The Practicality Trap

It is easy for married couples to slip into a pattern of relationship that is all about the practical part of life - work, chores, kids. While there are many pressures that push in that direction, spouses have to try and avoid falling into the 'practicality trap'.

Habits of Feeling

Our emotional lives are like our patterns of living. We get into habits of feeling. And since the life of a married couple will usually involve a lot of practical routine, often under pressure of time, it is common for couples to fall into what I call 'The Practicality Trap'. This is not just about actions. It is even more importantly about feelings.

When you have lots of chores to do you tend to develop a way of feeling that could be called the 'practical mode'.

What is the 'practical mode' of feeling? It involves some detachment, less personal feelings, and a focus on tasks. Different people manifest this differently. Some people become less expressive and less responsive to other people's presence. By contrast, other people combine this 'practical mode' with an outer cheeriness that deals easily, though superficially, with the presence of others. Either way, your feelings become focused in a narrower band of preoccupation, and this usually has its own momentum, so that you get somewhat stuck in that manner of feeling.

The funny thing is that you can come to enjoy this manner of feeling, and even adopt it as a fairly constant thing, even when not involved with practical matters. It can become your 'default' setting, so that you tend to remain in this kind of emotional state most of the time, even in circumstances where it would be better to shift to a different way of feeling.

Switching Emotional Gears

I don't know if you've ever clearly noted this about yourself, but most people don't find it easy to just switch smoothly and easily between different 'modes of feeling'. We tend to get at least partially 'stuck' in a manner of feeling and feel some unwillingness to shift into a different one. For example, when you are in the practical mode you might find it very hard to shift into the 'romantic mode'.

Even though on another occasion you might really be longing for some romance, when you are in the practical mode it can be hard to shift gears and mobilise the interior feelings more appropriate for a romantic encounter. This can cause some difficulty in a relationship because your partner might be wanting to share more affectionately with you but you deflect these overtures and thereby lose an opportunity for a more personal kind of relating.

This kind of thing cannot be avoided altogether of course, but it can become a problem if such a mismatch of feelings becomes a regular thing.

If this kind of thing is happening in your relationship, it is important to take into account the fact that people can't necessarily, or even ordinarily, switch modes of feeling at the drop of a hat. This is why, when hoping for a romantic encounter, one or both partners will spend some time preparing for it. This is not just about the practical matter of scheduling some time to be alone together, it is also about doing those things that will help each of you in shifting emotional gears.

A General Relationship Problem

This process of switching emotional gears does not only apply to romance. It also applies to times when you need to switch from everyday chores to some serious discussion about things affecting your family life, or your spiritual lives. It can also be needed simply in switching from the busy round of the day to relaxing. You might end the day still 'hyped up' and find within yourself a kind of unwillingness to switch off and relax. This can happen even when you really want to switch off, but can't.

Of course it can also work in the opposite direction, when you know you have chores to do but can't muster up the will to do them. Once you get off the treadmill it can be hard to get back on.

In a relationship it is important to recognise that this difficulty in switching emotional gears is built in to us.

It is not in itself a fault or a defect.

It is simply one of those things we need to understand and for which we need to make allowances, both in ourselves and others.

Importantly, in a relationship one person might find some modes of feeling easy to switch in to, while the other person finds those same modes of feeling hard to switch in to. This is one of those things you need to learn about each other. You might be able to let go of the 'practical mode' of feeling easily and be all ready to relax straight away, while your partner needs a lot of time to transition. You sit down to watch some TV but the other can't switch off thinking about all sorts of things and keeps bringing them up so that it prevents you both relaxing together.

One might be very ready to show physical affection, and have a kiss and cuddle at the drop of a hat, while the other shies away from it, and would take much longer to be open to such advances.

Why 'The Practicality Trap' is such a problem

Although the difficulty of switching emotional gears is a general phenomenon, I have highlighted the issue of the practical mode because both men and women are readily affected by it, and it can lead to the whole relationship suffering. This danger is heightened by the fact that they can both develop a preference for remaining in this practical mode of relating - and both be happy to do so.

One does not moderate the other, but they tend to reinforce each other in that tendency, even taking pride in their busy-ness.

If they're both happy, what's the problem? If they both get stuck in 'The Practicality Trap' their relationship will start to become more superficial and they might not even notice. So even if it works for a while eventually each will start to feel dissatisfaction as their relationship becomes less personal. If their primary preoccupations are practical it will also tend to see them start to drift apart, since they will generally be preoccupied doing different kinds of tasks, usually in different places and with different schedules. Even though they are both doing these things for the common good of the family, their emotional closeness will tend to diminish.

'The Practicality Trap' is especially a danger to a couple's intimate life.

In order to keep growing in intimacy each needs to keep growing personally and spiritually. It is this continual growth in depth that provides both the capacity for and the enjoyment of each other's intimate company. The practical mode of feeling is some steps removed from the  personal-spiritual mode, which means that their sexual relationship will most likely diminish due to lack of personal-spiritual growth.

All Things in Moderation

It is good if you can develop a positive, happy practical mode of feeling. It is certainly better than being negative and resentful at having to do chores. And it is better than being unable to rouse yourself from more enjoyable things to do what must be done. So it is important not to misunderstand what has been said above about the limitations of the practical mode of feeling. These cautions are about balance.

And this balance is not achieved by being half-hearted about the practical things in life. Not at all. However, in order to attain balance we need to give sufficient time and effort to the qualitatively more important things. In this context it is your spiritual life and your intimate life as a couple that are more important. These lift you up, and enable you to enjoy the more ordinary things without becoming addicted to them.

It might sound strange, but it is very common for people to become 'addicted' to staying in the practical mode of feeling. It has its own satisfactions, and if you are not careful these can become a substitute for the more important things, and a way of avoiding them. But this is usually disguised by the fact that being ever-busy about practical matters can become a matter of pride. After all, who would criticise you for working too hard? And you can use this subtle sense of self righteousness as permission to criticise others. And if the one you are criticising is your spouse, you have a problem.

He or she might be crying out for something more personal and intimate from you, but you use your busyness and hard work as an excuse not to engage in the harder work of intimacy.