Married with kids: How to keep your relationship strongWritten by Amy Van Veen
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If you’re married with kids, you’re probably keenly aware of that all too elusive commodity – time.
Your kids are in school, their schedules are packed with extra-curricular activities and you might both be working. Maybe you volunteer in your community, stay connected with friends, go to a Bible study and make it home with just enough time to do some chores before falling asleep when your head hits the pillow.
When life gets this busy, it can be tempting to cut some corners – like pushing aside time with your spouse so you can focus on your family. But when the kids are grown and gone, you’ll realize you neglected the core relationship of your family: your marriage.
God’s design for marriage, Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley explain, includes emotional intimacy – at every stage of life.
"You may add new titles to your lives as the years go by – ‘parent,’ ‘manager,’ homemaker,’ and so on," the Smalleys write in their book Take the Date Night Challenge. "But through it all, you still retain the titles you were given by the pastor when you were first married: husband and wife!"
And prioritizing your marriage when your children are young isn’t just for the benefit of you and your spouse – your kids reap significant rewards, too. "It’s good modelling for the children to see what a happy marriage looks like," psychologist and author Dr. Karen Sherman explains.
In a study about the importance of couple time by The National Marriage Project, researchers W. Bradford Wilcox and Jeffrey Dew note "that the quality of the relationship between parents is one of the key factors associated with the cognitive, social, and emotional development of their children."
Experts agree one of the best ways to keep your marriage strong is a regularly scheduled date night; and while date nights are an excellent way to make sure your marriage isn’t overshadowed by your children, they’re not the only way to stay connected with your spouse.
1. Check in with your spouse
Sherman suggests to couples that regularly checking in with their spouse can make all the difference. "This will only take 5-10 minutes," she notes. "First, ask what they’ve been doing that they like. Then move on to what can be improved (rather than what’s wrong). This simple exercise allows the couple to stay connected and not get off track with each other."
2. Dream together
"In the early years of our marriage, there were times when the finances or a babysitter were not available for a traditional date night," author and speaker Kim Hardy explains. "So after we put the kids to bed, my husband would go to the local restaurant and purchase a ten dollar meal for us to share. As we ate, we spent this time sharing our dreams. Now after 29 years of dating and dreaming together, I can tell you that this is one of the secrets to creating intimacy."
3. Find small everyday moments
"Time is what matters when it comes to putting your marriage first," psychotherapist Jim Hjort suggests. "Do dishes together after dinner, fold laundry together, or put the kids in a stroller and take a walk. Be intentional about finding time to chat daily to keep up on what is going on in each other’s lives."
For married couple Leslie* and Ben*, finding these opportunities to spend time together is a lot easier than finding time to schedule date nights. "One thing we like to do are seemingly boring things, but we do it together," Leslie says. "When Ben had to go get some truck parts from a store an hour away, it would have been easier for him to go alone and me to stay at home with the kids, but instead we all went. Our one-year-old napped in the car, our four-year-old got to go on an adventure, and Ben and I had almost two hours to talk and catch up. It was the best part of my day!"
4. Get the kids to bed
"Have set bedtimes for the kids," Hjort suggests. "Make time in the evening after the kids are in bed. As your family grows, finding quiet time becomes more challenging. Being consistent with bedtimes allows parents time to unwind and focus on each other’s needs."
Leslie confessed that sometimes she and her husband Ben put the kids to bed a little earlier than normal to make sure they have the time together they know they need.
5. Be sure to show love
"Tangibly show mutual love," counsellor and relationship expert Nancy Pina notes. "The words are not enough: each spouse needs to show love in the manner the other person wants to receive love. Words and actions will provide the nurturance you both seek and will bring mutual fulfillment and satisfaction."
Understanding your spouse’s love language is a great way to do this. Whether it’s words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service or physical touch, Gary Chapman outlines how your spouse best receives love in his book The Five Love Languages.
6. Don’t forget to have fun
"Rarely does anything go as planned, especially when you have children," Hardy explains. "And it is those unexpected hiccups that can create a screaming or blaming episode – or a time to extend grace and perhaps enjoy a time of laughter. With four kids, my husband and I decided to make a declaration to our family that we were going to laugh more and extend grace more. Of course, there are times when fun or grace was not the solution to a situation, but just having this simple declaration as a family mantra helped us enjoy each other and the kids more."
Author, speaker and pastor Ted Cunningham writes about the benefits of a fun relationship in his book Fun Loving You: "Two great gifts we can give our children are a mom and a dad who enjoy life together and the hope of a great marriage of their own."
There are lots of ways you and your spouse can prioritize your marriage in the midst of a hectic, often chaotic life – it’s all about finding what works best for you. For Leslie and Ben, they rely on those everyday interactions they make time for. For Emily* and Rick*, they make a point to have breakfast together since Rick works in the evenings. For Al* and Victoria*, they’ve been blessed with eager-to-babysit grandparents who give them the chance to plan getaways together.
The important thing is that you remember to intentionally put your marriage first.
*Names changed to protect privacy
Reference to the individuals and organizations quoted does not constitute a blanket endorsement of either the individuals’ external work or their respective organizations.
Amy Van Veen is editorial manager at Focus on the Family Canada.
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