The most commonly quoted statistics on marital satisfaction put it bluntly: marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born. The birth of your first child is major milestone in many relationships, and the built-up anticipation of the moment can make it all the more exciting when the baby is finally born. And indeed, the experience is a uniquely memorable one; having a child changes one’s identity by creating an entirely new dimension to who they are and the roles they hold as an individual, a partner, and now, a parent. Adopting this new role means facing new challenges, some we expect, but it can be surprising how many relationship problems arise after having a baby. Parenting causes an increase in conflict simply because there are now hundreds of decisions almost daily which are mutual and involve compromise and negotiation between partners. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in their little bundle of joy and balancing the demands of work, family, and life all while functioning on minimal sleep. It’s easy to understand how things can go bad fast in a relationship under these conditions. How can so much joy bring so much conflict? Well, because…
Parenting is Hard
Becoming a parent means facing a whole new series of hurdles—some of which are common to any new child, but many of which may be unexpected. Dealing with the challenges that come up only gets easier when you can approach them as a team. Communication about the division of labor is crucial to setting your team up for success. Make no assumptions about who will get up in the middle of the night when the little one wakes up at 4:00 a.m., or who will take off work for that upcoming doctor’s appointment. Having an open dialogue about the allocation of responsibilities can not only ease the friction that this added stress can bring, but on some level, can even bring the couple closer by encouraging collaboration and reinforcing of being mindful of not only the child’s needs, but each other’s.
Tend to Your Foundation as a Couple
Communication about responsibilities and the “divide and conquer” conversation of who will tend to what responsibility is important, but even more important is remembering to make time to have other conversations. Given the time and resolve required to tend to the many needs and obligations of parenthood, it’s easy to approach the work with a business-like efficiency. Playful conversations over dinner become checking off to-do lists, and questions about each other’s day become questions about this or that task was completed. Remember that you relationship with your partner existed before you were parents, and while your relationship is changing (and will continue to evolve), the foundation of your partnership is still very much there. So much in the same way that children need care and attention, this foundation must be nurtured in order to continue to grow and thrive. Gestures of affection and gratitude go a long way to preserving and enhancing happiness in relationships. Indeed, it’s often these smaller gestures of appreciation that can make more of a difference than large romantic displays.
Intimacy is Critical to a Happy Partnership
Another big change comes in intimacy and in sexual satisfaction. The spontaneous passion that might have existed between partners before children became part of the picture may not be feasible or realistic anymore. You’re both tired; by the time the little one falls asleep, both partners are often so tired that “going to bed” means falling asleep before heads hit pillows. The hours spent lying in bed together become abbreviated, as time is precious—time for sleeping, doubly so. Because of this, it becomes all the more important to appreciate the little moments that the two of you do have. Being mindful and intentional about squeezing in a hug or a kiss before work may not be the same as spending an evening together, but the act (and the sentiment behind it) can go a long way between date nights. Flirtatious text messages or a written note slipped into a briefcase before work can help to inspire and retain some of the same playfulness that it can be so easy to lose.
That being said, date nights should be prioritized. The social pressure on new parents to display or demonstrate their competency or investment in their children can often give rise to the idea that sacrificing everything for one’s children is a good thing, when in fact, this poses a number of threats to our own mental health as parents. It may feel forced or ritualistic or even like another obligation on the long list of things to do, but getting into the habit of regularly allocating one evening or afternoon or even one morning every 2-3 weeks or even a month as time exclusively for you and your significant other can not only help prioritize and maintain romance and intimacy in your relationship, but can give the two of you something to look forward to.
Exercise Your Right to Say “No”
Another effect of this social pressure on new parents is that parents often feel compelled to take very active roles in all aspects of their child’s life—the pressure is high (whether perceived pressure from other parents or pressure that we put on ourselves) to volunteer to bring snacks to school or to help organize this or that after school event. This issue comes up often with kids who are very involved in sports—many parents may want to attend our child’s games and support them by watching and cheering them on. The research says this is good—kids like it when parents attend their games. However, when we begin to feel compelled to attend these games or events, or guilty when we can’t, it’s time to cut ourselves some slack. It’s great to attend events when possible, but missing these things here and there is not only OK and understandable, but it’s highly likely. Perfect attendance is the exception, not the rule. And while kids do tend enjoy having their parents in attendance, this is also not always the case; in some instances, children may begin to feel as though they are playing for their parents rather than for themselves.
Engage in Self-Care & Support Your Partner’s Self-Care Needs
Relationships do change when kids become a part of the picture—there’s no way around that. The joy and excitement that comes with being a new parent typically outweighs the frustration or disappointment. However, the relationship tension that often comes up under this added stress cannot be ignored. Similarly, the focus on the newest member of the family should add and not detract from the partnership that preceded it; nurturing the new child is critically important, but it isn’t selfish to tend to your own needs, too. Good parents aren’t necessarily the ones that sacrifice themselves entirely for their child, but rather the ones that know they can’t pour from an empty cup, and as such, work to balance their own needs with that of their child in order to provide the very best for their little one.
If you are experiencing damaging conflict or distance in your relationship after having children, couples therapy may be a beneficial option. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have extensive training and expertise helping couples communicate, maintain or regain intimacy, and grow together after having children. Call or fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more or schedule an appointment.
In recent years, the concept of mindfulness has been a hot topic for not only psychologists, but for anyone from business executives to basketball players alike. Despite its recent surge in interest, mindfulness is not a new concept; it stems from ideas rooted in a variety of Eastern traditions, especially Buddhism. Concepts central to the practice of mindfulness and meditation have been put to use by many in recent years because of the vast number of benefits that have been shown to follow this type of practice. But does it actually mean? First, let’s start with some common misconceptions.
Mindfulness vs. Meditation: Is There a Difference?
Mindfulness is often associated with meditation. We think of “being mindful” and we imagine a dark room with candles and a pillow, crossed legs and gentle new age music. Is this mindfulness? It can be, sure. Meditation is one way in which many people choose to practice a form of mindfulness, but it certainly isn’t the only way. You can practice being mindful while working at the office, while eating at the breakfast table, or while taking a walk outside.
Some people may be hesitant to engage in mindfulness because of its connection with spirituality or religion. Indeed, for many, mindfulness and meditation can involve a spiritual sense of connection. And while it may have roots that can be traced back to religious practices (as well as nonreligious practices), mindfulness is not necessarily a spiritual practice. Rather, mindfulness is a part of the human experience—one that has the capacity to enhance a religious or spiritual practice, or simply to heighten our sense of awareness in our day to day life.
In short, mindfulness is what you make of it. For some, it’s a taking a deep breath before a speech or presentation and reconnecting with themselves before beginning, while for others it can describe a way of being within the world. The New York Times has a running series on mindfulness, entitled “Meditation for Real Life” which offers short, simple guiding prompts for common moments in life that allow for us to practice being mindful in a variety of contexts—whether sitting alone at our desk at work, or even surrounded by others at the dinner table. But what actually is mindfulness?
What is Mindfulness ?
Traditionally, the term mindfulness simply describes a way of attending to the present moment. It involves noticing those things that we might otherwise take for granted—stopping to smell the roses, so to speak. There’s an intentionality to it; by deliberately remaining present, we develop an awareness that captures both internal and external experiences. To practice mindfulness is to strive to notice and appreciate these experiences in the present moment with compassion—not to judge or attempt to change, but to simply notice.
Take a moment to pause what you’re doing. Notice the restless shifting in your seat or the tapping of your leg, and find some stillness instead. Notice your breathing, and take a slow, deep breath for a count of four, holding it briefly, then slowly exhaling for a count of six. Repeat this, paying attention to your breath and noticing the way it feels as you breathe deep into your stomach, and the way that your body relaxes further with each exhale. This is an exercise designed to help us breathe mindfully—taking us off autopilot and increasing our awareness of our breath. Continue this for a minute longer and notice changes to your body or your mood. Most commonly, people report feeling more relaxed, as though the tension were flooding out of their muscles with each prolonged exhale. If this exercise felt good, consider trying it for three minutes, or even five.
What are the Benefits of Mindfulness?
The benefits of mindfulness have been gathering evidence for many years now. Given that this is largely a mental exercise, people are often surprised to hear of its many physical benefits. Better immune functioning, better sleep, and what is perhaps the most obvious benefit, a significant decrease in stress levels; indeed, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) has become a widely used set of techniques that implements mindfulness exercises as a way of decreasing stress and anxiety. Mindfulness and meditation tend to invite a sense of calmness and peace into our experience, in part simply because we are slowing down and remaining present, rather than letting our minds run on a loop or continue worrying about the next thing on our agenda. One of the most powerful aspects of mindfulness is that you don’t need any special equipment, a guru, or a lot of money to practice it. You just need a willingness to ask yourself questions and a quietness to hear the answers.
Many of the benefits of mindfulness are mental and emotional in nature. Awareness and understanding is often the first step in promoting change in just about anything, so improving our awareness of our internal worlds can be a powerful way of effecting change within ourselves. One major misconception about mindfulness is that it requires shutting off or controlling our thoughts. When I talk with my clients about mindfulness, it usually involves some discussion around thoughts, reactions, behaviors, or experiences that are flying under our radar and thus contributing to our feelings of sadness, anxiety, frustration, or other feelings that we might prefer to avoid. In doing so, clients often go on to ask about the point at which they can begin to control or shut off these feelings altogether. And understandably so—to be able to do this could keep us from experiencing the discomfort that accompanies these feelings.
Sometimes we don’t know even what questions to ask at all. In these instances, it can be helpful to seek out the support of a therapist who provide guidance, helping us lead more mindful lives and truly get in touch with our inner selves. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center are trained in mindfulness and can help you develop a personalized plan of mindfulness to incorporate into your daily life.
If you are interested in learning more, fill out the contact form below or call us at (773) 512-4992.
This article is part 1 of a 2 part series on mindfulness. Part 1 defines mindfulness and part 2 will focus on how to practice mindfulness in your daily life. Stay up to date by signing up for our newsletter and get alerts when new content is published.
How often have you felt lonely in the last month? How often have you felt lonely in the past year? We all experience loneliness in some form. Humans are social creatures. We crave connection—whether on a large scale or a small one—and have certain social needs that require satisfaction. When those needs for connection, intimacy, and friendship with others go unmet, we often begin to feel isolated, disconnected, and alone. We feel lonely. So how do we overcome loneliness?
Regardless of your age, gender, background, or even your relationship status, feelings of loneliness are common to many around the world. The implications of this are huge; feelings of loneliness are often not only painful on their own, but exacerbate the course of many mental health concerns. In contrast, social support has been shown to be a powerful mitigating factor of everything from stress and poor sleep patterns, to suicidality and schizophrenia. For these reasons, feelings of loneliness and isolation are important to consider when think of our overall mental health.
“Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone.”
– Paul Tillich
Loneliness vs. Being Alone
However, it’s important to distinguish between being alone and being lonely; one does not always mean the other. For many, having time alone may feel relaxing and rejuvenating rather than isolating. The difference between being alone and being lonely is very often the story that we tell ourselves. Those who view themselves as being alone because they’ve been rejected or are somehow unworthy of the company of others are going to feel inherently worse than those who view their solitude as a choice. Occasional time on our own allows for reflection, and for the development of a more intimate relationship with ourselves. Choosing to embrace being alone is a drastically different approach than the fear of being alone that often accompanies loneliness, but doesn’t really look all that different in terms of the actual situation—it simply means a) acknowledging that you aren’t alone because of your shortcomings or because of some personal flaws, and b) using the time alone differently.
There are plenty of ways to be alone that don’t promote loneliness: taking up a DIY project around the house, or going to the movie theater on your own. Going to the gym is a great way to spend some of your alone time improving your mood, since exercise is such a great way of ameliorating feelings of anxiety or depression. Many tout reading a book as a good way of spending time alone, and this is a good suggestion, but I also encourage readers to try getting out of the house to read. Sometimes being out and around others at the local coffee shop or park feels drastically different from reading at home in bed. However, too much time alone with ourselves can be difficult for even the most introverted person. In times likes those, it’s often best to actively experiment with something new.
Connect with Others
Think for a moment about the way the patterns in your life contribute to the degree to which you are connected with others. Are you the person who makes a habit of talking to someone new at parties? Or do you stick to the familiar faces with whom you feel most comfortable? Do you wear headphones at the coffee shop? Or do you make conversation the person in line in front of you? We often fall into patterns like these that may lead to a consistent, stable lifestyle, even when that consistent lifestyle contains problems. Men, for example, are often particularly susceptible to feelings of depression because of our tendency to have more difficulty than women in intimately connecting with new friends. Another example is social media—the ever-prevalent influence of social media is seen in lives of many lonely teenagers and young adults who endorse feeling envious of the lives of others they see portrayed on Facebook.
Sometimes, the patterns we fall into stop being useful for us, and it comes time to form new habits. This is easier said than done, however; how do we know what sort of patterns in our lives will make us happier? Simply put, we don’t. We can’t possibly know until we try. Sometimes this means experimenting with a new way of being, trying it on to see how it fits, then keeping the parts that work and discarding those that don’t.
Deal with Social Anxiety
So let’s revisit the same party as before. You’ve found yourself alone in a crowded room, and are scanning the faces for someone familiar to talk to. However, maybe just this once, you step outside your comfort zone and strike up a conversation with someone nearby that you haven’t met yet:
“I don’t think we’ve met; I’m ______. How do you know ______?”
That’s step one: a simple enough line that often opens up the conversation for more common ground and can be the beginning of an interesting conversation, depending on the route it takes.
But what if the conversation dies out? What if it doesn’t go anywhere?
Then you’re no worse off than when you started. Not every experiment works out, and not every person you meet is the right person to connect with. It’s ok if your conversation fizzles out or if you find you have absolutely nothing in common with the person you’re chatting with. Rather than feeling like a failure, let yourself feel proud that a) you made the effort to try something new (which isn’t easy!), and b) you’re developing skills to better be an active participant in the world around you.
Create New Connections
Sometimes the issue is one of context. We don’t have the party to attend, much less someone there to talk to. For those still in school, clubs and other extracurricular groups can be a great way of meeting those with common interests. Those who may not have this option might be able to make use of sites like Meetup.com that offer a variety of different location-based interest groups so that whatever your hobby, you can find like-minded individuals with whom to easily connect. Regardless of where or how you encounter these groups, however, the responsibility still ultimately falls on you to remain an active participant in your world and assertively seek out those with whom you’d like to connect—to start the conversation and see where it leads. If the suggestions in the preceding paragraph sound absolutely miserable, you aren’t alone. It’s important to remember that these events and new situations are often the most difficult before we engage in them. How many times have you looked toward a party or event with dread only to come away from the experience feeling positive and glad you went?
It’s important to remember that you aren’t alone in feeling lonely. It’s been estimated that , which means that at any given gathering, you aren’t the only person in the room feeling lonely. This is a common issue with which more and more people struggle—it’s one reason that sites like Meetup.com are so popular! So while feelings of loneliness can leave you feeling alone and disconnected from those around you, remember that we all feel lonely from time to time; by reaching out to talk to someone new, you might just make their day better, too.
Do Your Parents Affect Your Adult Relationships?
Bergen Counseling Center co-owner, Dr. Rebecca Bergen, was recently interviewed by www.mydomaine.com for an article series on relationships. The premise of the article asks the question, “How does our childhood relationship with our parents affect our romantic relationships as adults?” Dr. Bergen breaks down how our parents become models for our adult relationships in both healthy and unhealthy ways. In the interview, she explains the influences that our parents relationship with us as children and with each other as parents contributes to our expectations, communication patterns, conflict-styles, and expressions of affection in our adult romantic relationships.
From the article:
“MyDomaine: Is there one parent who impacts this experience more than the other? For example, I read that the relationship you have with your opposite-sex parent predicts the kind of relationships you’ll have with boyfriends or girlfriends in adulthood. Can you explain/elaborate on this idea?
Dr. Bergen: I believe they affect us in different ways. Same-sex parents serve as a model for our own behavior and opposite sex parents are projected into potential partners. This also works in reverse, in the sense that we may search for the opposite of a father who was stoic and uninvolved. Another example, a person may be hyper vigilant to criticism and argue frequently with partners because their same-sex parent had difficulty advocating for themselves and became a “doormat” in the relationship. We tend to want to emulate our parent’s relationship when it is perceived as healthy and positive.“
Read the full article on www.mydomaine.com to learn more about how childhood relationships with our parents influence our adult relationships and even how we pass along those patterns to our own children. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have experience and training to provide couples counseling in Chicago and are also skilled in exploring family of origin issues. If you are interested in learning more about how we can help, complete the contact form below and one of our therapists will reach out to you personally.
When we see people at our offices in Chicago for couples counseling, they often report at least one of three major problems. 1.) “We argue too frequently and explosively” 2.) “We don’t talk enough and feel distant” 3.) Or the catchall: “We have communication issues.” Throughout the course of couples counseling, we uncover the relationship between arguments and emotional distance is determined by how couples experience conflict in their relationships. Partners entering couples counseling for the first major problem listed above tend to be in the most acutedistress. Conflict is oftentimes painful and unsettling, and unresolved conflict is a primary source of resentment in relationships.
For many, the word “conflict” brings up negative connotations of insidious issues that come between two loving partners. However, conflict is an inevitable part of a healthy, intimate relationship. More than this, conflict can be a powerful impetus for growth, understanding, and can even be an opportunity to become closer and experience increased intimacy with your loved one. Despite this, we may find ourselves repeatedly feeling at odds with our significant other when our relationship becomes fraught with arguments or disagreements. Conflict is an opportunity for growth, but we often walk away feeling dejected or discouraged. If you find that you and your significant other have developed a tendency for repeated, routine arguments and conflicts that generally don’t end well, it might be time to change your habits and try something new. Here are some ideas for reshaping the dynamics that characterize your arguments, and finally conquer conflict not by avoiding disagreements but by arguing in a healthier way.
That’s right—the first thing to do is to do nothing at all. When conflict arises, we often spring into action quickly. Instead, try pausing for a moment and actually noticing what is happening. How are you talking to your partner? What are you feeling? Conflicts (especially the ones that become sore spots for a couple) often occur in patterns, and the sooner that the couple is able to recognize these patterns, the sooner that they can begin to implement some changes. Repeated arguments can make for unpleasant routines, so noticing the patterns or the contributing factors to an argument can be a good place to start. When do you argue most often? Where? Over what types of subjects? Do you find yourself more prone to arguments when you’re hungry? Sleepy? Similarly, when are you most agreeable? What sorts of settings contribute to less arguments? What makes those conversations different?
2. Focus on changeable problems
Conflict resolution is a process by which the disruptive cycle of communication or behavior in a relationship is changed, adjusted, or otherwise reshaped to make for a more harmonious relationship. In short, this means change. Spending time and energy arguing over irreconcilable differences does not benefit either member of the partnership, but can rather exacerbate the feeling of “spinning your wheels” that often develops from repeated arguments over the same issue. Unsolvable problems require acceptance; only changeable problems can be resolved.
3. Be a team
All too often, we forget that the goal of an argument is not about showing that you are right while the other is wrong, but rather to find a place of understanding and resolution for the both of us. When conflicts occur, its crucial that we don’t fall into the trap of playing “the blame game”. This means that we have to strip our arguments of those things that don’t help us or aren’t constructive—things like speaking in generalities (“You always do this,” or “I have never done that!”), bringing up unrelated issues or past arguments (“This is just like the time you…” or “You’re wrong about this just like you’re wrong about…”), or name-calling and other forms of derision (“You’re such a jerk,” or “We wouldn’t have to argue about this if you would just man up and deal with it.”). Oftentimes, these phrases are said in the heat of an escalating argument, when we are starting to become upset and overly stimulated. If that happens, it’s ok to take a break and return to the discussion when you or your partner has calmed down some. In fact, a 20 minute break in the middle of an argument can often reset the runaway train and lead to a productive conclusion to an otherwise chaotic conflict.
4. Ask questions, and listen
When an argument begins to escalate, we often stop doing two very necessary things—asking questions, and actually listening to what the other person is saying. We become upset or anxious or angry and begin to act without pausing to recognize the way the argument has become a runaway train (which is one reason that tip #1 above can be so useful). The next time you find yourself embroiled in a disagreement, try this: pause (or agree to take a break for a few minutes before returning), and then simply say “Ok. I feel like I’m not really listening to you and I want to hear what you have to say. What do you need me to hear?” Then, in the conversation that follows, notice your desire to interject—to justify, defend, or explain away the problem—and hold back. Instead, try listening to what is being said, understanding, and offering a validating response. Consider the following exchange:
Jane: “I’m upset because you didn’t even consider how your decision to work late was going to affect me!”
Joe: “I did consider it though! Don’t you understand? I worked late tonight so that I could leave the office early on Friday.”
Jane: “You’re not listening! You didn’t think about how this would affect me at all.”
Joe: “You’re being ridiculous! I get off early on Friday and now we get to spend time together then!”
Jane: “I’m being ridiculous? Really? I just wanted to spend time with you tonight and instead I had wait for you to come home because you decided to work late without telling me.”
Joe: “But I did it so we could spend time together Friday!”
See the cyclical nature of this particular argument? Joe thinks that he had a good reason for doing what he did, but in jumping to justify his behavior, he isn’t hearing or understanding Jane’s message. He might have more success with the following approach:
Jane: “I’m upset because you didn’t even consider how your decision to work late was going to affect me!”
Joe: “Oh, wow—maybe I didn’t fully understand the consequences of that decision. How did it affect you?”
Jane: “You obviously didn’t understand! I was looking forward to spending the evening with you and then you just text me to say you aren’t coming home for another few hours? That really sucks for me.”
Joe: “You must have felt like I hadn’t thought about you at all. That would really upset me too.”
Jane: “It was like you forgot about me.”
Joe: “I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about it. I actually was thinking about you—I thought that by working late I could come home early on Friday so we could spend more time together. But it sounds like not talking to you about that decision really upset you so maybe I can do a better job of discussing these things with you next time.”
By not jumping straight into defending or justifying his behavior, and instead, validating Jane’s feelings and experience, Joe not only helped defuse a high-stress conversation, but was able to reach an easy resolution that suited both members of the relationship.
5. Consider couples counseling
Sometimes we get so entrenched in the patterns and routines of our conflicts that it can become difficult to get out of the dynamics that developed over time. In these instances, it can be useful to see a professional—an impartial third party whose goal is to help couples break their bad habits while also learning new skills for negotiating conflict and, in turn, repairing and revitalizing the relationship as a whole. The Bergen Counseling Center are trained offers couples counseling at two locations in Chicago. Fill out the contact form on this page to learn more.
Daniel White, MS, LPC
About the Author: Daniel graduated from Roosevelt with his masters in clinical psychology in 2016 and has practiced as a therapist under supervision for over a year. He has been writing for Bergen Counseling Center since 2016, and his areas of special interest include intimate and familial relationships, trauma, shame, grief and loss, and issues related to individuation and identity development.