Your Husband is (Likely) Not a Saber-Toothed Tiger

Dear Vanessa,

Ever since my husband and I had kids, it seems like our marriage is suffering. We don’t have sex anymore, we snap at each other over stupid things. It seems like we are just going through the motions of work and meals and daily stuff. I know some of this is normal, but where do we begin?

Dear Vanessa
Photo credit: Allison Corrin Photography

First of all, congratulations on being the first brave KC mom soul to put herself out there with this personal stuff! Second, you are right. Some of this is completely normal. Couples go through ebbs and flows of emotional closeness and distance like a tide. The ocean (your marriage) does not cease to exist, just because the water recedes (closeness). When we identify our spouse as a person who represents safety, protection, nurture and acceptance, he or she become an anchor for us – a grounding security as our ship gets tossed and rolled by waves – be them children, aging parents, PTA duties, work demands, self image issues and the need for reassurance, hormones, illness, crisis – you name it.

Because I don’t know how old your children are, perhaps it’s fair to assume they are young, which would mean that both you and your husband have been through a number of hormonal and physiological changes in the last few years. It’s true that several studies on marital satisfaction have shown that marital happiness declines on a U-shaped curve over time beginning once children enter the home, and ending with satisfaction that is actually higher than the courtship period in the empty-nesting stage. Pregnancy and breastfeeding have a profound effect on the physical relationship between spouses by the simple nature of biological demands. We could get into lots of information about the way that children statistically effect marriages in our country, but here’s the bottom line: it’s stressful to be the stopgap for a human being – financially, physically, emotionally, legally … in every sense, you and your husband are it. 

In my previous post on The Three F-Words, we discuss the role of stress on children when they misbehave, and in Mommy Crucifixion, we look at the effect of stress and anxiety on our mothering. Now, let’s look at marriage.

When the brain detects a threat, whether credit card debt or an upcoming mortgage or student loan payment, whether a child with a 104 degree fever or a 104 degree temper tantrum at Target, our bodies react with the same set of dominos falling. The amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped organ in the limbic system of the brain, sends message to our central nervous system that increases our alertness (read: irritability, edginess), reproductive system (read: less sexual drive), gastrointestinal system (read: slowed metabolism and other lovely details). Chronic stress keeps our brain in fight or flight mode. When a saber-toothed tiger is chasing us, we generally don’t feel the desire to fornicate or seek out long, meaningful conversation!

Your statement about “not having sex anymore, snapping over stupid things, and just going through the motions” helps me see that perhaps you and your husband are operating in fight or flight mode. It would make sense that you are more likely to bark at each other, have less sexual desire, even blame each other for not doing things that would lower your stress level. To add to the intensity of you and your husband’s stress, perhaps there are things from the past that trigger unresolved emotional stress (experiences with your own parents or previous relationships that were emotionally traumatic). These things effect our ability to be emotionally present, too.

You asked, “Where do we begin?”

The beginning of regaining lost emotional connection with your husband (and he with you) is awareness of him – empathy. What stresses him out? Is he empathetic about your need for stress relief, too?

When we are in the middle of an interaction, we tend to behave based on assumptions and perceptions about the other person. When you go through the motions of dinner, baths and bedtime, if you’re anything like me, you think mostly about how you are stressed moment to moment. Your husband may be thinking about how he is stressed. Each of you is operating on basic survival instincts. This is natural, as the parts of your brain in the prefrontal cortex responsible for empathy go offline when you’re in a stressful moment.

Try this: express (1) your stress and (2) your vulnerable need to feel the security of an anchor in the “stress storm” with a picture. Use the image of a ship and anchor in a thunderstorm, or use the image of your children chasing you like saber-toothed tigers! Whatever! Speak in pictures to see beyond the fight or flight behaviors in one another. Help each other not only know in your head, but see with a picture, what it feels like to be “stressed out you” and “stressed out him.”

My husband Josh and I use the image of a soda pop bottle that’s been shaken vigorously and is about to blow up (from the popular children’s book Soda Pop Head that we read to our little ones) – all one of us has to say to the other is, “I feel like I’m going to blow my bottle cap.” When we need emotional closeness and connection, we usually use visual images from our past to recall moments we felt closest – sitting together on a beach, walking on a hike in the Appalachians, cooking side by side. Even if we can’t recreate the same moment, the memory of the feeling is enough to give us a connection after work on a Monday.

Good luck!

To submit your marriage questions, email Vanessa at [email protected] with the subject line “Dear Vanessa.” Real names will not be used.

Vanessa Knight has been a part of the Kansas City community for 11 years (a native Texan), living in the Overland Park area with husband Josh, two children (Sophie is 6, Jude is 5), and three Labradors. A clinical marriage and family counselor serving the area, Vanessa works with those who hurt from life experiences, relationships or trauma, helping both individuals and families to love (www.securecounselingclinic.com). When she's not working, Vanessa's favorite stay-at-home things are Sequence, puzzles, picnics on the Nelson-Atkins Museum lawn, messy art projects, and trampoline jumping!