One of my wedding vows to my wife, Christi, was that I would fight for her — not with her. She played off of our love for sports, vowing, "You are my teammate." We did pretty well with those vows for the first few years. And then we had kids.
Please don't think I'm blaming our children for our childish behaviors. Not living by our vows is not a kid-related issue; it's a heart issue. We just hadn't had a challenge as big as our 8-pound son. His tactics were effective: Douse them in ear-splitting screams by day. Deprive them of sleep by night.
This was the first time Christi and I felt like we were on opposing teams.
I came home from work one day when our firstborn was about 6 months old. As I went into the kitchen, I noticed Christi standing there in sweatpants with no makeup and wearing pureed sweet potatoes spackled on her shirt.
Instead of inquiring about her day — probably because I just thought she was home all day and didn't have much to say — I started telling her about my day.
Christi was soon in tears. She had just endured another long, hard day of caring for a sleepless, screaming baby, and she was painfully honest with me: "Why don't you ask about me? I feel like it's always about you. You never ask about what's on my heart."
I was stunned. Though she wasn't able to articulate it, Christi, a super ambitious stay-at-home mom with two master's degrees, was slowly losing her identity.
We needed a plan. If we really were going to function as teammates and I was going to fight for my wife's heart, then I needed to actually see Christi's situation and validate her.
Here are five ways we've learned to work as teammates:
1. Define the issue.
Outside stressors can cause us to take out our anger and frustration on the people we feel safest with. When we are dealing with work pressures, money issues, difficulties with a child, grief, depression or health problems, we often find reasons to act as though our spouse is at fault. Taking a step back to discern what is really at the root of our pain, anger or frustration will frequently reveal that our spouse was never the enemy, just the punching bag.
Christi and I began to understand that the health of the team depends on the condition of the individuals, as well as the collective "us." Christi let me know how she was really feeling, finally verbalizing the heaviness in her heart. She didn't want me to solve it. She just needed me to sit with her in it.
2. Identify unhealthy patterns.When I would walk through the door after a long day, Christi's first reaction was to bring to my attention how hard her day had been and what I needed to do to help out. I heard that as criticism and responded by withdrawing. My withdrawal would turn into avoidance —wanting to escape the criticism that made me feel like a failure. But my withdrawal and avoidance ramped up Christi's criticism until I became defensive and said something that hurt her feelings. And the cycle would repeat.
Then one day, we decided to talk about it, gently, when our defenses were down. It began with a series of "I" statements: "I feel like a failure when I come in the door." "I feel like you get defensive and don't understand how much I'm struggling to just get through the days." Then we began to understand the patterns we had created.
3. Set goals.
A directionless marriage quickly becomes a purposeless marriage, so set team goals. Have you ever dreamed together of adventures you want to pursue? Think of some for this month, this year and the decades to come.
Maybe your goals include paying off debt, opening a business, passing on faith to the next generation, meeting all your immediate neighbors, or serving together at church or at a soup kitchen. Find a few common goals that you're both excited about pursuing together.
4. Create shared meaning.
Add rituals and shared routines to your marriage to create a culture that's unique to just the two of you. Maybe it's washing the dishes together or going for a walk after dinner so you can debrief about the day. Consider spiritual traditions such as choosing a verse for your marriage and focusing on this verse as you pray together over morning coffee.
We have prayed Exodus 33:12-18 together since the beginning of our marriage, asking that we remain in God's presence and that our marriage would bring Him glory.
5. Establish a 15-minute check-in.
It's too easy to go into a mindless zone after the kids are in bed, either drowning our sorrows in our favorite TV shows or numbing our brains and feelings on social media. The former we justify by saying we're spending time together; the latter we justify as connecting with others. In reality, we're disengaging from our spouse.
A better option would be to carve out 15 minutes in the evening and do two things:
Inquire about your spouse's heart. Ask, "What's on your heart today? How are you feeling?" Just sit with your spouse — with no condemnation — and listen to his or her most prevalent feelings from the day. Don't try to fix it; just validate it. Share your heart with your spouse. Use feeling words to describe your day: "I felt sad when ..." or "I felt angry at ..." Simply using feeling words strengthens your bond.
Try the 15-minute check-in even just a few times a week. When Christi and I find ourselves in survival mode and becoming insensitive toward each other, we use the steps outlined above to reunite.Dr. Joshua Straub is a counselor, speaker and consultant. His wife, Christi, is a writer and speaker.
Did you know couples are 30 percent less likely to get a divorce if they get some sort of premarital training? If you or someone you know is planning to marry, check out Focus on the Family's Ready to Wed curriculum, and then prepare for a marriage you'll love!