Has having kids destroyed your sex life? According to William Doherty, who has practiced as a marriage and family therapist for more than two decades, 70 percent of couples become less satisfied with their marriage and their sex lives after becoming parents.
But in his new book, Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart, he offers advice on how to save your marriage from your kids. Following is an excerpt.
Strategies for Not Losing Your Marriage to Your Parenting
I'd like to pull together my suggestions for the tricky task of being terrific parents in a terrific marriage. Making your marriage a priority does not mean neglecting your children. As in the rest of life, it's a matter of balance. But for most of us, the harder side of the see-saw to put weight on is our marriage. Kids are better at advocating for time and attention than we are as spouses.
If you are married, remind yourself repeatedly that your marriage is the foundation of your family and the cornerstone of your children's security. It is primary, not secondary, for everybody's well-being. This is not to say that children cannot prosper in a single-parent family (many do), but that in a married, two-parent family the foundation is the marriage. When it goes sour, the family goes sour. A lot of research on two-parent families shows that good marriages lead to good parenting and that conflicted marriages lead to bad parenting.
Remind yourself repeatedly that your children are apt to be better fighters for their needs — nature has programmed them to be good at getting our attention — than you and your mate are at fighting for the needs of your marriage. You've got to lean toward your marriage in order to have balance between your marriage and your children.
Limit your family's outside activities so that you have two rare elements for today's families: time to hang out as a family and time to hang out as a couple.
Have fixed bedtimes for your children, after which you are off duty and can be alone as a couple.
Don't let your children interrupt every conversation you have. If you really want to finish something, or if one of you needs a supportive listener, feel free to politely ask your children to come back later after you have finished talking. And teach them to ask if they can interrupt.
For some important couple conversations, tell your children that you are going to your bedroom to talk and that you would like them not to interrupt you unless something important happens, such as someone being hurt.
Limit the amount of time you devote to your children's school homework every night. Teachers complain that some well-educated parents do not let their children learn on their own. Unless your child has special learning problems, do not routinely devote your whole evenings to being a tutor, in part because you will have no time to hang out with your spouse.
Carve out private time for yourselves as a couple. Even a 15-minute period is wonderful if you do it every day. This might be over coffee after dinner, as my wife and I have done, or after putting the children to bed. When your children are old enough, you can go for an after-dinner walk around the neighborhood.
Carve out private space. Consider letting your children know that your bedroom is private when your door is closed and that they should knock. This sends the message that there are certain marital things that children do not share in without checking.
Get sitters and go out on regular dates. This is not only good for your relationship, but it also sends your children the message that indeed you are a couple who do special things together: you dress up, look great, and go out for a good time together. Even if they protest, even young children can handle a few hours of separation from their parents. Older children may be glad to be rid of you if they have good babysitters (our children used to suggest we go out so they could see their favorite babysitter), and they will feel more secure because they sense that you enjoy each other's company. Adolescents will be impressed that old-timers like you still date.
Never complain about your spouse to the children. This tells your children that your primary relationship is with them, not with your spouse. Here I am referring to important complaints about your mate's personality or character, not the occasional frustrations, say, about being late or forgetting to turn the lights off.
If you have a heated argument in hearing range of the children (sometimes it's unavoidable), then let them see you be affectionate when you've made up. This helps children know that your relationship is strong enough to recover from anger and misunderstanding, and that you are taking care of your marriage. You can check out with your children if they feel upset about your arguing. During a bedtime talk, I once asked my daughter, when she was about age seven, if she felt upset when she heard her mother and me argue. I will never forget her reply: "No, it doesn't bother me, because I know you are not going to get a divort." (That was her word for "divorce.") I told her she was right about that.
When your children are old enough, and if you can afford it, get away for an occasional weekend together without the children. This is a way to revive your marriage.
Be open with your children about what you are doing for your marriage, and why you are doing it. You don't have to give lectures, but make sure your children know that you are setting limits on attention and availability for them because you love each other and want to make sure you stay close. Your explanations, of course, will be different for children at different levels of development, but all children past the toddler stage can understand that you like each other and like to be alone and do things together sometimes. With adolescents, there are moments when you can quietly share your philosophy of marriage. I have with my kids.
From Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart, by William J. Doherty, PhD (Guilford Press). Posted with permission of The Guilford Press, (C) Copyright 2001.