I'll never forget the day I called my mother to share the weekend plans I'd made with my 5-year-old son, Aidan. "It's going to be great!" I chirped. "The two of us are taking a hike, and then we'll hit the science museum. There's also a new restaurant we want to try."
A long silence followed.
"What?" I prodded.
"I was just wondering what your poor husband's going to do while you're off having fun," Mom said.
"How should I know?" I asked, irritated that she'd question my special plans with my son. She clearly didn't realize how much times had changed. After all, when I was Aidan's age, family life wasn't focused on the kids. We used to play outside by ourselves all day and go to bed early. My parents would routinely trot off to cocktail parties, and my husband's parents took weeklong, child-free golf vacations.
The more I thought about it, though, I realized I couldn't remember the last time Dan and I had gone out alone on a Saturday night (never mind escaping the domestic doldrums for a whole week), because Aidan would scream every time a babysitter arrived. Dan and I weren't unhappy, but parenthood had more or less reduced us to a business partnership, complete with tax forms. We both worked, and we were like runners in a relay race, passing Aidan between us like a baton. We'd comforted ourselves with the fact that we were doing everything in our power to make our son's life educational and fun. We figured we had to: Aidan was a troubled sleeper and prone to acting out. We worried that if we didn't devote what little free time we had to him, he'd be even more difficult.
But I think my mom was right—we were shortchanging our marriage, and even encouraging Aidan's attention-getting misbehavior. "Making your kids the center of your life may seem child-friendly, but it can create long-term unhappiness for everyone in the family," says David Code, an Episcopal minister and author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First (forthcoming in September from Crossroads). "Many couples believe their marriage is strong because they rarely argue," he says. "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.
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, PhD, 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.
"In the year after my son Kevin was born, I thought my marriage was in jeopardy," admits Caroline Bogeaus, of Agoura Hills, California. "I felt like my husband left all of the work of parenting to me, and there were days when I was so angry that I couldn't even look at him. But I didn't want us to fight, so I stayed silent and got even madder." Fortunately, her husband, Brandon, eventually sensed her frustration and got her to open up—and now that they have three kids, the couple is closer than ever. "I don't wait for him to guess my thoughts anymore," says Bogeaus. "If I need his help, I just ask him."
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. Dan and I like to read the paper and chat after we finish eating, but Aidan would constantly interrupt us. So we put a clock with a timer in the family room and told him he had to play on his own for at least a half hour after breakfast. If he did, his reward was that we'd do something special as a family later in the day. After a few weeks, he started looking forward to making plans for his "Sunday-morning-paper time."
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, PhD, codirector 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?'"
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 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."
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, PhD, 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.
Routines are great for little kids, but they can make a marriage stale. "It's important to find new ways to connect and keep your relationship fresh," says Dr. Waite. In my own zeal to reconnect with Dan, I signed us up for a weeknight pottery class. I figured, how hard could it be to make a pot? Very, as it turned out. In our second class, I accidentally ran my potter's wheel backward, flinging clay at the walls. Dan emerged looking as if he'd been swimming in a mud hole. But a funny thing happened afterward. We went to a restaurant, and there was a pitcher on the table. The two of us began discussing its construction: Had the potter thrown it in two pieces or one? As we debated, I noticed another couple across the room. They ate silently, as if there were a vast ocean between their plates. I realized that it didn't really matter if we mastered pottery. The key thing was to keep sidestepping the dark depths of domesticity. Dan and I were willing to risk our dignity and stumble a bit as we learned new things together. We're never short on conversation now, and our eyes still meet across a table and hold. And Aidan and I have both learned that he can survive a babysitter.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.