With meals to cook, a house to clean, kids to care for on top of careers and other obligations, it’s sometimes hard for parents to get any alone time together.
Gone are the days when you could leave for a romantic getaway on the spur of the moment. Even the logistics of arranging dinner and a movie can sometimes be too much work.
While children sometimes bring a couple closer, the opposite is also true: Having kids can decrease marital satisfaction, studies show.
That’s why making time for your spouse or partner should remain a priority – especially when children become part of the picture.
“Being in love with your partner is putting the kids first,” said Dr. Laura Asbell, a local psychologist who works with couples, families, individuals and organizations in the Spokane area and North Idaho. “If you trust each other and are happy and in love, you will be better parents.”
Inevitably, the birth of a child changes everything, experts say.
When partners become parents, their immediate focus is no longer on themselves or each other, but on the urgent needs of their baby. This puts their own relationship on the back burner, acknowledged Doug Larzelier, a registered counselor at Spokane’s Heart to Heart Counseling and Coaching.
During pregnancy and childbirth, many women also experience changes in their brains that promote bonding and attachment. “The mom just falls in love with the baby – bonding occurs and the priorities change,” said Asbell. “Because that bond is so strong and powerful, the husband sometimes becomes incidental.”
Sleep deprivation and adjusting to the demands of caring for an infant can also affect the couple’s relationships, she said. This is especially the case with the first child.
While the birth of a baby causes most couples to shift their priorities in the early months, many find ways to maintain or rekindle their relationships to each other as their child gets older and becomes more independent. The key, according to Asbell, Larzelier and others, is to make time for each other.
Couples need to “understand that the relationship still requires nurturing, love and intimacy,” said Larzelier. They also have to “maintain a common goal or course for the relationship and to understand and accept the new challenges they will share together as a couple and as a family unit.”
Every couple, of course, is different, acknowledged Asbell.
Some couples are more mature and may have already had a more solid relationship before having children. Others might have financial problems, lack of social support and other issues that could get in the way of parenting. Counseling often can make a difference, she said, because “the stronger and healthier their relationship is, the better parents they’ll be.”
Because of lack of communication and other issues, some couples can slowly drift apart after having children. Others might even become resentful or critical of each other. Some might consider their partner to be a good parent, but just fall out of love.
Sometimes, couples simply lose track of the reasons they came together in the first place, said Larzelier. That’s why he encourages couples to maintain their hobbies, activities and interests – both as a couple and as individuals.
“Their lives go on cruise control and they let go of something they should’ve held on to,” he said.
Asbell also works with couples whose relationships have suffered from conflict and distress.
“The most rewarding thing I can do is help them fall in love again,” she said. “It takes time, increasing intimacy, taking risks with each other, negotiating something different.”
Having a healthy relationship also sets the stage – not just for the family, but also for the children’s future relationships. From their parents’ marriage and relationship, children learn who they are within the family structure and the dynamic of the home, Larzelier said.
“They learn about boundaries, how to make them and how to change them,” he said. “The building blocks to their future development as individuals are beginning to take form from the family and the experiences that they have during growth. They pick up and learn qualities that they may one day use in their own relationships.”
To strengthen the bonds of their marriage or relationships, couples need to communicate and focus on their partnership despite all the pressures of parenting, experts said.
“They have to prioritize – not the relationship over the child’s needs,” said Asbell, “but the relationship over the child’s wants.”
That’s why a regular date night can be so important, experts say.
Some couples schedule time alone together every other week or so – dinner at a restaurant, going to a play or movie, taking a stroll along the Centennial Trail. Some have even gone on vacation for a weekend or longer without their children.
But there are also parents who are burdened with guilt, who often feel bad whenever they have to leave the kids behind.
Child care, in addition to just finding time, is also another obstacle for some couples. Those who can’t afford a babysitter turn to grandparents, neighbors and others for help.
Some families have informal babysitting co-ops and exchange child care with each other. Other couples find even more creative means. Last month, The New York Times wrote about parents who take advantage of the free 90 minutes of babysitting at Ikea, while they have a date at the furniture store’s café.
Despite all the challenges – caring for kids, paying the rent or mortgage, surviving the tough economic outlook – make time for your spouse or partner, experts urged.
Listen to one another, advised Larzelier. Choose battles wisely. Understand that intimacy means more than just sex. Find time to discuss issues. Be committed.
“The relationship still needs nurturing especially during change or growth,” he said. “It’s helpful for some couples to view the relationship as something greater than its individual parts and that the relationship requires nutrients to maintain and grow.”
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