I, like many others in my community grew up in a child-centered home. My immigrant parents were in a new country with new social norms, far from anything familiar and did everything to protect my brother and I, with the goal to afford us opportunities that they didn’t have. They did their best with the few tools they had. But we are a new generation with every possible answer at the hit of a search button and we have access to an endless self-help world.
These days, couples with children simply spend too much time devoted solely to their kids. Don’t get me wrong, as a counselor and mother, I am fully aware of the attention required to create a secure attachment between parent and child. What I am suggesting is that we are over-scheduled. Somewhere along the way (between my childhood in the 80s and my parenthood in the 2000s), an unspoken movement occurred in our society that has infused a hyper-vigilance into the parenting role. More attention is devoted to our children’s activities and to the children themselves rather than to the marriage.
This helicopter-parenting is hazardous for kids for many reasons, but perhaps more troubling, is the undercurrent of damage to the marriage itself. Our most important role as parents is to provide love in a safe and secure environment. A secure environment consists of many things, but primarily the secure relationship between the two parents. This requires substantial time and attention. In my experience as a counselor and mother, couples tend to put their relationship on the back burner when babies arrive. In the short term, this is necessary, as mom and dad are adjusting to their new roles and just trying to keep their heads above water with the new realities of sleep deprivation.
Many couples that I see in counseling are still child centered and place their kids above their spouses. I have been guilty of it too. I see many clients who prioritize their child’s every desire over their own needs for sleep, quiet, alone time, time to exercise, or anything else. They are exhausted and burnt out, because they are so busy constantly attending to their kids that they have no time for themselves or their spouse. In many families today, both parents will turn to answer a child’s question, even if this question is about nothing urgent and interrupted the parents in the middle of their own conversation.
Intimacy is pushed far down the priority list, after things like kids’ extracurriculars, the kids’ desire to watch their children’s TV shows while sitting next to the parent, the kids’ “need” for constant attention even after their bedtime. Sadly, parents who put intimacy on the far back burner are setting their kids up for two outcomes: increased likelihood of being a child of an unhappy home, and decreased ability to have their own loving marriage in adulthood.
Sex, especially for the partner with a physical touch love language, is the primary way that they feel close and connected. But often it seems like there is literally no time for intimacy at all, based on many of these excuses that I have heard in session:
He's a grown man, doesn't need me like my kids do
Have a headache
Kids may not be fully asleep yet
We can’t shut our door because the child will feel shut out if they try and open the door
Kids may come into our bed in the middle of the night
He doesn’t emotionally connect with me
She rejects me
We feel out of shape and gross and who has time to work out
It is a wonderful lesson for kids when parents prioritize alone time. They learn what a healthy relationship looks like and that their parents deeply love each other. I don’t know what’s more powerful than that in forming a secure attachment. This would be in marked contrast to clients I see who are emotionally stunted because their own parents seemed miserable, and their entire lives appeared to center around their kids and all their desires. We are raising a generation of entitled and emotionally stunted adults.
Children learn they are not the center of the universe when their parents prioritize alone time, and they see how happy, connected, and refreshed their parents feel.
Think to yourself about how crazy it is that many unhappy parents will fight in front of their kids, or passive aggressively snipe at each other, or ignore each other, all indicators of marital dysfunction. And then somehow it is inappropriate for the kids to know that mom and dad are spending time together, or stealing kisses, which is a signifier of a happy and healthy relationship? Kids need to know their parents are close and loving enough to be affectionate. It’s healthy!!
The opposite of parents kissing, hugging, flirting, and, yes, going into their rooms and closing the door is seeing no physical affection and thinking of your parents as entirely emotionally and physically disconnected. This is very bad for kids. When kids observe zero romance or physical affection and see less than zero allusions to sex between their parents, this can lead to many later issues with intimacy. These kids have learned that intimacy is bad or dirty or shouldn’t exist at all, and this makes them very awkward around sexual expression with their spouses in their marriages. No wonder so many marriages are struggling in the intimacy department.
If you struggle with guilt for taking the time to connect and nurture the most important human relationship you have, think long and hard about what lessons your kids are learning. Would you want them to be in a marriage like yours? How would you feel if you visited them in 15 years and they were stilted, resentful and/or unaffectionate with their spouses? Would you feel that perhaps you should have modeled a happier and closer marriage for them, in which you respected your own needs and your partner’s needs (including physical touch) at least as much as your kids’ desire for constant attention?
Here are just some tips to build intimacy:
Daily check-ins: catch up with one another at the end of the day. This could be after dinner or when the kids are in bed. Ask questions about your partner’s day and leave the conversation knowing at least one thing that will occur in their day tomorrow. Listen to your spouse and support them. Research shows us that these supportive half-hour conversations increase relationship stability.
Put your kids to bed at a set time every night. Even if they don’t go to sleep, establish a rule that they are to have a quiet time which begins at a set time every evening. For school-aged kids, my recommendation that 8pm is a reasonable quiet time or “lights out” time (depending on the age of the child). My kids are older, and they tuck me into bed now. It gets easier, kind of.
Allow for some time to touch, cuddle, talk and reflect. Physical touch (it doesn’t have to be sex) releases bonding hormones and is good for our health. Let us not forget that physical intimacy is an incredibly important piece of a satisfying relationship.
Don’t ever stop courting. If childcare and finances are an issue, there are many ways to have a date night at home. Plan this in advance so that it’s set and each of you can look forward to it.
Schedule a weekend getaway. Break out your yearly calendars and plan in advance. Call in the grandparents to assist with overnight childcare, if possible, it’s great for them, your children, and your relationship.
Teach your children that mom and dad need alone time. They will remember this when they are parents. These healthy traditions will be passed along generationally.
Our kids bring us incredible joy and, as parents, we want to do everything we can to bring them happiness. Please do not let this desire rob attention from the person that helped you create them. You were a wife/husband before you were mom/dad.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.