Raising children is wonderful – and hard, really hard. All relationships will face their own unique challenges but for parents, some of those challenges are more predictable. New research has identified the risk factors that can put the relationship between parents under pressure to the point of breakage. By being aware of these risk factors, it’s possible to work towards building the relationship against them.
Research from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the University of Oslo has been able to identify the early signs that a parental relationship might struggle to the point of break up. The study involved more than 500 mothers who were interviewed over a 17 year period after their children were 18 months old.
A number of factors from the early days of parenthood were able to hep predict which couples would eventually break up:
Parents who criticised each other were more likely to separate before their children reached 8 years old. In any relationship, criticism will undermine the intimacy, trust and respect within the relationship. It will breed insecurity and resentment and it will slowly but surely destroy your connection. Otherwise it’s fine.
[bctt tweet=”Parents who criticised each other were more likely to separate before their children reached 8 years old.”]
Maternal age and financial stress:
Earlier breakups were also related to younger maternal age, financial stress and other pressures related to housing, employment and health.
Couples who experienced ongoing strain related to child care when the children were 18 months old were more likely to breakup when the children were between 8 and 18 years old.
Couples who received little support from each other were more likely to breakup at any time throughout the entire period. No surprises there.
Teenagers – no problem unless …
Teenagers didn’t increase conflict between the parents unless the parents were already battling it out. For couples who experienced an average level of conflict, having teenagers did not significantly increase levels of conflict for most parents. Couples who conflicted more before their children became teenagers were at risk of experiencing higher conflict when their children reach their teen years.
Some of these issues can’t be helped, but the relationship can be strengthened against the effects of them.
We only have a limited amount of time, attention and emotional energy. When kids come into the relationship, giving them what they need can leave little left over for each other. This is very normal and it’s probably something we don’t talk about enough. Though the love and affection might always be there, it’s so easy to take each other for granted.
The quiet temptation is to wait for ‘one day when the kids are older’ to start looking after each other and spending quality time together, the idea being that then there’ll be plenty of energy, attention and affection to heap on to each other. The problem is that often, by the time that day comes, there has been too much of a slipping away, leaving the relationship thin, brittle and without enough emotional resources to give either person what they need anymore.
It’s okay to struggle – so okay. And it’s normal. Is there a relationship on the planet that hasn’t? Not likely. Being aware of the signs can cue deliberate action with a view to strengthening the relationship. This can mean being more intentional with the relationship, or being open to seeking some sort of supportive scaffolding for the relationship if you need it, whether that’s by way of counselling, babysitting or family support.
Research shows that healthier marriages lead to happier families and happier kids. The stronger your relationship, the happier you are and the better you’ll be for those around you, especially your children. It makes sense.
Here are some ways to look after your relationship when you have kids on board:
The deliberate 20.
Find at least 20 minutes each day to talk to each other face to face. It’s a good one to be deliberate about – it will make a difference. You don’t have to tell me how difficult it can be to find 20 minutes – especially if you have little ones and sleep feels like it something that other people do – but think of it as an investment in your relationship. You’ll be grateful for it one day (and so will your children).
Chores: They have to be done, may as well get something lovely out of it.
There are always chores that have to be done but if you can do them together, and be deliberate about talking with each other while you do them, it can feel like time together. Steal the moments when you can – anything is better than nothing.
Date. If you can’t get out of the house, there’s always in-house.
Commit to going on a date at least once a month. Even if you don’t feel like it when it comes around go anyway – you’ll always be grateful you did. At the end of a busy day, getting dressed up enough to leave the house can feel like a massive stretch, but the effort will always be worth it. (A confession though – I love dressing up – I really do, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can’t think of anything worse, so there have been times when I’ve initiated a date to a car park, to eat drive-through from the car. I may have done this more than once, so no judgement from me if getting out of your trackies and slapping on some mascara feels like it has a level of difficulty that’s equivalent to neurosurgery.)
More than anything else, it’s about giving all of your attention to each other for a while. Wherever and however that happens doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it does happen.
If babysitting is difficult, try an in-house date – feed your little tribe, settle them to bed or to something that will keep them happy for a while and share a meal, talk, drink wine, hold hands and enjoy each other. (When they’re older, your kids will love that you did this.)
Pay attention to the good.
What you notice is what will become important. The more you can deliberately pay attention to the good, the less power the annoying things will have to ruin you. Practice gratitude. At the end of the day, think of three things you appreciate about your partner. Research has shown this to be powerful.
The Magic Ratio
There’s a magic ratio in relationships that happy couples practice, even if they don’t realise it: For every negative interaction, they have at least five positive ones. Research has shown that for every negative comment or behaviour, there needs to be at least five positive ones to balance things up again. It doesn’t take much – touching your partner’s back as you pass him or her, saying ‘I love you’. The consistent little things matter – often more than the now-and-then big things.
It’s one of the most intimate things you can do. It takes a deliberate effort though, mainly because when you have young children, and it’s any time near bed time, sleep will clamour for you like it owns you.
All relationships will come with their challenges and all relationships go through periods of struggle. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, a perfect parent or a perfect partner. Remember that your relationship doesn’t have to be a perfect one – or even close to perfect – to be the right one.