In the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Psychology Today, a short article, “The Beauty of Benign Neglect,” resonates with me today as it did 6 years ago. “Parents lack (a) trust in children’s desire to be competent and that nature will influence the course of development.” Attachment parenting strategies have much to recommend but they can become radicalized and misconstrued as an all or nothing polarity situation. I will speak more about this later.
The Couples Counseling Debate – Independence Versus Dependency
In the world of couples counseling, there is one popular belief that mutual independence is crucial to coupledom (promoted by Schnarch, among others), whereas, on the other end of the spectrum is the belief that a good relationship requires an acceptance of healthy mutual dependency (Tatkin, Hendrix, Gottman, and others). As a perinatal couples counselor, I land squarely in the latter camp. I work entirely with premarital and new parents and it has become increasingly clear to me that partnering while mating is treacherous territory. Of course, partners should be sufficiently secure with themselves to be able to tolerate the inevitable ups and downs of a committed relationship. It requires a good deal of ego strength to know when to confront problems and when to let them go. If one has autonomy of mind, one will have the understanding that their mate cannot fulfill all their wishes and desires. A fragile ego, on the other hand, will be easily wounded and depending on their attachment history, may have difficulty recovering from the perceived blows. Such individuals might have learned that it is smart to distrust others, that no understanding or gratification is even possible, and therefore, decide it is a waste of time to express one’s needs. These persons will suffer from resentment – avoiding arguments at all costs and instead harboring toxic feelings. The feelings will need to go somewhere, often manifesting as low sexual energy, depression, and physical symptoms.
Cultivating a sense of trust in one’s partner allows for the expression of one’s needs and the expectation that they will be met (or not, with good reason). In my opinion, this is the hallmark of long-term relationship success. The metaphor of being “in the boat together” evokes this phenomenon well. If one tips the boat over, both fall in the water, leaving each partner equally responsible for maintaining each other’s physiological states of affect regulation – this is the ability to stay calm during difficult emotions. When I think of healthy dependency, the “zone of proximal development” comes to mind, which is where development occurs as long as there is sufficient “scaffolding” from another. I use this approach while working with couples premaritally, post-marital/procreation, or once married with children.
Sex Is In the Head – Partnering While Mating
If a couple is able to emotionally connect, help one another feel valued, and then have children, their dynamics will likely change – and they will manage to find ways to continue to connect. If there isn’t a strong emotional foundation, however, the center will not hold and the first thing to go will be sexual intimacy. Understandably, being bone tired, emotionally drained, and being busy with the LO, are not aphrodisiacs for hot sex. Nevertheless, here is when some good ‘ol benign neglect comes into play. Relationships don’t run on automatic pilot. Allowing time alone with one another is essential, even if you don’t really feel like it. Get the babysitter lined up, take a nice shower, and show up for your partner. Sex needs to be cultivated, like a good artichoke plant. Good soil, water, and added nutrients are necessary conditions for the flowering of an artichoke; same thing applies to your partner relationship. It needs to be tended to like a garden. Guilt plays an enormous part in this issue. I often hear objections that the child is innocent but the partner is an adult and should be more understanding. I also hear that economic stressors are a real buzz kill. I call BS on both of these excuses. Both men and women need to feel loved, valued, and accepted before the erotic fire is ignited. Life happens but maintaining sexual intimacy – this means hugs and kisses, not necessarily intercourse, should still be a priority. That is, if one or the other desires it. If both are okay with a sexless relationship (temporary or permanent), it isn’t a problem and one shouldn’t make it one.
Sex starts with mental kindling like dinner, a run on the beach, a party with some friends – anything that gets you out of the house together and enjoying one another. I am here to say that your baby will be fine. In fact, your baby will be more than fine because he will have loving parents who want to stay together for the long haul.
Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family
Deborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.