Kids, eh? They're so cute. Such a blessing! So all consuming. The arrival of the first baby often shakes up the equilibrium of the relationship. This is a game changer, redefining each partner's sense of self and priorities. A massive 2013 study by the UK's Open University determined that married couples with children rated their marriages as decidedly less happy than their child-free counterparts. While many relationships bounce back and thrive, some continue to wobble, even years later. Resentments fester (I do more of the childcare!). Tolerance is eroded (insert the litany of irksome habits your partner has here). Loneliness sets in (I feel like I don't matter).
There's no question that raising a young family can max out even the most solid relationships. And child rearing does place some very practical strains on a relationship. And yet, here you are. You're in it! Here are seven considerations and strategies to help get you through your parenting years with more connection and less reactivity.
1. Don't always take your partner's bad mood at face value.
One of the unwritten rules of adult attachment is that we become the safe receptacle for all of the difficult emotions our partners can't let out anywhere else (in other words, the dumping ground). She is silent and grumpy in the evening; you feel hurt and alone, you lash out. He is harsh and sarcastic, you feel sad and misunderstood, you retreat. When we feel rejected or attacked, we lose faith in our relationship as a safe and supportive anchor. Over time, this can erode trust and hope - and set ourselves up for endless cycles of withdrawing and pursuing (for more exploration on the dark side of this dynamic, check out my blog post on nagging).
This can especially be exacerbated in couples with children, because children occupy prime attention and nurturing real estate. They also wipe us out. When our nervous system is flooded - by screaming children, a tough day at work, and an ever growing to-do list - we simply don't have the bandwidth to be present for our partners. Even worse, we sometimes behave badly, whether that means passive aggressive silence or harsh criticism. When we are the ones dishing it out, we often aren't aware at how stinging it feels to the recipient. But when we are on the receiving end, we feel crushed and infuriated.
As always, the holy "pause" does us many favours. What else could this harshness be about? If it's coming from us, wonder what vulnerable emotion might your anger/coldness/reactivity be trying to extinguish. Be curious about your partner's inner life. Ask more questions. Share your observations in a caring way: "You've been really quiet this week. How are things going at work?" You want to show that you're assuming this moodiness is about more than meets the eye. "Caring curiosity" is the only way out of an endless chicken-and-egg defensive cycle (disclaimer: this obviously does not apply in the case of verbal or emotional abuse - or any type of abuse, for that matter).
2. Who does what around the house? It turns out it does matter.
I owe a huge apology to dozens of couples who I saw earlier in my career. When the conversation in couples counselling sessions used to veer into one or both parties taking a (heated) inventory of who does what - with respect to chores, child care, chauffeuring, homework, and general domestic maintenance - I could barely suppress a yawn. "You guys! Let's get back to the main issue. This is not why you're really here!" I would insist.
Now, I pay attention. Because, as it turns out, who does what in a marriage actually really matters. Study after study shows that, across different cultures and socioeconomic statuses, when one partner feels burdened with more than their share of responsibilities, all sorts of things go awry in their marriage. Communication becomes more tense, the marriage is perceived as less supportive and cohesive, and arguing increases. Also, couples who share housework more evenly apparently have better sex lives. There's that.
So, my friends, recall the honeyed voice of Carol Channing from the prescient 1972 album Free to Be, You and Me: "If you want all the days of your lives to seem as sunny as summer weather, make sure when there's housework to be done, you do it - together!"
3. For goodness sake, get a babysitter.
For all the time parents spend with one another, it can be maddeningly difficult to be truly present. The intention is often there, but when kids are in the picture, there are just so many...interruptions. Cue date night. Or date morning, or date mid-afternoon. Just get out of dodge sans enfants!
Yes, babysitters these days are expensive, but you know what? They're cheaper than couples counselling (and if you're already in couples counselling, they're cheaper than more couples counselling). If costs are the main concern, skip the fancy dinner and pick up four dollar tacos on the beach. Sunsets are free!! Or skip Starbucks for a week, and maybe sell a few things on Craigslist.
Not only is going out without kids super fun, the very act of hiring a babysitter and getting out of the house sends a message to your partner: I value you! I want you to myself! We need to pay more attention to each other! Couples repeatedly report laughing more, feeling sexier, and having more interesting conversations when they're with their partner and without children.
If you have a baby, I'm letting you off the hook (although I'd still fist-bump you for getting a sitter). But if you're past the constant babe-on-the-boob phase, your children are probably not too precious to be put to bed by a carefully screened, responsible, caring person with great references. It takes a village, right?
4. Conflict in a marriage is perfectly okay, as long as there is genuine repair.
One of the first questions I ask a couple the first time I see them is, "Tell me how it goes when you fight." If a couple tells me that they don't fight at all, I feel a bit concerned. Some conflict is good - it's how we sort out negative feelings and work through differences. It takes a lot of emotional safety in a relationship to have good conflict. Relationship researcher Dr. John Gottman of the University of Washington - famous for dedicating his career to studying thousands of married couples and distilling the relationship qualities that are predictive of divorce - found that if conflict is followed by repair attempts, this bodes well for your marriage. According to Dr. Gottman, a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
Here is an example of a "silly" repair. One of my clients started shared with me that she paused once, at the peak of an argument that was going nowhere, to send her husband a text. The text had nothing but a series of cleverly chosen emojis. He burst out laughing. The argument continued as more of a discussion, but the emotional charge was lessened by the belly laugh that they shared at its peak.
Making a repair attempt in the midst of an escalating argument takes enormous fortitude. When we're arguing, the reasonable and calm part of our brains easily goes offline. Interrupting this takes great mindful self-awareness and the ability to rein yourself in. Breathing is your friend. Sometimes, it means walking back something hurtful that's been said. Other times, it's admitting out loud, "I think we've become carried away."
Interestingly, it's not only repair that helps buffer conflict. In his research, Gottman also identified a ratio of positive to negative interactions that, when maintained, is predictive of stability and connection in a marriage. The magical ratio is 5:1. That is, five bids for connection and closeness for every one instance of criticism, coldness, sarcasm or otherwise harshness. If only there were an app to track that!
5. Develop your own interests.
Esther Perel, a family systems therapist and world renowned expert on sexuality in marriage (or, as she elegantly calls it, "reconciling the erotic + the domestic") states: "When people become fused - when two become one - connection can no longer happen. Thus separateness is a precondition for connection: this is the essential paradox of intimacy and sex."
Remember when you first met your loved one? You were drawn in by the longing to find out more. As bits of them were revealed here and there, you delighted in how this brought you closer. Developing our interests and passions outside the family serves two important purposes: 1) it is invigorating and confidence boosting and 2) you don't only look to your partner and children to feel validated and competent. And bonus: there is a new element of you to pique your partner's curiosity.
6. Surprise your partner.
When we have children, a lot of our creative energy goes into delighting them. And let's face it nothing is more heartwarming than seeing your little ones' faces light up when you create a bit of magic for them. When's the last time you surprised your partner?
Family life thrives in a climate of routine and comfort. Don't get me wrong, this is not something we want to jettison out of our households! Routine and order is grounding and necessary. But over time, lack of mystery and unpredictability can make relationships feel stale and uninspired. Most marriages, especially those that have spawned children, get a jolt of life from surprise and spontaneity - and a little goes a long way.
The main ingredients of surprise for this purpose are catching someone off guard by a really pleasant and welcome sign that you're thinking of them. Oh, and don't you dare use this surprise as leverage down the road for your partner doing you a favour ("but remember how I went all out that one time and..."). Just don't even.
Even minor surprises can elicit a warm glow (I bought this shirt for you. I think it'll look really good with your eyes). Not to say you can't go all in (I'm taking the kids for the day and letting you go crazy). Or really knock it out of the ballpark (kids are sleeping out and we're booked into a hotel!). Or use your imagination.
7. Go for couples counselling before your relationship worsens.
Admittedly, sometimes, the above strategies just aren't enough to make a lasting difference in the relationship. Perhaps negative interaction cycles have become too locked in, or the same issues keep coming back. Couples therapists have special training in identifying the roots of these dynamics and facilitating less defensive and more connecting ways of relating.
Couples counselling is not meant to be a last ditch effort before divorce (although it often is). Couples stuck in a rut, with conflicting values, and deteriorating communication can all benefit from couples counselling. After ten years of providing relationship counselling, I can attest to the fact that it can be enormously effective to work through these impasses with someone who is trained in seeing the layers that comprise these "stuck points."
Do you have any questions or thoughts about improving relationships, with or without children? I'd love to hear from you!