In my office in Sydney’s CBD I have an indoor plant, a pretty Peace Lilly. When I walk in the door in the morning, I automatically check its state. A bit droopy? Time to water. Undernourished? Plant food to the rescue. Dead leaves? Snip, snip, gone. A few encouraging words and the occasional swap with its identical friend in the kitchenette for a holiday in the sun complete the picture of its simple life.
Why tell you this, dear reader? Well, the problem is that my indoor plant regularly gets more caring and human attention from me than many folk get from their significant other. And instead of blooming – as my little plant is currently doing – they and the relationship eventually wither, moment by tiny, lonely moment.
A fascinating study by UCLA Centre on the Everyday Lives of Families of 32 middle class families with children and two working parents tracked the families’ lives in the most intimate way for one week. The researchers concluded there were now three jobs in a two-working-parent family: a job for each adult and an extra domestic one, imperfectly shared. In heterosexual families, fathers hadn’t cut back their work significantly to look after children. Mothers still did most of the household and childcare responsibilities, while working full-time.
The fragmentation of family life is striking. Families gathered in the same room just 16 percent of the time. In five families, the entire family was never once in the same room that week. Not once. And as for parents, the picture of isolation from each other is even more depressing. The researchers saw only six families where the parents spent more than ten percent of their waking hours together, without children present.
Elinor Ochs, one of the study directors, said, “Parents don’t have a life after the children go to bed.” The 1600 hours of digital video revealed some startling observations. She says even wolves greet each other when they meet after a period apart and many human cultures have elaborate rituals to greet the homecomer. But Ochs describes chilly, unloving exchanges such as the husband and wife who, on reuniting, simply resumed the morning’s argument. No kiss, no hug, no greeting.
One researcher told Dr John Gottman that these couples seemed to spend only about 35 minutes together in conversation in a week, and most of the talk was about the to-do list.
In Australia there are many, many couples whose lives are very similar to the ones described in the UCLA study. I know because they come to therapy upset and frustrated with their partners and the relationship. They are often struggling with demanding careers, huge mortgages, children’s home work and out-of-school activities. Sometimes difficult, elderly or unwell family, second jobs or renovations are in the mix too. They tell me they feel like “a walking ATM” or “invisible” or a housekeeper/babysitter, not a loved and appreciated partner.
Which brings me right back to my plant. We are like plants and so are our relationships. Both need daily care and attention.
Not many of us get together with our partner and promise we will ignore their feelings and needs for the rest of our lives together. Unfortunately that seems to happen to so many busy people. It is fatally easy to make the to-do list the priority and the partner the also-ran.
As a therapist, I work hard to get the couple to notice each other again and to respond to each other’s needs in an affectionate, positive way. Couples feel real pleasure in re-discovering the benefits of focussed attention to each other as they remember why they got together in the first place.
Research shows that warm social connections with significant others is a predictor of good health and longevity. Like plants, we thrive with care.