I thought that if I stopped looking out for myself, no one else would look out for me—so I had to be strong and selfish in my marriage. I needed to demand extra time to sleep, I wanted date nights, and I absolutely had to express every irritation that crossed my mind when I noticed the house was a mess and that errands had not been completed, per my instructions. 

“You forgot to call the window repair company again?” I would say in my most condescending voice, as if only a person with dementia should be allowed to forget things. 

“Why is there still laundry in the washer?” I would sigh as I walked past the odor of wet clothes that had been sitting all day. 

“Didn’t you hear the baby crying?” I would roll over and let him wake up because I deserved the sleep more. 

All of these statements added the bitter taste of disappointment and cruelty to our marriage each time I spoke them. And I wasn’t interested in hearing his response to anything because I didn’t think his word was worth much anymore. This meant I was content to leave my unkind words lingering in the air as I stomped away into the next room and slammed the door. 

But it’s not like he was innocent, either. Leaving my messages unanswered all day when we lived apart, yet responding instantly to girls on Facebook. Telling me to deal with his family’s rudeness instead of standing up for me. Refusing to plan date nights but meticulously setting up all the details of his next fishing trip. We were keeping score, and it wasn’t good. 

Marriage is about compromise but someone always feels like they compromise more. Some days that’s true, which is why overall balance is so important but how exactly does a couple achieve that ultimate level of happiness? I don’t know but I have a feeling that it starts by letting go of the mentality that you’re the only person with needs and wants. 

When my husband gave up a nice job offer to stay home with our son, the dynamic in our home changed in more ways than expected. 

First, I was no longer the only one who took care of the house. When we both worked, we would both help out but it was mostly me maintaining the order with a few sessions of nagging here and there to reel him into the chores. Now, he tries to do all the dishes, laundry and vacuuming before I get home. That’s not always possible because he can’t multitask like I do when I’m watching our son but he keeps it on his list even on weekends or after we are all in bed. 

The next thing that surprised me was that my patience improved. It took a few days of me crying and sleeping on the couch from being so angry, but he finally realized that I cannot be supermom with a full-time job, a toddler, two dogs, a husband and a second baby on the way. It was just not possible. This second pregnancy didn’t allow me to sleep or eat and once or twice I ended up in the hospital. My body was telling me it wasn’t possible to do everything I once did and I had to start listening before it started affecting my pregnancy and my sanity. He began cooking meals for me every day and tried at least five different methods to help me get more rest at night, from moving the television into our room to researching sleep aids and experimenting with our bedroom lighting. The first night I finally was able to sleep without waking up every two hours with anxiety or stress, I was so grateful that I told him he could play video games instead of watching TV with me. And within a few days I didn’t even bother to chastise him for the messy home our child had obviously been playing in all day. I was starting to tolerate all the things that used to drive me crazy because I was finally realizing they weren’t a big deal. 

The more I let go of the little things, the more willing my husband was to help with the big things. 

My mom stayed with us for a month to help me out, but for my husband it was just four weeks of constant judgment and insults. Yet, he would extend an olive branch each time my mom began acting petty and taking it out on me or my son. He drove her to appointments at 6 a.m. and took her to the airport at 2 a.m. He grilled for her when she said she had a craving for ribs. 

I had stopped complaining about date nights because I hated to be reminded of the fact that my husband didn’t care to think of these on his own. Yet one day he told me we were going to a basketball game and that his dad would be babysitting so I didn’t have to worry about any of the planning. I was so happy to be out of the house and doing something that didn’t drain me of all my mental energy that I agreed to let him travel without me next year to a video game event in Texas. 

You see, the more we started doing things for each other instead of putting ourselves first, the better each of us felt and it reflected in the way we spoke to each other and behaved around our son. When I stopped obsessing over the things that keep me calm, he started paying attention to those things for me and stopped obsessing over other things.

It’s never perfect (and he still doesn’t have the best memory) but all of these little things combined made a huge difference in our marriage. It didn’t give us the ideal marriage but it placed us in a position where we could better handle the challenges because we conditioned ourselves to think differently. We were not in permanent self-defense mode and we wrote rules that are still taped to our fridge which remind us of traps to avoid that might lead us right back to the selfish place we were:

1. No lying

2. No fighting in front of the child.

3. No insulting family members.

4. No complaining to others about marriage.

5. No condescending remarks. 

6. No threatening divorce. 

I’m no psychologist but it’s usually a few steps that land you straight into a pitfall and now that we are in a marriage where a kid who hasn’t brushed his teeth or a husband who hasn’t received physical attention doesn’t equal someone threatening divorce, it’s easier for each of us to pull our strengths together to make the most of a challenging but beautiful life. 

And the score cards? Well, those can stay tucked away at the bottom of the trash can. 

Susana Kuehne

Susana Kuehne is an engineer who writes to inspire others to lead a smarter and kinder life.