An Interview with Dr. Pamela Varady
Before kids, Sunday mornings were spent lazily sipping coffee and reading the paper in bed, followed by a nice brunch out at our favorite café. Sundays now? With eight-year-old twins and a whirlwind of weekend activities we’re out of bed by 7, wolfing breakfast and out the door. Then it’s either off to a soccer field, play date or shopping for a last minute birthday gift. Ah, romance… Is it possible to maintain a connected, loving relationship with your spouse once children come along? Good question! Dr. Pamela Varady shares tips on how to keep the flame alive and strengthen your family in the process. — Christine Ecklund, Vice President of Production, TMC
How do relationships change once couples become parents?
One of the most significant changes after children come along is the one almost never discussed, which is how we feel loved. Before having kids you may have felt loved if your husband brought you flowers or complimented you on a new dress. Now that you are a parent and probably desperate for a break, what feels like love would be something that a) recognizes how hard you are working with the kids and b) serves to relieve your stress. Something like, “Honey, I know how much you’re doing, let me take the kids to the park for a few hours so you can rest.” Also, anytime our spouse puts love in our kids’ emotional bank we, in turn, also tend to feel loved. So, the how you feel loved has changed since you’ve become a parent, but your spouse might still be showing love either the way they‘d like it, or the way they successfully showed it to you before you had kids. They may be understandably puzzled as to why it’s not working now. Another change is less time, less money, less sleep. Sleep deprivation can cause great strain on the marriage of new, nervous parents and is one of the greatest causes of marital dissatisfaction after children.
Why do our kids need us to have a good marriage?
Our healthy marriage helps our kids feel secure and increases the odds for a healthy attachment of their own one day. A good marriage is filled with warmth, open communication, and protection from emotional wounds. It teaches our children how to resolve conflict, to care for another human being, to be affectionate, have a sense of humor, to compliment, apologize, and to be socially intelligent. Kids are watching our marriage, learning so much by what we model. We want to show them now that one day they can have this too. How can we teach them to be in a relationship if we look like two squabbling kids? Think about how you are modeling conflict resolution, empathy, and kindness. And ask, would you want your child to be in this marriage?
Are there types of parenting that are particularly hazardous to a good marriage?
Yes, over-parenting or “helicopter parenting.” Basically, if you’re over-involved with your child, there’s a good chance you are under-involved with your marriage. Being child focused and putting them first, is a great improvement from the emotional neglect of earlier generations, but it must include being brought up in the context of a solid, warm marriage. The harmful outcome of helicopter parenting is low self-esteem for our kids and emotionally distant marriages for parents. Over-parenting can undermine your child’s strength and leave them developmentally stunted. My own natural impulse is to jump in and smooth things over for my sons. I want them to be happy. But letting them figure it out on their own sometimes is good parenting and a vote of confidence in their abilities that also frees me up to spend more time with their father.
What are some of the most common parental situations that lead to diminished marital satisfaction and/or distance after having kids? How can they be avoided?
Not feeling loved because our needs have changed, an intolerance of differing parenting styles, (including different levels of parental participation), plus a lack of understanding the essential ingredients of conflict resolution leads to marital dissatisfaction after kids.
Changing Needs: Instead of criticism and complaints, state what you need and come up with concrete ways your partner can give it to you. Men especially appreciate concrete requests. The requests should not be made in an angry tone otherwise it seems controlling. So for example, instead of saying, “You never give me a break!,” state what you need: “It would mean a lot to me if you could take the baby out today for 3 hours so I can rest.” Then you can go on to say, “After I’m rested I would like to hear what you need to feel loved by me.”
Parenting Styles: Most mothers want their husbands to invest more time in the children and many husbands believe their wives are giving too much attention to the kids. If we don’t accept some of these biologically rooted gender differences then we will be resentful and create distance. Whenever one parent is doing more with the baby, instead of being resentful, know that you will all reap the benefits. And for the parent who may feel neglected join in—it’s the best way to get noticed.
Conflict Resolution: Another way to maintain marital satisfaction is to respect your partner’s feelings and point of view, even when you strongly disagree. This is important when trying to resolve conflict. Repeat what your partner’s point of view is so they can see they’ve been heard, then state your point of view without using the word “but”. In this way, your partner will remain calm knowing their ideas count too. So for example, say, “I think what your saying is that you feel it’s okay for our daughter to skip her bedtime and stay up for your parents’ party. AND what I’m saying is that from past experience when we put her to bed late she has a hard time falling asleep and her behavior is awful the next day. I know it’s really disappointing for you to cut her time short with your parents. I’m just concerned that she’ll be exhausted tomorrow and none of us will get a good night’s sleep. What do you think we should do?’” It is surprising how agreeable spouses become after they feel respected and understood.
Can a “too good” marriage negatively effect the kids?
There are two essential psychological needs we all have – the need to feel like we belong, and the need to have a positive impact on people. When spouses are head over heals in love, children can feel pushed aside. The parents’ absorption with each other keeps the child completely out of focus and their intrinsic value and sense of impact and belonging is weakened. Always look for ways to spread your love around.
What are the most important things spouses can do to keep their relationship connection strong once they have kids?
Statistics show that the addition of children decreases marital satisfaction by 50-90%. But, there are a small percentage of marriages that thrive after kids. What are they doing right? The answer is they are becoming better people. In my private practice, these “happier with children marriages” are all trying to improve themselves and become more emotionally intelligent adults. They are continually working on themselves as individuals, and making real change. By making sense of their pasts and focusing on understanding their triggers, they gain increased self-awareness and the ability to modulate their emotions. They’re making changes that strengthen their empathy, flexibility, resourcefulness, and an increased ability to self regulate. These qualities not only make for better parents, but more loving spouses too.
Many will suggest taking time away from the kids (date nights, romantic getaways) to be together and there is definitely something to be said for being away and alone together. However, it isn’t always feasible. Some of the best connections can happen in brief moments. A kiss, a long hug, a shared laugh or inside joke, one sentence of appreciation –all of these “quickies” can go a long way. You can connect with a high-five right after the kids fall asleep, a 15 minute coffee talk in the morning before the kids wake up, or talking to each other on the phone on your way to work. Small talk for 15 to 20 minutes every day, may lead to bigger conversations (as long as it isn’t about kids, or finances, or anything stressful), and can do wonders for a relationship without the pressure of a date night or romantic getaway. Enhancing the friendship part of your relationship every day just might make you want to date each other and feel connected enough for real intimacy.
Dr. Pamela Varady, www.askdrvarady.com is a Clinical Psychologist and parenting expert. She has appeared as a guest on NBC, Discovery Health Network, The Today Show and Fox TV and was a frequent guest expert on Strictly Dr. Drew. Dr. Varady wrote the workbook, 15 Minutes To Sibling Harmony and conducts classes, retreats and workshops for parents and couples throughout California. Dr. Varady, also co-operates The Dynamic Learning and Listening Center, www.learn2listen.com for children with special needs. Pamela lives in Santa Monica with her husband and fourteen year old twin boys.
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