As a couples therapist and a mother of young children, I chuckled at this advice, which is unrealistic and unattainable for most parents. Long-term intimate relationships are hard work even if you don’t have children. But there are significant additional challenges for couples with kids. While there are many instances where having children deepens the bond and attachment between partners, there are also studies that show marital satisfaction declines for many couples after they have kids.
Having children disrupts a romantic relationship because you are adding another variable to the equation. The birth of a child changes all of the relationships within a family, and the added responsibilities can make it difficult to find time to tend to your marriage, let alone to for self-care.
“It can be surprising for couples to shift to parenthood after months (or years) or being a twosome,” says Julie Bindeman, the co-director of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington. “Children can bring incredible things into a partnership, and can also bring in tension and strife.”
Many of the couples I work with are juggling parenting responsibilities while working full time, with long hours. They are tired and stretched thin after rushing to pick up the kids, taking care of their needs until bedtime, then logging back on to work after the kids are in bed. When couples don’t have flexible work schedules, it can make things even harder. Stay-at-home parents are at home all day with needy kids, and they may sleep even less than parents who work, as they tend to a child’s overnight needs while their partner rests. And differences in parenting styles can create tension, even for couples who thought they were in sync before they had kids.
Of course, couples that have money and resources find it easier to dedicate time to a relationship and to themselves. They have babysitters, nannies or family members who can watch the children for a date night, or even for a weeklong getaway. People who can invest in themselves and make time for exercise, socializing and hobbies are happier and have more to give to their relationships. But this flexibility is not a reality for many families, for whom paying for a babysitter and a date night are a luxury.
Here are four small ways that parents in any situation can reconnect with a partner.
Have a date night at home after the kids go to bed. If you can’t afford to have regular babysitters and regular nights out, or you’re just tired, find some time to sneak in together once the kids are in bed. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; it can be ordering take-out or delivery and watching a television show or movie you both enjoy. As long as you are focusing on each other, it can help improve your connection to your partner.
Have a weekly one-on-one check-in. Schedule a regular meeting to check in with each other about the state of the relationship and how connected you’re feeling to each other. You can also use this time to talk about how your week is going. You only need to carve out 30 to 45 minutes to touch base, but it’s a great way to stay connected.
Make time every day to express gratitude and do little gestures for each other. In my practice, I have couples do an appreciation for each other at the beginning of every session. Making intentional efforts to tell your loved ones what they are doing right, instead of what they are doing wrong, can strengthen your connection to one another. Small kindnesses go a long way as well. Licensed clinical social worker Vicki Klein says “Make coffee for your other half in the morning, fill his/her car up with gas when it’s unexpected, take something off of their ‘to-do’ list.”
Be realistic. Don’t be hard on yourselves. Parenting is a physically and emotionally challenging experience at some point for every parent. For many, it’s draining more often than not. Be kind to yourself and realize you are doing the best you can given your financial resources, time constraints and often consuming daily obligations. Small victories mean a lot, even if it’s spending 20 minutes of quality time with your partner a few times a week.
Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington. She has two children.
You might also be interested in: