, school, etc), your relationship needs you to find the time. Plus, when it does happen, it feels good for each of you to know that you are worth that effort.
That Which You Have Made, Unmakes You
Often, the biggest impact of parenting on a relationship is the loss of time that partners have for one another, which we already discussed above. But one of the other issues that comes up with couples is less about actual time spent and more about how couples orient themselves to parenting. One thing that I sometimes see in my work is spouses who have made parenting the entire focus of the marriage, and there is little space for their life together as a couple. While being a parent is an incredible (and often overwhelming) responsibility, it should not require you to completely forgo the joys and complexities of married life. You deserve to continue to have intimacy and romance and fun with your person. You and your partner are worth getting your emotional and sexual and enjoyment needs met through each other, and not constantly being put on the back burner for the sake of your children.
If parental guilt keeps you from making your relationship a priority, it can be helpful to remember that you are the model for behaviors and outcomes you want for your kids. Your children benefit from seeing parents lead rich, full lives, not folks who have sacrificed all at the altar of parenthood. You wouldn’t want a disconnected or unsatisfying marriage for your kids—so why set that as their example in childhood?
The idea of taking steps to protect your marriage may seem antiquated, or alarmist, or constraining. But many of the factors that hurt a marriage happen gradually, with well-meaning spouses failing to recognize the potential long term impact of seemingly innocent choices. If you want to keep your marriage from traveling down these sideways paths, it’s important that you consider map out your journey from the onset.