Love your spouse and benefit your kids

I used to scoff inwardly whenever people told me that "the best thing parents can do for their children is to love each other".

Yeah, yeah, I'd think. That's a given, isn't it? Otherwise I wouldn't have married the guy.

In the blissful early days of marriage, the Supportive Spouse and I joked that we were a non-profit organisation, in service of our then-only child, now eight. We "worked" tirelessly, without pay or even thanks, as a team to keep our little boy fed, cleaned and happy, making decisions about his education and well-being, and pouring our (limited) funds into his enrichment.

When a friend asked me if I believed in date night, I laughed at her. NGO workers have no time to go on dates. There are more important things to do.

Years later, I am publicly eating those words.

As our marriage clocked more miles, and as we added more members to our entourage (younger son, now four, and a domestic helper), our once small and efficient non-profit organisation became unwieldy.

We moved to larger but older headquarters (traded our first flat for a masionette nearer to the kids' schools), and house maintenance became a bigger issue. The decisions to be made multiplied exponentially.

The main office-holders (the SS and I) started bickering more often.

Things came to a head when recently, at a crossroads over what to do with the rest of my life, I had a mini pre-midlife crisis. I wanted to go in a new direction, shifting from journalism to fiction, and toyed with the idea of moving overseas to pursue a postgraduate degree.

My husband, however, wanted to stay put to grow his editorial and publishing business. Nor was he keen on the idea of uprooting our children just when our elder son had settled comfortably into the local school system.

Suddenly, it was Cold War. We withdrew the communication lines. Then, the morning after a discussion over our family's future that degenerated into a fight, I decided to Google for a way out.

I found a website called Power Of Two Marriage, sort of a MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses) for couples - for US$15 (S$18.70) a month, you could access modules on communication, joint decision- making, anger management and the like on the site. You were also assigned a marriage coach, who would give you activities and monitor your progress.

So I proposed to the SS that we take the course together, and after a super quick cost-benefit analysis (I suggested we take the free three-day trial and cancel if it sucked), he agreed. Being kiasu Singaporeans, we attempted to finish as much of the programme as we could within the trial period.

For the next few nights, we huddled side by side in front of the laptop, and watched videos of couples' workshops or played games aimed to teach us how to identify and eliminate "toxic language".

We filled up worksheets, rephrasing dismissive, contemptuous imaginary conversations into understanding, information-seeking model statements. In our daily lives, we tried to replicate those techniques.

After a few days, the SS remarked that the mental effort of trying to follow the rules for good communication meant that one is often no longer worked up, by the time one figured out how to tactfully say what needed to be said.

One way to avoid quarrels, we learnt, was also to set a really low "anger ceiling". That means that the moment you feel even mildly irritated, you should leave the room and re-enter the discussion only after you have calmed down.

We even started adapting the method to deal with the children: When one of us started getting annoyed with the unruly kids, such as when they were refusing to get in the bath, the other would say, "Anger ceiling".

The angry spouse would automatically exit while the calm partner handled the situation.

It's been a few months since we started with our online booster course and we're still at it. After the kids go to sleep, we settle at our desk - him with a glass of wine in hand and me, the nerd, with a notebook and pencil at the ready - to do our "homework".

I look forward to the half-hour or so we devote to the course a night because it has become our hobby, something that we work on together and laugh about as we work out the answers.

Now that we know how to negotiate complicated decisions systematically, we reach solutions a lot quicker: I found a local university writing programme that I could do without relocating and the SS encouraged me to go for it. Our kitchen ceiling sprung a new leak, and we quickly and relatively painlessly talked through our options on how to get it fixed.

As for the children, they are benefiting in that we spend less time clashing over what needs to be done, and more time having fun with them.

Come to think of it, ours is the non-profit unit bound together so much by love that we believe in investing in re-training loyal old staff.

How do you keep the spark alive between you and your spouse? E-mail suntimes@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on June 22, 2014.
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