Christine Carter, Ph.D.
As a working parent, I often feel guilty that I don't have loads of down-time with Fiona and Molly. We have an early dinner together shortly after we all arrive home, and then whip through the bath-book-bedtime routine. Both kids are usually sawing logs by 8:00. That means I'm often clocking less than three hours with my kids in the evening. Doesn't seem like a lot.
By the time the kids are asleep, I'm exhausted. I wake up at 5:00 am or sometimes earlier, and so I barely have time to walk the dog and open the mail before I'm also ready to hit the hay. (Don't tell the sleep training people this, but I often fall asleep cuddling with my love chunks as they drift off into dreamland. When that happens, the rest of my night is pretty shot, as I am loath to really rouse myself for, say, a nice evening jog.)
I am married to the children's father, in case you were wondering. Did you notice that "have meaningful conversation, then crazy sex" with my husband didn't make it to the end-of-the-day task list? Unfortunately, there is little time to even talk to my hubby other than what we can get in at dinnertime. Once I called him from my cell phone – he was at home and so was I –while I was walking the dog. No one told me before my princess-perfect wedding that marriage would be so logistically difficult. And certainly no one told me that dizzyingly fun weekends with the love-of-my-life would dissolve so quickly into a constant stream of negotiations. Are you taking the kids to school tomorrow or am I? Will you walk the dog tonight while I fold laundry? Are you going to clean the kitchen or, humph, shall I?
Maybe it is different for more traditional couples, who just do their "pink jobs" and "blue jobs," as my grandmother says, without daily negotiation. Or maybe it is different for couples where both partners do 50% of the childcare and housework—my friend with the best sex life of anyone I know always says that "foreplay starts at 4:00 – with him starting dinner." (Or maybe it is just different for Ayelet Waldman, who has four kids, a husband who does half the childcare and housework, a star-studded career, and hot-deeply-in-love-sex with her husband all the time.)
But if you are like Mike and me and the 67% of couples who have a big drop in relationship happiness and a "big increase in hostility," after kids arrive, you probably only have about 20 minutes to talk to your co-parent at dinnertime, and it is usually spent briefing each other on things like ear infections, school concerts, and carpool schedules—while cleaning up spilled milk and refereeing arguments (or as is the case in my house, nixing potty talk).
Unless we get in a fight. Then, somehow, we seem to find the time to share our innermost feelings. While the kids delay getting ready for bed, we argue in barely controlled voices over the kitchen sink. Which, finally, brings me to my point: parental conflict isn't good for children's happiness. And not having any time to connect in a routine way is a recipe for disaster – it makes a logistically difficult marriage an emotionally thorny one as well.
Even though I am loath to give up precious minutes with my children, research shows that working on my relationship with my co-parent (I'm married, but this is true even if you are single or divorced) can "have important and long-lasting payoffs" for children's happiness.
"Studies of two-parent families have consistently found that when a couple's relationship is characterized by unresolved conflict and unhappiness, their children tend to have more acting out aggressive behavior problems, more shy withdrawn behavior, and fewer social and academic skills," say UC Berkeley researchers Phil and Carolyn Cowan. Furthermore, when couples aren't getting along, their irritation or anger with each other often spills over into their relationships with their children. "Some children get a double whammy," say the Cowans. They suffer the consequences of both the "heated or frosty emotional tone of their parents' relationship" and the frequent result of co-parent conflict: "harsh or ineffective patterns of caring and discipline." I know that when I'm fighting with my husband I have a hard time managing the powerful the negative emotions that surface (anger, disappointment, hurt) while trying to keep Fiona and Molly's bedtime routine on track effectively. And I can usually win all the awards for crappy parenting if I also need to handle a situation with the kids that requires calm, consistent discipline. When I'm already upset, I tend to discipline the kids in a way that is, uh, not calm or collected.
In honor of Valentine's Day, this month's postings are all about getting your relationship with your co-parent on track – in the interest of your children's happiness. Some conflict may be inevitable, but listen: conflict between parents (whether or not they are married) is a big problem for kids' happiness and functioning. Certain types of arguing with your co-parent can even effect your unborn fetus – Alyson Shapiro found that how a couple argues when pregnant can predict over half of the variation in the baby's ability to establish calm and focusing attention when it is three months old. (The good news is that the damage can be reversed with just a 10-hour workshop.)
Phil and Carolyn Cowan have been studying marriage and parenting for decades, and this is what they want you to know: if you improve your parenting, you won't necessarily improve your marriage. On the other hand, if you improve your marriage, you WILL improve your parenting.
John Gottman has also been studying strong marriages and healthy relationships for a long time, and he's identified the most important things that partners can do to improve their relationship over the long run. The two main things we need to do, Gottman says, are:
(1) handle conflict in a positive manner, and
(2) become better friends.
The good news is that the science is clear about how to fight so that it doesn't scar your children for life, which will be the topic of the next post. From there we'll tackle becoming better friends with your co-parent, and lest this whole parenting business gets too far away from how it started in the first place, my final post this month will be about putting a little va-voom back in what is, if you are like a lot of married parents, your paltry sex life.
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