Nurturing Your Relationship

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Every Valentine’s Day, I choose a card for my husband: sometimes silly, sometimes serious and sometimes homemade. The card itself doesn’t matter. What charms me is his reaction when he opens it and the opportunity it provides to tell him how much he means to me, even after eight years of marriage, three children, two jobs and a goofy, yellow dog snoring at our feet

A lot of ink is devoted to the subject of love. We’ve provided some practical tips from well-known people, parents and experts on how to make it last, especially through the changes of parenthood.

“Ultimately the bond of all companionship, whether in marriage or in friendship, is conversation”. — Oscar Wilde

Durham parents Matt and Ann Barnes have been married for 10 years and have two small children. However, they still schedule time to talk every night. The Barnes give their kids a last-chance play time of 30 minutes, after which the kids need to clean up their toys. Naturally, the children scamper away.

“This allows time for Ann and I to have a glass of wine and to talk, without interruption, about the day’s events or whatever is on our minds,” Barnes says. He thinks this is particularly important because his wife, a stay-at-home mom, doesn’t have much chance to talk with adults during her average day.

He also appreciates these windows of time with his wife because they are consistent. “It is nice because it works most evenings so it is a sure thing, so to speak, unlike our attempts to have a regularly scheduled ‘date night,’” Barnes says.

“People shop for a bathing suit with more care than they do a husband or wife. The rules are the same. Look for something you’ll feel comfortable wearing. Allow for room to grow.” — Erma Bombeck

Before adding kids to the mix, it’s easy to imagine that a steamy relationship will stay that way. While still childless, couples may think things will immediately get back on track post-baby. Experienced parents know that the lifestyle change in those early days is shocking, and it takes teamwork to make it through.

Researchers at the University of Virginia confirmed this in a study of more than 100 first-time, postpartum parents. Most participating mothers and fathers were worried about issues pertaining to the quality of intimacy post-baby. The study, published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine in January 2007, found that one-third of parents had persistent concerns about “child-rearing differences with spouse, greater desire by the man than the woman, and the mother’s body image” after one year postpartum.

Accepting that a relationship is going to change and realizing that partners need to be understanding during the postpartum period are important. The bottom line is that marriage is different post-kids, and it takes both partners’ understanding to get to a comfortable place.

“It’s really hard, and it’s definitely not the same post-baby for a lot longer than we’d expected,” says Chapel Hill mom Kelly Reynolds.

Reynolds had thought her husband and she would be the same in very little time after each of their two daughters were born. She learned otherwise. The path to feeling like herself and working out the post-baby kinks took considerably longer than she had imagined.

“It takes time to establish a new normal,” Reynolds says. “Somewhere around the year mark after both girls, I started to feel comfortable with everything again — with the home/work balance, with us as a family and with myself as a person.”

“Husbands are like fires. They go out if unattended.” — Zsa Zsa Gabor

With the responsibilities that accompany children, it’s easy to take a spouse for granted or feel too tired to focus on the marital relationship. However, psychologist Susan Orenstein, Ph.D., who practices in Chapel Hill and Cary, stresses the importance of devoting this energy.

“In the first few years, you are dealing with physical exhaustion, difficulty getting a full night’s sleep, frequent interruptions. It is difficult to have time, let alone the impetus, for romance. It is important that the new parents make time to be together and keep the fires kindling,” says Orenstein, who specializes in marital therapy and healthy family relationships.

In fact, couples who have young children frequently allow intimacy to take a back seat in their relationship. “Research shows that compared to couples married the same number of years, couples with young children have less sexual activity and more dissatisfaction in their marriage than those without children,” Orenstein says.

Parents may devote so much energy to their kids that their relationship with each other suffers. But is intimacy important? According to Orenstein, having an intimate relationship is a gift that parents can give their children.

“It is important for the intimacy of the couple to be healthy, not only for the sake of the marriage, but also for the children,” she says, adding, “The parents need to model a good relationship to instruct the children, and also need to be a team separated from and in charge of the children.”

Sandy Silverman, a Hillsborough mother of two, believes in devoting specific time to her and her husband’s relationship. “We have date nights at home. Kids go to bed, we watch a movie or have a nice dinner for two, and go to bed early and together,” she says.

Like many parents, Silverman and her husband have found themselves attempting to accomplish many chores after the kids go to bed. Silverman found this led to staggered bedtimes with one spouse fast asleep before the other found his or her way to the pillow.

After instituting the never-miss date night, she and her husband ensured they headed to bed hand in hand. Knowing they would “end the day together once a week is a lovely thing,” Silverman says.

“The Eskimos have 52 words for snow because it is so special to them; there ought to be as many for love!” — Margaret Atwood

Sometimes the key to nurturing a relationship is evaluating what is negatively impacting it. Wake Forest working mom Marla Mills-Wilson found that late hours on the job were troubling her husband and affecting their relationship. When she changed jobs and focused on getting home in timely manner, she noticed a change in her husband’s attitude and happiness.

Along with positive actions, like those of Mills-Wilson, Orenstein recommends adding compliments to everyday interactions. “Words of acknowledgement and appreciation can also go far, and not just once in a while. Make a practice of adding positively to the marriage on a daily basis,” she says.

For truly special time with your spouse, reach out to local family members, if that is an option. Mills-Wilson accepts support from family members to ensure she and her husband get designated time together as a couple.

“My in-laws have our 4-year-old son one weekend a month. This weekend without our precious one is ‘Mommy and Daddy’ time to concentrate on each other. We also find that limiting television and movies are a must because these activities limit our time to talk to each other,” she says.

“We’ve got this gift of love, but love is like a precious plant. You can’t just accept it and leave it in the cupboard or just think it’s going to get on by itself. You’ve got to keep watering it. You’ve got to really look after it and nurture it.” — John Lennon

Refocusing on the elements of the relationship that were important when you became a couple is even more important for parents. In terms of initiating intimacy, particularly for new parents, Orenstein offers some advice.

First, for both partners, focus on gestures of affection and appreciation. “The husband can be a partner with household chores and child care. He can initiate date night and can arrange for a babysitter. Surprises like breakfast in bed or letting his wife sleep in and gestures of affection will help keep the intimacy and romance alive in the relationship,” Orenstein says.

For wives who want to ensure their marriage stays fresh, Orenstein believes the same advice she gives to husbands is relevant. She also feels wives need to maintain their own sense of self-confidence, including attractiveness and sensuality. Moms tend to focus so much energy on their home and children, they find their own commitments to healthy eating, exercise and looking their best can take a back seat, which can compromise their sense of self-worth and beauty.

“Women can get in touch with their sensual and sexual side in various ways, for example enjoying a hot bubble bath, wearing special lingerie, getting a pedicure or taking a dance class,” Orentstein says.

For couples who feel their connection really is broken, Orenstein recommends seeking professional help. “If the couple starts avoiding each other, or if there is frequent sarcasm or yelling, the couple could benefit from direction on effective communication,” Orenstein advises.

Other signs that a relationship needs professional help include detrimental behaviors like turning to food, alcohol or drugs to cope. And, of course, if a member of the relationship is seeking validation or intimacy from a third party, a specialist in marital counseling is probably needed.

“A therapist specializing in couple’s therapy can provide a safe place for partners to clear up misunderstandings, heal past hurt, and discover ways to add positivity to their daily interactions,” Orenstein says.

Ultimately, Valentine’s Day is a special time to focus on the person with whom we started this journey into parenthood: our spouse. Tonight, after the kids are in bed, consider avoiding the computer, the TV, and that monster-sized pile of laundry. Instead, spend a little quality time with your spouse. How do you do it? Well, like the Valentine’s Day card you buy for your spouse, that’s up to you.

Robin Whitsell is a mother of three living in Chapel Hill. Her husband plans Valentine’s Day, which typically includes a dinner out, a glass of wine, dressing nicely and no kids.

Categories: Family, Family Ties, For You, Home, Relationships, Style, Work-Life