Family, Kids & Relationships

4 Research-based ways to connect with your partner (when parenting saps most of your energy)

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Ever feel like you are in a rut with your relationship? Many parents who are married or in romantic relationships feel this way. The truth is that running a household and being a caregiver (not to mention all of the other adult responsibilities) take a lot of time and energy, and your partner’s needs and emotions might sometimes end up near the bottom of your overwhelming to-do list.

But the good news is that anyone can learn to be a more attentive, caring, communicative partner — it takes practice and patience, just like parenting. Plus, if you work to improve these skills, you’ll be able to set a great example for your kids as they form their own relationships and friendships.

Recent research-based insights on gratitude, attention, outlook, and routines among romantic couples hold some of the keys to relationship success. For the best effect, read through them together with your partner, and discuss which ones you could work on!

Make sure your partner feels appreciated

We all know how far a simple, sincere “thank you” can go — especially once you’ve experienced the invisible labor of parenthood. It turns out that feeling some of that genuine gratitude from your partner can have a protective effect against other relationship problems too.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign surveyed middle-aged couples, both married and cohabiting, with an average of three kids in the home. The research found that the more respondents felt appreciated by their partner, the more likely they were to feel satisfied with their relationship, and the less likely they were to have thoughts about breaking up. Even when typical problems like financial strain and arguments came up, the feelings of being appreciated by their partner acted as a protective buffer against those stresses.

Allen Barton, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors, suggests a direct approach to making your partner feel appreciated: “Be sure to make compliments that are sincere and genuine. And ask your partner if there are any areas in which they feel their efforts aren’t being appreciated or acknowledged and start expressing appreciation for those.”

Offer your full attention (and put down your phone) as often as possible

How often do you give your partner’s needs your full attention? When you have kids and a household to care for, plus smartphones and technology constantly within reach, it can become a rare occurrence for many couples.

“Turning toward” each other more of the time is the number one most effective relationship hack according to psychologists Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D., and John Gottman, Ph.D., who have been married to each other for 35 years and have been studying couples, including parents, for nearly 50 years.

“Turning toward” means that when your partner says or does something (even a mundane comment or a little smile) that’s a bid for connection, you fully acknowledge their need for connection and respond right away — rather than multitasking, partially or fully ignoring them, or shutting them down in an irritated tone.

Even when you’re feeling too busy, taking a moment to make eye contact and say something like, “I really want to hear more about that, but I need five minutes to finish this work up first,” or to sneak in a six-second hug or kiss in between parenting tasks can help build affection and a sense of teamwork in your relationship.

Finding more moments of quality connection also means putting your phone away more often when you’re together. A 2021 study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior showed that scrolling through your phone while your partner is talking to you has detrimental effects on the relationship. The research found that on days when “phubbing” (phone snubbing) was more frequent, partners were less satisfied and more resentful about their relationships.

Work through problems with an optimistic mindset

Couples obviously need to be able to work through problems and conflicts together if they are going to be committed in the long term. And parenting adds on plenty of problem-solving challenges that need to be addressed.

A recent study revealed that having an optimistic outlook is a crucial part of successful problem solving as a couple, and a crucial part of relationship happiness. The research, published in the ​​Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in August 2022, found that less optimistic couples were less satisfied with their relationships on days they had to work through problems together. Meanwhile, more optimistic couples were not only more likely to resolve the problems, they were also equally satisfied with their relationships on days when they did have to solve problems and on days when they didn’t have to solve problems.

If you don’t think that you’re a particularly optimistic person, know that a positive outlook is something you can develop with practice. Mindfulness activities, such as meditation or gratitude journaling, can help.

Go to bed at the same time as each other

Even if you’re too tired to do anything but brush your teeth and watch a favorite TV show together before falling asleep, spending time together at bedtime provides a major boost for relationships.

A study published in 2021 in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that couples had greater feelings of emotional intimacy when they went to bed at the same time, and that shared technology use as well as simply talking to each other during that time led to healthier relationships.

Sometimes, of course, you just can’t manage to get to bed at the same time as your partner. But if that’s the case, make an effort to schedule a night (or a few) when you can.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.