Beyond Date Night: Nurturing Your Partnership Amid Life/Parenting Frenzy
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
This isn’t so much a teen/tween question per se–it’s more of a relationship question. You mentioned in one of your recent columns about the challenges you and your husband experienced due to the fact that he came into your life when you already had two kids, and it’s never really been just the two of you.
My husband and I have one kid who is still young, but we got pregnant with him after we’d only been dating a year, and we didn’t even end up getting married until after our son was born. And the first few years were chaotic, to say the least: multiple serious life/career/financial/family/personal/health crises and major life events happened over just a few short years, and I feel like we’ve never even had a chance to catch our breath.
Maybe some of this is normal, and my husband and I love each other so much. BUT. Sometimes it feels like every single thing that has happened to us has just been one storm to be weathered after another, and it’s all been about our kid or other people and is never been about us, you know? I mean, our honeymoon was two nights in a hotel while my parents watched our kid, and I was still breastfeeding at the time so we would have to stop in the midst of romantic couple time so I could pump, and then we had to leave early because the kiddo was running a high fever, which I think sums up where we’ve been at in a nutshell.
Do you have any advice for couples that have pretty much never had just a chance to be just a couple? Any strategies beyond “make sure you have a date night!” would be helpful. I feel like I need some help reframing this or something. I mean, we still have more than 10 years with a kiddo in the house and that seems like too long to keep up this pace. I just want to feel like we do something, ANYTHING, more than just get through whatever the current crisis surrounding our family is, and wait for the next one.
If I knew the definitive solution to this one, I’d be rich. No matter the circumstances preceding it, a couple feeling like they’re simply weathering one parenting storm after another is not in that place of “nurturing the adult relationship” that all of the experts and self-help literature tells us is so super-important. It’s hard and demoralizing and it’s a problem, because without that good foundation, together, eventually something is going to break. It might be your marriage, it might be one of you individually, it might be something else, but my point here is twofold: First, that you are right to be concerned that this isn’t a sustainable way to live and cultivate a healthy marriage, and second, that plenty of couples go through this (so you are definitely not alone).
Also, I have to tell you I laughed out loud at “make sure you have a date night!” because yes, why is that always the only suggestion anyone ever has?? If it was that simple, no one would have a problem. Sometimes you can’t manage that date night. Sometimes date night is not enough. I mean, sure—do date night, if you can, by all means. But it’s not the answer. The answer is multifaceted and will depend on your particular family and situation.
I’m happy to share with you some of the things we’ve done; these may not all be the right solutions for you, but some suggestions may strike a useful chord, and if not, perhaps it can get you thinking about different approaches that will work better for you and your husband.
About that “date night” suggestion…
So let’s start there, with this whole “date night cures everything” fallacy. Dismantle it; broaden its scope. The reason this is such a pervasive directive is not because date night is a magic bullet, but because couples in crisis (or even just mired in “busy”) may forget to find time to focus just on each other. So, again, if you can manage a date night and enjoy it, fabulous! But if not, make a date for a late breakfast at the local diner when the kiddo’s at school or do a late-night takeout dinner after he’s in bed. Go grocery shopping together, even, while your son is on a playdate. This doesn’t have to be a night on the town to be useful. It’s simply about being purposeful in finding some time—any time—to be together, just the two of you, without your child, sometimes. Honestly, we’ve been through long periods of time where “date night” was an unattainable fantasy. So we went on errands together, instead. It wasn’t ideal, but at the time, it was the best we could do and it got us some “just the two of us” time.
Self-care is crucial
As long as we’re dabbling in overused suggestions, have you heard the one about putting on your own oxygen mask first? If life is stressful, take honest stock in your own mental and physical health and make course corrections as necessary. Given the nature of my particular family’s challenges, I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone to hear that every member of my household (well, not the dogs) has his/her own therapist. Yep. We did family therapy as needed, too, but I’m a big believer in individual therapy. Similarly, as stress mounts, both my husband and I tend to retreat into food and couch potato-ism. Sometimes I need to get eating better and exercising again before I can even think about being a useful partner, and so I try to take responsibility for my own “stuff” in an effort to be more available to everyone else, y’know? And it turns out that my husband and I are useful supports for one another in eating better (and cooking together is fun) and getting more exercise (when the weather permits, our evening walk is one of my favorite times with him). Again, this may not be exactly what you need, but what do you need, in terms of taking care of you?
Assess your schedule
Depending on the nature of your days/lives, there may not be anything to change or optimize, but it’s worth taking a look. Who’s handling what? What creates the craziest days? Is there a way to change things up? Is your son getting what he needs, and if so, is it at the expense of your marital relationship (are you spending your whole lives driving him back and forth to activities, for example) or does it feel like a good balance? Are you eating together as a family? Are chores well-distributed or is someone bearing the main brunt of running the household? These are all things to look at—during a calm time when everyone is willing to be open and honest—to see how everyone’s feeling. You may be surprised at what your husband says, or he may be shocked by something you say. Who knows? You may come out of this with everything staying the same, but at least everyone will know how everyone else feels about it, and it (hopefully) removes any festering resentment.
Talk about the future
Where do you want to be in 10 years? How about 5? How about next year? I think we can all agree it would be unhealthy to just accept the status quo and say, “Well, the kid will be in college in 10 years, I guess we’ll do all this stuff after that!”; at the same time, I think there’s some value in planning for changes down the line. If nothing else, a conversation about the future can open your eyes to what you each really want, and help you figure out what to prioritize now to bring you both closer to your goals. These talks can be a little scary—I am very much a homebody and my husband would happily live his whole life as a nomad, so we are constantly in negotiations—but they strengthen both your understanding of and connection with each other, beyond just being conversations about logistics. How can you bring some “someday” into “right now?” I know during hard times my inclination is to refuse to think beyond the next minute, but broadening your view this way has all sorts of benefits, from making the awful-which-feels-like-forever feel more maybe-not-forever to strengthening those common-goal connections with your spouse.
Make space for each other as individuals
Sometimes when couples are floundering a little or feeling disconnected, I feel like the focus is always on what they can do together (which, sure, makes some sense), but never on what they can do for one another when they’re apart, which I think is a miss when it comes to building a solid partnership. It may seem counter-intuitive to spend time away from your partner when you feel like your relationship needs more nurturing, but that’s exactly what I’m suggesting. When things here got really bad/stressful, both my husband and I stopped doing pretty much anything other than tending to our family and working. Any free time (ha!) we had was spent either talking about how miserable everything was or sitting on the couch watching television and trying to pretend everything wasn’t miserable. That was… not great, either for our marriage or our mental health in general. One of the things we’ve become very purposeful about is encouraging one another to pursue our hobbies and friendships outside of what we do together. So I make sure my husband goes to Cars & Coffee and reconnects with his racing friends so that he gets his fix of talking old cars with fellow gearheads. He encourages me to take an afternoon and go out with friends or to hit up a networking event or pick up a new hobby. It sounds small—and it is, kind of—but particularly if you’re still in a place where your kids need supervision, saying “I’ve got this, go! Have fun!” is a gift to one another.
At the end of the day, this is not a problem to be solved with a “quick fix” or a single approach, nor (sorry!) is it something to patch and forget. Good partnerships have one thing in common: they are constant works in progress. What works this week may not be enough a few months from now. But the flip side is true, too—what’s hard today may be a non-issue in a year. The best first step is to communicate honestly with one another about what’s going on and what you want, and then go from there. Good luck!
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.