Where did the love go? Partnership wilts under the stress of married life
Jane and Peter came to me for counselling to try and save their failing marriage. 'He doesn't love me any more,' Jane told me. 'All he wants to do is work, work, work. I am the only one taking care of the kids. He doesn't want to be involved in family activities.
'He is not interested in me as he used to be before we were married. We used to have regular quality and romantic time. But now we don't even have a night when we go out to dinner together. Maybe we should divorce if there is no more love.'
Peter told me: 'She is always critical and angry. I can't deal with her accusations any more, or the fact that she blames me for everything. I need to work full time to support the family, otherwise how could she afford to be a stay-at-home mum? She doesn't understand that I would rather spend more time with the family, but I just don't have a choice. Maybe we really should divorce if nothing changes after counselling.'
When they got together eight years ago, Jane was a competitive 30-year-old woman with a degree in business from a prestigious university in the United States. After they married, Jane sacrificed her career to stay at home and look after their two children, although she often felt bored and unfulfilled. Peter is introverted and highly educated. He works as an information technology engineer. He often travels for work, and his absence, coupled with the duties of raising the children, means that both feel the other no longer loves them.
I tried to reassure them by saying that many people find that the relationship suffers after they marry and have children. Many gradually see divorce as the only option. But in many cases, the love and intimacy in marriage improves over time, particularly once the children have become young adults.
Partners can feel neglected for many reasons - not always because they feel their partners do not love them. Peter was preoccupied by having to support his father after losing his mother. A very strong emotional bond existed between them.
Peter was also concerned about the possibility of his company downsizing. He worried about how he would finance his son's education at an international school if that happened. He was depressed and anxious. He had a poor appetite, didn't sleep well and had a low sex drive. He became withdrawn emotionally from his wife.
Jane was stressed by being a full-time mother with what she felt was an unresponsive husband. I explained to her that Peter's unresponsiveness was not because he didn't love her but because he was suffering from clinical depression. I thought both of them were emotionally exhausted and expected the other to look after them. The real enemy was the pressure they were under. I asked them whether they were willing to work together and stop blaming each other. If they didn't, the futile fights would continue and that would be the end of their marriage.
It was important they remembered how to feel compassion and empathy for each other.
Peter and Jane were instructed to focus on improving their own emotional well-being first. For example, Peter was encouraged to do regular exercise such as jogging and to socialise more with friends. I encouraged Jane to have fun shopping and going out for dinner with friends. Babysitters were arranged when they went out for either joint or separate activities.
Peter and Jane's moods and their marriage began to improve. During their 12 months of regular meetings with me, I carried out many other interventions. They became much more confident and positive about their relationship. Eventually, they both decided to see if they could work out the rest of their issues by themselves.
In the end, they discovered how to put things into perspective and appreciate each other's efforts and sacrifices. They understood how to look for the positive qualities in their partner and work together as a team.
Jackie Chan Hiu-yeung is a counselling psychologist and director of the counselling service at the Child Psychological Development Association