I read this quote recently:
“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 good sometimes 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?
While many of us once dreamed of having a a family, now that our children have actually arrived, we spend so much time dealing with our kids’ needs, with work demands, and with day-to-day life, that we have little or nothing left over for our spouses (not to mention ourselves). Our relationships become secondary, even dispensable. For many parents, romantic relationships just aren’t all that “romantic” anymore.
Yet research shows consistently 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 across a range of variables, including physical health, academic success, and psychological and social outcomes. And this holds true across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.
So, that brings us back to the same question: How can we find time to cultivate our relationship when we barely have time to parent our kids?
By doing both at once or, more precisely, by letting the positive outcomes of one (relationship fulfillment) lead to positive outcomes of the other (good parenting).
I know this sounds counter-intuitive. After all, we live in a culture obsessed with prioritizing parenting, which is wonderful but not when it creates, or reinforces, discord in our love relationships.
In fact, I believe the critical importance of our relationship happiness to our kids’ wellbeing is one of our culture’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, that said, 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 balancing both amazingly well!).
I do believe, however, that for the vast majority of parents raising kids with a partner, there’s room to improve your relationship with each other and doing so will also improve your parenting.
So how can you start to improve your parenting?
Here are 3 quick tips that I offer the couples with whom I work:
1. Start with small efforts (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 your kids) expend 10% of your precious energy to come up with something you can do now, or soon, something you 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 immediately infuse your relationship with positive energy. And to create changes that are easy enough to repeat often.
2. 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 your partner’s 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.
3. Get to the heart of your complaint
I often think of complaints being like Tootsie-pops; they’re the hard candy that protects the chewy center, which is what we want to get to; complaints cover what matters most. By focusing on our complaints—“you don’t help enough with the kids,” “you work too much,” “you never compliment me”—we often further alienate our partners by pointing fingers and blaming. By contrast, if we try to get to the core of what’s upsetting us (or them if they’re the ones complaining), to the need, request, or hope that complaint points to—“I want us to be a great parenting team;” “l miss you and wish you were around more;” “I’m feeling insecure and would appreciate your support to feel more confident”—then we’re each far more likely to get our needs met and to feel more understood.
Now for the (slightly) bad news: As great as these tips might be, there simply is no quick fix to relationship dissatisfaction, and no one-size-fits-all way to maintain relationship fulfillment once we’re lucky enough to achieve it.
The good—no wait, the great—news is that devoting time and energy to improving and, then, maintaining our relationship quality delivers payoffs for us and for our amazing children.
So if you need a “good parenting” excuse to rekindle the romance in your relationship, and to reconnect with the partner with whom you dreamed of having a happy family life, try out one of the tips suggested. While I hope you do it for yourself and for your partner, at the very least, please do it for your kids!
A slightly revised version of this post first appeared on Your Tango.