Strengthening the Marriage

Daddyman Speaks #66   9/02

It is a far too common sight in my therapy office, couples with thriving young children and struggling marriages. The transition from married couple to married couple with kids can be a real challenge. Whereas once you had plenty of time to attend to the relationship, now the children’s needs leave you drained and exhausted at the end of each day. Many boats capsize while navigating these rapids.

Divorces happen for many different reasons. But sometimes a contributing factor is that parents go overboard attending to their children to the neglect of each other. It is easy to do. Children can soak up as much as we can give them. I have never heard my daughter say,  “No need for a lullaby tonight Dad, go spend some time with Mom. You guys need to reconnect.”

For many parents, the only time they have alone with each other is after the kids are in bed. It is hard to come up with thoughtful appreciations or intimate overtures when you barely have enough energy to stagger into bed and pull up the covers. If this is the only time partners make for each other, their ship may be slowly sinking.

It can make a big difference if couples set aside time for themselves when they are fresh and have some energy to offer each other. Weekend mornings are often the best time. As the stress of the work week recedes and before the daily demands of the children start stacking up, couples sometimes find their best opportunity to shift into a mode where they can focus on each other.

I know what you’re thinking. The kids will be pounding down the door.  That’s why this time together needs to be planned in advance.  Though my daughter would prefer that I play with her, she does understand that couples need time alone. She is willing to cooperate if we work with her.  Some couples rent videos specifically to occupy the kids each Sunday morning. Some work out child care trades with neighbors where one family takes all the kids Saturday morning and the other family takes them on Sunday.

One family I know has dubbed Saturday morning “Independence Morning”. The kids were coached on how to make breakfast and occupy their time by themselves. If a sibling conflict breaks out, they have to solve it on their own. The parents report that once the kids found out that Mom and Dad really would not help until Independence Morning was over, the kids stopped having conflicts. It made the parents wonder how many times their children fight as a way to draw adult attention.

Once a couple gets some uninterrupted time together, they face the challenge of how to use this time well. Some bad ideas are:

Compare whose life is harder;
Complain that your partner doesn’t give you what you need;
Expect your partner to instantly feel like being sexual;
Give up on intimacy and plan the children’s week together.

Some good ideas include:

Take turns listening to each other. The listener tries to empathize and understand without trying to solve the problem;
Massage each other while listening to nice music;
Take turns appreciating yourself while your partner listens and smiles;
Take a walk together in a beautiful place;
Take a bath or hot tub together.

Whatever you do, focus on being together. Pay attention to each other.  And consciously try to say things that build a sense of connection. Tending to your relationship in this way is one of the best things you can do for your children. You might even enjoy it yourself!