“It’s not the children who extinguish the flame of desire, but the adults who fail to keep the spark alive.” – Esther Perel
Yet, no parent can do it all (& not even with “a village”).
Parenting is quite the juggling act and it’s hard to make time for our significant partner when we always feel there’s one more thing we have to do. Making peace with being “good enough” is an important goal since parents today often are living away from extended family, and trying to find the perfect balance between work, family, marriage, self-care, community/spirituality, etc. is not possible!
Many parents also do not have a toolbox of effective intimate relationship skills because often our parents didn’t teach or model them.
Below are my top 5 tips that I have found can help even the BUSIEST of couples (including my spouse and me) strengthen your bond and be a MODEL for your children of a healthy relationship.
This blog is for you if you can relate to any of these questions:
Are you a parent who LOVES their children so much that you give them or your work (if you’re the sole financial provider) 100%, but then have little energy left over for your spouse at the end of the day?
Can you remember the last romantic or fun date night you went on?
Are you and your spouse feeling disconnected and missing the intimacy you once had?
Since becoming parents, my husband and I have been through periods of profoundly positive connection (ex. the first year of our son’s life when we completely had each other’s backs and hearts) and periods of unspoken disconnection (ex. when I was consumed ironically with my post-graduate work in couples and family therapy and he was building his business and training for an Ironman Race).
One commitment that nurtured our relationship was our monthly date night that began when our son was just three months old. Friends of ours, who also had a daughter this age, suggested we switch off childcare to support each other in having a monthly date, and did we look forward to those outings! And still, we needed more from one another.
Participating in couples therapy, a Hold Me Tight retreat, and learning together and practicing the PACT and EFT models have been turning points for our relationship.
Because I am a busy, working parent and know personally the challenge of maintaining a strong bond with my spouse, I have a great deal of empathy for my couple clients who are parents as well. I also have tremendous HOPE that these couples can cultivate a more loving, safe, and secure relationship if provided the knowledge and skills of “secure functioning” relationships (Tatkin, 2011), and they have the openness and willingness to create this type of relationship.
Similar to a garden, if you do not tend or nurture your marital relationship, the vibrancy and beauty of what was can die and in place only conflicts and emotional distance or weeds can grow.
And while gardening does take time, planning, and energy, if you keep up with it, most people are surprised and relieved to find that just a little effort can make a huge difference!
The simple strategies below can be done in your own home or outside your home with just the two of you. These practices can revitalize your connection, love, sense of safety and security.
However, if your relationship “garden” feels overrun with weeds, and you and your spouse need the support and guidance of a couples therapist to help you have the courage to face your relationship and each other, I am here for you. Click on this link for more information about my couples therapy services.
Also, consider these 5 tips to regain your connection and closeness with your partner:
Tip #1 Spend 4 minutes a day gazing into your partner’s eyes to rekindle your love for one another.
A touching video on the website Soul Pancake called “How to Connect with Anyone” shows 6 different couples, ranging from having just met to being married 55 years, gazing into each other’s eyes without talking for 4 minutes. The study concluded that just 4 minutes of uninterrupted eye gazing will increase feelings of closeness and connection!
It sounds almost too simple. Yet, there is science supporting this finding.
According to Stan Tatkin, PhD, MFT, creator of PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couples Therapy) and author of Wired for love, 2011, “We fall in love at close proximity. I mean real love, not the imagined kind that some can conjure up through fantasy or at a distance, or that is really just lust masquerading as love.”
Tatkin (2011) further explains, “The eyes play an important role in igniting real love. When you gaze into your partner’s eyes, you can see not only his or her essence, but the entire play of the nervous system. You can witness the live, exciting, and rapidly changing inner landscape of emotion, energy, and reality that belongs to and defines your partner.”
And that’s not all! Tatkin (2011) shares an added benefit that for some people may even sound more compelling. “A few minutes of sustained gazing can lead to relaxation, a sense of safety, and full here-and-now engagement.”
Tip #2 The Magic 6 Hours (Relax…I promise busy parents do not have to fulfill all 6 hours to experience some of the magic! Progress, not perfection.)
In The seven principles for making marriage work, relationship expert and researcher John Gottman, PhD (2015) explains what distinguished couples whose marriages continued to improve from those whose marriages did not. Gottman (2015) found that the successful group were devoting only an extra six hours a week to their marriage in implementing some of the 7 principles that his research showed strengthened marriages. Here’s a brief summary of his recommendations (p. 278-279):
- Partings – Make sure that before you say goodbye in the morning you’ve learned about one thing that is happening in your spouse’s life that day.
– Tatkin (2011) explains that when you give your partner a proper “send off” with eye contact, an embrace, and reaffirming remarks about your feelings for him/her, your partner can perform at his/her peak!
Time: 2 minutes a day x 5 working days
Total: 10 minutes/week
- Reunions – Gottman (2015) recommends a hug and a kiss that lasts at least 6 seconds, which he explains is worth coming home to. Also, be sure to engage in a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each workday.
Time: 20 minutes a day x 5 days
Total: 1 hour 40 minutes
- Admiration and Appreciation – Find some way every day to communicate genuine emotional affection and appreciation toward your spouse. Genuinely say, “I love you.”
Time: 5 minutes a day x 7 days
Total: 35 minutes
- Affection – Show each other physical affection when you’re together during the day, and make sure to always embrace before going to sleep.
Time: 5 minutes a day x 7 days
Total: 35 minutes
- Weekly Date – This just-the-two-of-you time can be a relaxing, romantic way to stay connected. Ask each other open-ended questions that let you update your “owner’s manual” (Tatkin, 2011) for your partner.
Time: 2 hours once a week
Total: 2 hours
- State of the Union Meeting – Select one hour a week to talk about your relationship this week. Begin by talking about what went right. Then give each other five specific appreciations you haven’t yet expressed. Next, gently and non-defensively discuss any issues that may have arisen. End by asking and answering, “What can I do to make you feel loved this coming week?”
Time: 1 hour a week
Grand Total: Six hours
Tip #3 Do a back-to-back meditation exercise with your spouse
In Loving someone in recovery, Beverly Berg, PhD, MFT (2014) includes over 50 mindfulness meditation exercises that can be done with your partner to calm your own nervous system, regulate your partner’s system, and strengthen your emotional bond since the exercises can be done with your partner.
I call my favorite partner meditation exercise “I’ve got your back” in which I instruct partners to sit back to back on pillow cushions on the floor, with their eyes closed breathing slowly, and supporting each other so they can feel their partner having their back. As is said in yoga classes, “How can you take what you learn on the mat off into your lives?”
Tip #4 Get to know your spouse’s “owner’s manual”.
This is one of my favorite expressions and practices by Tatkin (2011) in “secure functioning” relationships. I encourage couples to buy a notebook and label it, “_____’s (Your spouse’s name) Owner’s Manual” to continually write down the things that make their spouse feel safe, secure, loved and vibrant and to do these things whenever possible. Btw, if you feel in the dark about what to write, ask your partner directly or feel free to use this creative and meaningful exercise, (click on: “The Couple Bubble” to watch my Youtube video for instructions)
Tip #5 Say “No” to more things outside your marriage and “Yes” to your spouse.
For parents, life usually feels extremely hectic and that there is little, if any, time for emotional or physical intimacy let alone friendship with one’s spouse. Yet, when parents honestly reflect on how they are spending their time, and what is truly important to them, they often find that they are saying, “yes” too often to entities outside the marital system and “no” too often to emotional need requests by their partner (ex. “After we put the kids to bed, I want to talk and have you really listen to me and show you understand me” or “I want you to hold me and convey you cherish me without talking”).
As devoted as you are to your children &/or work, we all know that we reap what we sow. If you want to receive more love and connection (and less conflict) in your marriage, you have to make your marriage a greater priority. This means doing whatever it takes to make your spouse feel emotionally safe, secure, and loved, and your spouse will do the same.
Of course, doing “whatever it takes” will differ from your baby’s first year (when you both might be running on empty and thus 4 minutes of eye gazing might be all that you have energy for) and beyond (when you have more energy). Getting to know your partner’s “owner’s manual” (ex. his/her love language) can help you focus your limited resources on the behaviors that will make the greatest difference for your partner and your relationship.
This is different from “being a good team” (also invaluable, but does not quite fulfill emotional needs) where you share in taking care of the children, home, financial responsibilities, etc.
By cultivating a stronger bond with your spouse through prioritizing meeting his/her emotional needs, you will receive the GIFT of being loved in the way you need and providing a model to your children of a loving, emotionally satisfying marriage!
If you are busy parents in need of support in cultivating a more loving and connected relationship with your spouse, contact Lana Isaacson, LCSW, CAC III, Certificate in Marriage and Family Therapy at 720.432.5262 to schedule your appointment today or schedule your free 30 minute consultation here.