If you take an axe and swing it at an oak tree a few times every day, that strong tree will eventually fall to the ground and die. In the same way, when we’re under severe stress, we often take swings at our partner without realizing the cumulative damage being inflicted on our marriage.
Every single thing we say and do to our spouse either helps or harms our relationship. Nothing is neutral. Even “pass the butter” can drip with contempt.
Marriage is hard work, even in ideal circumstances. However, a child’s chronic health condition can create an additional burden that strains even the strongest relationships, especially in the first years after diagnosis. The good news is that troubled relationships can get back on track. Following are some tips to nurture your relationship.
Mind Your Marriage
The relationship between wife and husband is often the first thing neglected in times of family stress. It may seem counterintuitive, but tending to your marriage to keep it strong is one of the best gifts you can give to your child. That foundation is often a source of a child’s security.
When things get busy, there is still time to take a walk, watch a weekly TV show together or have coffee at the bookstore. Creating a ritual is better than a spur of the moment get-together. Find an enjoyable activity you can do, preferably weekly, so you can look forward to this time together.
Remain Intimate Partners
Particularly with women, when we are stressed, the last thing we think about is sex. But consider how good it feels to be intimate when you’re relaxed and connected. You can have the best friends in the world, but there is no substitute for being in the arms of the person you love.
Sustaining or rekindling your relationship requires physical contact. Kiss hello and goodbye. Hug for no reason. Cuddle in front of a fire or on the couch while watching television.
Sometimes stress freezes our sex drive. Let your spouse know if there are things he can do to relax you. For some women, it may be a warm bath or “choreplay,” such as having him clean up the kitchen or fold laundry. Even better, have your spouse take over one chore permanently. For example, Friday nights Dad makes pizza and cleans up afterward. Make time for sensual intimacy and see if you can’t dust off your libido.
Divide and Conquer
Often one parent becomes the “expert” in food allergies (typically the mother). If this is true, have confidence in her decisions. Trust her when she tells you it’s not safe to get a cone at the local ice cream parlor because of cross-contamination. Believe her when she tells you it’s not safe to buy that brand of chocolate.
This doesn’t give one parent a license to take a backseat while the other parent handles everything. That’s a recipe for resentment in the marriage. It’s also not fair for a parent to behave as if she is the only one who can do things right. Treating your spouse like a buffoon is insulting, and sends a bad message to your children.
On the other hand, it’s vitally important for both spouses to understand that men and women parent differently. In general, moms tend to be more protective, while dads are more adventurous. There are benefits to both approaches.
Expect and Forgive Mistakes
It’s hard to accept, especially if your child is newly diagnosed, but mistakes will happen. You’ll serve the wrong milk or your spouse will forget the auto-injector. You’ll wait instead of injecting your child in a reaction. This is normal. Forgive yourself and your spouse. If you slip up, don’t be defensive. Admit your misstep and reassure your partner that you understand the implications.
If you do lash out at your spouse or become critical or defensive, find a way to make amends. Marital behavior expert John Gottman describes a relationship repair attempt as “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
His “Repair Checklist” is a list of phrases to get things back on track, such as: “I really blew that one” or “I’m sorry. Please forgive me.” Repairing can be accompanied by a hug.
The changes that a food allergy diagnosis brings to a marriage and a family can be a lot to handle. Responsibilities need to be shared, even though you may never fully approve of how your spouse does things. Still, working through the inevitable ups and downs together sets a great example and secure foundation to help your children thrive.
Gina Clowes is a certified life coach and consultant who helps parents and schools advocate for children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, a support community serving thousands worldwide.