I was telling Ben that sometimes in our relationship I marvel at how great it is and can’t imagine it being any other way. We are happy and in love and communicating well and it’s blissful. And then we have times where it feels as though we’re on the brink of divorce and I wonder whether we’ll ever get back to that uber happy place again.
“So where are we right now?” he asked.
“Hmm…somewhere in the middle.”
And I guess that’s the nature of relationships, isn’t it? Sometimes they ebb, sometimes they flow. Sometimes they’re somewhere in the middle.
Our relationship is far from perfect. Occasionally I look at other people’s relationships and, from the outside, it looks like a fairytale and I feel a bit envious. Why can’t I have a fairytale too? But, then I realise that, from the outside, maybe our relationship looks pretty awesome too, and I probably shouldn’t compare my “behind-the-scenes with someone else’s highlight reel.” There’s a whole lot of real life going on around here, believe me, but I do think we make a pretty good team.
When I wrote about Ben and I celebrating our 10th anniversary in May 2013, our marriage had survived through living on an island, starting a business together, living with my parents, having babies and receiving a prenatal diagnosis, buying a house… and I joked about whether it would survive house renovations? Little did we know we were yet to face Sam’s Leukaemia diagnosis and treatment, as well as losing our beloved Nicholas – two major life experiences that could easily make or break a couple, I’ve no doubt.
While we are far (far) from experts on perfect relationships, this week we’re celebrating our 14th wedding anniversary and I think we’re doing pretty well given all we have faced over the years. We actually still like each other a lot.
So, here are eleven things we try to do to help keep our relationship on track when life tries to run it off the rails:
1. We are nice to each other, and we’re nice when we’re talking about each other to other people.
We try to always talk to and about each other the way we would like to be spoken to and about. After all, we are partners in this life – we need to look after each other. Oh sure, we have cranky days and it can be easy to get a bit snappy, but we really make an effort to speak kindly to each other (even if we don’t feel like it!). As one example, I try to always say thank you when Ben has helped me out around the house. Yes, I know he lives in the same house and parents our children too, but even if they’re things that he should be helping with, that doesn’t mean I can’t thank him for the jobs that get done – because I do appreciate it. And it’s nice to feel appreciated (and probably also means he’s more likely to keep helping!) We try to always lift each other up. We never put each other down, we’re never mean, and never attack each other. If a topic feels difficult to discuss rationally, we take a deep breath and bite our tongues, then make time to talk about it a bit later when things feel a bit calmer.
2. We don’t keep score.
Yep, I know how it feels when you seem to be the only one who gets up to the kids overnight and your partner always seems to score the sleep-ins. But we try to remember that we’re on the same team and things always seem to ‘work out in the wash’ – one person might be putting more effort in now, but it usually evens out. When you’re always keeping track mentally on who’s ahead or behind, no one wins. If either of us feels like there’s a genuine problem when it comes to equality and we need to restore the balance, we will sit down and talk about that, but we avoid the petty scorekeeping.
3. We take time out with each other and without the kids.
Being ‘in the trenches’ with three children in the space of four years can make it difficult to find time alone. And while life is a little quieter with only two children living in our house and the boys being a bit older now, it can still be difficult for us to get a word in edge wise when they’re around. Even the dog tries to get between us when we have a cuddle 😉 We are lucky enough that the boys loving going to their grandparents for weekend sleepovers (and the grandparents seem to love having them stay), so we are able to get away together occasionally, but we know that’s not possible for everyone. Whether it be having lunch together when we’re both in the office, organising a babysitter so we can go out and have dinner, or even just escaping to the backyard to have a chat for 20 minutes (until the kids find us!), taking time out to reconnect as a couple (and not just as parents) is important. We need to remember that person we fell in love with well before our children became part of the equation.
4. We make time to talk to each other and laugh with each other.
Contrary to stereotypes, Ben is actually an awesome communicator and my talking skills leave a bit to be desired. However, I realise that this is something I need to work on and I know just how much better we function as a couple, as parents and as a team when we’re on the same page. I know that it’s important for us to talk and dream and plan out loud together so that we feel connected and like we’re travelling in the same direction. And sometimes parenthood and life can get so ridiculously hard that if we don’t try to laugh, we would cry! In the midst of the chaos, sometimes a silly joke or a reassuring smile can make such a difference to lifting each other’s spirits.
5. We nurture our own souls with the things that make us happy.
We’re not always great at this, admittedly, but we still know it’s important to spend time alone doing the things that make us happy. Ben likes to go trail running and play indoor sports and knows that physical activity really helps his headspace, as well as improving how he feels physically, so he tries to get out a few times a week. I sneak out early in the morning to do pilates twice a week and usually return before anyone is even awake, and Ben puts the boys to bed when I play netball one night a week. I find it harder to make time for me when it’s not a planned activity that I’ve committed to (as opposed to just sitting elsewhere in the house to do some writing, for example), but I know that when I do take some time out for me, I always look forward to being with my family again and feel as though I have more energy and patience for them.
6. We know that intimacy matters, and shouldn’t be an afterthought.
We have children, a business, a whole host of emotional issues and we’re often exhausted, but we know that intimacy is a really important part of our relationship. But, yeah… umm, I’m not good at talking about this stuff in public, so I’m going to outsource by sharing this great post from Robyna at Mummy and the Minx, this Happy Mama podcast episode with Isiah McKimmie and this TEDTalk from Esther Perel about the secret to desire in a long term relationship.
7. We lean in.
We learned some very valuable lessons, about ourselves and our relationship, through processing a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. It was not a very fun time, but I am grateful for the strength it brought our relationship long term. We learned that sometimes it seems easier to shut down and just deal with grief and challenges on our own. While we each have our own way of dealing with adversity, we are now much better at recognising that and working extra hard to have a solid partnership through the tough times.
8. We try to speak each other’s Love Language.
If that sounds cheesy and you have no idea what I’m talking about, you need to read ‘The 5 Love Languages’ by Gary Chapman. Honestly, I know this concept has been a game changer for some friends of mine. Although Ben thinks he is far better at speaking my language that I am at his. (Ed: See point 6 above 😉 )
9. We don’t believe that the present our partner buys us is a test of how much they love us.
Okay, I know this may not be a popular opinion in some circles, but sometimes there is soooo much pressure put on a partner to a) remember significant dates and b) put in sufficient preparation to select the perfect gift as a symbol of their undying love. Oh, I know that it’s lovely when you feel loved and valued but, friends, sometimes gift giving isn’t your partner’s love language and remembering dates isn’t their superpower. They do love you. If you are anticipating a special date, don’t keep it a secret – let your partner know that it’s coming up and it’s important to you. If you would like something in particular, don’t make them guess. Work out a good system that works for both of you to ensure that your partner gets the inside word on what you’d like to receive in advance so there’s less opportunity for disappointment.
10. We’re grateful for the things we have in common, but also for the things that make us unique individuals.
We don’t always agree that I have awesome taste in music, but we do both love to spend an afternoon in the outdoors with a good coffee or a G&T and a quality book. It’s great that the things we have in common can draw us together, but the elements that make us unique also make our relationship more interesting. When we combine our strength and weaknesses, we make a really good team.
11. We’re committed to working through the hard bits and having tough conversations.
Sorry to burst any bubbles, but marriage is hard work. These days we’re more aware of the signs when we’re feeling disconnected and what we can do to try to get back on track. I used to try to avoid tough conversations, but I’ve come to learn just how much better things feel after getting it all out into the open (and often it wasn’t nearly as tough as I’d anticipated). Thankfully, we both think this marriage is worth putting in the hard yards for and we’re committed to making our relationship thrive well into the future.
Whether we’re awesome, on the brink of divorce or somewhere in the middle, there’s no one I’d rather be spending this crazy life with. I feel very lucky to have a husband who makes me feel loved and valued each and every day. We’re far from perfect, and drive each other crazy on many an occasion, but, as the cliche goes, I think we’re pretty perfect for each other.
What helps your relationship stay on track? What would you add to the list?