I was trying to think of a way to get through this article without using the cliché "relationships are hard work." But, really, there's no way around it when you're talking about keeping a partnership together when raising children. I guess I can say it's not necessarily work so much as dedicated intention, which is really just a less daunting way of saying "work" but it still feels more accurate and encouraging. Encouragement is important and, to that end, there are things my partner says to me that let me know we're in this parenting thing together.
Not that the man has been devoid of grand sweeping gestures, mind you. He's just, you know, never done a big, dramatic, and eloquent declaration amid a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf style domestic brawl or used hand-written cue cards that he flipped through silently, like on Love, Actually. Rather, everything my partner has said that lets me know we're in this together like Thelma and Louise, are the totally mundane, every day things he says that make my life easier and more enjoyable. (By the way: that was three movie references in one paragraph! We watch a lot of movies together, which is also a secret to our relationship longevity.)
Another cliché, if I may: 90% of making a relationship work will ultimately boil down to communication. Often I'll hear people retort with, "That's easier said than done," and that's certainly true in many cases. Still, I'm a firm believer in three principles that will facilitate learning to communicate:
1) Be brave
2) Be willing
3) Fake it until you make it
A lot of what my dude says that reassures me are part of solid communication practices. Honestly, once you get into the swing of it it gets easier and easier until it's really not work, even if it is dedicated intention. Here are some of my favorite classics of his that make me confident in the whole "'til death do us part" thing.
"Let's Make A Plan"
I cannot stress the importance of flexibility enough when it comes to parenting, At the same time, of almost equal importance is the need for some semblance of a plan. Make no mistake: that plan will be destroyed like a ship dashed upon so many sharp and jagged rocks before it sinks to the bottom of the Sea of Good Intentions. But starting out on the same page as your partner is clutch as you move forward, because at the very least you know the ultimate goal. This is true of long-term parenting philosophies as well as day-to-day game plans, like a trip to the zoo.
"You Do That, I'll Do This"
Because you can have a plan, but if the plan is, "You do that while I sit back on my phone giggling at cat videos" then your plan sucks. Good partners are willing to dive in and do their fair share. Above and beyond doing it when they're asked, they attempt to be proactive about doing the things with the kids and around the house that need doing. Being willing and able is great, but it's not enough if you're in this for the long-haul: you've got to be ready, too.
Everyone's needs are important in a relationship: family needs, children's needs, couple needs, and your individual needs. Think of it like preparing a four course meal: it's a lot of work the requires a lot of juggling pots and pans, and keeping one on the back burner too long is eventually going to ruin the whole thing. So a partner bringing up their own needs, problems, or requests for help is not only good for them, it's good for the relationship and the family.
"Do You Need...?"
Fill in the blank. Sleep/Five minutes/A night out/Help/Etc. Being attentive and cognizant of the fact that, when you have kids, there's probably something I need a hand with, is something I adore in my partner. That he is tuned into me enough to know when to ask if I needed help (or, even if I didn't seem to, knew enough to check in from time to time) is clutch.
When you spend most of your time around your partner covered in snot-covered yoga pants sporting a top knot, it's nice to know mama's still got it. Physical beauty isn't the most important thing (like, we all got that when we were in grade school and watched Beauty and the Beast, right?), but it's nice to feel attractive and desired.
Calling Me On My Sh*t
Because, sometimes, you get wrapped up in your own mess and you need someone to bring you back to reality. Calling someone out doesn't have to be mean or angry. Both my partner and I have found that using matter-of-fact, not blaming but still firm statements actually work the best. Like,"I don't like when you talk to me like that because it feels like you're blaming me for something I had no control over," or, "That wasn't a nice thing to say."
The other half of this equation, of course, is being open to the idea, at any point, that you might need to be called out. I'll get to that in a little bit.
"What Do You Think?"
The art of conversation is one of the most important things, in my opinion, in keeping a relationship alive. Believe me when I say, it's an art. Just like any other art, if you don't keep working at it you will start to lose your touch. Necessarily, your kids are going to be a frequent topic of discussion with your partner, especially in early parenthood. However, maintaining something to talk about other than your children gives you a connection outside of your little humans (who, reminder, will eventually leave your house someday). So when my partner wants to talk about a podcast we're both listening to or a political story we'd read about, it's not only addressing our need for adult conversation, but it's helping to strengthen our relationship.
"I Hadn't Thought Of It That Way. I Thought..."
My partner's willingness to see my perspective and explain his own in a calm, non-confrontational way shows me, "We're going to be together forever, so let's make sure we understand one another as much as possible." It's both considerate and savvy, if you ask me. It's basically, "Help me help you" with a dash of ,"Know thy enemy..."
"I Arranged This Thing I Thought We Would Enjoy..."
When my partner takes initiative to find some sort of mutually enjoyable activity, it's not only easy but exciting to think of spending the rest of forever with this guy. Like when he suggested a sip and paint class knowing how much he loves painting and how much I love drinking wine. Honestly, it doesn't even have to be that involved all the time. It can seriously be something like, "I found this BBC documentary series about the biodiversity of France" and that might sound absolutely horrible to some people, but it's totally in my wheelhouse. (It's also a really neat show, you guys!) But knowing he is thinking about how we can spend time together is not only sweet but reassuring.
"You're Doing Great"
Unlike school (where you get grades) or a job (where you can get annual reviews, raises, or promotions), there's no real metric to show how you're doing as a parent. The kids themselves aren't always the best gauge since, through no fault of your own, it can take years before a lesson ("say thank you") can ever set in. It can be frustrating (especially for approval junkie, Hermione Granger types... ahem... not that I know anyone like that...) not to have some sort of measurable way to demonstrate success. My dude is well aware of this. So some positive reinforcement from time to time is a really great way of making someone feel, "Oh, someone sees me. Nice. I'll keep this person who sees me."
It doesn't have to be obsequious. You don't have to flagellate yourself. But it has to be genuine and it has to come without a "but" afterwards. Apologies are so much easier than stubbornly clinging to the idea that you did nothing wrong, especially when you either know you did or can see your partner's point. No one loses in a case of "I'm sorry." Everyone wins. Your partner wins because they feel validated, you win because you're at least on your way to redemption, and the relationship wins because #teamwork
I've gone on record as saying that I think this is the most important thing you can say to maintain a relationship. Even if you're thanking them for something obvious, something they should do, it's a great short-hand way of saying, "I appreciate all the big and small things you do that keeps this family and relationship going strong."