By Julie Keon*
Valentine’s Day, the busiest day in North American flower shops, gives people the opportunity to express their undying love to one another. This can be a romantic day if you are falling in love and trying to impress your new love interest with roses and candy. It can also be a devastating day for those newly single or in search of their one true love. For those of us in long term relationships, we know that it takes a lot more than a day in the calendar to keep a relationship alive and well.
When my husband and I became parents to a child with medical fragility, family, friends, and even the social worker at the hospital told us that we needed to make sure to communicate openly. People rattled off statistics about the high rate of divorce among parents of children with disabilities or illness. We were told that this experience would make or break us. For the couples just starting out, as we were, there wasn’t a lot of guidance and practical tips on how to keep our connection intact and intimacy alive when the natural tendency was to walk away from each other. Love was a good foundation but we also needed tenacity, bravery and vulnerability if our marriage was to survive.
In spite of all we’ve endured over the years, we have somehow managed to find our way back to each other. The road hasn’t been smooth. We have both experienced periods of depression when residual trauma surfaced and more issues needed our attention. We had to make decisions right from the start that we were going to hang on and stick it out no matter what. We were committed to our marriage and to our daughter.
In order to find our way back to each other, we had to be courageous and throw caution to the wind. I wish I could share one magic tip that made it all OK again, but when I look back, I know it was an accumulation of many things – plus sheer determination and stubbornness – that got us through the dark times and brought us back to a place of deep intimacy and friendship.
I think back to those early years, long before our daughter was even a twinkle in our eyes, and I applaud our willingness and naïveté to vow to love one another “for better or worse.” The truth is, most couples never imagine that the “for worse” part can be really, really devastating. And to be clear, our daughter was not devastating to us. It is the suffering and struggles she’s had to live with that have been bone-crushingly painful to witness.
Marriage (or partnership) is a continuous exercise in creativity, soul searching and a never-ending expansion of our love. Just when you think you have it all figured out, you’re forced to adjust how you operate within your intimate relationship. And that’s under normal circumstances, let alone extraordinary ones.
I don’t think it is ever too late to make changes for the betterment of your relationship. If you have neglected your partner and have convinced yourself that there’s no point in trying to save your relationship, ask yourself this: “If you could return to a harmonious, passionate, deeply satisfying relationship, would you?” If the answer is “Yes,” then begin now. Every step you take, no matter how tiny, will generate positivity within your intimate relationship.
Here are some tried and true ways to stay afloat when you feel as though your marriage/relationship is drowning. Although, these derive from our experience as parents of a child with medical fragility, these tips can be applied to any couple that has lost their way.
- Seek Counsel: There is nothing like setting aside an hour to unload on an objective, non-judgmental listener. You don’t want to go to just any counselor or therapist, though. Find out who, in your own community, is well educated and experienced with the complexities of whatever issue you are facing. Don’t be afraid to interview a few counselors over the phone and ask about their experience in working with couples and working with trauma and grief. Don’t waste your time on someone who specializes in addictions, for example, if you are dealing with complicated grief and marriage distress.
- Go on Dates: This tip may induce a sense of panic. It doesn’t have to be an expensive, elaborate night out on the town. A date is simply setting aside some time where the focus is on your beloved. Shut off the TV and put away those phones (the killer of all intimacy). It might include a bottle of wine, music and conversation. If you have been operating like zombies for the last two years, this will feel incredibly awkward and foreign at first. Awkward or not, do it anyway. If it means you just sit there staring at each other, it’s a step in the right direction. Practice is necessary to find your way back to each other. Next time you do it, you might actually be able to talk. Start slowly if it’s been a while. Putting pressure on yourself is not going to inspire romance. Be creative and set the intention to give of yourselves to each other. Even 15-minute walk outside holding hands is better than nothing at all.
- Gestures of Kindness: Take the initiative to let your spouse/partner know that you think of them even in the midst of unrelenting stress. In our early dating years, my husband and I used to indulge in Häagen-Dazs ice cream (Caramel Cone Explosion, to be exact). After our daughter was born, I would occasionally buy a container while grocery shopping. We would share this treat in the one hour we had together in the evening after our daughter was in bed and before the night nurse arrived. Long before parenthood, we used to give each other massages. In our first year of parenthood, no matter how drained we were, we would sometimes spend 10 minutes before sleeping to give one another this gift of touch and love. Connecting for only 10 minutes at a time helped us find our way.
- Sex: First and foremost, in every long-term relationship, there will be periods of time where you live like roommates and sex starts to feel like a thing of the past. If there is one thing that will depress a healthy, vibrant person, it is the slow and painful death of their sex life. Sometimes, though, it is depression that kills your sex drive. Sex is a crucial and vital part of a healthy relationship. The thing is, sometimes it is impossible to give and to get. In those times, it is critical that you still maintain some sort of physical connection. For example: kiss one another good morning and good night without fail, hug often, hold hands, turn off all technology and just focus on each other (see tip no. 2). After a lot of time has passed without any sexual connection, it can be really difficult to get back in the saddle, but you know what? You just have to do it. And if it doesn’t work the first time (stress, hormones, etc. can wreak havoc on a sex life), try, try again and again. You may need to work through tips 1-3 before embarking on this one, but know that it is possible to quench your thirst after a drought.
- Eyes Wide Open: When you fall in love or make the decision to marry, you look at the person you are joining with and think they are pretty darn perfect. When life interrupts the great thing you have going, as it inevitably will, you quickly learn that this person you are with isn’t all that perfect. In fact they are far from it, and the reality that we are all imperfect beings hits you like a Mack truck. Looking at your partner with open eyes and a fresh outlook can really help you through the dark periods. Digging a little deeper and giving them your compassion and understanding is one of the ways you will halt any kind of disconnection.
- Set the Intention: There is risk involved in finding your way back to one another. If a lot of time has passed since you were the happy couple you originally were, then it is going to take courage. It can even feel easier to remain stuck and bitter. Make a decision that you are not going to be a statistic. Look at your partner and say to them, “I am in this for the long haul with you. I chose YOU and I love YOU. I know that we are very far apart right now, but I am not willing to let this go. I know that on the other side of grief, suffering, sorrow, anger and guilt, there is love – and there is ‘us’ and the essence of this beautiful thing we created.” Vow to each other that you will stay right here side by side for as long as it takes to find your way out of the darkness.
As we found our way back to each other, we discovered that beneath the stress and exhaustion, the “us” remained. The love and passion we had for each other was still there, as was our sense of humour and the beautiful and unique connection we had made so many years earlier. We forgave each other for whatever needed forgiveness. We freed ourselves of grudges and old damage, knowing that we had been operating from a place of broken hearts, sleepless minds and worn bodies.
The truth is, sometimes you can want so badly to find your way back to one another and still it isn’t enough. Sometimes one person is willing, while the other has one foot out the door and has already decided that they do not want to put the effort into trying to make it back to a place of harmony and love. You only have control over yourself and how you will conduct yourself in your relationship with your partner.
Fight for it, trusting that, in the end, if it all falls away, you can know in your deepest parts that you gave it your all. If you are reading this and your relationship did not survive under the suffocating stress that life can bring, then tuck these tips into your pocket for when a new relationship is on the horizon.
All marriages and relationships go through some harsh, frigid times, but this is not indicative of the end. Each time you triumphantly surpass that which seemed insurmountable, you deepen your intimacy and experience a love that you may have never imagined. There are gifts that come from the darkness, and only when you find your way through the darkness are they revealed.
*Julie Keon is certified life-cycle celebrant, licensed marriage officiant, death educator, end-of-life doula, hospice volunteer and mother. She is the author of What I Would Tell You~ One Mother’s Adventure with Medical Fragility (released December 2017). She shares her life in the Ottawa valley with her husband, Tim, and their daughter, Meredith.