Having kids is a beautiful, wonderful and fulfilling adventure. But it also adds stress to your relationship. After all, extra responsibilities and resources—finite things like money and your energy—are required.
Depending on what stage your kids are in, you might feel like a zombie. You’re sleep-deprived and exhausted—and maybe even more emotional and sensitive than usual. You might be spending hours a week just on shuttling your kids to different activities.
You and your spouse are spending less and less time together. And the distance between you might be growing bigger and bigger.
“Sadly, some couples start to live parallel lives and feel like co-parents who only have their children in common,” said Clinton Power, a clinical relationship counsellor and founder of Clinton Power + Associates in Sydney, Australia. Power often sees these kinds of couples at his practice.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. And you don’t have to wait until you have a big chunk of time or can muster the energy to get dressed up and go out, said Meredith Hansen, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist who specializes in couples in Newport Beach and Laguna Niguel, Calif. Because sometimes this is tough. While a weekly date night is great, thankfully, real connection also happens in the small, daily moments—as Hansen said, by making “use of the pauses of everyday life.” Below are tips on doing just that.
Kiss and hug each other.
Do this every time you say hello and goodbye to your partner. “When you hug, I recommend a full body embrace so you’re holding each other firmly and tuning into the emotional state of your partner,” said Power. He stressed the importance of prioritizing this connection before attending to anything else—from the mail to your kids. It’s a simple but significant way to help you “feel safe, secure and connected.”
Gaze into each other’s eyes.
“Many couples can go days or weeks without truly looking into each other’s eyes,” Power said. Which is why he suggested gazing into each other’s eyes for at least 20 to 30 seconds a day. “This is a lovely way to maintain your connection, reinforce the intimacy in your relationship, and remind you what you love about each other.”
Create rituals at home.
For instance, when your kids are asleep, have a cup of tea or a glass of wine, and listen to music together, said Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, Calif., who works with couples and is certified by the International Centre for Excellence in Emotionally Focused Therapy. Or have a cup of coffee together in the morning, she said.
Another important ritual is tucking each other in at night. According to Power, if your partner goes to bed earlier than you, go in with them for several minutes. “Use a gentle voice, touch your partner with affection, and kiss them good night before you leave the bedroom. Bedtime can be a vulnerable time when you’re a child, so as adults, creating a ritual around putting your partner to bed can help you feel connected before one of you drifts off to sleep.”
Make time for physical intimacy.
“Sex is an important part of relationships, and often this is the first thing to dwindle after having kids for many couples,” Irwin said. She advised against waiting until desire kicks in. Because this often happens after engaging in some sexual or intimate play. “[S]etting the stage for intimacy, touching, kissing, and being together in an intimate space can awaken desire.”
Have date night at home.
This is something you also can do after your kids go to bed. For instance, you might plan a “Taco Tuesday,” turning on music, making margaritas and cooking fajitas, Hansen said. Maybe you do dinner and a movie once a week, getting your favorite take-out and watching Netflix.
Share your appreciations.
Power suggested sharing three appreciations every night with each other. He shared these examples:
- “I really appreciated you getting off work early today to pick up the kids from school. I’ve been swamped at work lately and your offer made a big difference to me and helped me get back on track with my deadlines.”
- “I appreciate that you cook me lovely meals every night of the week. I love your cooking and it helps me feel loved and cherished when you make me a yummy meal.”
- “I appreciated you fixing the broken tire on my bike today. I didn’t even have to ask you and you did it on your own. It helps me feel loved because I know you’re thinking of me.”
Check in with each other.
It’s very easy for your conversations to sound like this: Did you get the milk and eggs? What time is the kids’ soccer game again? I have a meeting at 8 a.m. next week, so you’ll need to drop Sam off at school. Can you stop at Target? We need to pay the electric bill. Did you go to the bank?
As Irwin said, while there’s a place for reviewing the laundry list of tasks and logistics, “what gets lost so often is how each person is feeling on the inside.” Ask your partner how they’re doing. Maybe they’re sad or lonely. Maybe they’re overwhelmed with parenting. Maybe they’re excited about an upcoming project at work.
“Sharing what’s happening with each other strengthens and maintains connection. It conveys that they matter to each other; they care about their partner’s experience,” Irwin said.
Set healthy boundaries.
“A lot of the couples I work with run into problems because their children become the centerpiece of their lives, and their relationship takes second place,” Power said. Which is why setting boundaries is vital, he said.
Boundary-setting also is valuable modeling for kids, and it “helps them develop the ability to tolerate not always getting what they want.”
For instance, Power said, you might tell your child: “No, you are not doing sports four times a week, because I don’t want to spend half my week driving you to all your commitments.” You also might tell them not to come in when your door is closed, and teach them not to interrupt you when you’re having a private discussion, he said.
Look for little moments.
According to Hansen, “New parents who take their little ones out on weekly walks should use that time to connect and have more meaningful, in-depth conversations.” People tend to be more open, especially men, when walking, “because we’re not focused on the non-verbal cues.” For instance, you might talk about your feelings about being a parent or reflect on your own childhood, she said.
Another great small moment is when you’re in the car. For instance, Hansen suggested buying a “questions” book and taking turns sharing your answers.
Connecting as a couple doesn’t require grand gestures. It happens in the daily moments of our lives. A hug. A “how are you?” A sincere “thank you.” A sweet ritual of tea and your favorite songs. And a Taco Tuesday.