Every parent knows that having children puts stress on a marriage. Throw in a child who has special needs and it is all too common for a marriage to go from happy to barely surviving.
That is what happened to mine. My marriage has two distinct phases: before our first child, when it was happy-even blissful, easy, and fun-and after our first child, when all hell broke loose!
On top of managing the precarious transition into motherhood that all new moms experience, having a child who was not following a typical trajectory of development put an additional layer of stress on our marriage that no one could have prepared us for.
It was as if, all of a sudden, we went from being connected and in love to living on different planets and feeling completely at odds with one another. Our starkly different temperaments, which had previously complemented one another, were now resulting in two very different ways of processing what was going on with our son.
I became flooded with worry and anxiety about our son’s atypical development while my husband remained dismissive of his delays. This created a rift that began to jeopardize our marriage.
About two years into parenthood, we were in the red zone. We realized that it was time to focus our energy on mending our broken relationship before it was too late.
Now, four years into parenthood, our marriage still requires work, but we are in a much better place than we were two years ago-we are more connected, more affectionate, more understanding, and more forgiving toward one another.
Yes, there are still tense moments and frustrations, but when they arise we are better able to work through them.
Here are 10 things my husband and I have learned about keeping our marriage alive in the midst of parenting a child with special needs.
1 - It all comes down to communication
All relational problems can be boiled down to poor communication. Learning how to communicate more effectively will improve your marriage. The most helpful tool my husband and I have found for improving our communication is a method called Non-Violent Communication. To practice Non-Violent Communication, you must check your ego and actually hear what your partner is saying. Not just listen, but really hear. Suspend your judgments and just be curious about what is going on for your partner. Whether you agree or disagree is not the point. Your job is to understand where your partner is coming from and respond from a place of curiosity and openness.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In the heat of the moment, when tensions are high and you are both triggered, it’s nearly impossible to be responsive and not reactive. But, the thing is, it’s not impossible. It just takes a little intention and a lot of deep breaths. To learn the specifics of Non-Violent Communication, read my blog post.
Shifting your communication can solve most of your marital problems and create the space for you and your partner to have a deeper connection.
2 - Scheduling alone time with your partner is imperative to stay connected
For the first three years of parenthood, my husband and I rarely had any alone time. We were in survival mode. Forget scheduling regular date nights, we hardly had the energy to have a conversation! And when we did, the conversation almost always revolved around parenting.
A typical night entailed an exhaustive effort getting our older son down to bed, then collapsing into bed ourselves. We finally realized that unless we started prioritizing our alone time, our relationship was not going to make it.
Of course there are a million reasons why a weekly date night seems impossible to schedule- we don’t have a sitter, we are too tired, we don’t have the budget, even if we did have a sitter, we wouldn’t feel comfortable having her do the bedtime routine, did I mention we're too tired?
All of these felt like valid reasons a regular date night was not in the cards for us... until our relationship hit rock bottom.
Then all of a sudden we realized that our reasons were excuses. Cut to today- we now have a babysitter whom our kids adore and whom we wholeheartedly trust to put them to bed. We not only have the energy for date nights, but we feel more energized after spending quality time together.
My husband and I joke that daily life with young children is akin to Groundhog Day (“Ok campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties, cause it’s cold out there!”). We get so wrapped up in the daily grind that we lose touch with who we are as a couple.
Having a weekly date night allows you to reconnect with one another and to remember why you fell in love in the first place.
I remember sitting across from my husband on one of our first post-children date nights and saying, “Oh yeah, you’re really fun and funny, we have so much fun together!” We’d been so much in the thick of it with our kids that I had forgotten. I’d forgotten how great we are together.
So...no excuses! Start scheduling weekly date nights. It is the most important thing you can do. The more your marriage is suffering, the more you need this. Tips on scheduling alone time.
3 - A good couples therapist can do wonders for a marriage
If you are experiencing a considerable amount of tension and stress in your marriage, going to an experienced couples therapist can be a game changer.
The right therapist can help you weed through the anger and resentment, recognize each of your roles in the marital dynamic and find ways to reconnect.
When looking for a therapist, remember that finding one that is a good fit can take time. Don’t give up if you have a session and it didn’t feel right. Get several referrals and keep trying until you find someone you both connect with. You will know when it is the right fit.
If you are reading this thinking, there is no way in hell I am going to get my partner to agree to couples therapy, join the club! A few years ago, my husband had zero interest in going to therapy. To him, therapy had a stigma (even though it is my profession which goes to show how ingrained that stigma is in our culture). He felt that therapy was for people with “problems” who needed “help” (um, yeah, that's us! ha!).
Most of us don’t have a hard time seeking out help when our physical health is jeopardized- we go to the doctor, hire a personal trainer, go to the chiropractor, make a dental appointment. Why is it so hard to for us to ask for help when we are struggling emotionally and relationally? As it turns out, being emotionally vulnerable, admitting to and facing our internal struggles, is absolutely terrifying to most people, especially men.
Men are socialized to “suck it up,” “be strong,” and not show emotions. The idea of sitting down and talking to a stranger about your innermost feelings is completely counter to the cultural messages men receive throughout their lives about being “a man.” It’s not surprising that many men, like my husband, are instantly opposed to the idea of therapy.
Vulnerability, or being emotionally exposed, is the key to human connection and after all, isn’t connection the reason we’re all here? Feeling connected to others is what gives our lives a sense of meaning and purpose. Without it, we become lonely and isolated, which many doctors believe is the biggest risk factor for disease and premature death.
When my husband balked at my request to go to therapy, I emailed him a link to Brene Brown’s TED talk. I knew the chances of him watching it alone were slim, so I scheduled a date to watch it with him. Afterwards, we had a good talk about vulnerability and why it feels so scary. Guess what? After being vulnerable about our fears about vulnerability, we felt more connected. Go figure! And, guess what else? He agreed to go to therapy.
A year of weekly therapy later, we are stronger and more connected than ever. We still have our challenges for sure (in fact, I’m pretty sure he wanted to strangle me the other day), but we are so much more skilled at working through them.
Your partner still needs more convincing? Research done by the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists has shown that 93% of couples who have received couples therapy reported having more effective tools for dealing with their problems and 97% of those surveyed reported getting the help they needed to save their marriage.
4 - Giving your partner the benefit of the doubt is one of the secrets to a strong marriage
Prior to having kids, I saw my husband through a pair of lovely, patient, understanding rose-colored glasses. If he was running late and I hadn’t heard from him, I assumed it was for a good reason; if he forgot something that was important to me, I didn’t take it to heart; if he made an insensitive remark, I assumed it was unintentional, expressed my feelings, and then moved on.
After having kids, our stress levels dramatically increased, my level of self-care declined, and those rose-colored glasses were stomped on and thrown right into the trash.
What emerged was a mostly negative view based on faulty assumptions. When he was dismissive of our older son’s challenges, I assumed it was because he didn’t care; when he was quiet or withdrawn, I assumed it was because he was self-absorbed; when he didn’t ask about our son’s doctor appointments or OT sessions, I assumed it was because he thought it was all a waste of time.
I went from giving him the benefit of the doubt to making negative judgments about his character and his intentions. It didn’t take long for his negative pattern to create a minefield of anger and resentment. Before we knew it, there was a huge rift in our marriage and we had no idea how it got there. It took me a long time to take responsibility for my role in creating this pattern and to create some space so that I could begin to shift my perspective.
I realized that for the first few years of parenthood, I had been in a chronic state of stress (fight or flight). With my nervous system in the red zone, my ability to be compassionate and understanding had been hijacked.
I was projecting the immense fear and anxiety I felt about our son’s atypical development onto my husband in the form of anger and judgment. I created a negative feedback loop that was keeping me stuck in an awful place.
In order to shift, I had to move from a place fear into a place of love... I had to start giving my husband the benefit of the doubt again.
Changing my negative pattern was (and still is) difficult, but with my newfound awareness, I started challenging my faulty assumptions when they arose and replaced them with a more positive spin.
Rather than assuming my husband was being dismissive of our son’s challenges because he was insensitive, I began to extend compassion. I began to be curious about his stance. Instead of filling my head with judgmental thoughts like, “What the hell is wrong with him?” or “He is seriously the most insensitive person I’ve ever met,” I began to ask questions like, “What’s going on for him that is getting in the way of being able to accept our son’s challenges?” and “How can I change my approach so that he is more open to hearing about my fears?”
The difference between operating out of fear and operating out of love is equivalent to the difference between a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. When we start to give our partner the benefit of the doubt, we simultaneously create space for growth and love which has a direct impact on our level of connection.
The next time you find yourself making a negative assumption about your partner, try shifting it into a question and see what happens. The more you challenge those assumptions, the more you will move out of fear and into love which will lessen the tension and strengthen your relationship.
5 - Rebranding your partner will shift you out of negative patterns
This goes hand in hand with giving your partner the benefit of the doubt.
We all have negative judgments about our partner…
However, in the beginning of our relationship, most of us see our partner as a golden unicorn...our soulmate...the most perfect person on the planet who really sees me and loves me and thinks I am the most incredible human being ever. Our differences complement one another. You love pizza crust? I hate pizza crust! You can always eat mine! We are perfect together!
Then, at some point in the relationship, most commonly during the transition into parenthood, the halo effect fades and our differences begin to clash. Get your hands off my pizza crust! Why are you always trying to take my food? Get your own damn slice.
This is exactly what happened in my marriage. Before becoming parents, I viewed my husband as “easy-going,” “even-keeled,” and level-headed.” After becoming parents, I saw him as “completely out-to-lunch,” “insensitive,” and “lacking empathy.”
The same thing happened to my husband. Prior to kids, he saw me as “passionate,” “organized,” and “generous.” After having kids, he complained that I was “anxious,” “rigid,” and “an over-spender.”
As the stress of parenthood engulfed us, our negative judgments escalated until we had pretty much forgotten how we’d initially experienced each other. We had to rewind and work on “rebranding.”
Here's an exercise that can help. Divide a sheet of paper into two columns. On one side, list all the negative judgments you have about your partner. In the other column, go down the list and reframe each judgment. For example, if "he's lazy" is one of your judgments, you might reframe it as "he's relaxed and easy-going."
Start noticing when your judgments come up and actively work on shifting them in the moment. This can be hard to do, especially when you're feeling frustrated, but making the effort to remind yourself of your partner's positive qualities can go a long way in keeping the two of you connected.
6 - Expressing gratitude, even when you don’t feel like it, is key to staying connected.
I should say expressing gratitude, especially when you don’t feel like it, is the key to staying connected!
When anger and resentment build up in our marriages, we feel victimized.
Feeling victimized goes hand in hand with feeling unhappy, depressed, disempowered, entitled, and ungrateful.
When we feel victimized, we give up all of our power. The payoff and the reason the victim mentality is such an alluring trap is that playing the victim is a very convenient way of alleviating ourselves from any responsibility for our less than ideal predicament.
In marriages, feeling victimized is a great way to guarantee that you won’t have to confront anything painful about yourself or change in any way. It is also conducive to creating a vast divide between you and your partner.
I know from experience! I am especially susceptible to the victim trap.
In our first few years of parenthood, I felt extremely victimized. I blamed my husband for everything and felt totally validated in doing so! In the depths of my misery, I finally had a wake up call…
I was out for a run, listening to a podcast about the nature of reality, and the speaker said, No one has the power to make you happy or unhappy, that is entirely up to you.
He continued talking about how our thoughts become our reality. It’s not like this was a revelation, but in that moment it hit me hard. It occurred to me that if most of my thoughts towards my husband were filled with anger and resentment, then our relationship would be reflective of that.
I realized that in order to turn my marriage around, I needed to shift out of a place of blame and into a place of gratitude.
The best defense against falling into the victim trap--and one of the keys to staying connected to your partner--is to practice gratitude. When we feel grateful and appreciative, it is difficult to simultaneously feel victimized, angry, and resentful.
So, when you start to feel anger and resentment bubble up towards your partner, or if these feelings have been there for a long time and you are struggling, experiment with gratitude.
Keep a gratitude journal by your bed and write down five things you are grateful for every night before you go to bed. Make them as specific as possible--this makes it easier to come up with five new ones every night. Commit to telling your partner at least once a day one thing you appreciate about him or her. When you feel like criticizing your partner, see what happens when you express gratitude instead.
This is much easier said than done, trust me, I know. But, practice makes perfect so start your list tonight.
Learn how to embody gratitude in my post: Marriage Hack part #3.
7 - A fake it until you make it approach goes a long way.
One lesson that has taken me a long time to learn is that just because I feel crappy/annoyed/angry/overwhelmed doesn’t mean I have an excuse to act like a jerk. I might be feeling incredibly irritated with my husband but that doesn’t give me the green light to treat him accordingly.
We tend to get caught up in letting our feelings dictate our behavior. I feel annoyed, so I’m going to shut down. I feel resentful, so I am going to make a snide remark. I feel sad, so I am going to mope around.
When we do this- let our feelings dictate our behavior- we give our power away. We become victimized and we unwittingly create a negative feedback loop that exacerbates our bad mood.
I love Mel Robbins’ approach to shifting out of feelings-driven behavior. She’s a motivational speaker, best-selling author, and recovering anxiety-addict who came up with, what she calls, the 5-Second Rule. When you feel yourself getting triggered (your partner makes a dismissive comment about something that is worrying you) or hesitating to do something you know you should do (initiating a difficult conversation) or wanting to do something that you know won’t be helpful (making a sarcastic comment), count backward 5-4-3-2-1, then make a different choice.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t feel like doing it, you can fake it till you make it!
Here’s an example:
I’ve been feeling annoyed with my husband for a comment he made a few days ago that I haven’t let go of. Rather than talking to him about it, I’ve created an entire story about it in my head which has fueled my annoyance. He comes downstairs while I am in the kitchen getting lunches ready. I feel like giving him the cold shoulder and continuing to stew in my annoyance. I know that doing this isn’t helpful and creates a rift between us but I feel like doing it anyway!
He comes downstairs while I am in the kitchen getting lunches ready. In my head, I count 5-4-3-2-1. I walk over to him, give him a long hug and say, “I’ve been feeling upset about something and want to talk about it.” Did I want to hug him? Absolutely not. Did I feel affectionate? No! But, faking it until I make it allows me to interrupt my unhelpful behavior and reestablish our connection.
Experiment with this and see what happens. I think you’ll be surprised by the outcome.
8 - Learning the art of the apology will help keep you together
“I’m sorry.” These two seemingly simple words can restore a broken marital connection and shift negative relationship patterns.
So, why is it so hard to say them? Why is it so hard to admit we were wrong and own up to our role in our marital conflict?
Maybe we think we are the ones who deserve the apology. Maybe we think that if we apologize, our partner will be “off the hook” for their role in the conflict. Maybe we don’t want to draw attention to our faults with the hope that our partner might overlook them.
Whatever the reason, saying “I’m sorry,” can be intensely difficult.
The truth is, mastering the art of an apology is anything but simple. First it takes willingness and then it takes practice.
A true apology involves:
- Taking full responsibility for your role in the conflict
- Giving a truthful explanation for your behavior
- Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and communicating empathy for his experience and genuine remorse for your actions
- Asking what else you can do to repair the relational rupture
A true apology does not include the words if or but.
A true apology never includes the statement, “I’m sorry you felt that way.”
A true apology does not concern itself with who is to blame.
A true apology does not ask for or expect forgiveness.
9 - Working on yourself is a must.
The first step toward having a solid marriage is having a solid understanding of yourself. If you don’t know what your patterns and triggers are, how can you address the patterns and triggers in your marriage?
Years ago I attended a therapy conference where one of the speakers was presenting on couples therapy. He began his presentation by declaring, “People don’t know what the hell they are doing or why the hell they are doing it!”
It is so true! Most of us are walking around in reactive mode, completely clueless as to why we are reacting and what exactly we are reacting to.
As Socrates famously said, “An unexamined life is not worth living.”
If you are reading this thinking, What is she talking about, what does she mean, “work on yourself?”, then guess what? You’ve got some work to do.
Find a good therapist and get to work!
Things worth exploring:
- Your relationship with both of your parents
- Traumatic events in your childhood
- Self-destructive patterns (e.g. addictions, depression, anxiety)
- Difficult adult relationships
- Negative thought patterns
- Dysfunctional relationships with food, sex, and/or money.
If therapy sounds too daunting, try journaling. For two weeks, spend five to ten minutes free writing about how you are feeling. Unedited. The only rule is that your pen never stops moving. It never comes off the page. You never have to read what you write, just write without stopping. Grab your journal first thing in the morning (set your alarm a little earlier if you are used to jumping right into your day) and write.
10 -Sex is the glue of a marriage.
Ok all you moms out there, I know you don’t want to hear this... I actually don't want to either! But, it’s true. (Shout out to the dads reading who are nodding and saying, Amen, Sister! Though, you guys are not off the hook, I'll get to you in a minute!).
As a mother, when you are in the thick of raising your children, especially young children and especially children with sensory processing challenges, it is common for your sex drive to go down the toilet.
If you are like me, by the end of the day, after you finally get the kids down to bed, you are beyond exhausted and all you want to do is relax, unwind, and go to sleep.
The thought of having sex, let alone being physically touched, is enough to put you over the edge.
Having sex is seriously the last thing on your mind.
I’ve even been to the point of becoming intensely angry that my husband would even think about trying to have sex at the end of the night. I mean, the nerve!! Doesn’t he understand how physically and emotionally exhausted I am after taking care of our boys all day?
Does this sound familiar?
Obviously this does not bode well for a healthy, happy, and connected marriage.
Here’s the deal.
You absolutely will not have a good marriage if you are not having regular sex.
So, and I'm saying this to myself too, trade your cotton underwear for something sexy and lacy, channel your inner sex goddess, and start making sex a priority!
Husbands- this is a two way street. Listen, we moms are exhausted. And, it's like a different level of exhaustion that we don't think you'll ever fully understand. Also, our hormones are all out of whack.
So, yes, it's true that our once playful, sexy, flirtatious side has somewhat (ok, completely) disappeared. But, it can be revived! It's just going to take a little work on your end. Plan a surprise date, do the dishes and clean up the house without being asked, give us a no-strings-attached massage...a little effort at making us feel special, appreciated and adored will do wonders for our sex-drives!
Here's a list of books that I’ve found to be the most helpful for improving my marriage.