At some point, most young couples will be warned of the pressures children place on a relationship. And most expectant mothers have had a female work colleague assure them that nothing will ever be the same. Of course, millions of couples have large families and yet remain committed and in love to the end of their lives. Some even find that having children brings them closer together. And remaining childless does not guarantee the success of a marriage any more than having children guarantees its failure. It cannot be denied, however, that children often do place a strain on their parents’ relationship – especially if they are unprepared.
The first problem couples face is simple shock. The clinical psychologist Rick Hanson, author of a book on the subject, once remarked that parents almost always underestimate the demands involved. For a start, there is exhaustion. Babies and small children are unreliable sleepers who often leave their parents tired and irritable. Then there is the reduced space. The arrival of children transforms a small, neat house into a chaotic mess strewn with diapers and plastic toys. Children consume all their parents’ energy, time, and love. And of course, the smell of disinfectant, vomit, and dirty diapers hardly inspire a romantic atmosphere.
Marriage guidance counsellors frequently deal with what they term “distancing.” Most relationships have their bad patches, but so long as the deep, inner bond persists, they survive. As soon as one partner begins to distance themselves, however, that bond is threatened. And children can sometimes cause such distancing. Men in particular will often complain that their partner now gives all her time and affection to their child and that there is nothing left for him. Women, especially those who give up a career to look after the child, tend to complain that their partner no longer sees them as a lover, or even as an equal, but merely as the mother of his children. Resentment then builds, leading to detachment and distancing. Unfortunately, once the bond has been severed, it can be difficult to repair.
It should also be noted that many people have children to please their partner, not because they truly want them. And it isn’t only men who do this. Madelyn Cain, author of a book on childless couples, even speculates that some women are born without a mothering instinct. Far too often, argues Cain, such women allow themselves to be pressured into conceiving – with disastrous consequences for themselves and their relationship.
How to Maintain Your Relationship
If you fear that children may damage your relationship, there are steps you can take. Simply being aware that your relationship will come under strain is itself a start.
1) Do not become just mum and dad. Never forget that you are two adults in a physical, romantic relationship. It is pitiful to hear a middle-aged couple address each other as mum and dad. No matter how much you love your children, you must not allow the role of mother or father to swallow up and consume your identity. Supportive grandparents can be a godsend. If they are willing to look after the children, try and fix a date night every week. Get dressed up and go for a meal or a romantic walk. It doesn’t really matter what you do so long as you reaffirm your identity as a couple.
2) Put your relationship first. This may sound harsh, but if you do not put your relationship first you simply store up trouble. Andrew G. Marshall, in his book on the subject, notes the way years of selfless giving can lead to sudden, impulsive acts of selfishness – especially affairs. A woman, for example, may come to see herself as a drudge or servant to ‘the family’, which includes her husband. The man who was once her lover has been transformed in her mind into another child she must care for. A little selfishness is healthy.
3) Keep talking. Ask a couple with young children whether they still communicate and you will receive the indignant reply, “yes, of course we do!” But that communication probably consists of little more than bickering, moaning about work, discussing practical issues (like what to cook for dinner), and talking about the children. Make the effort to really talk. If you are finding the experience of child rearing harder than you expected, share this with your partner. And, just as important, listen to what your partner has to say. Try and make the time to watch a movie, for example, and then chat about it afterwards.
4) Keep it sexy. Before doing anything else, put a lock on the bedroom door! Few things will threaten your relationship more than the end of your sex life. So make time to make love, even if you never seem to be in the mood. If you do not, the odds of one partner having an affair increase. You should also do what you can to remain attractive to one another, not only for your partner’s sake but for your own. So keep your weight down, eat healthily, and avoid unpleasant personal habits.
5) Present a united front to your kids. Children often try to play one parent off against the other – and parents fall for it. If your partner tells your son to go to bed and you think it’s too early, you must still back him up; only tell him you think he was wrong once your child has left the room.
6) Let your partner know that you still care. Perhaps most fundamental of all, you must be sure that your partner knows you still care. When your wife goes to visit her parents for the weekend and you speak to her on the phone, ask how she is coping. Don’t just ask about her parents or the children. If your partner has always dreamed of writing a novel, encourage her never to give up. Unfortunately, stressed parents become competitive about their struggles. If one partner works and the other is at home, the worker may find his partner cut across him when he complains about his tough commute or irate boss and assures him that it is far harder being trapped in a tiny apartment with a two-year-old. And of course the opposite may be true. The parent who works will often dismiss the complaints of the full-time parent as trivial compared to the rat race.
Above all, you must find time for one another. And you will only do that if you believe that your relationship still matters. Of course, children need love and attention, and there is nothing wrong with building a loving, secure family unit. But you must never forget that your children will want lives of their own some day. Making them the center of everything is not only bad for your relationship – it is also unfair on your children.