Just when we thought we'd been married long enough to figure out a few things, my husband, Ben, and I woke up with teenagers in our home. As we entered the turbulent teen years, we were forced to deal with a growing number of crises fueled by our three daughters' rising estrogen levels.
Ben and I struggled to stay on the same team, but sometimes we found ourselves on opposite sides. That's what happened one evening as we argued about teaching our oldest daughter how to drive.
My husband had already given her a few lessons in a large parking lot. I thought she was ready for a new challenge, so I let her try her fledgling skills on the back roads. When I told Ben about our little adventure — including our near accident at an intersection — he wasn't pleased.
"What do you mean, you took her on the back roads?" he asked. "And you almost got hit?"
I defended my decision. "I thought she could handle the car well enough. I just forgot that she wasn't used to road signs and other vehicles yet."
Ben's anger was sparked by his fatherly concern. Working as an EMT and firefighter, he'd seen his share of road fatalities. But I felt he was challenging my parenting skills. Instead of steering the discussion in a positive direction, I wanted to prove I was right.
As the argument escalated, I realized we had once again squared off against each other instead of tackling the issue together. After our emotions cooled, we both acknowledged that we needed to take steps to protect our marriage during the turbulent teen years.
New reasons to argue
Parenting teens provides a new set of conflicts for couples: debates over discipline, respect, privileges, responsibilities, media choices and dating boundaries. Then there are the driving escapades, the increased financial stress, and of course, the delicate dance of holding on and letting go.
Knowing that the kids will soon leave home also can turn parents against each other as they evaluate what's been done correctly — and what hasn't. When my oldest was a senior in high school, I found myself fluctuating between grieving and longing for the day she'd be gone. Most of my concentration and emotions were spent on my kids; it was no wonder that marital tension reached an all-time high during the teen years.
Beyond the normal dramas of adolescence, however, teen rebellion creates even greater pressure on a marriage. John Trent, founder of the Center for Strong Families, compares this pressure to pumping air into a balloon without any kind of release. "If couples are experiencing a prodigal kid," Trent says, "then there's tremendous emotion being pumped into the system. It feels like every day is an explosion."
Whether couples are dealing with typical teen issues or outright rebellion, Trent recommends that they take a few moments in their day to ease the building pressure by asking God for the love, patience and kindness that will sustain them through new conflicts. "It's really important to off-load [the stress] to Somebody with really big shoulders, and then we're ready to at least start over from a position of strength," Trent says.
The power of small changes
Trent says the small changes we make in our relationships can pay big dividends in the long run. He describes how he and his wife, Cindy, approached the teen years in their home. John and Cindy asked themselves, What are some small things we can start doing now that will strengthen our relationship?
They resolved to set aside an hour and a half each week to take inventory of their relationship. They would sit at the food court of a mall (a public place where they would not be prone to argue) and talk about family issues — marriage, parenting, whatever the week's challenge. Time away allowed them to work on the small things in their marriage and their family so they would have strength for the big things. It also assured their kids that Mom and Dad were carving out time to nurture a lasting relationship.
Ben and I explored the small changes we could make to strengthen our marriage. We committed to talk openly about parenting issues. We also purposed to stay open-minded and seek counsel when we couldn't agree on how best to deal with the pressure in our home.
To build a sense of camaraderie and connection, we researched hobbies that we could share, and we agreed to count our blessings so that gratitude would keep our hearts entwined.
But more than anything else, the best defenses for our marriage have been forgiveness, accountability, prayer and the Word. They have supplied the grace we need to survive any teen crisis.
I realize more than ever that seasons come and go in our lives and the stress of today will be the wisdom of tomorrow. That wisdom includes trusting a heavenly Father to care for our teens, even as Ben and I hold tight to each other.
Pam Woody is the marriage editor for Focus on the Family magazine.