Did your relationship go downhill after your kids arrived? You’re far from alone.
Author and psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson doesn’t mince words about it:
For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along. Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples. In the event that a pregnancy is unplanned, the parents experience even greater negative impacts on their relationship.
For most people, marital discontent after having kids occurs because of the loss of their intimate friendship with their spouse. This friendship is naturally taken for granted when it’s just the two of you. Maintaining this bond is harder amid all the demands of parenthood. But it’s not impossible. Here are a few strategies for keeping your marriage strong after you become parents.
Moms Are Overburdened
Research shows that the primary childcare responsibilities still fall on women, who also do considerably more housework and spend more hours multitasking than their husbands do. It’s hard to feel romantic and connected to your husband when you’re exhausted or resentful all the time!
Talk openly about household responsibilities and how the two of you and can keep everything from falling on your shoulders. This may mean that your husband takes on additional tasks or that you rework your budget so that you can afford to hire a housekeeping service.
You Need Couple Time
In many families, life revolves around the kids’ schedules, needs and desires. This happens because of parents’ desire to do what’s best for their kids, but this isn’t best for anyone. Children do not want to be — and should not be — the center of the universe. More than additional time, most children need parents who are more relaxed, emotionally attuned to them and involved in a loving, respectful marriage.
As a couple, you need time together to keep your relationship vibrant, but may feel guilty taking away from “family time.” Just remember that if you never prioritize your marriage, it is at greater risk for deteriorating, and that is not good either for you or your children. Children benefit from any effort you put into your marriage. For kids, seeing their parents happy with each other is an extremely stabilizing experience. That steadiness gives them a solid foundation from which to flourish.
Spending time as a couple does not have to break your budget. If you can’t afford a babysitter right now, make sure the kids are in bed early and spend some quality time with your husband in the evening. Have lunch together or take a little time here and there when the kids are in school. If you have friends in the same boat, trade babysitting every few weeks. Give yourself permission to put your needs first at times and bring some fun back into your marriage.
Families Are Overextended
Another way to free up time for your marriage, and to change the whole atmosphere of your family, is to simplify life. As parents, we’re under tremendous pressure to do everything “right” for our kids. There’s an underlying message that you must give them every opportunity to develop their talents and interests and that you must fill their lives with memorable experiences. So we spend hours carting kids all over town to various activities, and we spend money on lessons, tutoring, elaborate birthday parties and over-the-top vacations.
Let me take some of the pressure off: Pushing children to develop every talent and excel at everything is not good for them, especially if you are forcing them well beyond their personal limits. You will not damage, deprive or prevent your child from thriving if you do not provide the “perfect” childhood as portrayed in magazines, parenting blogs and your friends’ social media feeds. Take back control of your parenting so that you and your husband are not frantically attempting to meet the latest fabricated need. Scale back activities to the ones that are truly meaningful for your family.
Despite its challenges, parenting is an experience that is truly life changing. The depth of love you can feel for a child can be absolutely breathtaking, and sharing that bond with your husband can be another source of intimacy. Children have a way of helping us become aware of our place in the life cycle and can bring tremendous joy and meaning to life. Balancing your own needs with those of the vulnerable little humans for whom you are responsible requires tremendous maturity, planning and commitment, but is entirely doable if you stay focused and simplify. Need a guide to caring for your marriage as you nurture your family? Pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
Whatever you’re doing right now, take a quick break to watch this video of older women looking back on their lives and reflecting on what’s really important. It’ll take just a couple of minutes.
One thing that’s especially poignant and fascinating about this video is that the women point out that standards are different now than when they were younger and that there’s an expectation of “perfection” in the culture that they didn’t have to contend with.
Take parenting. Did you know that even though more women are in the workforce now, we spend more time with our children than women did in the past? We also deal daily with what seems like an ever-longer list of things we are supposed to do to parent the “right” way.
And then there’s social media, which can make it seem like you’re the only mom without exciting vacations, overachieving children, a blissful marriage, the ideal job, magazine-worthy meals and flawless holiday decorations.
When we constantly chase perfection, we miss the flawed but, in many ways, lovely lives we already have. That isn’t to say, of course, that you shouldn’t pursue what’s important to you in life, whether that’s career fulfillment or a strong marriage. But as you do, remember to get out of your head and come into the present moment with the people you love and life you’ve created.
Amid all the doing, take time for simply being. Right here. Right now.
As the women in the video remind us, the years will pass quickly. And you don’t get a second chance to recapture the moments you lost.
What were your thoughts watching this video? Let me know in the comments or connect with me on Facebook to continue the conversation.
He’s talking a lot about his new co-worker. What if they’re having an affair?
He always gets so mad when I ask him to do things at home. What if I push him too hard and he leaves?
He isn’t taking care of himself like the doctor told him to. What if he gets really sick and I’m left to deal with things by myself?
Do you ever get scared and then lose yourself in doubts about your husband? Sometimes “what ifs” can be a sign that there are some trust issues in your marriage. But the person you mistrust may not be the one you think.
Is This Really Something to Worry About?
If you’re often troubled by worries like the ones above, a good first step is to investigate how valid your fears are.
Let’s take the example of that new co-worker your husband is chatting about. If you feel like this is part of a bigger pattern (he’s had an emotional affair before, there are other issues in your relationship), then there might indeed be reason for concern. But if he’s loyal, reliable and generally happy in your marriage, it’s a good sign that he is talking to you about her. He is probably worthy of your trust. Similarly, an irritated husband may be trustworthy, but simply overwhelmed by the pressures of work and just needing some breathing room, not a divorce.
If you can’t quell your anxieties even though you know on a rational level that they’re baseless, then it’s time to ask yourself another question.
Instead of pondering whether you trust him, consider whether you trust yourself.
The Root of Your Fears
When you’re constantly plagued by irrational fears about your husband, that insecurity may come from lack of trust in your own ability to handle life. On some level, you might literally believe you won’t be able to cope if he really is cheating (or if whatever other scenario you’re worried about turns out to be true).
It’s important to remember that everyone will let you down sometimes, in big or small ways. You can’t keep that from happening. But you can cultivate your own resilience and confidence in yourself. Without self-trust, you risk becoming clingy, needy, or jealous, making it much more likely your husband would need to get some distance from you. Desperation and mistrust are good ways to drive off even the best of men.
As psychotherapist and author Cynthia Wall writes, you have to trust yourself before you can develop trusting connections with others. Learning to take care of your own needs — something busy wives and moms often forget — helps build self-trust. So does being kind and compassionate with yourself, the opposite of the perfectionism that pervades our lives these days. Little crises with others, including your husband, will seem less catastrophic when you feel more confident in your own skills.
Reminding yourself that your husband can’t be there for you 100% may seem depressing at first, but doesn’t necessarily make him untrustworthy. Rationally examining his devotion to you is important. If you figure out that you have mistakenly assumed the worst about him, don’t forget that research affirms the power of couples to repair big and small rifts in their marriages. If others can do it, so can you!
One resource that can help you trust yourself and your relationship is my book Strong Women, Strong Love. In it, you’ll find many more practical strategies like the ones in this article.
When a woman makes the choice to marry, to have children,
in one way her life begins but in another way it stops.
You build a life of details.
You become a mother, a wife and you stop and
stay steady so that your children can move.
And when they leave they take
your life of details with them.
And then you’re expected to move again
only you don’t remember what moves you because
no one has asked in so long.
Not even yourself.
~ Francesca ~ The Bridges of Madison County
Have you noticed how easy it is to spend your entire day under a cloud of negativity?
There is no shortage of upsetting headlines in the news. If you dare to read the online comments of news stories, the degree of negativity and rudeness can be mind boggling! Turn to your social media feeds and there are complaints and criticism everywhere.
Even at work, how many times a day do you and your colleagues “vent” about what’s wrong?
All that negativity takes its toll and can spill over into your marriage. It’s hard to turn off the habit of fault finding and looking for problems, even when you’re with people you care the most about.
Spouses can be especially easy targets for such negativity. But for the health of your marriage, it’s important to, as the old song says, accentuate the positive.
Here’s what can help:
1. Intentionally Build a Positive Space.
Your marriage can be a fortress of optimism that helps you cope with the sea of negativity around you. But building a marriage like this requires being deliberate and focused. It’s too easy to fall into negativity, so you have to repeatedly choose to be positive. If you can do this, you will find the upbeat nature of your relationship invaluable to your well being.
Marriage research reveals that couples with the strongest marriages have about 20 positive interactions for every negative one. Even when there is conflict in these marriages, the ratio is still five positives for every negative. For struggling marriages, on the other hand, the number is closer to 0.8 positives for every negative. Keep these numbers in mind if you want the type of marriage that will buffer you from outside pessimism.
2. Take Care of Yourself.
When you’re stressed and really busy, getting to that positive place isn’t easy. That’s because a stressed brain is hardwired to look for what’s wrong. Studies have shown that under heavy stress, couples have more difficulty seeing the positives in their relationship and usually magnify anything negative that is happening. This is just one important reason to take a break to mitigate your stress. When you’re calmer, you’ll be able to see your spouse more accurately. Take some time for you, so that your time together will be more constructive.
3. Notice the Good Things.
To counteract the strong tendency to focus on the negative, make an extra effort to notice what’s working well in your relationship and talk about it. Most people are starving to be noticed and appreciated, and your husband is no exception.
What are your best moments with him? Which of his qualities make you feel grateful you’re married to him? Have you told him any of this recently?
Pay special attention to the end of the day when the two of you reconnect. It’s easy to turn this crucial time into a gripe session. But think about how much better it would be if you shared some good news and expressed how glad you are to see each other instead.
You may not have any control over what happens in politics or national and world affairs, but you can take steps toward positivity that make a real difference in your marriage. Give the ideas in this article a try. And if you’d like to discover more strategies like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
“There’s nothing that harshness does that loving firmness doesn’t do better.”
You probably know about the importance of diversifying when it comes to your finances. You understand, for example, that it’s unwise to have all of your money invested in the stock of one company.
But diversification is also important to keep in mind for your marriage. I was reminded of this truth while listening to a recent NPR Hidden Brain segment with Shankar Vedantam. He spoke with Eli Finkel, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, about how our rising expectations of marriage can create problems in our relationships.
Here’s how Finkel explains it. Before you got married, you likely turned to a wider circle of people to fill your different needs as a person. For example, you had fun nights out with your neighbors, you talked about your goals with your favorite colleagues, you kept fit with your yoga class and you confided in your best friend from college. If you still have that variety of people in your life, pat yourself on the back. What tends to happen when we marry, though, is that our circles shrink. The perception has built up in our culture that your spouse should be able to be everything to you since he’s your “soul mate.”
We haven’t always thought about marriage in such exalted terms. If you read my blog post about psychotherapist and author Esther Perel, Finkel’s ideas might remind you of hers. Perel writes:
We still want everything the traditional family was meant to provide—security, respectability, property, and children—but now we also want our partner to love us, to desire us, to be interested in us. We should be best friends and trusted confidants, and passionate lovers to boot.
We want our chosen one to offer stability, safety, predictability, and dependability. And we want that very same person to supply awe, mystery, adventure, and risk. We expect comfort and edge, familiarity and novelty, continuity and surprise. We have conjured up a new Olympus, where love will remain unconditional, intimacy enthralling, and sex oh so exciting, with one person, for the long haul. And the long haul keeps getting longer.
This all puts a lot of pressure on our marriages. And, sadly, it can even set you up for added heartbreak if you lose a spouse to divorce or death. Kristi Williams, an Ohio State University sociologist and editor of The Journal of Marriage and Family, believes that many of the problems divorced or widowed people suffer are because they over-relied on their spouse.
You will be happier and your marriage will be healthier if you can diversify your relationship portfolio. Here are a couple of ideas to try.
It’s easy to forget one of the most important relationships — the one you have with yourself. If you feel that you’ve lost some of who you are since you’ve been married, start making it a priority to be yourself and value yourself. Do your own thing sometimes. Take a class in something you’re interested in, even if it’s not his thing and he doesn’t want to join you. Revisit the dreams and interests you’ve been neglecting. You’ll feel more engaged and alive, which — bonus! — makes you more attractive to your husband.
You can also start rekindling some of the relationships you’ve let slide to the back burner. Elaine Cheung of Northwestern University has found that having a larger array of relationships to help you manage all the emotions of life makes you happier. And when you have additional emotional support sources besides your husband, you’re more likely to appreciate the unique role he does play in your life.
For more ideas like these, pick up a copy of my book Strong Women, Strong Love. It’s a comprehensive guide to caring for your marriage and yourself.
In my last post, I talked about the importance of repair in your relationship. All couples go through conflicts, misunderstandings, and hurt feelings, and it’s very important to resolve them.
One of the tools you need in your relationship repair kit is the ability to give and accept an apology. Apologies are so important that renowned psychologist and relationship expert Harriet Lerner devoted an entire book to the subject: Why Won’t You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts. This book is required reading for strengthening your marriage, not to mention all the other relationships in your life.
Adapted from Lerner’s work, here are 10 essential things you should know about apologies:
- Apologizing well requires listening deeply to the person you hurt. Your apology should begin by fully understanding their feelings and experience, no matter how difficult they are for you to hear.
- A good apology also requires taking responsibility. A hurt person wants you to carry some of the pain of the situation with him. She also needs assurances that the same situation won’t happen again.
- A bad apology can make things worse than no apology at all.
- Common mistakes people make when apologizing include: making excuses, over-explaining, blaming the other person for your mistake, and bringing up things the other person did wrong in the past.
- A consistent failure to apologize harms a relationship, even if things are otherwise good. When both partners have the ability to apologize, the relationship is stronger and healthier.
- An apology doesn’t have to be the last word on a situation. Think of it as opening the door to future communication.
- In situations where the hurt runs very deep, an apology isn’t a one-time event. At these times, you must commit to ongoing listening and repair of your relationship.
- Apologizing when you’ve caused deep harm requires a strong sense of your own self-worth. Without it, you’re more likely to be defensive by doing things like minimizing, rationalizing and denying the pain you have caused.
- If your partner fails to apologize to you, that’s typically an indication of his low self-worth, not that he doesn’t love you.
- You don’t have to rush to forgiveness after an apology. In fact, doing so can cut short your healing process. Forgiveness also doesn’t have to be total for your relationship to move past the issue.
I encourage you to be quick to offer sincere apologies to your husband. Also, be receptive to his sincere efforts to make amends. If either partner’s failure to apologize is a trouble spot in your marriage, make it a priority to explore Lerner’s work together.
All relationships are different. But I can tell you one thing for certain about yours: Both you and your husband have messed up at one time or another. And both of you will again.
That doesn’t mean your marriage is bad. It just means that you are two human beings in a relationship. The important thing is what happens after you’ve messed up.
Choose the Right Tools
You might remember that we’ve talked before about the work of the Gottman Institute. From his studies of married couples, Dr. John Gottman identified behaviors that separate the Masters of Marriage (couples who have been married for a long time and still like each other) and the Disasters of Marriage (those headed for divorce).
Gottman discovered that one of the most important qualities of a strong couple is the ability to address and recover from conflicts, hurts and mistakes. Gottman calls this process repair. And a repair attempt is “any statement or action – silly or otherwise – that prevents negativity from escalating out of control.”
A meaningful apology is one of the most valuable tools in your relationship repair kit. But it’s not the only one. Other examples of repair attempts include:
- Asking to start a conversation over if it seems like the two of you aren’t hearing each other.
- Suggesting taking a break so you can both get to a calmer place.
- Being physically affectionate or reassuring.
- Using humor or trying to lighten things up.
The best repair attempt to use with your partner — or for him to use with you — depends on your individual needs. Maybe, for example, physical affection instantly starts repairing a conflict for you, but it feels too emotionally intense for him until you both get a calmer place. The Gottman Institute has a repair checklist that I recommend talking about together before the next time the two of you need to practice relationship repair. The list will help each of you understand which repair attempts the other responds to.
Maintenance Is Important Too
Making effective repair attempts is only part of the equation, though. The real measure of how well you can navigate trouble spots in your relationship is how receptive you are to connecting with each other on a regular basis. Gottman has found that the Masters are responsive to their partner’s attempts to communicate or connect about 86% of the time, while the Disasters group only responds about 33% of the time! If the door to connecting is closed most of the time, it’s even harder to open when you are having trouble.
It is critical to pay attention to the overall emotional climate of the marriage. I’ve written before about why regular maintenance is essential for your marriage, and this is one more reason. When the two of you are regularly kind, respectful and appreciative with each other, it makes sense that you’ll be more open to repairing your relationship when things go awry.
To sum it all up, here’s a quick “maintenance and repair guide” for your marriage.
- Establish a strong foundation by having positive interactions with each other daily.
- Understand the repair attempts that you and your husband respond to.
- Be generous in making repair attempts when you hit a trouble spot.
- And be generous in accepting your husband’s repair attempts.
In my next blog article, we’ll continue to build your skills in healing both small and large rifts in your marriage. I’ll go into more depth on making, and accepting, apologies. In the meantime, you can get more strategies for building a marriage that can withstand conflicts in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
In my last blog post, on emotional labor, I cited the work of renowned couple’s therapist, speaker and author Terry Real. Real’s work is important, and it has the potential to change your marriage, so I wanted to tell you more about him.
A great starting point is the post “The Awful Truth: Most Men Are Just Not Raised to be Intimate” on Real’s website. It’s a case study about his work with a couple during a two-day therapy session aimed at saving their marriage.
This is an intense read. The couple, Peter and Jenn, struggle with problems that affect many marriages. Their early passion for each other has fizzled. She’s tired of trying to build intimacy, while Peter seems incapable of it. He feels she’s undercutting his authority with their children, while she worries about his toxic temper, especially with their son. To top it all off, Peter has also been unfaithful.
Take a few moments to read and reflect on this case study. As you do, here are a few key points I especially want you to take to heart.
- In our culture, we still raise boys to be “hard, logical, independent and stoic,” as Real says. This creates men who are “emotionally distant, arrogant, numb to their own feelings and unconcerned about everyone else’s, as well as contemptuous of vulnerability and weakness.” Real points out something else important here: Men who were raised this way are the norm, not an aberration, especially when we look at older generations.
- It might be easy to interpret Real’s work as man-bashing, but that’s not accurate. He emphasizes that men struggle with intimacy not because they’re bad people, but because of the way they were raised and cultural messages. Real believes that, with hard work and bravery, men can change what they bring to relationships. He’s been through such a transformation himself.
- Real is not saying that women are perfect. In this case study, he’s clear that Jenn has her own issues to address, but that the most urgent need is for Peter to make changes.
- Real believes that what looks like men’s fear of intimacy is really the fear of subjugation. “Many men read emotional receptivity as an invitation to be run over,” Real says. This comes from raising men with an overemphasis on being strong and competitive.
- Nurturing and understanding, whether from their partners or through therapy, won’t change men like Peter. Instead, Real believes such men need to “feel proportionately ashamed for (their) bad behavior and yet still manage to hold onto (their) essential worth as an imperfect human being.” Appropriate shame isn’t spending the rest of your days in obsessive self-loathing. It’s about realizing who you have hurt and doing your best to make amends.
Real breaks from the common practice of the therapist not taking sides. “I side with the woman,” Real says. Again, he’s not against the man. He just believes that “business as usual” in therapy doesn’t work. This is because the skills and expectations men and women bring to a relationship can be extremely different.
If you’d like to delve further into Real’s work, there’s a great archive of articles on his website. You may also want to check out recent media coverage of Real in Forbes and AlterNet. To further your understanding of how your relationship is affected by the way you were both raised, enjoy this complimentary chapter on gender expectations from Strong Women, Strong Love.