The pandemic led us to couples therapy & here’s what we learned. When my husband and I were expecting our second child, I read some advice (I’ve long forgotten where) to couples adjusting to life with two little ones. It was something along the lines of, “Don’t get divorced, because it eventually gets better.”
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I was already worried about the strain a second baby would put on our marriage, so that advice wasn’t reassuring. We had finally gotten into a groove with our two-year-old, and now we were about to blow that up.
How would my husband and I, two introverts, manage being “on” all day, with little to no breaks and time to recharge? How would we have any energy left at the end of the day to focus on each other?
My pregnant self was blissfully optimistic about these concerns, but after our daughter was born my fears started to come true. My husband and I were completely sapped, with no energy left at the end of the day for ourselves, let alone each other. Every conversation was about schedules and the to-do list. We became disconnected and defensive, constantly assuming the worst about each other.
We decided to try couples therapy, but before our first appointment the pandemic hit, adding another layer of stress to our marriage.
Without childcare, our 3-year-old watched TV during our sessions and our 5-month-old crawled on the floor below us as we talked to the therapist on our bed. Not ideal, but we made it work.
Therapy has been uncomfortable, draining, and enlightening. We make progress in each session, but so much of the work happens outside of therapy. With two small children to take care of, we have to make a conscious effort every day to apply the tools we’re learning.
- It’s hard work, trying to connect every day and give our relationship the attention it deserves. – It would have been less effort, actually, to keep letting the days pass in an endless loop of chores and routines, using the same dysfunctional communication strategies. But that path left us feeling like bitter roommates. So now we’re trying the hard way, and so far it has made our home a happier place for everyone.
With all the stress families are under right now, I’m sure (I hope) we’re not alone in this journey. If you’re curious about therapy or struggling in your own marriage, here are some of the tools and communication strategies we’ve learned that have helped us the past few months.
- Fill your partner’s “emotional bank account.” – My husband and I got so caught up in the grind of our routines that we rarely took a moment to acknowledge the positive things we were doing for each other. As a result, when one of us needed patience or empathy from the other, there was little available.
Now we try to fill our emotional bank accounts every day by thanking each other for the big and little things we do, giving compliments, showing affection, and finding ways to let the other person know we’re thinking of them. When we do this, we are able to be much more understanding with each other because we feel appreciated and respected.
- Listen and reflect. – Instead of truly listening to my husband, I often found myself preparing my (often defensive) response in my head so I would be ready to clap back when he finished talking. Now I make an effort to truly listen and then respond by repeating, in my own words, what I heard him say. Even if I get it wrong, it shows that I’m trying to understand his feelings and creates an open dialogue.
- Don’t make your partner’s feelings about you. – All feelings are allowed and welcome, but just because your partner expresses a feeling doesn’t mean you have to take it on or try to fix it. My husband could say something as simple as, “I’m worn out,” and I had a host of unhelpful reactions like defensiveness (“I’m way more tired than you!”) or guilt (“You’re tired because I don’t do enough for you.”). Or I would go into problem-solving mode and try to figure out how to fix it.
All of these responses took the focus off of my husband’s feelings and put them back on mine, when all he needed was to feel heard. It’s my job to listen, validate, and show empathy; it’s not my job to fix the feeling or change it. His feelings are his responsibility.
- Start gently. – If you need to say something critical or bring up an issue, start gently; don’t launch into an attack. It makes a big difference in how your partner will receive the information if you say something positive first and acknowledge that it is difficult to discuss. Let them know that you love them, they are worthy, and that you are not calling their entire person into question, you are just calling a specific issue into question.
- Slow it down. – If you’re in a discussion or argument that starts to intensify, and one or both of you feel like you’re losing the ability to regulate your emotions, it’s time to take a break. That might mean taking a few deep breaths together or pausing altogether. It’s easier to do this in therapy, but when we remember to do it at home, it stops us from going off the rails and saying things that we will regret later.
- It’s okay to pause an argument. – I would often keep arguing long after it was productive to try and force a resolution. I didn’t like the weight of uncertainty and tension hanging over me. Now I know it’s okay and even beneficial to pause an argument, as long as you do it gently and respectfully, and set a time to come back to it together.
- Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. – Remember that you’re both on the same team, and you’re both trying your best. Always assume they have good intentions and that they are being direct. We got into a bad pattern of assuming there was an underlying dig or accusation in our questions or requests. It led to a lot of arguments that could have been avoided had we taken everything at face value and assumed the best in each other.
- Don’t let things stew. – Be honest and direct if something is bugging you. You can only bottle up so much before it eventually explodes. That doesn’t mean pointing out every little thing that’s annoying you, but if something is a real issue it needs to be addressed in a direct but gentle way.
- Stop trying to control. – It’s taken me 13 years of knowing my husband and 7 years of marriage, but I have started to accept that he is a grown-up in charge of his own decisions; it’s not my job to control him and tell him what’s best for him. I read Glennon Doyle’s Untamed recently, in which she writes, “I think that control might actually be the opposite because control leaves no room for trust—and maybe love without trust is not love at all.” So I’m working on trusting more and controlling less, and it’s a weight off of both of us.
Photo Credit :: Allison Turpen Photography