How loss can affect the marriage relationship

My husband and I have been married two years, and we have a beautiful 17-month-old daughter. We moved to a new city recently, and I began a challenging new job. Also, three months ago my father died after a brief illness. My husband stays home to take care of our daughter and I know misses his friends. He now feels that I have been emotionally and physically distant from him. I think he is being unrealistic in his expectations. Am I at fault for neglecting him?

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Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Family researchers describe healthy family process as consisting of two dimensions. One is the ability to handle the affective (feelings) part of life in the family. And the other is the capacity for the operative (problem-solving) dimension to run smoothly in the family. It appears that -- with all of the life changes the two of you have negotiated in the last few months -- the operational level of your family's functioning is going well. Moving and holding down a new job have been achieved. Now is the time for dealing with the emotional repercussions of all that has gone on in your family, and perhaps your husband is expressing this aspect of adjustment.

Your family has been through three major changes in the last three months. No wonder you are struggling. Your feelings for your daughter, your husband and your ability to share feelings with one another will lay the groundwork for deeper bonding around these significant life events.

The sense of emotional and physical distance your husband is expressing is a good beginning to establishing more closeness. Expressing his needs, as well as expressing your beliefs and feelings about his expectations, will open up room for processing the emotional sphere of your life together. An increased capacity for discussing feelings will benefit any adjustment to change, and it will also offer the potential for new ideas or possible solutions not thought of prior to emotional expression and sharing.

Continue talking together. Point out your very astute observations about his experience of losing his friends, the need to make new ones and the effect of this loss on his current experience. Perhaps he needs to depend on you more right now, as his best friend, but will be able to accept the fact that his needs will also be augmented with outside friendships, which will happen over time. Your own loss of your father may also be influencing the relationship. It is not uncommon for a spouse to feel preoccupied with the loss of a parent. Such preoccupation with loss may decrease the emotional energy available in the relationship.

The loss of your father and the loss of friends and familiar surroundings are the emotional tasks facing your family right now. Perhaps there are mourning rituals the two of you could share that would bring you closer through this period of transition and strengthen your capacity for addressing the emotional dimension of family life.

It sounds like the two of you are doing a great job! Perhaps the knowledge that what you are going through is part of the normal growing pains of family development will help ease you through this time. You are doing the work of building skills necessary for increasing your capacity to handle future change with less distress. Like hoeing the garden, the work is hard and intense, but when the seasons evolve, you will enjoy your harvest!

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