Is your relationship taking a hit?
Is your relationship taking a hit right now? Brittney Serpell identifies three obstacles every couple needs to overcome, and how.
Take one happy marriage and add to it some sleep deprivation, a clingy baby and a super busy toddler. Result: one wild cocktail! Most healthy relationships take a bit of a hit in the early years of having kids, and it’s always a relief to know you’re not alone. Being a parent is the best – but also the hardest – ‘job’ my husband and I have ever tackled together, and Brittney Serpell’s blog about her and her husband Ben’s experiences really resonated for me. Children can be an incredibly uniting force, but can also put a lot of strain on an otherwise happy relationship. Here, Brittney shares some fresh wisdom and practical tools to help you keep your love on.
The other day I was telling my co-worker stories from the early days of my marriage. It was one of those moments that made me realise, ‘Wow, [my husband Ben and I] really didn’t know the tools for building a successful marriage back then’. Thank goodness we found them, because where we are now looks nothing like those days!
As for many couples, one of the most challenging seasons in our early marriage came with the arrival of our first child. When we had Delani, my stressed-out mummy brain convinced me that Ben was out to make me crazy. I became very critical of all he did or didn’t do. Before I knew it, almost everything I said to him revolved around pointing out where he’d messed up, forgotten something or done something in a way I wouldn’t have.
Even now, when we talk about that time, he’ll say, “There were days I asked myself, ‘Does she even like me?’”. Yikes. Those were some hard years. Thankfully, with the help of the great people around us, we started to identify the problems that were hurting our marriage and go after powerful tools to help repair and strengthen it.
The first and most important question we learned to ask ourselves was this: what is driving me right now – love or fear?
As long as fear is driving us, we can know all the best relational tools in the world, but we won’t be able to use them effectively because we won’t recognise the obstacles we’re facing. Listening to fear led me to see Ben as an opponent, not a partner. I had to fight the internal battle, ignore fear and be guided by love so I could see he wasn’t the obstacle in our marriage – he was my partner in overcoming the obstacles.
When love is your guiding force, it will lead and empower you to recognise the three primary obstacles to a successful marriage, and to learn to use three crucial tools for overcoming them.
OBSTACLE #1: DISCONNECTION
Prioritising connection is the drum we beat more than any other, and for good reason. The greatest obstacle in every marriage is not stress around sex, kids, finances or careers – it’s disconnection. So the number-one tool we must go after in marriage is twofold: keeping connection as our priority and mastering the art of connection.
In the early years of our marriage, Ben and I were both very busy – me with little kids and side-jobs, him with a full-time job in ministry. Many days I spent my energy on everything but my husband, thinking, “He’ll be fine for today. We’ll connect tomorrow. He’s a grown-up and can take care of himself – these kids need me!”. Thankfully, sooner rather than later, I saw how this was hurting our connection. I realised that I always needed to see Ben as my first priority, not my last. Since I’ve learned to put our connection first, our whole family is better for it.
As for mastering the art of connection – well, that’s a learning process, and I can tell you that it involves much more than simply knowing your spouse’s love language! The most important thing, however, is simply that you don’t quit working at this art. Keep actively pursuing what it means to want connection. Protect it, and grow it.
OBSTACLE #2: DISRESPECT
Disrespect is a fast track to distance and disconnection. When we meet with couples who have allowed – and even fostered – disrespect in their communication, they are always struggling to stay connected. This is why we tell them, respectfully but in the strongest of terms, “If you’re disrespectful in how you talk to your spouse, stop it right now! We don’t care what your excuse is. There is no reason for this to be allowed in your marriage!”.
If connection is your priority, then you must make the commitment to keep communication respectful at all times, that is, to make sure that everything you say, and the way you say it, conveys the message, “Your thoughts, feelings and needs matter, and so do mine.” (Keep Your Love On is our favourite resource on respectful communication — if you haven’t read it yet, we recommend that you get a copy immediately!)
Believe me, I understand how difficult it can be to stop anger, frustration, criticism and judgment from leaking out of your mouth, especially when you need to confront an issue. But I’ve also learned the hard way that whenever I’ve spoken disrespectfully, no matter how self-righteous and justified I felt in the moment, it never helped our marriage to grow. If we can’t communicate in a way that protects connection, it’s better to walk away until we have something helpful to say!
OBSTACLE #3: DISTRUST
In every relationship, trust is built through exchanging the truth about one another’s needs, and through then meeting those needs. Meanwhile, distrust grows when we don’t communicate or meet each other’s needs.
Most of us come to marriage not knowing how to communicate our needs. I remember when Ben was first asked, “What do you need?”. He sat there almost stunned. He’d never encountered that question before, and it took him a moment to find an answer. Even today, after years of practise identifying his needs, it takes him a little longer than it takes me to figure out what he is needing – but he is committed to getting there!
And knowing what we need is just half the battle! The other half is having the courage to communicate our needs. It’s vulnerable to express, “I have a need”, and then hope our spouse is willing to hear and meet that need. But again, this vulnerability is critical to building trust and showing value for the relationship.
After fifteen years of working at this, Ben and I now know what questions to ask and how to engage in ways that help two powerful people be part of the exchange of needs. This has deepened the well of trust, connection and fulfillment in our marriage like nothing else.
Every couple we work with who use these tools and choose love over fear sees growth, breakthrough and trans-formation in their relationship – from those who simply need encouragement to those who feel hopeless about repairing their connection. So, whether you’ve been married for a week or for 20 years, and whether your marriage is healthy or struggling, I urge you to work on prioritising your connection, communicating respectfully, and asking for what you need. Partner together to overcome disconnection, disrespect and distrust, and build a lasting marriage full of love!
Brittney Serpell is the Director of Parenting at Loving on Purpose – she inspires parents to believe the best about themselves and their children. She and her husband, Ben, have three wonderful children, and are actively loving their kids on purpose!
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 46 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW