Marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall says: “Getting the balance between ‘us’ and ‘me’ is difficult. Too much ‘us’, and you can feel like you’ve lost your identity; while too much ‘me’ can destroy your relationship. What’s more, the mix needs to change at different life stages.”
During this period, it’s easy to lose sight of “me time”, which often comes after family and couple time. So it’s important that you feed yourself with occasional weekends away with friends. Space apart can refresh your relationship.
Key skill: You need to learn to be assertive, which can be summed up as: “I can ask, you can say no, and we can negotiate.” Unfortunately, we often find it hard to ask (because we’re frightened of being turned down) and difficult to negotiate.
The most common problem first-year students take to university counsellors is their parents splitting up. After years focusing on children, many couples are now on separate tracks, and in the hubbub of family life haven’t noticed how much they’ve become strangers. So, time together is crucial.
Key skill: You need to ask: who am I? (Beyond my role at my job, and as a mother, wife, and daughter.) You need to think: what gives my life meaning and what do I want to do? Time away together – and to new places – throws some fresh light onto these existential questions. What’s more, sharing your thinking, rather than waiting until you’ve reached a conclusion, allows your partner to become a helpmate.
With a greater self-knowledge and more time, this is a golden period for most couples. However, to take full advantage, your relationship needs to become more elastic. I counselled a couple where he wanted to do volunteer work abroad, but she still had a part-time job she loved and an elderly parent to care for. They were able to negotiate a six-month trip for him – with two breaks where she flew over – and both felt fulfilled without holding each other back.
Key skill: Listening without getting defensive, and asking questions rather than jumping to conclusions. In order to make a good decision, you need to explore and understand before you act. Most people think each stage needs about the same amount of time, but in reality, exploring and understanding is 90% of the task, and discussing the action is 10%.
Andrew G. Marshall’s book, Wake Up and Change Your Life: How to Survive a Crisis and Be Stronger, Wiser and Happier (Marshall Method) is out on loot.co.za