3 make or break issues I see most often as a couples' therapist
In the course of a marriage, a couple will encounter numerous rough patches. Some of these landmines will be fairly easy to negotiate — i.e., deciding on which car to buy. Others can lead to a permanent rupture. For example:
Caregiving for an elderly parent
In a survey conducted by Caring.com on the effects of elder care on a marriage, 80 percent of the respondents said caregiving put a strain on their relationship. This is not particularly surprising, given the tremendous time and emotional resources that a sick parent places on an adult child.
The best way to navigate this tough journey is to take your partner’s feelings into account at every step along the way. Don’t just announce, “Well, now that Dad has passed, Mom is going to move in with us.” There must be plenty of honest conversations about how your lives will be impacted by this responsibility. It’s essential for each of you to discuss expectations, straighten out misunderstandings, vent, cry, hug and be in it together. It is also essential that additional support measures be put into place. Think visiting nurses or live-in help depending on what your pocketbook can afford.
Compromises will need to be made. For example, if a parent is living with you, suggest you and your spouse take one night a week for the two of you to go out. Keep nurturing the spark of communion and passion between you as much as possible.
Having an elderly parent dependent on you adds pressure to the marriage but can also afford you an opportunity to work together on a joint mission and grow even closer.
Being in debt
It is all too common in these troubled financial times for couples to find themselves beset by money woes. Alas what often happens in this scary circumstance is for the blame game to commence: “I told you we couldn’t afford this huge house. You made me do it.”
Fear is often the underlying culprit behind these attacks, the fears, often unspoken: What will we do if we lose everything? How can we support our children? What will people think of us? How did this happen? I thought I could trust my spouse to take care of me.
It is vital to get on the same team. Visit a financial advisor or debt counselor to help the two of you create a viable, mutually-agreed-upon plan to get back on track. Have honest conversations with each other about how to implement this plan and to help one another adjust to changes in budget and lifestyle.
While fiscal trauma can bruise a marriage, it is also an opportunity to take stock and learn how to problem solve.
The death of your child
This loss is the most tragic a couple can face. This grief, though shared, can divide the parents. Suddenly a couple’s identity as mother and father of this particular child is gone. Sometimes being around one another is too difficult a reminder of an unbearable loss. Or one or both will want to shield the other from their pain, and emotionally retreats.
The best way to get through this is to, surprise, communicate honestly but not harshly — meaning don’t blame your partner in any way. Listen to what your partner’s experience of loss feels like; it is a separate entity from your grief. Support groups for parents who lost children can be a lifeline, as can individual therapy and perhaps couple counseling.
You both need time apart to grieve, as well as time together. But it’s important to try to spend time together not just grieving but enjoying the feel of sunlight on your faces.