Where Did Your Connective Heart Go After We Got Married?

WHOLE-kidsplaying

I’m not sure of the mechanics of marriage and then ennui. I do know that when I got married there were very few activities that we wouldn’t do together. She sang in my band. She started taking tennis lessons. (So she could wear the awesome skirts, she said.) We were in love, I guess, and “in love” couples do everything they can together.

So what happens after a few years of “in love” togetherness? Does the love run its course and you’re done? Do you fall out of love with someone? Do you get bored? Of course, it’s more complicated than one simple answer. But there’s something that happens once the pursuit and wooing is done. Something fundamental changes in the ways you are willing to have fun together.

I don’t think these arrangements are hard-wired. I think we begin to move into the roles we are most happy in.

Even before we had kids, the shift began to take place in our “together” activities. Sure, there was a lot of business to deal with in the joining of our empires, but something in my then-wife, couldn’t shut the executive thinking and planning off. So we’d go for a walk around a local lake and half-way in we’d be deep in a discussion about financing our future house. I just wanted to walk and be romantic. She wanted to “work on things.”

Maybe that’s it. Women start wanting to “work on things” and coordinate/build their empires. Men, happy to leave empire building behind, want to be spontaneous, romantic, random. Our walks became less romantic and more negotiation. Yes, we had “adult” things to work on, but we also had romantic things to pay attention to as well. Obviously that wasn’t a priority in the new “married” mode we had entered.

Having kids, as you might imagine, compounds and magnifies this “working on it” mode quit a bit. And in traditional marriages the woman begins to bear the responsibility for the CFO of the family. It’s not a spoken arrangement, it just sort of happens. Men then become more of a CMO, chief marketing officer. We become more dedicated to promoting the relationship and the fun, and the wife runs the “money meetings” and the hard talks about the future plans.

I don’t think these arrangements are hard wired. I think we begin to move into the roles we are most happy in. I loved having her focused on money and spreadsheets. I could relax and focus on making the money. DEAL. But as we divided these roles into ever more serious silos she became the checkbook tyrant. I became an irresponsible child. Now, I know that’s not right or healthy. We worked in therapy to loosen our grip on these divided roles and begin to share both leadership roles. CFO = money. CMO = fun.

In this growth phase I would get points for suggesting a date and time for our next “money meeting.” And I stretched into the role. I worked the spreadsheets along side her.

Her CFO skills got better and more intense. My CMO skills were set on glide while we basked in the glow of our newborn children.

The other part of the couple’s  executive planning, the “fun” part, sort of got overlooked for a bit. Of course, we were in the process of getting pregnant (and that was fun) and we knew there was a lot of work to get our business ready for the whirlwind of kids. Where she was calculating the budgets, scheduling her vacation time and insurance limits, I was still trying to find a few more things we could do together for fun.

Kids hit your lives like a transporter beam. Just as the new little being is transporting into your lives, another transporter is taking you and your wife to the next dimension. A child arrives and you meet them on a new planet. The parenting planet forever resets all goals, all arrangement, all previously know tactics. Nothing works the same after you have kids. Not sex. Not fun. Not money. Not time. The planet of parenting wipes your known universe clean, the problem is you don’t have a tri-corder or the Enterprise awaiting your next request.

In the early phases of our parenting journey the FUN part became built-in. As CMO I didn’t have much work to do to keep the new family unit entertained. My new son had center stage in the best show we’d ever been given tickets to. Add another kid and the planet you were just getting mapped morphs again into something more complex and dangerous. Now with two kids, there’s always one per parent. That’s great. (I have no idea how parents go beyond the 2 – 2 ratio.)

At some point, when the children have reached a certain age, you begin looking at your partner again in a different way. “Wait, what do you like to do again?” And if your CMO leadership skills have been mothballed, you’re now facing a new climate, a new planet, and a somewhat different partner to consider for your new program.

Sex and closeness are the subject of many other posts here, but I want to explore the FUN and PLAY aspects of our marriage for a minute. Something happened. Her CFO skills got better and more intense. My CMO skills were set on glide while we basked in the glow of our newborn children. While our polarization became more extreme again. I willingly entered the money meetings, but I was less committed to spending all available together time on planning and budgeting. Some of life just needs to be lived.

I was also trying to accommodate her “clean house” and “stable bank account” requirements. But I don’t think she ever put a LOVE LIST together.

The deeper we slipped into our pre-kid roles the further we got from being happy together. Suddenly, along the way, my executive CMO warning lights went off. And in an effort to reclaim some of our fun I started scheduling date nights. I wrote lists of things we (the couple we, not the parents we) could do together. But this time, she didn’t really join into my fun planning the way I was accepting the money planning.

I recall one of the pivotal moments.  I proposed getting her a bike for her birthday.

“Why do I need a bike?” she asked.

“So we can go riding around the lake together. It’s awesome.”

“Well, a bike doesn’t feel like a birthday present. That’s not what I want for my birthday.”

I never got her a bike. We never rode around the lake. She never joined the kids and me on bikes. She had biked in the past, she had biked with me when we were dating, but she didn’t want to bike anymore, I guess. But the message was, “You’re not doing it right. That’s not what I want for my birthday. Try again.”

For me, it wasn’t about her birthday it was about a JOIN for us as a couple.

She did play tennis with me once during this period as I was pushing to find more joins for us. It was sad. She told me why she didn’t like tennis. She complained when I gave her a suggestion. She looked great in the tennis outfit, but she was an unhappy pretty woman on a tennis court.

I do understand, that I could not make my wife happy. That was not my job. Everyone is responsible for their own inner happiness, or in her case inner un-happiness. That doesn’t mean I didn’t try to make her happy. I did try. I put my CMO thinking cap on and proposed off the wall activities (“Why would we go rock climbing?”) and weekend jaunts (“We don’t have the money for me to join you in SF?”) The refusal always hinged around money or time. Hmmm. The same things she complained about.

Now, I’m not trying to pass judgement on her. We had our own ways of dealing with life. And for a while, we experienced some amazing connections. Enough connections to get us married and have kids. But when the effort was longer sustained about what else we could do together, the imbalance showed up in all aspects of our marriage. She resented my playfulness as immaturity. I resented her financial obsession as tyrannical. We were unhappy.

Still, I’m not sure where her playful person went. I was offering new ideas while I was also trying to accommodate her “clean house” and “stable bank account” requirements. But I don’t think she ever put a LOVE LIST together. I don’t think she proposed a single “romantic getaway.” In the end that’s what convinced me to accept her divorce proposal. I could not make her happy. I could not find any more ways to crack the hard outer shell that had formed at some point along our journey together.

Always Love,

John McElhenney
@wholeparent

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image: childs play, petra, creative commons usage

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