High-Powered Couples With Kids: Don't Make It Harder On Yourselves — Try This

29 Jun 2017. Bob Kaplan

I'm always rooting for couples. I want them to "win." I'm always cheered when someone tells me, with feeling, "I'm happily married."

So I'm always pained when couples place themselves at the wrong end of an uneven playing field. Raising children is hard enough. If you don't get quality time together, you make it even harder on yourselves. A fateful omission. ‎I can't tell you how many couples with kids I've come across that don't regularly go off by themselves to talk things over.                                                                                 

If that's true of you, you're in luck. It's only a structural problem—not a matter of "working on the relationship" per se—and it's not that hard to solve.

You may not think of it this way but a couple with children are the co-leaders of an organization, their family. That team is the axis around which the whole family revolves. However much you divide up the work of running the family, you share ultimate responsibility for the unit as a whole, with an accent on the kids—their health and safety, their well-being and ongoing development. When that axis is weak, the family wobbles. 

In most organizations, the idea of having two people in charge is a dicey proposition at best. A two-headed monster, almost a violation of nature. This is no less true on the home front where—there is no getting around it—the two of you constitute a management team.

Inevitably, whether we're talking about the workplace or the family, the two people in charge have different tendencies, different styles. Inevitably, one person is tougher, the other more compassionate. Inevitably, they differ on some of the basics of running an organization. One person is thrifty, the other a spendthrift. One is comfortable with risk, the other prefers to play it safe. Inevitably, there's a risk of tension and conflict and one of the best ways to mitigate that risk is to adopt a cadence, a drumbeat of regularly scheduled sit-downs.

Though a couple may like that idea in theory, it may not make the cut; it can easily lose out to all the other demands on their time. Not just job demands that may sprawl into evenings and weekends. But also the demands of the kids' activities that have the parents spending a lot of their free time chauffeuring—and staying to watch their children perform.

Many couples have come to believe in putting their children first. There's gotten to be an ethic in America that has parents so involved in their children's lives—they're even expected to accompany their kids on play dates—that it's almost unthinkable to take time for themselves. And, oh, the guilt if they do.

No wonder that "spousal time," as academics call it, has dropped over the last 30 years, and with it marital satisfaction (there's actually a statistical link between the two). Unfortunate because, to put it bluntly, good feeling about the relationship makes couples more effective managers of the family enterprise.

The unintended consequence of a child-first philosophy is that the couple's relationship takes a back seat, it gets shortchanged. There's an irony there, potentially tragic. In the name of the children, the children ultimately suffer.

When a couple doesn't regularly huddle, the family doesn't gain the yardage it otherwise could or it actually loses ground. For the failure to agree on the next play for each child or for the failure to call the right play, the children lose out. They're also the losers when they're caught in the parents' cross-fire or just burdened by their displeasure with each other. 

I know a dual-career couple who, without apology, depart from the child-first mentality. "Our relationship comes first," they unabashedly proclaim. But don't get the wrong impression: they're responsible, loving parents. They just happen to look upon their relationship—which is in good shape—as an end in itself, not just a means to an end.

By the way, there's an often-heard reason in favor of getting time together: "The kids will eventually grow up and then it will be just us." I find that curious. To me, the pressing reason to stay close is now.

A few tips: 

-  If you hesitate to leave your child(ren) with a babysitter, rest assured there are qualified people out there. A fine line between protective and overprotective.

-  If the cost of babysitting is a factor, consider bartering. One or more couples you know and trust can take care of your kids in exchange for doing them the favor at another time.

-  Your time together can't be at home if your children are there. It's got to be somewhere where you won't be interrupted (and, by the way, where it's quiet enough to hear each other easily).

-  It needs to be at a time of day when you're both likely to be in good shape. After we had our first child, my wife and I tried going out to dinner on the weekend, as we always had. But we were too tired to keep our chins off our plates. So we opted for Saturday breakfast.

-  Undivided attention is the prize. No texting or emails, except for an emergency call from the babysitter. Devices put away.

-  Someone needs to take the‎ lead. If both of you are responsible for making it happen, neither one of you is responsible, and the thing never gets traction.

The whole point is to have a good conversation. "Expressiveness" is what two Harvard researchers call it: conveying one's thoughts and feelings, both positive and negative—and being heard by the other person. It's working through issues and getting on the same page or at least agreeing to disagree. Couples capable of conversations like this are, according to the study, more likely to have a successful marriage.

A good conversation—and, more broadly, a good marital relationship—is marked by day-to-day contact that is largely positive. A study of live interaction, verbal and non-verbal, determined that the optimal ratio of positive-to-negative contact is 5:1. Not higher, though: that's a sign of healthy negativity being suppressed.

If a meal together or a walk-and-talk is good, going away together from time to time is even better. It can be as little as 24 hours, as local as a nearby hotel. It's a chance to do not just one thing but a series of things and to remember why you got together in the first place. Marital stability can be computed, according to another study, by subtracting the frequency of quarrels from the frequency of love making. Toward enjoying a functional and close relationship, think expansively.

If, under good conditions, you and your significant other prove unable to talk things over in a good way, if you argue, if it's unpleasant, then you'll know that the right setting for talking isn't enough and there's work to be done on your relationship per se. On the other hand, there's always the possibility that structure turns out to be the answer to tension in the relationship. So there's a lot to be said for trying structure first.