How to Make Marriage Work (After Having Kids)
February 11, 2013
© Erin Zammett Ruddy
Before Nick and I decided to have Nora, he said, out of the blue one day, “I think we should have another baby. It will ruin our relationship, but I think we should do it.” I laughed, of course, but then I started thinking. Would having two kids ruin our relationship? Was it really a foregone conclusion? And why is it such a cliché that kids kill marriages? Is it because…it’s true? A while back, while researching a story on the subject, I spoke with John Jacobs, M.D., a New York City couples therapist and author of All You Need is Love and Other Lies About Marriage. He said, “Couples often think that children solidify a marriage but the truth is they are a serious threat. The transition from couplehood to parenthood marks one of the greatest stressors on the life of a marriage.” While that stress may dwindle over the years, it never completely goes away. And, says Jacobs, the wear and tear kids inflict on marriages is at an all-time high, thanks, in part, to helicopter parenting. “We’ve become a society that is hyper-focused on the emotional well-being of our children,” he says. “Sometimes too focused.” It makes sense: The more time you spend on your kids, the less time you have to focus on the well-being of your spouse—and the well-being of your marriage.
Well, Nora is now three and while her arrival slowed us down a bit in the beginning, it certainly hasn’t knocked us out. In fact, we're probably in better shape now than ever. We go on dates, we talk, we have a rich social life, we laugh a lot and have fun together, we even wait until the kids go to sleep so we can dine a deux many nights. I always thought that was just about us being food obsessed/selfish (we like talking to each other without having to spell every other word and we like to eat without stopping to clean up spilled milk or wipe butts), but it turns out we’re on to something. “The paradox is that the number one thing you can do for your children is to have a good marriage,” says Jacobs. But how do we do it? How do we take care of our children, take care of ourselves, and connect as a couple? Lord knows there are days when just getting your brood to bedtime in one piece is a feat. Well, in honor of the upcoming “holiday,” I thought it would be fun to share some of my favorite bits of advice—the little, somewhat un-PC-but-totally-doable things that keep my marriage going. Am I an expert? No. Do Nick and I still have issues? Yes. But we are keenly aware of how important our relationship is to the health and wellbeing of our family as a whole so we have always made us a priority. Here, in no particular order, 16 pieces of marriage advice I remind myself of as often as necessary...
1. At the end of a long day (or even a short one), remember that sex and wine can solve a lot. Never underestimate the power of either, particularly when combined.
2. Don't set the romance expectations too high on a day-to-day basis. Simply sitting on the same couch while watching TV (instead of, say, across the room from each other) counts as quality time. Bonus points if the couch isn't super long so that your bodies are actually touching in some way.
3. If it is at all within your power, live near family, particularly family that doesn't have a very full social calendar, and lean on them. Free babysitters are, well, priceless.
4. That said, also groom a babysitter that you love and trust. Pay her well.
5. Two words (a phrase I don’t particularly like but the concept is essential): Date Night.
6. When you do go out, try to talk about things other than your children. If you must, stick to non-controversial topics like how cute they are, not whether you should get her in dance this year or how to handle his lithsp. The point of getting out is to remind yourselves that you’re more than just parents. Talking about something other than the minutiae of child-rearing is a good way to do that.
7. Never feel guilty sticking your kids in front of the TV if it's for A. a hot shower. B. to make them a healthy and delicious dinner. C. sex. None of that stuff takes long enough for their brains to start rotting. (Sorry, babe.)
8. Go out without each other, too. Almost as important as date night is friend night. You can’t be each other’s only outlet, so find some other ones. Having a life outside of your family will make you a better wife and a better mother and a better person. For me it’s book club, dinner with friends, volunteering with LLS, etc.
9. Fantasize about your future together. This could be about the summer home you want to buy out east (that you will likely never be able to afford) or that trip to Italy you want to take someday, or, um, being empty nesters. Yes, Nick and I have occasionally discussed how great it will be when our kids are happily and healthily grown and we can do whatever the #&@! we want.
10. Maintain a little mystery by…limiting bathroom occupancy to one. (Or, I should say, one adult. If anyone knows how to keep your kids out of the bathroom when you’re in there, let me know!)
11. For every house/child/finance-related question or comment you e-mail or text each other, write one that is just plain funny or flirty. Nick and I text each other a lot and having a laugh-out-loud-worthy exchange with him reminds me why we fell in love—and that we still are. That’s important.
12. Sit down to a home-cooked meal (as often as possible) that doesn’t involve any of the following: texting, tweeting, an “I love my husband” status update (gag), Bravo, kids, talk about kids, chicken nuggets leftover from kids. You don’t always have to shell out date night money to have a date night.
13. Never let yourself get too hungry. You know how with kids you always need a stash of crackers and cheese sticks on you at all times? Well, parents can have low blood sugar moments, too, so best to throw a few snacks in your purse for your purposes. I can’t tell you how many of my fights with Nick end with one of saying, “sorry, I was just hungry.”
14. Try to fight about only the thing you’re fighting about and stop yourself from dredging up all the other crap that really isn’t bothering you at the moment but somehow starts spewing from your mouth regardless. Not productive. Also, just saying "I'm sorry" has magical powers. You have a limited amount of time together once kids are in the picture and spending it bickering is no fun at all.
15. Occasionally you just need to walk away without saying the thing you really want to say. Some annoyances (like the closet door being left open always or the kitchen counters never being cleaned even when someone says “go to bed, I’ll clean it all up”) just aren’t worth bringing up. Everyone is trying really hard, this whole parenthood thing ain’t always easy and no one’s perfect. Not even you.
16. Create a bedtime routine for your kids from day one and stick to it so that they know how to, how do I put this, go the $@#!% to sleep. The only way to have a relationship outside of your kids is to have time away from them.
OK, that’s all the wisdom I have for now. Please note that these are the things that work for us, I’m not saying they will do the trick for any relationship. We all need to figure out for ourselves what we need to keep our marriages nourished and then figure out how to get as much of those things as possible. I would love to hear what works for you!