Having kids is miraculous and meaningful. And it also tends to disrupt a couple’s emotional connection and sink their relationship satisfaction. Which makes sense. It’s a massive change. Your entire identity shifts, and so does the structure and texture of your days. You are now a parent who’s responsible for another human being’s survival.
And you naturally turn your time, effort and physical, mental and emotional energy toward raising your kids and helping them thrive, leaving a lot less time, effort and energy for yourself and your marriage. And your spouse is likely doing the same.
Essentially, having a child changes everything. It “changes your level of freedom, how you make decisions, how you spend your time, how finances are used and what you talk about with your partner and others,” said Rachel Dack, LCPC, a psychotherapist and dating and relationship coach in Bethesda, Md.
But this doesn’t mean that your marriage is doomed. There are ways you can cultivate your connection on a regular basis. Yes, they still require time, effort and energy. Anything worthwhile typically does. And thankfully some are small gestures—with significant impact.
Check in with each other. It’s easy for all of your talks to be about the kids. Scheduling and logistics. Bedtimes and mealtimes. Doctors’ appointments and daycare. While these conversations are key, they overshadow your connection as spouses.
In addition to these talks, spend several minutes connecting about your feelings. “[S]how curiosity in how your partner emotionally experienced his or her day, and share how you experienced yours,” said Jen Lum, a licensed marriage and family therapist at the EFT Resource Center in Pasadena, Calif. Instead of rushing to a resolution, listen. Fully listen to each other. Take turns sharing your feelings. Let each other know you deeply care.
Expand your conversation. Similarly, Dack suggested communicating about meaningful, interesting and exciting topics. Talk about your dreams and passions. Talk about your favorite TV shows and favorite authors. Talk about politics and social issues. Talk about whatever you’re curious about.
“The goal is to communicate about adult topics other than your kids so your relationship doesn’t become completely based on parenting,” Dack said. “[A]nd you can continue to support each other in having identities as more than parents.”
Prioritize quality time. If you can’t leave the house for date night, get creative about making quality time happen. For instance, Dack suggested lighting candles and having a date-like dinner after the kids go to bed. If you’re able to get a babysitter, go for a walk or try new activities or adventures. Have some shared hobbies, she said: Train for a race. Take cooking classes. Attend music festivals. Become your own mini book club, reading the same book and discussing it.
Stay in touch. “One major key in staying emotionally connected is ensuring that neither of you feel alone in this world,” said Lum. A simple way to be a source of comfort to your spouse is to send a text when you’re apart to let them know they’re on your mind. “Just a simple reminder that our partner is mindful of us can decrease our stress levels and increase our sense of resilience.”
Keep developing yourselves as individuals. Dack stressed the importance of practicing self-care and making time for your own hobbies and interests. “You will feel more connected to your partner if you are feeling good about yourself.” Support each other in pursuing different dreams and following through on what’s personally important.
Carve out time for physical intimacy. “Sex plays a huge role in relationship satisfaction,” Dack said. You probably know this, but you’re sleep deprived. You don’t have extra time. And you don’t feel great about yourself. All these things can sink sex drive. Scheduling time to be intimate can help. While it might not feel as romantic as being spontaneous, you can focus on creating a romantic atmosphere—whatever this looks like for you and your spouse.
In addition, be sure to be affectionate every day. Kiss each other, and cuddle on the couch, Dack said. Spend one minute hugging each other. “You will be surprised how physically connecting for just 60 seconds can slow both of you down, dramatically decrease cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and increase oxytocin (bonding hormone) levels,” Lum said. And it can strengthen your emotional connection.
Be generous with your gratitude and encouragement. Lum underscored the importance of saying sweet things about your spouse to them in private and in front of your kids. “Because so much of parenting is serving kids and the family in more ways than are noticed, it is that much more important to provide verbal appreciation for each other as much as possible.”
Let your partner know that you see them. You see their hard work. You see their tremendous patience and understanding. You see how they make your kids laugh and how they soothe them when they’re crying. You see how they wash the dishes and do other helpful tasks around the house.
Having kids changes your relationship. But it doesn’t have to destroy it. You can still cultivate your connection. The key is to prioritize your partner and your marriage. After all, it’s the foundation of your family. And, after all, it’s also fun and fulfilling.