Marriage can be one of the greatest journeys two people can take together. Just knowing you have that one person to go through life's ups and downs with is both comforting and terrifying. It's inevitable, though, that every relationships will have its trials and tribulations because, well, life. For the longest time, my partner and I weren't sure if we'd make it or not, and felt divorce nearing. There are some things we learned about our marriage through counseling, though, that made us pay attention, before it was too late to turn back.
My partner and I had a divine romance when we met through mutual friends at an open mic some (almost) thirteen years ago. He sauntered in to play drums while I, a struggling singer/guitarist, drove two hours from my hometown to play this bar my friends suggested. It was a chance meeting, really, and many times though the years I've stopped to think of all the dots that had to connect for us to cross paths. It's really quite intricate and amazing. I wouldn't say I necessarily believe in fate but, somehow, it worked in our favor despite a long line of odds.
Sparks flew immediately and it didn't take long for us to fall a little too hard and a little too fast. I moved across state lines and, not long after, he settled in with me. Things traveled at a harrowing, unstoppable speed. We were young and hopeful that regardless of the obstacles, we were determined to make it work. Then, one cold February morning, I woke with morning sickness and, that very day, discovered I was pregnant. We'd only been together a year and a half at this point, still unsure of our paths in life or how to get there. All we knew was that we loved each other and would make it work. At the time, we had no plans of marriage and, I'll be honest, that stressed me out. Having come from a tumultuous childhood, security was something I'd forever lacked and desperately needed. Marriage, to me, felt like the answer. I didn't realize it then, but I was only looking to fill voids my partner never could.
Eventually, after our first child was born, shortly after marrying, and after I struggled with severe postpartum depression (PPD), our relationship took a nosedive. Communication had always been lacking but as exhausted, overworked parents, it became nonexistent. I started to resent him, and he started to resent me. The love never disappeared, it just, well, became dormant for awhile. This is when we decided to either fix it or move on. It's a scary feeling, standing at that crossroads of now or never, but we knew that regardless of how things played out, we owed it to ourselves to find out. This is when I finally made an appointment with a therapist. At the very least, I hoped we'd find some way to communicate with one another for the sake of our daughter. What we found was so much more.
If you're on the cusp in your relationship and there are signs you may be headed into unwanted relationship territory, here are some of the things we learned through marriage counseling. Don't let fear keep you from your best life.
The Small Fights Were Really About Larger Issues
So many times through our relationship, we've argued about the smallest, most insignificant things. Who left the kitchen light on. Whose turn to wash the dishes. Which person was supposed to pay whatever bill that's now overdue. While seemingly important issues, these things were merely topical. What was learned through counseling was that at the base of all these "minor" issues were bigger, unspoken things we'd become afraid to address.
If the kitchen light was an argument, behind it, I was really screaming about how afraid I was that our electric bill became so high. When I nagged about the dishes, it was because I felt overwhelmed and hoped for some kind of help. I wanted to be seen and heard in the midst of our chaotic lives. When fussing about bills, each of us felt burdened by mounting debt but couldn't figure out a mature way to talk about it. Part of being in a relationship is communication, but we'd gotten so used to avoiding it. In counseling, we had to practice hearing the subtext to whatever arguments we had. Was it easy? Hell no. Worth it? Yes.
Not Everything Needs To Be Fixed
In my experience, men like to fix things. It's the way their brains are wired. Women, on the other hand, don't necessarily want anything fixed — we just want to be heard (that's how our brains are wired).
An important lesson I took away from all the counseling is that sometimes, nothing needs "fixed" per se, it just needs addressed in the right context. So again, instead of complaining about the dishes (because it doesn't mean I needed him to fix it by doing the dishes right then and there), I wanted him to hear me when I said "I'm overwhelmed" so we could make a long term plan on how to divvy up chores where neither of us got burnt out.
I'll be the first to admit, sometimes my expectations are ridiculously high. I'll also admit, this only sets my partner up for failure. If I expect to come home to a spotless house, perfectly behaved children, a surprise gift for no reason, and him at my feet asking what else he can possibly do, we've already lost the battle. This isn't real life. He works hard at his full-time job, too, and while I work from home and am the primary care giver for the kids, this just isn't fair. We both have needs that should be met if we're going to make this work.
The result of raising the expectation bar so high is resentment towards things that weren't part of the deal in the first place. In terms of long-term visions for our future, this wasn't working. According to counseling, my high expectations would only end things faster instead of putting us on the mend. The key is to set the bar sort of low (but not too low because, come on) so you're always happily surprised by whatever happens.
Differences Don't Have To Be Dealbreakers
My partner and I couldn't be more different in many ways and yet, it works. For a long time though, it worked against us because we didn't know how to lean into our differences. Differences are a good thing. They mean he's the yin when I'm the yang. He's the good guy when I'm the bad one. It creates balance as opposed to having two passive personalities that get nothing accomplished or two explosive mindsets who are in each other's faces all day. Balance is a good thing and when raising children, it's probably the most important thing.
You Have To Practice Communication Regularly
Communication is tricky. It sounds easy enough but once you actually try it, it's really hard to do. Are you really hearing what he, or she, is telling you? Beyond the surface?
The only way to get better at communicating with your partner is to continually check in with yourself, asking if you understand what's meant. So ask questions and be clear. If you can't communicate your needs, or understand what your partner is trying to convey, you'll have little to build a future on and that's one lesson we're still working on.
You Have The Ability To Choose How Present You Will Be
Along with communication comes being mindful. You can sit right next to your partner for hours and never really be together. If you're checking out too often, via your phone or a game or the internet, you'll never really evolve in the relationship.
We learned how important presence is and being mindful in the moment, not only between us, but with our children. They can tell when they're only getting part of us. It takes just as much practice as communication but, once you nail it, everything else falls into place.
Make Time For One Another
This may seem obvious but if you never have devoted alone time together, it only adds to your demise. Dating, even years down the road, is important. Never lose sigh of those butterflies or why you fell for each other in the first place. Marriage is a journey, not a destination, so if it feels stale or stagnant, keep at it.
While all the things I've said aren't going to work for everyone, I can say after (nearly) 13 years and two children, my partner and I are stronger than ever. I won't give all the credit to counseling because we're the ones doing the hard work. However, I also can't say counseling wasn't worth our time. Only you and your partner can decide what works for your relationship, and only you and your partner can determine the outcome, through doing the work, if you do.