The world is full of advice for married couples, newlyweds or not -- some of it commonsensical, most of it well-intentioned, and much of it wrong. In the 14 years we've been married, my husband and I have broken all the rules at least once -- and when I copped to friends, most of them gleefully admitted they'd done the same.
Having a baby puts enormous strain on your relationship. One solution? Simple acknowledgment.
So I asked them to go on the record as we figured out the biggest myths about marriage. With the help of a few experts (themselves veterans of long, kid-filled relationships), we've decoded what bits of conventional wisdom are worth tossing -- and what are worth tweaking -- from the suggestions we've all heard since walking down the aisle.
Myth: Never go to bed angry
It sounds reasonable -- why risk letting a fight smolder overnight only to flare up again the next day? Better to resolve things, sleep soundly, and start fresh.
What we say: Just agree to disagree until morning -- especially if it's midnight, there's no resolution in sight, and you're dying on the vine. After all, not every argument comes with a built-in time limit.
When Brooke Kline of Rohnert Park, California, and her husband wave a temporary white flag and hit the sheets, they see the issue more clearly in the morning. "We aren't so caught up in our emotions," says this mom of a 9-month-old.
Alternately, agreeing beforehand to make up can take the edge off a disagreement. Rachel Kincade of Fort Hood, Texas, says when she can't resolve a conflict with her husband, they have to spend the next day saying or doing nice things for the other person. "By the end of the day, you feel so pumped up on compliments that you just can't stay mad!" Parenting.com: Love and war
Of course, going to sleep angry isn't great. But here's the bright side: "Even if you go to bed mad and sleep in separate rooms once in a while, you'll be OK -- and so will the relationship," says David Wexler, Ph.D., author of "When Good Men Behave Badly" (and a dad of two who has been married for 24 years).
Myth: Having a baby brings you closer
When my older son was born, my normally reticent husband and I suddenly had a million things to talk about. (Of course, we spent most of our time talking about one subject: the baby! The baby! And did I mention the baby?)
But then my husband went back to work, the traitor. And the baby got colic. And the thrill of nursing all night and staggering around like a zombie all day began to wear thin. Naturally, I couldn't take my frustrations out on my precious tiny bundle... but I had to blame someone. Guess who?
What we say: Having a baby is the ultimate bonding experience. But it also puts enormous strain on your relationship. One solution? Simple acknowledgment -- couples tend to have problems when they expect everything to go smoothly.
You'll also definitely need help with the unbelievable physical labor babies require. "Delegate. If you're good at the bedtime routine and your spouse loves bathtime, you can divide and conquer the tedious parts of parenting," says Karen Reivich, Ph.D., a research associate at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, coauthor of "The Resilience Factor," and -- most important -- a mom of four who's been married for 14 years.
It helps to get away from the baby on a semi-regular basis. If a formal "date night" makes you cringe, or the logistics seem impossible, opt for something more low-key. "We don't leave the house because we can't afford a baby sitter, but every Wednesday night, after the kids are in bed, my husband and I have a glass of wine together as far away as possible from their bedrooms," says Reivich.
Myth: Spouses should be best friends as well as romantic partners
It sounds wonderful, doesn't it? After all, you and your husband know each other better than anyone else, so why wouldn't he be your best friend, too?
What we say: "Romantic relationships are different from friendships. One person can't be everything to you," says Andrea Smith, a mom of two in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
In other words, don't beat yourself up if it sometimes feels like you're closer to the mom next door than to your mate. "It would be great if your husband is someone you have fun with, respect, have great sex with, work well with as a parent, and is your soulmate. But almost no one gets all that in one relationship," says Wexler. And if you and your partner manage some of these things, "you've been blessed," he adds. The trick is to keep your bond going on some level. "Stay involved in your partner's life. When you separate in the morning, make sure you know at least one detail of each other's day -- and ask about it later," says Wexler. Parenting.com: Secrets of a made-to-last marriage
It helps to be grateful for what you do have. "Rick and I have been together since high school -- and he's not my best friend," says Deborah Coakley, a mom of three in Ridgewood, New Jersey. "But after everything we've gone through, he's definitely my most constant friend."
Myth: Don't worry about your (lack of) sex life
In the first months of babyhood, hormones, exhaustion, and what the baby books call being "touched out" -- a polite way to describe wanting to scream if one more human being comes within three feet of you -- all conspire to make sex seem only slightly more appealing than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.
What we say: At the risk of sounding unenlightened, after you've had a baby (and especially after the second child), sex becomes absolutely critical to your relationship.
When you're busy, stressed, and seeing about one-tenth as much of each other, sex is the quickest and most rewarding way to reconnect with whatever scraps of the unencumbered and madly-in-love people you both used to be.
"My husband and I snap at each other nonstop when we haven't slept together in a while," says Coakley. And, sure, it's easy to put off sex -- after all, you live with the guy and tomorrow is another day. But don't. As a friend so memorably put it: "There's nothing like an orgasm and an absurdly grateful husband to improve your outlook on life."
You also don't have to fall for the notion that good sex requires an elaborate romantic getaway with your spouse -- that just sets you up for disappointment. It's better to take advantage of frequent stolen moments. "Embrace the quickie -- and widen your repertoire of what counts as good sex," says Reivich. Even if you don't go, as they say, all the way, physical contact of any kind is its own thrill.
Myth: Don't fight in front of the kids
When moms and dads fight, it's scary. Babies can tell when you're angry (and will probably get upset) and bigger kids will worry that the two of you are on the verge of a divorce.
What we say: It can be valuable for children to see their parents work through a disagreement with good will. Kids also need to learn that even people who love each other don't get along perfectly. "It's unrealistic to expect no conflict," says Smith. "If you never have a difference of opinion with your spouse, then you've obviously found someone who agrees with everything you think. How boring!"
In other words, it's fine -- even healthy -- for kids to witness your arguments. But there are caveats. (Aren't there always?) "When you argue in front of your kids, it's important to fight fair," says Reivich. "Instead of shouting 'You're a lazy slob!' say 'It really bothers me when you don't take out the trash.' Take issue with the action, not the person, and don't hurl insults." So if the fight is too intense, or there's no resolution in sight, table it until the kids aren't around.
Myth: Never take your spouse for granted
This is the secret of happy marriages, right? Because taking someone for granted means you've stopped appreciating that person.
What we say: Taking your beloved for granted in a marital context can actually mean you know you can count on him, depend on him, trust him -- that you are, without question, absolutely there for each other.
This might mean you've accepted certain roles within your family. "My husband and I definitely take each other for granted," says Jillian Waddell, a mom of one in Princeton, Massachusetts. "Scott works full-time -- which he never complains about, even though it's sometimes stressful." When you're married with children, feeling secure enough to lean on your spouse without worrying can be immensely liberating.
However, taking your loyal spouse for granted and treating him like dirt aren't the same thing. Simply expressing gratitude goes a long way. "My husband cooks dinner every night," says the incredibly lucky Reivich, "and though I'm used to it, I'm smart enough to know what a deal I've got. So I say, 'Gee, I don't even have to think about cooking dinner anymore, it's so wonderful, thank you,' every once in a while." And that's a piece of advice we all should follow. E-mail to a friend
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Fernanda Moore has written for New York magazine.
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