Thoughts For a Healthy Marriage
July 2, 2009 · Posted in Marriage · Permalink

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“This is going to be the best time of your life!”
“The baby will bring you so much closer.”
“You two will be so happy-enjoy every second of it!”

These are common comments and advice directed at new parents upon the arrival of their first child. It is amazing that these platitudes continue to be perpetuated decade after decade in the face of people’s actual experience. The more complicated truth is that marriage plus children equals a healthy dose of both highs and lows.
On February 4th, 2009, The New York Times published an Op-ed entitled, “Till Children do Us Part” by Stephanie Coontz. The day it was published, my inbox was flooded with emails about the article. Clients, friends, and family all wrote, relieved to see a more nuanced and realistic picture of family life in the press.
For over twenty years at Soho Parenting, Lisa and I have watched countless couples fall in love with their babies and new parenthood. We have also counseled them about the stresses and changes in their marriages. Our goal has been to reassure parents that these hard parts of family life are natural and inevitable. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Here is an excerpt from our book, A Mother’s Circle, first published in 1996 and revised in 2006 that speaks directly to this issue:

Perhaps the greatest pressure on new parents is trying to live up to the romantic image of happiness and harmony that a new baby is supposed to bring. It is a myth that, as parents, you and your husband will automatically feel more in love, more deeply bonded to one another, fulfilled and happy. Because everyone around you seems to expect you to be basking in new love, it becomes especially difficult to handle the bad feelings you may be having.
“We are both stretched to our limits”, says Nan. ”He rarely gets to see the baby. It’s not his fault I know, but it makes me angry.”
”There is a lot more tension between us. I snap at him like that.”” Says Maggie clicking her fingers.
Some couples do bond together in a new way… merging with a common focus. As often, however, the paths and roles of husband and wife, father and mother begin to diverge. The arrival of a new baby demands a major reshuffling and reorganization of responsibilities and roles for a couple. This, in itself, necessitates some adjustment. But beneath the logistical, domestic changes is the shifting of attentions and affections going on within the new family…Jealousy, competition, tension and judgmental feelings are all common, but they can feel especially threatening to new parents who expected a more rosy time of family life. It can be liberating to let go of the myth of the new happy family, to work toward realistic expectations of each other and to begin to build a new kind of loving relationship.”
With the sped up demands of the new millenium life has gotten progressively more stressful for adults, children and marriage. Here are some important pieces of advice to ease some strain, keep lines of communication open and help make family life richer.

1) KNOW EACH OTHER’S STORIES.
Share your stories of growing up with each other, the details about your childhood. What was mealtime like? Who was the disciplinarian? Who put you to bed at night? Who comforted you when you were sad? Knowing each other’s histories will give you a much needed road map to anticipate the ‘hot spots’ and ‘soft spots’ that will inevitably be triggered in parenting.
2) DO NOT MIND-READ!
Couples must talk and articulate what they are thinking and feeling to each other. Don’t assume you know what is in your partner’s mind.
3) BE RESPECTFUL!
Yelling, name calling and icing one’s partner are all out of bounds. Of course, we will all falter, but we should know that these behaviors cross into dangerous territory. We tend to think we should be able to “let our hair down” at home. But if this means we mistreat our most beloved family members we are sorely mistaken. Self-righteous indignation, contempt and withdrawal are toxic to a relationship and a destructive model for our children.
4) POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT REALLY WORKS.
This is for you ladies: If you want your spouse to stay confidently involved, do not constantly criticize how he parents. “No dear, she likes to be burped 10 minutes into the feeding not at the end” translates to “You can’t do anything right”- which in turn will surely mean he will be feeding that baby less and less. If you want more involvement, be complimentary about his strengths and contributions.
5) FOCUS ON TIME SPENT AS A COUPLE.
As Coontz points out in her article, parents spend so much time on child centered activities that they tend to give up adult time together. Wrench yourself away from the kids and go out together with friends, go away for a weekend, spend a night in a hotel around the block. It will feel like you are in another world. Why wait for the empty nest to feel more connected?
In sum, we applaud Stephanie Coontz’ willingness to articulate what so many in parenting media fail to highlight. In marriage and parenting the lows are as extreme as the highs. The couples who are prepared, realistic and commit to healthy communication, have an easier roller coaster ride.

This article first appeared in A Child Grows in Brooklyn

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Comments

  1. Pam
    July 3rd, 2009 | 9:15 am

    It has been important for my marriage to let my husband find his own way with our children.

    I remember a pivotal moment when my husband went into our baby daughter’s room to calm her down. I stood at the door wincing while she cried and holding myself back from jumping in. Lo and behold, my husband got her to stop crying, albeit, eventually.

    Our two children are a bit older now. I don’t agree with the way he handles everything, but I have also learned a lot from the approach my husband takes.

    Pam

  2. Charlotte N.
    July 11th, 2009 | 8:42 pm

    I hope you will be addressing divorce on the blog, because not all marriages work out.

  3. Carrie
    July 30th, 2009 | 10:04 pm

    It’s very hard for us to strike a balance but my husband and I are aware of the importance. We’re often so darn tired that we’d rather catch up on sleep but we do make an effort a few times a week to connect, go out, and enjoy one another and (though less so) other adults.
    Our Soho Parenting counselor suggested to my husband and I to talk for 15 minutes everyday (at one time). It’s sounds short but it’s ample, and, of course, it’s a start.

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