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Lost That Lovin’ Feeling? How to Keep Your Marriage Strong

date nights and how to strengthen your spousal connection after kids

How do you keep your marriage strong after kids? “I don’t think we are supposed to talk about this,” I said nervously to my husband from across a delicious spread of carefully selected oysters. The waiter filling our wine glasses raised an eyebrow and then silently vanished.

“We aren’t supposed to talk about our kids?” my husband said incredulously.

“Well, the experts say on a date night, we should set aside talking about our kids and focus on each other.”

“Well, if the experts say it,” he joked, gulping down an oyster. Then we sat in silence as I wondered, What else would two people in the trenches talk about besides the overwhelming and exhausting work unfolding around them?

Later that night, we sat on a blanket at a Jack Johnson concert. It was one of those perfect Texas nights in May, on the precipice of summer but without the mosquitos. Jack was in top form and I swayed along with the crowd, finally soaking in the elusive date experience that we were supposed to have, according to every magazine and news story about a post-kids marriage.

I looked down, thinking I would put the meaningful cherry on top of our evening with some prolonged eye contact, only to find my hardworking, dad-at-the-top-of-his-game husband laid out and snoring lightly. Sigh. Another imperfect date night, I thought as I calculated whether it would be better to leave and save money on the sitter.

RELATED: Why You Should Date Your Spouse

Prior to having kids, falling asleep at a concert would have been something to laugh about—but since going on a date when you have children requires a level of planning on par with launching a rocket, I was disappointed. It was important to us both to make time for each other, but with three active tweens, we are as energy-poor as we are time-short. What is a couple to do if they hope to emerge from the 20-plus-year stretch of parenting as a unified, loving couple who enjoy each other’s company?

We’ve all heard marriage advice about the importance of maintaining a connection with your spouse. But that advice seldom comes with a free babysitter, some extra cash and a shot of espresso. How do real parents find balance and connection amidst diapers and Legos and lost socks and soccer practices and homework help?

Finding Solutions

Dallas mom Xochilt Madden and her husband Mike had their daughter, Presley, six months ago. After meeting in 2014 in a chemistry lab at Eastfield College, Mike and Xochilt (pronounced SO-chee) were inseparable.

“We’ve always been best friends,” Xochilt confides. “We were spontaneous and loved spending time together, doing things we both enjoyed.”

She says Mike was a wonderful and supportive spouse who doted on her through her pregnancy, and when their baby was born, he bonded with Presley right away.

“And that was so great,” Xochilt says. “It was sweet and beautiful and what I wanted, but I got pushed to the side a little bit.”

She says sharing Mike’s attention required her to adjust a little—during a time when most women feel particularly vulnerable. Though it was difficult, Xochilt made the conscious choice to focus on admiring Mike’s devotion to their daughter and adjust her expectations to fit their family.

But this was just the first hurdle. As Presley grew, the couple had to learn to understand and respect each other’s cultures.. “Presley is the first grandbaby on either side of our family,” Xochilt explains, “and for my family, in our culture we have a lot of traditional Mexican remedies that would make Mike, and sometimes me, wary.”

For example, when Presley came down with the sniffles, Xochilt’s mom had some outdated ideas for treatment. Balancing the delicate relationship with Xochilt’s mom—who felt strongly that their family remedies and traditions should be passed down—and modern parenting was hard on Mike and Xochilt, who were already fatigued and feeling the strain of shifting relationship dynamics that come with a new baby.

With patience and open communication, the couple powered through to find solutions. Xochilt says staying mindful that they were both tired and trying their best helped her to focus on the end goal (a strong marriage) as they adjusted.

Fort Worth counselor Janice Moran says it is not uncommon for new parents to have these hurdles, and that issues can be compounded by sleep deprivation and a change in routine.

“One very common issue [new] parents encounter is experiencing changes in both emotional and energy levels,” she says. “Sleep deprivation affects all our systems, and it contributes to highly charged, tense emotional situations.”

Pastor Curt Krohn of Faith Bible in DeSoto has counseled engaged couples for 30 years. He says often they don’t grasp—and aren’t prepared for—how much a child can impact their relationship.

“Certainly, children and the changes they will bring are discussed in pre-marriage counseling,” Krohn says, “but, in reality, my experience is that it is difficult to have an engaged couple fully understand what children will mean to their relationship. It is often evident that the reality did not successfully sink in!”

Nurturing is Key for a Strong Marriage

Arlington mom Marie Reddick and her husband Nathan say that saving space for each other has seen them through more than a decade of marriage and four children ranging in age from 11 years to 4 months. As we talk, the baby coos and cries, and Marie and Nathan seem to have a shorthand for handling it. They laugh, looking back at the early days of being married and having young children.

“When we were dating, we didn’t fight at all,” Marie recollects. “I always joke that he saved it all up for when we were married.”

Nathan laughs in agreement, and points out that a follow-up visit to their premarital counselor helped them to develop healthy patterns that have been helpful throughout marriage. “When we showed up, the counselor was kind of stunned,” Nathan explains. “He said no one had ever taken him up on the follow-up visit before.” During that visit, the couple worked on open communication and empathy, helping them frame how to work (and fight) together. “We had to learn how to understand each other,” Nathan explains.

Marie adds that understanding that men are wired differently and think differently than women was a crucial point for her. “It was a Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus moment,” she says.

“We are both type A people, and we can bicker sometimes about the little things,” she continues, pointing out that counseling helped establish how they can disagree productively and how to make time for each in such a busy season of their lives.

“We talk constantly,” Marie explains. “We call and check in with each other several times throughout the day, and we are very honest with each other and very open in communication, which I think is really helpful and keeps us connected even when life gets crazy.”

What Date Nights are Really For

Moran says this is at the heart of all marriage advice: Date nights are great (provided your partner can stay awake)—but when you distill the principles behind the date night, it’s about nurturing the relationship. The goal behind time spent together—fancy restaurant or otherwise—is the connection. “Checking into one another’s inner world is vital for growing and changing together,” Moran emphasizes.

Marie Reddick adds that dating does not just entail physically spending time together, but also continuing to grow and develop as a person, to put your best foot forward for your spouse. “For me, ‘never stop dating your spouse’ means that I never stop trying to be the best version of myself for my spouse,” she explains.

Besides, you and your spouse are not the only ones who benefit from a healthy connection. “Every day, you are modeling for your children how you treat people and how you want to be treated and your standards for relationships,” Moran says.

Tending to a relationship is a form of self-care that we model for our children, which not only helps us care for our children better, but teaches them how to operate in a relationship as well.

“By implementing self-care for both you and your relationship as a couple, you are vicariously teaching your children the importance of these skills,” Moran says.

Finding What Works for You

When our kids asked how our date went, we were honest and laughed about my husband falling asleep. “Smooth, Dad!” my daughter teased, and then added, “Maybe next time you could have a lunch date!”

In the weeks after, my husband and I tried various ways to make time for connection. We made a point of having breakfast or coffee together in the morning—another washout, as we sat in stony silence trying to will ourselves into action and not feeling much like talking.

But we did keep trying, powering through other failed attempts and finally moving our dates to when we were most alert—midday. Our sage little daughter was right: Lunch dates were best for her two exhausted parents. We took longer lunches and saw movies together, which gave us something other than our kids to discuss.

As Xochilt and Mike began to date post-baby, they also had to find their sweet spot—and stop trying to expect the things to work the same way they did before Presley was born. “We decided to go out for our first date night on a Friday night,” Xochilt explains, “but when we got to the restaurant, we were exhausted and had a hard time.” Another night they sent Presley to stay overnight with a grandparent while they went to a friend’s annual Halloween party, an event they enjoyed a lot before they were parents.

“Mike was so excited to go, and so was I, but I had a hard time letting loose in the same way I could before I had Presley,” she explained. “Mike didn’t say anything, but I could tell he was wishing that I could relax more. But it was my first night away from her and it was hard.”

She says that eventually, they had to find a “new normal” and new ways to connect. Step one: setting up a sleep routine for Presley that allowed them to make time for each other.

“We put Presley to bed around 6:30–7pm so that we can eat dinner together and watch Netflix or play a game,” Xochilt says. “And that works great for us. It helps us keep the love and friendship alive while being parents.”

Redefining What a Date Is

For parents of older kids, the issue is often less about finding the energy—or a sitter—and more about finding the time amidst busy schedules.

When their kids were younger, Carol and Kevin Smith’s dating life dwindled. It was actually a contest at their church that prompted the Garland parents of three to get back in the habit of making time for each other. “Our church wanted to do something to strengthen marriages within the church, so they offered a contest where we went on three dates a month for a year,” Carol explains. “The prize was a cruise, and I am very motivated to win things.”

Carol says the potential reward gave them the fuel they needed to make a change. She admits that prior to the contest, she and Kevin did not do the greatest job making time to connect, but they were entering a new season of their lives and felt it was a good time to try something new. “Our kids had just gotten to the ages where we could leave them alone,” Carol says, “so that helped a lot.”

Occasionally their “dates” weren’t much fun—an evening at the laundromat when their washing machine broke, a meal in a hospital cafeteria after their daughter had surgery—but creating a habit of dating proved hugely helpful to their marriage.

“It definitely made us closer,” Carol says, “and I think we are more intentional with each other now because of it.” And yes, they won the cruise; Carol urges other couples to set up a rewards-based system if they find it hard to make dating a priority.

Laying a Foundation of Friendship

Their experience underscores that dates don’t have to be a big production. According to Pastor Krohn, the value of a date—whatever form it takes—is in the shared experience and the development of the relationship. “Doing this does not require just the two of them, alone, focused on the other,” he clarifies, “but it can be with a group of friends or staying at home with their children, reading a book together or participating in a common task.”

“The goal is to make time for your relationship by taking advantage of organic opportunities,” Moran agrees. She says that laying a foundation of friendship and building on it with open communication helps build a strong shelter for when times get tough.

“When I work with couples, we talk a lot about friendship being the foundation of the relationship,” she explains. “If the foundation is not solid, then the chances increase for the relationship to fall apart, especially in times of strife.”

For my husband and I, working on our friendship meant pivoting on when and how we date—as well as some light teasing whenever Jack Johnson comes on the radio.

Date Night Ideas

A date can be as simple as putting on some music and washing dishes together, but we all yearn for something that is really special every now and then. So, for some non-sweatpants dates, try these ideas:

  • First date re-create: Try to redo your first date—bonus points for attention to detail, like similar clothing.
  • Do it for the ’gram: Have a fun photo session at the Rainbow Vomit Art Museum on Parry. Your kids will be mortified at your hipster selfies!
  • Grab a fancy cocktail: Show your friends you know how to let loose by dining at the beautiful Botanist cocktail lounge in Bishops Arts and check out these 30 restaurants that are prime spots for date night.
  • For the competitive: Try something like axe throwing at Corky’s Gaming Bistro in Grapevine.
  • Adult arcades: Get your game on at Fixation VR in Hurst or Bishop Cidercade in Dallas and Fort Worth.
  • Comedy club: Can’t make it to Maui? Try Four Kahunas Tiki Lounge in Arlington, then follow it up with nearby Zingers Comedy Club for some added fun.
  • Get fired up: For creative types, the Firehouse Pottery Gallery in Fort Worth offers classes—then run over to Trinity River Distillery to celebrate your newfound skills.

This article was originally published in February 2020.

Illustration: iStock