tell us your tales of finding each other again
August 13, 2018 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Mr. marlys and I (writing together here) have been together for 15+ years, and we are going through a rough patch in our marriage.

We're adjusting to being parents (one five-year old), navigating difficult, protracted career transitions, and struggling to communicate clearly and support each other through it all. We saw a couples' therapist for almost a year, which was good. But some days it still feels like we're laden with heartbreak and loneliness, and it's difficult to see a common path forward.

As a twist on the usual requests for "how to fix it" analysis or advice, we would be really grateful to hear how others navigated rough patches. Did you go through a very difficult phase in your committed relationship and eventually come out of it, managing to connect and support each other again?

If so, please tell us your story! How low did it go? What did you hold onto to get through to the other side? What did you change in order to find each other again? What did you learn along the way? Whatever you feel would be useful to tell a struggling committed couple, we'd love to hear it.
posted by marlys to Human Relations (9 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
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posted by Jacob G at 10:43 AM on August 13, 2018

Leverage parenthood.

Every time you find yourself in difficulty, ask yourself what the kids need you to do in these circumstances, and then do that.

Understand and accept that your commitment to doing whatever is best for the kids has a time horizon of at least twenty years, and understand and accept that the kids' needs will conflict with your own on a regular basis and that taking on parenthood as a project must mean that in all such cases the kids' needs are the ones that come first.

This will not come easy. It won't fix heartbeak, it won't fix loneliness, and it might even end your marriage at some point. But the clarity it brings to prioritising what to do next is pretty astonishing.
posted by flabdablet at 11:20 AM on August 13, 2018 [6 favorites]

I'd caveat flabdablet's advice by noting that sometimes it can be valuable to take a longer-term perspective on what your kid(s) need. So, sure, right this second they might need you read that book again, but in larger-scale terms they probably need parents who have remembered to do enough self-care that they're not harried and resentful all the time. So if you need five minutes alone, it's probably okay to put that need ahead of re-reading Pinkalicious one more time. You obviously can't to that every time, but it's important to recognize that it's okay to take care of yourself so you are capable of being a good parent.

For reconnecting with your spouse/partner, we make a lot of effort (and could probably still do even better) to thank each other for doing things and tell each other that we're doing a good job. My partner doesn't need to thank me for doing the laundry, but he does, and I appreciate it and it helps me avoid being resentful about it. I don't need to thank him for making dinner , but I do appreciate it and he likes being thanked, so I say so. We do this often enough that it doesn't feel hokey anymore, but it did at first, and we've both had to learn not to dismiss these affirmations because they do really help us.

We also both try pretty hard to both a) ask our partner what (if anything) they need from us to help with [thing] b) do the thing our partner requested and c) thank each other for doing the thing. We also both try to have actionable suggestions for "how can I help?" questions (even if they're trivial actions) because being able to do something feels better than just watching your partner struggle, and letting your partner demonstrate that they care about you is a good way to nurture that connection. If your spouse can at least make you a cup of your favorite tea when you're upset about work, everyone gets a minor win and a little connection boost.

You might also look into learning something new together, or even doing something like setting aside one evening a week to do something non-screen-focused after the kid's in bed, like playing a board game? Doing something together as people can help you remember that you picked your partner because you like each other, which is another smallish thing that helps us a lot. If you can get a slightly longer break (a weekend maybe) it can be easier to remember why you like your partner after a day or so to decompress.

Also, while YMMV, my older stepkid got significantly less draining to parent between 5 and 8 years old-- so you and your spouse may have more emotional resources to direct towards each other soonish.
posted by Kpele at 12:51 PM on August 13, 2018 [13 favorites]

Revisit movies, TV shows, and music you both enjoy. Laugh together.
posted by luckynerd at 6:10 PM on August 13, 2018 [2 favorites]

I ask myself regularly (like at least once a day) - what did my spouse do today as an investment in our relationship?

I write that down in my little gratitude journal app on my phone.

Sometimes it is just the smallest thing - he took the trash to the street, he filled the dog’s water bowl, he set up the coffe pot.

Sometimes it is huge stuff - he ran interference when my family was picking on me at a family dinner, he stained the deck, he went to work even though I know his job is really frustrating him right now.

By focusing every single day on the things he does to improve our lives, my appreciation for him has deepened. He feels that, and that is reciprocated.

It’s a virtuous cycle.
posted by hilaryjade at 7:01 PM on August 13, 2018 [12 favorites]

I have been a pastor for 22 years and married for 20, and I have seen this a good deal in my ministry (which I will come back to), but let me tell you about my marriage:

My wife and I had been married for four years before we had our first child. I had been serving a wonderful congregation for five years when my first child was born. For the four years before the baby, we had so much fun doing things together. We would travel (it was fun to pick a new town at random and go explore it), try new restaurants, and do things like go to antique stores together. It was great.

Then the baby came. It was very hard for the first few months, but everything leveled out. Now, because we had been in that tightly-knit congregational community for years, we had a whole host of willing people to watch the baby so we could go on dates together.

Then, a year later, I was moved to a very rural, very challenging pastorate where we knew no one. The first causality was our regular dates. We just quit, cold-turkey. We both immersed ourselves in our respective careers. If we every went out at all, we took the kid with us, but the shared interests, the travel, the dating pretty much entirely went by the wayside.

It was rough. It was very, very rough. I was not sure at times if we would make it. For a while, we stopped feeling like lovers and starting feeling more like roommates. In fact, we started feeling like co-workers at a company called ToddlerCo. This is not to say it was the kid's fault. It was just that the kid was the one thing we seemed to be sharing in common during that time. I was also working too much and at home too little.

We could rationalize it all by saying "We are wonderful parents! Look how we do everything as a family!" But here is the thing: we were not happy, and sometimes wondered if the good days were gone, and we were living in some kind of new normal.

What I learned from this, and what I counsel couples I marry to realize, is that as counter-intuitive as it sounds, you (we) simply must maintain the discipline of dedicated time for one another to do the kind of things you did when you were falling in love. I liken marriage to completing a marathon and then thinking you can skip the training and just run the marathons. You can't. It takes, I learned, a surprising amount of discipline, practice, and mindfulness about how you are spending and investing your time.

Once the two of us figured this out, and practiced it until it started to feel natural, things really improved. What is more, dedicated time together made us better parents when little 4ster was around, as we were renewed and refreshed, which brought more joy into the task of parenting.

When I speak with parishioners who have been married a long time, or ones who have been married a shorter amount of time but are very happy, one thing they all seem to have in common is mindful, dedicated time that they invest in each other and the relationship between. I don't know if couples who are happy spend more time together, or if couples who spend more time together are happy, but in my experience, there is a correlation.

The fact that the two of you are on board with wanting to make things better will make all the difference. I am hopeful for you, excited for the possibilities of what is ahead, and of course, very sorry for how long this answer is. I hope it helps. All the best to you.
posted by 4ster at 7:18 PM on August 13, 2018 [21 favorites]

I don't have any great advice but I have found it really useful listening to Esther Perel's podcast on marriage -- taped sessions with a marriage counselor. I have had a lot to think about after listening to them and sharing some of them with my husband.

I also suggest one on one time, but a friend of mine and her husband don't do dinner dates -- they do new things together (a dance class, a trip to a new museum, stuff like that) to avoid it all being about the kids/household/same drama.
posted by heavenknows at 7:45 AM on August 14, 2018 [2 favorites]

I mailed you.
posted by intergalacticvelvet at 4:22 PM on August 18, 2018

Thank you everyone, especially to those who shared their personal stories. We're reading and discussing them together, and hearing your experiences is helping us feel less alone as we navigate our way forward.
posted by marlys at 7:55 AM on August 21, 2018

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