Bring back that loving feeling

How to make your relationship a priority and stay connected

It was right around the time their child turned two years old that Jennifer Greenwood realized how long it had been since she and her husband Mark had spent any significant amount of time alone together. 

“I was thinking back to a relaxing weekend we spent in the White Mountains near the end of my pregnancy. It suddenly snapped in my brain. That was the last time it had just been the two of us.”

After that trip, and the birth of their son, the Seacoast couple’s relationship experienced a big shift. Like most new parents, Jennifer and Mark became engrossed in taking care of their son’s every need. Jennifer eventually returned to work, and between juggling child care drop-offs and their busy careers, Jennifer and Mark’s relationship quickly slid off their to-do lists.

“At home, all our energy was poured into being the best possible parents for our son, which left little room for nurturing our marriage. We loved each other very much, but the romance was definitely gone. I think we were both too stressed out and exhausted to figure out how to bring it back,” Jennifer said.

Sound familiar? That’s because most new parents go through relationship growing pains. According to Evan Sorensen, MS LMFT, founder and director of the New England Institute for Marriage and Family Therapy in Bedford and Hampstead, approximately two thirds of new parents — 67 percent — experience a steep drop in couple satisfaction within the first three years of their child’s life.

“Without question, parenting is one of the great joys in life, but the added responsibility, loss of personal time, financial stress and plain exhaustion from raising infants and young children can sap a relationship of romance, affection and intimacy,” Sorensen said.

But don’t get discouraged. Despite these challenges you can reignite the spark and keep your relationship strong.

Here are some tips from Sorenson and other relationship therapists in New Hampshire for staying connected.

Make sure it’s not always “all about the kids”

One prime stumbling block for parents in taking time for their own relationship is thinking that doing so means they are shortchanging their kids.

This is simply not true, said therapist Susan Lager, LICSW, BSD, of The Couples Center PLLC in Portsmouth. Making their relationship a priority will benefit the children, according to Lager.

“Unless you ‘fill your tanks’ properly you won’t have much of value to give to your children. Nourishing your partnership creates positive energy and ‘zest’ that then can radiate out into more constructive and loving interactions not only with each other, but also with your children, especially when they are presenting aggravating or challenging attitudes and behaviors,” Lager said.

Baby Steps to Greater Intimacy

After months or even years of not putting your relationship first, it can be hard to shift gears. Sorensen recommended that one easy way to get started is to simply show more genuine interest in what is happening in each other’s lives.

“Before saying ‘goodbye’ in the morning take a moment to learn about one thing happening in your partner’s life that day. Perhaps they have an important meeting, or a phone call they’re anxious about. Following up with your partner later communicates an important message: ‘I’m thinking about you even when we’re not together.’”

For the truly time-pressed, even sending a text or funny emoji message during the day can help you feel connected.

If physical affection has fallen by the wayside, you can start to gradually add that back, too. “When you see each other at the end of the day always mark that reunion with a hug or kiss that lasts for at least six seconds. Avoid the peck on the cheek or rushing to the next thing. Instead take a moment to connect with your partner in a meaningful and personal way that includes physical affection,” Sorensen said.

Carving out couple time

Scheduling a regular “date night” may be the gold standard in parents having alone time together, but when children are very young, or there is a shortage of babysitters in your life, sneaking out for a night on the town might be difficult.

If a night out doesn’t fit your schedule, there’s plenty to do instead. “I always encourage [parents] to find opportunities for adult time; doing errands together…or dinners at home after children are in bed,” said Kelley Corson, LICSW, of Warren Street Family Counseling Associates in Concord.

For Jennifer and Mark, alone time finally came together once they made a mutual decision to make Saturday night “their time,” even if was just them staying in and watching a movie after their son was asleep.

“Friday night, we were too exhausted from the work week so that didn’t work. We didn’t have a babysitter, so that was out. So we made a commitment that Saturday night was reserved for us — a bottle of wine and a movie in the living room. I put it on our to-do list, as unromantic as that sounds, but it worked for us to feel like a couple again.”

Other practical ways to find alone time together include swapping babysitting duties with other parents in the same boat or enlisting the help of grandparents and other relatives to babysit for an evening or even longer stretches.

Some resort hotels offer child care or on-site babysitting or programs for kids so parents can enjoy time to themselves while their children have their own fun. Watch for local gyms or YMCAs that offer similar “Parents’ Night Out” programs or check to see if your child care provider offers “after hours” care for you to slip in an after-work dinner. Or make it a habit to get up earlier — before the kids — to enjoy a more leisurely breakfast together before your day begins.

“Dates don’t need to be elaborate to be effective. Sharing an ice cream can be just as memorable as dinner at that swanky restaurant in town. The goal here is to be present with one another, have a little fun and adventure, and rekindle some romance,” Sorenson said.

Lager agrees. “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.”

Happy parents, happy kids

If despite your best intentions, feelings of disconnection persist in your relationship, it’s OK to reach out for help.

“My encouragement to parents would be to accept that the transition to parenthood is both joyous and difficult. There is no shame or harm in acknowledging that learning how to manage these new roles can be overwhelming, and it’s a sign of wisdom, not weakness, to seek guidance from a licensed professional,” said Sorensen.

Putting this kind of work into your relationship matters, Corson pointed out, because it provides a positive model for your children.

“Allowing your children to witness the caring and respectful relationship with your spouse/partner will provide them with a sense of security and emotional safety,” said Corson

Your kids will notice, added Lager. “Don’t be fooled by what looks like self absorption in your kids — as busy as they may seem with their own lives, they’re always watching you and unconsciously imitating your attitudes and behaviors.”

Lager also noted why carving out couple time now is so important later.

“In about 18 or so years your children will hopefully be ‘launched’ and out on their own. What of value as a couple will you have to share if you’ve created a totally ‘kid-centric’ life together? If you haven’t nourished your relationship sufficiently you will be less adept at communication, managing conflict, taking turns, feeling close, and just plain having fun together.”

So in other words, if you still want to have something to talk about when your kids are grown up and on their own, make it a point to learn what “Netflix and chill” means and then do it — regularly.   

Jacqueline Tourville is an award-winning children’s author who lives in southern Maine. Jacqueline has written for ParentingNH for more than 10 years and has won multiple awards from the Parenting Media Association.