01.02.2011

The Primary Relationship

Important to focus on your primary relationship with each other after having children
Dr Charmaine Saunders shares how to keep the joy of your early love alive.

Before a couple become parents, they have unlimited time to devote to each other but once children come along, it is too, too easy to neglect the primary relationship.

Women are generally considered to be the most likely offenders, but both partners have to take some share of the responsibility for maintaining the feelings and commitment they made to each other in the first place.

Both need to remember they were a couple initially and that children are a product of that love. Children shouldn't absorb all the time and energy of one or both parents.

Now, of course, we know that children are incredibly demanding, even the easiest ones. So, it's natural that in the first few months, everything else is put aside for the needs of the new baby, especially if it's the first one. Then, as more children arrive, the demands accelerate and personal preferences can go out the window completely.

What's the solution? Do we neglect ourselves or our children? Obviously, neither. There are strategies for juggling all the various needs, desires and requirements associated with being a family.

Make Time

This is the most vital area, especially when time is short which it nearly always is in modern life, particularly within the demands of family life. We all only have 24 hours a day and it's up to each of us to decide how these hours are measured out. Quality time doesn't just happen; it has to be planned for and committed to. It cannot just be occasional either.

Couples need quality time every single day. I can hear the protesting moan, but it's not as difficult as it sounds. It does, however, require creativity and desire.

Personally, I feel that half an hour each day is better than a concentrated period once a week or occasionally. A lot of improvement in this area can be gained immediately by better time management, which is an important skill these days for every part of life.

Boundaries

These are basically limits that each of us can impose in all our relationships. After communication, I believe boundaries are the next most vital relationship skill. It helps primary relationships specifically by allowing each individual within the family to get what he/she needs and respect each other's space at the same time. As much as we need closeness and love, we also need privacy, time alone and time for individual pursuits, hobbies and interests.

Guys, keep in mind that your wife has been at home all day with a demanding child or two. Pitch in when you get home, don't be all grabby but be genuinely affectionate.

Work together as a team so that chores get done more quickly and there's more leisure time to share. Wives, your husband's been working outside of the home all day. Make him welcome into the haven of the home with love and good cheer. It's not so hard if you make love your motivator.

Both parents, do not let your children treat you as caterers. Set clear limits with them so they understand that you have other priorities. Though you love them a lot, you also need time out, time with friends, time alone with each other, time to rest and so on. I remember a mother of five, who also worked outside the home, asking me how she could stop feeling guilty for coming home at the end of the day and being too tired to play with her children, help them with their homework and generally give them her time and energy. The answer is establish healthy boundaries. Rather than rejecting her children or giving in then feeling like a martyr, she can moderate between the two. I suggested she ask for some rest time when she first comes in, but reassure her children that she would then spend time with them after that. Alternatively, she could be with them straightaway, but set a time frame, say half an hour, explaining that she needs to also rest or cook or take a bath. Children will accept these boundaries if set firmly but lovingly.

Issues

Dealing with issues requires time and focus. All couples experience conflict and differences, These will simply accelerate if not addressed in a timely fashion. I often recommend couples do not try to resolve their differences in the home and certainly not in the bedroom late at night when both parties are tired. It's difficult to get out though when there are children, so making time to just discuss the day each evening can really help. Both partners feel valued and listened to in this process.

If there is a big problem looming that needs more than just a half hour chat, then either a family member or a paid babysitter will have to be organised so that the couple can physically remove themselves from the war zone and out into neutral territory.

In fact, regular dates out should be factored into every couple's schedule. I gave a talk recently about primary relationships to a mothers' group and I made that very point. Afterwards, an older woman approached me and told me she was attending with her daughter and grandaughter. She went on to tell me that when her daughter asked her to babysit as she and her husband wanted to go out on a date, she scoffed at the idea, demanding to know what the special occasion was. But having heard my talk, she understood that this was something the couple needed and she intended to be much more sympathetic in future.

Go out together for fun, relaxation, good food, to talk about your relationship, whatever shape it's in - if it's struggling, come up with positive ways to improve it; if it's in good shape, talk about how to maintain this; talk about the future, plans you have, your children, your dreams, all in a loving, sharing spirit. Remember you are a team. Remember you are two people who love each other and chose to share your lives.

Be Creative

Let me share two examples where busy couples came up with workable plans to create quality time for themselves.

The first couple hardly saw each other due to the husband's long hours and four young children. I asked the wife about their daily schedule and it was pretty horrific. What night was the freest? Sunday, she said. So I suggested they put the kids to bed, then make it their special night with dinner by candlelight, quiet time just to talk, maybe a nice glass of wine. If sex follows, great, but the intimacy created just by the time out will strengthen the bonds anyway.

The second couple had the same problem but this time, the wife came up with a very unusual solution. Her guy ran a seminar business so would work in his office during the day and then go off to evening functions several nights a week. So she decided she would put the children to bed after an early meal, eat with them and then go to sleep as well. When her husband came home around 10, she would get up and spend quality time with him. This arrangement wouldn't suit everyone, but she believed it was worth the sacrifice to keep their marriage fresh and alive.

Sex and Romance

After giving birth, a woman often experiences a loss of libido due to a number of factors - hormone changes, fatigue, absorption of the baby, stress - so sex can move down her list of priorities till it becomes non-existent. Husbands then can feel neglected, unloved, resentful, even straying into infidelity.

All this can be avoided by communication. As a new mother, ask for help, tell your husband how you're feeling, explain that you're not rejecting him, but just don't feel like having sex right now. If you stay close, the temporary lack of sex won't matter so much. There are other ways to still "make love". Romance is one way and that really just means again spending time, enjoying each other's company, talking over grievances, laughing (hugely important!), crying together, co-parenting, sharing chores.

That's what makes family - unity in all kinds of situations, ups and downs, even crises. An unexpected kiss, a gift of a simple flower, an offer to help, giving each other a foot rub, listening to music together, walking hand in hand, cuddling up in front of TV - these simple gestures will make all the difference.

With the right attitude, the early years of parenting will seem like extremely challenging, but also wonderfully rewarding times that didn't break your relationship, your courage or your spirit. Instead, they strengthened your joy as a couple.

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