Question of the Week

Two kids, two incomes, no sex?

I hate to sound like a cliché, but … My wife and I have been married for almost 14 years now. We have a decent marriage – no serious arguments, no affairs or jealousy, decent communication – but it seems like the spark is gone. We are both really committed to the relationship, and our love for one another is not really in doubt (as far as I know), but things have started to feel stale for about a year or two now. Sex tends to be pretty good when we have it, but the frequency has been declining to the point where it is almost nonexistent. But it is more than the lack of sex that bothers me; it just seems like we have settled into some kind of comfortable but boring routine.

We are completely dedicated to our two great kids – an 11 year-old and a 5 year-old – and we know we are lucky to still have steady work, our health, and a mortgage. (Never thought I would say that!) But still I cannot help but feel that something is missing, and I am getting worried that if we do not do something now it will be too late.

Please do not advise me to go for marital therapy. We are not unhappy or upset with each other; were just stuck. How can I make sense of this?

Jerry, age 43, Rosemead CA

Dear Jerry,

What’s great about your letter, Jerry, is that your relationship does not seem to be in any real trouble, yet you want to do something about your growing sense of stagnation and longing. Half of the battle is recognizing where you are and wanting to get to a better place. Chances are good that your wife feels at least as strongly about this as you do, so you can expect that she will be receptive to your efforts to breathe some new life into your partnership.

Before getting too specific about recommendations, let’s get some perspective on your situation. You and your wife have managed to get almost 14 years of reasonably satisfying marriage under your belts, which is no mean feat. It sounds like you both take pleasure in your children and that you agree on how to raise them – again, not something to take for granted. And you have enough on the ball to keep your jobs and home intact. You are doing many things right, and you have a foundation in place to support the improvements that you want to make. At the very least – and now we are getting to some recommendations -- try to find a small bit of time each day to mention to your wife how proud you feel about all that you two have created together. Even the smallest of gestures will do; the key is to create some positive feelings that connect you both up with one another and your achievements.

As tempted as you might be to think about how your marriage is no longer like it once was, your real challenge is to shape it toward where you want it to be. This is the second half of the battle. We know from a lot of research that couples nourish and deepen their relationship when partners talk about things that matter, and then build from there through conversation. Whether we like it or not, relationships really are one long, wandering conversation. All couples have to discuss the mundane details of life (“When does the math tutor come over?” “Is pizza OK for dinner?”) but apart from that we make choices everyday about whether our conversational thread is superficial or more engaged. As best you can, try to steer your conversations into deeper waters, where you and your partner talk about the things that really matter to you both.

If you sense that your conversations have become bland and neutral, find ways to tell your wife what is going on inside of you (“Could our daughter be any more adorable? I cannot believe how much she looks more and more like you every day”). Or tell her about recent experiences you have had (“Remember Alice, the widow down the street? I saw her today for the first time in a long time. She’s having a rough time, I think.”). Or ask her pointed questions that draw her in to your experiences (“I found myself fantasizing about red convertibles today. Do you think I am going through a mid life crisis?”).

It is clear that you and your wife are doing a great job managing the day-to-day demands of two jobs and two kids. Now is the time to find even more meaning in what you are doing, and to help your wife find meaning in it as well. And you cannot get to that deeper meaning without the two of you wondering out loud some about the lives you are living.

At least as important as the conversations you initiate is how you connect with your partner’s disclosures. Pay close attention to these, and find ways to elaborate on what your partner is saying. If she expresses concern or pleasure about something one of your children has done, get her to expand on that. If she sighs, ask her how she is doing. If she gets off the telephone with her sister, ask her how it went. You do not need to be a therapist, certainly, but you need to connect up with one another’s emotional lives a bit more than you are now.

Alas, good conversation is probably necessary for spicing up your sex life – but it may not be sufficient by itself. If you are anything like statistical norms, two kids plus two incomes means your wife is carrying a huge burden of a job and a lot of childcare. Underestimate this at your own peril. Over time your wife’s stress and effort become largely invisible, but that does not mean the weight of these demands is not affecting your partner each and every day. It is as simple as this: Do more. Find ways to lighten her load, and don’t pat yourself on the back when you do. When you ease someone else’s daily demands, you send unusually powerful messages: You matter to me. We are part of a team. We are in this together. I want to put aside the things I need so that I can attend to you and what you need. This is the promise that you made when you married, and now you know a lot more about what it means to follow through on this commitment.

Your relationship has changed, and it will continue to change. But the ability to connect through conversation, and the willingness to unburden your partner, are constants that can bring new energy to every encounter in your marriage.

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