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A Second Important Question for Spouses with Kids

(Here’s the second very good question Parenting NH magazine asked me recently):

What are some practical tips and ways for parents to prioritize their relationship as spouses/partners?

Most people know about the importance of setting aside quality time together through things like “date night.” Having a planned, ritualized time alone with your partner amplifies your “couple-ness” through shared experiences, reminding you about your reasons for choosing and staying with each other. I encourage couples to ramp it up a notch by taking turns with the planning, each putting energy into the “work” of connection.

Sometimes surprise experiences can expand a sense of fun, and even ramp up friendly competition. Anticipating and later reminiscing about these events can actually build happy neural pathways in your brains!

Novelty and a shared sense of discovery by doing new things together also generates excitement and joy, which are important antidotes to the doldrums which often plague long term relationships.

Equally as important, build mini “pockets of connection” into your everyday life as a couple. Don’t overload date nights with too much expectation, especially if you can’t manage to have them regularly and frequently. Instead, look for small, subtle moments of sharing by being intentional about them:

– If you’re getting dinner ready, create a shared experience with some conversation and a glass of wine while you prepare the meal.

– If the kids are in bed sit on the deck or the porch and watch the stars come out together. Talk about your dreams and passions, not just who aced it at your kid’s soccer game.

– If you’re watching a TV program sit next to each other and use the commercial breaks to have a snack and share your thoughts about the program.

– “Kill two birds with one stone” and have some lively conversation while you walk your dog.

However brief your time together may be, protect it from outside intrusion. Get more comfortable saying “No, thank you” to invitations that might cut in on the two of you too often. Set boundaries and prioritize your time together, even if it’s not a Hallmark moment.

Whatever you do together, be intentional about it, be present, and put down your cellphones! Texts, Facebook, and Instagram can wait, unless they’re shared activities you both enjoy. Here again, remember that one way or the other, your kids are watching, and you’re giving them a template for either a loving, respectful partnership, or an empty one.

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Getting Away

My husband and I recently went to beautiful Portugal for a long awaited vacation. We rented a car, and drove all around the country, excluding the far northern Douro region, so we’d have sufficient time to really see places. I can’t say enough about what this does, not only for one’s joy and learning levels, but also for a marriage.

Getting away from your everyday routines and responsibilities allows you to reset an appreciation level, not only for other people and places, but also for each other. A self-guided road trip is especially useful in ramping up teamwork and trust. In our case, I was the Navigator, and my husband Thom was the Fearless Driver, negotiating hairpin turns on sky-high mountain roads, and well marked highways with signs somehow not illuminated at night! I guided us through ancient towns with tiny cobblestoned streets barely big enough to fit a car, (let alone two!), while Thom plowed forward in our tiny Citroen.

We sampled wines, cheeses, and exotic fish dishes we’d never experienced before. We had to be a well oiled machine, hauling our overloaded suitcases up dark staircases in remote Air B&B’s.  We walked through orchards and vineyards, went to dinner in medieval towns late at night, and toured ancient castles and cities on foot for hours and hours, (something I’d usually love, but an act of generosity by Thom, who’s not so crazy about walking all day and night). Together, we had to communicate with the Portuguese, many of whom don’t speak other languages clearly.  We had to negotiate where to go, and what to forego, given our time constraints.

We returned home with a much greater appreciation for the sensual European way of life, but also thankful for American conveniences, and vastly more thankful for each other!

If you haven’t gotten away in awhile together, either to an exotic place like Portugal for a vacation, or to somewhere in your home state for a weekend, I’d recommend that you begin doing it again whenever you can. Your marriage will thank you for it!

Planning Quality Time Together

I work with several couples who love each other and want their relationships to thrive and grow, but they don’t put much effort into planning quality time together. “Busyness” has become a major rationale for many couples, as they balance the multiple roles of employee or business owner, parent, friend, relative, self-care, and partner.

I find myself telling couples with some frequency that wanted time together won’t just happen on its own when you have a lot on your plate. Wishing for it isn’t enough – you need to be more intentional about making it happen by putting it near the top of your priority list and individually and together planning.

If you’re a bit wary about whether your ideas for meaningful, fun time together will be a hit with your partner then ask them about the kinds of activities indoors and outdoors they’d enjoy. You can each make a list, put the ideas in a jar, and pick from each other’s jars, taking turns. (My “Jar Exercise” I refer to in one of my free articles you can receive by signing up). Don’t allow quality time together to become a one-person job. It’s best to share the labor of connection.  You’ll also get more “bang for your buck” by introducing novel places and activities.  Neuroscience points out the benefit of novelty to the bonding experience between couples, so try to avoid doing the same old thing every time you’re together. Try to balance tried and true rituals you both enjoy with new experiences and places. You’ll be enriching your relationship in a major way. You’ll be avoiding the big pit of “busyness” and disconnection in your relationship, and you’ll feel better about being proactive about this issue.

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Susan Lager

I am a licensed, board certified pyschotherapist and relationship coach in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Through my psychotherapy or coaching services, I can provide you with skills and tools to transform your life.

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