Keeping a spark burning after the kids arrive can be very difficult. Relationship expert Madonna Hirning answers your questions on how to keep your relationship alive after kids join the family.
“Since our kids were born (now aged 6 months and 3 years old) I’ve really felt like my husband and I are drifting apart. We operate on autopilot a lot of the time, often arguing over the silliest things and the spark has all but disappeared. I’d give anything to go back to how we used to be, but what can we do to keep our relationship alive before it’s too late?”
Becoming new parents triggers relationship changes and challenges for many couples. In fact, according to relationship researcher Dr John Gottman, as many as two thirds of couples experience heightened conflict and difficulty maintaining closeness following the birth of their first child. The following simple practices can help you and your partner bring back that sense of closeness whilst parenting young children:
Think small things often
Dr Gottman’s research shows that small actions practiced daily are one of the biggest things couples can do to keep their connection following the transition to parenthood. The beauty of this practice is that as new parents you are likely to be time poor and what is needed here is not big, grand gestures, but rather, small, thoughtful actions or words on a regular basis.
This practice helps by literally keeping you and your partner on each other’s radars, even in the midst of new baby chaos. Each small gesture adds up and shows your partner that whilst they may have less of your attention, they are still very much in your thoughts.
Start to look out for your partner’s ‘bids for attention’
According to Dr Gottman, we all make small bids for our partner’s attention and by responding relatively consistently to your partner’s bids, even in a very small way, you will be improving your connection and ensuring your partner feels cared about. A bid for attention can be as basic as making a seemingly random comment about the weather, the traffic, or even just a sigh. This one is very important whilst parenting young children as it is easy to feel not as important to each other as you used to. So, by keeping just a small eye and ear out for your partner’s bids for attention and responding – even if their bid may not necessarily require a response – you will be fostering good feeling and helping to maintain connection.
Make appreciation your superpower!
Creating a culture of appreciation in your relationship is going to lead to increased feelings of positivity all round. If you kick it off and practice offering small appreciations for things your partner does for you – for example: how they are doing as a parent, or something they have done that was really helpful – it is likely that over time you will notice some appreciations coming back your way. Given that parenting young children is often demanding, giving and receiving appreciation is something small and requiring little effort that you can both do that over time will build up and act as a buffer during more challenging and stressful times.
Create Rituals of Connection
This can be a powerful strategy in keeping a relationship alive because, again, what is important here are the rituals themselves, not how elaborate or time consuming they are and the ongoing practice of these rituals will act as mini-connection points throughout the day. So, take notice of and see what you can add to how you and your partner part for the day, how you come back together at the end of the day, how you go to sleep and how you wake up.
Be aware of when you are connecting with a screen at any of these times and see if you can switch it for your partner. Make sure your partner is high on your radar for the time and attention you do have to give to keep your relationship alive.
Make decisions together
Ensure that you involve your partner when it comes to making decisions, especially those that concern your children. If you are the primary carer it can be easy to brush off opinions from the other parent. Dr Gottman’s research found a clear link between partners who accept influence from each other and strong, connected relationships. Of course this doesn’t mean always ‘giving in’ to your partner. It means ensuring that rather than simply brushing it off, really taking time to listen to and ensure you understand your partner’s point of view and maintaining some level of openness and flexibility yourself. If your partner feels listened to and like their opinion matters to you, they are more likely to want to be involved in matters relating to the children and decisions to be made, whereas, if their opinions and suggestions are cut off and met with negativity without being fully heard or understood, this is likely to lead to increased feelings of disconnect.
For more relationship tips, try 5 reasons to celebrate Valentine’s Day at home and Types of parenting arrangements following separation