The Necessity of Marriage Maintenance

By Candice White
Web Exclusive

couple back to backStick season had officially arrived. Wrinkled, worn leaves clung to the edges of the yard, caught in the web of dying ferns that bordered our woods. The flowers in the gardens had shriveled up and fallen over, starkly illustrating that the verdant summer was indeed past. The trees remained, of course, standing proud despite their gnarled nakedness. Only days ago the brilliant blue sky and marshmallow clouds had reminded me of a child’s drawing. Now, the sky, too, was dull and gray. The lush landscape of the Green Mountain State had turned bleak and barren.

 

I approached this stick season with trepidation, for I could not escape the reminder of last year’s, and what it had meant for my marriage. We had come undone, my husband and I, and the realization had begun to consume me. I had ignored the knowing voice in my head for so long that my body had taken over. While I continued to climb into bed each night next to my husband, pretending nothing was wrong, I became resistant to his touch. I would recoil if his toes so much as brushed my leg. Eventually, I began placing a pillow next to me to ward off even the possibility of his touch. He acknowledged that I needed my “space”, and accepted the pillow with little resistance.

We grew to the point where we barely spoke, allowing our two small children to fill what would have been utter silence. Bringing children into our worlds had necessitated certain changes in our lives and also coincided with factors unrelated to them. Families navigate these transitions and demands with varying degrees of grace, and in our case, grace eluded us. The collapse of the high-tech industry pulled my husband down with it, sowing uncertainty, insecurity, and economic hardship upon us. My own recent career change from publisher of a small, national magazine to stay-at-home mother had erased our financial back-up plan. And two consecutive moves from big-city suburbs to small-town living, intended to simplify our lives, brought short-term upheaval instead. Trying to keep ahead of all this, while caring for a four-year old daughter and a two-year old son, was overwhelming. My husband’s sunken spirits only fueled my edgy feelings of helplessness. Our situation was growing toxic.

That previous winter and into spring, we had endured months of couple’s therapy, which in fact had made me more aware than ever of the differences we had. Each time I left our therapist’s office, I felt less hope for our marriage.

We would each drag out our quill of complaints, calmly aim, and shoot. “He and I don’t have the same work ethic,” I would say, insinuating that I worked harder than he did.

“She expects me to be something more than I am,” he would respond, alluding to my privileged background and to his fear that I needed him to provide that for me. Our differences, which had earlier seemed inconsequential, grew insurmountable. Our therapist listened, nodding his head, stroking his chin with his hand. He shed no glimmers of hope on our relationship. I studied his face for a sign that would tell me how we were doing. As I searched for answers, we dug deeper into a hole of futility.

Then in June, my husband and I were invited to a weekend party in New Hampshire. We both knew we could use some time away, and successfully cajoled my parents into taking our children. Though spending time together without our children was a positive step, what we should have sought was time alone together, not in a crowd of friends and acquaintances. Among the hordes of financially successful, attractive men, I saw my husband for all his shortcomings. The more I compared him to these other men, the harsher my opinion of him became. I was being unfair, I knew, but I couldn’t help myself. I was inching closer to the end of my rope.

A few months later, family travel plans derailed, leaving me feeling ever more alone, disappointed and bitter. Then my husband lost his job. Again. It was a sign to me that he and I were irrevocably at odds.

I decided we had no other option than to separate. Thus began what my husband and I would both call the most wrenching period of our lives. Even the biking accident in his early twenties, that killed his close friend and left him with two broken legs, could not compete.

We decided to maintain peace in front of our children, which required that we temporarily cut off our emotions. In their presence, we spoke politely, without feeling. But when the children were tucked in bed at night, the masquerade ended. At first, my husband was listless with sadness. But as time wore on, his sadness became outrage at what I had done to our family. He couldn’t acknowledge his contribution to our separation. A few lousy job losses? Some misdirection? I was giving up too soon, he said. He kept on asking why. I felt I had been explaining and explaining over and over, and he was not hearing me. I couldn’t explain anymore.

The snows of winter fell, bringing freezing temperatures that mirrored the coldness in our hearts. While my husband had technically moved out to his own apartment, he spent weekends and occasional weekday dinners at our house, to assuage the effects our turmoil had on our children’s innocent lives. I struggled through the months, ignoring him, then arguing, often crying myself to sleep at night. Winters in Vermont are long and cold, and this was no exception. It felt endless.

Five months passed, and the snow banks that had been growing taller and taller with each winter storm began to show signs of melting. The days grew longer, and the afternoon sky reflected warm, pink light in place of the bitter darkness of winter. Our emotional exhaustion had given way to a silent truce. Our marriage lay in ruins on the ground. People were advising us to find good lawyers. My mother was already in search of my next husband. “Move on,” she said. But we couldn’t, or wouldn’t.

As patches of grass began to appear amidst the snow in our front yard, we chose to see hope in spring’s renewal. We were a war-torn family, held together by the threads of our children. Slowly, we took a few baby steps forward. We packed a lunch and drove to the local mountain for a day of skiing. We went out for pizza. My husband made plans for us to join his parents and sister in a trip to Disney World.

Our children were thrilled to be spending time with both mommy and daddy, and seeing their little faces lit with such happiness held great significance to me. The threads that had been barely holding us together began to strengthen.

After months of separation, feeling part of an intact family again was joyous. I saw an end to my self-imposed misery. That my own happiness was intrinsically entwined with that of my children was an epiphany. In truth, I had daydreamed of a new relationship with a faceless man, one who surpassed my husband in all the areas where he came up short. Surely, I had fantasized, there was another guy out there who would better suit my needs—but what about the needs of my children? Ultimately, I realized that in the midst of a broken family, happiness would elude me.

As I stood in our back yard, surrounded by mountains, watching my children play at their swing set, the reality was that I felt an enormous absence. Only one other person thinks my children are beautiful as they run around naked in the sprinkler, who feels their pain when they step barefoot on a pricker, who worries about their falling from the monkey bars as I do. And that’s my husband. As I looked back, I saw there was nothing preventing us from giving it another go. I resolved I would try again.

Marriages can fall apart from neglect. And ours had done just that. Before we had children, we had nothing but time for each other. But starting our family had changed us, and we hadn’t figured out how to successfully navigate that new world together. We were unaware that we would need to “work” at our marriage after our children were born. We reshaped our lives around them”h their meals, naps, birthday parties, and bedtimes”hand we slowly began to forget about us. The day-to-day as well as the big picture were affected: gone were the vacations in St. John and weekends in Nantucket that had been regular accoutrements to our prenatal existence. Gone, too, were the dinners out together, just the two of us, enjoying each other’s company. No frills remained, no occasional massage or pedicure. Privacy and free time (be it sharing a cozy Sunday morning in bed, or taking a solo ten-mile run) had disappeared.

The increase in expenses and decrease in income that comes with having children often necessitates excising life’s little extras. While we needed to cut back, we instead went cold turkey. We went from one extreme to the other: all the time in the world for ourselves and each other to no time for ourselves or each other. And that, in retrospect, was the beginning of the end. We were like a fine-knit sweater that developed a little pull, and then slowly began to unravel.

How do you save a marriage? In my case, our separation showed me the realities of a broken family. It reaffirmed how much was at stake, and clarified that I wasn’t actually done yet. For me, separation fortified my desire to continue trying to work things out with my husband.

Still, rebuilding our relationship is not an easy process. It requires open minds, hopeful outlooks, and commitment. Journeying to the past helped re-acquaint me with the person I had once loved. And in rediscovering why I married my husband, remembering the qualities I found so dear in him, I renewed my hope of connecting with him again. Looking forward was also important in ridding our relationship of negative baggage and allowing space for new habits to form.

Though I can’t take complete credit for realizing I needed some soul searching of my own, I managed to book an appointment with a psychologist. After dumping the contents of my troubled life on her in the first thirty minutes of our meeting (and feeling better already, I might add), Marcia delivered her first diagnosis: “Take better care of yourself.”

I had really needed someone to say that to me. Marcia gave me permission to put a high priority on my own well-being. I learned the seemingly obvious lesson that being a healthy woman is a prerequisite to being a good mother and marriage partner. Marcia’s words were an invitation to schedule daily exercise and occasional pampering again. Running, hiking, and snowshoeing became a part of my routine again, as did an almost weekly yoga practice and occasional meditation. Personal maintenance is beneficial for physical and mental health while also providing a small daily dose of “me time” (which I had wrongly sacrificed in the name of motherhood). Recognizing there was a real profit/loss equation to my own health and well-being was an important lesson to learn.

Once I had regained some personal footing, my husband and I enlisted the help of a couple’s therapist to help guide us through our rebuilding process together. Unlike the therapist we had met with prior to our separation, this new one was a more behavioral therapist, who actively engaged in our discussions. Jane interacted with us throughout our sessions, asking questions, occasionally saying when one of us was out of line. She helped us process some extremely emotional issues in our marriage that we were simply unable to resolve by ourselves. Our confidence in us as a couple began to grow. Other tactics we enlisted to rebuild our marriage are the same ones we use to maintain it. Many of these things were casualties of our new parenting duties, but we have by necessity re-instituted them into our lives:

Weekly dinners, just the two of us”hwithout kids, friends, or other distractions. We use this time to catch up on the past week, plan for the future, and to actually have an uninterrupted conversation.

Prioritizing self-care, to fend off feelings of depletion. Giving to the children all day is no longer an acceptable excuse for letting things slide. Conscious efforts to say and do nice things for each other—small acts of kindness that show our appreciation.

We make time for sex, lest it be another victim of our growing family. Sex is a vital part of a relationship for many reasons, not the least of which is that it nourishes our connection.

Cultivating the willingness to be happy instead of being “right.” I no longer try to win every argument, which is a challenge.

We both try. Having a successful marriage, it now seems to me, mostly comes down to that one word: try. We now both make consistent efforts to put time into our marriage, to think of each other, to see the other’s point of view. We still have bad days along with the good. But the good days far outnumber the bad. Dinner dates will be missed, new niceties may occasionally be replaced by old bad habitual responses, and sex might languish. Yet we’re in a pretty good place, together.

Today, as I look outside my window and see the first substantial snowfall of the winter, I am not fearful of the season that lies ahead. I am reminded of last year’s barren winter, but also of the rebirth that came with the spring. Suffering is often followed by strength. And I feel that I am stronger, as a wife, as a mother, and finally, as a woman.

Candice White is a former magazine staffer for The Atlantic Monthly, Fast Company, and The American Prospect. She lives with her family in Waitsfield, Vermont.