These days, couples with children simply spend too much time devoted solely to their kids. Don’t get me wrong, as a marriage and family therapist and a mother myself, I am fully aware of the importance of inclusivity and attention required to create a secure attachment between parent and child. What I am suggesting is that, in an age of scheduled play dates for toddlers and weekend soccer tournaments for grade-schoolers, we are over-scheduled. And it’s our fault. Somewhere along the way (between my childhood in the 80s and my parenthood in the 2000s), an unspoken yet collective movement occurred in our society that has infused a hyper-vigilance into the parenting role. More attention is devoted to our children’s activities / schedules and, frankly, to the children themselves rather than to the marriage.
This helicopter-parenting is hazardous for kids for many reasons, but perhaps more worrisome, is the undercurrent of damage to the marriage itself. Our most important role as parents is to provide love in a safe and secure environment. A secure environment consists of many things, but primarily the secure relationship between the two parents. This requires substantial time and attention. In my experience as a marriage therapist and mother, couples tend to put their relationship on the back burner when babies arrive. In the short term, this is necessary, as mom and dad are adjusting to their new roles and just trying to keep their heads above water with the new realities of sleep deprivation and cleaning up poop.
Research repeatedly demonstrates marital satisfaction plummets during the arrival of children and remains low during the course of childrearing. No one tells you that and more importantly, no one tells you what you can do about it. Couples acquiesce to their new way of life and do not share with each other what they are feeling: usually a mix of loneliness, feeling unappreciated, being pissed off at each other, and wondering where in the hell their sex life disappeared. They generally end up at my office 5 to 6 years after the first baby. They are relieved when I tell them what they are feeling is normal. They are hungry for change. They want to feel and be close again. I instruct them to reclaim a sense of who they are as a couple. This requires a change in attitude AND behavior- consistently reminding themselves that child-free time is not selfish behavior, but rather a protective behavior that will stabilize their family life.
Below is a list of tips for reclaiming your couple life:
Daily check-ins: catch up with one another at the end of the work day. This could be after dinner or when the kids are in bed. Ask questions about your partner’s day and leave the conversation knowing at least one thing that will occur in their day tomorrow. Listen to your partners problems and support them. Research shows us that these supportive half-hour conversations increase relationship stability.
Put your kids to bed at a set time every night. Even if they don’t go to sleep, establish a rule that they are to have a quiet time which begins at a set time every evening. For school-aged kids, my recommendation that 8pm is a reasonable quiet time or “lights out” time (depending on the age of the child). Get in bed together at night. You don’t have to go to sleep at the same time, but do allow for some time to touch, cuddle, talk and reflect. Physical touch (it doesn’t have to be sex) releases bonding hormones and is good for our health. Let us not forget that physical intimacy is an incredibly important piece of a satisfying relationship.
Have a weekly date night. Don’t ever stop courting and find ways to have new adventures together. Ideally, the date would be out of the house, but if childcare and finances are an issue, there are many ways to have a date night at home. Plan this in advance so that it’s set and each of you can look forward to it.
Schedule a weekend getaway. Break out your yearly calendars and plan in advance. Call in the grandparents to assist with overnight childcare if possible, it’s great for them, your children, and your relationship. Eat, sleep-in, have sex, watch movies, have an adventure….do what you used to do as a couple before the stork arrived. Repeat often (once a season is recommended).
Teach your children that mom and dad need alone time. When they ask why you are going out or why Grandma is coming to watch them, explain to them the importance of mom and dad having time together. They will remember this when they are parents. Hopefully, this tradition will be passed along generationally.
Our kids bring us incredible joy and, as parents, we want to do everything we can to bring them happiness. Please do not let this desire rob attention from the person that helped you create them.