Jump directly to the Content

Partners or Parents?

How to make sure the rigors of child-rearing pull you together rather than push you apart

To balance your roles as partners and parents, you need two things: advance preparation and on-the-job training. No matter what season of marriage you're in, children will affect how you relate as husband and wife. And while kids do complicate life, the shared tasks of being both partners and parents can become the most rewarding experience you'll have as a couple.

"Enriching your marriage while parenting your kids sounds like an oxymoron!" Catherine, the mother of three, told us. "I don't have enough time or energy to be a good-enough parent, much less a good-enough wife!" Catherine and her husband, Alex, are committed to their children and to each other. But these days their marriage is on the back burner.

Catherine continues, "After juggling a part-time job, trying to meet the needs of three children, figuring out what we're going to have for dinner, and then getting the kids in bed, I just want to collapse into my recliner."

Alex added, "I put in a 12-hour day at work and I'm tired, too. I try to help Catherine—especially with the kids—but by the time we are alone, I'm exhausted."

Their children's physical needs must be met, of course, but what about Catherine and Alex's needs? Since the parents' marriage is the anchor for the family, investing in your marriage is investing in your family. While it's never easy to build your marriage while parenting your kids, it's vital to the health of both! And the time to begin is before the kids arrive.

The Early Years

Time to Talk

Married in their early 30s, Kimberly and Mark know how overwhelming the thought of being totally responsible for another human being can be. Since they both came from single-parent homes, they made every effort to prepare for marriage. But feeling like they were ready for parenthood—that was a totally different matter.

To begin preparing for parenthood, they discussed such questions as "Will children come between us and hurt our relationship? Can we afford kids? Will we both continue to work outside the home? What about paternity leave? How many children do we want and how close together? If we can't have children, would we want to adopt?" All are good questions to ask, and answer, before becoming parents.

Even though outside pressures and biological clocks pushed them toward parenthood, they decided to wait a couple of years. "Having a child right now," Kimberly said, "would mean giving up much of our freedom, social life and time for each other. Plus, since neither of us came from homes with stable marriages, we want to make sure our relationship is rock-solid before we add children to the mix."

Smart couple. The relationship skills you develop early in marriage will enhance your relationship after you become parents. Here are two areas to work on before the kids arrive.

1. Solidify your bond. When you have children, your marriage will become less partner-focused and more child-focused, so your relationship needs to be strong before the kids come along. Get comfortable with each other, explore your roles and work at understanding the ways you are alike or different.

2. Learn how to really talk. Many couples who had few problems communicating before the wedding find it difficult to talk about their feelings now that they're married. If that describes you, try some of these tips to help you discuss your hopes and fears.

—Learn to listen and not simply react. Apply the advice in James 1:19: "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." In our family, we condensed this verse to three words—"listen, don't react."

—Be aware of your total message. Nothing is worse than speaking the right words but contradicting the message with signs of underlying hostility, bitterness or anger. Make sure your words, your nonverbal cues and your tone of voice all communicate the same message.

—Stress the positive. It takes five positive statements to offset just one negative statement, so go slow in expressing your negative feelings, and emphasize the positive ones.

—Avoid finger pointing. Don't begin sentences with the words "you" or "why," since they usually lead to statements or questions that accuse or attack. Instead, take responsibility for your own feelings. There is a big difference between "I feel so alone. Can we talk?" and "You always ignore me. Why don't you ever talk to me?"

—Ask questions. It keeps the communication cycle going until you both agree that what you said is what the other person heard.

Becoming parents creates such a drastic change that most couples experience moderate, or even severe, crisis. The added stress can exacerbate any existing tension between partners and drive them farther apart. Too easily, the marriage can drop on the priority list down below washing windows and cleaning toilets. The enemies of emotional closeness, "lack of time" and "lack of energy," are firmly in place as you head into marriage's middle years.

The Middle Years

No Time, No Energy

A friend named Charlie jokingly told us, "If it wasn't for the kids, building our marriage while parenting our children would be a piece of cake!" Then he asked, "Seriously, how can you keep a marriage vital and alive when you're a parent with no time and no energy?"

Marriage is the anchor for your family, so investing in your marriage is investing in your family.

Good question. Too often, the vital relationship you used to enjoy sinks to a low-maintenance survival mode. And if your relationship wasn't so great to begin with, after struggling with the demands of parenthood, you may be starting to give up hope of ever having a fulfilling marriage. The two times of greatest tension in our marriage came when we had toddlers and again when we had teenagers. We survived those years and you can, too. But it takes effort. Here are three ways you can keep building your marriage.

1. Slow the pace. We had just begun leading a session on building a creative love life when a young mom said in sheer frustration, "For me, life is too complex—the children, our own parents and extended family, jobs, church responsibilities, the yard. I feel like I'm stuck in the fast lane with no way to slow down." We were happy to tell her there is hope! Here are practical ways to simplify your life.

—Learn to say no. You'll never reach the point when you can do it all, so pare things down to what's most important.

—Move your kids' bedtime up by 15 to 30 minutes and spend the extra time with your spouse. The kids may complain, but stand your ground.

—Save time and energy by taking shortcuts. Occasionally eat off paper plates. Let your preschoolers sleep in sweats and the next morning they'll already be dressed! When unexpected guests appear, close more doors, dim the lights and use candles.

—Create time by hiring a neighborhood preteen to play occasionally with your children. Or find play groups for your kids.

2. Carve out time for two. Here are some of our favorite ways to connect as a couple.

—Every day, grab five or ten minutes when you can touch base with each other. For instance, share a cup of tea or coffee each morning—before the kids get up.

—Plan regular dates. They don't have to be expensive or long. Our favorite is a "walk and talk" date. While working on our physical fitness, we enhance our communication.

—Spark up your love life by planning a 24-hour getaway. If your kids protest, tell them you're doing it for their own good.

3. Let your kids enrich your marriage. If you're careful to notice the right things, you'll develop the attitude that children complement, not compete with, your marriage. Kids remind you that you are literally one. Each time you see Junior's toes you have to admit they are just like Dad's. Or Susie's bright smile is a picture of Mom's smile that still melts Dad's heart.

Children also promote appreciation. Because it's more challenging to make time for your mate, you appreciate it more when you do get together. Romance thrives on overcoming obstacles, waiting out delays and reconnecting after times apart, so the parenting years offer plenty of opportunities to renew romance.

The Later Years

Marriage's Second Half

Over a lifetime, most couples will spend as many years together without children living at home as they do with kids underfoot. Unfortunately, when the last child moves out many couples go through a period of major crisis.

We entered this stage with a low supply of emotional energy. While our kids were growing up, we did our best to support one another. But we were often overwhelmed by the demands of our three adolescent sons. There was little time left to devote to our friendship, let alone intimacy. So when our sons left home we had to redefine our relationship, renew the love and try to regain the close companionship that characterized the beginning of our marriage. Here are three important steps to take.

1. Redefine your marital focus. When the kids leave, you are faced with a difficult shift: the transition from a child-focused marriage to a more partner-focused relationship. As couples redefine their relationship, it either becomes more intimate or it slowly disintegrates.

In public, Frank and Sue were the happy couple; but in private, both were becoming more desperate. Sue had focused the previous 20 years on raising the children and being involved in community activities. Frank, a nuclear scientist, had concentrated on the world of atoms and particles. They loved their children, but the reality of living together without having the kids around made them apprehensive. They needed to refocus on each other and what they have in common.

Romance thrives on overcoming obstacles and waiting out delays. So the parenting years offer plenty of opportunities to renew romance.

In her book The Good Marriage: How and Why Love Lasts (Houghton Mifflin), Judith S. Wallerstein writes, "The sense of being part of a couple is what consolidates modern marriage. It is the strongest rampart against the relentless threat of our divorce culture. To become partner-focused means continually adjusting to each other."

It also requires readjusting your relationship with your now-adult children. You must become willing to let go—to release your children. If the kids being on their own makes you feel needy or insecure, lean on your mate for strength and support.

Once you let go of your kids, it's time to reconnect with them on an adult level. Your home may be emptied of children, but your love and concern for them never empties. And when they marry, you'll need to work at expanding the family circle. Healthy relationships with your adult children, their spouses and your grandchildren will enrich the second half of your marriage. At the same time, you need a life together that is separate from outsiders.

2. Become close companions. With fewer responsibilities to your kids, your marriage can become more personal and more fulfilling. At this time of life a gender shift begins to occur that can increase your potential for building an even closer relationship. Many women become more focused and assertive, and are eager to try their professional wings—especially if they dedicated the first half of their adult life to nurturing and parenting their children. Simultaneously, many husbands decide to slow down and enjoy life more. For men over 50, work may not be so important. These changes, when handled wisely, can produce new creativity, deeper meaning and renewed playfulness to help you become closer companions.

3. Keep seeking what is best. Every day brings a new opportunity to build your marriage. As you live out your marriage, concentrate on these relationship enhancers:

—Accept each other. Let go of past disappointments, choose to forgive each other and commit to making the rest of your marriage the best of your marriage. Holding on to grudges will prevent you from developing a new, more loving marriage.

—Become best friends. Stretch your boundaries and grow together. The greatest indicator of successful marriage is the couple's friendship.

—Have some fun! You got married in the first place because you enjoyed being together. Friendship, humor and fun is serious business. So wherever you are in your marriage journey, take time to enjoy each other and celebrate your partnership.

When you look ahead to your 50th anniversary, what do you want your marriage to look like? At our 50th, we hope others will notice how much we enjoy each other, are intimate friends and are still growing, changing and adapting to each other.

Whether you've been married four months or four decades, one thing is true. The best is yet to come.

Family-life educators Claudia and Dave Arp are co-founders of Marriage Alive Seminars and co-hosts of "The Family Workshop" radio program. They are co-authors of The Second Half of Marriage (Zondervan); The Ultimate Marriage Builder (Thomas Nelson); and Ten Great Dates to Revitalize Your Marriage (Zondervan, a book and video resource).

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Free CT Women Newsletter

Sign up for our Weekly newsletter: CT's weekly newsletter to help you make sense of how faith and family intersect with the world.

Read These Next


Join in the conversation on Facebook or Twitter

Follow Us

More Newsletters