Before my husband and I became foster parents our marriage was solid. Our relationship was thriving and we wanted to protect our marriage throughout whatever challenges might lie ahead. Fortunately, we knew several families who had been foster parents for years. Conversations with couples who’d parented traumatized or challenging children and our own research helped us enter the foster care system with a plan for keeping our marriage a top priority.

The past year has been the most difficult year of our lives together. We’ve doubted ourselves, we’ve felt like failures, we’ve questioned God, and we’ve grieved for children that have left our home. But through it all, we have remained united. Rather than growing apart through the turmoil, our connection deepened because we prepared for a difficult journey and did the work along the way.

I’m not a marriage expert and I’m aware that there are millions of articles and books written on marriage, but when I’m working through hard things, I find that connecting with someone who has been through what I am experiencing can be comforting and helpful. These guidelines helped us when we felt like we were being pummeled by the world and even our home didn’t feel like a safe space.

We put our faith first.

We are Christ-followers and our faith influences every decision we make. We believe that Jesus holds our marriage together and we consult our faith first in life, love, and parenting. 

We check in every day.

Whether it was a good day or terrible day, we check in with one another to see how we’re doing. Even if we have to stay up late to do it, at the end of each day we try to talk about the day’s stresses, frustrations, successes. Sometimes we need to vent about work or the kids. Sometimes we have to apologize and explain why we snapped earlier, why we didn’t follow through on something, or why we were in a funk. Communicating the thoughts that are in the forefront of our minds before bed helps us to connect, feel like we are on the same team, and it helps us to end the day in a good place.

We appreciate the little things.

We compliment and thank each other constantly. It may sound silly that, after 9 years of marriage, my husband whoops about how clean the kitchen is when he comes home from work or that I often brag to others that my husband does all of the laundry in our house, but it lifts us up and keeps us going. It’s so easy to take one another for granted, especially when you’ve been doing the same things for so long. By “bragging” about one another, thanking one another, and giving each other fist pounds for a job well done, we remember we that we are a team and that even the mundane tasks matter.

We have regularly scheduled date nights.

When parenting difficult children, I can’t overstate how important it is to get away and recharge. Do whatever it takes to make sure it happens on a regular basis. It’s even more important when you are struggling in your family or your relationship. Even if you don’t feel like it or you are feeling distant from your spouse, do it anyway. Distance breeds distance. Sometimes the only cure is to schedule intimacy in order to find one another again.

We lean on our support system.

We have an amazing group of people who love and support us. We would not have survived the past year without them. Connecting with a community is essential to a strong marriage and family. When we are feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or embarrassed, our tendency is to isolate ourselves. I would encourage you to sprint the other way. Not away from others, but toward them.

We put our marriage before our children.

In our child-centered world, this can be somewhat controversial, but we believe strongly that our children will be better off if we stay together and have healthy marriage. Our priorities are this simple: Jesus, marriage, kids, everything else.

We say “no.”

If we are putting our marriage before our kids, everything else certainly comes behind them. Depending on the child(ren) in our home, sometimes parenting is all we can do and everything else has to go. Our kids (biological and foster) know that our family can’t go to every single school activity, that sometimes mom and dad can’t make it to events, that they might not be able to do a sport or activity that they want to do. We have made it clear that the things we commit to will be carefully weighed against everything else we have going on. We even limit what we take on at church in order to honor the commitment we have made to one another and our family.

We serve one another.

I am not a bed-maker. As a child I wasn’t required to make my bed and I always thought it was silly to make a bed when you were just going to mess it up again. My husband likes the bed made, but since he always gets up before me I am the one who has to do it. He didn’t make a big deal about it. We never fought and it really wasn’t an issue, but one day I realized that having the bed made was important to him and that it was a small thing I could do to make him happy. So I started making the bed. No one is more surprised than me that now, not only do I like the bed made, but it brings me joy to do it (most of the time). I have many stories like this. My husband is a giver and it makes me want to give more. In any relationship it can become cyclical either way—you both take and become resentful, or you both give and reap the benefits.

We over-communicate.

Parenting is hard. Whether the kids are adopted, in foster care, stepchildren, or biological, all parents have times when they disagree on the best way to handle a situation or discipline a child. It gets even more complicated when trauma, mental illness, birth parents, social workers, counselors, and schools get involved. We’ve had to work at it, but we try to talk about everything—the good, the bad, and the ugly. We text, call, and email each other throughout the day and, if that’s not possible, we check in before bed. I want my husband to know everything that is going on with every child in our home and he wants me to know what is going on with him at work (why he has to work late, why he’s stressed, what the next month looks like). We hold each other up and we are one another’s biggest cheerleader. We also respect one another’s opinions and seek advice from each other whenever possible.

We set boundaries with our children.

We protect intimacy and our time alone together by giving each child a bedtime, even in the summer. We desperately need quiet at the end of the day to talk and unwind without them. The older kids don’t have to go to sleep, but they do have go to and stay in their rooms after a certain time. As a rule, we don’t allow any children to sleep in our bed (and it’s never allowed with children in foster care). If a little one sneaks in, we take him back to his bed as soon as we notice. We also try to make our bedroom a no-kid zone. Our children aren’t allowed to play in our room or enter without permission. It’s our way of creating a space just for us.

We value time apart, time with friends, and personal growth.

It is important to us that we each have time away with our same-sex friends without our spouse. We also encourage and support one another in pursuing our own interests. Being stressed, overwhelmed, or thinking about the needs of the kids and family all of the time isn’t good for anyone. We know that time away, whether alone or with friends, will make us better parents and partners.