Ah, the chemical high of being in love. There’s nothing quite like it is there? The rush of excitement, the feeling of wanting to spend every waking moment with this perfect person; it all just feels so good!

Yet you likely know this stage of the relationship is fleeting. In fact, it’s just science, really. When we’re in this first stage of love, our neural pathways are lit up like a fireworks show. It’s all part of Mother Nature’s master plan to pair us up and make it feel great.

But what happens when the sparks stop flying and the smoke clears? The next phase is nurturing contentment, but for many couples, the “fizzling out” brings with it many challenges, particularly when you throw a life-changing experience, like kids or illness, in the mix. Gail Nelson, individual and couples therapist at Journey Counseling, discusses how couples can navigate these changes.

Why do relationships often suffer after children?

American culture can feel overly child-centered. In fact, even Dr. Ester Perel says that we spend too much time, money and energy on our kids. When we become parents, we get busy supporting a nurturing environment for them. While that’s a wonderful goal, it comes at a cost to the connection we have with our partner. We try to “get it all done” and sadly the work of checking in and supporting the needs of our partner doesn’t make the list. This causes a debt of time and energy that’s required to keep us connected.

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What are some of the warning signs that your relationship needs some attention?

We know from research that a warning sign of conflict is tension. When you start to sense tension between you and your partner it will come with hesitation and holding back from saying what you think. Sometimes we may also use argument and upset rather than a gentle and easy listening voice. When we get to this level we are also more avoidant of connection with our partner. If you haven’t taken time alone with your partner — with no kids, phone or interruptions — you and your partner may quickly lose touch with one another as resentment and distance build.

What can couples do to keep a pulse on their relationship and ensure they’re nurturing it?

Lori Collins, author of “Building Couple Time”, supports parents in their quest to find time for each other. She has online courses for ideas on how to keep your marriage strong. She suggests couples take turns scheduling time together into the week or month. For couples who have done this step, I get feedback that it is worth the energy it takes to make it happen.

Couples who go through therapy together can explore skills for being a better partner as well as learn to listen to a partner’s wants and needs. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms
Couples who go through therapy together can explore skills for being a better partner as well as learn to listen to a partner’s wants and needs. iStock / Special to On the Minds of Moms

What if couples feel like they already grew apart?

At first, we are biologically driven to pair up and go out of our way to spend time with this new person in our life. As the relationship goes forward, the “blush of love” reconfigures into something more on the endearing scale. Your partner is special to you because you have declared that you are special to each other. We need to keep exploring the many ways our partner is special to us and to the legacy we want to build over time.

Secondly, a key to appreciating your partner’s uniqueness is to practice “staying in your own skin”. We project that our partner knows what we are thinking and feeling as if we were one brain. We are two different people and part of the joy of a long-term relationship is watching and supporting your partner as they change and grow.

We absolutely will become different people from that first stage of meeting each other. Love is what remains after the early chemistry has worn off!

What if there are still hard feelings from the past?

Making sense of your past is a good reason to seek out an individual therapist. If, as a couple, resentments that have built up could be a sign that you need to learn to debrief those feelings, own what belongs to you from a problem-solving skill set, and also learn to apologize when your own behaviors are problematic and causing your partner pain and upset.

Is it ever too late to build the foundation of a healthy relationship?

I think with two willing partners there is always hope to design a relationship that works better. I support the idea of assessment tools and retreats to add more depth to our understanding of ourselves and our partner. For example, at Journey Counseling, I have a 5-hour course that helps couples get started on the right foot.

At what point should couples seek counseling?

  • When you keep having the same argument that doesn’t produce any change for the better.

  • When you are having trouble expressing your concerns to your partner.

  • When you don’t feel listened to and your feelings are discounted.

  • When you are entering a new phase in your relationship, such as marriage, becoming parents or working at home with each other all day.

What should you expect during the counseling process?

In a couple’s session, the therapist will lead, direct, confront and teach. We call these tasks “developmental assists” because to be a better partner, you need new skills, better feedback about what your partner is hoping the two of you can create, and new insight about how you are contributing to a problem in your marriage.

What are some outcomes?

You can expect the counseling process to increase clarity about what kind of life you want to build together, explore skills to enhance your ability to be a better partner, get more skilled at representing your wants and needs and learn to listen to your partner’s wants and needs.

What are some of the best tactics for building a solid relationship foundation?

A key skill is having a vision for your legacy. How do you want to be remembered by your children, your family and most importantly, your partner? We need a long-term strategy for making our life work. A healthy relationship is a complex, unique, dynamic work of art!

Two video clips I use to demonstrate foundational elements of a good relationship are Al Pacino’s halftime motivational speech from the movie “Any Given Sunday” and “Lessons of the Geese”.

For more information about Journey Counseling visit journeycounselors.com.