Keeping it Together: Strategies for Keeping Marriage Alive

by Elizabeth Lyons

When my husband wants to get his hair cut, he makes an appointment and goes. When I want to get my hair cut, I’ve got to get six people involved and plan three weeks in advance.
–Annie, mother of three

I am beginning to believe that ninety-five percent of all marital issues post-children boil down to what this statement represents. Women often feel as though their spouses are simply never going to get how many balls they constantly have in the air, not to mention the fact that half of them are on fire and a quarter of them are covered in oil.

At the top of the list for many women is getting to a place where we feel validated by our spouses for all that we do in our role, and staying connected to the person we used to know like the back of our hand (but who recently declared that unbeknownst to me, he stopped wearing Armani cologne two years ago).

To be fair, the opposing issue is that our spouses often feel as though we don’t understand them either (or so I’m told). The pressure to single-handedly provide for the day-to-day needs of an entire family (not to mention fund college educations, a possible wedding or two, and retirement) is a lot. Men need and want to be validated for the work that they do as well.

As convinced as I am that I can match or top any challenge placed in front of me regarding toddler behavior, I also believe I can match anyone in terms of a relationship gone awry in the midst of raising young children. It’s been said that if something doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger. There have been many days when I was convinced that trying to get my husband to “get it” while trying to determine how to help him understand my needs when I wasn’t sure even I understood them hadn’t yet killed me, and yet I did not feel as though I was making any great strides in the strength department either.

In an effort to make herself feel better about the challenges involved in keeping marriage alive while raising a family, my friend Barb recently developed the Relationship Barometer, by which she is confident that with eighty-three percent accuracy, she can assess the exact status of a marriage in 9.4 seconds or less. She spends a lot of time watching other couples to determine where on the barometer they fall, and she’s assured me that at least eighty-seven percent of them are exactly where we are (or have been), while the other thirteen percent are obliviously floating down the River of Delusion completely unaware that there’s a massive waterfall just around the corner.

Some birds mate for life. There’s no divorce in the aviary world, apparently. I think that’s why they fly into windows; it’s the only way out.
–Robin Fairbanks

Maybe it would be easier if we were birds. The journey of marriage and the bumps in the road that come with it may force you to greet your sense of humor at the front door more often than any other challenge. But, as I said, on those days when you believe you can do nothing else about it, call a girlfriend and have a good laugh. I can almost guarantee you that on any given day you can find a friend who’s dealing with the same issues.

While it’s important to be clear about exactly what you need to feel validated, and it’s important for your spouse to do the same, that alone doesn’t necessarily hold the key to a fabulous marriage. Issues such as a lack of compliments and thank yous and a lack of willingness to put a diaper in the trash or a pair of pants on a hanger are not the real problems. They’re annoying, but they aren’t what send us running for the hills. Wives spend a lot of time believing that “if only he’d help out more with this or with that, we’d be so happy.” I’d be willing to bet that these little annoyances are merely symptoms of a greater problem: you and your spouse have become less connected. You don’t understand how to make your spouse feel important anymore and vice versa.

Here is the Number One surefire solution to ensuring a long and happy (most of the time) marriage: do whatever you must do to stay connected. I cannot emphasize strongly enough the degree of importance I place on these words. Maintaining a connection with your spouse when there are young children and housework and bills and an overgrown lawn and mountains of laundry and a milk jug in the refrigerator with half a centimeter of milk in it and diapers everywhere is difficult, no doubt. Rebuilding your connection once it’s completely dissolved is as close to insurmountable a challenge as any I’ve experienced as a parent or a person. I’m not kidding.

Love is a fire. But whether it is going to warm your heart or burn down your house, you can never tell.
–Joan Crawford

The bottom line is that if you can find a way to maintain the connection that made you want to have a family together in the first place, you will find humor in many of the challenges that come with raising that family.

For those of you who saw the remake of The Stepford Wives with Nicole Kidman and Matthew Broderick, might I divulge that I personally believe that the solution to all of this is to have Stepford Husbands who are robotically programmed to say and do precisely the right thing at precisely the right time. David believes that the solution is for all women—no matter how neurotic or emotional—to look like Faith Hill. Because I am aware (though heavily dismayed) that both wishes are no more than pipe dreams, I’ve listed some other important lessons Barb and I have learned over the past few years regarding marriage.

Secrets to Not Killing Your Spouse

Be Realistic
Accept that many of the traits that drew you to your spouse initially will drive you completely crazy once you have children. For example, David is very laid-back, which was initially very appealing. However, when three out of four children are screaming and the fourth is climbing into the dishwasher, it’s not a helpful approach.

Additionally, regarding your desire for your husband to “get it,” know this: he won’t. Not because he doesn’t want to, but because he can’t. He doesn’t do what you do all day. Even if he did, just as Tom Scavo demonstrated, he’d do it differently. Do everything you can to let go of your need for your spouse to “get it.” Instead, focus your energy on helping him to understand what you need to feel validated and appreciated for the work that you do. Once you get to a point where you feel valued at the end of each day because you’re connected to your spouse and know he appreciates your efforts (and vice versa), the need for either of you to “get it” will miraculously disappear.

Respect What You Didn’t Know BK (Before Kids)
Realize that when you marry someone, in most cases you can’t possibly imagine how they will respond to the job of parenting. Even if your spouse has children from a previous marriage, unless you’ve seen him or her actively parenting a newborn or toddler, you may not fully know what to expect.

Realize that you are going to have to work through needs and expectations on both sides, and that doing so will be more challenging than it was back in the day when you were able to go out to dinner every night of the week to discuss whether you’d serve chicken or filet at your wedding. After all, whether chicken or filet was served, several hours later the wedding was over. Working to merge different approaches regarding roles you’ll be in for the rest of your lives is a much larger and more significant proposition.

Accept Responsibility
Be prepared to acknowledge the ways you are adding to the tension. This is difficult because, let’s face it, you’re right 99.9 percent of the time! However, if you’re willing to really look at the way you’re dealing with a particular situation, you can almost always find a way your approach is not working for your spouse.

Accept Those Things You’ll Likely Never Understand
Men claim they’ll simply never understand some of their wives’ approaches or responses to life circumstances. Women feel the same way about their husbands. Don’t waste too much time trying to understand those things that aren’t likely ever to make sense. Accept that you’ll never understand why your husband couldn’t care less that the family room is an utter disaster area but is losing sleep over the state of the garage.

Accept that you’ll never understand why it’s necessary to mow the lawn in mid-November in the Midwest. I ran into Mollie and her boys in the store the Saturday after Thanksgiving. I asked her what Gary was doing, and she replied, “Um, he’s mowing the lawn. It’s so ridiculous I could scream. I swear, next year I’m replacing all of the grass with gravel.”

Avoid Power Struggles
Do not sit around vowing you’ll give your husband what he needs as soon as he gives you what you need. The reality is that your husband is unable to give you what you need because he’s so devoid of what he needs and vice versa. Stay away from this dynamic. I can tell you with absolute certainty that a war over which will come first–the chicken or the egg–is a war that ends in a stalemate every time. Just focus on doing your part.

Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not to provide you with justification to then sit around stewing and counting how many seconds it takes for him to reciprocate (and after he does, do not communicate that he waited 12.6 seconds too long). Cut each other some slack. If you each vow to work on loving the other in the way that he or she needs, and worry more about your own part than your partner’s, you’ll make your way down the aisle toward wedded bliss far faster than you otherwise would.

Know Your Needs
It is important to be crystal clear about what you need. You need to be clear not just with your spouse, but with yourself. How many times have you been in a rut and a friend has asked, “What do you want to happen?” or “What could he do or say that would make this better?” and your answer is “I don’t know!” You can’t not know?if you don’t know, how the heck is he supposed to know? Take some time to identify what you need, and then communicate it to your spouse.

When you do communicate your needs, beware of saying simply, “I want to feel validated.” You need to be more specific by telling him what you need him to say or do to validate you. Many times, as Laurie Puhn mentioned, men want to make women happy, but they have no idea what the hell to do! Of course, this theory was blown to bits the year I sent my husband an e-mail with a link to a lovely Jeanine Payer necklace and said, “This necklace with this saying on it would make me feel quite validated this Mother’s Day” and then received a gift that, although lovely, was not the necklace. Apparently, getting me something I specifically request isn’t special?or something to that effect. No matter how many times he’s attempted to explain it, I still don’t get it, but I’m quite sure that necklace will make its way to my neck sometime in the next fourteen months (or so).

Choose Your Confidants Wisely
David took one critical point from our premarital session with a priest: when you are choosing a confidant with whom to discuss your marriage difficulties, choose someone who supports not just you but also your marriage. You know which friends these are. You have friends who, as they would have in high school, might say “You deserve better” or “Divorce isn’t that bad” or some such thing. These are not the friends to go to for help during difficult times. You need to count on the friends who know you and know the strengths of your marriage and your spouse. You need to go to the friends who, in the end, want you and your husband to work out your issues because they are supportive of your journey together as a couple.

Keep Your Cool
In the heat of an argument, when you’re about to blow, do everything you can to walk away and come back to the discussion when you’ve had some time to calm down. Some of the most hurtful things are said in moments of frustration. Most of those things you might mean in the moment, but you don’t mean them overall?they are merely a reflection of your level of frustration. Many adults need time and practice to learn to “fight fair.” But it’s a very valuable lesson because it teaches your children a healthy way to resolve conflict. They are listening far more often than you might realize.

Focus on Your Own Personalities, Not Stereotypes
Don’t worry about what the stereotypes say about the ways men respond to challenges or crises or mountains of laundry. Almost every person on earth defies the stereotype of his or her gender in some area. I install crown molding. David makes a mean chili. Barb’s husband, Tim, irons like nobody’s business.

My friend Mollie has no desire to be a fantastic chef—even when the in-laws are over. And Sonya’s husband, Bob, is so good at vacuuming that the White House would be lucky to have him on staff. By assuming that general this-is-the-way-they’re-wired stereotypes apply to your spouse, you’re merely providing yourself with an excuse to be more frustrated than you perhaps need to be.

The best way to find out exactly how your husband operates and what he needs to feel valued is to ask him—and ask him for specifics. It’s easy to assume that others receive love and validation the same way you do. You may show your love for your spouse in precisely the way you need to receive it, but unfortunately, it may not hit the same emotional chord with your partner. After you ascertain what your spouse needs, be sure to provide him with the same information about what you need.

Be Resourceful
In addition to girlfriends who can understand and a standby therapist, there are a few good books to keep handy. Let me save you some frustration: your husband is likely not going to read them. However, try not to feel as though this means you are making an effort and he isn’t (which is very easy to do). This is your way, just as it was when you were pregnant or a new mom and reading as though the printed word would cease to exist at any moment. Anything you might be able to glean from any resource, printed or otherwise, that could give you a better understanding of his position, or help you to identify an approach that may work, is valuable.

Respect the Journey
It has been said many times that life is a journey. Marriage and parenting are segments of that journey. At times their paths cross, and at other times they must be walked separately. What’s important is that you and your husband take the trip together.

Think of the overall journey in terms of the letter H. You and your spouse each travel your individual paths, but you must ensure that those paths are always connected. In this way, you make certain that you continue to grow–as individuals, as parents, and as a couple–but your journeys don’t become completely detached from each other’s at any point in the process. In reference to the breakup of Harrison Ford’s first marriage, Walter Beakel said, “It wasn’t because he became a star. In all relationships, there are changes and the point is both partners have to change together.”

Amen to that.

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3 comments

  1. This was a wonderful post! It had me laughing and it made me think! I knew it was going to be good when I read the first quote and paragraph. It has been open on my computer all day, just waiting for me to get a chance to read it.

  2. wonderful. Thank you.

  3. WOW!!! This is GREAT!!! Although I have recently been trying to see things this way…I never “really saw it.”–until you clarified it!! Thanks Elizabeth!! 🙂

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