The Magical Rule: The Secret to Surviving Married Life with Young Kids

There is a funny book recently written by Rolling Stones writer, Jancee Dunn, called How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids.  The title alone cracks me up. Not to scare off any of you young, starry-eyed couples excitedly deciding to start a family—but—things will change in your marriage after kids. In fact, it’s not uncommon for couples to tell me the start of their marital woes can be traced back to, give or take, the births of their first, second and/or third child.  

As a mom to two young kids myself, I can 100% understand how this can happen. Kids (cute as they can be) can make you want to lose your mind. You barely sleep, your self-care goes in the toilet, and the afternoons that you once spent reading a nice book on your back porch are now spent being out-negotiated by a three-year-old who refuses to poop in the potty (can you tell what I did today?). These conditions, shockingly, are not super conducive for a loving, warm and peaceful marriage. In fact, after being awoken three times last night by your kid, your dog and then (for the love) your other kid, the mere sight of your partner can piss you off. How is a marriage supposed to survive this chaos?

The Magical Rule

Dr. John Gottman is one of the leading experts in marriage. No joke, he created a “love lab” and observed couples extensively to understand the differences between happy and unhappy couples. Here’s what he found:  happy couples had five positive interactions for every negative interaction. He calls this the 5 to 1 ratio.

Couples come into my office with a great desire to eliminate their negative interactions. They want the surefire way to make sure those moments stop happening. Sure, there are definitely ways to help prevent negative interactions. But, with young kids, negative interactions are expected, consistent and frequent. When you are sleep-deprived, emotionally and physically drained and you haven’t showered or possibly even gone to the bathroom alone in weeks, months or years, it’s a tall order to NOT expect some negativity between you and your spouse. Therefore, a more effective method than trying to eliminate all the negativity, is to focus on increasing the positivity. And, if you can figure out how to do this five times more often than the negative interactions you will join the ranks of other happy and long-lasting marriages.

What to do?

Positive things do not have to be a week-long vacation in Hawaii without your kids.  Although by all means, don’t hesitate to do this too. Positive things can be super small. Things like:

  • A hug
  • A kiss
  • A compliment (“You handled that meltdown amazingly.”)
  • A statement of empathy (“Gosh, I can’t believe she didn’t nap today, you didn’t get a single break? That sounds awful!” or “Gosh, I can’t believe you had to run meetings all day after such little sleep, you must be exhausted.”)
  • Apology (“I’m sorry I slept through the 5 am wake up of our children, thanks for taking one for the team.”)
  • Laughter (the only way to make it through throw up and poop incidents with your sanity)
  • Cuddle
  • Sex
  • Reminisce (my personal favorite—sitting on the back patio together after bedtime reminiscing about the “glory days” when we got to galavant around the world without regard for anyone but ourselves)
  • Genuinely ask about your spouse’s day
  • Listen
  • Complain together about how hard this whole parenting thing can be
  • Give each other a guilt-free break
  • Plan a fun night out
  • Do a chore for your spouse
  • Send a sweet text
  • Express appreciation
  • Give a meaningful gift

To put this in perspective, this means for every fight over whose faulty parenting strategy resulted in your 2 year old’s meltdown in the middle of a restaurant, you in turn need a hug, a laugh, some cuddle time, a compliment and a nice dose of empathy.  

ADD version

  • In happy marriages, positive interactions outweigh the negative interactions 5:1.
  • Expect lots of negative interactions when young kids are involved.
  • Marriages can still thrive despite all of the negativity, as long as you increase the positivity.

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