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True life: Marriage counseling helped us be better partners—and parents

What we failed to realize was that we were giving each other what we needed, not what the other person needed.

True life: Marriage counseling helped us be better partners—and parents

At the end of 2011, my husband Byron and I were at a crossroad. We'd been together for five years and had one child—a 4-year-old son. In July of that year, we'd eloped to Jamaica. We exchanged vows under a picturesque, white painted gazebo flanked by tropical flowers and palm trees. Our dear friends were with us. The breeze floated through the leaves and the sound of the ocean sailed through the distance.

Our wedding day was a scene from a sappy, rom-com. Eloping was the perfect way for us to make our marriage about us. After all, we did things "backward" by conventional standards. We had a house, life, and child together before tying the knot.

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A few months after we returned home, though, the reality the movies don't always show had set in. And when it came down to it, we weren't sure if we wanted to stay together.

We thought waiting so long to get married would ensure we'd go into our contracted partnership with no hesitation. After all, we'd been together long enough to know what each other's best and worst qualities were at that point. We already knew we could parent together. We'd already navigated so many of life's difficulties—losing a parent, job changes, moving-—and we'd done it together.

When my husband and I came to the realization that still, after all we'd experienced together, we were having doubts, we decided action was necessary.

And that is how we found ourselves seated together on a dark brown loveseat in the well-lit office of a marriage and family therapist. Across from us, a woman of medium build with brown eyes and blonde hair that was dark at the root sat with legs crossed and a notepad in her hand. A slight smile on her face. "How about we start with telling me why you've sought out counseling?" she said.

Byron and I looked at each other for a moment, and then back at the counselor. An awkward silence followed, and then I launched into all our perceived problems. I spewed about finances, differences in parenting techniques, lack of intimacy, and a general feeling of disconnectedness. All the while, my husband sat, quiet.

Thus started our journey in couples counseling. We spent two years in therapy and together with our counselor, we tackled each of our issues one at a time.

We learned that Byron and I—each raised by single mothers—were approaching our relationship and its responsibilities from a single parent mentality. Our counselor helped us see that we didn't understand how to treat our relationship as a partnership because we hadn't seen that as children. This mentality affected everything from our finances to our parenting techniques to our communication style.

At the time, I was responsible for paying certain bills, and Byron was responsible for the others. Each month, some bills were delinquent, and the other person wouldn't find out until we received a letter or an email. This was often the source of an argument.

Our counselor handed us a yellow, spiral notebook and told us to write "Byron and Nicole's Finances" on the front. She then instructed us to write down all our bills in the notebook and come up with a budget together. This was the first time we'd done our bills together, and we balked at not thinking of it on our own.

Our counselor dispelled our embarrassment. "How would you know to do this if you'd never seen it growing up?" Her question made so much sense. "Sometimes, it's great to have an outside perspective like me, come in and help you see these things," she continued, "our relationships with each other can cloud our judgment because of the emotional attachment involved, and it's my job to help you see through that."

This put us at ease, and that week, we sat down with our laptop, notebook, and a calendar, and created a budget together. Today, we still sit down at the beginning of each month to discuss our bills and make changes to our budget as needed.

Another area our "single parent" mindset affected was our parenting style. Byron and I had completely different parenting methods in mind, and we often bickered about how we discipline our son. Sometimes, we disagreed in front of our son, which created its own set of problems.

Our therapist helped us see that we were both trying to put in place the parenting strategies we'd learned from our mothers, but we hadn't thought about going to each other to come up with discipline methods together.

Once again, we'd never seen that done. Our mothers didn't answer to anyone else when it came to discipline, so it didn't occur to use to use each other as a sounding board.

Outside our "single parent" mentality, Byron and I faced intimacy issues that transcended the bedroom. He and I weren't connecting at any intimate level. We simply existed in the same household and proceeded with our day-to-day lives, leaving little time for connection with one another. We came home from our respective jobs, tended to our son's needs, and then went our separate ways.

He's a night owl and I'm an early riser. He decompresses by watching television. I prefer reading.

Our counselor taught us that fostering a feeling of connection, especially after several years together and a child, takes work. It wasn't going to be as easy as it was at the beginning of our relationship to make time for each other, and that was normal. This was big news to both of us.

I grew up on a healthy dose of Disney films and societal standards that told me marriage was bliss at all times. What isn't conveyed is how much work goes into keeping a long-term relationship fresh. There is no downtime, and this is something our counselor taught us.

She set us up with little assignments that helped build the connection. One that is still a part of our lives today is "the check-in." Before I go to bed, Byron comes into the room and sits down for about 15 minutes with me. We talk about our day and spend a little time together without electronic devices, or my book, or the television on.

Every now and then, we ask one another if there's anything the other person needs. Am I being attentive enough? Is there something I haven't been doing that you'd like me to do? Is there anything you need from me to show I support you?

These questions keep us accountable to one another and leave little space for animosity to build up because we're being open, honest, and direct with one another.

She also had us complete the quiz in the back of the book, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman. We were then to read about each other's love language. This exercise was pivotal in our relationship. "Couples express love the way they want to receive love, but seldom do two people in a relationship express love in the same ways," our counselor told us.

This was true in mine and Byron's relationship. I'm the touchy-feely type, and Byron wants someone to listen and support him through action. I was trying to show love by holding Byron's hand in public or hugging him more. He was trying to show me love by listening to my woes or supporting my education goals.

What we failed to realize was that we were giving each other what we needed, not what the other person needed.

As a result, Byron started showing me more physical affection, and I started attending his football games to show him I supported his extracurricular activities.

Though we learned much more than even this—these were the big things. We left counseling feeling empowered and thankful that we were able to put our egos aside to mend our relationship.

Quite frankly, marriage counseling is the reason we're still together—and happy—today. Are things perfect? Absolutely not. We can both still be forgetful. There are still arguments and rough patches. Today though, we have a blueprint to fall back on thanks to what we learned in counseling. And I'm proud we took that first step together when we knew we needed to.

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