Christine Carter, Ph.D.

This posting continues a four-part series on improving your relationship to improve your children's well-being. Go here for Part I, "Your love life, your child's happiness," and here for Part II, How To Fight.

Just to restate the obvious: it takes time to work on a relationship. Time you might otherwise be spending with your children. But the research shows that working on your relationship with your co-parent – even if you aren't married – can really influence your kids' well-being. So EVEN IF it means giving up a little time with the kids to become better friends with whomever is helping you raise them, I say: make it a

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There is a lot of good news here on all fronts. First of all, we don't need to worry that we are spending less time with the kiddos than traditional parents did during that supposedly blissful era of the nuclear family, circa 1965. Research shows that more than half of us feel guilty about how little time we spend with the kids; I'm here to say let it go. We're not spending less time with our kids than our parents spent with us. Married mothers now spend 21% more time caring for their children than they did back then! Dads are stepping up, too: though they still spend less than half the time caring for kids that moms do, they've doubled the amount of time they spend since Leave it to Beaver was the gold standard. How can this be? Aren't we all CrazyBusy?!

Well, we do a lot of multi-tasking now. We eat take-out. We don't iron our sheets. We spend less time with our friends and family and—you guessed it—SPOUSE. Which brings me back to my point here: prioritize your relationship with that co-parent of yours, even if you aren't married, because your relationship with your children's other parent is very important for their happiness.

John Gottman, my favorite relationship researcher, has a three-part prescription for strengthening your "marital bond". If you aren't married to your children's other parent, I challenge you to follow this prescription anyway (save the 5 minutes of sexually charged grabbing: though it might make you nostalgic for days gone by, it could also land you a court-order).

ONE: Start building fondness and affection, pronto.
A good friend of mine is a pro at doing this with his ex-wife. Yes, you read that right: his EX-wife, the mother of his son. He's always talking up his first wife's great qualities as a mother, and when he talks to her on the phone you can hear the appreciation and fondness in his voice—even though they are just discussing the logistics of school pick-ups and Saturday games. It isn't that Marc is still in love with his ex (in fact, there is a lot that she does that bugs him and he's happily remarried to someone else); he just recognizes that she is doing a good job raising their son, and he appreciates it.

TWO: Be aware of—and responsive to—what is going on in your co-parent's life.
The best predictor of a wife's marital satisfaction, according to one study of couples with young children, was her husband's affection and attentiveness. Note to husbands everywhere: gift-giving on Valentine's Day is not just a Hallmark plot to make you feel cheesy, guilty, or inadequate—it is a symbol of affection and a sign of attentiveness. Show her that you know her well enough to pick out something she'll like.

THREE: Approach problems as something you both have control of, and that you can solve together as partners. (See last week's post and worksheet, How To Fight.)

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman has a whole chapter of exercises for becoming closer to your co-parent. (I also recommend the workshop that Gottman does with his wife, Julie, "The Art & Science of Love.") There is, of course, the all-important date-night that Mike and I don't do enough. But beyond that, John and Julie Gottman have found that small positive actions, done frequently, make the biggest difference. They write about the "magic five hours a week" as being an important intimacy-building tool. Five hours may seem like a lot, but when you look at how they recommend spending those hours, it seems doable even in the most hectic of weeks:

2 minutes every weekday morning: Don't leave for work or school or whatever without knowing something about what lies ahead for your partner.

20 minutes when you get home: Decompress a little together before you plunge headlong into your evening routine. Listen actively to your partner, and be supportive. Think twice before you start offering advice at this time – the goal is to listen.

5 minutes every day: Show a little respect and admiration. Add a little to the economy of gratitude in your household. Every single day, find something you appreciate about your partner. Give genuine (growth mindset!) praise.

5 minutes every day: Give a little lovin'. The Gottmans want you to kiss, grab, hold, hug and otherwise touch your guy or gal for at least five minutes a day. Here's to hoping it lasts more than five minutes!

2 hours a week: Schedule time to get to know your partner better. Play games where you ask each other questions, or use the time to resolve a problem. If you don't have time or can't afford to go on a date, be creative. Enjoy a glass of wine in the living room after the kids are in bed, or swap babysitting with another family and just go for a walk together.

The Gottmans' "magic 5 hours" is a series of happiness habits that will help both you and your children. Gradually make each of the above "tasks" a routine part of your relationship, using this worksheet to track your progress. Your relationship will flourish and so will your children!

Read about how to form a habit with these four postings:

Part I: Happiness on Auto-Pilot
Part II: Why Rewards are Rewarding
Part III: Ready, Set: Change!
Part IV: Extra Credit (and other tips for success)

Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at

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Just found your website and i’m so excited. Thanks for all this great info!

All Adither | 11:34 am, February 17, 2008 | Link


Great tips on nurturing any relationship, between friends, mother and daughter, 40 year marriage etc.
Thanks for helping all of us

Sylvia | 9:14 am, February 19, 2008 | Link

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