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My Husband Says
I Don't Give Him Enough Attention

QUESTION: My husband and I are currently going through an informal separation. This was his idea. Ever since our son (2 1/2) was born he says that I don't pay him enough attention like I used to when I was pregnant. I have tried to explain to him that our child should come first and he agrees but he still feels that he should be first and foremost in my mind. I love him with all that I have. This "separation" is merely a mental separation and not a physical. Our sex life is definitely better because of it, and I have been trying to compromise by giving ample enough attention to both my husband and son. I don't want to lose him.

What do you think I could do to improve the relationship with my husband while not jeopardizing the amount of attention that I give my son? I am currently working full-time and going to school for my degree as well.

ANSWER: Though it is fair for him to want the quality of your relationship to be the same, his expectations for the amount of attention from you may be unrealistic following the birth of a child. And it is not fair for him to have his cake and eat it too! If he wants a separation, why is he enjoying a sexual relationship with you? Perhaps he wants the life of a bachelor back, but this is not possible. Working on the relationship within the context of living together is far different from working on it when separated. It is the very intimacy of living together that is being avoided. Such an arrangement contributes to the fantasy that your husband can return to single life and still enjoy the benefits of being a member of the family and a father. Yet he is distancing himself from his son and from you. Having sex in this situation seems to reward him for leaving and separating himself out from the family. This may be a temporary shortcut to hot sex, (spiced with the threat of abandonment?) but it is not an answer to the problem of forging a vital couples' relationship in the context of a family unit.

Couples' relationships are healing vessels for past wounds of childhood. Your husband seems to have a found a very loving and responsive mate in you. And such healing may be a part of what he needs in a relationship. It is not the case that you are between him and your son. You and he must put your son first, for this is the responsibility of both you and your husband. But it is also critical to your marriage that there is consistent quality time that can be counted on in the couples' relationship. Making consistent weekly dates with one another could be part of the change that needs to occur.

Your husband's withdrawal from you in this situation could prove to be damaging to your marriage. It is important to work things out, however this means spending time talking through these changes that have come about since you became parents. Your child's well-being rests on the strength of your couple's bond. He benefits from what you give to one another, not just what he gets from each of you directly. It is important to process the things that were given up by becoming parents. Grieve the life you left behind, but accept the responsibilities of what you have entered into together. Perhaps your husband is looking for an escape from mourning life before children. Instead he is attempting to return to being single.

Perhaps your partner should join a father's group where he can share feelings like his own with other men going through the same life phase. Or he could go into individual counseling to explore why your loving attention is not enough, and what the reasons are for his continued jealousy of his son. It is not the feelings of jealousy that are the problem, as this is a common response in new fathers. But it is the fact of his withdrawal from the family, based upon these feelings that could communicate a destructive message to his son. Is he developing a relationship to his son, that is separate from your mother-son relationship? What is he doing to feel a part of the family, other than through your love and attention? It is not your job to dole out nurturance. And you need nurturing, too. What is your partner doing to nurture the relationship with you, and his son separately? For therein lies the connection he longs for. Sex is a transient and empty substitute for enduring intimacy. It is common for men who have experienced difficulty attaching to their own mothers as infants, to seek connection through sex. However sexual connection alone never satiates the deep need for intimacy and contact that is an important part of finding your place in a family.

Your commitment and devotion to him should give him cause to consider looking inside for some of the answer to his own need to feel included in your love. And if the two of you are both working full time and parenting, it is true that your attention to one another is curtailed. Going to school in addition could also be leaving little time for each other or parenting. Is there anyway to balance time and commitments that give more time to relationship and connecting, both as a family and as a couple, and less time working or going to school? Could you both continue to pursue work and educational goals, but at a slower pace that would allow for more family and couple time together?

Perhaps your marriage is simply the casualty of too much to do with too little time to do it. If this is the case, discussion and re-prioritizing might be in order, rather than separation. Ask your husband to talk with you about prioritizing. Request his help and his positive suggestions for solutions. What is the emotional meaning of his moving out? Is he angry at you, but not asking for changes surrounding time and commitments on your part? Ask him to tell you what his vision would be of a loving relationship with you. And ask him to give you positive and realistic suggestions for how things could change, and what he is willing to do to help it to happen.

In short, develop a shared vision of what you both want together. But pay attention to the difference between balancing parenting, work, school and marriage and unrealistic expectations for couple's relating after a baby arrives. There are changes which must be accommodated to when a child is born, and this does include reduced attention to the couple and increased attention to a child. But tease out whether with the work and school commitments, this meant less time together versus no time together!


Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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