"We Became Parents...and Stopped Having Sex"

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The Counselor's Turn

Proving Oneself

"It's very common for first-time parents to lose intimacy after their child's birth. Most couples, however, regain their footing once they've adjusted to their new roles -- usually by the baby's first birthday. The fact that Beth and Rick were still drifting apart at the two-year mark suggested a deeper issue.

"After hearing about their upbringings, I realized they were locked in a power struggle. Both had low self-esteem, the result of being raised by highly critical mothers; both had an unconscious need to prove they were capable, knowledgeable, and right. Our first step, then, was to examine how unresolved issues from their families of origin shaped their marital behavior. Many people unconsciously pick partners who re-create childhood feelings. Beth and Rick found in each other the very behaviors they loathed in their mothers. Beth felt emotionally threatened by Rick's criticism and different parenting ideas but accepted his nasty remarks because that's what she'd learned to do with her mother. (When you come from a verbally abusive family, as she did, it can be hard to see your spouse as a verbal abuser. That's why Beth's anger was so much more focused on Rick's physical outbursts than on his name-calling.)

"Beth's insistence that she knew best regarding Alex's care stemmed from insecurity, not from maternal instinct or experience. Because her mother doubted her competence -- she discouraged Beth from attending a four-year college and becoming a music teacher -- it was vital for Beth to succeed at motherhood. For her that meant assuming the role of lead parent and making the big decisions.

"Rick's mother was also abusive, verbally and physically. Rick grew up believing that he could never please her -- she scolded him for a B on his report card -- and that he wasn't good enough. In Beth he found a woman who, when under stress, also became critical and made him question his own worth."

"There Is No Right Way to be a Parent"

"When self-esteem is high and a relationship is strong, a person can hear 'no' as 'no' and not as rejection. But when self-esteem is injured, it's hard not to personalize it. So when Beth didn't want to make love, Rick didn't hear her legitimate reasons; instead, he took it as a personal affront and projected his unresolved anger at his mother onto his wife. 'If Beth says she's tired or not in the mood, try simply to accept it at face value,' I urged him."

"Rick needed to be right about parenting for the same reason Beth did: insecurity. 'There is no right way to parent,' I said. 'Your constant questioning of each other has to stop. You need to come up with strategies together.' I did side with Beth's ideas on discipline. Spanking, I reminded the couple, teaches children that hitting is okay. I also mentioned that people who are hit as children tend to repeat that behavior as parents -- an insight that resonated with Rick and turned him into an advocate of time-outs.

"The next step was to help Rick see the importance of better managing his anger. I asked him to write down 10 reasons why he yelled, called Beth names, and used inappropriate language. His justifications ranged from, 'She thinks she's always right' to 'she's spending money we don't have.' This writing assignment worked because Rick saw how inappropriately he'd used his anger. 'I've said things no husband should ever say to his wife,' he said. 'I gave her the bricks to build the wall between us.' Though his physical outburst was an isolated incident, it demonstrated a propensity for violence. I let him know that it was imperative for him to find other ways to release his anger. Accordingly, he joined a gym, where he lifts weights and plays basketball."

Continued on page 5:  The Counselor's Turn, continued


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