marriage

  • I Stopped Believing In Fairy Tales When Natalie Wood Died

    By Kristina Wright

    Natalie Wood

    I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman when Natalie Wood drowned under mysterious circumstances.

    High school was a different world than middle school had been, a world where I discovered how to flirt and date and daydreamed about the prince who would be my boyfriend.

    My mother shared her love of Natalie Wood with me—she introduced me to Wood’s films like Rebel Without a Cause and, her favorite, Splendor in the Grass. Mom identified with Natalie Wood, probably because she watched Wood grow up over the course of her film career. They also shared the same long dark hair and high cheekbones, and my mother often commented that my stepfather looked like Robert Wagner, Wood’s husband. My mother and I watched Hart to Hart together, the cheesy detective show that starred an aging Wagner opposite the younger Stephanie Powers. Mom had a school girl-like crush on Wagner and he was a father figure to me–handsome, charming and kind—far from the father I had.

    I never saw my mother read a novel, but every week she would bring home tabloids like The Enquirer and Star and sit at the kitchen table chain smoking while she read bits of gossip to me as I did my homework. Hollywood romances were something my mother seemed to envy, and Wood and Wagner were one of several couples she followed in the rags.

    When news broke of Wood’s death by drowning, I was shocked and saddened in a personal way only a teenage girl can be. I felt like I knew her, this beautiful, ethereal actress who wasn’t much older than my own mother, and I was sad for her handsome husband and the heartbreak he must be experiencing.

    My mother’s reaction shocked me even more than Wood’s death. She said something, offhand and matter-of-factly, with such utter conviction that it changed my attitude toward men and relationships forever.

    She told me she thought Robert Wagner had killed his wife. When I asked her how she could even think that, she simply said, “I just know.”

    My mother felt this way because of her own tumultuous experiences with men, including the only man I ever knew as my father. She was already a mother when she met my stepfather at the bar where she worked, having gotten pregnant with me over the course of an affair with a man who hadn’t bothered to tell her he was married.

    It took me four decades to piece together what little I know about my biological father, because my mother would never tell me and I learned it was best not to ask. But I do know that within months of having me, she met and married the man who would become my stepfather, guaranteeing a financial stability she could never provide on her own. Security came with a steep price: my stepfather was an alcoholic who could be both verbally and physically abusive when he drank. But no one outside our home new the truth. Oh, they knew he drank too much, but they didn’t now about the fighting, the holes in the walls, the broken glasses or name calling.

    I insulated myself from the truth about my parents by telling myself it wasn’t normal—their fighting, the holes in the walls, the way he’d roughly handle her even in front of me, the names he called her—it was all an anomaly as far as my young heart was concerned.

    No one knew what went on behind our closed door. I wouldn’t tell anyone the truth until I was much older. I was embarrassed and ashamed, yes, but I also wanted to believe that stuff only happened in our house. I had nothing to compare it to and it was easier to believe in fairy tale romances like Wood’s and Wagner’s than to believe the reality I lived with every day.

    But then Natalie Wood died and my mother uttered her proclamation that she thought Robert Wagner had killed Natalie Wood, and something broke inside me. I understood—and wholly believed for the first time in my life—that men could, and do, commit horrible crimes against the women they are supposed to love and no one knows what goes on behind those closed doors, either.

    My mother’s instinctive response to Natalie Wood’s death left me jaded about romance long before I ever put on my first prom gown. If my mother believed a seemingly amiable man could kill his wife, then I no longer felt like I could trust the charming boys whose popularity carried more weight than the whispered rumors of the things they did to the girls they dated. I studied the behavior of the boys I knew for signs they weren’t the nice guys they seemed to be. I wanted there to be a way to know who I could trust, since the only man in my life was abusive toward my mother and I’d come to understand he wasn’t an anomaly at all.

    I was the friend who cautioned about going off alone with a boy, the one who saw malicious possibility in any potential romantic gesture. I can’t help but wonder if I saved myself from more than heartache by relinquishing my faith in the fairy tale.

    As women’s voices have become amplified recently, through hashtag movements that didn’t exist in 1981, or even 2001, I haven’t been shocked to read the allegations made against any celebrity, whether I’ve liked their work or not.

    My mother has been gone for over a decade, but I know she’d believe the stories of women who are brave enough to speak them because she had more than her share of #metoo and #yesallmen stories that were never told outside our house, and likely many stories she never even told me.

    When I saw the news recently that Robert Wagner had been named a “person of interest” in the decades’ old case of Natalie Wood’s death, all I could hear was my mother’s voice in my head saying, “I told you so.”

    The twist in the tale is that I found my fairy tale, quite by accident. Like my mother, I married a man I had only known a few months. Unlike my mother’s marriage, however, there was no abuse. No holes in the wall. No drunken rages.

    Was it luck, or all those years of carefully watching men and measuring their actions against their words? I don’t know. Likewise, we may never know what really happened that night in 1981 when Natalie Wood went into the water off the coast of Catalina. But for my mother, who could not name the abuse that was happening to her, it was a validation of sorts. It was one more way in which she felt connected to an actress whose life she had once coveted.

    “No man is safe,” she told me throughout my childhood. It messed me up, my mother’s skewed and bitter view of relationships, even though I understood why she felt the way she did. It took me years to believe there was such a thing as a good guy—a really good guy—and that was only because I had married a man who managed to gain my trust and show me what my mother had taught me was, if not wrong, at least not always right. Some men are safe, some men are good, and sometimes the fairy tale does come true.

     

    Kristina WrightKristina Wright lives in Virginia with her husband, their two sons, a dog, two cats and a parrot. She’s a regular contributor to Mom.me and BookBub and her work has appeared in dozens of other publications including Washington Post, USA Today, Narratively, Cosmopolitan and Mental Floss. She holds a B.A. in Literature, a M.A. in Humanities and loves reading, going to movies, baking bread and planning family trips where everyone has fun and no one complains. Oh, and she really loves coffee. You can find her at the nearest coffee shop or on Twitter @kristinawright.

  • When Dual Unemployment Tests a Marriage

    Unemployment is stressful for a family, and for a marriage. When a spouse is unemployed, conflict and resentment can easily find its way into even the strongest marriage. What happens when both spouses are unemployed? Liz Alterman tells the story of the impact of unemployment on her marriage.

     

    dual unemployment

     

    I’ll probably never be able to explain why, when the phone rang in my otherwise-quiet suburban kitchen on a crisp November day in 2013, I experienced a sickening sense of unease. And yet, there it was, along with its accomplices: the galloping heart rate, sleeves of goosebumps, and instant Velcro tongue.

    Working from home as a writer who frequently focuses on food and restaurants, I tell time in relation to meals. It was after breakfast but before lunch when I heard the seemingly-innocuous electronic bleating that signaled my life was about to change. My husband’s cell phone number flickered in the caller ID window.

    “Why isn’t he calling from his desk?” I wondered casually before issuing my standard, “Hey, what’s up?”

    “Hey!” he said, winded yet keyed up like a post-race marathon runner. “I’ve got some good news and I’ve got some bad news.”

    When someone tells you this, typically both pieces of news are pretty lousy. What they should say is: “I’ve got some awful news and some mildly terrible news.” Or they could just come out with it and spare you the suspense.

    “I’ve. Been. Laid. Off.”

    My husband’s words spooled out long and slow and I felt them spread over me hot and itchy like a sudden allergic rash. “Are you there?” he asked.

    “Yes. I’m here,” I managed, my tongue lazy and slow to form this simple sentence.

    “Listen. Everything is going to be fine,” he assured me. “They’ve given me a generous severance package and we’ll have health care coverage for the next year.”

    Ah, the good news: health care coverage. I pictured our three children — all boys, ages 11, 8, and 6 at the time— always one monkey bar or trampoline accident away from a dreaded trip to the ER. I cringed as if I could hear their small bones snapping in advance.

    “Where are you?” I asked, picturing him standing on the corner of 59th and Lexington holding a cardboard box that contained the contents of his career, a silver-framed photo of our boys in their most recent Halloween costumes poking up from the corner.

    “Penn Station,” he said, his voice evening out and taking on a decidedly upbeat tone that immediately plunged me into despair. “I’m going to grab some pizza and I’ll be on the next train.”

    Irrationally, my first thought was: “Now is not the time to splurge on overpriced slices of Sicilian. You’re unemployed!”

    He hadn’t been happy at his job in a long time and lay-offs had become as insidious as the corporate jargon with which those proverbial pink slips were delivered. Still, we hadn’t seen this coming. Nor did I expect him to appear as elated as a frat boy en route to spring break when I picked him up from the train station an hour later.

    In the days that followed, he was euphoric. A bear sprung from a trap, delighted by his newfound freedom. I was panicked. A deer during hunting season.

    My own job as the editor of a local news website had been dangling over a precipice for months. I’d watched as talented colleagues were picked off sometimes en masse and, on other occasions, in tiny clusters akin to a reality show-style culling.

    Six weeks after my husband was let go, I, too, lost my job via an impersonal group conference call in which all those who dialed in were dismissed.

    Struggling to absorb the shock, my husband and I stared at each other in disbelief.

    How did we end up here?

    The old “I married you for better or worse but not for lunch!” had come decades early for us. I wanted to believe that if we’d been younger, we’d have rented out our home, traveled the world, and embarked on the adventure of a lifetime. I pictured us sampling Saganaki in Santorini, Flamenco dancing in Barcelona, dozing under the stars, aglow with the lack of responsibility.

    But, in reality, we had children, a mortgage, and our next career moves to consider. We couldn’t afford the luxury of a respite from real life.

    So, rather than falling deeper in love gazing into each other’s eyes as we cruised the Greek Isles, we started sleeping back to back, staring at opposing walls, a squall of terrible “what if”s swirling between us. And so we began the slow, awkward dance of reinventing ourselves in our mid-40s.

    Unlike the ease we experienced when selecting a sofa or agreeing on an appetizer, we were of two very different mindsets when it came to job hunting. I believed it was a numbers game and applied to every possible opening.

    My husband, on the other hand, needed to be coaxed into even reading a position’s requirements before ultimately deciding it wasn’t a “good fit.” His severance package lulled him into a false sense of security. I feared we were destined for the same fate as professional athletes and lottery winners who squander their windfalls only to look back in horror at their carelessness.

    Neither of us was accustomed to the “new” job market where applications requested that you include your personal theme song along with your resume. We weren’t prepared to “wow” anyone in 140 characters or less merely to score a phone interview.

    I was willing to play along to avoid packing up and moving the five of us into my parents’ home where we’d be forced to cram inside my childhood bedroom, a sad, impromptu slumber party. But my husband, with almost two decades of impressive experience at a major financial news organization, was not as game. And that was when our previously amicable relationship began to grow tense and surface-y.

    Our mutual unemployment — and the way we intended to address it — created a constant unspoken divide, one that grew wider by the day.

    We grieved our losses in different ways. I accepted every freelance gig that came my way, writing like a poor man’s Jack Kerouac on a Benzedrine binge, while my husband folded laundry and told me he’d think about looking for a job “later.” His heavy sighing became the unpleasant soundtrack to my days, as jarring and irritating as microphone feedback.

    I’d heard people say that the secret to not getting divorced is never falling out of love simultaneously. But here’s a loophole: It’s actually OK to fall out of love at the same time as long as neither of you has any other prospects and nowhere else to go.

    As weeks slipped into months, I grew certain there were times when we despised each other as our situation brought to the surface all the things we secretly hated about each other and ourselves.

    I was impatient; he was apathetic.

    I needed to talk things through; he chose to brood in sullen silence. I was frugal; he was a spendthrift. Previously, no matter what came our way in 13 years of marriage — sewage pipes backing up into our basement, eccentric aging parents, middle of the night trips to the ER when the kids awoke with croup that couldn’t be helped by that old steam shower trick — we’d always been a team. This was breaking us. Yet, we felt tremendously unlovable, so it seemed imperative that we find our way back to each other. We were all we had.

    On good days, we consoled one another as our phones pinged, indicating more rejection emails. On bad ones, we had terse disagreements while the kids were at school in which I nagged him to complete more applications while he barked back that he was “networking,” a euphemism for falling down Facebook’s rabbit hole.

    Six months into my search, I found a job. It seemed like a great opportunity and my husband was thrilled for me. When it turned out to be a bit of a bait-and-switch situation — but one that I was stuck in until something better came along — he comforted me and corralled the kids, my very own cheerleading squad, as I wept fountains of hopelessness in my laptop at our dining room table.

    It took eight additional months before he landed in a new position. Things felt hopeful for the first time in 16 months. It seemed somehow our sinking ship had righted itself and corrected course. Yet we were still tentative around each other, weathered from the storm.

    As we found our way back to each other, we learned that love and romance have nothing to do with a fresh bouquet of tulips “just because” or a bottle of wine shared over a pricey meal. It is found in showing up during the rough patches that gut you and make you ugly and mean. It is rooted in not walking away when, in fact, you feel like running. It is hidden in swallowing the snarky comment or expletive on the tip of your tongue, knowing it can’t be unspoken. It lies in small gestures on bad days, a cup of coffee and a kind word on a difficult afternoon.

    Almost a year to the day after he started his new job, my husband was let go in yet another reorganization. We have been thrown back into the sea of uncertainty and forced to wade through it again. “This is the new economy,” we are told. Restructuring is the new armband tattoo.

    But we have been here before and we will survive it once more, hopefully, stronger for the experience.

     

    Liz AltermanLiz Alterman has been writing in print and online for 20 years, covering an array of topics from real estate and the royal family to personal finance and parenting for outlets such as CNBC.com and The New York Times. She recently completed a memoir chronicling her adventures in unemployment. She maintains a blog, On the Balls of Our A$$ets, where you can follow her forays in underachieving. 

     

  • HerTake: Should an Ambivalent Wife Leave Her Marriage?

    When should a midlife woman leave her marriage?

    HerTake Nina Badzin

    During the HerStories Project relaunch, we announced that Gen X women at midlife is the new focus for essays and classes at our site. The relaunch included a call for questions for our resident advice columnist, Nina Badzin, that goes beyond friendship dilemmas. Although Nina will take questions related to friendship as they pertain to midlife women, we couldn’t think of a more representative dilemma for our site’s relaunch than the one presented in the question below.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here.  

    Dear Nina,

    I’ve been married to my college boyfriend for almost 20 years, and we have two kids — a teen and a tween. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve been experiencing a mid-life crisis in good and bad ways. One of the good ways is that I have a sense of this being a turning point where I can let go of past failures and insecurity and move forward with a better sense of myself.

    An uncomfortable symptom of this sense is that I’ve become more and more aware of disappointment in my marriage. My husband is a nice guy and an excellent provider and (I’m pretty sure) has always been faithful. But I think I knew early on in our relationship that we had very different interests. In recent years, he has gotten more intensely interested in three (count ’em, THREE) different hobbies. When I ask him to go on a date or do something with the family, it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.

    We have been in and out of marriage counseling and recently ended therapy because I was feeling like what I really wanted was for my husband to be a different person with different priorities. Even when he tries hard to be a good husband and dad (which he sometimes does), I feel like he’s doing it out of obligation, not enjoyment or interest. In our last session, he admitted that he was probably never going to value his relationships as much as his hobbies.

    Although I’ve worked part-time for most of our kids’ lives, I’m currently not working. I enjoy being able to devote time to family and volunteer work, and the thought of going back to work full time makes me nervous about work/life balance…especially because my fields of interest and experience are not very lucrative.

    I’m struggling with whether to stay in the marriage or not. On the one hand, I so often feel disappointed by the lack of interest and intimacy in our marriage. And I worry that our lukewarm relationship is not a great role model for our kids. There’s rarely real conflict between us, but sometimes I’m sure they sense disconnection and resentment.

    On the other hand, we have a good symbiotic relationship: He makes a comfortable living for us and has time left over for his hobbies. I enjoy taking care of the household and family relationships and not worrying about money.

    Should I leave my husband and change the entire dynamic of my family, with no guarantee that things won’t be worse for all of us? (The thought of living, even part-time, away from our kids and pets, is horrifying to me…and I would almost certainly end up with a lot more economic insecurity.) Or do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?

    Thank you,

    Ambivalent Wife

     

    Dear Ambivalent Wife,

    I let this question sit in my inbox for weeks. It’s one thing to opine on the safe terrain of friendships. Yes, friendship problems lend themselves to permanently hurt feelings, resentment, and disappointment. (See the many variations of friendship dilemmas I answered right here.) But hard as it is to hear this truth when we’re upset about a faltering friendship—we can replace the hole left by a friendship disappointment with another friend. And we all get to have more than one close friend at a time.

    Spouses are (obvious statement alert) not so simple to replace, especially spouses with whom we’re currently raising children. Which is not to say you should stay. And marriages 20 years in the running with long-held resentments are not so simple to change. Which is not to say you should leave.

    Let me be clear: Other than situations of abuse in any form whatsoever, I would never outright tell someone to leave a marriage. But I’m also not going to tell someone who seems to see her husband as a roommate, at best, that staying is the only choice.

    You were brave to share your situation and give voice to a reality felt by plenty of couples who’ve been together for two decades or more. (Or less!)

    While I cannot give a direct answer—really, how could I?—I’d like to at least further the conversation you started and encourage other HerStories readers to add their thoughts.

    I suspect many people reading your letter will come down in one of three camps.

    #1. Life is short and you should leave him.

    #2. You should stay, at least for now.

    #3. You need more information from yourself, from your husband, and for sure a new marriage counselor.

    Let’s start with the temptation to leave.

    I think the fantasy of starting over with a new partner with all the self-knowledge we’ve earned in two decades of adulthood is relatable.

    I personally have a recurring dream of going back to high school or college with the 41-year-old version of comfort in my skin I enjoy now. Would I have made vastly different choices as this version of myself? Would I have put up with less from other people and experienced less self-doubt at every turn? I suspect the answer to all of the above is yes, but I’m also glad I went through those growing pains. Weren’t those awkward and sometimes painful experiences all necessary to make me the person I am now? But those are just dreams. Let’s get back to reality.

    You asked at the end, “Do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?” I wonder if defining and analyzing your “deepest desires” is a good place to start. Have you adequately reflected on how realistic those desires are? Are they reasonable enough to find? Is there already someone out there you have in mind? Whatever those desires are—sexually or otherwise—are they sustainable for, say, two decades with someone new? The answer may be—yes. I cannot say.

    The rest of my answer will combine options two and three, not because I think staying is the only option, but I do think it’s one to consider.

    Judging your husband based only on your letter, I’d say, yeah, he has tons of work to do. But I want to defend him on one of your biggest complaints. You said, “ . . . it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.”

    I bet my husband could say the same about me, and yet, I know I’m a very dedicated mother and wife. I am physically where I need to be for them. Most of the time, I’m emotionally there, too.

    But at 10:00 at night when all the kids are finally in bed, I can’t say I’m terribly enthused when my husband wants to talk to me just as I’ve sat down to read, write, or watch a show. (In other words, I wouldn’t mind if he had three hobbies to call on in that exact moment.) I can’t say when I jot down the many dates of my kids’ games, activities, and school events, that I don’t sometimes sigh and panic about all the time parenting requires. I can’t say I don’t sometimes wonder, aloud, in front of my husband, when my life will feel like mine again. I know he wishes I had a cheerier attitude about all the transporting and face-showing that comes with parenting. I know, for a fact, that he doesn’t love it when I text him self-pitying notes letting him know I am once again cancelling an appointment or interrupting my work time to pick up a kid at school who convinced the school nurse she has a stomachache.

    I could go on and on.

    You said your husband is generally a good husband and dad, but it bothers you that he seems to show up out of obligation. I guess I feel like by that standard I am not a good mom and wife, and I know that is simply not true.

    And now for some meatier advice, I’m sharing my mom’s email to me about your letter because my mom is smart, has been married to my dad for 52 years, and has successfully added her two cents to some of the friendship letters on this site. 

    Here’s Kathy, my mom, writing to me about you.

    I think Ambivalent Wife’s feelings are very understandable and common for someone married around 20 years. Some people call it the second seven-year itch. Many women feel “disappointment” in their spouse at this time of life. It doesn’t seem like this is what we signed up for when we first got married. I had those exact feelings at her age, though divorce did not occur to me. I felt Dad was unavailable in a lot of ways—busy at work, traveling, playing tennis twice a week. The way I got through it was to find something for me that did not include him or the children. I was about Ambivalent Wife’s age when I took a course and started a consulting business. The business was time-consuming and removed me from my daily life into a different universe. Finding something that was just mine and completely absorbing was a good way for me to get through the rough times.

    There are things we do not know about this marriage. We do not know whether there are big communication issues, whether there is still a sex life for this couple, and if they even still like each other. Assuming that he is not abusing her, does not have another woman, and does not have a severe emotional problem, there might be some good reasons to stay in this marriage, or at least consider options and issues that might occur if she were to leave.

    First, if she goes, she will have to work, and it doesn’t sound like she has or had a career. Second, her children’s lives will be completely disrupted, and does she really think the grass is greener anywhere else? Third, a continuation of item two, another man her age will also be busy with work and hobbies and may have his own children.

    She might consider finding wonderful new hobbies for herself, especially now that her kids are older. She should also maintain close relationships with her friends. There is no substitute for long-time women friends.

    The divorced women I know left for the following reasons:

    1. Another woman
    2. Severe emotional problems such as untreated mood disorders.
    3. Terrible communication problems. For example, one woman told me if she and her husband disagreed about something, he would not speak to her for a week or more. I asked her, “Not even pass the salt or pass the pepper?” She said not even that. She found that intolerable.
    4. Another friend said her husband worked long hours. When he came home, all he did was criticize everything she did from the smallest housekeeping issue to other things. No detail was too small for him to criticize, and she felt demoralized all the time.

    I don’t think any one person can advise another to get a divorce. I hope that Ambivalent Wife explores some other options for herself before deciding to leave her husband. Lots of couples have different hobbies. That can make a marriage more interesting. In my opinion she needs to find an activity that consumes her before deciding her next step.

    Love, Mom

    Okay, I’m back. And I will only add that as someone married for over 17 years who is surrounded by friends married for around that same length of time, I promise you are not alone, which does not make your next step any easier.

    But I do feel comfortable saying that the status quo is not an option.

    Maybe, once you find a new marriage counselor, you can bring your letter to me with you and read it aloud. That might be a good place to begin (again) to work towards a happier marriage, if that is possible with him.

    Wishing you peace whatever you decide to next,

    Nina

    Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a writing workshop instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis as well as ModernWell’s book club host. She has been the advice columnist for the HerStories Project for three years. Learn more about Nina at her website.

  • Is New Parenthood Making Your Marriage Miserable? How To Help Your Marriage Survive the Transition

    Have you ever heard another mom gush, “Becoming parents has made our relationship so much more fulfilling!” Did you want to slap her? Did you question her sanity and/or honesty? Becoming a mother is one of the most significant transitions a woman can experience, and it changes virtually every aspect of her life:  her career, her self-image, her friendships, her mental health, and her body.

    One of the most substantial adjustments, often overlooked, is the profound impact that parenthood has on a couple’s marriage. Many women may assume that having children will primarily strengthen and enhance their marriage, and they are consequently surprised when parenting takes a toll on their relationships.  In the research literature, the decline in marital happiness following the birth of a child has been well-documented. (Marital happiness is high immediately after the wedding, and then declines after a child is born.  It peaks again when children leave the home.)

    Jessica and I talked to mothers this week about how the transition to parenthood has affected their marriage. As it turns out, the women that we spoke to have a lot to say on this subject. Here are a few of these women’s reflections about marriage and parenthood:

    •  I feel that parenthood has made us stronger and yet more distant.
    •  Having a child has definitely been the hardest thing on our marriage, hands down.
    • I miss my husband, and yet I feel even more tender towards him after seeing him with our daughter.
    • After a stressful day staying at home with my kids, all I want is for my husband to come home and take over. But I know that he’s at work dealing with stress, and all he wants to do is come home and relax in front of the TV a little. We both want peace and quiet, but for either of us to have it, the other has to NOT have it.
    • The darkest point for us in our marriage was about six months ago, when for the first time, I actually could see why people get divorced after having kids. As amazing as our child is, he was becoming like a wedge between us. We were exhausted, stressed, and overwhelmed.
    • It’s amazing the intensity of the anger and the intensity of the love felt for one person – and sometimes even in the same moment.

    When it comes to identifying the emotional effect of parenthood on marriage, the range  is staggering. Mothers feel everything from “becoming parents has brought us closer together,” to “I am so frustrated with my husband that now I understand why people divorce after having children.” Some of the recurring challenges we’ve heard about (and experienced ourselves!) are:

    • difficulty making time together
    • differences in style, such as parenting choices, coping skills, and communication styles
    • struggles with navigating role changes and balancing parenting responsibilities
    • a substantial change in sex life

    I had the opportunity to interview Susan Forde-Bunch, LCSW (licensed clinical social worker), a practicing psychotherapist and marriage counselor in the Denver area, and ask her some questions about marriage, motherhood, and finding support. Susan verified that the transition to parenthood can be one of the most difficult stages of marriage, stating,

    “I think the early years of parenting are indeed the least satisfying for married couples. The relentlessness of the demands of parenting young children can’t be overstated.  As parents we are often underprepared for this, particularly since it can be romanticized for us culturally. Haven’t we all visualized ourselves as the beautiful couple taking our perfect baby home to the life of idyllic family bliss?”

    I concur that many parents are blindsided by the reality of becoming parents, and our fairytale daydreams often fall short. Forde-Bunch added, “While it is often the stage for the most falling in love with our children, it usually isn’t the stage of falling in love with our spouse.”

    We all melt a little over the proud new Daddy.
    We all melt a little over the proud new Daddy.

    Many of the women we spoke with indicated that watching their husbands interact with and care for their children made them feel even more connected to them. However, other mothers were frustrated by the fact that they seemed to be pulling more than their fair share of weight. Forde-Bunch described how challenging it can be to adjust to your new roles as parents, particularly when factoring in sleep deprivation and increasing workloads. One mother told us, “I really thought that our decisions about our baby would be ours, and they are mine. That has been the hardest part for me. I don’t even know if it surprised me so much that the decisions were mine but that there were so many decisions to make when our son was a newborn. I was completely overwhelmed.”

    There is a fairly broad spectrum when it comes to the responsibilities and engagement of the father. Forde-Bunch noted, “Although we are in a process of a cultural change which is increasingly emphasizing fathers as egalitarian participants in all aspects of parenting, the primary parenting still tends to be the mother’s, especially in early infancy.”

    I’m sure there are many dads who would stand up and strenuously object to this statement.  However, it is also true that there are plenty of mothers who feel resentful about the imbalance of parenting duties in their households.

    Another interesting layer is, according to Forde-Bunch, that this situation “is magnified by the fact that women’s primary identities are often more defined by our roles in relationships than they are for men.” She points out, “Have you seen many little boys dressed up as grooms for Halloween?”

    This role discrepancy can leave many women seeking out support from female friends and family members. No matter how great a dad your husband is, it is nearly impossible for men to truly grasp what it feels like to be a mother, just as we are not fully capable of understanding how it feels to be a father. Many moms form alliances that can help them to feel more understood and validated. Forde-Bunch explains that being understood by another person is one of the most transformational interpersonal interactions, and that we seek it out and experience tremendous healing when we find it. She added, “When parents can share their struggles with other supportive parents of the same gender, it can provide powerful reassurance and validation.” While women may be more likely to form friendships with other moms, I think this is important for men, too. Even my own stoic husband has shared stories of being empowered by a conversation he had with a fellow dad.

    So what can we do to overcome some of these relationship challenges brought on by parenting? One mom shared,

    “Communication is, by far, the biggest key for our marriage- keeping open, honest, and respectful lines of communication going. We have had to learn how to not bicker as much. We’ve had to rally together through some really difficult transitions and upheavals in our child-rearing. It’s never been more important to put each other first, to keep that foundation strong.”

    Forde-Bunch added that staying connected as a couple, in addition to being crucial to the health of the marriage, also supports the mental health of the individual parents and even benefits the self-esteem of the children. She said that being aware of the importance of staying connected helps set the stage for success, and she offers some tips for staying focused:

    1. Embrace the goal of maintaining connection by verbalizing it and jointly developing practical strategies. 
    2. Set realistic expectations regarding time, energy, money, and support available to you.
    3. “Institutionalize” time together; build it into your lives as a structured part of your daily, weekly, or monthly routine.
    4. If communication is particularly difficult, consider using a couples’ therapist to get back on track.
    5. Consciously provide emotional support to one another, by being compassionate and putting yourself in each other’s shoes.
    6. Schedule time for physical intimacy. Sex is a powerful bonding experience on the most primal level, and it defines a couple from all other relationships.

    Communication is often harder than it seems, especially considering that men and women can have very different needs, expectations, and styles. One mother described, “My husband copes so differently than I do: he’s much more of a “grin and bear it, stop talking about things and it’s not that bad, just deal” sort of person. I need to talk about things and get validation and encouragement at the end of a day. My husband interprets that (often) as focusing on the negative. We have very different coping techniques, and we’re learning to help each other.”

    I have found that the more deliberate, clear, and conscious my husband and I are about caring for our relationship, the more likely we are to connect. Being mindful of this while in the midst of raising young children is also harder than it seems. Another mom said, “We try to be intentional about dates and talking, but it can be hard in the chaos.”

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    Making time for yourselves as a couple is key.

    We asked Forde-Bunch if she had any advice for expectant couples on how to “baby-proof” their marriage. Once again, she emphasized the importance of communication. She advised couples to talk about their expectations, hopes for themselves as a couple, their own childhood experiences, ideas about parenting, and the specific logistical issues to anticipate. She offered some helpful discussion questions such as, “How did your parents divide duties around childcare and housework?” and “How do you anticipate your current roles will change when a child is involved?” and “How did your family of origin use discipline?”

    I think we can all agree that navigating changes to marriage after becoming parents takes a lot of work and a lot of communication. Many of us share the same struggles and frustrations, and simply admitting these out loud to another mom that you trust can be tremendously helpful. I feel that although becoming parents may solidify your connection and add meaning to your marriage on a deeper level, on the surface it often creates complications and struggles. Rather than pretend that having kids has done nothing but improve my marriage, I prefer to acknowledge the challenges so that I can more adequately cope with them.

    How has parenthood affected your marriage? What strategies have worked for you to maintain closeness with your partner?

     

    102111133136Susan Forde-Bunch is a LCSW and has been in full-time private practice for more than 30 years in Colorado. She works with adults both individually and as couples. In addition to having a general practice, her specialty area is women and women’s issues.