It’s a really interesting time to be a marriage counselor. I have a front row seat to watching how this historical event is affecting so many marriages. And not the public view, the one the rest of you see on social media, but the private, sacred, messy view—the real one. We are all more likely to post about our fun family bike ride on the greenway on Saturday than our week from hell trying to work at home and do school at the same time. Yikes!
It’s different. Sure, couples are having some of the same fights as always—how to divide the labor, who isn’t being appreciated, who feels criticized. But sprinkle in some unprecedented uncertainty and restricted outlets and there is a whole new level of struggle.
I have a particular soft spot for my couples who are parents. Maybe it’s because I’m in the same boat. The stressors this pandemic put on parents seem uniquely unfair. Janet Grose of The New York Times recently called the pandemic “a mental health crisis for parents.” She shared research done by the American Psychological Association concluding that parents during this pandemic are “markedly more stressed than non-parents.” Furthermore, parents with young children are “particularly stressed.” I couldn’t agree more. The parenting stressors are high and the relief is minimal. Many parents are not getting the daily parenting reprieve of kids going to school every day. Parents of young children do not have the plethora of entertainment and support they usually do—there is no library story time or children’s museum to visit.
I wrote my new book, From Chaos to Connection, before COVID. But regardless of the type of chaos, the tips and tools are relevant now more than ever. As a loyal Marriage Sense reader, I’ll be giving you sneak peeks before it releases on October 9th.
Today, I’m sharing an excerpt from chapter two, titled “Can’t You See, It’s Hard for Everyone,” because it addresses parenting stress and its impact on a marriage. The full chapter provides readers with these three takeaways:
- Most couples struggle with the parenting fight heard ’round the world: “My burden is more than yours” or “You don’t appreciate all I do”
- This is a normal relational rift, but can be destructive without a key element: empathy
- Empathy is a huge part of the solution . . . learn how
Excerpt from From Chaos to Connection: A Marriage Counselor’s Candid Guide for the Modern Couple by Lori Epting, LCMHC
In my office, I watch the same fights go around and around when partners struggle with empathy. I have to give these spouses credit—they work incredibly hard to get their spouse’s empathy. Unfortunately, they often use the same faulty methods, which usually wind up perpetuating a never-ending argument instead of invoking the empathetic response they long for.
I often see a stay-at-home mom desperately defend her role in the home. In an effort to get her husband’s empathy, compassion and understanding, she recounts laundry lists of her never-ending chores and tells tales of tantrums and other horror stories of parenting. She thinks that if she paints the picture of how much she endures on a daily basis, he will surely see all she does. He will see how she has sacrificed pieces of her professional identify and self-care to pour herself into her family, and then he will empathize with her in the way she desperately needs and deserves. Once he empathizes with her, she knows he will naturally want to cheerlead her, shower her with appreciation, and even take care of her. Without hesitation, he will rub her feet, clean the kitchen, and give her a night off from putting the kids to bed, rescuing her from the endless monotony of parenting. No wonder she is fighting so hard for his empathy!
Meanwhile, I see the overworked husband desperately defend his role out of the home. I watch him vehemently explain the level of stress he is under at work and the intensity of his client’s demands. I watch him defend his career and the effort he puts into his work as the sole reason they get to live in the nice house with the nice things. I watch him dismiss his wife’s pleas for his help at home because his own work feels so stressful. He longs for her to see how he sacrifices his time and his hobbies and gives up his days on the golf course to coach his son’s Little League team in his “spare time.” He thinks that if he points out all this, she will empathize with him in the way he desperately needs and deserves. Once she empathizes with him, she will naturally want to show her appreciation, support his work endeavors, and give him a back massage after his tough day at work. Without hesitation, she will corral the kids into the other room to give him a moment of peace and quiet so that he can unwind after a hard day at work. No wonder he is fighting so hard for her empathy!
The problem is, as long as two people are defending their positions and not also putting themselves in the other’s shoes, no one is getting their needs met.
Let me explain empathy as it pertains to marriage. My husband and I used to share all the financial contribution, house-hold chores, daycare drop-offs, toilet paper pickups, etc. Then we suddenly moved across the country from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Charlotte, North Carolina. I was unable to practice immediately because I had to get my license transferred, and I got pregnant with baby number two. We went from being a financially comfortable two-income shared-chores family to being a one-provider and one-chore-doer family.
Other complications arose as well. When we originally started looking for houses in North Carolina, we had intended to find a move-in-ready home. Instead, we ended up in an abandoned home that still reeked of the neglect of its previous, divorcing couple—though we promised ourselves we’d renovate immediately. And even after we moved, our house in Scottsdale sat on the market for almost a year—so as our income dropped, our mortgage payment doubled.
Now, I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure this put us in the red. And the predictable commission of my husband’s previous sales territory was nowhere to be found, as he basically had to start over.
We barely saw each other. I was in a new city, with few friends, pregnant (three times, due to two miscarriages) and home alone with our two-year-old while my husband traveled all the time. He would come home late, exhausted and stressed beyond recognition. I had never seen him like this—he had been cruising on autopilot in his job since we got married. I had never experienced him as a stressed-out, overworked husband fearful for our financial future. And as is typical of most husbands, he was not particularly eloquent in communicating his level of stress, or his needs. For the first time in our marriage, we went to bed separately. He wanted to stay up and “unwind,” while I was exhausted from chasing around our two-year-old and creating an entirely new human being in my own body.
This was the breeding ground for disconnection—the point where all good marriages go to die.
The lowest low that comes to mind is a memory of us yelling at each other over tiramisu during a date night, and riding home in silence. Inevitably, we started arguing again, and as we headed down our street to our house, in a moment of reactive hopelessness, I impulsively got out of the car and walked the rest of the way home.
Confession: Even marriage counselors lose their sh*% sometimes.
After this blowout, we were able to talk in the driveway and figure out a few things. I told him I was angry that we could not afford the renovations that we had originally planned for our new house. I told him that I was disappointed not because I was a superficial, materialistic, nothing’s-ever-good-enough wife who needed a super luxurious, state-of-the-art home—but because I had expected one thing, and something else had happened. Because I wanted a home that made me feel good about having new people over to watch football games and have playdates. Because I wanted to make good friends and build a nice community for our family in our new city. It hadn’t happened, and I was truly disappointed.
Now, as I listened to my husband talk in our dark driveway at what must have been almost midnight, I learned a few things, too. He told me that every time I criticized our spacious new ’80s-inspired home, I criticized his ability to provide for us. In his mind, every time I complained that there were no pictures on the walls and that there was no money to buy any, I was saying he was basically worthless because he wasn’t making enough money. And on top of that, he was seriously working his tail off. He was throwing himself into back-to-back meetings, long drives, late nights, and early mornings, worrying himself sick over our financial future during every sleepless night. And here I was, saying, “It’s not good enough!”
I started to feel his pain. I even started to empathize with his position. I wondered what must it feel like to work that hard, to pour your heart and soul into something, and be told over and over that it wasn’t enough?
Jessica Grose, September 9, 2020. The New York Times. “The Pandemic is a Mental Health Crisis for Parents.” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/09/parenting/mental-health-parents-coronavirus.html