Shelly Spears (name has been changed) and her husband of seven years finally made time for a much-needed date night. It’s what all the experts and magazine articles recommend couples do to keep their marriage on track when they have kids. But as they sat there across the table from each other, conversation ground to a halt. They had already talked about the kids and the mundane details of their day. Then there was silence. “Now what?” wondered Shelly, a mother of two young girls. “I’d never felt so alone and desperate.” It prompted her to ask the question every couple asks themselves at some point in their relationship: what do you do when you’re married with children and date night isn’t enough?
Marriage isn’t easy
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born in the family. In fact, 90 percent of all couples involved in the study pointed this out in questionnaires.
“Couples who do not have children also show diminished marital quality over time,” says Denver University’s Scott Stanley, a professor of psychology who helped author the study. “However, having a baby accelerates the deterioration, especially seen during periods of adjustment right after the birth of a child.”
“Marriage is challenging,” says Sarah Karmely, a New York-based pre-marital coach, marriage counselor and author, who is familiar with the statistics. “Then when you have children, life becomes all about them,” says Karmely. “You don’t often have private time, and when you do, you’re exhausted. It’s easy for the mom to become resentful and the husband to become jealous. And don’t forget that the woman may also be experiencing hormone imbalance, postpartum depression, stress, decreased confidence about the changes in her body and lack of sleep. The whole dynamic in a relationship changes.”
“People don’t enjoy the stressful aspects of child rearing,” says Sarah Chana Radcliffe, a Toronto psychologist specializing in marriage and parenting and author of Raise Your Kids Without Raising Your Voice. “Conflict often arises because men and women parent differently. The time, attention and energy parenting takes can often lead to parents giving everything to their kids and nothing to each other. Sometimes parents feel disconnected from one another – like they are in a business relationship and not a romantic one. The quality of a marriage can really suffer.”
It doesn’t have to be this way
Couples who don’t consciously work on their marriage can find themselves fighting in front of their kids and shooting resentful looks at each other across the dinner table.
“Disagreeing is healthy, but it’s important to keep harmony in the home,” says Karmely. “Children sense the atmosphere and can’t feel safe and secure in a home where the parents are always fighting. They need to feel the love. Don’t forget, you’re raising the next generation of husbands and dads, wives and mothers. The key is to model a loving relationship for them.”
So how do you focus on each other and strengthen your marriage when you’re distracted and exhausted? Radcliffe believes that marriage is a good parenting tool. “You need to show your children how to do it right.” That’s why she espouses the 95:5 rule. “This means that 95 percent of the time, you need to be displaying intimacy, love, affection, warm words, listening with empathy and caring what your partner says.”
Romance doesn’t come naturally
Radcliffe reminds her clients that it’s not natural to be romantic and that “happily ever after” doesn’t just happen on its own. “Your courtship should last 120 years,” she says. “Both spouses have to keep dressing up for each other, flirting with each other and being nice to each other.” Radcliffe warns couples not to take their relationship for granted. “You have to work harder – especially once kids are in the picture.”
Karmely agrees. “It’s so easy to disappear into your children, but you need to make your marriage a priority, too.”
Shelly and her husband have taken Karmely’s advice and have seen significant improvement since their disappointing date night.
“I hadn’t thought of marriage as a parenting tool before,” says Shelly. “We now try to show our kids how much we love and respect each other by making time to exercise together and cuddling on the couch. Somehow it feels like we’re back on track. We’ve even planned a mini honeymoon together without the kids!”
Originally published in ParentsCanada, May 2012