My husband, Jon, and I had two babies in our first three years of marriage. And less than two years after the birth of our second little guy—a fussy baby who did more crying than sleeping—our marriage was over. It was your typical strained-relationship-with-little-kids story:
I was overwhelmed at home; he felt pressured to provide. I felt like he didn't do enough to help and resented him for it; he got tired of the heaved sighs and the nights I slept curled toward our baby instead of him.
I don't think I've ever felt so alone in my life as I did one night at 3 a.m. after a fight, when I was nursing the baby. I wished I could wake Jon up to apologize, to keep fighting—I didn't care what; I just wanted to feel like we were in it together. The list of arguments, resentments, and disappointments had grown so long. Caring for two small children was completely overwhelming, and I was pretty sure I was doing a cruddy job of that too. I just couldn't seem to find the energy to be a good wife or even to care about the state of our marriage.
It was the first night I allowed the thought of divorce to enter my head, and once that thought was there it took up permanent residence. That night marked the beginning of the end for Jon and me, and the next year spiraled into a lot of painful fighting, distrust, and utter disconnection—which ultimately led to our divorce.
But we're lucky: Our story has a happy ending. Jon and I just celebrated what would have been our 15th wedding anniversary last July—and the date that became our "backup" anniversary a few months later. Because a year after our divorce was final, we got back together. What? Just like that? Well, don't get me wrong. When we decided our relationship was worth fighting for, we still had a long, uphill battle ahead of us.
We had to relearn how to relate to each other, how to parent together as a team, how to communicate—even how to fight in a healthier way. But we eventually made it official and remarried—and Marriage 2.0, as we call it, is a huge upgrade over version 1.0. It turns out that the painful process of splitting up shone a light on all the mistakes we'd made along the way and made us determined never to go there again. As I look back, these are the five most crucial lessons I learned.
I love a swanky dinner out—the kind that involves cloth napkins, a nice glass of wine, and no wriggling toddlers. And I know that connecting as people, rather than just "the other parent," is vital to a strong marriage. But I think as a culture we put way too much stock in the idea that a night on the town is the key to connection.
Listen, if your relationship is as bumpy as the bounce house at your preschooler's end-of-year picnic, a Friday-night dinner and a movie aren't going to fix it. But if you're too busy, broke, or babysitter-less to swing regular date nights out together, you aren't doomed either.
Finding ways to connect with each other amid the hustle and hilarity of family life is difficult, yet it can be done: a standing Tuesday-night TiVo date, for example, or a special weekly take-out dinner together after the kids are in bed. The event itself isn't the point. It's the thought you put into setting time aside and the way you spend your time together, enjoying each other's company and staying connected as friends, lovers, and coparents. (And yes, I think it's perfectly okay to talk about the kids sometimes... as long as you throw some other topics into the mix too.)
Okay, so sometimes it really helps to work through sticky marriage issues with a trusted friend. But have you noticed your girls' nights out turning into husband-bashing free-for-alls?
A recent study from the University of Kent, in England, suggested that venting can actually make you feel worse instead of better. And I think this is particularly true when we're griping about our significant others, since their small faults, when constantly discussed and dissected, can start to feel magnified. It can also be dangerous to kvetch too much, since your friends might start to get an unfairly negative image of your spouse (and may bring it up later to "remind" you when you're having a tough time).
My rule of thumb? If I couldn't say it to my husband's sister, I probably shouldn't say it to a friend. Which works out, because one of my best friends happens to be married to my brother, and although we do a little bit of "oh, those crazy men!" talk, we always work to steer very clear of bashing.
A wise friend once told me that a strong partnership isn't when each person gives 50 percent; it's when each person gives 100 percent. But the reality is, sometimes my 100 percent looks like a lot more than my husband's 45 percent—and vice versa. What's important, however, is that we're both doing the best we can at that moment. I wish I'd considered that approach back when I was convinced that I was shouldering all the responsibilities of home and family and my husband was doing nothing.
I think we tend to notice the things we do more than the things other people do, especially when those things are in our personal "realm." For example, I pay attention to stuff like whether the kids are wearing matching clothes or if the bathroom is clean, but Jon notices when the oil in the car needs to be changed or the computer needs an update. Because we each take care of things in our realms separately, it's easy to miss the fact that we're both working hard to care for our family's needs.
Sometimes when I'm feeling put-upon and tempted to start sighing and slamming doors, I take a few minutes to look around the house—and yard and garage—and really consider all the things that get done without my even noticing. It's almost always an eye-opener and an attitude-changer.
This one is hard. Really hard. But I have found that nothing can defuse a fight like a quick and simple apology. No matter how much more right you think you are and no matter how much you want to keep stoking that angry fire... it's hardly ever worth it to hold on to anger. If you just can't bring yourself to say the S-word because you're convinced he's acting like a jerk and doesn't deserve it, try this trick: Apologize because it makes you feel better. There's something freeing about loosening your grip on anger and resentment... and next time, who knows? He might surprise you by saying "I'm sorry" before you have a chance.
It's no wonder that it's so hard to find relationship satisfaction after kids. First, we get married with the expectation that we'll make each other blissfully happy. Then we have kids, expecting them to create perfect contentment. When that doesn't work, we're left wondering just who is going to show up and make us satisfied, thrilled, and safe all at once.
The answer, though, is that it's not fair to expect anyone else to do it for us, and, yes, that includes our kids and our life partner. How can they? Joy really isn't about what's in the bank account, whether your spouse bought you the right birthday gift, or whether your kids are behaving: It's the way you feel about yourself and how you react when things happen, bad or good.
Making yourself happy means taking care of your needs instead of waiting for someone else to take care of them for you. If you have to work out every day to feel healthy and energetic, quit waiting around for your spouse to offer to take the baby—hand her over or hire a babysitter and go. If you can't function without a clean sink, it's in your own best interest to make sure it stays that way, even if it's not fair that you always end up cleaning it yourself.
I'm not suggesting you let your spouse get away with doing nothing; just that if something really matters to your sense of well-being, you have to make sure it happens instead of using it as a bargaining chip or ammo in your next argument. Whenever you find yourself avoiding something that's important to you because your partner should be doing it, ask yourself: Would I rather have things the way I want or do I want to make a point? If guilt is getting in the way of caring for yourself, remember that you'll be a much better mother and wife when you're your strongest, most fulfilled self.
Of course, it isn't always simple. Feeling hopeless, listless, or sad constantly could mean depression. If that's the case, do the most important thing you can for your spouse, your kids, and yourself: Get help. Not all marriages are built to last, but having kids doesn't have to equal the end of an otherwise strong partnership. Splitting up might seem like a relief from fighting, but it brings a whole new kind of heartache and difficulty into your life... trust me, I know. Disappointments and disagreements are normal even in a healthy marriage, but they can be used to help you grow stronger together. Yes, you can be happily married with kids: Sometimes it just takes a glimpse of the alternative to get you there.
Originally published in the December 2012 issue of Parents magazine.