There is a topic that we discuss in our parenting groups that we feel is one of the most important for having a happy and healthy family: the effects that raising children have on a relationship. While some parents continue to maintain consciousness around the need for intimacy and connection with their spouses, others find themselves drifting apart slowly as kids grow and the years go by. Moms in particular often find themselves exhausted and hyper-focused on the kids. One mom we know said that she and her husband hadn’t slept in the same bed, or gone on a date night, or an overnight trip together for the six years since their first baby was born. She also admitted to frequently using the “I have my period” excuse to avoid sex! And yet to kids, there’s no better feeling in the world than knowing that mom and dad genuinely care about each other and are connected emotionally. It’s what makes them feel the most safe and happy.
Having worked with thousands of families over the past twenty years, we know how devastating the effects of marital neglect can be. Individual partners can begin to feel lonely, misunderstood, resentful and disconnected. The inevitable outcome of chronic neglect is often divorce – no surprises there. Does it take extra effort to nurture your relationship and maintain connection day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year? You bet.
But consider the payoff: investing in making your marriage healthy is critical for the well-being not only of both partners but also the kids. Every child thrives in a family environment where he knows his parents are committed to staying together. Seeing a strong relationship is the foundation for his own well-being and self-esteem.
Is it normal and understandable that stressed-out parents put their relationship on the bottom of the priority list? Of course – especially in the first few years of having young children. But if you don’t become proactive about finding new ways to connect not just as parents but as a couple on a regular basis, and if you adopt an attitude of “Well, we have a foundation of love – one day the kids will be gone and we’ll find our way back to each other again,” that “one day” will arrive but instead of finding your way easily back to each other, you will wonder how you drifted so far apart. Giving up on communication or on getting your needs met, and putting children first every day in every way, is a surefire recipe for splitting up. Babysitters are a whole lot less expensive than divorce!
The good news is that there are small things you can do on a regular basis that go a long way toward nurturing, building, and protecting your relationship.
OUR TOP 7 TIPS FOR KID-PROOFING YOUR RELATIONSHIP
1. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
This sounds like an obvious one, but if you don’t talk openly on a regular basis about what’s going on in your mind and heart, resentments build and both halves of the couple begin to feel disconnected. Think of your relationship like a business for a moment. If your spouse were a close colleague at work, it would be essential to communicate and check in on a regular basis, not only to clarify the goals that you were striving toward but also to know whether you were on target with achieving those goals. In many workplaces, there are regular – perhaps weekly – meetings to discuss what’s going on in each department or with each employee so that adjustments can be made to ensure all systems are running smoothly. In marriage, parents are the co-CEOs of the family, and with so many responsibilities to juggle they need to communicate about the how the systems are running and how they’re feeling about day-to-day operations. Bonus: modeling good communication teaches your kids how to communicate well, too.
You and your spouse can set up a weekly meeting – maybe on an evening after kids are in bed – where you turn off all electronics and just touch base. Avoid getting on the defensive if your spouse tells you how he feels. Just listen; don’t fix. Then take your own turn. More important than finding solutions to problems is empathizing with each other – really standing in the other person’s shoes to hear the feelings beneath what’s being communicated. From this place of genuine connection, you take the focus off of the “me” and place it instead on the “we.” From here, solutions to problems arise much more naturally.
2. Lay out division of labor in advance of squabbles to reduce conflict.
In Jill’s relationship of almost twenty-three years, she and her husband, Gary, have worked out who does what around the house to avoid squabbles over whose turn it is to do what needs doing. For example, Gary is the only one who takes out the trash. Even if the trash is overflowing to the max, Jill will never take out the trash because that’s Gary’s job. And conversely, Gary will never pack a kid’s lunch! That’s Jill’s job. If Jill cooks, Gary cleans – and vice versa. No “in the moment” discussion or argument necessary. These clear understandings help family life flow smoothly on a day-to-day basis.
3. Don’t expect your spouse to mind-read what you need.
If you find yourself controlling your spouse, either overtly or covertly, there’s an excellent chance that you have a need that you don’t believe the other person can’t meet for you, so you’re trying to manipulate them into doing so instead. Don’t. Instead, be direct. “I’d really love it if you could give the kids a bath every Tuesday and Thursday.” “I’d love to go to a yoga class every Sunday morning while you watch the kids.” “It would mean so much to me if you would ask me how my day was before you jump into our laundry list of what we need to talk about.” Even though you may wish that your spouse would offer to take over all childcare responsibilities at the end of the day, rub your feet after the kids are down, and offer to get up with your sleepless child every time she wakes through the night, it’s a lot more likely that you’ll get some, if not most, of the things on your wish list if you are direct and specific. If your spouse genuinely loves you, he or she will be much more willing and able to come forward and meet your needs when it’s clear what those needs are. (Hint for men: with a little more down time, are a lot more likely to feel like being intimate!)
4. Encourage dads to help with the kids – and don’t criticize!
Men need the experience taking care of the kids and getting better at it, just like moms do. It’s so tempting for women to take over all parenting duties because doing so comes naturally, but families are much more balanced when dads are involved in setting limits, mealtimes, getting kids bathed and tucked in, and taking them to birthday parties, play dates, and soccer matches – in addition to playing and having fun. The more involved a dad is, the more competent he feels as a dad – and the less likely it is that resentment builds for moms about doing too much.
Also, when dads are involved in taking care of kids they form their own special relationships and provide another model of healthy parenting. Moms need to know that the way a dad spends their time with the kids may look different than how she would do it. So what if he decides that watching the football game is the activity of choice? Kids will learn about teams and sports and what makes for a great athlete. So what if he puts the diaper on backwards or dresses your kid in the most atrocious outfit possible? If your child isn’t bleeding or broken, don’t sweat it.
Every parent finds the art of their own parenting through trial and error. @sleepyplanet (Click to Tweet!)
Moms sometimes make mistakes, and dads sometimes do too. Laugh about your mistakes together and try to have a sense of humor about it all. If you find fault in all that your spouse does, he will surely stop trying!
5. Remember the reasons you married your spouse.
Pull out old photo albums or videos so you can remind yourself of what drew you to this wonderful person in the first place. Think about what you used to do together pre-kids that was fun – playing pool? Going to a concert? Eating dinner in a part of your city that you haven’t explored? – and plan a time to go do those things. A little reminiscing goes a long way toward helping you connect with who you were before you became parents.
6. Plan date nights and sex
If you haven’t done this much, it’s time to call Grandma or a caregiver. If going out regularly isn’t possible, designate Saturday night as a time when you turn off your electronics and – once the kids are down – light a few candles, play a game together, look at old honeymoon photos, or talk about anything and everything. If you don’t have a babysitter or family available to help with kids, consider a sitting arrangement with another family so you can take turns having an evening off.
As for sex, it is unfortunately not likely to happen nearly as spontaneously after you become parents. You may have to schedule it now. Does scheduling sound cold, or like a major turn-off? If the alternative is that you never find time for sex, it’s time to put it in your calendar. Some parents find that knowing that it’s in your calendar can build a sense of excitement and anticipation the entire day beforehand. You’re too tired for sex, you say? Never in the mood, because you have kids hanging on you all day? Filled up with all the love you could ever want from your kids, so who needs sex anyway? All very understandable things to feel, but if you want to stay married, just do it. You may be surprised at how much you enjoy it once you do!
7. Nurture yourselves!
Moms and dads too often forget to take care of themselves once they have children. Sure, having a child is highly demanding and all-consuming, especially in the early years. But as time goes by, and as kids grow and become increasingly independent, it’s OK to shift the balance a bit. If you don’t take care of yourselves as individuals, you’ll feel exhausted and angry, and guess who you’ll take that exhaustion and anger out on? Yep – your spouse. So plan a way to help each other get some time off every week or on the weekend. You can designate a chunk of hours where each of you takes some time to refuel while the other parent watches the children on a particular day. Once refueled, you’ll both have more energy to bring back to each other – and to your kids, too.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS FOR YOUR OWN CIRCLE OF MOMS
Why not have a get-together with your own mom friends and keep the conversation going? Here are some questions to get you started. You can also join us each Thursday at 10 am PST on our Facebook page for a virtual mom group where we’ll talk about all that’s on your mind and in your heart! Join us!
- Since you had your first child, what parts of your couple identity have stayed the same and what parts have changed? How do you feel about those changes?
- What do you think you need to communicate with your spouse about your needs as a mom and partner? What have you been holding back?
- What are three things you can ask your spouse directly for help with?
“There Goes the Motherhood” airs on Bravo each Wednesday at 10/9c, and follows six moms through an eight-week parenting group led by Jill. For more information, please visit sleepyplanet.com.
Jill Spivack, LCSW, is a licensed psychotherapist. Jennifer Waldburger, MSW, is a meditation and mindfulness teacher. Jill and Jennifer are co-founders of Sleepy Planet Parenting, where they draw from their background in child development and family systems to offer groups and private sessions that help families thrive. Their publications include The Sleepeasy Solution and Calm Mama, Happy Baby.” Please visit sleepyplanet.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
Image courtesy of Scott Webb.