Preamble: I am not a certified anything, let alone a counselor. I have enjoyed counseling for decades because, well, I just appreciate the second set of eyes. I also appreciate a counselor who offers a variety of suggestions, allowing me to find the ones that work best in my life. These are a few of those.
My husband and I just reinstituted our “3NT” practice and, when we did, I remembered that many of my readers tapped into our lives long after the most tumultuous beginning days (years, who am I kidding?) of our marriage. You can pat yourselves on the back for that delayed entry. It was a lot. Somedays, it still is a lot – hence the call for 3NT.
What is 3NT? It’s a close relative of CoS. CoS is my personal favorite when it comes to communicating with my husband as it preemptively raises a stop sign to the plethora of arguments that spark from our very different communication styles. I suppose both rules of engagement are equally responsible for righting the ship when needed and, therefore, worth a blog repeat.
Some background to our story:
- We married in 2015 after a rather whirlwind year of dating.
- That year of dating was tacked on after the end of Rich’s first marriage which had been deteriorating for many years prior.
- Rich arrived into my life (and heart) with two young children, ages 7 and 10.
- I arrived into his life with zero children, a couple of pets, lots of shoes, and a very independent spirit, all of which were packed up and moved three hours north of my Barbie Townhouse.
- Those tumultuous first years as a blended family were unbelievably difficult.
- We were/are an incredibly stubborn family, yet still seemed destined to fail.
- One day we stumbled upon some actual statistics regarding the high failure rate (70%) of blended marriages and about 12 billion lightbulbs clicked on.
- Knowing that all we were going through was not only common but standard, we buckled up to figure out the ride.
Okay, yes, it’s a made-up name that isn’t even in the right order, but it’s catchy and easy to declare. It stands for Thirty Minutes, Never in the Bedroom, Tell Me Something Good.
Never in the Bedroom:
Maybe this isn’t an issue for non-blended families but, for me, bringing chatter about the ex-wife into the bedroom did not work. I did understand that she was a peripheral part of our lives and the actual mother to our shared children, but it often changed the relaxing vibe in the boudoir. The implementation of “we don’t talk about that in this room” was met with zero resistance and, when we saw what a difference it made, we realized it was a great rule for essentially any topic that bore those late-night tension headaches or heart palpitations.
Whether work stress, kids acting like whonkadoodles, trouble with extended family, politics, honey-do lists, or global pandemics … we found that leaving those topics at the bedroom threshold offered this injection of tranquility specific to that room. It was like creating a spa in which that mental Rolodex was not welcome.
Full disclosure: My husband is an expert at turning off his mental Rolodex when his head hits the pillow 95% of the time. I’m the exact opposite. If there’s a tense topic, settling under the duvet cues my thoughts to “ENGAGE OVERTHINKING”
Why does it work?
- It turns out those Millennials were onto something with the creation of a safe space.
- There is comfort in knowing that the second we enter the bedroom, a weight will be lifted.
- This helps other things get lifted as well, which is a great bond in times of stress.
When we are balls deep in something dreadful, one of us (okay, fine it’s me) tends to become fixated on the topic. This often (okay, always) steers me to inserting that topic into each and every interaction all damn day. I suppose it’s my way of trying to find control in a situation in which I really have none, but it typically only increases the stress.
During such times, my husband often cringes when he hears me approaching knowing that, while my first question may be “What do you want for dinner?”, I will eventually land on said topic. It sounds something like this: “Can you scale it before the eldest child misses curfew again what are we doing about vacation this year when are you going to get the car inspected?”
The thirty-minute rule means that when those all-consuming stressors are placed before us, we set a daily timer limiting the length of discussion. For us? Thirty minutes seems to be our sweet spot.
Why does it work?
- We know that our entire day will not be consumed with conversational dread.
- The time limit eliminates all the fluff and forces us to stick to the facts.
- It moves us from a state of “What the fuck-ness?” to a state of “How are we moving forward?”
- I know that there will be a conversation and my husband knows that the conversation will be mentally manageable.
Tell Me Something Good:
This was actually born from working with our youngest to turn his frown upside-down. He had a tendency, after every activity, to unload a list of things he did not like about it. The school lunch was terrible, the soccer coach made them run (in soccer?!?), his friend wouldn’t share a Skylander, etc… Picking him up from anything started to be a game of flipping coins to determine which parent would be cranky by the time they got home from the long list of misery.
At the suggestion of his counselor, we switched his approach by first asking for three good things about the day/practice/playdate.” We can do the bad stuff second,” we’d say … but they never came. It took no time at all to realize that this also worked for grown adults.
Why does it work?
- High-stress times often sent us straight to everything we disliked about a person, topic, or situation (at that moment). By starting with a few positives, the dislikes seemed a lot smaller.
- I suppose it’s like the common Pits or Peaks that many families announce at the dinner table – we just skip the pits in the end when we are really ramped up about something.
- About three years ago, I went to the old Cricut and cut a vinyl that reads “Tell Me Something Good” and slapped it on our bedroom mirror. This is our reminder to start in a place of kindness and also a great thing to point at when we are dragging mental melee into that safe space.
This one is so simple and, dear Lord, I can’t live without it.
Ladies, this is mostly for you. Men are wired differently. Men handle crises differently (starting with thinking most things shouldn’t be a crisis but women are rampant with hormones, so go with it, fellas). Men are fixers. Plain and simple. Women want to vent (first) and (maybe) get to the fixing later.
Compassion or Solution.
When this shit is hitting my mental fan and my husband goes into fix-it mode, I pretty much want to throat punch him. Well, I used to, until I realized he just needed a simple cue as to which direction I needed the conversation to go.
Compassion or Solution? It’s a question I do have to answer before sliding into his orbit. At least 90% of the time, all that I really want is compassion. I just want him to hear me, empathize with me, throw a hug my way, and tell me everything I’m feeling is absolutely fine.
I learned years ago that my husband does not have ESP. While that was disappointing, it also made me realize that if I told him whether I wanted compassion or a solution before the start of a mental download, he would typically get straight A’s on his response.
He loves this, too. He loves the removal of the guesswork. He loves not having to wonder if the emotional land mines are to the left or the right because I tell him exactly which direction to go.
As we near the start of our second decade of marriage, most of these practices are rarely used. We have grown together, gotten much better at consistently great communication, and have developed endless patience with our internal struggles, shared or otherwise. I do still tap into Compassion or Solution quite often to give both of us an idea of what it is that I need. I also ask my husband the same question when he needs to download something for the same reason.
Still, there are moments when we do have to declare a 3NT: Thirty Minutes, Never in the Bedroom, Tell Me Something Good. We treat it as a package assuming that if one guideline is needed, all three should be engaged. We are both at liberty to declare and we are both committed to committing to it.
Relationships are hard. Marriage is hard. Raising children is hard. Raising children within a marriage that involves blended relationships is hard on steroids.
One of the most common issues for stepmothers (and probably all women) is feeling a loss of control when their family is hitting speed bumps. There is a fear of a full, incoming spiral that only she can prevent. It is painful and frustrating and tends to send us grasping for emotional straws. Fear of failure morphs to anger, an easier emotion to exhibit.
Finding working rules of engagement has been essential to the success of our relationship. These enable us to strip out much of the negativity while providing a clear roadmap back to our common goals. Marriage is hard, but having a roadmap (or four) can make it so much easier.