Task #7: Share laughter and keep interests alive. The saying is true: Laughter really is the best medicine. Humor is one of the greatest ways couples can break any tension between then and come back together. If couples are able to laugh together, they can often use it to play and keep their connection fun. When paired with doing activities that are interesting to both of you, it can be unifying and strengthen your bond.
This is even more important in stepfamily dynamics — you need to focus on your couple connection. The things that brought you together — the things that make you laugh, your inside jokes — are what will help you navigate through typical stepfamily struggles. If you enjoy hiking together, don’t change it to always hiking with the kids. Still hike together as a couple. If you enjoy surfing together, golfing together, going to movies together, whatever it is, still do it alone as a couple, like you did when you were dating. Take time to laugh and play together to keep your connection strong.
Task #8: Provide emotional nurturing. This is a vitally important piece of creating a strong marriage. If we don’t know what our partners will be going through in stepfamily life, we will be unable to provide the emotional nurturing they need and leave them feeling alone. This is one of the reasons many couples fail.
The bio parent is so overwhelmed and caught in the middle that often they don’t want to really understand what their partner is struggling with. A sense of having had a failed marriage prior to this marriage often has a lot to do with this, but being blind to the struggles of the stepparent means the bio parent cannot, as a partner, provide emotional nurturing.
Often stepparents feel they are the ones providing most of the emotional nurturing in the marriage because they have been understanding about their partner and the divorce, understanding about the struggles with the kids and visitation, and empathic to wanting to help their partner have a good connection with their children. They then end up feeling so isolated and alone because the bio parent does not truly understand their struggles, cannot be empathic and, therefore, cannot help them.
In successful partnerships, partners are emotionally attuned to their partners. It’s unifying to know your partner “gets you.” It is important for the bio parent to know what stepfamily life will be like for a stepparent so they can be helpful, supportive, and empathic to their loved one.
Task #9: Maintain a double vision. Strong couples have an ability to maintain a double vision — which means they can carry in their head simultaneously a vision of past memories with their current reality. This means when you become overwhelmed with daily life you can remember why you fell in love with your partner.
“You’re my knight in shining armor,” Ethel says to her aging husband Norman in “A Golden Pond.” When she uttered those words, she wasn’t looking at her bespectacled husband of almost 45 years, but at the young, handsome man she fell in love with all those years ago.
We can so easily forget how we fell in love and why, especially with the complexities of stepfamily life. When I hear people say, “Well, that takes work,” I often wonder why we study for everything in life except how to have quality relationships and how to be effective parents — the two most important and valued relationships in our lives.
When we put in the time to learn about our partners, who they are, what they are all about and what their struggles are, we stay more attuned to them, which increases the quality of our love. When we can remember the feeling of falling head over heels for them, or remember sweet things about them, that will help us maintain that double vision when we are upset and angry. Focus on what is good about your partner. Focus on their strengths. Even when you are furious. It will help you get through very difficult times. Schedule a date night every week so you can make sure you take the time to do this and strengthen your marriage.
Use These Tasks to Strengthen Your Partnership
Now that you have all nine tasks that Dr. Wallerstein believes will help you create a stronger marriage, work with them and use them. You deserve a quality marriage, but remember that having one takes energy and effort.
Think about what you’ve done or accomplished that you are most proud of. It’s probably something you worked very hard on – a dissertation, a presentation at work, a project. Whatever it is, it took a certain amount of dedication and work. Marriage requires the same. With a certain amount of work and dedication, we put mindfulness into our relationships, and what we get in return is priceless.
So decide what type of marriage you want. If you want an aggravating, disconnected marriage, then don’t put any energy or effort into your partner and that is exactly what you will get. If you want a connected, loving marriage, then put your energy into learning what goes into a quality marriage and set your goal to improve yourself as a partner. Become the partner you wish you were married to. I guarantee you that the results will be worth it.
If you missed either of the first two articles in our series, you can find them here: Tasks 1-3 and Tasks 4-6.