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Noel Janis-Norton
Taking Care of Your Couple Relationship
by Noel Janis-Norton (Learning and Behaviour Specialist)

In long-term couple relationships both partners tend to gradually narrow the range of the activities they do together, the topics they talk about together, and the ways they show affection for each other. Research tells us that they even narrow the range of the types of clothing they wear and the language they use. This is known as being ‘in a rut’.

On top of that, once children arrive, it is easy to drift into the habit of almost all conversation and activities revolving around the children’s needs or wants. Before you know it, parents have become a ‘C.R.U.’. That stands for ‘child-rearing unit’. In a child-rearing unit each partner is relating to the children and thinking about the children more than they are relating to and thinking about the couple relationship.

This is an easy trap for parents to fall into, but it has dire consequences. The adults in this situation are not getting some very important needs met: needs for partnership, companionship, appreciation and approval, understanding, romantic excitement and sexual intimacy. I am not suggesting for a moment that all long-term relationships end up in a complete emotional desert where none of these needs are being met! What I am saying is that without putting time, thought and specific action into fostering and enhancing the couple relationship, a lot of the satisfaction and joy is likely to get lost, especially once a couple have children.

Particularly for mothers, it is all too easy to put so much emotional focus on the children that one’s partner and hobbies and friends fade into the background. This is not a healthy state of affairs. For one thing, if you have lost the habit of reaching out to your partner or your friends, they may not be available, or inclined, to support you when you most need them.

Another unfortunate result of putting most of our emotional focus on our children is that we become too easily upset when little things go wrong with our children - and little things do go wrong, every single day. We then tend to judge our worth by what our children are doing and how they are doing it.

This leads to various forms of stress: anxiety, annoyance, frustration, sometimes even fury or despair. And when we’re in the grip of these uncomfortable or even painful emotions, we’re no good to anyone, not to our children, not to our partner, not to ourselves.

Stress brings out the worst in everyone. When you are feeling stressed, your least-delightful habits and characteristics will gradually get worse, and so will your partner’s. A vicious circle is set spinning: resentments and misunderstandings mount up, and communication between the partners becomes tense and strained, which leads to more resentments and misunderstandings and then to even more tension.

As parents we need to learn how to keep our emotional balance so that life’s daily little problems don’t become magnified out of proportion. We need to practise focusing on enjoying the little good things that each day brings. One important way to do this is to cultivate our adult relationships and our own interests.

Many books and articles have been written about how couples can communicate better. Often the emphasis in those books, and also in much counselling and therapy, is on the couple learning to express their resentments honestly to each other. Sometimes this can be helpful, especially if it leads to problem-solving.

But you have probably noticed that expressing resentments does not automatically make them evaporate! Telling our partner how annoyed we are that yet again they left their wet towel on the bed does not help us to remember that we also have faults; it does not help us to empathise with the human failings that we all have. Expressing our resentments can come across as nagging, which gets the other person’s back up, and that can lead to pointless arguing and blaming. In fact, airing our grievances can lead to even more conflict. So I would like to suggest a completely different way of improving the couple relationship.

You have probably experienced that the more positive and the more interesting your daily conversations with your partner are, the less stressed you both feel. And of course this has a beneficial effect on your parenting as well. When you are less stressed you remember to smile more at your children and praise them more, you are calmer when something goes wrong, you feel more emotionally equipped to follow through on rules and routines, rather than giving in to pleas or turning a blind eye to misbehaviour.

The strategy I am about to propose is all about arranging to spend enjoyable time with your partner more often. Remember back in the old days, when you and your partner were going out on dates? When we were on a date, usually we made an extra effort to look nice, we made an effort to be in a good mood, we made a point of talking about things that we thought would be of interest to the other person, and we made an effort to really listen to the other person. Often a dating couple make a deliberate choice to do interesting activities as well. So here is a tried and tested, guaranteed, sure-fire way to put zing and zest and excitement and appreciation back into your couple relationship:

Nightly mini-dates

Set aside a half-hour for a mini-date every evening that you are both home, right after the children are in bed. Do this before you do the washing up or tidy away the toys or send that important email or watch the evening news.

During this sacred half-hour the two of you will be doing something together that you both enjoy - that’s not in front of a screen. When parents decide to take my advice about these mini-dates, they start re-discovering activities that they had forgotten they enjoyed, such as Scrabble or chess, playing cards, going for walks together, reading to each other, dancing, singing, showering together, cooking or doing the washing-up together, telling jokes and funny anecdotes, looking at family photo albums, talking about the history of each of their families, sitting on the sofa listening to music together, or just cuddling. The reason for the no-screens rule during this special half-hour is that you need to be relating to each other, and screens often get in the way of relating.

Of course, when you and your partner are alone together, one or both of you will probably be tempted to talk about the children or about what needs to be fixed around the house or about the problems you are having at work. But for this special half-hour mini-date, you need to discipline yourselves not to talk about the children or about anything that feels remotely like a problem. During this special half-hour, the purpose is just to enjoy being with each other as a couple.

(Of course every family has its problems, large or small, and these do need to be addressed and resolved, or at least improved. In Chapter Four, pages 116 – 122 of my book, ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’, I share with readers a way to approach problems which leads rapidly to real solutions. This innovative strategy, called a ‘solution talk’, is very effective, even when you use it to tackle issues that have plagued the family or the relationship for years.)

Sometimes a client confides in me that the couple have drifted so far apart over the years that they can no longer think of anything they would enjoy doing together. It may seem like the two of you no longer have much in common, other than your children and your house. That’s often the result of focusing on resentments and problems. You haven’t been prioritising the sharing of enjoyable activities.

If that is the case, when you commit to the nightly mini-dates, at first you may feel awkward and tense with each other. But be brave and persevere. Quite soon you will notice that you are starting to feel better about each other. You will find yourselves looking forward to this problem-free half-hour. That’s what happens when you focus on enjoying each other’s company.

Sometimes one parent may be so full of resentments about the other that they don’t even want to experiment with this strategy. They’re too angry. They don’t even want to be in the same room with the other parent if they can help it. A parent may feel as if there’s no way back from all the hurts and misunderstandings and strain between the couple. That may be the case, but in my experience it is very rare.

Over the years, many couples have been on the brink of separation when they first came to our Centre for advice. These parents later told me that the nightly half-hour dates enabled them to reconnect with the positive aspects of the couple relationship. So this strategy is definitely worth a try, even if you are convinced that your relationship is beyond improving.

Often parents complain that they couldn’t commit to these nightly date half-hours because by the time the children are in bed, the parents are so worn out that they don’t have the energy to do anything except zone out in front of the television.

Let’s remember that for most of us tiredness at the end of the day is not the result of physical exhaustion. Most of us are not digging ditches for a living. That too-familiar tired feeling often stems from a combination of rushing, over-scheduling ourselves and our children, putting up with our children’s rudeness or lack of cooperation, worry - and not carving out enough downtime for ourselves. (In my ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ series of books for parents I explain how we can make our lives calmer, easier, and happier by guiding our children into the habits of cooperation, consideration and self-reliance.)

Giving yourself and your partner the gift every evening of this half-hour mini-date will actually make you feel less exhausted, not necessarily within the first week but certainly within a few weeks. At first you may need to force yourselves to have your mini-dates, even when you don’t feel like it. After all, we expect our children and teens to do their homework and their chores, even when they are tired or don’t feel like it. We should not expect more from our children than we expect from ourselves.

Now you may be thinking that you would be delighted to devote a half-hour each evening to rekindling your relationship with your partner, but you may be worrying that this would be in some way selfish. You can think of lots of important or urgent tasks that you really should be tackling during that half-hour. It may help to allay your guilt if you remember that this half-hour date is not just for you and not just for your partner, but also for your children. Parents who consistently spend enjoyable time alone together after the children are asleep are re-fuelling their emotional tanks, replenishing their inner resources. As a result, they soon feel calmer and happier. Consequently these parents smile more and do less nagging and telling off and shouting. They enjoy their children more.

Parents universally report that these nightly mini-dates reawaken in each of them the affection and appreciation for their partner that over the years had been shoved further and further out of their daily thoughts. One result is that parents often end up spending longer than a half-hour together. And these mini-dates become a treasured time, something that parents look forward to all day long.

 

Weekly Date Nights

In addition to the daily half-hour date with your partner, make sure to have a date night once a week, away from the house and away from the children. This will go a long way towards reducing the stress levels in your relationship and to improving your mood, your patience and your resilience, all of which will positively impact your parenting.

There is nothing controversial about the idea of weekly date nights. Every relationship counsellor recommends this strategy for improving couple communication. But by the time a couple seeks counselling, the relationship may be so tense that one or both of the partners no longer even want to spend time together. So think of your weekly date nights as a kind of ‘marriage insurance’. With any kind of insurance, you have to keep up the payments in order to keep getting the benefit. For one evening every week you will be spending several consecutive hours re-investing in your relationship. Together you are building a storehouse of lovely shared memories. And the weekly date nights give you something interesting and fun and maybe even exciting to look forward to all week long, when life’s little, or big, problems seem to be threatening to suck you under.

If money is tight, you can hire a sitter and then go and do something that is free or very inexpensive. You can go for a walk or for a drive. You can go sightseeing in your own city or go to a late-night exhibition at a museum or to a local concert. If you cannot afford a sitter, you can swap child-minding with another family. And in a pinch, you can even have your weekly date night at home on occasion, devoting several hours to having a special evening together, focusing on enjoying each other's company.

For maximum benefit, most weeks the date night should be just you and your partner, not socialising with friends, although it works to combine the two in one evening. For example, you could have dinner out by yourselves and then join your friends later for an activity.

You may be reluctant to commit to weekly date nights for several reasons. Perhaps you feel that you don’t see enough of your children as it is. Maybe your children are dependent on you being the person who puts them to bed. The solution to both of these problems is the same: put the children to bed slightly earlier than usual and go out for your weekly date night after they are asleep. You will have a shorter evening out, but you will still be getting the benefit of your weekly date.

You may have a child who makes a big fuss at bedtime, and you don’t trust any sitter to know how to deal with the tantrums. The solution I recommend for this problem is to learn and practise the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ strategies that I explain in my books. You will get back in charge, and bedtime battles will no longer be a problem.

I also recommend that you plan special nights together, either going out or staying in, for all those special occasions that may be meaningful to one or both partners, such as birthdays, anniversaries, Valentine’s Day, religious or cultural holidays. And of course it’s lovely to create a surprise for your partner, a special time together that happens on the spur of the moment, when it’s least expected.

The purpose of these weekly dates with your partner is to invest in the couple relationship, to make the relationship stronger and happier. But you may be feeling that your relationship is fine and therefore you don’t need to do all this. But I am not talking here only about dysfunctional relationships that need to be fixed or saved. I am also talking about enhancing an already good relationship so that there are fewer irritations and resentments, and consequently much less stress. One result of these partner dates is that you will both be better equipped to plan together, clearly and carefully, how to deal positively, firmly and consistently with your children's issues and challenges. And you will have the emotional strength to follow through on those plans - calmly, cheerfully and with determination.

Your children's lives will be calmer, easier and happier because you and your partner will be feeling calmer, easier and happier. Not only will your entire family experience the stress-reduction benefits I have already mentioned, but your children will benefit in other ways as well. From your example they will see how important it is to nurture relationships, and they will be learning how to nurture relationships. This may well be the most important thing we can teach our children.

 

Single parents

For parents who do not have partners, these nightly and weekly dates are just as important, possibly more so because you may not be getting any time away from your children or your responsibilities, unless you make a point of scheduling it. Commit to devoting a half-hour each evening and one evening every week to enjoying yourself. You will feel the benefit, and so will your children.

Sometimes single parents have lost the confidence to socialise so at first you may need to force yourself to go on the weekly dates, either by yourself or with a friend. These dates provide a perfect opportunity to make new friendships and deepen old ones, to experiment with new activities and experiences. Quite soon you will find yourself becoming more confident and enjoying life more.

You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’ resources and services can help you or your family, please browse our website or email: admin@calmerparenting.co.uk

We offer support materials (books, articles and audio CDs), parenting courses, workshops, private consultations (by Skype), family sessions, home visits, school visits and free introductory talks. For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher-training. Noel and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

This content is the intellectual property of ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting’. We are happy for you to forward or print this document as long as it is always reproduced in its entirety.

© Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting 2014 All Rights Reserved
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