It’s easy to ignore your marriage when you have kids. There’s this unwritten agreement between partners that, as you exchange nods with your spouse on hectic mornings, brush against them when washing the dishes, or bicker about why one of you always has to play the bad guy, you signed up for this, that this is life. And it is. But that doesn’t mean that your marriage must suffer. A marriage changes when you have kids, yes, but it doesn’t become less of a priority. You just have to actively find ways to maintain it: in big moments and in small. But what’s the single best way to maintain a happy marriage when you have kids? That’s what we asked seven different relationship experts. While their answers varied, the sentiment is the same: it’s all about making time to foster your connection. Here’s what they said.
Lesli Doares, a couples coach, offers similar advice. “Intentionally setting boundaries around the marriage is what will keep it happy through the child-rearing years,” she says. “This means keeping kids out of the bedroom most of the time, having regular dates (even if you don’t leave the house), going on adults-only vacations and deciding to limit extra-curricular activities. Too many parents buy into the idea that children have to be involved in every activity open to them or they show interest in. This can be costly in terms of time and money. It’s okay to say “no” to some things. It’s okay for your children to be disappointed sometimes. It actually prepares them for the real world.”
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Melody Li, an Austin-based LMFT, notes that she often works with couples whose love lives have “simply disappeared” after they had kids. Fortunately, the solution is a pretty simple one: you gotta make time for sex.
“As un-sexy as this may sound, schedule time to have sex,” Li recommends. “Much like other self-care activities (e.g. going to the gym) if you don’t block time out in your schedule, it’s not going to happen. Couples tell me that when they schedule sex, they actually get a bit excited as they anticipate their alone time. They find themselves fantasizing about their partner and planning fun ways to pleasure each other. So in reality, it’s not as un-sexy as it sounds.”
Spontaneous sex is still important too, Li adds, and couples should give themselves permission to indulge the impulse when it strikes. “Make the most of it, even if your mind may be elsewhere to start—that’s okay!”
Schedule Date Nights
Speaking of regular sex appointments, here’s one way to kill two birds with one stone: regular date nights. “Going to the movies with your kids can be fun, but make sure to do a parents-only date night at least once a month,” says dating coach Andrea Amour. “It’s so important to have evenings where you don’t worry about diaper-changes, spilled popcorn, or public tantrums. Go have unencumbered fun.”
Check In Regularly
Everyone knows communication is key, but it’s all too easy to disregard the actual work of communication in the daily hustle and bustle of parenting. “In my experience, the most important thing parents should do to maintain a happy marriage while raising children is to schedule regular time to discuss issues, practicing effective communication techniques,” says parenting coach Elisabeth Stitt. “Of course parents need to work out logistics of who’s going to pick up whom when, but they also need time to discuss the bigger issues that can tear a couple apart like ‘What constitutes a discipline problem and how should discipline problems be dealt with?’ or ‘What is the right balance between warmth and connection and maintaining high expectations?’”
“Being on the same page about questions like how and what kind of involvement the in-laws should have or how many and what kind of activities the kids should be involved in greatly reduces parenting stress,” Stitt continues. “Reduced stress allows parents to function more graciously and flexibly, giving them more resources for handling the inevitable chaos that comes with parenting.”
Learn How to Move on From Grguments
Disagreement is unavoidable in any marriage—as are all-out fights. One of the defining aspects of a strong marriage, however, is the ability to get past a fight. “It doesn’t matter if you argue, because all couples do, it’s about coming back to the table afterwards and talking about what happened and owning your part,” says marriage and family therapist Melissa Davis Thompson. “It’s important so issues don’t get stored away. It allows a couple to share deeply how they feel without being angry or frustrated during an argument.”
Prioritize your marriage
Much like church and state, it’s crucial to think of your marriage and your kids as separate institutions—one of which comes before the other. “The most important thing parents need to do to maintain a happy marriage while raising children is to never put their children first,” says Julie Ingenohl, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist based in Connecticut. “Far too often, I have couples who come into my practice after twenty years of marriage with the complaints: ‘We just don’t connect. I don’t even know him anymore. It’s just not fun. We have nothing in common. The kids are almost grown up and we are about to be empty nesters. What are we going to do?’”
In other words, parents who turn all their focus toward their children end up neglecting the person they depend upon to help raise those children—and the person who’ll still be there when the kids eventually leave the nest. “Save something for yourself,” she recommends. “Maybe it’s a spin class, book club, running, or something else. But it needs to be scheduled regularly, and important to you.”
Have a Laugh
Staying in good humor requires, well, a bit of humor. “The best thing parents can do to maintain a happy marriage is laugh together every day,” says marriage and family therapist Katie Ziskind. “I’ve worked with couples and families in all socioeconomic backgrounds, races, cultures, genders and personalities. If parents can laugh together, even when they may want to cry of frustration, they can get through anything.”
So go ahead — let the dad jokes rip, and maybe some mom-tailored jokes too. And no matter how stressful things get, give yourself permission to let yourself enjoy your partner’s moments of levity. “If your partner makes a joke, instead of getting serious, let yourself laugh,” Ziskind recommends. “Laughing together allows parents to have fun while raising children.”
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