February 11, 2013

Married: With Children.

Posted in Life Lessons, Parenthood tagged , , , , , , , , at 12:31 pm by openendedcomment

In the past several months (years) I (like every other married person) have had countless conversations about what it takes to make a marriage work.  There are a million books on the subject and each proclaims to have the special sauce/secret recipe/ultimate rules for making it successful.  But they can’t, right?  No one book or one Doctor or one Marriage Counsellor could possibly know what it takes to make a relationship that is unique in every situation apply to all situations.  What about blended families?  What about young couples without children?  What about mature marriages after divorce or death of a spouse?  How could one set of rules possibly fit for such diverse situations?

They can’t.  They never will.

My family is a blended one with three exes and four children, three of whom we have full custody of, one who we share with his dad.  We’ve been married for eight years and have been together for ten.  We’ve been through three custody battles, job loss, family loss, new homes, new careers, a special needs child and are in the teen years with two.  In reflecting on how-the-hell-we’re-still-together I’ve compiled this list. Our rules, our secret sauce.  Use at will.

1.)  Go to bed angry.  I don’t care what the books say, sometimes it’s best to be angry and just sleep on it.  The biggest fights in my marriage have taken place late at  night because neither of us will back down. Chances are, when you wake up and aren’t so God-Awful-Tired things will look better.  If it’s a weekday you’ll have even more distance to calm down while you’re at work or doing dozens of other things.  By the time you see each other the next evening, you’ll either be over it or be too busy with life to really find it important.  If it’s a major deal, send an email and let the other person think about the issue and respond without the heat of in-your-face emotion. But…and this is important…do not sleep apart because you are mad.  Sleeping apart is saying that you’re done sharing that martial bed space with your spouse and that is not OK.  Get in bed, turn your back if you must, shut the fuck up and go to sleep.

2.) On that: It’s OK to talk it out electronically.  If you have children in the house, it’s actually better.  They don’t need to see/hear you arguing with each other.

3.) And on that note: Don’t worry if your children do witness the occasional argument.  It is fine for them to know that adults who love each other don’t always have to agree and that if a relationship is important, you work through the hard times by talking it out with (hopefully) some respect.  I think this is especially important for blended families as these children are already aware that marriages can end. But do try to limit the yelling and details when they’re in ear-shot.  It’s amazing what they hear and repeat…invariably at the most inappropriate times.  My youngest once detailed a disagreement over beard trimmings in a sink.  The way he explained it we (husband and I) both sounded bat-shit crazy, which we may be, but that’s not something the neighbors need to know.

4.) You’re going to fight about stupid things.  Really, really stupid things.  You’re going to do this because you live together and sometimes you’re going to want to hurt that person who makes you nuts and leaves socks in the living room and dishes in the sink but you won’t…you’ll just imagine it, and that, in my mind, is fine.

5.) Accept that your spouse isn’t going to parent the way you do (especially true in blended situations) and that as long as you know when to hold your ground and when to concede, that’s fine.  If the “other” parent is involved, you are not the parent.  You are an authority figure in your home, you do deserve respect, you do get to make rules and you do deserve to be heard.  But…and this is a tricky one…if the other parent is not involved or minimally involved, you are the parent and you need to accept it and behave like one.  If you can’t accept this or don’t want this, you have no business marrying someone with children.  Even if the “other” parent has custody now, that doesn’t mean they always will.  I’ve seen this countless times.  Bonus children are a wonderful blessing and a massive source of conflict.  The children may question your right to have a say in their lives and your spouse may over-ride you.  You’re going to be livid and you’re going to argue about it.  OK.  As long as you love those children and treat them as your own (both the good and the bad, i.e. praise, love, kindness, care along with discipline and consequences) you’re most likely going to be fine.  Insane, but fine.  Worried sick, but fine.  In other words, exactly like every other parent that’s ever existed.

6.) Siblings fight.  Parents who aren’t in blended families worry about this.  Parents with blended families obsess.  It’s perfectly normal.  They aren’t always going to get along and as long as it doesn’t escalate into something dangerous or destructive, calm down.  My sister once broke my brother’s leg and then, jealous over the attention he had in his cast, she bit his good foot.  And they love each other.  They really, really love each other.  These things happen…find me a set of siblings who never fought as children and I’ll find you a purple unicorn with glitter hair.

7.) Don’t let your children’s fights become your fights.  If your children are arguing with each other, it’s natural to want to get involved and end it.  To a degree this is fine.  But only to a degree.  When you and your spouse are pitted against each other by your children and find yourselves saying things like “But, he pulled her hair!” and “She started it!”…you need to knock it off.  Part of how children learn to handle conflict as adults is to handle it in childhood.  Let them.  Save your sanity and wash your hands of it.  Unless it’s dangerous/destructive…then see #5 and be a parent.

8.) Teenagers suck.  Teenagers will fray your nerves to the point you want to flip out on the nearest individual. Unfortunately, this is usually your spouse.  Vent, but don’t yell and please remember that being teens means they’re leaving soon and despite your current feeling, you will miss them.  Terribly.  I haven’t yet experienced this but I’m told it’s true.

9.) If you don’t have sex at least twice a week/four times a month/whatever the book says, it doesn’t mean your marriage is failing.  It means that you’re normal, you’re tired and sometimes, you haven’t even had time to shower.  It happens.  As long as you touch each other, kiss and are available physically and emotionally, all will be well.  We once read a book that said we should be intimate at least four times a week for optimum satisfaction in our marriage.  We (I) panicked.  Four times a week?!?  I mean, maybe on vacation, but…were we failing?  Doomed? Now, my husband and I are both perfectly functional and attractive (to each other) people with normal sex drives.  But for a few months, things had stalled (see 1-8) and we were worried.  We were worried because our friends said they had sex all of the time and we knew we weren’t so naturally, we felt there was something wrong.  We followed the book’s lead and after three weeks we decided that a. we were fucking tired b. being “ready” as in shaving, lingerie, staying up until the kids were all asleep is way too hard to do that often and c. our friends were lying bastards.  We let it go and just pipe up if one or both feels like things are slipping.  Pressure gone, sex life better.  Point is: Relax.  Every couple has their own rhythm and own times when infants, jobs, teens, whatever makes intimacy a challenge.  It always sorts itself out.  If not, don’t worry, there are pills for that.

10.) Do new things.  Together.  Remember that you aren’t as old as life makes you feel and figure out how to try to enjoy life…not just each other, but life itself.  It’s worth it.

11.) Don’t share the bills.  Most couples I know who “share” or “split” bills argue about it.  We made a decision many years ago that one is charge of them, updates the other and both have equal say in how it is handled.  No “his” and “hers” accounts.  Separation leads to questions about “fairness” and that leads to resentment.  This is especially true when one spouse out-earns the other or is tasked with giving the other “spending money” this is not a parent/child relationship, you are partners and partners share the business.   Generally one is in charge of payables and both partners have equal access to the information and resources.   If you must have your “own” access to funds, do it with a credit card that is in your name only and pay the damn thing off regularly.

12. Set goals together, both financial and lifestyle. By doing this you’re working toward something as a team and being a team is what it’s all about.

13. You don’t have to share everything.  Really.  Maybe you’re the type of person who has to tell your spouse every single detail of your day, but we aren’t those people.  We’re happier with the highlights and when both parts of a couple are as busy we are, relaying the work day on a play-by-play level is not only boring, it eats up the “off” time…which makes no sense.  Most people work to live as opposed to live to work.  If you work to live and then spend all of that living time talking about working, what’s the point?

14. Cut out the assholes.  We all have them.  Friends and even neighbors or distant family members who bring drama to our lives.  If someone disparages your spouse to you or, worse still, is disrespectful or down-right mean to your spouse in their presence, you need to get rid of them.  By all means, try to have a conversation about the situation with the offender first, but if it doesn’t get better, cut them the fuck out.  Your marriage comes first.  Your spouse should never have to ask you to do this.  Be a grown up, recognize the situation and protect what is most important to you.  It may be hard, but it is the right thing to do.

15. Embrace the crazy.  There are things about your spouse that are utterly, totally, unquestionably strange.  Chances are that these are the very things that person you adore is most sensitive about.  Love them for it, not despite.  Do this and you are validating that you love that person because of everything they are, not even though.

16. Score cards are fine.  Everything you’ll ever read will tell you not to keep score.  I disagree.  Keeping score and fighting about it constantly;  not a good thing.  Being aware when you’re doing way more than your share and making your spouse aware is a way of communicating before you get to the point of seething resentment.  And that is a great thing.  You’re in this relationship, too, and you also have a right to be supported.  In our home, I’m the one who’s usually accused of “keeping score.”  I do the vast majority of housework, children running and almost all of the errands.  I tend to get pissy.  But, I also don’t want to let these things go to “his” list of responsibilities as I want it done my way.  Needless to say, this has been (by far) the hardest one for my husband and I.  We’re  getting better at it though (as in I’m trying not to be impossible and he’s trying to let me talk about without getting angry at the utter insanity of the situation)  and the more we talk about it, the less anger we feel.

17. Go away.  Get out of your surroundings, even if it’s just checking into a local hotel for the night.  Not everyone can afford (much less has access to the child care it takes) to go on a  two-week romantic vacation or to have “date night” weekly, again, as all the books say.  But, that said, almost everyone can manage a night or two away a couple of times a year.  Take what you can get.  Hole up in a room, order dinner and just be together.  It is worth every penny.  And don’t feel like you have to act like you’re on your honeymoon.  Do whatever you feel you need to do as a couple to rest and enjoy.  My husband once slept for twenty-two hours of a thirty-six hour get-away.  I ended up reading and enjoying a long soak in a  hot-tub alone.  We’d planned for dinner, dancing, hiking, swimming, golf…none of which happened unless you count ordering a pizza to the room as dinner, but the fourteen hours of “vacation time” we had together were far better for the twenty-two hours of sleep he enjoyed and the relaxation I found.  Whatever works.

18. Be adaptable.  Things are going to change, likely more than you (or I) can possibly fathom.  Be committed to changing with each other and refuse to be fixed in the person you married as your ideal as opposed to the person you’re going to be married to three, five, ten or even thirty years down the line.  Sounds simple, but failing to do this is the cause of most marriages ending.

19.  Failure is not an option.  It just isn’t.  If you refuse to allow your marriage to be something that could end, chances are it won’t.  My dearest friend, Glitter, doesn’t use the “D” word in her home.  She uses the F word and the S word…lots…but not the “D” word.  This is her rule, but I’ve stolen it and I’m pretty sure she won’t mind.  Think of it  like Voldemort.  If you don’t say it, it doesn’t happen.  Again, sounds simple, but it’s the little things that matter.

I suppose I should do a number 20 to round this out, but really, that’s about it.  That’s how we do it. We don’t over-think the details and try our best.  We do fight and we do occasionally feel the need to run screaming from each other.  But for the most part, we love and respect what and who we are as a family, a couple and people.  These are our rules.  I am sure there are tons of happy marriages who keep it together by doing the exact opposite of what I’ve written.  No relationship is identical to another and no set of standards works for all couples at all times.  As it should be.  And as the blog states in title, this too remains open-ended.  As our lives change so will our rules, we’ll adapt and learn and hopefully do so for many, many decades to come.