The Family Fix: Are Kids Ruining Your Marriage?

April 26, 2002 -- Before they had kids, Kathi and Greg Scearce were not just husband and wife, but best friends, they say. They thought raising children would bring them even closer — but they foundthe opposite was true.

Now they rarely go out as a couple. They haven't spent a night away together in 12 years. In fact, they barely seem to interact at all, except when it's about the kids, Marie, 10 and Olivia, 4.

Mare and Joe Rivera tell a similar story to ABCNEWS' John Stossel. Before they had kids, they spent a lot of time writing songs together. But they haven't since they had 6-year-old Layla and 3-year-old Jesse, who want to be with their parents all the time. If Mare and Joe simply want to sit next to each other, the kids try to squeeze in between.

Like many couples, Joe and Mare miss the closeness, spontaneity and the sex they had before they became parents. The couple say they now have to make "appointments" for sex every few weeks. "Now it's a big, huge arrangement that's just so much work that it's not even worth it," said Mare.

According to William Doherty, a family therapist and author of Take Back Your Marriage: Sticking Together in a World That Pulls Us Apart, 70 percent of couples become less satisfied with their marriage and their sex lives after they become parents.

"After we have children for most of us our energy begins to drain out of the marriage relationship unless we put something back in," he said. "If we're married we simply must give some time and attention to the marriage if we want it to survive."

The Riveras and the Scearces grew so frustrated at how their kids were imposing on their relationships that they agreed to let 20/20 put cameras in their homes, in the hope that Doherty's advice would help them rekindle some of the passion and the romance they used to feel.

When Lovers Become Strangers

The footage showed that Joe and Mare had to practically beg their children to let them sit alone together. Getting a night out together involved a negotiation. At night, the children refused to sleep in their own beds, often falling asleep on the sofa, denying their parents any time alone.

"I want all the family to be together — not just you and Daddy," their daughter Layla told them.

Greg and Kathi also seemed to be consumed by their kids. Almost every conversation was about them, they always helped them with homework, and little time was left to nourish their relationship with each other. After the kids went to sleep, Kathi went to the piano, and Greg to the exercise machine. They then wound down in different rooms, with Kathi usually going to bed long before Greg without even kissing her husband goodnight. (Kathi said she doesn't want him to think she's got anything on her mind other than getting sleep at that point.)

Both couples said they want the romance back — but they are concerned that spending time on their marriage will shortchange their children.

An Expert’s Advice

Doherty described Joe and Mare as devoted parents, but said they were "overfeeding their children and starving their marriage." By spending so much time with their children, he said, they neglect the relationship that created their family.

But both couples, said Doherty, can begin to take back their marriages by doing simple things.

"Children can learn to respect their parents' time," he said, so parents should insist on having one date a week. "Children, like most of us, get accustomed to that which is inevitable."

Second, Doherty recommends going to bed together, even if you're not going to have sex or if one of you isn't ready to go to sleep.

"Going to bed together creates the opportunity for physical contact, as well as emotional contact," he said.

Kathi and Greg should start kissing goodnight, he suggested, even if they have to make a pact that it need not lead to more.

"Wouldn't it be nice to kiss each other goodnight and say 'I love you' at the end of the day?" he said.

Finally, Doherty suggested the couples set 15 minutes aside every night to talk without the kids around.

"If you have 15 minutes a day of friendship, conversation in which you're not talking about the bills and you're not talking about the kids' schedules, but just visiting with each other like a good friend, that would sustain a lot of marriages."

Two Weeks Later

Did his advice make a difference? After heeding Doherty's advice for two weeks, the couples checked back in with 20/20.

Kathi and Greg were firm that the kids leave them alone every night for 15 minutes. They even used a timer. At first, they said, their conversation was awkward. But gradually, it got easier.

Joe and Mare changed their lives too, getting firmer with the kids. Instead of asking the kids if they could go out, they told them what they were doing. They now have a date once a week, and are finding time to work on their music again. Also, the kids are sleeping in their own beds.

"It's a good thing, it's a real good thing," said Joe.