“The best thing a society can do for itself is to promote and support healthy couples, and the best thing partners can do for themselves, for their children, and for society is to have a healthy relationship.” – Harville Hendrix, author of Getting the Love You Want
Seriously?!?! The “best” thing we can do for our kids is to have a good relationship with our partners? That’s fine in theory, but what if our relationship is just okay, or sometimes good with long periods of mediocrity, or mostly bad with occasional moments of happiness? What then? Plus, how can I find time to nurture a happy relationship when I barely have time to parent my kids?
Many of us once dreamed of having a family with our partners. Now that our children are here, we spend so much time dealing with their needs, with work demands, and day-to-day life, that we have little or nothing left over for our spouses (not to mention ourselves). Relationships often become secondary, even dispensable. For many parents, romantic relationships just aren’t all that “romantic” anymore.
Yet research consistently shows that parents with better quality relationships have better-adjusted kids. The poorer the quality of our relationships with each other, the more negative developmental outcomes we see in children and teens across a range of variables, e.g., physical health, academic success, psychological and social outcomes. There’s research to suggest this holds true across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
That brings us back to the question: How can we find time to cultivate a happy relationship when we barely have time to parent our kids?
By doing both at once or, more precisely, by understanding that the positive outcomes in one area (relationship fulfillment) support positive outcomes in the other (parenting and our kids’ wellbeing).
I know this sounds counter-intuitive. After all, we live in a culture obsessed with prioritizing and analyzing parenting–as evidenced by the sheer glut of parenting books out there. Don’t get me wrong; conscious, positive parenting is a wonderful and important area to focus on…but not when it creates or reinforces discord in our love relationships.
I believe that the importance, indeed the centrality of our relationship happiness to our kids’ wellbeing is one of our society’s best kept secrets. As Dr. Stephanie Coontz, Director of Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families, said at a ParentMap Conference a few years ago:
“Research shows that couples that attend a relationship class together report a more positive impact on their parenting than those who attend a parenting class together.”
Seriously? Yes, seriously.
Now, I don’t believe you have to be in a relationship to support your children’s health (I see you single parents!)), or that all relationships are worth saving, or that all parents treat their relationships as secondary to parenting. Some of you are honoring both amazingly well.
I do, however, believe that for the vast majority of parents raising kids with a partner, there’s room to improve your relationship with each other. I also believe that doing so will improve your parenting.
How can you start to improve your parenting? Here are 3 quick tips:
- Start small (a.k.a. “The 10% Rule”) When thinking of ways to enhance relationship fulfillment, instead of aiming for a big activity or gesture, something that demands 100% focus and effort on your part (e.g., planning a romantic vacation without kids) expend 10% of your precious energy to come up with something you can do now, or soon, something you will actually make happen (e.g., a candlelit takeout dinner after the kids go to bed). The goal is to set yourself up for small wins that infuse your relationship with positive energy immediately. And to create changes that are easy enough to repeat often.
- Ask: “What’s important to you about that?” It’s a simple yet powerful question, especially when you and your partner disagree. Instead of rejecting his or her opinion, or arguing for yours, just pause, take off your judge-and-jury hat, and get genuinely curious about what s/he is saying. This is especially helpful even, and especially, when you’re convinced you’re right and that your approach is vastly superior. When we get curious about what’s important to our partners, we’re more likely to avoid arguments and better understand their perspective. Fewer fights and greater mutual understanding usually lead to more warm and fuzzy feelings for each other.
- Get to the heart of your complaint I think of complaints as the hard candy that protects the yummy chewy center of a tootsie pop; complaints cover the sweet spot. By focusing on complaints—“you don’t help enough with the kids,” “you work too much,” “you never compliment me”—we further alienate our partners by pointing fingers and criticizing. If we get to the core of what’s upsetting us, if we figure out the need, request, or hope that our complaint points to—“I want us to be a parenting team;” “l miss you and wish you were around more;” “I’m feeling insecure and would appreciate your input so I can feel more confident”—then we’re both far more likely to get our needs met and feel more understood.
Now for the (slightly) bad news—as great as these tips might be, there is no quick fix to relationship dissatisfaction, and no one-size-fits-all way to maintain relationship fulfillment.
The good—no wait, the great—news is that devoting time and energy to improving and, then, maintaining our relationship quality delivers payoffs to us and our kids. Over and over again.
So if you need a “good parenting” excuse to rekindle the romance in your relationship, and reconnect with the partner with whom you dreamed of having a joyous family life, take the time to reconnect with each other. If you won’t do it for your relationship or for yourself, then do it for your kids! They’ll thank you in the long run.
[A revised version of this post originally appeared on YourTango and was reposted on PsychCentral.]