Cultivating Stronger Connections in Parenthood
There is no doubt that relationships and marriage can be hard work at times. But there’s nothing like the introduction to parenthood to really test out your communication, connection, and team skills. After over 10 years of marriage, 2 boisterous kids, many house moves, job changes, family and health challenges between us over the years, we have learnt a thing or two about what keeps us connected and feeling loved and appreciated. That’s not to say that we don’t sometimes slide into ‘auto-pilot’ or operational household management mode when things get too busy or stressful. But we know that we can always switch gears from flat mates back to soul mates, if we re-invest our energy and attention into what cultivates our connection.
Here are six ways to help strengthen your couple connection.
1. Hold Hands, Cuddle on the Couch and Spoon before Slumber
Intimacy and connection through the act of touch is so simple, yet so often we forget it’s power. This is about so much more than just sex. Sometimes it is the quiet moments holding hands in front of the tv or on a stroll to the shops, a kiss to mark your entry or exit, or those few moments cuddling after the morning alarm goes off, when we can gently appreciate the amazing person we have chosen to be with. Small gestures can have a big impact here. In the same ways that our babies crave skin to skin contact to develop a bond with us, so do we often crave physical touch to signal that we matter to our partner.
2. The Weekly Check In
There is enough research to show us that the challenges of early parenthood can cause relationship satisfaction to decline and conflict to increase. To counteract this, research also has shown us that couples who make a conscious effort to ‘meet up’ at least once a week for up to an hour, are able to improve these along with their sense of feeling heard and understood. In a work setting we might call it a team debrief. Relationship experts – John and Julie Gottman call it a ‘state of the union’ meeting, but in our house its just a weekly check-in. It is time set aside for you to discuss what went well or not so well that week, to share your feelings and experiences, to express gratitude for your partner, and to agree on what you’d like to work on to improve or work towards as a shared goal. The ground rules are simply that you create a safe space to listen, that you approach with curiosity, that you show empathy, and work as a team for mutual benefit.
3. Learn to Manage Conflict like a Pro
Now we all know that despite the best of intentions, there might be some occasions where a weekly check in, turns into a weekly show down. Relationship guru – Dr John Gottman recommends first familiarizing yourself with the acronym A.T.T.U.N.E to adopt the mindsets necessary for successful communication and trust. These stand for Awareness, Tolerance, Turning Toward, Understanding, Non-defensive Listening, and Empathy. When bundled up together this is all about seeking to understand your other half before trying to solve their problems. In addition to this, you can learn to master the art of conflict management by becoming aware of and learning how to avoid what Gottman call “The Four Horseman:” criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These destructive communication styles can be overturned with more thoughtful and positive strategies such as: using ‘I’ statements to express your feelings and needs, finding gratitude for positive qualities and actions, being accountable for your actions and open to offering an apology, and making sure you take a break to distract or self soothe when things get too overwhelming.
4. Pay Attention To Bids For Affection
With the routines, responsibilities and pressures of our daily grind, we can start to walk through life without really noticing all the subtle cues and clues that our partners might send us, asking for our attention (“how do I look?” or “check out these old photos I just came across”), affection (e.g. cuddling up next to you on the couch), excitement (“OMG how cool is this?!”, help (e.g. walking through the door with hands full of grocery bags), or even just playful connection (e.g. a cheeky pinch on the bum, a wink, or a funny joke). When we fail to pick up on these small bids, or turn away from them even unintentionally, we send the message that they don’t matter. So why not play the role of Connection Detective with your partner, by observing and listening to all those bids they make, and then following through by turning towards them, matching their energy or enthusiasm, or offering your support.
5. Learn To Speak Each Other’s Love Language
If you haven’t heard of Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages to help you understand how to do this, then it’s time to learn something new! In sum there are five key ways that we typically like to be shown love: Gifts (e.g. flowers, chocolate, wine etc), Acts of Service (taking care of business without having to ask), Words of Affirmation (e.g. “thanks for unloading the dishwasher” or “you did a great job today of handling that situation” or “you look terrific”), Quality Time (any time where you are undistracted and focused on each other), and Physical Touch (sexual or platonic). The key is to figure out which ones we tend to respond to the most and then put those into practice as often as possible for each other.
To figure out how you and your partner like to receive love, ask yourself: When I want to show affection/appreciation, how do I typically do it? When I want to receive affection/appreciation how do I typically prefer it? Does this make me/my partner feel most loved and cared for? To find out what floats your boat you can take the
love languages quiz to help you pin point whether you should be cooking more meals, buying gifts, leaving loved up sticky notes on the bathroom mirror, or simply kissing more.
6. Have Fun!
Happiness and Fun go hand in hand right! The more you laugh and play together, the more likely it is that you will feel connected to each other and on the same page. And when times are tough during those early years of parenthood, it’s even more important to create intentional moments for fun to help lighten the mood and the load. Take some time to plan a few hours or even a whole day of adventure together. This could be about going on a road trip, taking a bush walk, a cooking or art class, or even just meeting up with great friends for dinner. Fun can also be about engaging your senses, for example, by doing the cooking together with your favourite tunes playing in the background, playing a card or board game, being silly with the kids and rolling around on the floor, tickling each other, or laughing over a comedy show. And on an even simpler level, there are often many daily moments where you could have fun by appreciating or celebrating each other’s quirks or weird habits, like your bad singing in the shower, your hilarious accents, or dad jokes.
At the end of the day your success in cultivating stronger connection with your partner is also dependent on taking a positive perspective, making a conscious effort, showing gratitude, and practice practice practice! The more you work together towards this the more your relationship will flourish.
If you would like some support to help you navigate your relationship or parenthood journey connect with Kirsty or Lana at The Parents Village in Sydney.