“Don’t forget to make time for your marriage.”
As my husband and I prepared to become parents, schlepping to childbirth education classes and talking with excited relatives, this advice cropped up over and over again as the key to how to have a healthy relationship.
Fair enough. Studies show that having kids can make marital satisfaction plummet. The responsibility of caring for a tiny human being (not to mention big new stressors like trying to save for college while also putting away money for retirement and commuting to work every day) and can make prioritizing a happy marriage feel difficult, if not downright impossible.
“The transition to parenthood is known to be one of the most stressful times in a couple's life, and if the relationship is not prioritized, it is prone to falling apart,” says Leah Ottow, an L.C.S.W. at New Approaches, a therapy practice.
And yet, maintaining a healthy relationship is one of the best gifts we can give our kids. “Kids thrive in a secure environment,” says John Howard, relationship therapist and educator at Ready Set Love. “The worst thing parents can do is to put all their attention on their kids and neglect their relationship.”
While well-meaning people prescribe weekly date nights with the same verve with which they dole out obsolete parenting advice, it’s not always so easy to make it happen.
I asked the experts for some low-barrier (and non-obvious) ways to keep my relationship healthy. Here’s what they told me.
Every day when you come home, Howard says, give your partner an extended, belly-to-belly hug without talking. Continue the hug until you feel both your bodies relax.
The parts of our nervous systems that determine connection are primitive, Howard explains. When we spend time apart or feel disconnected from our spouse, he says, “Our nervous system has to recalculate whether we’re safe with this person, whether they’re in a good mood or not and whether we’re still connected.”
Obviously, a hug can’t replace real, quality time with your partner. But it can quickly restore a feeling of connection and safety on a daily basis, and that’s an important place to start if you want to maintain a healthy relationship.
My husband and I use a simple but structured daily check-in to keep us in sync. We pick a regular time—after the kids are in bed or first thing in the morning are usually good bets—and take turns sharing our current hopes and concerns, which range from a deep-dive into a work conundrum or "Are we ready to have another baby?" to “Who’s going to drop the kids off at camp tomorrow?”
We’ve found that a thank-you as part of our regular check-in goes a long way toward helping us both feel grateful and appreciated.
“You can take turns talking for five minutes each. Simply share what’s on your mind, or what the highs and lows of your day were,” says Ottow.
Separately, remember to set aside a regular time for financial check-ins. In many cases, one spouse tends to manage the money more than the other. Even where this doesn't spiral into full-on financial abuse, it can create room for animosity and resentment. Plus, demonstrating healthy financial habits can help keep your child from inheriting your money baggage.
To make sure you and your spouse both feel empowered financially, plan your check-ins monthly or bi-weekly. Keeping up on money communication can not only boost your family’s financial wellbeing but also minimize conflict down the road. All of that can increase your chances of keeping your marriage happy.
It can be easy for our conversations to fall into mundane patterns: how was work, what’re we eating for dinner, can you deal with bedtime tonight?
One way to break free is to give yourself more interesting things, and shared experiences, to talk about. Ottow suggests choosing a book to read together—and she’ll award you bonus points if you choose a book on relationships or parenting. Then again, if you both love thrillers or historical fiction, a lighter read might also do the trick.
A friend of mine reads a book about philosophy with her husband every weekend. They read out loud to each other, pausing to discuss anything they find interesting, so it takes them a long time to actually get through anything. But they don’t mind, because that’s not the point.
If you’d like to finish reading your books in a more timely manner, you and your partner might separately read a chapter and then set a time to discuss what you’ve read. Although it can be hard to find a quiet moment for serious conversation, you might schedule a regular appointment so you don’t need to negotiate (or put off) your “book club date.” You might also time it to your child’s naptime or do it at night after he or she has gone to bed.
If getting through a book sounds too ambitious, try answering questions together like the Gottman Institute’s Love Map questions or these 36 “questions for increasing closeness.”
Howard recommends couples learn a few basic massage techniques. “It’s relaxing and de-stressing, which parents really need, and it’s also bonding and romantic,” he says.
No need to go crazy with massage oils or Hollywood-perfect ambiance (unless you want to!). Simply connecting, touching, is a powerful way to center yourselves and cultivate a healthy relationship.
Howard recommends couples carve out a few nights a week to give each other a quick foot or shoulder massage.
I know how challenging it can be to get out of the house without the kids when you’re a new parent, but there really is no romantic substitute for alone time with your partner. Time to get over that FOMO and just get out there.
If the cost of childcare is getting in the way, consider a babysitting swap with friends. You could casually take turns swapping childcare with another couple, or even use an app to find a babysitter or to organize your friends and family into a network available for babysitting swaps.
If you have a colicky or sleep-challenged child (like mine was) and would rather not inflict the bedtime routine on an outsider—or you’re so simply exhausted that going out at night will leave you more sleep-deprived—you could always go out for weekend brunch, instead. (And I promise, your kid won’t always be a colicky sleep-fighter.)
Kids aren’t the only ones who need to play. Incorporating lighthearted moments into your day can go a long way toward reminding you and your significant other that you’re more than just business partners.
I thought my husband was crazy when he suggested spending a coveted date night at the indoor trampoline park we’d taken our kids to, but it turned out to be one of our best dates ever.
The music was fun, upbeat and loud enough that we couldn’t default to talking about our kids. As we bounced, jousted each other and attempted to complete the ninja obstacle course together, we giggled like, well, children. Playing together (without the kids!) helped us remember how much fun we’re capable of having together.
Megan Marshall, a real parent of a nine-year-old and a toddler, stays united with her husband by exchanging practical jokes. Her husband delights in rigging up stuffed animals with scary masks and clothes and placing them in unexpected places to scare her.
Meanwhile, she says, “I’ve been known to place random items for sale on Craigslist with his contact information, so he’ll suddenly be inundated with calls about the cherry red Ford Mustang he’s selling for cheap.” Although it may sound silly, she says, “These shenanigans, which date way back to when it was just the two of us, give us a reason to laugh and be silly, which is necessary for our relationship, and also good for our kids to see.”
Howard often prescribes improv acting classes for the couples he works with. “It loosens people up, makes them laugh and gets them comfortable playing with emotions like shame, embarrassment and failure—emotions we all experience but don’t always acknowledge,” he says.
Staying connected while you’re in the parenting trenches helps you and your partner enjoy the wild ride, and keeps your marriage happy.
As your kids get older, it’ll become easier to prioritize your partnership.
Ottow promises, “You'll figure out your groove with teamwork, your sex life will return and your house will (sometimes) be clean again!”
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