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7 Ways to Put Your Marriage First

The child-centered life is hard on a couple and not so great for the kids. Learn how focusing on your relationship can not only yield a healthier marriage but also happier children.

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On top of all that lavishing, there's a living to earn, a house to tend, errands to run, and still no more than 24 hours in a day because there isn't an app for that (yet). We're left with little time and energy for ourselves, let alone our relationships. Jocelyn Goldberg, 43, a corporate event planner in Boston, recalls a recent night when her 8-year-old had a sleepover at a friend's, and she and her husband had time to themselves. "And what did we do? We roamed around Target, came home, and watched TV in separate rooms," she recalls. "I woke up on the couch and thought, 'I've gone from having a husband to having a roommate. Something's got to change.'"

It doesn't help that wives tend to take on more of the household chores. "When women feel overwhelmed or resent that their husbands aren't doing their share, a desire for sexual intimacy can go out the window," notes Joy Davidson, Ph.D., a New York City sex therapist. Even among egalitarian couples, an exhausting kids-first agenda can leave men and women feeling decidedly unfrisky.

A less obvious effect of this emotional-intimacy deficit: anxious and unhappy kids. "Our studies show that how a couple's relationship is going has an impact on how the kids are doing," says Philip Cowan, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. He's studied families for decades with his wife, psychologist Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D. When parents are so focused on their children that they don't have the time or energy to relate as a couple, he notes, they're more likely to grow discontented. Kids can pick up on the unhappiness and feel insecure about family unity; that anxiety could lead to problems such as depression or aggression. And when adults pour their attention into their children instead of their spouses, the balance of power is skewed. "Kids end up thinking they're the center of the universe," says Code, "and might act selfishly and manipulatively."

So how can two overworked, overtired, overeverythinged parents realistically stay connected and dodge these problems?

  • First rule: Start small. "Don't think, 'We'll change our lives! We'll have date night every single weekend!' Because big shifts like that aren't realistic," says Philip Cowan. Adds Davidson: "The trick is to make the most out of being together and create bubbles of intimacy throughout the day." For example, Jocelyn Goldberg, she of the Target date, now wakes her husband 15 minutes earlier every morning so they can chat over coffee. Other couples report dining à deux after the kids are asleep at least one night a week. "Every now and then on a Saturday night, my husband and I have our own little party," says Diana Tynan, 33, a mom with kids ages 3 and 2 in Maplewood, NJ. "We watch movies, drink beer, play Springsteen albums, stay up too late. It takes off the pressure of parenthood. Suddenly, it's just us again."

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