It’s true that the love you feel for your child is incomparable, but the challenges kids pose to a marriage are well-documented, too. Studies, in fact, show a “happiness penalty” or “happiness gap” for parents versus non-parents, especially in the U.S.
Part of the stress and anxiety around parenthood stems from a lack of infrastructure in the U.S. — we have skimpy governmental resources to support our families, including limited parental leave and expensive childcare costs, which exacerbates our everyday trials and tribulations. The financial burden, conflicting parenting styles, minimal time to spend as a couple, and endless chores can all conspire to strain your relationship. While the stress is real, especially when young children’s needs are impossibly large, there are ways to embrace the madness as a team and come out stronger. Here’s how:
Join forces during a meltdown
The tantrum is the worst assault a small human can inflict on us — worse than dirty diapers or spit-up, which have quick and easy fixes. If there are witnesses beyond you and your partner, it’s even more stressful. (Other people’s eyes on you and your screaming child feels like an automatic judgment on your parenting skills.)
It’s counterintuitive, but don’t fight back. Stay steady and keep a calm, firm voice as your child continues to spiral into momentary madness. If you let it escalate by feeding into the drama, it will increase stress levels all around. “A child will only be as calm as their parents,” Julia Yeary, a clinical social worker at Zero to Three, a nonprofit focused on the development of babies and toddlers, tells Thrive. “If you cannot regulate your own emotions, your child is not going to be able to regulate theirs,” she emphasizes.
If your partner is on the cusp of losing it, Yeary encourages us to give them an out, such as a walk around the block. If they come back and the kid is still mid-meltdown, you should take a walk around the block. “Develop a ‘tag-out’ system or code word/hand signal that you can use,” that immediately signals your need to cool off, Beth Goss, a certified Gottman educator and training specialist for the Bringing Baby Home program at the Gottman Institute, suggests.
Giving each other breaks through the epic cryfest will help preserve your energy (for each other!) and make you feel supported, which will help fortify your bond.
Create small “rituals of connection”
For many couples, the hour or two right before bedtime is the only quality one-on-one time they get in a day. If it gets disrupted by a child’s inability to sleep alone in his or her own bed — a very common and exasperating problem — it can quickly begin to feel like a gulf is growing between the two of you. But small gestures of gratitude and love shared throughout the day go a long way.
“Find ways to be intimate in everyday moments,” Goss says, urging us to create “rituals of connection,” such as a goodbye kiss each morning, holding hands when sitting next to one another, or rubbing one another’s back. Regularly express gratitude for all your spouse does for you and your family, Yeary suggests, whether via text or even an old-fashioned love note, and take a bit off their plate when you can. “Do small things often for each other, like doing the laundry if it’s not usually your chore,” Goss recommends. “These things add up to a positive perspective on the relationship and act as a buffer when things get tough.”
Have adult conversation even while your kid is present
“Look at me!” is the toddler command that beats like a loud drum throughout the day. Because everything is new to them, kids require an inordinate amount of recognition and feedback to gain the confidence they need to navigate the world successfully and independently, but sometimes it can be overwhelming. You need to be able to exist as a unit, even when your kid’s in tow.
“A toddler or preschooler can often feel jealous when parents try to grab minutes together and will purposely interrupt or act out to get their attention back,” Goss says, emphasizing that the fix is all in the parenting. Teach them how to ask for your attention in a non-whiny or disruptive way, such as gently putting their hand on your arm, Goss recommends, and how to respect the conversation you are having by waiting their turn.
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