As a couples mediator and self-help author, people often turn to me for expert relationship advice. They assume that because I seem to have all the answers, I must have a perfect marriage myself. The truth is that I have a happy marriage with many good days. However, I also have some not-so-good days that require me to put my own communication advice into practice.
My husband and I are a great team, but like all couples, at times we found ourselves to be no match for the demands of our infant son. Stress from a little one can wear down anyone’s patience and test any marriage. A few years ago, we had what I now call our “Chinese takeout awakening.”
It happened after work. We’d both had tiring, stressful days at the office. The evening arrived, and we fell into our typical routine. Our 11-month-old son was on the verge of walking, and he was trying to climb everything in sight. One of us, therefore, needed to pay very close attention to him at all times to make sure he was safe. As usual, it was me who ended up being on surveillance duty. My husband was nearby, but somehow I was the one “in charge.” We had never verbally agreed to this division of power. It just happened. When I would use the bathroom or make a phone call, I had a nagging guilty feeling that I had to rush back to my duties.
On this seemingly uneventful night, we ordered Chinese takeout, and my husband announced that he would go pick it up. As I was left stranded at home, again, I became angry. “Darn it!” I thought. “I want to get out of the house for 20 minutes to get the takeout!” But I didn’t say this to my husband because it felt wrong. After all, he was only trying to be helpful by doing the errand. And so I slept on it.
By the next morning I was prepared for a difficult conversation. I couldn’t blame my husband for the situation; I had tacitly agreed to it. And the truth is, how could he know what I wanted if I never said it? Now was the time to renegotiate our evening parenting responsibilities. The de facto parenting split—95 percent me, 5 percent him—was not acceptable. I took my own advice as a family mediator, and I revealed my feelings without blaming him. I told him that I wasn’t asking for him to be in charge all of the time, or even half of the time. I just needed him to spend a portion of each night as the responsible party, so I could have a chance to truly relax or go out and pick up the takeout, knowing our son was well taken care of.
I’m not kidding when I tell you this: From that day forward, my husband stepped up to the plate. He created fun little games with our son that they play every night. They have their own sayings and jokes. When our son needed his diaper changed during the “Daddy play period,” my husband did it, without calling for my help.
As the days wore on, the nighttime fun turned into a beloved bedtime routine, which my husband still does these three years later. With a second child now in the mix, Daddy’s participation has become even more valuable.
My suggestion: Don’t wait to ask for what you want. A discussion regarding rebalancing expectations, child care, and household chores should be an annual event, at the very least. When you speak up with the goal of finding a solution, you may find that your entire family is better off, for years to come.
Laurie Puhn is a Harvard-educated lawyer, couples mediator, and bestselling author of Fight Less, Love More: 5-Minute Conversations to Change Your Relationship Without Blowing Up or Giving In, who frequently appears on CNN, Good Morning America, and The Early Show to offer relationship advice. Visit her website.