Parenting is rewarding, but it’s also a tough gig. Nothing truly prepares someone for what to expect. Because children rely on adults to meet many of their needs, a lot of energy goes toward making sure that young ones are tended to. When parenting children with extra challenges, this takes tremendous amounts of time and vitality. Divorce rates among couples raising kids with special needs are higher than in the general population because there is more stress to be absorbed by the family system.
If you are parenting as a single person, hopefully, you have several people around you who can step in and allow you to have a break now and then. If you are parenting with a partner, then being able to divide tasks and time commitments can help tremendously. But if all the time goes to parenting the kids, where does the partnership come in?
Similar to any relationship, romantic partnerships require time and effort to stay healthy. Couples often make the mistake of prioritizing their children at the expense of self-care and intentional time for each other. Over time, this oversight can lead to a lack of connection. Even if conflict is not present, there may be very little connection. So, what is a couple to do?
John and Julia Gottman have been studying couples for over 40 years. In their research, they have a few recommendations that help couples stay happy for the long haul. It all comes down to the little things.
One of the first recommendations that the Gottman’s make is to build what they call “Love Maps.” This involves dedicating a few minutes each day to check in and find out what is happening in each other’s lives and making time for rituals of connection when leaving and arriving at home. Whether with a kiss, a hug, a smile, or an expression of joy to see the other. Think back to when you were dating and the excitement you had when you were together. Reconnect with it and communicate it with your eyes, facial expression, and physical touch.
In addition to those things, pay attention to each other’s “bids for connection,” responding positively and avoiding negative patterns like criticism, blame shifting, and name-calling. This is what is also called “turning toward.” For example, one person might notice an interesting video and make a comment to the other about it. The other person has a choice – they can ignore, turn away, or express interest to learn more. Taking just a few moments to respond makes all the difference.
There are also negative patterns that couples fall into. Criticism, blame shifting, and name calling are all things to avoid. Rather, couples need to stick together, give one another the benefit of the doubt, and face challenges as a team. When heated conversations come up, make sure to leave time for breaks and set up a time to regroup later on. Also, taking responsibility for your own part in a problem is important, though not the easiest thing to do. And being gentle when sharing ideas for change will help the other to hear what you have to say.
Focusing on the positives is incredibly important. Finding ways to express appreciation each day can turn a couple’s focus around in only a few days or weeks. A good exercise is to find a space, maybe on a whiteboard on the refrigerator, maybe on the mirror in the bath, where you can write down notes to one another about what you are thankful for. An “I love you because…” kind of place. Many times, each partner is making positive contributions, but they are getting missed in all the busyness of life.
It is common that one of the parents in a couple will flex around the needs of the children more often. It can be tiresome and taxing for the parent who is doing all of the custodial things, like making appointments, attending school meetings, and driving children to activities. The child may act quite differently with these parents, being compliant and easy going with the “fun parent” and pushing hard to test the boundaries of the other. This is because attachment takes time, and if one parent is spending a lot more time with the child, that attachment is forming more quickly. Figure out how you can flip the script and give each other a break and a role change.
When you’re raising kids who function a bit differently in the world, sometimes family isn’t as accepting as you thought they might be. It’s important for parents to have support. If you find this to be the case, broaden your definition of family and find others who will validate what you are going through. Too much negativity can ruin even the strongest of bonds.
Though the daily, small gestures are by far the most important, it is imperative to put yourselves on the schedule for regular times away, both individually and as a couple. Use your respite, find other couples to swap childcare with, and plan for a date here and there. If you can’t get away, put the kids to bed early or in front of a movie. Eat a calm dinner for two in the next room and focus on one another’s goals, aspirations, and dreams.
Last of all, apologize when someone is hurt. Extend grace to your partner and be gentle with them. Friendship and commitment is at the heart of staying healthy together. Focus on sharing appreciation for the wonderful person you are walking this journey with, realizing that no one is perfect.
With Valentines Day coming up, we are offering a class designed to help you put these practices in place in your relationship. Check out our Prioritizing Your Partnership class offered via zoom this February. You’ll be glad you did!