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Cultivating a Healthy Marriage in a Season of Littles (or big kids!)

27 Jun, 2024

by Allison Hurst

The other afternoon, my daughter and I took some time to sit on our front porch and share a snack. It was around the time neighbors were pouring back into the neighborhood from being gone all day at work or school. We saw the usual cars and returned waves to some familiar faces, but then I noticed something. Within a 30 minute span or so, a mother of 4 school-aged kids who lives diagonally from us came and left from her house at least a handful of times; each time she pulled up to the front, a different collection of children poured out, and another set would climb on in. I giggled a little about the differences between our stages of parenting; about how maybe I clean up more spills and manage more tantrums, but I am not yet an afternoon transit system.

I have a feeling that parenthood doesn’t get any easier. Or at least, some aspects get easier as others become more complicated. It can be an easy trap to assume that we will have more time to focus on our spousal relationships “after she’s out of diapers” or “when he is finally in school.” While it can be helpful to remember that “this particular season of life is not forever,” let’s avoid using this as a reason to put sour marriages on the backburner. Wisdom from amazing parents before me says that busy-ness only seems to compound as children grow.

This is no easy task, but it is an important one for ourselves and for our children.

Research by John Gottman, relationship guru extraordinaire, indicates that around 67% of couples struggle with a decrease in marital satisfaction after becoming parents [3].

Some studies suggest that the tension between caring for children and finding connection with a spouse is even more difficult for women [6].

Whatever the statistics, it is no secret that many barriers exist to maintaining healthy and intimate relationships after becoming parents. But we must remember that marriages are the backbone of family life. Marital discontent impacts your children, too [3]. Shelley Hummel, an LMFT who works with couples struggling with balancing a healthy marriage and parenthood says this:

“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” [5].

Your child’s feelings of security begin with the tone of your household. Even very young children who cannot communicate yet are feeling and seeing your interactions with your spouse and other children, and are building what they know and understand about the world and relationships based on these observations. If passive aggression, silent treatments, and cold shoulders rule the day, children will accept these relational behaviors as the norm.

It is easy to make the children the absolute center of the relationship; but experts agree that this can create a longterm detriment to both your marriage and the family at large [5].

“A child centered marriage is good for no one,” Shelley Hummel says. And I agree. When your children leave to create lives and routines independent of the ones in your house, you will look to your right and see your spouse. They will still be there, with hopefully decades of life left to share together. Have you lost each other along the way, or have you parented in lock step and with commitment to maintaining connection to one another?

Obviously we want the connection.

But how do we get there? How do we nurture the romantic relationship that built this family while also making sure the family itself continues to thrive?

It begins with intentionality and honesty.

Make the time for each other, and make that time count.

The most frustrating (albeit truthful) piece of advice given to couples with children is to

Keep dating your spouse!

We are told to carve out quality time for each other. Yet some of us may have what feels like 30 seconds to use the restroom alone; how do we also focus on the needs of our spouse when raising children feels like an all-encompassing endeavor?

Friends, I ask myself these same questions. I think the first thing we must do is to re-think what dating your spouse” looks like. Traditional date nights may be few and far between, and they may not even be what each of you is needing to fulfill your intimacy needs, anyway.

Sometimes you may need some leisure time, and sometimes you may need space to dig deep into your relationship. Recognizing what is needed in the moment is key; if you haven’t already created the opportunity in your calendar to communicate what these needs are, the time will pass you by.

As with most parenting topics that pop into my brain, I took this one to the professionals: the women who have gone before (and are learning alongside) me. I asked them,

What are some creative examples of how to date your spouse when you have kids?

Check the bottom of this article to see their ideas!

We must also remember, however, that spousal connection goes far beyond the occasional date night or leisure activity. It means building in regular, day-to-day opportunities to hear and observe each other’s needs. These moments do not need to be weighty additions to your schedule, but rather a pattern of check-ins and rituals that say

I see you.

How are you?

We are in this together.

Chris Windle, a father of young twins, shares in an article for the online publication Fatherly that cultivating a relationship with his wife is

a matter of accepting the calamity while maintaining the initial spirit of our relationship [10].

I love this perspective.

This begins with talking about what your needs are in your relationship and which are most important to you.


  • Most likely, not all of these needs will be met all of the time. After all, there are small people running around your house with a whole lot of needs, too.
  • You will probably have different needs than each other, and that is okay. Just like in your relationship prior to having children, there must be a give-and-take kind of attitude, seasoned with grace, as you seek to serve one another the best you can with what you have in your energy tank at the time.
  • Make sure not to skip out on sexual intimacy. But also, make room for nonsexual, connecting touch. This can be especially important for a spouse who may feel “touched out” by the end of a day with children. Sometimes small touches throughout the day can help accomplish this just as much as a cozy snuggle session on the couch. For many people, a high-pressure hug literally regulates the body. Discuss with your spouse what kind of nonsexual touch is regulating for them.
  • Know that silence is okay. Being physically together and silent is still a connective experience if that is what one of you needs that day.
  • Problem-solve parenting concerns TOGETHER. Remember that you are on the same team. Give lots of high fives, both actually and metaphorically.
  • Allow your children to see your love for one another. My personal goal is to make my children roll their eyes at our PDA as much as possible over the next couple of decades. Your children deserve to see that you can raise them well and remain delighted in your marriage.
  • Seek couples counseling early and often. (See our previous blogs about couples counseling for more info!)

Creative ideas for dating your spouse:

  • Make a plan for when you will connect with each other, and be consistent. For example, schedule a once a quarter “staycation” while the kids are at grandma’s, or know that Sunday evenings are for your favorite show + popcorn.
  • Switch with another couple and babysit for each other once a month
  • Movie and quiet dinner at home after the kids go to bed
  • Let the kids have a movie night while you chat, snack, and giggle in the next room.
  • Strap a baby in a carrier and still go to that event! While alone time is crucial, it is okay to invite your children into your interests when you can.
  • Show interest in your spouse’s hobbies.
  • Have a balance of leisure and serious time.
  • Take a day off of work together; alternate who gets to plan the activities on these days you play hooky!
  • Get outside after bedtime; breathe fresh air together. You can just as easily take a baby monitor to your patio as you can to your living room.
  • And lastly, one of my very favorites that we actually began in our household this year: Hold a “state of the household” meeting at the beginning of the year when you can get a sitter for an extended period of time. Talk about your personal, spiritual, and familial goals. Pray for each of your children and discuss what your vision for the coming months may be. Use this time to plan those other date nights out in advance! Then enjoy yourselves and the time together; celebrate the joys and victories of the year before.


1. Bogdan, I., Turliuc, M. N., & Candel, O. S. (2022). Transition to parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analysis. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.901362

2. Claxton, A., & Perry-Jenkins, M. (2008). No fun anymore: Leisure and marital quality across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(1), 28–43. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00459.x

3. Dingfelder, S. (2011, October). Must babies always breed marital discontent?. Monitor on Psychology. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2011/10/babies

4. Guzzo, K. B., & Lee, H. (2008). Couple relationship status and patterns in early parenting practices. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(1), 44–61. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00460.x

5. Hummel, S. (2020, February 24). A child-centered marriage: Good for no one. The Align Center for Couples. https://www.shellyhummeltherapy.com/blog/a-child-centered-marriage-good-for-no-one

6. Kowal, M., Groyecka-Bernard, A., Kochan-Wójcik, M., & Sorokowski, P. (2021). When and how does the number of children affect marital satisfaction? an international survey. PLOS ONE, 16(4). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0249516

7. Nomaguchi, K. M. (2012). Parenthood and psychological well-being: Clarifying the role of child age and parent–child relationship quality. Social Science Research, 41(2), 489–498. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2011.08.001

8. Nomaguchi, K. M., & Milkie, M. A. (2003). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 356–374. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00356.x

9. What years of marriage are the hardest?. Brown Family Law. (2022, March 18). https://www.brownfamilylaw.com/people-also-ask/what-years-of-marriage-are-the-hardest/

10. Windle, C. (2018, July 19). My trick for maintaining a healthy marriage in the midst of toddler chaos. Fatherly. https://www.fatherly.com/love-money/maintain-sanity-marriage-when-you-have-kids

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