You’ve probably heard that kids can be hard on relationships, and maybe you’ve even experienced it firsthand. After all, it can be tough to prioritize romance when you’re changing poopy diapers and stressing over bedtime.
One study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the rate of decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have kids than those who are childless. Another study from Baylor University found that there’s a happiness gap between couples in the U.S. who are parents and non-parents — with the parents losing out.
Of course, kids can add immeasurable happiness to couples’ lives, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a couple that will say (or even think) that they regret having children. But raising kids is no joke, and it can challenge your ability to put your partner first.
“Balancing being a parent with being romantic partners is not easy,” says licensed marriage and family therapist David Klow, owner of Skylight Counseling Center in Chicago. “Many couples struggle with finding a way to have it all.” Clinical psychologist John Mayer, Ph.D., author of Family Fit: Find Your Balance in Life, agrees. “Having a child is such a powerful experience, and a couple can forget what brought them together in the first place — their love and affection for each other before their kids existed,” he says.
According to licensed marriage and family therapist Lesli Doares, author of Blueprint for a Lasting Marriage, relationship satisfaction “takes a real hit” when parents raise their children, often because parents get so busy that they don’t have (or make) time to work on their relationship. But she says doing that is the best gift you can give to your kids. “Good parents are good romantic partners and vice versa,” she says.
Of course, there’s a big difference between knowing it’s important to keep your kids from messing with your relationship and actually doing it. Here are a few expert tips to keep you on the right path.
Do one romantic thing a day
It sounds easy, but odds are you’re not doing this now. Klow recommends keeping it simple, like writing a loving note or text, giving your S.O. a lengthy hug or even slipping them a tiny gift. You can also show romance by taking action, like emptying the dishwasher when you know how much they hate doing it.
Play the (sexy) long game
Foreplay isn’t just what happens at the beginning of sex, Klow says — it can be a buildup of hours or days in advance of actual boots knocking. If you know you’ll have together-time later in the week, make sure to throw some meaningful looks and physical contact into the mix in advance. It could go further than you’d think.
Have a state of the union
It’s important to take the pulse of your relationship whether you have kids or not, but once little ones come into the mix, checking in with your partner often gets sidelined in favor of more pressing issues. That’s why Doares recommends taking some time to talk to your S.O. about what you love about your relationship now and where there’s room for improvement — and actually listening to each other and doing something about it.
Make “appreciate” a regular part of your vocabulary
“Many couples I work with benefit from regular expressions of validation and appreciation throughout the week,” Klow says. That can be as simple as saying, “Thank you so much for you doing [insert great thing they did here]. It means a lot to me,” or just “I appreciate you.” This lets them know you see them as more than a co-parent, Klow says.
Create phone-free zones
It’s easy to get distracted by your phone any time, but having it around during those few and precious kid-free moments is a major love buzzkill. That’s why Mayer recommends putting it away as much as you can when you’re together and don’t absolutely need to be reachable (like after the kids are asleep).
Show affection in front of your kids
It’s easy to greet your partner with a “hey” or “what’s up?” in person and over the phone, but that doesn’t show much affection. Instead, Mayer recommends using a soft, welcoming voice and greeting, like, “Hi, babe!” Showing affection in front of your kids — including greetings, hugs, kisses and touching openly — is important for a child to see between their parents, Doares says. Not only does it fuel your romantic bond, but your kids will also eventually model what they see in their future relationships.
Make your romantic love as important as your parental love
It’s not about choosing one over the other. Rather, Klow says you want to build a culture in your family where your connection with your partner is seen as just as important as your connection with your kids. So don’t feel bad if you and your S.O. talk to each other at the dinner table rather than making the kids the central focus. “Keeping the marital relationship front and center can go a long way towards overall balance,” Klow says.
Take a kid-free trip
A full-on vacation may be tough, but a long weekend sans kids can do wonders for your connection, Doares says. Think about it: No kids around not only frees up more time for physical connections, but it also means you can kick back together without interruption — no whining, no demands, just the two of you blissing out on the love that made you want to start a family in the first place.