If you’re one of those loving couples who planned to have children, but now that they’re here you can’t understand why your relationship seems to be falling to bits, know this: you are not alone. As many as 39% of relationships end within the first five years of parenthood. It needn’t be like that. Parenthood is difficult, but it shouldn’t be a glum struggle. My experience of being a parent and of helping parents in my counselling practice has taught me there are a few common reasons why relationships stop working when children come along. Perhaps you see the problems in your relationship as impossible to solve. Happily, that conclusion is probably wrong but it takes effort in the right direction for things to change. Albert Einstein is anecdotally credited with saying that everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler. That philosophy certainly holds true for parenting: it is difficult, but there are some simple, practical steps that you can take to put in place a framework to help your relationship improve. Do these things, and you might find that the quality of your relationship naturally improves:
1.Accept how much you have changed. Many people do not acknowledge just how much they change when children come along. When you have a child, your whole identity and your purpose in life are altered. Now you are Mummy or Daddy. Now, one of your primary tasks is raising your child(ren). No longer are you mostly invested in looking after yourself. Now, you find yourself putting your children’s needs alongside your own, or even above them.
2.Make time to talk. Many people do not make time to talk openly and honestly about their feelings, needs and aspirations for the future. “But we don’t have time!” it the usual retort. That’s why you need to make time. Temporarily put down the games console, the smartphone, the tablet, the latest novel, etc and make time. Even half an hour a week can be enough.
3.Make time for yourselves. Make sure that each parent gets some alone-time during the week. Don’t leave everything up to one parent – that’s a recipe for exhaustion and burnout. Find what works best for you. For example, you could share bath and bedtime duty. One of you could take the children out while the other relaxes – and vice-versa. Find out where your local playgroups are and alternately take your children there to give the other a break.
4.Discover your shared goals. A problem closely related to the second point above is that people sometimes have children to try and fix pre-existing problems in the relationship. The nine months of pregnancy can seem like a second honeymoon; al l your attention is happily turned towards preparing for the new arrival, but ongoing problems in the relationship are eclipsed by the shared goal of having children. Stark as it may seem, unless the underlying problems are addressed, there is little hope for the future of your relationship. One of the major causes of relationship break-ups is that each partner wants different things in life. Having children can compound the problem even further. That’s why regularly taking time to talk to each other is so important.
5.Be reliable. Have a routine. Stick to it. Delegate tasks between you and do them. Be responsible. Children need to feel safe and having a routine is an effective way to achieve that. It will make life less stressful for you, too. Identify the things that take up most time and find practical strategies to make things easier. For example, doing the weekly shop with small children in a packed supermarket on a Saturday morning is nobody’s idea of fun. Instead, you could plan your family’s menu for the week and get your shopping delivered – most of the major supermarkets provide that service nowadays and it takes all the stress out of shopping.
6.Be a model for how you want your children to behave. Our children hold up mirrors to us. They learn through us, they entirely rely on us to show them how to navigate life’s vicissitudes and solve problems. Whatever we do, they do, regardless of what we might want them to do. For example, do you want your children to handle disagreements calmly while you get angry and loud when things don’t go your way? Guess what your children are going to do when things don’t go their way ...
7.Communicate openly, clearly and honestly. This applies to the way you talk to your partner and your children. If you generally blame your partner when things go wrong, or if you routinely argue, then your children will learn to blame others and argue. Tell each other how you really feel. Own your feelings rather than blaming the other. When you feel angry, sad, frustrated, etc, admit it to yourself and tell your partner.
8.Accept that difficulty is a normal part of life. Nobody is a saint. Nobody is perfect. Losing your temper with those you love most is normal. Getting stressed, worried, angry, sad, being emotionally unavailable, etc, is normal. Accept it and move on. When you can’t move on, remind yourself that the situation won’t last forever. Remember: this too shall pass. Don’t ruminate on it. Don’t hide your emotions from your children. Your children need to know that you are resilient, that you can get through problems. Nevertheless, this advice comes with one very important caveat: do not blame your children for your emotions. Are you having a bad day? Well, it’s your bad day. It’s not your child’s fault. Tell your child you’re having a bad day, but don’t blame them for it.
9.Agree house rules. Does one of you let the children climb all over the furniture while the other tells them off for it? Does one of you insist on good table manners, while the other plays around with food for the amusement of the children? If you don’t agree on a set of house rules, your children will feel confused and you will find yourself fighting with your partner. You will undermine and demoralise each other. Identify the areas where you disagree on parenting strategies and work out a compromise together. It will make the whole family calmer and happier in the long run.
10.Don’t sweat the small stuff. Keeping a sense of proportion and perspective is essential for happy family life. Got a parking ticket or a speeding fine? Pay it, take the hit, move on. Don’t dwell on it. Worried what someone thinks of you? Unless you’ve genuinely wronged them, then they’re probably not thinking of you at all. Don’t let them live rent free in your head. In general, we are really good at finding 1001 ways of spoiling our enjoyment of the present moment. Get out of your own way!
11.Be affectionate and playful. Humans are naturally tactile, affectionate and playful. One of the best ways of connecting with your partner and children is to literally, physically connect with them. Compliment each other. Remember anniversaries. Be considerate and mindful of others’ needs. Show your love in words and deeds. Give hugs and cuddles often and you will smile more.
I fully appreciate that everything I’ve described above is all very well in theory, but that consistently putting it into practice may be much harder. Remember that as your children grow, so you too with change and grow. If you find yourself getting stuck in familiar destructive patterns of relationship no matter how hard you try to improve them, then counselling as a couple or individually might help you find new and effective ways of changing.
9th August 2017