Dear Lori and Jeff,
My wife and I had a great marriage for the first few years. We both wanted children and are blessed with three beautiful kids. They are our world and we are dedicated to being great parents. After our youngest was born, we had a few unforeseen financial issues arise, which have caused both of us to need to work full time. Over the last few years, our marriage has increasingly suffered. We have almost no time for just the two of us, and we’re constantly snapping at each other over how to raise the kids. A therapist we saw said we needed to commit to a regular date night, but we really don’t have the time or money, and the idea has just added more stress. Is there anything else we can do, or do we just have to wait it out until the kids are more self-sufficient?
Missing My Wife
Jeff and Lori: You can’t prioritize kids at the expense of your relationship. Some of that dedication needs to be shifted from being great parents to being great partners. In an ideal world, all parents would have the resources to hire babysitters and have a weekly night out on the town. But that just isn’t in the cards for many couples. The suggestion of date night, at its core, is about creating opportunities to reconnect as individuals, partners and lovers. It’s not uncommon for the identity of “parent” to become all consuming, and for partners’ connection to be dominated by their parenting roles. When there is any time for connection, it’s filled with talk about the kids.
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Lori: When so much emphasis and pressure is put on being a good parent, partners can begin to criticize, chastise and demean each other for every choice that isn’t “perfect”—putting little Olivia in the wrong outfit, letting Sophie sleep in your bed, or giving in to Tommy’s tantrum—it’s scary as hell to think about how your decisions can affect the lives of these little humans. But the most powerful gift you can give your child is a model of healthy connection and an environment that is loving and emotionally safe. Just because you don’t have the resources for date night doesn’t mean you can’t have time for kindness. Recognize that you’re both on the same team, ultimately wanting what’s best for your kids. Take some time each day to remember what you appreciate about your partner as a person and how her individual strengths and talents are gifts to your children.
Jeff: One of the darker undercurrents of parenting that exists in some relationships happens when the kids are used as pawns in the inevitable power struggle between parents. We’ve seen couples get into intense arguments over how many cookies are okay for their kids to eat when it really has nothing to do with the cookies—it’s more about wanting to be right and hold some kind of power over their partner. It may be that one parent feels powerless elsewhere in the relationship and is looking for some kind of redemption or payback. It’s crucial for parents to be able to differentiate between acting on behalf of their children and trying to wield power over one another.
Jeff and Lori: Most parents say they are 100 percent committed to their kids but that has to start with being 100 percent committed to a stable marriage. Remember the oxygen mask adage: “put your mask on first before assisting others.” This couldn’t be more true for parents. You need to make the foundation of your marriage a priority so that it stays strong and healthy, for you both you and your kids. Research shows that parents fighting—even seemingly small arguments—can take a toll on children’s levels of stress and feelings of safety and security. So the next time your partner packs the “wrong” snack for little Sam, maybe consider just thanking them for their effort.
Lori and Jeff are married, licensed psychotherapists and couple-to-couple coaches at Aspen Relationship Institute. Submit your relationship questions to [email protected] and your query may be selected for a future column.