I’m now on day six of little sleep. I feel like my brain is wrapped in heavy wool. I can only hold onto tiny scraps of patience for my boys and none whatsoever for my spouse, Bill. And my usual soft spoken demeanor is replaced by a potty-mouthed, irritable shrew. I feel like I’ve lost several layers of socialization and this, as you can expect, wreaks a wee bit of havoc on my marriage.
I commented to my husband this morning that every rough patch in our relationship corresponds to a time when I’m not sleeping well. When he asked me what that means exactly, I didn’t have an answer other than a random fact pulled up from a dim corner of my brain: correlation does not imply causation. When he looked at me weirdly, I shrugged. I’m in an insomnia-induced brain fog; nothing makes sense.
But there is some truth to the causation comment. In the past, I was so willing to take the blame for the problems that arose in my marriage (well, maybe not on the outside in the midst of an argument but definitely on the inside where self blame and shame made themselves at home.) Owning the responsibility for all of the problems in my relationship was like wearing an itchy, too tight sweater, all day long. I wove this “I Suck Sweater” from my beliefs of what a good mom should do, what a good wife does, and my outfit was decorated with buttons of all of the ways that I fell short.
Years ago, when the kids were more like slightly domesticated raccoons than small people, Bill and I fell into a dark place in our marriage. We began couples counseling, which helped our marriage a lot - especially because we found a wonderful therapist who made it abundantly clear that not one person is responsible for all of the problems in a marriage.
The problems in a marriage are always the product of the two people in it. Think of it like weaving fabric with two different kinds of fiber - it's the dynamic of the two of you coming together, trying to blend, adjusting to tension within and outside your relationship. Sometimes the yarn gets snarled. Moving forward and making changes means untangling the knots together.
Renowned relationship expert and psychologist John Gottman, recommends five activities to help knit couples together. He calls this solution The Magic Five Hours because they add up to about five hours spent on smoothing and strengthen your marriage throughout each week.
1. Partings - Before you say goodbye each morning, learn one thing that is happening in your partner’s day.
2. Reunions - At the end of the day, have a conversation with your spouse that eases stress for both of you.
3. Admiration and appreciation - Communicate genuine appreciation toward your partner every day.
4. Affection - Give loving physical affection to each other and end each day with a kiss. Infuse your kiss with tenderness and forgiveness for any snarls that happened that day.
5. Weekly date - Schedule time each week for time to turn toward each other. Bill and I have a coffee date almost every Friday morning when we talk about dreams and goals, upcoming plans and vacations, parenting issues, and other topics. Our weekly date helps us to work through issues before they become big problems.
“Marriages aren’t healed with big things; they’re healed with small things done every day,” writes Dr. Kelly Flanagan, psychologist who writes eloquently about relationships in his Untangled blog. “They aren’t healed by doing new things. They’re healed by doing old things we used to do and quit doing somewhere along the way. And, if we can set aside our ego for a little while, we don’t need anyone to tell us what those things are. We already know.”
I do already know. Bill does, too. Today I put an I’m sorry post-it note in his lunch. A couple of days ago, he sent me an Ed Sheeran music video that reminded him of us. We're working through some bumps and snarls in our relationship and we'll wind our way through this rough patch together. But no matter what we weave with our strengths and our weaknesses, what we make from our joys and our sorrows, and what we do with the good and the ugly, it won't ever be that sweater.
Kathleen Harper is a certified life coach who works with moms to help them untangle the knots and smooth out the rough patches in their lives. The topic of this month's Saturday Sanctuary group, which brings a small group of moms together for conversation, community, and crafts, is focused on relationships. (Find out more about this month's Sanctuary here.) In addition to leading the Sanctuary groups, Kathleen talks with moms in one-on-one sessions and gives presentations at new parent support groups, mothers’ groups, and other organizations. If you're interested in finding out more or scheduling a free 30-minute (non-salesy) sample session, please send an email or fill out this form to get started.