Our Secret Weapon For Parenting 5 Kids? A Marriage Therapist

Every time my husband and I have a baby — five times now, to be exact — we feel like we just might not survive those first six months of newborn hell… “The Fog,” as we’ve named it. You don’t really know what day it is, how many times you got up, or when your last real meal and shower were, let alone how your partner is doing. As those baby days give way to three-nagers, preschoolers, and now preteens, things get less foggy but not necessarily easier. Yet, in each stage, we’ve both shared a common drive to ensure our marriage is strong despite what parenting brings. But we didn’t do it alone.

This time, somewhere around the last month of The Fog, we realized after a whole lot of bickering and not a lot of progress on connecting that we might need a little help. We’d done a bit of pre-marriage therapy as we prepared to actually get married, but not so much since. After all, who has time or money for therapy with five kids running around and barely any time to ourselves? But it was time to prioritize.

“When kids come into the picture, it’s easy for the kids to become the priority, so a couple’s therapist can help the couple reprioritize the couple and get back on the same team,” says Aurisha Smolarski, licensed marriage and family therapist (LMFT), certified co-parenting coach, mediator, and author of Cooperative Co-Parenting for Secure Kids: The Attachment Theory Guide to Raising Kids in Two Homes. “Disconnection is one of the more common complaints. “We are like ships passing in the night” as they trade off parenting duties, household duties, and job needs. What gets put on the shelf is their own needs for self-care and intimacy with their partner.”

With five kids, our needs weren’t just on the shelf; they were way in the back of the attic where we didn’t even remember what they were anymore, let alone how to help the other person.

Here’s why we now get by with a little help from our kick-*ss marriage therapist in the chaos of parenting and marriage.

We made a date out of it.

When we first started virtual marriage therapy, even finding a time when we were both available and the kids didn’t have a zillion needs was impossible — until we found a therapist who could do a late-night session, meeting with us after bedtime on weeknights. At first, it felt like just one more Zoom after a long day. But before long, we moved from the office to the couch, with blankets and tea and snacks, and it felt like a productive date night instead of a chore.

We learned how to “give an appreciation.”

The first time our therapist taught us to give each other “an appreciation,” I felt like I was in some awkward third-grade feelings-circle hell. Then my husband pointed out something positive about my parenting that I’d never noticed myself and definitely never thought he noticed. Suddenly, it wasn’t such an awkward activity.

Somehow, calling it “an appreciation” or an “I see you” moment was easier than giving a compliment. Once I started looking for appreciation to give him, it humanized him and minimized arguing. We started spending more time looking for the good in each other again.

We forgot to put ourselves into time-out.

Most parents have put their kids in some version of time-out periodically. Yet, we’d forgotten that, as parents and partners and people, we could also do this. Our therapist taught us that if an argument escalates and becomes unproductive, we have an underutilized tool at our disposal: a pause button.

Pausing a conversation and revisiting it gives us time to think about the heart of the issue and how we can get there without petty comments or tangents that don’t help. It also prevents our kids from being around bickering, as we were much more able to talk calmly after these short breaks.

Your truth doesn’t have to be my truth.

One of the hardest truths to discover about parenting and marriage is that the other person’s perception of an event doesn’t have to match mine, and each can be valid. For example, it hurts my feelings that my husband always leaves the cabinet above the washing machine open, and I hit my head on it when I’m doing laundry (even though I’ve asked him a million times). It turns out he has been leaving it open because he’s scared our preschooler will lock it shut. Mind blown.

Now, when we see an event differently, we spend less time arguing about which is the “truth” and which is “right” and more time seeing the other person’s perspective.

We got braver.

I realized that I had not been fully expressing my feelings in the marriage. After all, women have long been labeled as “too much” if they have frequent or intense feelings, and I was skirting around that label. But having a third person in the conversation push me to share more helped me get the real-real truth out on multiple topics in a way that made serious progress in our connection with each other.

We’ve become better parents.

Before therapy, we had two separate parenting styles, and though we both thought the other was a good parent, we weren’t a united team. Smolarski shares how this sometimes happens.

“I have worked with parents where Dad, for example, is aware that he gets triggered if the kid yells back at dad. He had a strict dad, and even though he doesn’t want to yell back at his kid, he struggles. The parents are working together to create more of a team approach where they feel supported by each other instead of alone,” she says. “Dad continues to work on his own issues and how they affect his ability to parent in the way he would like. Over time, he has learned to self-regulate and stay more present with his kid’s needs.”

Similarly, we were a more united front with our kids with therapy.

We prioritized the marriage over parenting.

In a society of kids-first, we’d originally determined we wanted our marriage to take priority whenever possible. Yet, little league and conference nights, our own job stressors, and kids’ mental health all pressed into marriage time.

Therapy gave us a committed, paid-for time each week to remember that. After a while, when we weren’t meeting weekly, we still booked that time with each other to have important conversations even without the therapist.

When to Try Therapy and How to Know It’s Working

Smolarski shares some signs that marriage therapy might be beneficial, adding that if both partners aren’t willing to go, it can still be helpful for the one who is. These include:

  • Increased conflicts and/or conflicts that aren’t resolving as quickly
  • Your needs not being met, leading to increased resentment or anger
  • Feeling alone in the relationship or in parenting
  • Losing a sense of self
  • A feeling of drifting apart
  • Fighting in front of your kids about rules and routines, leading to unclear expectations for kids

Smolarski shares that the length of therapy depends on the couple and might range from weekly for six months to years for others. Some couples just need 3-4 sessions, with wide variations. But a good marriage therapist, she emphasizes, is able to stay neutral and help you care for your children’s needs while also caring for the marriage.

For us personally, our commitment to therapy — and recommitment to each other — is the gift our therapist gave us that will last long beyond our sessions with him.

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