Under the best of circumstances, marriage and life partnership is hard work. When you add the complexities of parenting a child who has experienced trauma, the stress can strain even the strongest, healthiest of relationships. Strengthening your marriage or partnership while raising foster, kin, or adopted kids takes extra effort and intentionality so that you can all thrive together.
The Struggles are Numerous
There is a lot of emotional labor when parenting kids who have experienced trauma. When you add therapies, school interventions, homework struggles, or family visits (especially for foster and kinship kids), it feels like your time is not your own. It’s challenging to focus on your marriage or partnership plus children, work, and individual wellness. But we also know how detrimental it is – to your whole family – when your primary relationship falls by the wayside.
We’ve got some tips that can help you re-focus on your couplehood. We intend to shore you up to weather both the mundanities of daily life and the challenges of parenting a child whose trauma makes your life together more complicated.
Practical Tips for Strengthening Your Marriage/Partnership
1. Carve out time together to do the things that bring you joy.
Think back to the fun memories you created before you were parenting together. Did you enjoy camping trips? Were you museum-goers? Did you have a regular jazz club that knew you by name? Pick something that you can quickly resume together. Or ask each other about a new hobby you can explore together.
2. Identify and understand your child’s behaviors.
Frequently, in our relationships, we differ over the root of a child’s behavior or about how to address it. We’ve all been there, right? Try to work out the differences between you by talking through them, without the child present. Share your observations and allow your spouse to do the same. Collaborate on a game plan and set a timeframe to re-evaluate and tweak the plan. The goal is to be on the same page for your general parenting philosophy and address specific parenting challenges. Intentionally being on the same page is a protective factor for your relationship and your home’s culture.
3. Work on your communication skills.
Be willing to have candid conversations together about how you can be better listeners and better communicators. Ask questions about improving your own skills, and be kind when offering suggestions of improvements your partner can consider. If this area of your relationship is particularly challenging, consider getting professional help. Doing a book study together by a marriage expert can be helpful. Listening to relationship-focused podcasts together can also be valuable.
4. Celebrate the victories – no matter how small.
Create a culture of celebration in your home. Look for wins in your relationship, victories in parenting, and good reports from the kids. Then have a party over them. Some couples do a happy dance in the kitchen (Both of The Trolls soundtracks lend themselves well to happy dancing if you are looking for ideas.). If you are a lower-key kind of couple, toast each other with a nice glass of wine. Other couples include the kids and have “family handshakes,” high-fives, or fist bumps. Do whatever feels like a celebration to you and do it often!
5. Avoid power struggles with your partner and with your children.
In the heat of the moment, it’s easy to get drawn into our kids’ unhealthy dynamics like triangulation, control, or manipulation. When they get dysregulated, they fight from the illogical part of their brains to survive what they perceive as a threat. Survival mode makes it hard to work through the problem, especially if you feel dysregulation rising within you, too.
Take a breath – or ten – to re-regulate and assess what’s going on. Encourage your partner to do the same. Some couples find it helpful to have a code word between them when one observes a pending power struggle. Don’t engage in finger-pointing, blame-shifting, or ownership of the issue yet. Consider tag-teaming if one of you needs to take a step back. Prioritize helping everyone return to regulation first. Revisit the presenting challenge later when you and your spouse again get on the same page.
6. Give yourself – and your partner – a break!
Grace, grace, grace. We all need it. We all need to offer it. Parenting kids from a history of trauma is an imperfect science. We are imperfect parents. Look for ways to give each other room and safe space for mistakes and second chances. Offer forgiveness easily and avoid the judgment of each other’s failures. Prioritize your partnership by looking for opportunities to practice reconciliation and empowering each other to succeed.
7. Prioritize your identity as a couple.
Take a walk down memory lane and think about what drew you to your partner. Remember those things that felt bonding and cemented your identity as a couple. Talk about those together and think about creative ways to return to or enhance your relational and sexual intimacy.
Many couples suggest regularly scheduled date nights and if that works for you, put it on the calendar. Other couples designate a sacred space or time that is “Just for Us” and don’t allow intrusions to that space. For example, one couple never allows the kids into their bedroom on Sunday mornings. That is their private connection time. Whatever you can do to keep your identity as a couple first, carve it out and do that.
8. Give each other time and permission for self-care.
Self-care is vital to maintaining your sanity, energy, and focus for your family. Caring well for yourself IS caring well for your family, so encourage each other to find that which refuels and get it on the calendar.
9. Use a calendar to set your priorities.
Set up your family calendar to reflect personal self-care, family time, date nights, sex life, and other preferences you identify as a couple. Many couples find value in shared online calendars so that they can see and protect each other’s priorities. Some couples have regular calendar planning meetings to keep the focus on their family identity. While that may sound boring and corporate, it’s a form of self-and couple-care that emphasizes the value you place on these relationships above other obligations of your life.
10. Get educated together about parenting, trauma, and marriage.
It’s pretty standard for one parent to be more “trauma-informed” than the other. If that disparity can be a sore spot for your marriage or partnership, you must negotiate how to resolve it. If that is not an issue for your relationship, collaborate on sharing the knowledge and acting upon it together. Again, being on the same page to handle your children’s challenging behaviors – and your general parenting plan – is the crucial goal here. How you achieve that goal will be your unique process. This goal also applies to educating yourselves about marriage, communication skills, general parenting, and the many other issues impacting your home.
11. Listen to each other and be each other’s safe space.
So many times, our concerns or fears about our relationships or our children feel scary and overwhelming. We wonder if our marriage will survive the trauma. We wonder if our kids will ever heal from the trauma. You aren’t alone in those fears, and you should share with your partner or spouse how you are feeling. Work to hold each other’s feelings safely, listening without judgment and without trying to solve the issue for each other. Be the safe landing place for your spouse that you know you need, too.
Start small, with intention.
If these tips feel like one more thing on your already overwhelming list of things to juggle every day, choose one together. It’s okay to start small to create a habit with one thing you can achieve together. Once you’ve got one practice working well for your relationship, identify the next one you want to work on together.
Keep working on the list as you can, holding space for open communication between you about your progress. When you feel successful in one aspect of strengthening your relationship, it will motivate you to keep pursuing other areas and each other.
We’d love to hear from you! Which of these 11 tips are you already doing pretty well in your relationship? Which tip would you like to make a new habit for your marriage or partnership? Share your thoughts in the comments!
Image Credits: Tobias Wrzal; Gael Varoquaux; Alan Light; Peter Shanks