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Lisa Brookes Kift, MFT Headshot

Parents, Your Kids Need You To Focus On Your Marriage Too

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One of the most disruptive things to a couples' relationship is having a kid. This is just the way it is, and how could it not be when you suddenly become responsible for a tiny little being so utterly reliant on you for its existence? As wonderful as the experience of having children can be, the parental relationship inherently has to take a back seat for a while.

The problem is, many couples let too much time pass before trying to reconnect and some don't ever rebalance the family dynamic to put more emphasis again on the original love relationship, that of the couple. In my therapy practice, I've seen countless relationships at various ends of the continuum of disconnection as a result of never coming back together sufficiently after having children. Sure, there often are other contributing factors at play to highlight the disconnection but one that repeatedly comes up is the couple not making the choice to prioritize their relationship. Often they are in survival mode, going through the motions of rearing their children and balancing their jobs and life in general. In the flurry of it all, adult time together gets knocked to the bottom of the totem pole. They seek balance but often forget to factor in the very foundation of their family -- them!

Good parenting sometimes means putting your marriage first.

Dr. John Gottman, Ph.D. and author of And Baby Makes Three, who has been studying relationships for years, has observed that the stronger the parental relationship, the more the children benefit. Many children experience emotional distress when parents have marital discord. They feel it when their parents fight or when either of them are unhappy. Unfortunately, kids are notorious for taking responsibility for their parents' distress.

Dr. Gottman's research has shown that two important things can be done to improve the relationship; handle conflict more effectively and become better friends. In my practice, I've found one way couples can stay connected and avoid the build-up of resentment is to regularly check in. The point is for each partner to get an emotional read on each other, clear up any misunderstandings and use the opportunity to remind them of their affection for each other. I have had some couples in my practice who have conditioned themselves out of the loving contact they once had as they manage their kids and other life requirements. Often, all they need is a reminder to prioritize respectful and loving behavior at transitional moments (coming and going, bed time) and mindfully carve out time for their relationship in the form of date nights, walks or time on the couch just talking after the kids are asleep.

As you put more energy into bridging the gap between you and your partner where you each start to feel cared for and secure with each other again, relationship satisfaction and overall happiness can be positively impacted. A boost in marital happiness can impact individual happiness which can only positively trickle down to your children.

Many busy parents feel guilty about allocating time for the marriage in lieu of their kids. According to Christine Carter, Ph.D. in her book, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps to More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:

We don't need to worry that we are spending less time with the kiddos than traditional parents did during that supposedly blissful era of the nuclear family, circa 1965. Research shows that more than half of us feel guilty about how little time we spend with the kids. I'm here to say, let it go. We're not spending less time with our kids than our parents spent with us. Married mothers now spend 21 percent more time caring for their children than they did back then! Dads are stepping up, too: though they still spend less than half the time caring for kids that moms do, they've doubled the amount of time they spend since "Leave It to Beaver" was the gold standard.

If you prioritize staying emotionally attached, you will be modeling a healthy relationship for your children. For example, rather than feel guilty for going out on a date night with your spouse and leaving the kids behind, be sure they understand that "mommy and daddy need special time together, too." You will be teaching them the invaluable lesson of the importance of adult intimate relationships.

The marriage or parental relationship is the very foundation of the family. Parents, give your relationship the time and attention it needs for the sake of you both -- and your kids. The lessons they internalize as they observe your healthy relationship will positively resonate with them many years down the line.