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Category Archives for "Marriage"

stress of parenting on marriage
Feb 11

The stress of parenting on marriage

By Jessica Allen | Family , Marriage

The stress of parenting on marriage is insane.  Luckily, a good marriage will bear a lot of weight.  Its trunk is made to bend, sway, take on storms and the occasional freeze.  A good (and maybe even a mediocre) marriage will survive all these stress factors.  A struggling marriage might snap as it succumbs to the pressure. 

Ours broke under the stress of parenting (among other factors).  But we're growing back stronger than before.  

I had the funniest encounter at the jeweler.  I took my wedding ring in for repair after noticing I was missing a small diamond out of the setting (I was actually missing two).  After noticing my toddler covered in lollipop sticky and realizing that my ring was filthy and in disrepair, the jeweler diplomatically encouraged me, “You know, you might choose to put this on only when you leave the house.  Having children is really hard on a wedding ring.” 

I just started laughing.  Yes, ma’am, having children IS hard on a wedding ring.  Having children is hard on a marriage.  Having children is hard on your mental health, physical health, financial health, life goals, career goals, time management, emotional management, kneecaps, pets, countertops, wall paint, and car seats. 

Having children is hard on a marriage 

It’s the most incredible gift, to be entrusted by God (and in our case, another human family) to love and raise these tiny little people in the way of Our Lord.  To protect them, teach them, model for them, trust them, and finally release them to make their way in the world.  It makes my heart ache just thinking about it.

But LORD ALMIGHTY these children are hard on our marriage. 

We’re just so tired and stretched in every direction all the time. 

There are days where the sheer number of “things” I have to coordinate pushes me to near-or-actual tears.  And right behind that lump in my throat is the voice of the guy downstairs who loves to feed me B.S. like “you know, you don’t have any business having personal or professional goals right now.  This motherhood stuff is too hard.”

That is a lie.  And a whole different story for a whole different day.

But the point is that being a parent can drain the life, energy, spirit, drive, and confidence right out of a person.

That is not the kind of “me” I want to bring to our marriage.  And that’s not the kind of “him” I need him to bring to our marriage either. 

We’ve seen each other through the worst versions of ourselves, so I know we can make it through literally anything.  But as a general rule, we need the best versions of each other to make this circus run right. 

Good things we do to reduce the stress of parenting on our marriage:

  • Put our phones down when we talk to each other
  • Ask each other how we can help/support the other
  • Schedule a regular date night
  • Take care of our individual and collective physical health
  • Get enough sleep
  • Set boundaries with our work
  • Set boundaries with our friends/extended families
  • Set boundaries with our children
  • Read good brain food and talk about ideas instead of people or problems

Kids… even the world’s sweetest kids… wreck all of that.  The stress of parenting on marriage is no joke.  These kids need everything.  There is So. Much. Need.  Permission slips.  Water bottles.  Clean jerseys.  Birthday party presents.  Snacks.  Bigger underwear.  A bath.  A bandaid.  A signature.  A chauffeur.  A hug every 45 minutes in the middle of the blessed night.  (None of this is a complaint, and I wouldn’t wish one single bit of it away.  It just wears on a body!)

And our children are still little enough that their needs and problems are little.  I pray every day that as they get bigger, and their problems get bigger, that God will see us all through.  I have dear friends with teens and grown children and real big problems.  Life-changing stuff that brings true worry and heartache.  I can only imagine the stress that kind of parenting has on marriages.  Someday we will be there too and I will realize yet again that I don’t know jack squat about this marriage and parenting thing.  

We’re all just trying our best.  And when we're stretched to the max, something's gotta give.  

Bad habits we slip into when we’re exhausted from the stress of parenting:

  • Scrolling social media instead of talking to each other
  • Picking at the other person’s flaws or mistakes
  • Losing our senses of humor/snapping at each other
  • Letting the kids’ schedules trump our date night without rescheduling
  • Staying up too late, sleeping in, and skipping coffee club (this is usually the first red flag waving)
  • Overcommitting our calendars to work obligations
  • Skipping sit-down meals where we pray together
  • Assuming the other one heard/understood/received our communication
  • Binge watching bad TV or get sucked into politics (one of us loves the fire of political debate and one of us wants to cry over all the discord)
  • Failed connection in every area (mind, body, and soul)

Combine all ingredients, mix until volatile, and bake at a million degrees until it explodes.

No marriage can sustain that kind of unmitigated stress.

Which leads me back to our small-ish children: I’m a big fan of empowering our children to do just about any age-appropriate task they can, even down to their own laundry and simple supervised cooking.  They will likely make mistakes and as they are learning, the mess they often make in the process creates more work for me in the right-now.  But I am confident it will pay out in the long run.  (she says as she cries and dust-busters laundry detergent granules off the soles of her feet and scrubs peanut butter off the counter which is what likely knocked the diamonds out of her wedding ring in the first place)

Teach a kid to fish…

I can hear this in my mother’s voice: I am not my children’s maid and I am not their personal assistant.  I want these little people to make a way in the world and the best gift I can give their future spouses is an independent, capable, responsible human who sees a need and takes the initiative to meet it.  If they are capable of a task, I will ask them to do it, even if I need to trip around the misplaced shoes until they get home from school.  Not for a dollar, not for a sticker, but because we all live in this house and I expect it of them.  (For the record, I am absolutely not above bribery and incentives.  They work.)

This is not for the sake of standing on principle.  Rather I’m trying to help our children develop simple mindfulness – and confidence in their own abilities - that will eventually make adult life much more pleasant for them and everyone else in their space.  It’s work on the front end to teach kids how to do stuff but I’m playing the long game. 

Noble pursuit, sure.  But additionally, selfishly, I need their help.  Because when I am exhausted, I get frustrated, and when I get frustrated, I snap. And the first person I’m going to snap at is the one I’m married to.  He’s a safe snapping place.  Thank GOD.  But he shouldn’t always have to be, and I shouldn't have to be his easy target either.   The stress of parenting on our marriage shouldn't push either one of us to a meltdown.

When mama ain’t happy…

Everybody in this house has to pull their weight.  Because I can’t pull it all by myself.  You know that saying, when mama ain’t happy, nobody’s happy?  It’s not because mama’s a miserable nag.  It’s because she’s flat out exhausted

The stress of parenting on our marriage is real but it doesn’t have to own us. 

The cost for the diamonds I needed replaced in my ring was so minimal it wasn’t even worth filing the insurance claim. 

The cost for peace in my marriage is so minimal – intentional time, intentional effort, intentional attention to what’s good between us.  Refusing to believe the lie that “I have to do everything around here.”  They’re not going to do it as well as I would.  But guess what?  I didn’t have to do it… and that leaves room in my mind and my heart for more rewarding things.  For snuggles, and compliments, and reading, and jokes, and peaceful bedtime, and good sleep, and coffee club, and presence, and real connection, and a marriage I love. 

HP,
J

PS: I shared a candid video of the jeweler story in our Facebook group.  Have you found us yet?  Come breathe fresh air at Heartfully Present on Facebook and @heartfullypresent on Instagram.  

  

Suggestion box | affair in marriage
Feb 04

Suggestions please

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

There’s this thing I think I’m supposed to write but I don’t want to do it.  I DON’T WANNA.

But things don’t go well for me when I run away.  To be fair, I reject ideas all the time, which I’m sure (in the words of Liz Gilbreth) get passed along graciously to the next willing steward of the gift. 

However, from time to blessed time God and the universe reject my rejection and instead relentlessly nudge me until I can either say yes or fall off the cliff I’m backing up towards. 

The last time I said no, I fell off that proverbial cliff, and wound up crying in the pool on my 36th birthday.  Like winners do.

So I think I’m supposed to write about this thing but I’m scared to do it.  I’m scared because I know it will force me to touch some wounds that are still tender and unearth some skeletons that weren’t even pleasant the first time around. 

So here’s where I need some help.  Your help. 

Just so I’m clear here and that there are witnesses: I am tentatively saying yes to God and the universe and I am willing to dip a toe into this project if and only if they (and you) will help me with the process.

The thing I think I am supposed to write is how to leave an affair behind.

I have been afraid to even tell Jack about this but I finally did and he was exceedingly gracious about it. His humble suggestion for the project title is “Why My Affair Was F***ing Awesome” but that’s not A) appropriate, B) my tone/style at all, or C) what this project is about.  I told him not to worry; that’s actually a pretty bitchin’ post title for some time down the road.  Or maybe a companion piece to this one. 

But what I think I’m supposed to tackle is slightly different.  This would be written from the betrayer’s perspective.  The twisted path through a marriage that broke, the distorted reality of the affair itself, the loss of love in both relationships, turning your heart back to your spouse (I think this is the most important key part), and how to rebuild - or build anew - a marriage and a life you truly love.  This piece would cover some big topics like trust, communication, money, relationships, faith, sex, family, therapy, honesty, shame, things that still hurt your heart and haunt your mind…. you name it, it’s part of the muck of an affair. 

I don’t talk a lot about the a-word here in this blog partly because it’s really personal and embarrassing and partly out of respect for all parties involved.  We’re all still healing and trying to find peace and closure and life on the other side.  Most importantly, it’s not just my story to tell and it’s not my place to put that story out there.  I learned the hard way there are people who will abuse it, distort it, use it as a weapon, seek personal gain from it, and judge unfairly because of it.  So I’m not going to allow that story to be exploited or used for harm, and that means keeping it sealed in the vault. 

But how my family and I healed from the experience is my story to tell and I think it’s an important one.  I cannot tell you how many people I’ve encountered who’ve said some version of “we just don’t love each other anymore like we used to.” 

I started to believe that was reason enough to quit.

But what I’ve learned is that you really can choose to turn your heart around.  It is a choice.  If you truly want to, you can turn your heart back towards the person you promised it to in the first place.  It takes two people (and the power and grace of God) to repair something as devastating as an affair, and it starts with eliminating any other options – especially the option of another person. 

I remember sobbing on my hands and knees in our counselor’s office, as she asked Jack to step outside after a particularly gnarly session.  The look on his face was priceless.  Kind of a mix of “Oh, $%&@” and “Now what do I do?”

She said, in no uncertain terms, “None of this is ever going to work if you aren’t willing to let him go.”  (Him being the other man.)

I dripped all over her floor and choked out, “BUT I DID.”

She let what felt like an eternity of silence pass and then gently replied, “No, you didn’t, and you know it.”  I just laid down on the floor and cried until there were no tears left.    

This pain of letting go is excruciating.  During that season of my life I felt like everything was one giant suffocating act of letting go, losing hold of the edge of that cliff one desperate finger at a time.  Everything I imagined my life would look like, everything I felt I needed and wanted and deserved, everything I ever dreamed for myself and my family, everything I thought I valued and would never betray… I had to let go of all of it.  And all that letting go felt impossible. 

I’ve never been a Marine but after reading a little about it (and subsequently having the craziest dreams later that night) I understand their process is to break you down through intense training and then push you to overcome your fears to become a warrior and a champion.  

This whole affair was kind of like that.  Except instead of running and pushups, my heart was ripped out of my chest and then sewn back inside.  It pushed me to my limit, broke me apart, and then built me up stronger, softer, more determined, and fearless.   

So after becoming a warrior for marriage and life and belief and redemption and faith, this running-scared feeling I have about writing this piece is starting to tick me off. 

This is why I need your help.  I guess what I’m asking here is twofold:

  • Would this piece – in any form – be something you see as helpful/beneficial for people healing from or facing an affair?  If so, what format would be most easily accessible and helpful – e-book, blog post, an actual book, article submitted to a larger forum i.e. Focus on the Family, etc? 
  • What questions or topics do you think could/should be covered to offer people a practical guide for focusing their minds and hearts and healing their marriages?  i.e. If you could ask me anything or learn anything from my experience, what would you want to know?  There’s much to learn even for people in healthy marriages or singles hoping to start out strong in a relationship. 


If you’d feel most comfortable sending me an email or a private message, please feel free.  Top Secret: Eyes Only.  This stuff isn’t easy, and sometimes it can feel really raw and embarrassing to ask about or talk about.  Similarly, if there’s a person you think might have valuable feedback to offer, I’d be so grateful if you’d share this with them. 

HP, and ever-grateful for you,

J

True Marriage Story | Marriage Help | Engagement ring
Jan 28

True Marriage Story

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

We've had a typical morning for us... coffee club a few minutes before the kids wake up, car line in our most fancy clothes (duds and my cozy robe), and dishing the day's agenda in the kitchen before we open our laptops and get to work.  Him at the kitchen table and me on the living room floor with the baby, with my computer wedged as far back as the couch will allow to keep the keys away from his slobbery little fingers. 

marriage | husband and wife | black and white

Ain't marriage grand?

Today I'm regrouping after a horrible night's sleep (I see you, teething) and resetting my mind.  Because once or twice a semester we get to share our story with a group of couples committed to growing their marriages through a program called ReEngage, and tonight's the night.  All ages, all stages; some are the most fulfilled they’ve ever been and some are there as a last-ditch effort to save their relationship. 

We’ve been in both those places.

Our marriage story is hard to tell but it’s important to share. It’s good for us to remember where we came from and where we still want to go.  And in the version we share at ReEngage, there is no black and white filter.  We share the whole technicolor version.  No edits.  No cuts.  The whole true marriage story, from happy newlyweds to stress, finances, an affair, #btp, renewing our vows, starting over, and how each of our miracle children shaped and impacted our marriage along the way.

The ugly parts of the story are still cringy for me, and saying them into a microphone puts me so far out of my comfort zone I have to pretend nobody's there.  That's saying a lot for someone who puts her whole life out on the internet on a daily basis.  But we don't sugar coat anything.  We call it was it was, and describe in vivid detail how we got there, what happened, and how we came through it (by the grace of God).  

It was a bloody battle but the outcome was worth it. We’re different people now and the understanding/respect/love we cultivated is more than I ever dreamed for. (It’s still really hard sometimes... marriage is hard because we’re all hopelessly humanly flawed. I’m grateful for all we learned. It helps us when old wounds and patterns come haunting.)

If you’re even a little curious about our story or ReEngage itself, come sneak in the back tonight and check it out. You’ll at least hear a story that will make you feel a little better about your own life and choices. 😂 6:30 PM at The Woodlands United Methodist Church, in the Harvest worship space.  If your spouse won't come, it doesn't matter - Jack and I each attended alone on separate occasions before we could agree to go together.  

Healthy people get help. I admire anyone willing to work on themselves and work on their marriage. It’s not easy, and it takes time, but it’s totally worth it. If your marriage is in great shape, it’s the perfect way to connect and deepen your love.  (It's a built-in date night and free child care every Tuesday!) . And if you’re at that call-it-quits point, I promise this program is worth the try. At the very least, at the end, you’ll know you gave it all you had. 

If you’re not local, I bet there’s a ReEngage happening in your neck of the woods. And if not, search for a program that helps you connect with your spouse, whether it’s a weekend intensive, a great counselor to help you work through some tricky topics, or a group of friends that will hold you accountable and encourage you as a couple. Nobody gets through it alone.

You are the only one responsible for your one amazing life.  Your most important relationship is deserving of every ounce of loving care and attention you invest in it.  Your marriage story will be full of lots of bumps and cliff's edges.  And if it haven't seen them yet, I promise they'll surprise you when you least expect it.

Send up a little prayer today, if you're so inclined... that the marriage story we share tonight will be a light and a blessing to each person and couple listening.  And while you're at it, pray for your marriage too.  You're meant for a union that has lasting impact for good.

HP,

J

marriage habits | crash and burn | rocket ship crashing
Jan 14

Marriage Habits

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

Marriage is hard.  Did you know that?

So is life.  So is parenting.  Adulting is hard all on its own even without any of the other variables thrown in. 

No matter how much we evolve as creatures of faith and compassion, we are still - more than anything – creatures of habit. 

Ultimately this is a good thing.

Because habits are just skills.  And we can “level up” literally any moment we choose. 

You can train yourself to do just about anything.  From drinking more water to walking across hot coals, the human mind and body and spirit are capable of limitless achievement. 

Yet drinking more water and even walking across hot coals are a piece of cake compared to the habits we need in our relationships.

Contradicting yet complementary marriage habits we all need to develop:

Selflessness yet also self-respect.

Patience and persistence.

Strength and vulnerability.

Courage and trust.

Honesty and respect.

Kindness and boldness.

Love and boundaries.

Communication and restraint.

Awareness and maturity. 

Just to rattle off a few… and those are the easy ones.

Practice makes permanent (how to build a habit)

Fortunately, or frustratingly, however you choose to look at it, these habits are built by doing.  If you want more trust, you’re going to be thrown into situations that will require you to trust more, or be more trustworthy.  If you desire better communication, you’ll be faced with circumstances that call for deeper conversations. 

With intention and repetition, these habits can all be learned, practiced, and even taught to your children, becoming instilled within your family to shape for good every generation to come. 

And they all lived happily ever after.  The End.

Just kidding.

Because at some point, you’re going to blow it. 

The time machine

Every once in awhile in the dark corners of our marriage, there appears a door to a little time machine.  Ours pops open when we’re working through pain or hurt or lingering/unresolved issues. 

It feels really appealing to step inside that time machine.  It’s comfortable in there, albeit musty and stale.  It’s equipped with a (broken) communication system, an (outdated) atlas and an (obsolete) operations manual.  Systems we used to use before we knew any better.  Old marriage habits that served us until we outgrew them, at which point they almost crashed the whole ship.

I know that time machine is a hunk of junk.  Yet any time either one of us is sitting in pain, anger, resentment, shame, or regret, it’s really tempting to get back in. 

Bad marriage habits

We can hop inside and start blaming each other for our own personal unrest.  And we revert back to the way we used to talk to each other – dripping with sarcasm and arrogance (him) and martyrdom and condescention (me).  We can forget everything we’ve learned about forgiveness and grace and self-reflection and patience and kindness and actual communication and instead behave like selfish children. 

And then, before we know it, we’re swirling in the muck of our past, lost in space, out of touch with any reality we now know.  I can hear the words coming out of my 5-years-ago-me mouth, and I can see the look on his 5-years-ago face.

But we’re not those people anymore.  (Thank God and His infinite mercy.)

And we’re not going the same direction we were 5 years ago. 

So why do we keep getting back inside that time machine?

Because charting a new course is scary.

It’s hard to use new skills in a new way.  Habits are HARD to break.  And we’ve each lived a lifetime using those old, broken habits. 

He likes to annihilate his opponent with arguments and trick questions.

I like to play the martyr and slink away. 

So it’s harder for him, and not nearly as comfortable, to listen and respond with kindness and care instead of planning his next crushing blow in the debate to mow over the competition.  And it’s the most uncomfortable for him to entertain the idea that he might not be the “winner.”  (Helpful hint: there’s never one “winner” in marriage.  You either win together, or you lose together.  Strive not to fight each other but rather to fight for each other.)

It’s harder for me, and super uncomfortable, to stay in the fray and respond with clarity and bold honesty instead of using vague words and then walking away.  It’s most uncomfortable for me to say what I really need, instead of what I think will simply smooth over the fight.  (If this hits home, practice asking yourself these questions: what I am I really upset about, and what do I really wish could happen right now?  And then say it, like a grown-up person.  In actual words that other grown-up persons can understand because “clear is kind.”)

Get out of the past

We’ve spent some moments in the time machine this week, staring at old versions of ourselves. It stinks.  And it always takes a few days to recover from the experience; lots of reflection and practice for me to remember who I really am, for him to remember who he really is, and for us to remember who we really are as a couple. 

I like who we are now, and who we’re becoming.  I'm proud of the new, better, healthier marriage habits we're creating.  And I think we’re both ready to haul that time machine out to the curb.  (Don’t come get it.)

HP,

J

surviving the holidays | grief | divorce | marriage recovery | struggling marriage
Dec 03

Surviving the holidays when you’re barely surviving

By Jessica Allen | Family , Grief , Marriage

Surviving the holidays seems impossible when your life is falling apart.  (Spoiler alert: you can do it.  Keep reading and you'll see how we made it through too.)

Maybe you're grieving the loss of a loved one.  Maybe your marriage is on the rocks, or one of your children is troubled.  Your career or finances might be hanging by a thread.  All these things bring grief.  And grief is grief.  No matter the source.

Holiday grief

Waves come when you least expect.  Nine years after LJ died I had a meltdown on the floor at Hobby Lobby because I couldn't find six matching stocking hangers.  Everything came in sets of four or five... but not six.  

It came on like a panic - I could feel my heart rate skyrocket and my face get hot.  And I couldn't stop it from coming.  I was on my belly, face down, reaching for the back of the bottom shelves, when I finally just put my head down and cried.  People were sweet, mostly... scared, probably, but compassionate.  I pulled myself together, abandoned my cart, and left.  

There is no rhyme or reason for how grief manifests itself during "the holidays."

Surviving the holidays minute by minute

If you're approaching the holidays with a feeling of heaviness, anxiety, dread, or even despair, sentiments of "joy" or "merry" or "calm and bright" or even basic gratitude might be too much to hope for.  My prayer is that you will find simple pockets or even just tiny flickers of peace and comfort.  A good meal, a conversation with a friend, a book or song that speaks your heart.  

Those moments are treasures, like delicate shells to collect in your pocket.  Because the only thing that makes the anger and pain you're feeling even more distressing is the knowledge that the holidays are coming.  I remember starting to drown in the anxiety that I was going to have to swim in a sea of happy people when I was still such a wreck.  

Why surviving the holidays seems impossible when you're grieving

Entering the holiday season in grief is just about as hard as the loss you're grieving in the first place.  Regardless of the source of your grief, the holidays only magnify the pain grief brings.  What should be such a happy season just isn't happy at all.  

You wish you could close your eyes and wake up on January 2nd.  Skip it all.  Even the New Year, which feels ridiculous because the idea of a "fresh start" is insulting after your whole life has been upended.  If only a snap of your fingers could make it all go away: grief, frustration, confusion, Santa, the mall, the Salvation Army bell ringers, picture-perfect family photos, the Hallmark movie channel, and the blowups on your neighbors' lawn.  Everywhere you look are reminders that the world has moved on... and you're still stuck in sadness or anger.  

It's the most terrible time of the year

We had a rough Christmas once, more than normal.  Sadly, this one was even more awful than the year our son died.  This particular season was just weeks after our marriage detonated.  We both approached the holidays with heaping piles of disappointment, anger, resentment, and fear.  

Neither one of us was able to admit it to the other, but I know we were both terrified it would be our last Thanksgiving and Christmas together under one roof.  So surviving the holidays was especially critical, and doubly hard.  I was mortified to face his family, just as mortified as he was to face mine.  I was positive I was going to become a fold-over in the annual family Thanksgiving picture.  True story.  I think by chance I wound up on the far corner of the group in the photo… I’m sure I manifested that for myself.  (As far as I know, I didn’t get cut out!)

Make the holidays exactly what you need them to be

It was more important that year than ever before for us to create some special memories as “just us.”  We had to set some boundaries that season that confused and likely disappointed our families.  It was uncomfortable, and in many ways it probably would have been easier to just “do what we’ve always done.”  But that’s not what we needed that year, and I’m grateful we had the courage and determination to chart our holiday course differently. 

Surviving those holidays meant getting creative.  We intentionally established a new Christmas Day tradition in our home.  I knew after a full day of Christmas Eve services at church I would be exhausted, and trying to haul everyone out of the house with gifts and merriment strapped on would push me over the edge.  So, we didn’t.  And it is one of the best decisions we’ve ever made for our little family.  We stayed in our jammies, made memories and food together, and stayed present to enjoy what we truly thought was going to be our last Christmas together.  Tragically, if that had been true, it would have been our only Christmas together prepared and enjoyed with that much intention.

For more help on repairing your marriage, especially during the holidays, click here.  

I keep that Christmas in mind whenever I start feeling anxious about what each holiday is going to look like this time around. 

Things I learned from surviving that sweet and special Christmas:

The people who love you most will still love you. 

They will still love you even if you change all the plans and move all their cheese.  They will get over it.  Grit your teeth and wait them out!

Creating your own traditions is priceless.

These are memories you'll have forever.  If this isn't the year for traditions, go do or try something you'd never otherwise do.  Being together is the whole point.  Screw "normal."  There's no normal right now anyway.

Give your children the gift of present and loving parents on holidays.  

You can’t do that if you’re stressed to hell.  A wonderful funny friend of ours said, and I quote: “We don’t want our kids to think we suck at holidays.”  Our children really don’t want as much stuff as we think they do.  They just want us.  

Cook – or cater – a fantastic meal.  

We ordered a gorgeous prime rib, prayed we wouldn’t screw it up, and enjoyed the most incredible Christmas dinner.  One of my best memories of all time is sitting with Jack at the table after the kids had scampered off to play with their new toys.  With full bellies, and no run-around-town stress that day, conversation opened up that brought us some peace.  We were still a long way from reconciled then but I treasure that evening spent together with our guards lowered.  Magic really can happen over a great meal.  

Here are some easy ice-breakers if your relationship is so strained you don't know where to start.  

Thoughtful gifts don’t have to be expensive.  

Maxing yourself out financially only adds to your stress and mental garbage.  There are countless ways to say I love you that don't cost a penny.

But JUST SAY NO to anything that doesn’t bring you absolute peace and presence this season.  

Dragging yourself to and through obligations is a recipe for self-implosion. Saying no is harder for some people than others.  If that’s you, go back and read #1. 

It’s exhausting to stand on principle or try to punish or hurt someone you love on a holiday.  

Stick a pin in the feud; you can always come back to it later.  Be kind to each other, if for no other reason than to give yourself the gift of putting down the heavy weight of anger for just one day.

Don't make any big decisions

Your emotions, stress, fatigue, and blood pressure are all at DEFCON 5.  This is not the time to decide to split up, move out, quit your job, go skydiving, or get a tattoo or a puppy.  Those are all valid ideas that can wait until January.  That's when you'll think a little straighter and make better, more rational choices.

When you’re hurting, it’s time to circle the wagons, hunker down, and put your needs and the needs of your nuclear family first.  

This doesn’t mean shutting people out.  It simply means budgeting your time and energy so that you can give your most important people the best of yourself.  They deserve more than our "leftovers." 

Take pictures only if you want to.  

If someone else really needs a picture, suck it up and pose, while repeating to yourself you never have to look at the photo if you don’t want to.  Especially if it’s a painful reminder of a painful time. You DO have every right to request that it not appear on social media.  

Speaking of social media, STAY OFF SOCIAL MEDIA.  

You can “like” everybody else’s “perfect family pictures” another day.  I say "perfect" because I promise you, they yelled at each other trying to get the perfect outfits or the perfect location or the perfect shot.  And one of the kids probably got threatened within an inch of his life for acting exactly like a kid forced to take pictures in itchy new clothes would act.  When our marriage fell apart, I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said, "we just had no idea anything was wrong."  (It would have paid for all the therapy!)  WE were that perfect family on social media.  Proof that you never truly know what's going on behind the scenes.  

Holidays are not going to magically make pain or struggle disappear.  

But you can find moments of peace and glimpses of goodness if you’re willing to look for them.

Surviving the holidays when you're a mess means simply making it through.  And once you've done it, you'll breath a sigh of relief.  And you might even have a glimmer of hope and gratitude.  (It's okay if you don't, though.  Some years, surviving the holidays is the very best you can do.  We are meant to thrive in the right time, and that time will come.  Just not right now.)

All this being said, if you do feel up to making merry this Christmas in spite of your grief, let your people love you the way they know how.  This means they will feed you and hug you and make you take uncomfortable family pictures.  And even if you stand on the far back corner of the group, I promise they won’t fold you over.

HP,

J

PS: This will help you survive the holidays! 

My new book, Joy Comes in the Mourning, releases Thursday, and it's that kind of book that might bring you a flicker of peace in a difficult season.  It's a raw and real look at the grieving process, no matter your loss or struggle, and will bring you the reassurance that what you're thinking and feeling is okay.  I found the brightest light on my life's darkest path.  And it's my joy to share what I've learned along the way.  Check back here and our social channels on Thursday for where to find the book, and for more help on grief and the holidays.

10 things to say instead of picking a fight | relationship fights
Sep 26

Relationship fights: 10 things to say instead

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

There are so many things I wish I did better when it comes to how to handle relationship fights.  Particularly in my marriage and as a parent.  It's so much easier and selfishly gratifying in the moment to fly off the handle and say *exactly* what I think my husband or my children need to hear.  

That is rarely (never?) the right solution.  And I definitely never feel better after I snap.

How many times have I let my emotions, fatigue, frustration, or insecurity get the better of me and shot my mouth off instead of trying to solve the problem while adding value to the relationship?

Relationship fights in our marriage (and being a naggy parent) are always a bad-math sum of anger and ego.  We both tend to step back into all our old crappy communication patterns.  He's pushy.  I'm a martyr.  In the heat of the moment, neither one of us listen or really care about the other person's feelings.  We end up saying things we regret and making a lingering mess out of what could have been a simple, intentional, solution-focused conversation.    

Related: Curb your ego for a happier marriage

So if I can keep my adrenaline at bay for even 5 hot seconds when a misunderstanding arises, here are 10 things that are better to say than picking those relationship fights.  

10. It hurts my feelings when you say or do _______.

Just address the ONE thing, right then and there, or as soon as possible after it happened.  Save the other 27 grievances for a time you're not steaming out the ears.

9. I need 5 minutes to regroup before we continue this conversation.

Splash your face with water, take a walk around the block, or eat a cookie.  If you feel backed into a proverbial corner, pause to collect your thoughts before you say something you'll regret.

8. I felt disrespected (or embarrassed/etc.) when you ______.

This is a big one for me.  Don't let it build.  It is our job to teach people how to treat us.  Even and especially our spouses.

7. Could we please find a time today to talk about something important?

This is our family's big cue phrase to keep relationship fights at bay.  It lets the other person know we are taking a risk by saying something hard.  Setting the stage for a healthy conversation always goes better for us than nuking the other one with a giant nag or complaint clear out of the blue.  

6. Next time, can you _____ instead?

Use this the next time you are ready to say "you ALWAYS" or "you NEVER."  If I have to unball one more set of long inside-out stinky baseball socks in my laundry I am going to lose my mind.  "Next time can you please unroll these before you put them in the hamper?  It helps me so much and makes me feel like you care."  This is a good strategy for children too.  I don't feel like a naggy wife or mom when I make a request.

5. I'm frustrated.  Can you please help me?

I shut down when I'm frustrated and it's easier to bang cabinets shut and heave giant sighs instead of ask for help.  My family cannot read minds.  And clearly they do not hear the slamming or don't care.  So a simple request lets them know I need them to get off the couch and lend a hand. 

4. Can we please set screentime guidelines for dinner?

Solve the problem before it becomes a problem.  And it's never the kids that have the problem!!!  It's so easy to slide back into distractions at the dinner table.  We regroup when we need to in order to get the devices off and away from that sacred space.  I'm a better wife and mom when I don't feel like I'm begging for my family's attention.  

3. I have a budget question when you have a minute.

ALWAYS better than "why did you buy that?????!!!!!"  Money questions can feel accusatory to me, no matter the context, so this is another area where it helps to have a phrase cue that we need to talk about it.  I'm not as defensive that way and the conversation always goes a little smoother.  

2. Can I borrow you for 30 uninterrupted minutes tonight?

Doesn't matter what you do, but make it worth their time. 😉

Variation on #2: I feel disconnected/lonely.

Chances are, if you've gotten into the habit of curbing screen time and borrowing each other for 30 minutes on the regular, you won't have to say this one a lot.  But in the busy chaos of family life, it happens.  We work across the kitchen table from each other every day and even then I still feel lonely sometimes.  That's when it's time to take a walk together, or unplug for 15 minutes to actually look at each other's faces.  Dial into each other's love languages and you'll only need a few minutes to connect with each other in a meaningful way.

1. Have I done something to upset you?

Ahh, the dance of the eggshells.  Nobody's good at it.  Just gird up your loins and ask the question.  Fair warning: if you are willing to ask the question, be willing to hear (and have a real conversation about) their answer.  Master the art listening... and the art of the apology.

The art of the apology

It's always good to review!  A great apology combines acknowledgement, remorse, and a request for forgiveness. 

I'm sorry (remorse) I  _____ (acknowledge the thing you said or did that hurt them).  Can you please forgive me? (request forgiveness)

A great apology does not include an expectation that the other person will instantly feel better, stop being angry, or trust you again.  Every person is entitled to their own real feelings.  Just because you were ready to apologize doesn't mean they have to be ready to be happy just so you don't feel uncomfortable anymore.  It does put the ball in their court to forgive you, which will ultimately help them feel better faster.  Forgiveness rocks.  Everybody wins. 

Things That Are Not Real Apologies

  • Sorry. (Ugh.  May as well roll your eyes when you say it.)
  • I'm sorry if I made you feel ____. (deflecting responsibility)
  • I'm sorry you ______ (making it their fault for being upset)
  • I'm sorry. (and I'm waiting for you to quit being mad at me)

Nobody feels better when they pick a relationship fight.  Send your ego walking, choose better words, and bring harmony into the "hard stuff."

HP,

J

10 things to say instead of picking a fight | relationship fights
Seasons change and so do I | fall leaves | changing seasons in life | seasons of life change
Sep 10

Seasons change – and so do I

By Jessica Allen | Faith , Marriage

It’s Texas, and it’s still 100 degrees out, with no end in sight.  I love summer, and pool weather, and the fun and excitement and relaxation it holds.  Yet seasons change, and I posted on social recently that September can keep its pumpkin spice… I’ll take root beer floats in my swimsuit any day. 

But fall is coming.  I can see it.

I can actually see it, in the way the afternoon sun looks a little different, and the sky is bluer than blue.  LJ October blue. 

This is my favorite time of year, when the seasons change, because there’s electric energy in the air.  Maybe it’s back to school, or the return of football, or that we’re all finally ready to start pulling new colors out of our closets.  Perhaps it’s the familiarity of the routine we settle into as a family, or the excitement of Saturdays together at the baseball parks. 

This season is different

This year, especially, I think it’s the anticipation of our 10th October missing our son that’s stirring my spirit, setting me up for a new season of reflection and growth.  There’s something about these big milestones – and all the emotion they bring - that makes my chest feel heavy.    

Whether it’s the turning of the earth or the shifting of my life, when seasons change it's promise that we’re still here, still evolving, and still have something to offer the world.  This is the part of change I can get on board with. 

As we usher each new season in, there’s opportunity to learn through grooming, to exhale in rest, and to expand with growth. 

Seasons change to groom you for something greater

In my experience, grooming seasons tend to happen simultaneously with or directly following a big setback or trauma.  Something that is often out of our control, or a seemingly-impossible circumstance thrust upon us against our will.  My specific setbacks were death and the unraveling of our marriage.  The months that followed each trauma were excruciatingly painful seasons of massive pruning, in uniquely different yet similar ways.  

Life after death 

This grooming season carved away everything I thought I knew about God, my own faith, and my vision for my own purpose in the world.  (That is a whole separate book.  Hold tight.) 

In the meantime, the short version is that my faith grew up stronger and thicker than before, my understanding of God deepened, and my trust in His mercy abounds.  This season of change was grooming at its finest and most rewarding.

Life after marriage-death

This was (and in many ways, still is) a season in which Jack and I both experienced the cutting away of parts of ourselves that were wilted or dead.  We slashed away habits that no longer served us.  He and I both changed behaviors holding us back from the faith and relationships and life we were meant for.  We opened our eyes to beliefs we thought were true but turned out to be wrong.  And we learned about betrayal from people we thought we could trust.  Because we wanted to heal and be whole, better than we were before, there was no room for any more weeds or thorns between us.  Arrogance, selfishness, dishonesty, fear… we dug them all up and cut them at the root. 

Grooming seasons of change are full of humbling setbacks and painful self-discovery.   They also, inconveniently, require embarrassing confessions to ourselves and others.  The first step is admitting you have a problem, yes?

Grooming seasons press on us until we give way

Grooming is more “letting go” than anything else.  A willingness to release things we don’t need anymore.  I believe this is God’s way of making us just uncomfortable enough to finally be willing to drop our grip of what we think is best in favor of what He knows is best.  Not surprisingly, the less junk we hold onto, the more clearly we can see His plan for our lives and the lighter our steps feel moving forward in its direction. 

Grooming seasons require routine maintenance

While some seasons of change are specifically for grooming, we’re always in the process of maintenance.  Little shoots of toxic growth pop up from time to time, in the ways we snap at each other and settle back into old lazy patterns.  The grief wheel is always, always, always turning.  But we can recognize those triggers or slipping patterns now and perform a mini-groom much more quickly than the full season originally required. 

That’s the beautiful thing about grooming seasons – they are a remarkable “reset” phenomenon, restoring you to a new factory setting.  From this clean slate, new possibilities emerge and so does a stronger, wiser version of yourself. 

You just have to make it through. 

Things that happened in our grooming seasons

We grieved, we retreated, we desperately searched for answers and “why.”  We rejected help until we were drowning in our own incapability.  Finally we asked for help from our family and friends to cover meals, housework, errands, and tasks that were easy to delegate.  We didn’t eat, exercise, or sleep well.  He and I both sought wise professional counsel for our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.  We snapped at each other a lot and practiced lots of forgiveness and sacrificial love.  We said no to just about everything and everyone in favor of our self care.  Nobody had energy to care what anybody else thought about us.  We accepted love and care from people without feeling pressured to reciprocate. 

You may be in a grooming season if:

  • You feel squeezed or pressed
  • You’re navigating a crisis, loss, or major life decision
  • You feel there’s not enough time
  • You think you can’t handle one more thing
  • You’re relying on your own strength to face a problem you can’t solve
  • Your equilibrium has shifted in favor of self-reflection and self-care
  • You feel pulled in every direction
  • The idea of anything new feels scary and unwelcome

Helpful hints for coming out stronger through a grooming season:

  • Pray for clarity as to what you are supposed to be learning
  • Be willing to ask yourself hard questions and answer honestly
  • Enlist a friend or family member to hold you accountable for changes you’re making
  • Remind yourself often that change is uncomfortable but necessary for the full life you desire to live
  • Practice good time management to prevent overwhelm
  • Get plenty of sleep and eat well (your mind is trash if your body is unhealthy!)
  • Give yourself and everyone around you exceeding amounts of patience and grace
  • Ask for and allow other people to help you
  • Fill your mind with good things – books that bring actual comfort, no matter the genre

Seasons change to allow you to rest

After those massive grooming seasons of change through grief and marriage recovery, we felt exhausted and renewed all at the same time.  It was like coming out of an underground cave – the world looked different, we looked different to ourselves and to each other, and we were beyond grateful to have made it out alive.  Quite literally, in both cases.  

Grooming seasons changed to seasons of rest.  With refreshed perspective and hearts full of hope, these new seasons were nothing but bright and truly felt like a gift after all we had been through.  We played and laughed.  We celebrated and put on weight and loved every single minute of our light-hearted life.  It wasn’t perfect, and it won’t ever be, but compared to the darkness we stumbled through it’s pretty sweet.

Those seasons of rest were exactly what we needed to heal, recover, and enjoy each other and our life again.  Not much was asked of us and that was absolutely okay.  There was no chaos anymore.  Just peace. 

Things that happened in our rest seasons

Lots of reading, deepening of our spiritual lives, fun at the ballpark, great food, great wine, joy in our friendships, gratitude for the lessons we learned, hope for the future, continued self-discovery and reinvention.  Jack reshaped his business model and time management.  I started writing this blog.  We spent lots of time together as a family living the values we hold in priority.  We had a baby!  (I realize a baby means no rest at all but the decision to bring a little life into the world was made in the most rational and present mindset.)

You might be in a resting season if:

  • All engines are humming sweetly with ease
  • You feel comfortable and safe
  • There is peace in your mind and spirit
  • Your calendar is full of things you like and want to do
  • It’s easy to say no to things that seem overwhelming or “extra”
  • You are enjoying activities and self-care guilt-free
  • Your equilibrium has shifted and settled in favor of faith, self, and family

Helpful hints for enjoying the fullness and peace of a resting season:

  • Express prayers of gratitude for all that you’ve been given
  • Limit technology and screen time
  • Rest and give your body what it needs
  • Take pictures (in the next grooming season, you will be so grateful you did)
  • Journal and document special moments and experiences
  • Stand confidently in the choices you make
  • Embrace the relationships rising to the top of your life
  • Practice great time management to still accomplish your goals while leaving plenty of uninterrupted time for your family and friends
  • Dream about your vision for the future

Seasons change to push you to grow

Somewhere in those rest seasons we started to dream again.  It’s hard to create anything out of chaos, so it’s no surprise that as our life calmed, so did our minds and hearts, freeing up space for creativity and future-minded thinking.  We were able to take inventory of our careers and their trajectories, determining where we really felt called to direct them.  We felt pulled to move forward with plans and pick up where we left off before we lost our son and almost lost our marriage. 

More is expected of us during seasons of growth.  Everything we’ve learned from those trying seasons of grooming, and everything we perfected in seasons of rest, comes into play when growth is required.  We can take those new skills, that stronger belief, the renewed sense of self and purpose, and apply them all to a new mission. 

Growth is an invitation.  Not a requirement

I can think of many opportunities in which I’ve been invited to grow and said no - either consciously or subconsciously.  I may have said no to growth because I was scared or doubtful.  Growth looks like time… like work… like inconvenience.  It looks like therapy... like hard conversations... like staying in painful moments until you've seen them through.

Growth is not mandatory.  Saying no to growth is okay, but it comes at a price.  You will stay exactly where you are, with the same problems and anxieties you have, unless and until you are willing to grow around and through them.  Some people spend their entire lives in this place by choice, or some by unawareness.  I don't ever want to do that.  There's too much abundant life to be lived to stay stuck.  

Because growth is optional, some people will say no when you say yes.  We will outgrow certain people in our lives.  This is hard.  It doesn’t mean the relationship is over, but it does mean the relationship is redefined.  But here’s some good news: the right people will always grow with you, or meet you on the way, and they will cheer for you it happens. 

Things that happened in our growing seasons 

Jack expanded his business, we took on more opportunities to mentor and lead in all aspects of our life, we had better discussions about time/money/emotional management, our teamwork patterns kicked into higher gear, we experienced bumps in our relationships and had to make peace with some redefined boundaries, I’m feeling a push towards new projects and sense of urgency to pursue bigger goals, it’s easier to prioritize commitments, time seems to multiply and so does productivity.  

You might be in a growing season if:

  • You feel inspired and a little scared, or uncomfortable but excited about it
  • An opportunity is knocking that you can’t ignore
  • New ideas are welcome
  • You feel focused, driven, and “in the zone”
  • Your creativity is through the roof
  • You are enjoying collaborating with other people
  • Your equilibrium is shifting to a focus on goals and the future

Helpful hints for making the most of a growing season

  • Pray for clarity and willingness to move in the direction you’re being called to go
  • Write down or record every idea that comes to mind
  • Share your ideas with a mentor or friend who can encourage and hold you accountable
  • Practice great time management to accomplish your goals yet provide for self-care and rest/renewal
  • Stay in contact with your VIP relationships
  • Read great books and listen to inspiring audio
  • Establish good systems for meals, schedules, etc. to simplify the logistics of your life

Important truths for every season

So where do you find yourself right now?  No matter which season you’re in, you can hold tight to these important truths:

  • There’s room to rest.
  • You have the power of choice.
  • You are never helpless and never alone.

There are tools and resources at your disposal.  There are people in your life who are divinely placed to help and support you.  And I believe God is standing right beside you, waiting for you to grab hold and trust His guidance.

So with the sky getting bluer each day closer to October, I’m embracing the season I’m in – a little uncomfortable, a lot exciting, with a lump in my throat and bright hope for tomorrow. 

Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside. 

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven. – Ecclesiastes 3:1

HP,

J

Seasons change | Grooming season | quick tips for navigating a grooming season
Seasons change | Season of rest | Quick tips for managing a season of rest
Seasons change | Season of growth | Quick tips for navigating a growth season
10 things I Didn't Know About Marriage | plain text with blush flowers
Sep 04

10 Things I Didn’t Know About Marriage (but I wish someone told me)

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

1. Your spouse is going to drive you crazy.  

All those things you thought were super cute about your spouse before you got married will turn into behaviors and patterns that make you want to scream in the day to day of marriage.  Your spouse will want to scream about you, too.  Jack’s clutter is apocalyptic.  It takes me an eternity to make decisions.  It’s an actual miracle we haven’t killed each other yet.  Some of the annoying stuff you let go of, some of it you compromise on, and some of it you will suck up and change because you love each other and it's not worth the fight.  

A fun way to prevent insanity is to dig into personality typing like the Enneagram or DISC or Myers-Briggs.  The more you understand about how you each are wired, the easier it is to cut each other some slack.  We’re all programmed differently and we come to marriage with presets from our families of origin that may or may not be compatible or sustainable without some intentional focused effort.  Talk about it and work it out.  See #8 and #9. 

2. You will become completely different people and you will grow apart. 

This is the lame excuse we like to use for why we get divorced.  I know, because I said it a million times in 2017.  This “becoming different people” is a guarantee in life – not one of us avoids change.  The key is figuring out how to grow through it together.  One foolproof way to walk the road together is to keep God at the center because He’s the only constant in a lifetime of change.  It takes two… well, actually three.   Especially in seasons where it feels you’re drifting further and further away from each other.  Stay rooted, stay focused, stay committed, and stay the course.  

3. Having children will make you wonder why you ever decided to have children.  

But it will also help you understand yourselves and each other from a whole new perspective.  Our son is the most hysterical split-down-the-middle of both our personalities and he knows exactly what to say and do to get under everyone’s skin in this house.

When I see him max out and cry hot tears of frustration, I see myself in miniature form, angry that no one seems to understand what I need.  So I stop what I am doing to ask better questions and truly hear what he’s trying to say.   When he deliberately torments the closest person by poking or pinching, I see my husband’s mini-me need for touch and connection.  So I pause to give him a hug or tickle him back. 

Our adopted daughter G is a magical blend of nature (how she was divinely created by birth) and nurture (quirky combinations of the two of us).  We have learned more about each other through challenging conversations with her simply because she is curious and highly perceptive – and we want to be honest in every response.  The world is a different place for our children than it was for us growing up.  So much hits them hard and fast so much younger.  Tackling their tough questions stretches us in the best ways and we're most successful when we wrestle through the hard ones together.

4. Making married friends is hard.  

It’s like dating all over again.  Chemistry matters.  It’s a rare gift to find couples you enjoy talking and laughing with, who love your children like their own, and most importantly: you never have to clean your house or put on makeup for them because they do not judge your mess.  Love and feed them well and thank them often.  Make time for time together.   

5. Absolutely never assume anything at all.

Communication in my humble and honest opinion is the #1 problem that can lead to The Unraveling of a marriage.  He does not know what you’re thinking.  She has no idea what you need.  Saying the hard thing is one billion times better than not saying it.  Speak up.  Your needs matter and your ideas count.  Want to make it to forever?  Get the words out even if they feel awkward or mean.  If you feel misunderstood it is your responsibility to communicate it better in a way the other person understands.  (this is one of the hardest truths I’ve ever had to swallow.  My happiness is up to me.)

6. If you aren’t actively investing in your marriage, you’re inadvertently investing in something (or someone) else.

Ugggghhhhhh this just doesn’t seem like a big deal until it’s out of control, at which point it’s nearly impossible to fix.  What you focus on will grow, whether it’s career success or your bank account or your mental wellness or your spiritual life or your marriage.  If you are intently focused on something other than your marriage, and that is okay, be sure you are checking in and nurturing your marriage regularly.  Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.  (Luke 12:34)  So we better make sure our hearts are in the right place.  That foundation of safety and trust in your marriage will be the starting block for anything good you choose to accomplish in any other area of your life.

Regarding the kids vs. marriage tug of war: It’s easy as parents to get preoccupied with meeting our children’s needs.  We are drowning right now in fall ball and keeping a baby alive.  However: we get 18 years with our children… and a lifetime with each other.  That’s a lot of “leftover” that I’d still really like to love my life and the man I chose to spend it with.

An important end note on this one: infidelity can happen to anyone and it can happen faster than you realize.  Invest in your marriage with time, words, connection, surprises, honesty, and willingness to mess up and try again.  Love your spouse well and they will never want to search for love somewhere else.  (That is never okay either - See #5.)

7. Sex matters more than you think.

Men need it to feel connected, and women need to feel connected to have it.  WHAT IS THIS TRICKERY?  I hid this one in the middle hoping my grandmother isn’t reading it.  I’ve never dug into this topic here because #churchgirl but there is just some important stuff I think we should all be talking about.  Secretly and buried in the middle of a list, of course.  

If marriage is forever, your sex life may as well be fulfilling.  Just like anything else, there are specialists and experts to help navigate changes and problems when they surface, and healthy people get help.  Body image, hormones, life changes, and stress all dance a part in this weird ballet because sex is part of our physical and emotional (and really, spiritual) health.  

And then there’s the possible reality that one or both of you may have encountered sexual trauma at some point in your lifetime.  If you are too angry, hurt, or otherwise emotionally blocked up to make your married sex life what you want it to be, get help.  Everyone hurts and everything gets complicated when you withhold this God-given gift from each other. (I am not an expert or anything resembling a professional.  These are my own observations, pulled from my own experiences and many, many, many conversations with honest people I trust and respect.)

Sex should be fun and safe

Sex should never ever involve anyone but the two of you.  This means respecting your spouse enough not to talk with friends about your sex life.  It also means pornography has absolutely no place in your marriage.  Perhaps this sounds like a prude or old-fashioned idea but I challenge you to find one redeeming value in the billion dollar industry that is profiting from exploiting sex, women, men, and children for goodness’ sake.  I could link to a thousand articles explaining how porn is scientifically and psychologically bad for your brain and bad for your heart and bad for your spiritual life and bad for your marriage and your family.  

There’s my soapbox and I’m sticking to it.  There are a zillion other ways to keep sex fun and exciting.  And truthfully, the best way to make it amazing  - real trust and emotional intimacy - costs little to no money at all.

My only reference point is my own collection of first-half-of-life experiences here: being newlyweds, weight gain, pregnancy, grief, bed rest, postpartum, depression/anxiety, raising small children, post-infidelity, and the exhilarating exhaustion of entrepreneurial life.  We haven’t yet run into mid-life, empty nest, retirement, menopause, etc.  So there is still a lifetime of change and learning ahead.  But what I do know is that a safe and connected relationship has to have this component right, whatever that looks like for your marriage.  Even if it's simply what my favorite expert, Dr. Celeste Holbrook, calls ABC sex: Anniversary, Birthday, Christmas.  

Exhale.  We all just got through that together.  (Sorry, grandma.)  

8. Levity, honesty, and listening really can solve most marriage problems.

The right balance of humor, truth, and real conversation is tough to find.  Keep trying.  “Never go to sleep angry” is a myth I think… but be willing to revisit and resolve the argument the next day.  The most morbid joke at what we thought was the end of our marriage was the first time we had really laughed in months.  And it helped.  Speak up when you need to say the hard thing, and then bite your tongue to listen, lighten up, and ask yourself often: am I willing to sacrifice this relationship for the sake of being right? 

9. For all other problems, get help.

I will never regret the time spent scowling at each other on a therapist’s couch.  It was worth it to try, really try, for the sake of our future together and mostly for our children’s future too.  They deserved every ounce of “fight” we had in us (the good kind).  When it gets so bad between you that you can’t see a way out together, you need a third party to mediate and help slog through the layers of muck you’ve buried yourselves under.  PAY THE MONEY and MAKE THE TIME and ARRANGE THE CHILDCARE and STOP MAKING EXCUSES and JUST GO.  I cannot emphasize this enough.  Your whole life will change because of it.  And if it doesn’t work?!!!  Then at least you will know you gave all you had to the cause, and you will never live with regret that you didn’t try.    

10. Marriage is the hardest, most exhausting, best commitment you can make.  

If you meet a married couple who say they never wanted to throw in the towel, I bet they are lying.  With all due respect.  Sometimes the “death” in “’til death do us part” feels like it might come sooner rather than later.  This deal is hard.  But it's worth every ounce of the work to make it great. 

HP,

J

What do you wish someone had told you about marriage?  OR, what do you wish you could tell someone else - or prepare your children for - about marriage?

10 Things I Never Knew About Marriage | plain text with blush flowers
Arguments in marriage | marriage conflict | say this not that
Aug 27

Arguments in Marriage: Say This, Not That

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

If only there were an Easy Button to help us say this, not that. When it comes to arguments in our marriage, we learned the hard way that some words work, and some words just don’t. Having that Easy Button years ago would have saved me so many tears and so much frustration. But I know better now. And when you know better, you do better, right?

Fights don’t just come out of nowhere in our marriage.  They build up like a pressure cooker – one little comment and one little undressed wound at a time.  Pile enough of them together and POW!  We’re yelling at each other in the backyard, or even worse, snipping at each other in public.  (This is the number one way to make your friends and family and maybe even complete strangers feel super uncomfortable.)

Navigating arguments in marriage

Though it may not feel like it in the moment, we have choices in arguments in marriage.  Choices to say or not say, do or not do.  The problem is that once the pressure cooker explodes, it’s hard to think rationally.  At the first point of anger – usually brought on by fear, disappointment, frustration, or embarrassment – your brain starts a chain reaction that floods your system with cortisol, which literally destroys your brain cells, inhibiting good judgment and impairing your short-term memory.  This is also where “fight or flight” kicks in – one of our most basic human instincts.  (Click here for a cool run-down and infographic on Your Brain on Anger.)

And that’s just YOU.   Your spouse experiences all this brain junk too when they’re angry.  To simplify the science jargon, once we’re enveloped in unchecked anger, we become unpredictably mentally unstable.  Even simpler: we turn into Crazy People.  This is mostly how I feel when I’m over the anger line: 

Crazy Cruella De Ville | Anger | Angry | Arguments in marriage
She’s a treat, ain’t she? I do love that even at lunatic-status, her lipstick game is still on point.

Imagine two of these people facing off in a fight. This is not the ideal starting gate for resolving arguments in marriage. 

Related post: Say What You Mean

Good news

We’ve found some good tools for arguments in our marriage that help us when we’ve lost our marbles. 

If you practice them when your mind is clear, it’s infinitely easier to recall them when you’re seeing red.  Here are our top 10 game-changing phrases to de-escalate arguments in marriage. (pinnable infographic at the bottom!)

Say this, not that

Say this: I’m sorry

Be specific. I’m sorry I hurt you, I’m sorry I said that, I’m sorry I did that, I’m sorry I made you feel that way.  Name what you did and own your part in it. It helps heal the other person when they know you know what you did to hurt them. (Sometimes you don’t. Ask for help to understand.)

Not that: I’m sorry you feel that way OR I’m sorry if I made you feel like that

The magic of an apology is that you are accepting accountability and responsibility for what you did.  Both of these phrases – I’m sorry you and I’m sorry if – imply the other person is out of line for being upset, and that you don’t really believe you contributed to their pain.  They’re cop-out phrases and we’re all better than that.

Say this: Please

Not that: *bark any order*
*assume it’s their “job” to do it*

Saying please is the simplest way to show respect.  And it’s the shortest, easiest word to add to your request.

Say this: Thank you

Not that: *silence*
*believing you deserved it*
*assuming they know you’re grateful*

People need to be acknowledged for their effort and care.  Especially your spouse.  Thank them for the hard work they do, and the little tasks they take off your plate.  Nothing makes someone feel seen and heard like gratitude, genuinely and explicitly expressed.

Say this: I’m listening

Not that: *anything else other than looking your spouse in the eye and listening*

This seems so easy but it is becoming a lost art.  Put down the screens, zero in your focus, and actively listen to what your spouse is saying.  DO NOT PLAN YOUR RESPONSE as they are talking.  You’ll miss what they’re really saying, and if you are angry you’ll subconsciously try to one-up them in your reply.  Slow down and listen to understand rather than listen to respond.

Say this: You were right

Not that: “Well, I thought…”
“I only did it because…”

Admitting that someone else was right does not give your power away.  Humble yourself, acknowledge the other person, and don’t feel any less of a human because they were right.  You’ll probably get to be right next time.

Say this: I was wrong

Not this: “I did it because…”
“Well, last time YOU…”

Own your mistake.  Don’t deflect your misstep by blaming your spouse or calling them out on one of their related failures.  We don’t allow our children to do that to each other, so let’s not do it to our adult spouses either. 

Say this: Forgive me

“I was wrong.  Can you please forgive me?”  This is the most underutilized yet most powerful secret weapon in your marriage wizard bag. 

Not that: “I SAID I was sorry.”

Just because you say you are sorry doesn’t mean your spouse’s feelings are unhurt or they’re instantly happy again.  Especially if you snarky-say it like that.  Forgiveness is a choice and asking for it is important – it shows you understand what you did to cause the other person pain, and that you respect them enough to ask for their grace.  This requires massive amounts of humility and it’s hard.  It’s why the Bible tells us we have to forgive seventy times seven (and therefore be willing to ask for forgiveness just as much). 

Related post: Quit the Blame Game

Say this: I understand

Not that: “You shouldn’t feel that way!”
*any version of trying to fix the problem without being asked to do so*

Sometimes the most well-intentioned encouragement (“You’re not dumb!  You shouldn’t feel bad about that! Etc.) invalidates our spouses and shuts them down.  Did they have a bad day?  Don’t minimize or dismiss it.  Rather: listen, respond kindly, and fight the urge to fix it.  99.9% of the time, our spouses just want us to listen and understand. 

Say this: I respect you

Not that: *any fired-off complaint, insult, criticism, or sarcastic comment*

You are the most important person your spouse counts on for support and respect.  This goes for both men and women but double a man’s need for respect from his wife.  It’s how he is wired (whether you like it or not) so if you don’t truly respect what he’s doing or saying in the moment, affirm what you do respect in him as a human being.  Acknowledging what you do respect in him will help him stay pointed in the right direction, and it will also help you from picking him apart.

Say this: I love you

Not that: *withholding that statement because you are angry*

You may be livid but never let there be a doubt in your spouse’s mind (or yours) that you still love each other. 

In our darkest days we still slept in the same bed yet inched as far away as humanly possible.  Often it was a long silent standoff after the lights went out but not once did we ever go to sleep without someone caving and muttering “I love you” first.  Even when we didn’t feel it.

Because sometimes love isn’t a feeling.  It’s a choice.  A really hard choice you have to make a hundred times a day.  It requires patience, forgiveness, grace, selflessness, and self-control.  All the fruits of the spirit, actually. Especially when you’re in the heat of an argument in your marriage.  Little by little, all that practice of “say this, not that” will start changing the trajectory of your conversations and therefore hopefully diffuse some arguments in your marriage before they even start.

Choose better words and you will grow a better marriage.  Because where your words lead, your actions will follow. 

Here’s to some better “fights” in the future. 

HP,

J

PS: Need some inspiration? Check out our story of choosing love when it felt impossible.

marriage arguments | conflict management | say this not that
20 Questions for Marriage | Affair-proof your marriage | woman asking questions
Aug 09

20 Questions Worth Asking Your Spouse

By Jessica Allen | Marriage

We took a trip several years ago in October.  If our marriage was in rough shape before we left, it was gasping for air when we returned home.  Some deal-breakers happened on that trip, to both of us, by both of us.  What should have been a lovely week away was in reality the unraveling of anything good we still had left.

My bruised and confused heart cracked in two that week.  On our way back from the airport I was trying with all that was in me to recover what I loved about my husband.  I reached into the rock bottom of my barrel and all I could come up with was, “What’s your favorite sandwich?”

I know it was lame. But it was all I had left. 

And his response was the nail in my coffin. 

“That’s stupid.  You know what my favorite sandwich is.”

The next day he found out about the affair.  (here’s the story and here’s what we learned)

I’m not saying the sandwich question would have saved anything.  It surely wouldn’t have.  But I would have gone to sleep a little less heartbroken and a little more hopeful.

Perhaps if we had started asking sandwich questions long before that night, and answering them thoughtfully, we would have stayed connected in small ways.  Because small connections, enough of them entwined together, grow into a bond that can’t be broken. 

So many questions

In the aftermath, we took another trip.  We drove across the country this time with our children in tow.  You could cut the tension with a knife and the silence was deafening.  This was about our lowest point in recovery and we weren’t speaking to each other much at all, so the thought of 18 hours in the car (twice) and a whole week in a hotel room together was painful.  Ironically, Jack had printed out a multiple lists of get-to-know-you questions that he asked me the whole. way. there. And the whole. way. home.

Not ONE of those questions was about a sandwich.  But they did give us safe and fluffy and seemingly inconsequential things to talk about to simply keep the conversation going. 

Three months later we reconciled and the rest – so far – is history. 

We joke about these crazy question lists because they are reminders of our most desperate selves. Two people who were so hurt, so broken, so angry, that we couldn’t even drum up our own conversations.  They gave us an easy place to start on days that felt like the world’s most awkward blind date (a scary one where you actually hate each other a little bit). 

Love grows where you nurture it

Since then we’ve come so far from “what’s your favorite sandwich” to tastier things we can really sink our teeth into: hard questions about our history, and questions about our future that we get to dream about together.  Those questions are even sweeter now because we almost didn’t get to ask them of each other.  Thank God we had the strength, stubbornness, and faith-however-shaky to stay the course. 

Because that was progression was fun to reflect upon, I made a question list of our own.  Not the fluffy questions – you can find those anywhere online.  What I made for us is a list of really good questions.  Questions I wish we had asked each other long ago, and the answers of which I wish we had listened for more carefully.  

Because believe it or not, when you are paying good attention, normal everyday conversations present opportunities to ask better questions to unlock sweet secrets in your partner.  Simply take the time to listen and respond in a thoughtful way.   I’ve learned more in the last 3 years about who my husband really is than I feel like I knew in the entirety of our relationship up to that point. Simply because I learned the very hard way:

The person you’re paying the most attention to is the person your heart will grow to love. 

If you’d like to have a copy of my favorite 20 Questions Worth Asking, just enter your email address here and I’ll send it right to your inbox.  Current Happy Mail Club members – you should have received yours already!

Whether the opportunity to ask these questions presents itself at at coffee club or a brief passing moment in your day, tuck this little list of great questions into your pocket (maybe literally!) and enjoy getting to know your spouse even better. 

HP,

J

20 Questions for Marriage | Affair-proof your marriage
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