The popular story we all grow up on goes like this: You’ll fall in love, get married, then complete the circle of love and joy with children. I mean, the happiest couples you know have children, right? Right?
Jennifer Senior’s new book, All Joy and No Fun, explores the effects of child-rearing on middle-class parents. When she explains her research, a surprising truth emerges: child-rearing actually puts a strain on marital relationships. She cites a 2009 study, where 90% of participants reported less marital satisfaction after the birth of a first child. In 2003 analysis of mothers of infants, just 38% reported above-average satisfaction in their marriages.
This isn’t a forecast of doomed marriages, but a reality check. Kids bring joy to our lives, but they’re also romance killers. It’s difficult to feel sexy in the midst of poopy diapers, leaking breasts, and sleepless nights. Time together becomes a precious commodity between soccer practices, homework, and bedtime routines. Then there’s the challenge of sneaking in more than a kiss when you have a regular audience.
So, the big question is this: How do we stay (happily) married with children? We’ve tested this question for the past ten years at our house, with mixed results. We never find the perfect balance, but married life is happy(er) when we prioritize these things:
- Friendship. There’s a good reason why so many romantic comedies pair best friends. Friendship is an amazing base for a strong marriage. If you’re trudging through the hard stuff with your best friend and confidant, it’s easier to make it through. Friendship helps a marriage endure those six week (or more) of no sex post-partum, job loss, depression, temper tantrums, sleepless nights, and exhaustion. When we strengthen our friendship by prioritizing real conversation and quality time together, we go through life’s challenges as a team.
- Humor. I dropped Tim off at the airport yesterday, our four kids in tow. He is traveling internationally, so we don’t know how much we’ll be able to talk over the coming week. As we kissed and said our “I love yous,” we were treated to a soundtrack of “ews” from the back seat. We might have dragged our good-byes out a bit just to torture our kids. We often stay connected through the crazy ups and downs of parenting through small jokes and shared laughter. There’s a surprising intimacy in shared laughter that is often overrated. Also, as a parent we all know that if you don’t laugh, you might cry.
- Connect When You’re Apart. I’ve come to look forward to a daily message from my husband. He’ll pop on Facebook in between classes with a quick “How are you?” During his second year of law school, when he was away more than he was home, technology kept us connected. Technology can be an amazing way to build your friendship during over-scheduled weeks and keep perspective through humor.
- Disconnect When You’re Together. I left my cell phone behind with the babysitter on a recent date and I didn’t miss it. Instead of glancing at my phone, looking at the time, or checking in and out of Facebook, I just spent the evening talking, laughing, and holding hands with my husband. Prioritize this on date nights in, as well as nights out and I’m certain you’ll notice a difference in your communication over time. When we make a commitment to set aside our phones and other distractions to talk or eat or enjoy our family, we feel more connected.
- Everyday Intimacy. When I was single, I would watch the couples at church with multiple children between them on the pew. I declared that this would never be me – my husband and I would always sit next to each other and hold hands. Then we had kids – noisy, antsy, tired, bored kids. I quickly learned to adapt my expectations without giving up on intimacy. Everyday intimacy looks different for every couple. For us, it’s holding hands in the car, reaching across a pew of children to rest our arms on each other, stopping to kiss when one of us walks in the door, and sitting next to each other to chat. These things seem obvious, but it’s amazing how quickly parenting can cause you to forget these small gestures. Plus, these seemingly small gestures support a healthy sex life in the midst of spit up and midnight cries for glasses of water.
- Forget Fair. I was going to call this “put your partner first,” but this phrase has too much baggage. Instead, I’ll say that our marriage is healthiest when we look out for each other. In the ideal marriage, all would be divided equally. In real marriage, spouses often take turns supporting each other. This only really works, in my experience, if you have a solid foundation of trust and friendship. I sometimes pick up the slack for a season or put aside my checklist of expectations, trusting that my husband will do the same for me. When we become ultra focused on fair, resentments build, gratitude diminishes, and our friendship suffers.
- Know Your Sex Life Will Change. Sex after parenthood requires patience, humor, and creativity. We’ve found that babies have a six sense that tells them when you’re about to have sex and little kids are not suspicious of mom and dad showering together. There isn’t a magical formula for a healthy sexual relationship and your definition of satisfying will change according to your current circumstances. In my experience, steps 1 through 6 are about building an enduring emotional intimacy that will help bridge some of the barriers to a healthy sex life that naturally come with having kids.