How to keep your marriage healthy, strong, and thriving after kids is….hard af. And even the best marriage advice, the most well-intentioned friends, pastors, rabbis, and family can’t possibly (and probably won’t) have all the answers.
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What this post is not about:
I’m not going into much about what to do after infidelity.
If you’re in a place where one of you has been unfaithful, I would definitely agree that this is an adjacent issue that requires some rebuilding of trust and communication.
Some of the below will help with that but ultimately hiring a professional talk therapist will go a long way to repairing the damage of that lost trust.
The Best Marriage Advice: Aka What Other People Say
If you’ve been married. Or know someone who’s married. Or have thought about being married it’s tempting to want to espouse the advice you’d want to hear.
Shit – the list of well-intended marriage advice givers can range from your preacher or pastor, your rabbi, or your neighbor who’s been married for 47 years. To someone who is engaged and hasn’t even gone through this shit storm of marriage after kids.
Fun fact, on our honeymoon we went to a splurge dinner in Cinque Terre, Italy where we sat next to another honeymooning couple who had known each other for two months (no judgment) and told us repeatedly the secret to a successful marriage is to never go to bed angry.
My husband and I were so annoyed by their incessant, drunk, toasting us to “never going to bed angry” that it’s become a joke. When we are actually going to bed angry one of us will inevitably reference the couple “They said we can’t go to bed angry!” and it instantly lightens the mood and allows us to table a really bad argument for the next day.
So in a way, thank you random couple in Cinque Terre for that “good” marriage advice.
How Bad Is Your Marriage Right Now?
If you’re reading this article late at night after a really rough fight with your spouse know this:
You are not alone. A lot of us aren’t equipped with the appropriate tools to have healthy and constructive conversations with the person we chose to love for the rest of our lives.
Some real talk – if your marriage is in real peril finding a qualified marriage and family therapist is going to be the best first step.
Because of this pandemic, online mental health counseling is more available than ever, and you don’t even have to get a babysitter or leave the comfort of your couch.
I’ve used Better Help and found an incredible therapist through them, and highly recommend them. But there are so many online services available.
There is, in my opinion, nothing better, than a qualified therapist working with a couple’s unique issues, personalities, and trigger points to figure out what needs the most attention and how to heal any pain or emotional anguish that’s been brought up.
If you have access to a qualified marriage and family therapist, one who can help you do some life transformative work GO TO THEM!
But until your appointment…
In this article, I want to break down what you might ACTUALLY need in anticipation to keep your marriage strong, after kids, through trauma and drama, even during a pandemic and everything in between.
Do not use this article as a replacement for marriage and therapy counseling.
Also, I highly suggest that you bookmark the psychology today website to find three local marriage and family therapists to call tomorrow. Or to ask three friends for three different referrals.
Three is the magic number obviously. But it’s also enough of a sample for you to meet with three different potential different styles of therapists. Here’s a great article about what to ask when searching for a therapist.
You need to feel confident and safe with someone and trust that they are going to help you do the life transformative work of therapy. (if you are there of course).
Not all therapists are created equal and having had one really mediocre one, one really incredible one, and then married one I can tell you that you’re going to want to spend the time meeting with potential therapists before you commit to one.
Most offer a free consultation (Including Better Help!)
You should feel a mixture of safety and like you’re in good hands, and also as if you can trust this otherwise stranger to hear some deep dark shit from the jump. If you don’t feel that way then try someone else.
Give a fuck about your marriage in this way so you can get to work repairing the potential damage and not have five or six months (or years!) under your belt where nothing has changed.
Give a fuck early in your search for help.
Then do the work.
Whew, that was, admittedly a bit of a tangent. But as the wife of a marriage and family therapist, and someone who has worked with a few outstanding ones, this is the best marriage advice you will get.
Hey, DGAF mom you have really strong opinions about marriage why are you qualified to write about this?!
And aren’t you just another random voice talking about it?
I’m so glad you asked!
I was in a really shit relationship once (not just a bad one)
For six years I was in a relationship with a man who was actively engaged in an addiction that I was completely unaware of (we lived together for five of the six years ya’ll. He was a master manipulator and expert at deception).
I wanted to marry him because I thought that’s what was next for us.
If he had proposed I would likely not be writing this blog and instead, be searching desperately for someone to help me in my marriage that is failing.
Once I learned the truth about his addiction, I dove into therapy with an expert in addiction and relationships and learned how much I contributed to the circumstances of our fucked-up relationship.
Turns out I’m a really good client too because I was 31 years old and had to come to terms with my role in why I chose him as a partner (hint, I had my own co-addiction issues) and needed help and was willing to accept it.
Like a lot of it.
After six months of therapy, I felt stronger, more in control of my life, and chose to end that relationship.
We continued to work together every week for a year and a half and I came out stronger, more confident, and ready to find real, honest, authentic love — which is what brought me to my hubby. Swoon.
But it’s not so easy as that.
The real work began the minute we were married.
We juggle work, kids, and life struggles (especially in a pandemic!)
It’s hard work.
My marriage requires attention.
As it so happens I married a marriage and family therapist, although he has excellent boundaries when it comes to “therapizing me.”
But nevertheless, he doesn’t give me a pass to have a meltdown or be passive-aggressive just because I feel like it.
He calls me on my shit and is available to help me recognize how my behavior affects him and our kids and together we’ve used tools we’ve both learned to navigate the complexity of marriage.
We always love each other.
Love is never an issue.
But marriage is different.
I’m walking the walk.
My marriage is NOT perfect.
We argue about finances, sex, how to parent the kids, our health, and stupid shit like keeping score of who does the laundry and the dishes better.
But it’s the HOW we argue that is different from many other couples.
Bottom line: I’ve done a lot of the leg work so that you don’t have to right now.
My hope is that you can read this article, walk away feeling a bit more empowered and that you have some actionable steps to feel stronger in your relationship and your life.
More Than Likely Your Marriage Will Be Okay
First the bad news about marriage. More than 45% of marriages are going to end in divorce.
Your risk for divorce is extremely high in the first two years of marriage. In fact, most marriages that fail (the top 11%) do so within the first two years:
But the good news is about 60% of marriages are doing pretty fucking awesome and that number seems to be growing and improving over time and perhaps may be due to the availability of more research, tools, and professionals to help couples communicate better.
I’m not going to make assumptions but I’m just gonna say that you’re probably going to be okay in your marriage. Probably.
Here’s some more real talk though: All the marriage advice in the world cannot prepare you for the war that you will go to to make sure your children are healthy, happy, and thriving.
Add to that your ability to sift through the societal pressure of being a parent in modern times and it’s no wonder that every single marriage doesn’t dissolve into a divorce puddle.
I see my friends and family not giving a fuck.
Or waiting too late to give a fuck.
And the fallout from that can be devastating, traumatic, and life-altering.
So I’m writing about this important topic in this capacity because perhaps you, my sweet reader, can benefit from the advice I feel I cannot bestow upon my close family and friends for fear of overstepping.
This video gives you three very practical tips for building a happy marriage BEFORE shit his the fan.
All The Bad Marriage Advice You’ve Probably Heard and What to Do Instead
Likely, without even asking for it, you were given some shitty marriage advice the second you got engaged by random people and probably even from some close respected family and friends.
Here’s a hit list of the shit people advise in those early, blissful days, that you may clock and put in your back pocket and think – this is important! I must remember this shit!
“Never go to bed angry”
“Always buy her flowers to keep her happy/when she’s upset”
“Don’t have a baby, it’s the worst thing for your marriage”
“Have a baby, it’s the best thing for your marriage”
(cute how these last two directly contradict each other right?)
“Marry someone who loves you more than you love them”
“Marry your opposite”
“No matter what happens, you need to stay together for your kids”
Has anyone told you any of the above advice?
Yes. There are some nuggets of truth about the above that rings true in strong marriages.
For example, my husband and I do have a no-going-to-bed-angry rule but it’s not what you think – spending hours when you’re exhausted arguing about whatever you’re arguing about till you work it out is not what it means.
Instead, we mutually agree to put a pause on the argument until we’re both rested and have a clearer mind. But we’ll get into that a bit more…
I will go to bed pissed as fuck at my husband. To the point, I would rather he sleep downstairs on the couch. But instead, I am violently conscious and aware of two things:
- Anything that we talk about after 9 PM is going to be emotionally charged because we are tired parents of two young children and we cannot think clearly to say what we really feel without hurting the other person’s feelings and making it worse.
- One of us almost always calls this out if we do get into an argument after 9 PM, and we immediately put a moratorium on talking about anything else until we’ve had a good night’s sleep.
So. Instead of continuing to berate each other for hours and exhaustive hours we agree to put a pause on this whole fucking debacle.
This requires a strong resolve because OOOOOhhhh to say what you really want to say and how angry you are in the moment can totally feel out of your control.
Like a caged animal ready to break free.
But instead, because we know that this kind of argument is dangerous and potentially destructive to our long term goal of keeping our marriage healthy, we pause.
We tell each other we love each other. And we agree to talk in the morning or tomorrow at some time that’s before 9 PM at night.
We are still angry, yes, but we’re giving grace to each other so that we can avoid making whatever petty argument we were having avoid turning into something worse.
Check out this post from She Knows about all the rest of the bull shit marriage advice you got at the jump (and why it was bad, and what to do instead).
What about the power of prayer in a marriage?
Search for marriage advice on Pinterest and you’re going to find a lot of content from Christian mommy bloggers.
As a non-practicing agnostic Jew, I found this curious.
I needed to know:
a) what’s this magical advice that the Christians have figured out to keep their marriage strong and also
b) what is going on because it’s my understanding that more Christians than any other religion tend to get divorced in higher numbers (particularly if they are conservative Christians, born again, or evangelical).
What’s happening here?
After reading through dozens of articles touting “the one thing you need to say to your husband to keep your marriage strong” and “how to make sure your marriage survives after kids” and “the three questions you need to ask your husband” I started to notice a theme in the content.
The advice was almost always centered around prayer and a connection to Jesus.
Ask him how you can be praying for him.
Find time to pray together.
Connect with Jesus together.
Ask your husband how does he love Jesus, etc.
I can see why connecting to Jesus or asking how you can pray for your husband feels like it should make sense.
But I’m removing the filter of Jesus and God and Prayer and instead of seeing it for what it is:
These Christian wives (they are always the wives btw. I have yet to find a Christian male writer offering up this advice for how they should keep their marriage intact which is another soapbox for another time) are using the common language of their religion as a tool to find a connection with their partner.
And at the end of the day connection is all we want right?
If only it was so easy.
(The below is from her Instagram account.
If you’re not familiar with who she is, she’s a popular Christian mommy blogger who rose to fame as an author and, among many other things, promoted the power of prayer as a way of improving her relationships. She also used her marriage as an example for hundreds of paying clientele who attended workshops paying top dollar, countless book sales, and more. While I commend her for making a difficult choice and doing so SO publicly, I can’t help but feel empathy for her fans who looked up to her for years and may feel deceived by the promises she made and the advice she gave.)
This article gives a great breakdown as to what might have happened behind the scenes.
Guys, I have some hard news to share and the honest truth is, I have no idea how someone announces something like this, so I’m just going to say it. Dave and I have made the incredibly difficult decision to end our marriage. We started out as best friends 18 years ago and the truth is, that core friendship and the parts of us that work so well, have become a band-aid for the parts of us that don’t. We have worked endlessly over the last three years to make this work and have come to the conclusion that it is healthier and more respectful for us to choose this as the end of our journey as a married couple. We remain dear friends as we raise our family as co-parents and run our company as partners. We are choosing joy-even though, I’ll be honest, the last month has been one of the most awful of our lives. I want to be strong and bold and optimistic for you now, but every ounce of my energy is reserved in being those things for my children. That said, having been such an open book to this beloved community, we hope that you can allow us a human moment. We hope you can understand our need to process these changes away from social media. We graciously ask that you respect our privacy so we can focus on what matters most, our four kids and the next chapter of what our family looks like now.
So how does prayer become the one piece of marriage advice you need to know?
It’s a band-aid.
Prayer is not conflict resolution.
It may make you feel better, temporarily. But it won’t fix your marriage.
No matter how hard or how much you pray or how deep that belief goes, if your dude is stonewalling (we’ll get to that) you can pray all day long, but he’s still gonna stonewall.
Conflict in Marriage is Good. Conflict Can be Healthy.
We live in a society that frowns on conflict.
We’re often afraid of dealing with a mouthy co-worker or engaging with someone who’s an asshole on a train or in a restaurant.
It’s our American nature to not want to rock the boat too much. To leave things well enough alone.
The truth is conflict, if nurtured in the right way, can be hella healthy.
How you navigate conflict, talk things through, and come out on the other side will almost always make your relationship feel stronger and closer.
In my family of origin, we have a tendency to not want to talk about hard things.
Hard things like a sick and dying father. Hard things like a relative who’s clearly heading for divorce.
On the one hand, this is a protective measure: by not talking about these things we’re keeping ourselves (and our feelings and emotions) safe.
But in not talking about things that are difficult, such as a dying father, in real emotional terms we suppress the feelings and emotions and they just sit there, rotting in our body until we find another way to release them.
For some, this may mean turning to drugs, alcohol, food, or sex which are often the classic acting out symptoms of someone in pain.
But there are other more subtle ways that this pain can show up: Obsessively cleaning or organizing (or as I like to call it, rage cleaning!), becoming pre-occupied with planning trips, vacations, or other events for your family.
If you are reading this and are starting to recognize yourself in what I’m saying, please ask around and find a qualified marriage and family therapist to help you work through whatever you’re going through.
You don’t learn how to drive on your own, you usually have SOMEONE teach you how to maneuver the machine.
Let a qualified professional help guide you and teach you the necessary tools to help you navigate your shit storm of emotions.
As my husband likes to say, let’s be mammals.
We often feel that by withholding or feelings, we are protecting one another, but in actuality, we are making things worse for everyone involved in the long term.
Check out this article from Psychology Today about what happens when we bury our feelings.
The Four Horsemen of the Marriage Apocalypse
Much like going to bed angry and saying some stupid shit that punches your marriage in the gut it’s important that you know about the four horsemen of the marriage apocalypse.
Hey, DGAF mom, you sound pretty fucking dramatic right now.
Yep. Get your mind wrapped around these four conditions that will almost guarantee that your marriage will end in divorce.
Let me introduce you to Dr. John Gottman on an episode of Anderson Cooper several years ago.
Coined by renowned psychologist and relationship expert, John Gottman, the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse consist of the following stages:
He talks about all four of these in the video above along with some other very insightful marriage advice.
I’m going to get into a bit more about what each of these means, but TYPICALLY these four behaviors go in order.
I have definitely fallen into the criticism category in my own marriage not even realizing it at the time and it takes a strong man to not come back at me with his own criticism as a reaction.
This is the first of the four horsemen because it’s typically the first behavior that comes up when couples are in conflict.
Criticism means to attack your partner’s personality or their character rather than the behavior. “Why are you so fucking lazy all the time” is an example.
Gottman recommends using “I” statements instead to re-frame the behavior: “It’s really frustrating to me when you don’t help around the house. It makes me feel like I’m doing all of the work and I feel exhausted and tired and alone.”
This allows you to talk about your problem but without criticizing your partner to detrimental effect.
This is the second horsemen (and they do tend to go in this order for what it’s worth).
When criticism builds…it boils over into defensiveness.
Defensiveness is almost a go-to move when you’re in conflict with a partner. I do it ALL the time.
The second my husband points out something I instantly become defensive because this is a way of protecting myself.
The issue is made worse when I dig in about this defensiveness.
That is, when you engage in being defensive, you essentially block out what your partner is saying because you’re too busy making excuses for the behavior by either blaming your partner or not taking responsibility for your role in the conflict.
Rolling your eyes, sneering, using humor to “get back” at your partner is a clear example of contempt.
You show contempt by showing blatant disrespect for your partner.
It can be so hard to not roll your eyes when your husband does something you deem idiotic but try to be aware of the behavior (and how detrimental it can be to your marriage) and use your words to express how you feel, rather than acting passive-aggressively about it.
This also requires that you check your own emotions.
If you’re consistently rolling your eyes about something your partner did, and then bitching about it on social media, or texting your friends about what an idiot your spouse is, this isn’t going to go well for you.
And while, yes, he may be doing something dumb, there is something about giving grace to a person that you supposedly love that is worth taking a look at.
He may not know what he’s doing is dumb.
He may be doing it in the same way you are rolling your eyes, to show you contempt.
Either way, if you don’t check yourself in this department you are most likely heading toward…
This is the last stage of the four horsemen and it’s typically the most dangerous (and the most likely sign that your relationship is headed to divorce).
According to Gottman, Couples who regularly practice stonewalling are the most likely to get divorced.
What is stonewalling?
Stonewalling is when you or your partner becomes non-responsive.
Men typically stonewall as a response to feeling overwhelmed.
Women tend to be more open to “talking about things” to a point of exhaustion and this can prompt a partner to walk away from the conversation (although this is certainly not limited to a woman/man dynamic it can be the other way around too).
When couples practice stonewalling they are regularly shutting down and removing themselves from the relationship.
They are choosing to leave, instead of staying and confronting discomfort and doing the work.
If you and your partner are participating in any of the above scenarios (or all of them) here’s the marriage advice you need:
Please find a qualified marriage and family therapist to help you work through your communication and conflict issues.
You cannot do this alone.
And if you do value your marriage, it’s important that you find someone who can help you navigate the turmoil and baggage you’ve been carrying.
If therapy feels hard and uncomfortable, and you find yourself crying more than anything else, you’ve probably found a fantastic guide to help give you tools to repair your relationship.
Hot tip – nearly all of the best therapists don’t bother with insurance (I know. It’s frustrating. and mental health care is so undervalued in this country.)
If you’re lucky to find a strong therapist who takes insurance wooooo hooo! Never miss an appointment. Like ever.
It’s been my experience, however, that the need for quality therapy is so great that many of the best therapists won’t bother with insurance (because it’s a giant pain in the ass) and can instead fill an entire roster and a waiting list with people who are willing to pay top dollar.
So What Do You Do Now?
If you’ve made it all the way to the end of this post, odds are solid that you’re connecting with a lot of what is written above.
And I see you.
I’ve been there.
Not in a marriage but in a failing relationship that I was in for 6.5 years.
And all the wishing, hoping, praying, negotiating couldn’t change anything until I spent some time in a room (either in person or virtually) talking to a professional and learning how to reconcile how I’d gotten there in the first place.
Be gentle with yourself.
You are a human who loves and feels and needs things.
Spend some time finding a therapist you connect with that can help you figure out strategies for communicating effectively.
At the bare minimum, talk to your spouse about the above 4 horsemen. And maybe have him sit and watch that video (it’s only 4 minutes long.)
This is the beginning. I’m sending you all the healing for a life transformative and revolutionary reinvention of yourself from now on.
Good luck. I hope you’re staying safe and healthy.