Twenty-two weeks into my second pregnancy, my husband Keith and I were devastated to learn that the little boy I was carrying had a serious heart defect. In the midst of our turmoil, one specialist grimly remarked, “I should warn you that half of all couples in this situation separate within a year.” Thankfully, we were able to lean on each other during this most difficult time in our marriage, allowing us to grow closer, even as we watched Christopher slip away.

Most of you won’t have to endure the death of one of your children, but you may suffer other heartbreaks that can take their toll on your relationship. Maybe you have an uncontrollable four-year-old, or a teenager who is constantly threatening to run away. Even so-called “normal” children can cause stress with their constant demands. It’s hardly surprising that children add tension to a marriage. They encapsulate our identity, our dreams, and our futures. When something goes wrong with our kids, we feel like our whole world is falling apart. A strong marriage can provide a cushion through these challenges, but a marriage that is floundering only compounds grief. To ensure that your relationship withstands whatever pressure it may face, try to nurture it in the following four ways:

1. Forgive Yourself
Guilt and parenthood seem to go hand in hand. We feel guilty for things over which we have no control, and we repeatedly kick ourselves for things we feel we should have handled better. Yet self-recrimination can cause us to build walls of silence around ourselves, isolating us from the love we so desperately need.

Joanne Cacciatore-Garard, founder of the group Mothers in Sympathy and Support for parents who have lost children, says she has yet to meet a bereaved parent who doesn’t feel guilt — even if it seems completely irrational to everyone else. After her daughter was stillborn, she herself felt overwhelmed by guilt, as if her own body had somehow “caused” her daughter’s death, even though logically it was no fault of her own. Likewise, when we’re going through a crisis with our children, we’re likely to ruminate over how we could possibly have caused this. When we feel guilty, though, Cacciatore-Garard says, we can build a wall of self-loathing around ourselves, cutting out our partners and others that love us. To keep a strong relationship, we need to tear down that wall. Guilt, though, is one of the most difficult emotions to eradicate because it often has no basis in objective fact. Cacciatore-Garard has found that throwing her energy into helping others turns something negative into something positive, as does opening up in a supportive group or with a supportive friend. Voicing guilty feelings seems to put them in perspective and minimizes their ability to throw us into despair.

Sometimes, though, we feel that we can trace our children’s problems back to our actions. Maybe you worry that your child wouldn’t be so belligerent if you hadn’t worked so much, or that your baby wouldn’t be so fussy if you hadn’t given up nursing. It’s easy to second guess ourselves, but blaming ourselves does nothing to help the situation now. Forgive yourself, and free up your emotional energy to be there for those who need you.

2. Forgive Your Spouse
Forgiving yourself allows you to stop ruminating on your own problems and focus on your relationships. To maintain harmony in your family, though, you must also forgive your partner. Anger can be just as destructive to a relationship as feelings of guilt. My heart feels sick at some of the heartbreaking stories that hit the news. The father hits a patch of ice and his son is thrown from the car. A little girl wanders from a family picnic and drowns. And who can forget little Jessica McClure, who fell down a well when her mother turned her back for a second. Such things seem so difficult to forgive.

Usually the infraction is far more mundane, such as the workaholic husband who leaves his wife to deal with their children’s behavioral problems herself. Yet whatever the offense, you will never be able to form a family that loves and supports unconditionally if you remain angry. If your partner’s infraction is one of deliberate abuse, you must first ensure that your children are safe. But if abuse does not enter the picture, forgiveness is the only route to peace.

Best of all, forgiveness has a side effect that nothing else can deliver: it brings a marvelous freedom to both parties. Your partner is set free to parent, unencumbered by the need to “make amends”, and you are free from the cycle of bitterness which demands a retribution which can never be paid. As speaker Patricia Frances asserts, “unforgiveness is like drinking poison and expecting someone else to die.” You may be protecting your need to be right, but you give up your only chance at freedom.

3. Show Love to Your Partner
One of the hardest things to do when you are exhausted, worried about a child, or grieving is to focus on someone else. Yet Marriage and Family Therapist John Walton has found that relationships need constant nourishment, especially through the hard times. One way you can do this, Walton says, is through small acts of kindness. Even if you don’t always feel love towards your partner, if you can make the effort to demonstrate it, you build goodwill in your relationship.

These acts of kindness don’t have to be elaborate, but they must speak his or her language. I love backrubs, but my husband would rather sit alone and read. If I rub his shoulders, I make him feel more annoyed than appreciated. Ask your spouse what makes him or her feel loved, and then try to do one or two of these things a day.

4. Find Solutions
Now you’re ready for the biggest challenge of all: finding agreement on how to handle the challenges your child poses. While the previous three steps can be done even with an uncooperative partner, this one requires more compromise. When parents agree on a course of action, whether it’s about discipline for a rebellious teenager, or about treatment options for an ill child, life is much smoother than when parents do not. Yet what do you do when you reach an impasse about issues which are so vitally important? When Julie and Jim’s son Matt began exhibiting serious behavioral problems, they disagreed on how to discipline him. Julie, who grew up in a loving home, believed she had more insight than Jim did, whose parents were often distant and uncaring. “Sometimes I would just shout to get my way, I was so sure I was right,” Julie told me. “But when nothing worked, we realized nobody had all the answers. Now we try to work things out together.”

If you have talked until you’re blue in the face and you still disagree, John Walton recommends finding a third party to help, such as a minister or a counselor skilled in family therapy. Above all, Walton says, don’t just acquiesce without believing in your heart that you are doing the right thing, or you risk feeling angry and self-righteous later if things turn out badly. Keep talking until both of you are at peace.

Though we may wish it, none of us will have a storm-free life. And storms involving children are among the worst we can face. A strong marriage is one of the best tools you have to help you through a crisis, so dedicate yourself to preserving it at the beginning of difficult times. Then, when all is over, you know you will still have each other.

Copyright © 2004 Sheila Wray Gregoire, used with permission of author.

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