In the course of a year, Rachael Cunningham and her husband were dealt with what felt like an impossible hand as they navigated job loss, the death of a parent, and their autistic daughter’s depression. The compounding stress and grief could have created an impermeable divide between them, but instead they became even stronger.
“That year was so incredibly hard,” she says. “We both stepped back and said either we can let this drive us apart or we can really lean into each other and grow together–and that’s what we did.”
In a season where everything feels increasingly hard–and no doubt even harder because of exhaustion and overwhelm–relief comes in the small actions between us that make a big impact.
“Very intentionally, every day I was like, ‘How can I support my husband through this?’” she remembers asking herself. “How can I lean on him during this difficult time?”
“Going through that myself really caused me to notice and be aware of how many marriages really need to have some encouragement and the know-how to get through the tough times in life,” she says, which inspired her to work with couples directly as a relationship coach.
“We realized when we lean into each other, not only does our marriage benefit, but our kids benefit from it, and we’re able to think more clearly,” Rachael says, noting that when her daughter is “in a low spot now I don’t feel like my whole world is falling apart.”
“Kids learn through example so much more than you teaching them with your words,” she says. “What they see lightens their burden in life as well.”
As we encounter challenges daily about how to educate and entertain our children, we don’t need to feel discouraged if we’re not naturally in sync with our partner.
“We think we have to be on the same page all the time in order to have a happy relationship,” Rachael says. “The truth is we actually need to be honoring our own self and respecting our own issues in our own way of showing up in a relationship.”
She says we can “look internally” and make the decision to “show up as a partner that listens and that empathizes and sees my partner’s point of view, even if I don’t understand it.”
“Then you’re able to really start to communicate and hopefully have some really good discussions where you can see eye to eye,” she says. “When trying so hard to change them into our viewpoint, that’s when the disconnection happens.”
It’s also why Rachael chooses to make peace with things she cannot change about her husband. Rather than getting frustrated that he doesn’t notice when the dishwasher needs to be emptied, she realized it was more effective to just ask him to unload it.
“It’s okay that I remind people to do things,” she says as an example of how we can be easier on ourselves to make our marriages more peaceful.
“It opens our mind to wisdom quicker when we accept ourselves instead of beating ourselves up,” she says. “The same goes with our spouses; if we can stop criticizing and start accepting more, our connection is going to grow.”
Acceptance creates a trickle-down effect as parents too, when we’re struggling to get our kids engaged in virtual learning or fretting about screen time.
“What worked for me was saying ‘what do you want to learn about right now?’ and really diving into it; letting them lead the way,” says Rachael. “My oldest fell in love with grammar, so I got her a grammar bible and she devoured the whole thing on her own. My middle child loved computers, so we got him a bunch of stuff and he built his own computer.”
She acknowledges that while curriculum may be limiting, we can still follow cues of what our kids take interest in. At our house, that means incorporating LEGO projects whenever we can—or alternating silly YouTube videos with read-along stories.
“Usually when we beat ourselves up as moms that turns into lashing out at our kids at some point,” she says. “If you are giving your kids extra screen time right now, give yourself some grace. Nobody has ever gone through what we’re going through right now. If your kids are in their rooms all the time; of course, try to engage them and think about things that that will pull them out and take care of their mental health.”
Whether we want to change the dynamic in our marriage or with our kids, Rachael believes we need to start with ourselves.
“Working with couples in childbirth really made me aware of the strength of a woman, and how important it is to take care of yourself–before your marriage or your children,” says the former doula. “As I was talking to people about self care, I noticed that most of the time, their relationships would start to come up and their issues in their marriages.”
“You have to really go into your own thoughts and say, ‘Why am I afraid to communicate this need?” she says. “Start there and be self aware; are you afraid that they’re going to react in a certain way or they’re not going to understand you?”
It comes back to acceptance and being “okay with whatever the outcome,” she says. “If they don’t understand me, that’s okay. It just means we need to dive a little deeper.”
And when we look back at this year that challenged all of us, we’ll feel that much more equipped for what the future holds.
“That’s one of the beautiful things of the more difficult things you get through in life,” she says. “The more free you are as your marriage goes on, because you’re like, ‘Look, we can handle this. We handled that year, we can handle this year.’”