We all journey into marriage with our hearts brimming over with hopes and dreams. But all the aspirations in the world don’t stop life from jumping in and trying to spoil the joy of being married. A lot can happen between the “I do” at the altar and the years that follow. We can end up married to someone yet emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically disengaged.
I have come to believe that one primary problem (beside unresolved hurts in your marriage) seems to sit at the root of most couples who feel disconnected.
I call it the “full plate” phenomenon. When your spouse (or you) has something that puts them emotionally, mentally, physically or spiritually on overload something else has to be shut off in life -- and that something else often becomes your marriage.
See if any of these scenarios sound familiar:
Job Stress Your spouse gets a new job (great, right?) but is entirely consumed with work. Even at home, the calls and emails never stop. You hear your spouse act jovial and upbeat with colleagues for phone conversations, but when you try to talk to him or her, all you get is a short answer. They seem unappreciative of the ways you help, and you feel ignored and out of the loop.
Baby Blues You just had a baby, and one of the happiest moments of your life seems to be pulling you apart. Your wife is constantly exhausted, concerned more about the baby than you, and seems to have lost the “fun” side of her personality. Your husband seems to have found 101 ways to be unavailable to help. You both feel alone, overwhelmed and maybe a bit resentful of the other person. You wonder why this bundle of joy is zapping yours.
Maybe your spouse doesn't have the stress of a new job but instead, like many in today's economy, lost his or her job -- and isn’t doing much to get a new one. Or perhaps she just quit housekeeping, or maybe he completely stopped coming to church and praying with you.
The list of examples could go on for miles, but in each of these situations, the disengaged spouses have full plates. That individual is emotionally, physically, mentally or spiritually on overload, and when it comes to their marriage, well, there just isn’t much left over!
Regardless of the specifics of your situation, "full plate" scenarios can be boiled down to four basic types you need to be aware of:
Emotional Overload Emotional wounds sap a ton of energy as we either ignore them, push through them or sit down and cry about them. Unresolved pain in your life takes up heart space that could otherwise be given to the Lord, your spouse, your family, etc.
If you have an emotional wound, God wants to heal you! He is in the business of repairing the broken! I minister to women, and I hear their stories of hurt. I see their bewildered husbands who don’t understand why their wives seem to suddenly lose interested in sex, keeping up the house and even talking to them (you know there is something seriously wrong when a woman doesn’t want to talk!).
In each of the cases I have seen, the wife has had a full plate of hurt and has shut down under the weight of it. Sometimes the hurt can be old, and she is just now coming to the place where she is starting to emotionally process it. Or, sometimes she has gotten stuck in the healing process somewhere along the way.
As I mentioned earlier, you or your spouse could also be emotionally on overload because of a life transition, like a new job or baby. Life is fast paced, change is constant, and sometimes our emotions get tangled along the way. Some changes can be good, like having a new baby or buying a home. Yet they still wear you out emotionally. From losing a job to losing a loved one, crisis situations can put a big strain on you individually or as a couple. New babies and seeing those babies leave the nest are some of the hardest emotional transitions in the phases of marriage.
Physical Overload Life is full of work -- hard work. And some phases and stages seem to require more physical labor than others. Babies and toddlers require a ton of energy. Many jobs leave us with aching backs and sore muscles. Pain also drains us. So if your spouse has chronic pain or has been through some kind of illness, their physical issues just might be so exhausting and distracting that they can't see past them to connect with you the way you'd like.
Mental Overload For those couples who are balancing lots of responsibilities like work, school and kids, mental overload can really take its toll. Juggling lots of responsibilities uses up brain-space. Learning how to manage a new responsibility also uses up mental energy. You or your spouse might have so many things to mentally process, you don’t have much left over with which to engage each other. Excess TV watching is a symptom of mental overload in our house. One or both of us is just too mentally worn out to be creative enough to do things together...or sometimes even find coherent words to string together!
Spiritual Overload Usually, being spiritually overloaded is more akin to being spiritually “under”-loaded. I see this with husbands more than wives, and it usually starts somewhere else first. For example, a really good-hearted man who was out of work for a time got into some debt. He began working very hard to get out of debt. He took every side job possible and worked long hours. His growing family motivated him want to work hard to provide for them.
This husband's efforts and motivations were essentially good. But in the process of taking on all this new responsibility, he stopped being the spiritual leader of their marriage. He stopped reading his Bible and attending a small group. Time and time again he came up spiritually empty when his family needed him, so now he avoids those situations and thrusts himself into the area of life he knows he can be successful--work.
Spiritual overload might also take place when a spouse is unsaved or is walking in disobedience. Any disruption to your spouse’s connection with God will in some way affect their connection with you and your family.
How Do We Reconnect?
During transitional phases, Eric and I usually experience disconnection in our marriage because of physical and emotional exhaustion. Eric needs space to process and get used to the new norm of life. I, on the other hand, need him even more during those times to listen to me verbally process life. I need him to pray with me more as I share my concerns.
The first few times this transition scenario presented itself in our marriage, I emotionally chased after him, and he kept pushing me away trying to find the space he needed. Now, I have learned to spot the signals of this situation and give him the space he needs. And guess what? We engage faster when I allow him time and space! He's also learned how to help me and together we've found a better balance for processing life's transitions.
Identifying the reasons behind feeling disengaged from your spouse can help you navigate the situation successfully. Instead of soaking up hurt feelings or blaming your spouse, you can work together on the heart of the issue.
If you are the one who has pulled away from your spouse, consider the reasons, ask your spouse to forgive you and begin to make the changes necessary to reconnect. Perhaps you need to sit down together and plan out a balanced schedule. The solution may include finding ways to more efficiently use your time so you have more time with the Lord, your spouse, or even more alone time to recharge your batteries so you have quality attention and energy to give to your family.
If you feel that your spouse has disconnected from you, pray about the source of the disconnect and see how you can help your spouse with their “full plate” issue. Again, seek the source of the disconnection and sit down together to solve the problem as a team.
Life is always going to be full; full of joys, hardships, changes and new things. Learning to manage the fullness of life together will enable you both to experience life at its best with a marriage that is wholly and happily engaged!