June is wedding central. Many of us are, if not getting hitched ourselves, juggling reception invitations or catching glimpses of white, billowy dresses or knee-deep in announcements featuring fresh-faced and oh-so-naively-in-love couples.
Not that all the weddings feature young, unencumbered couples. It just seems that way to me, a women who is no longer as fresh-faced or as unencumbered as she was when her own announcement photo was snapped 12 years ago.
My husband and I don’t look so terribly different than we did in that picture, save the sleep-deprivation eye bags, worry lines and maybe, if you catch us on an off day, a seething glare or two.
“I recall one 3 a.m. argument with my husband when [our first] daughter was about a month old. All of our efforts to calm her down and follow a schedule were not working. We both were exhausted and angry that what had worked the night before wasn’t replicable,” said Stacy Notaras Murphy, a D.C.-based therapist and relationship columnist who has an idea of what child-rearing can do to a marriage.
“I will never forget my husband pacing back and forth in the nursery, asking me again and again what “our plan” was. He needed a plan, right then, and we needed to follow it, because it would be The Plan. That’s how his brain works.
In contrast, I leaped from idea to idea — feed her, rock her, take her for a ride in the car, let me sleep in the basement so you can figure this out — because that’s how my brain works.”
Typically, thanks to [my work] and lots of practice, our power struggles have been fairly simple to diagnose. But in the middle of the night, with a screaming, uncomfortable infant, we seemed to be more like two strangers arguing about a car accident in different languages.”
Most of us have been there. It’s not the “for better” part.
But somehow it feels better to know that even a relationship specialist goes through this, no?
Murphy endured that night. And several others. Her older daughter is now four, and her marriage remains intact. She recently shared with me some advice on how all couples can work through the tolls that child-rearing can take on a marriage.
Below, in honor of the wedding season, are excerpts from Murphy’s thoughts on the subject and a few of her top tips for couples:
“There’s a romantic phase of parenting (mixed in with the exhausted/delirious/mommy-daddy brain phase) when we are getting our sea legs and marveling at the transition from couplehood into parenthood. But soon the power struggles sneak up, e.g. when to move a baby to her crib; how long to breastfeed; or how we handle child care arrangements.
“Increasingly, we seem to be a kid-focused culture, so it’s easy for relationship growth to be put on the backburner for a time, even years, until there’s very little left between two people to salvage. __
“[My husband and I] have had to reflect deeply about why certain parts of parenting push our buttons. What has made this possible is maintaining a sense of curiosity about the other’s point of view (regularly scheduled date nights are a pillar of this arrangement, too).
“I struggle with downtime on weekends in our tiny D.C. rowhouse. A tightly scheduled Saturday with dance class, farmer’s market, picnic, and then a combo playdate-dinner with friends sounds lovely to my extroverted, on-the-go personality. My husband would rather have his teeth drilled than pack that many social events into a single day.
“So, we have had to become conscious of our differences and renegotiate. Our compromise? I get to go to the gym and grocery at 7 a.m. Saturday morning, so I feel some accomplishment, but don’t drag the family along for the ride. He gets to have a slow weekend morning and engage with our girls without feeling like he’s on the clock.
“This arrangement took careful negotiation, with someone I’ve known for 18 years. In other words, this is hard work.
“For those with kids at home, the official honeymoon phases of both their marriages and parenthood may be over, but through ongoing conversation and curiosity, we can renew the connection that invigorates relationships.
“There is good reason for taking the time to do this, beyond the good feeling of being closer to your partner. These efforts create the positive energy that powers us through that important, difficult, inevitable conflict that is part of all healthy relationships.”
Murphy also offered a few tips to parenting partners:
● Spend time appreciating your partner — that’s it. Appreciation is the fuel that gives you the energy to get through the tough stuff around the corner.
● Make an appointment: You do not have to address the conflict right at this exact moment — and not in front of the kids either — and taking some time to breathe and think about your reactivity will allow the important issues to rise to the top, and the extra argumentative details will fall away.
● Mirror what you hear: Mirroring offers two benefits to couples in conflict. First, it forces you to slow down and listen to the other person, because you do not get to interrupt or make a rebuttal. Second, it gives your partner the experience of being truly heard, each and every word, which has the bonus effect of calming him down and making him more open to your point of view.
● Realize that conflict is growth struggling to happen. Try to breathe through your reactivity and approach your disagreements with a sense of calm curiosity.
What has helped you and your spouse weather the parenting storms?