Restoring Love

Restoring Love

“Dear Dr. Hanson,
When John and I got married, we were so happy. Ten years later, we have kids, jobs, and tension. Our love is a faraway feeling. We argue and it doesn’t settle much. Sometimes things feel good, but mainly we are polite and sort of distant. We just function and get through the week. There is a lot going on inside my head that I am not saying. Where did the love go? What can we do?”

Keeping romantic love alive in the midst of raising kids and earning a living is one of the hardest things that anyone can do.

Studies show that the most influential event in the life of a couple is usually the arrival of children. Often, the mother withdraws energy and attention from the father for the children, and the father withdraws from the mother both in reaction to her withdrawal and to provide for the family. Kids can also be the innocent catalysts of conflicts over money, schedules, values, religion, etc.

These are real events with real consequences that require real action.

You have already taken the most important step: acknowledging the problem. It is all too easy to kid ourselves. The other day our two year-old didn’t want her cornflakes, so she did the (to her) logical thing . . . and pushed them off the table! I could see her thinking: ‘They are not in front of me any more, so what’s the problem?’ Adults can be like that too. Unfortunately, the cornflakes — or the disappointments, the hurts, the resentments — are not really gone. And after awhile they start to smell.

Sometimes it is possible to fix things with small changes: getting a babysitter and scheduling a ‘date night’ each week or so, etc. If that works, great. But it often takes larger steps.

More than house or IRAs, family is our greatest investment. The tentpole of family, upon which all else hangs, is the parental relationship. With all respect, my advice to couples is to do whatever you need to do to get that tentpole straight. Do it for yourselves and do it for your children. Spend the time, the money, the energy. Take breaks if you need to, but don’t quit.

It needs to feel safe to talk with your mate about the relationship, safe to take risks and make changes. Obviously, there must be no actual or threatened violence; if family life is scary, get help immediately from an agency like Marin Abused Women Services. Lead with respect in your dealings with each other. Expressing anger is often necessary, but no mean-spirited attacks, overt or covert. Restoring trust is important, so make clear agreements with each other and keep them.

Buffers help; couples are often ‘metal on metal.’ Take a big breath before you speak. Practice civility. Spend time apart that is rejuvenating, and deepen friendships with others of the same gender. Write in a journal to clarify thoughts and feelings. Write letters to each other, some of which will never be sent.

If you are not resolving things on your own, involve a professional such as a minister or therapist. A third party can offer a neutral perspective and practical suggestions based on years of experience. Many therapists, including myself, will do an initial screening at no charge and help you to identify the true problems and find what you need. Money is not a legitimate reason not to get professional assistance; there are plenty of sliding scales in Marin, including A.P.P.L.E. (which has an excellent counseling program).

Tools to restore and deepen love are available from professionals, other couples, and solid books such as Getting the Love You Want. The right tools are going to depend on your exact needs. Much as one reads in books on exercise, I advise you to use these tools under a professional’s guidance.

In general, I suggest first that you and your mate take some serious time to write out answers to questions like these: What did you see in the other that made you want to get married? What did you expect in family life? How have you felt disappointed, wronged, or even betrayed? What underlying wounds or issues in you have been reactivated? How have you let down your mate? What needs to change in your home life? How do you feel about the areas of money, schedules, sexuality, childrearing, or equitable sharing of childrearing? What do you need in order to trust him/her? What do you want from him/her? What do you like, respect, or value about the other? What are you prepared to give, to forgive, to change in yourself to improve the relationship?

Second, in a safe environment with plenty of time to talk, take what Steve wrote and read it to him (and vice versa). Let it sink in. Tell each other your understanding of how they feel, and why. Focus initially on their side of the story, not your own. If you feel your mate is still not getting something, tell him/her in as clear and non-hostile a way as possible. But don’t get involved in defending yourself: concentrate on empathy and understanding.

Third, pick one or two simple things which you can agree on changing. Write down what the changes will be and actually do them for a couple of weeks. When you start restoring trust, it is important to keep your agreements. If either of you wavers, talk again about your commitment to the family and your relationship. Get some momentum going of positive change. And then pick something else to change and repeat the process.

Fourth, increase the positive. Praise your mate. Do fun things together again. Take a few minutes at the end of each day to tell each other what you appreciate. Touch each other more. Exhange backrubs daily. Give gifts, large and small. Now that you know more clearly what they want, make real efforts to give it to them. And in a loving way, tell them explicitly and concretely what you want.

* * * * *

Love is like a fruit tree: if we water it, it will bear fruit for a lifetime, but with neglect it will wither and even die. Every year, millions of couples make positive changes and things get better. They did it. And so can you!

This is an article adapted from the book Mother Nurture (2002) by Rick Hanson, Ph.D., Jan Hanson, M.S. and Ricki Pollycove, M.D.

Dr. Ramani Durvasula is a licensed clinical psychologist, author, and expert on the impact of toxic narcissism. She is a Professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles, and also a Visiting Professor at the University of Johannesburg.

The focus of Dr. Ramani’s clinical, academic, and consultative work is the etiology and impact of narcissism and high-conflict, entitled, antagonistic personality styles on human relationships, mental health, and societal expectations. She has spoken on these issues to clinicians, educators, and researchers around the world.

She is the author of Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and Don't You Know Who I Am? How to Stay Sane in an Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility. Her work has been featured at SxSW, TEDx, and on a wide range of media platforms including Red Table Talk, the Today Show, Oxygen, Investigation Discovery, and Bravo, and she is a featured expert on the digital media mental health platform MedCircle. Dr. Durvasula’s research on personality disorders has been funded by the National Institutes of Health and she is a Consulting Editor of the scientific journal Behavioral Medicine.

Dr. Stephen Porges is a Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and Professor Emeritus at both the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Maryland. He is a former president of the Society for Psychophysiological Research and has been president of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences, which represents approximately twenty-thousand biobehavioral scientists. He’s led a number of other organizations and received a wide variety of professional awards.

In 1994 he proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the mammalian autonomic nervous system to social behavior and emphasizes the importance of physiological states in the expression of behavioral problems and psychiatric disorders. The theory is leading to innovative treatments based on insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders, and has had a major impact on the field of psychology.

Dr. Porges has published more than 300 peer-reviewed papers across a wide array of disciplines. He’s also the author of several books including The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication, and Self-regulation.

Dr. Bruce Perry is the Principal of the Neurosequential Network, Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, and a Professor (Adjunct) in the Departments of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago and the School of Allied Health at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia. From 1993 to 2001 he was the Thomas S. Trammell Research Professor of Psychiatry at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of psychiatry at Texas Children's Hospital.

He’s one of the world’s leading experts on the impact of trauma in childhood, and his work on the impact of abuse, neglect, and trauma on the developing brain has impacted clinical practice, programs, and policy across the world. His work has been instrumental in describing how traumatic events in childhood change the biology of the brain.

Dr. Perry's most recent book, What Happened to You? Conversations on Trauma, Resilience, and Healing, co-authored with Oprah Winfrey, was released earlier this year. Dr. Perry is also the author, with Maia Szalavitz, of The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog, a bestselling book based on his work with maltreated children, and Born For Love: Why Empathy is Essential and Endangered. Additionally, he’s authored more than 300 journal articles and book chapters and has been the recipient of a variety of professional awards.

Dr. Allison Briscoe-Smith is a child clinical psychologist who specializes in trauma and issues of race. She earned her undergraduate degree from Harvard and then received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. She performed postdoctoral work at the University of California San Francisco/San Francisco General Hospital. She has combined her love of teaching and advocacy by serving as a professor and by directing mental health programs for children experiencing trauma, homelessness, or foster care.

Dr. Briscoe-Smith is also a senior fellow of Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and is both a professor and the Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Wright Institute. She provides consultation and training to nonprofits and schools on how to support trauma-informed practices and cultural accountability.

Sharon Salzberg is a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. She is widely considered one of the most influential individuals in bringing mindfulness practices to the West, and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts alongside Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Sharon has been a student of Dipa Ma, Anagarika Munindra, and Sayadaw U Pandita alongside other masters.

Sharon has authored 10 books, and is the host of the fantastic Metta Hour podcast. She was a contributing editor of Oprah’s O Magazine, had her work featured in Time and on NPR, and contributed to panels alongside the Dalai Lama.

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