The 5 Most Important Things I Learned When My Marriage Sucked

Marriage hacks for when the going gets tough

Marriage Advice: Hacks for the stressful times that suck

My husband and I celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary this year. For us, eight years married meant eight years and three months together, because we got married about twelve weeks after we met (spoiler: I wasn’t pregnant). Like most of the major decisions we’ve made together, we decided to get married quite quickly. Our first date was a thirteen-hour (each way) road trip from Alabama to Pennsylvania to see Beck, and when we got home I just… didn’t move out of his house. Charming, right? He must have liked something about it, or was just too polite to kick me out, because eventually I brought my box of records and books, my clothes, and a toothbrush, and just like that we were living together.

The first three years of our marriage were awesome. We went to India, we graduated college, we had a baby. I started a photography business, we moved across the country to Oregon, and we discovered that Real Life is a little bit challenging. We hopped back and forth across the country with a smile, and kept smiling even as our son was diagnosed with various medical conditions and our lives started to revolve around monthly trips to St. Jude’s in Memphis.

Then came year four. And five. And six. Most of which really sucked. My husband moved out, he moved back in. We found out exactly how passive aggressive we can be. (One particularly insidious fight began when I discovered my husband had plastered the insides of our cabinets with labels for every. Single. Item. I officially lost it.) Some of our issues stemmed from being young (twenty-two and twenty-one) when we got married—neither of us had truly experienced a long-term adult relationship at that point. Some of the issues were regular every day stuff that was compounded by the fact that we didn’t communicate what we felt to one another. A few of the issues had origin points in the residual guilt, confusion, and fear that come with raising a child who has additional medical needs.

Somehow, some way, we made it through the darkness and into the light. And when I say light, I mean it—it feels like we live in the clouds, surrounded by rainbow hearts and spending all of our time basking in sunshine. I regularly get weak-kneed and gooey-eyed when I look at, or even think about, my husband these days, and a few years ago I didn’t want to even breathe the same air he was breathing. Like, I fucking love this guy. The good news is, slogging through two of the worst years of my life taught me a whole bunch about marriage, relationships, and how to survive the hard stuff. Here’s what we learned:

1. Your Kid’s (or Dad’s, or Mom’s) Medical Issues Are Not Your Fault

This is a big one for us, and it’s big for a lot of families that experience serious medical issues—be it your kid’s diagnosis or your mom’s, it’s still hard. My husband and I each spent the whole first year after our son was diagnosed with cerebral palsy secretly thinking the other had accidentally caused it. I was convinced that my husband had hurt our son’s brain by dancing with him to Michael Jackson when he was a colic-y baby, and my husband was worried that the one time I bumped our son’s head on a wall had done it. It turns out we were both wrong (I sat down with hundreds of pages of medical records and found out all kinds of things about my pregnancy and our son’s birth, including the fact that the CP was due to something that happened in utero), but the guilt and the blame were still there.

It helps that our son’s conditions are all on the mild end of each spectrum, so we’re not in and out of hospitals nearly as much as other families, but spending a lot of time ferrying back and forth between hospitals and doctor’s offices can take a toll on a partnership. It would be so easy for my husband and me to get caught up in the whir of the medical machine and forget who we are (both as a couple and as separate people) and become just parents of a kid at the hospital. You see it a lot, when you’re in and out as much as we are, actually: parents who are having such a challenging experience with their child, parents who are against such incredibly scary odds, that a gulf has developed around them. They’re not partners—they’re kind of like soldiers against the condition or disease that has infiltrated their lives. And it’s completely understandable: having a child who is battling something huge is terrifying and draining, and can consume you. In our case, we have always been united in helping our son feel confident, strong, and like he can handle anything (“Iron Lion Zion” used to be a big pre-St. Jude’s family jam), and I think that feeling all of that for our son has helped us also feel it for ourselves.

What keeps us from creating our own gulf is reminding ourselves of who we are and what that means to each of us. Even something as simple as holding hands and making eye contact during a difficult appointment can make a world of difference, because we’re saying, “Hey: I’m in this with you. I’m here, too.” And that is powerful.

2. Communicating Well Really Does Matter

I’m pretty sure you’ll see this in every book and article you’ll ever read on relationships, and I can say in my experience, the reason it’s repeated so often is because it’s just true. By communicating well I don’t mean being nice to each other every time you speak. I mean ask yourself what you really feel and why you feel it, and then find a way to say this all out loud to the person that you need to speak with. One of my biggest challenges so far has to been resisting the urge to retort defensively when my husband tells me that a behavior or action of mine upset him or isn’t working. I used to get bent out of shape if he asked me to make sure my dresser drawer was closed all the way when I’m finished, and I’d immediately rattle off something that I’d just love for him to do, too. We’re learning that there’s no contest, and neither of us are actually interested in keeping a running tally of all the ways we make each other crazy. I think learning what you feel and why is just so incredibly crucial to becoming a more self-aware person in general, and knowing yourself is the first step to knowing someone else.

It’s funny how long it took us to get the root of what communicating well means. Chores have always been a source of anxiety in our house: I grew up in a home in which one parent was consistently berated by the other for not meeting standards that were never fully explained. As a result, I’m super sensitive to anything I interpret as my husband telling me our home isn’t clean enough (even though with the three of us, chores are very much a 45/45/10 family effort). In the past I would shut down the second I thought I was being attacked. Now I’ve learned to point out when I feel judged in this area, and to also voice why I might be feeling that way (read: it usually has nothing to do with how my husband phrases his suggestion).

3. Being Passive Aggressive is Never, Ever a Good Idea

Speaking of communicating well, I mentioned the cabinet labels, right? While that night’s fight was epic, the labels were truly just the tip of the iceberg. My husband and I are both usually pretty reasonable people. We’re kind and respectful, we’re inquisitive, we practice manners and try to be humble in our thoughts and actions. We spend a lot of time being intentional. But it turns out that when we’re both wounded and feel like we’re backed in a corner, the passive aggressive actions and words start flying… and it sucks.

I think we both thought we each weren’t monsters because we weren’t yelling and no one was physically hurt, but guys? Words will totally break you. Instead of sitting down and talking about what was and wasn’t working, what did and didn’t hurt, we would each spend a lot of time just being mean to one another.

These days we are infinitely better at sitting down, looking one another in the eye, and telling the other what hurts and what doesn’t. It makes us feel vulnerable, but we’re starting to appreciate that we can be vulnerable together. I think/hope that creating an environment in which our marriage is a safe space for vulnerability will be tremendously helpful in the long run.

4. Stay Respectful

This one sounds easy, but I know so many people who are in the habit of not practicing respect with their partner. Sean and I decided a long time ago that we wouldn’t make jokes about one another or call each other names (like stupid, or silly, or whatever—even in jest), but I don’t think we realized how important this pact was to our relationship until we hit hard times. In the first few years of our relationship, it was easy to be respectful—it was just how we felt about one another. Why would I make fun of my husband (in front of him or to a close friend)? I loved that guy! There was no reason to crack a joke at his expense. When we hit rock bottom, it was all I could do to keep from making jokes as a way of venting, and I didn’t always succeed.

What I learned is that each time I said something negative about my husband, something intended to be vindictive or mean, I felt awful. Even when I didn’t want to be in the same room with him and I couldn’t conceive of a life in which I would ever want to again, I still felt bad when I insulted him, even if he had no idea that I said it. It hurt me to be a negative person about the guy I was married to. When we started reconciling and became committed to fixing our problems, I spent a lot of time apologizing for stuff I don’t even think my husband ever knew I said. It was weird, but it felt good to do it.

5. Staying Together for the Kid(s) Really Doesn’t Work

I know everything and everyone will tell you that staying together for the kids doesn’t work, but when you’re in the trenches of a hard part of your marriage and you have a kid, it’s hard to believe it.

My parents stayed together far longer than they should have for two reasons: my mother didn’t have any perceived alternatives (meaning my dad controlled the money and told her she was useless, and it was really hard for her to see a way around that) and they had four kids. Not having a perceived alternative to staying married was never an issue for me (I could more than imagine myself as an awesome single mom who is awesome while doing awesome things, and I make my own bank), but the idea of foisting any semblance of mental distress on my son was really hard for me to deal with—even though I wasn’t distressed by the divorce of my parents. In fact, I celebrated their divorce, but my dad was also abusive and pretty horrible in general. Those weren’t issues in my relationship, so it made it harder to conceive a world in which my son didn’t live with me full-time.

If you’re splitting up because both of you are mature, reasonable adults who have realized your relationship isn’t what you both need and want, then you’re probably also mature, reasonable parents to your kid(s) and you’ll do everything you can to make sure your kid(s) is okay. So don’t stick it out just because you have a child—unless you secretly want to stick it out because you might still be in love.

Have you and your partner hit a rough patch before? What are your tips for making it to the other side in one piece?

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