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Too Busy for Love?
By Wayne M. Sotile, PH.D. and Mary O. Sotile, M.A.

Overworked couples can rekindle the spark in their marriage

April 16 — Attention all parents and couples: are you stressed out? No wonder. You’re probably doing more than you ever imagined you could. Both partners work in more than half of all
two-parent families in this country, which means more income,
but also more stress. Is it possible to have everything we need,
and do everything we should, without feeling like we’re about to
fall apart at the seams? It’s the new norm: One couple, two jobs, too much to do. The results are abnormal levels of stress, fatigue and tension.

ON “DATELINE NBC,” Keith Morrison talks to the editors of
Working Mother Magazine, and the marriage-counseling team of Wayne and Mary Sotile for some expert advice. One topic Wayne and Mary Sotile cover in their book, “Supercouple Syndrome: How Overworked Couples Can Beat Stress Together,” is keeping love alive in a marriage. Read an excerpt from their book:
It’s the new norm: One couple, two jobs, too much to do. The results are abnormal levels of stress, fatigue and tension. The good news, we’ve found, is that most overworked couples cope beautifully. They get their kids to school on time, their work done and dinner on the table, in spite of the fact that they have too much on their plate.

The bad news is that the way many overburdened couples deal with the demands can hurt their relationship. The very skills they have perfected and used so well to handle their busy lives puts exceptional stress and strain on their marriage. In time, they stop playing, laughing and communicating with — or even touching — each other. They tell themselves that “this is the way most married couples live,” which is, unfortunately, accurate. So they put aside romance and passion, settle for a functional relationship, and live semi-miserably ever after. They may stay together, but they don’t stay intimate.


(Answer “often,” “often enough,” “not enough,” or “rarely” for
1. How often do you show affection for each other?
2. How often do you laugh at each other’s jokes?
3. How often do you say something nice to each other?
4. How often do you compliment you partner in front of others?
5. How often do you make love?
6. How often are you playful with each other?
7. How often do you look each other in the eyes while talking?
8. How often do you give each other a little surprise?
9. How often do you say “please” or “I’m sorry?”
Intimacy can be evaluated in many ways. As a psychologist and a
marriage-counselor team, we’ve worked with over 5,000 couples, in addition to leading workshops and giving lectures to thousands more, and we have learned to measure intimacy by asking the questions above. There are no right or wrong answers. But if you’re disappointed or dissatisfied with your answers, if you wish more of them were “often” or “often enough,” then consider this a sign that your marriage needs reviving.


People deal with stress in different ways, but chances are that you use one or more of very common strategies — common because they are so successful. For example, you may work harder and harder or faster and faster in order to get everything done. Perhaps you’re the type of person who can do two things at once. Some people have enormous reserves of energy and stamina to call on. Others take charge and manage stressful
situations by trying to control others. You might in fact be a terrific
manager of people.

One of the hallmark characteristics of exceptional copers is the
capacity to go numb when stressed and keep on going. Because they have so much to do and feel it’s important to accomplish every little thing, many great copers become easily frustrated, irritable and sometimes hostile and cynical.

If you lead a busy life, you probably spend considerable time
preoccupied with your own anxieties, needs and wants. This creates various forms of “relationship narcissism,” the tendency to be so preoccupied with the unending struggle to maintain control that you mismanage your relationships. It may show up in an attitude like this one:

“Given how beaten up I am from stress, I deserve to have my every need met, my every insecurity soothed, and my batteries recharged by you.”

For some, relationship problems are caused by insensitivity to the
people around them. Self-absorption and focusing on your own worries can result in feeling so anxious and burdened that you don’t notice others or their needs.

Think of it this way: If you’re driving a car 30 miles per hour, you’re
likely to be reasonably courteous to your passenger. You might ask, “Are you comfortable? Want to listen to the radio?” But if you are driving 120 miles per hour, you won’t care if your passengers are comfortable. You need to keep your eyes and mind on what you’re doing.

   If you manage your life as a perpetual road race, there will be an inevitable toll on your relationship.

   If you are frequently exhausted, you’ll be too tired to pay attention to each other.

   If you are controlling when you interact with others, they will stop revealing themselves, fearing unwanted invasion.

   If you are a perfectionist, your criticism will alienate others.

   If you’re excessively competitive, others will avoid you for fear of being put down.

   If you are impatient, others will feel anxious when around you.

   If you repeatedly express irritation and hostility, others will undoubtedly feel wounded, not nurtured by you.

   If you habitually do or think more than one thing at once, others will feel that you never fully attend to them.


Of course, no one has a fairy-tale marriage. There are couples,
however, who manage to keep intimacy alive 10, 20, even 30 years after saying “I do.” Though no less stressed than many other couples, they cope in ways that don’t put a strain on their marriage. And even if there are dips in their intimacy and periods of disillusionment, they remain mutually supportive, committed to a good life together, romantic and passionate about each other.
We have found 12 ways those in healthy, intimate relationships keep their love alive. Follow their lead and use your exceptional coping skills to change the state of your union.

1. Work at it Lifelong love and romance take effort and courage. Few things in life are as complicated as building and maintaining an intimate relationship. You need to work on it constantly and apply your considerable managing abilities to get through those trying periods that require extra work. You’ll find that it is far easier to try less than to try harder.

2. Think “team” When making decisions, such as whether to work overtime or accept a transfer or promotion, ask yourself this question: What will the choice I am making do to the people I love? Try to make the decision that will have the least negative impact on your marriage and your family.

3. Be protective Separate your marriage and your family from the rest of the world. This might mean refusing to work or worry on certain days or nights. You might end up turning down relatives and friends who want more of you than you have the time, energy or inclination to give. You might even have to say no to your children to protect time with your spouse.

4. Accept that good enough is as perfect as it gets
Sacrifices and compromises have to be made. You might need to settle for a job rather than pursue a career. You may not earn as much as you wish. Most of all, you will have to accept that there is not enough time at this point in your life to do and be all that you might aspire to.

5. Share your thoughts and feelings Unless you constantly communicate, signaling to your partner where you are and getting a recognizable message in return, you will lose each other along the way. Create or protect communication-generating rituals.
No matter how busy you may be, make time for each other. For
example, take a night off each week, go for a walk together every few days, go out to breakfast if you can’t have dinner alone, or just sit together for 15 minutes each evening simply talking, without any other distractions. Of course, how you deal with each other during those times is crucial.

6. Manage anger better Try to break the cycle in which hostile, cynical attitudes fuel unpleasant emotions, leading to aggressive behaviors that stress others and create more tension. Recognize that anger signals frustration of some underlying need, and try to figure out what that need might be. Avoid igniting feelings of anger with judgments that you are being done an injustice or that your stress is due to someone purposefully behaving in an incompetent way.

Don’t confuse assertion with aggression. Watch your non-verbal
signals, such as the tone of your voice, your hand and arm gestures, facial expressions and body movements. Deal with one issue at a time. Don’t let your anger about one thing lead you into showering the other with a cascade of issues. If different topics surface during your conflict, flag them to address later.

Try to notice subtle signs that anger or irritation is building. If you are harboring these feelings, express them before they build too much and lead to an angry outburst. Managing anger is about negotiating new outcomes to difficult situations. And successful negotiation involves separating the person from the problem and, while holding to your own important issues, calming the other person. To do that, validate your partner’s perceptions, even if you have a completely different perspective. Don’t blame your partner or turn a fairly manageable problem into a catastrophe. Emphasize where you agree.

7. Declare your devotion again and again. True long-range intimacy requires repeated affirmations of commitment to your partner. And don’t forget that love is not only in what you say but also in how you act. Buy flowers for each other. Do the dishes without being asked. Committed couples protect the boundaries around their relationship. They share more secrets with each other than they do with their circle of friends and relatives. They make decisions while keeping in mind the impact that those choices will have on thieir partnership. They also resolve to keep up with and encourage each other’s growth.

8. Give each other permission to change It is fascinating to note how much more couples know about each other early in their relationship than they do once they have been together for years. The reason? People stop paying attention. If you aren’t learning
something new about each other every week or two, you simply aren’t observing closely enough. You are focusing on other things, not one another.

Bored couples fail to update how they view each other. They act as though the roles they assigned and assumed early in the relationship will remain forever comfortable.

Worse yet, struggling couples act as though a partner’s changing is a betrayal. That resentment arises because one partner’s development always requires the other to change too, and this can lead to anxiety. Instead, accept that the stress of growing is an inevitable part of being married, and be careful not to sabotage each other. When either of you is struggling with growing pains, you need to nurture each other more than ever.

Remember to remain constantly abreast of each other’s dreams, fears, goals disappointments, hopes, regrets, wishes and fantasies. People continue to trust the people who know them best and who accept them without passing judgment.

9. Have fun together Human beings fall in love with the ones who make them laugh. They stay in love with those who make them feel safe enough to come out to play. Keep delight as a priority. Put your creative energy into making yourselves joyful and producing a relationship that regularly feels like recess.

10. Make yourself trustworthy People come to trust the ones who validate them. They learn to distrust those who act as if a relationship were a continual competition over who is right.
Always act as if each of you has thoughts, impressions and
preferences that make sense, even if your opinions or needs differ. Realize your partner’s perceptions will always contain at least a few truths, and validate those truths before adding your perspectives to the discussion.

11. Forgive and forget. Don’t be too hard on each other. If your passion and love are to survive, you must learn how to forgive. You and your partner regularly need to wipe the slate clean so that anger doesn’t build and resentment won’t fester. Holding on to hurts and hostility is a way of blocking real intimacy. It will only assure that no matter how hard you otherwise work at it, your
relationship will not grow. Do what you can to heal the wounds in a relationship, even if you did not cause them. It is also important to absolve each other of the sheer stress and fatigue you cause in each other’s lives. Be compassionate about the fact that neither of you intended to hurt the other as you set out on this journey.

12. Cherish and applaud. The most fundamental ingredient in the intimacy formula is cherishing each other. You need to celebrate each other’s presence. If you don’t give your partner admiration, applause, appreciation, acknowledgement, the benefit of the doubt, encouragement and the message that you are happy to
be there with them now, where will they receive those gifts? Be generous. Be gracious. One of the most painful mistakes couple make is the failure to notice their own partner’s heroics. These small acts of selflessness include taking out the trash, doing the laundry, mowing the lawn, driving the carpool, preparing the taxes, keeping track of birthdays, calling the repairman and cleaning the bathroom, as well as enduring hundreds of other routine labors.
People are amazingly resilient if given at least a little reinforcement for their efforts. But they become demoralized if they toil without appreciation. So make a concerted effort to notice daily acts of heroism by your loved ones.

Finally, try to keep in mind that there really are no perfect
relationships. Do what you can to help each other manage the daily juggling act you both perform.