Credit where credit is due: when I asked two relationship experts how to keep the spark alive when you have children, they didn’t respond by laughing in my face. It would have been understandable if they had, because having children is the greatest thing in the world but trying to do anything else – working, keeping fit or maintaining a normal relationship with your partner – is the hardest thing in the world. As such, many parents find their relationship suffers during the early years. “When you’ve got small kids, you invest a lot into them,” says Jo Hemmings, a psychologist. “There’s work, childcare – you forget a little bit about yourselves. You realise that your time together has gone to the bottom of the priority list.”
That is natural. When they are young, children depend on you absolutely. To be in a relationship when you have children is to know that you are probably the person in your family your partner would save last in a house fire.
Hemmings’ primary advice is to make time for yourselves in situations where you are more or less off duty as parents. If that sounds expensive, it needn’t be. “People talk about date nights as if you’re going to a romantic restaurant, which is lovely,” she says. “But just having your home to yourselves for an evening, with no fear of disturbance, is huge. When your kids are in bed, try to switch off so you are together on the sofa, in the same room. I know couples who, once the children are in bed, go off and do their separate things. Then the next morning starts … and the relationship drains away without anyone really noticing.”
Also, something often overlooked in the trenches of parenthood is being nice to your partner. “Reassuring them that you still find them attractive is important,” says James Preece, a relationship coach. “Remind them how amazing they are. It’s easy to criticise when you are tired and drained and your kids are there and money is tight. Just remind each other that you find each other important. It could be a note, a call or a book from a charity shop; just to let them know that you still appreciate and love them, and you want to work together on this.”
If you can’t do something as a couple, you can always do something apart. “Take turns on your own,” Preece suggests. “Giving your partner space is important. You’re on top of each other, and it’s kind of overwhelming when the kids are really young. Maybe one of you could go to the gym, then the other could go out and do something else.”
My instinct during rough patches has always been to dig deep and endure because better things await. The kids might not sleep now, but teenagers sleep a lot. If we can just tough it out for another eight or nine years, everything will be great, is my thinking. But don’t listen to me because this advice, suggests Hemmings, absolutely stinks.
“In counselling rooms, I see a lot of couples whose children have grown up, and they turn to each other and realise that they are effectively two strangers sharing the same space,” she says. “They find themselves unrecognisable. That’s tough. It’s a lot harder to get that spark back together than to maintain it throughout.”