A solid, stable relationship between partners is especially important when children enter the picture, according to Sherry Finneran, co-director at the Family Education Center. This is true for two reasons. “The first is because parents model how to have a loving relationship. The second is because it’s a lot more fun.” Little things matter the most.
The catch is that along with the joy that children bring, their needs and demands often raise to the surface. That can aggravate any pre-existing problems a couple has experienced. Unresolved problems from your own childhood can bubble up, threaten and even sink a relationship.
Each Child Adds More that a Little Stress
If you know anyone who dreamed that having a child would cure an ailing marriage, you no doubt understand the problem. That is, with every additional member of your household, there’s more stress on those already there.
Jesse Rabinowitz, PhD., director of Psychological Services at Jewish Family Services, says children present big challenges. This often causes a difficult transition for a marriage. “Parenthood can be an isolating experience, particularly if the other parent is working. That is because the support networks have thinned out [and] we don’t have family nearby,” explains Rabinowitz. “Couples have less time together. Sleep deprivation leads to greater difficulties in negotiating the emotional terrain of a relationship. People feel neglected because (an utterly dependent) baby soaks up so much nurturing and energy.”
The period following a baby’s birth can be a “dangerous time” for a marriage, according to Dalia Cohen, MS, LPC, and certified Imago therapist. She often sees clients for the 1st time after they’ve had a child. “People have affairs. The woman is bonding with the child and the man is feeling that he’s not important or useful,” she says. Some are “insecure and afraid of repeating patterns.”
Marriages Cry for Help
If you’re suffering from depression, engaged in constant arguments, uncovering or participating in an extramarital affair, your marriage is quite obviously crying out for help. Sometimes trouble can be less apparent. But it’s just as important to address and resolve (with your partner or with the aid of a professional).
“Your marriage is in trouble if you feel alone in the relationship, or you’re the only one doing things. You’re also in trouble if you’re not excited about your partner coming home or that you can talk to anyone but your spouse,” says Cohen. A lack of communication means the relationship is in jeopardy. The most dangerous sign is if you just stop caring. “The opposite of love is not hate; it’s indifference.”
Time to talk?
What can couples do to avoid trouble, maintain and strengthen their partnership? There’s no magic. You’ve just got to make it a priority. “Decide that you’re not going to let [your relationship] go. Be committed to making it work and to being in the marriage for the long haul,” says Teresa Parr, Parent Coaching Consultant.
“Babies are loud about what they need. Marriages are not,” Parr says. “It’s easy to neglect each other because other things are more urgent; but you have to save some time and energy for your spouse.” Making time for each other may not be easy, but it’s essential. Schedule time together just as you would a meeting. “Put it on your calendar,” urges Cohen. Even half an hour to talk and share your feelings will serve as a tonic for your relationship. Little things matter.
Good communication is “the blood flow of the relationship,” says Cohen. Tell each other what you want and need without criticism or accusation. Avoid using words such as “always” or “never.”
Even when you disagree, “honor the differences” between you, says Finneran. You do that by listening carefully and respectfully to your partner. Listen. Suggest and discuss ideas. Then, make your decisions together.
Coming From Different Directions
James and Marianne Marcus (who asked that their real names not be used) have been married for 15 years and have two sons, ages 10 and 12. “We make decisions together about almost everything,” says James. “We had very different experiences growing up. Our values are similar, though. So by the time we distill an issue, it’s not hard to come to an agreement. We both need to be disciplined, knowing we’re coming from two different directions, so that we reach a mutually satisfying decision.”
Finneran advises scheduling 10 minutes of conversation per day. Also schedule half an hour to an hour per week for a “marriage meeting” to discuss schedules and resolve conflicts. Plus you need one weekly date. If it sounds impossible, try to incorporate these times into your schedule, one by one, little by little.
Take time to reconnect, even in little ways
- Can’t do a weekly date? How about going out twice a month for a meal or a movie? Go bowling or play miniature golf.
- Short of money? Take a walk together.
- Can’t leave your child? Take the baby with you when you go to a restaurant. Ask relatives or friends to baby-sit. Switch childcare duties with other parents or join a babysitting co-op.
- If you can’t escape the house for a date, reserve half an hour for each other after the kids go to sleep. “Sit up when you crawl into bed instead of lying down and falling asleep,” Finneran advises.
- Get up earlier on a weekend morning to have coffee together.
- Allow the kids to watch a video while you talk and snuggle. But please, there should be no discussion of problems; this is your time to nurture each other.
- “Set boundaries for the kids, so you have adult time,” says Cohen. Teach your little ones that when the door to Mommy and Daddy’s room is closed, they must knock. And they can enter only when you say so.
As the children mature and you feel comfortable leaving them with a caregiver for a longer period, going away might be just the refresher your marriage needs.
Chris and Noelle Lavach left their 5-year-old daughter and little 1-year-old son in the care of Chris’ parents while the couple took a much-needed 5-day vacation. Despite initial concerns about being so far away from the kids and spending money on themselves, their trip turned out to be more worthwhile than they had anticipated. “We had fun. We were getting along better. When we came back, we felt it was something that had really benefited our family,” Noelle says.
- A little can mean a lot. When you’re apart, keep in touch with your spouse by phone, texting, or e-mail.
- Face to face. You don’t always have to communicate with words. Sending flowers or giving a little box (or a bar) of candy can keep your romance alive. Having sex, hugging, touching and holding each other are other ways to comfort, and love your partner.
- Reassure each other, in word and deed. A new mother needs to know her husband still finds her attractive. A new father wants to be sure he’s not the third wheel in the growing love affair between mother and baby.
- Make an effort to look good for each other, even if you’re exhausted. “Learn from French women,” Cohen says. “A quick wash under your arms, comb your hair, dab on lipstick and perfume. You’ll feel and look better.”
- No matter how old your kids are and how long your marriage has lasted, don’t take your spouse for granted. “Be mindful, loving, and forgiving,” urges Rabinowitz.
- Simple little gestures, such as surprising each other with an offer of free time or taking over a task your partner doesn’t like, can revitalize a relationship.
“One day I was on the phone, telling a friend how much I hate unloading the dishwasher. My husband overheard me. From then on, the dishwasher was always emptied,” Noelle Lavach says.
- When your spouse does something thoughtful, make sure you recognize the effort. Thank him. Tell him he’s wonderful. Compliment him on how well he’s done at changing diapers, preparing a meal, cleaning the bathroom or modifying his behavior in response to your needs or requests. Do this, even if the results are not perfect. Your positive response will encourage him and make him even more willing to continue to help out.
- Make space, too. As important as it is to spend time together, you’ve got to nurture yourself. “People need to charge their batteries,” says Cohen. Allow each other time and space to be alone and with friends, to read, take a class.
- “Recognize that the person coming home from work might need a break” says Rabinowitz. “And recognize that the at-home spouse has also been hard at work.” Take turns doing kitchen chores and childcare duties. That way each of you gets a chance to play or work at something on your own.
“On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, I take care of the kids. This is so my wife can attend a yoga class she likes,” James Marcus says.
The Marcuses have even structured their work to allow plenty of flexibility. “I work out of home,” James says, “so Marianne can work late or on weekends, if she has to. I benefit, as well, because one of us is always at home to deal with issues (such as a sick child having to be picked up from school). There’s no anxiety.”
In an ideal world, people would agree on and develop a parenting philosophy and style long before they had children. In reality, however, most of us don’t know what we’re in for, and tend to react to situations as they occur.
“Be proactive,” says Parr. “Parent with intention, rather than by the seat of your pants. Even if you lead parallel lives, you can maintain the same vision and be part of the same team.”
Again, you don’t have to start out with the same perspective; you just have to be willing to communicate, says Fineran. “You learn to consult each other so the child gets the benefit of both parents’ perspectives. Parents make a mistake to think they always have to cave in to the other’s way. There’s often a middle road. The only way to find out is if you’re open minded.”
Rabinowitz says parents should seek information and support, wherever they can find it. Talk to friends about their parenting experiences. Join or start a parenting group at your church or synagogue. Make connections with other parents from your children’s school or daycare center. Advocate for family-friendly policies at your workplace.
Be sure to also schedule time for family fun and meetings. According to Cohen, devoting time to your family might mean postponing some personal gratification. It might mean saying no a lot more often than you’d like. It might even mean turning down volunteer opportunities, until the kids are old enough to participate.
Don’t Kill Good Feelings
And keep in mind that it’s the “You’re-an-adult, get-up-and-go-get-it-yourself” syndrome that kills good feelings between marital partners. I point out how many people there are to love and nurture children (parents, teachers, friends, parents, music teachers, coaches…). Compare this to how many people your partner has for nurturing their simple acts of kindness. It’s usually “0!” Except for you. And, if you have the “Get-it-yourself” syndrome, or worse, if you both have the “Get-it-yourself, I-have-children-to-take-care-of” syndrome, it won’t be too long before there is an affair —or, at the least, extreme loneliness says Kelly Simpson.
Barbara M. Ingber wrote this article. It appeared in the Richmond Parents Monthly. This monthly publication is available free at over 400 locations throughout Richmond. This particular article was sent to us from Smartmarriages.
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