When you and your partner head to the beach, or the museum, or the streets of Paris with small kids in tow, Runkel said, that's basically the opposite of a vacation for the adults. "That's a business trip," he said. "You're working your tail off."
Working with couples in distress, Runkel helps them figure out other, more effective ways to re-invest time and energy in their relationship.
I spoke with Runkel and marriage therapist Rachel Sussman about the best ways to make your marriage a priority, even when you've got young kids in the house. Here are their top tips:
Sometimes, when Sussman encourages clients to spend less time and energy on parenting, they're shocked.
"But then," Sussman said, "you start unpacking more."
Inevitably, the client will say something like, "I'm guilty because I'm a working mother, so I do extra to spend time with them." (Sussman said she hears this largely from female clients.) Or, the person will say, "I feel bad getting a babysitter," because their job prevents them from being home to put the kids to bed every night.
But Sussman will tell them: "By making your children the most important thing, you are neglecting your partner. And then how is your child going to feel if that marriage falls apart?"
That is to say, by giving all your attention to your kids and none to your partner, you're potentially putting the family in a very precarious position.
"People feel like they don't have permission" to shift their focus from their kids to their partner, Runkel said. They'll say, "The kids need me."
But they're forgetting: "The whole point of parenting is to get them to not need me. They need to need me less and less every year if I'm doing my job right."
That's not to say you should leave your kids to fend for themselves every day — it's more that you don't need to hover. And you can feel OK about going away for the weekend with your partner every so often.
"By just going away," Runkel said, "you're communicating to your kids: You're able to handle life without me for a weekend. I believe in you."
"I heartily recommend that you work like crazy to establish a consistent bedtime" for the kids, Runkel said, that gives you and your partner a few hours together every night.
Too many people think they have to hire a babysitter and organise an official "date night" every Friday, or spend tons of money on an international getaway.
And while Runkel said Friday nights out and trips to Cabo can be helpful, a more practical approach is simply to carve out adults-only time every night.
"It helps you get through the difficult 'now'," Runkel said — even if the kids are being especially fussy at dinner, you know that by 8pm they'll be asleep and you and your partner can hang out together.
It's not just good for the two of you — it's good for your kids. If they see that their parents are "taking time for themselves, that they genuinely cherish each other, and are affectionate with one another, that gives them a sense of stability", Runkel said.
"It's supposed to be hard," Runkel said of marriage after kids. "But once you prioritize it and do it, you'll see amazing benefits."
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