We’re so accustomed to making our children the center of our world, but experts say that your marriage needs just as much nurturing. Making your kids the center of your life may seem child-friendly, but it can create long-term unhappiness for everyone in the family. Many couples believe their marriage is strong because they rarely argue but the real marriage killer is when we distance ourselves from our spouse to keep the peace: We throw ourselves into parenting or work to avoid dealing with issues that cause conflict and if you and your spouse become distant, it places pressure on your kids to fulfill your emotional needs.
After all, when you put your marriage on the back burner, your kids can sense the lack of closeness between you. “Kids whose parents relationship has cooled are more likely to have behavioral or academic problems than kids of happy couples,” says Philip Cowan, PhD, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied families for decades with his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, PhD. Think of your relationship as the emotional environment in which your kids live. Just as you want them to breathe clean air and drink pure water, you want them to grow up in a loving atmosphere. “Even if you can’t see yourself going out on a date for yourselves, do it for your kids,” says Dr. Cowan. Consider the following ways to make your marriage more of a priority.
Have a Weekday Update
You always find time to listen to your best friend when she needs to vent. But if your husband seems irritable when he comes home, you might just hand him the baby and rush out the door to do errands. In these days of tag-team parenting, those lazy hours spent talking about everything can feel like a distant memory. To stay close, Code suggests that you each share a highlight of your day (like when your son winked at you across the room) and a low point (that parking ticket). Discussing your worst moments may seem like a downer when you have limited time together, but when you understand what the other person is going through, you’ll be more of a team.
No matter how great your marriage was before you had kids, you can’t just leave it on autopilot now. “A lot of family life is about putting out fires,” says Linda Waite, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Chicago. “With children, there are so many things you have to deal with immediately, so you don’t work on your own relationship.” However, you have to invest time and energy in your marriage—and address tense topics—if you want it to sustain you during tough times.
Pay a Bit Less Attention to Your Kids
We all want our children to grow up feeling loved, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop a conversation with your spouse anytime your kid wants you to watch her do a cartwheel. In fact, she’ll be more likely to learn patience and resilience if you ask her to wait. Sunday breakfast is sacred in our family because we can all sit down together.
Make Time to Be Alone
Your child may push all your buttons when she begs, “Don’t go!” but adult-only time is crucial. “Couples need to work harder to find a good babysitter,” says Scott Stanley, Ph.D., co-director of the Center for Marital and Family Studies at the University of Denver. You’ll feel less guilty going out if you know your child is home having fun with that college student she likes. Nicole and Craig Campbell, of Rowley, Massachusetts, love the outdoors.
Even with four young kids, the two of them manage to hike, jog and take long walks together. They also have a regular Saturday-night sitter, the same way her parents did. “My kids need a break from us as much as we need it from them,” she says. “They get a babysitter who gives them lots of attention, and they get to eat macaroni and cheese. I’m afraid if we didn’t do this now when the kids are grown up, I’d look at Craig and say, ‘Who are you?'”
Be a Cheap Date
Even if you’re game for quality time together, a night out can get expensive. Dr. Pape Cowan encourages couples to focus on togetherness by going on a $2 date. “It’s amazing how budget-conscious parents can be—they beg friends to babysit, and just sit on a park bench and talk.” You can also have a date night at home. Jennifer and Dave Lucchese, of Vienna, Virginia, miss their freedom now that they have two kids. “We make it a priority to put them to bed early so we can eat dinner alone,” she says. “We light candles and keep the TV off.”
Look for Little Ways to Be Nice
One of the big differences between couples who make the transition to parenting smoothly and those who don’t is their ability to express the three A’s—affection, appreciation, and admiration—says researcher John Gottman, Ph.D., author of And Baby Makes Three. As I discovered with Dan, it’s pretty easy. If he gets home late, instead of snapping at him I try to be sympathetic. “You must have had a really bad day” is all I need to say to ease his tension. Later, he’ll be more inclined to take over bath and bedtime duties. And when he tells me I’m sexy (in sweats and a flannel shirt, no less) I’m more likely to suggest going to bed early—for fun instead of sleeping. This kind of feel-good behavior makes you want do nice things for your spouse every day because there’s such gratifying payback.