I was pregnant with our first child when my husband and I attended a friend’s 40th birthday party. Over thumping music and margaritas (a Shirley Temple for me), we wished the guest of honor another happy journey around the sun.
“How does 40 feel?” My husband asked.
“It’s good,” he said. “But I’m tired.” He and his wife had two young kids at the time. “I don’t remember the last time I slept through the night.”
Our friend turned his gaze to his wife. Beaming in her direction, he told us how excited he was to spend the night at the swanky hotel down the street that night.
“So fun!” I exclaimed. “The kids are with their grandparents overnight?”
Our friend and his wife laughed, shaking their heads. “No,” she explained. “I’m staying with the kids so my husband can have the entire night to himself and wake up whenever he wants, in silence, totally alone.”
“Too bad you couldn’t find a sitter so you could stay at the hotel together,” I replied.
“No, this is actually the perfect birthday treat,” our friend insisted.
I sipped my Shirley Temple and tried to make my face look as if I understood.
Six years, two kids of my own, and countless sleepless nights later, I understand. As I’ve come to learn, taking time for yourself once you become a parent is not a luxury but a necessity. Though it seems counter-intuitive, one of the best things you can do for your marriage is to step away from it, regularly and intentionally.
I talked to experts to find out why couples – particularly those with kids – are so much better together when they spend time apart.
Our kids absorb an incredible amount of our time and energy. Ironically, this is exactly why parents need to take time for themselves.
Alex Hedger, therapist and clinical director of Dynamic You Therapy Clinics, encourages parents to take breaks from the demands of both their children and their partner in order to “prevent cracks appearing in either partner's well-being – or the relationship.”
Tiya Cunningham-Sumter, a certified life and relationship coach, describes those potential cracks as “regret and resentment toward your partner…. You'll find yourself giving your partner the angry side-eye, and it's all because you didn't make time for you.”
While experts agree that down time is crucial for both parents, David Ezell, therapist and clinical director of Darien Wellness, argues it’s particularly important for women. He describes a client who mistakenly believes she should never be apart from her kids, a mindset that tends to be unique to mothers:
“Not only is it horrible for the children – they need to learn mom can leave and come back – but it’s also likely to turn this highly educated, accomplished woman’s brain into mush. Children are wonderful, but we all need a break from being asked why the sky is blue (for the 400th time).”
You’re still fascinating, even if you answer to “Mom” or “Dad”
Before you were someone’s mom, dad, husband, wife, or partner, you were just you. Peel off all the labels and you’re still there, even if you’re buried under laundry and dinner prep and birthday party invitations. And you still matter.
Vikki Ziegler, the author and divorce attorney best known for her starring role in Bravo TV’s “Untying the Knot”, calls prioritizing your own interests a chance to “nourish your soul.” Dating coach Corrine Dobbas calls it a time to “rejuvenate and foster sense of self.”
Whatever you call it, it is vital to stay in touch with what makes you uniquely you – the person your partner fell in love with in the first place.
Alex Hedger uses the analogy of a sports team to illustrate the importance of each half of a couple bringing their best self to the relationship. Just as a team functions optimally when each player brings his or her unique strengths to the game, “having time apart allows you to be true to yourself in a way that allows you to uniquely contribute when being part of the Relationship Team.”
Dobbas agrees. Only when you stay in touch with yourself “can show up in the relationship more present, confident, and less stressed.” Not only do you bring greater energy to the relationship when you’ve had time to recharge, you also become a more interesting person to your partner.
Marriage counselor and author Patricia Bubash says when each partner carves out time for their own interests, not only does it give them something to talk about, but it also gives partners a chance to see each other “as interesting individuals, not just a wife husband.”
Absence makes the heart grow fonder
Whether you take an hour for a kickboxing class, an evening with friends, or a weekend to go on a yoga retreat, taking time apart give you and your partner a chance to miss one another. Amy Bailey, a Colorado mom of three who has been married 16 years, says that, while date nights are key, so is time apart.
“There’s nothing that makes me miss home and my husband like not having him around,” says Baily, “and we take that time to send each other texts we wouldn’t want our kids to read, and by the time we see each other again – well...we’re ready to see each other again.”
While it’s not always possible to get away for long stretches of time, Jenni Skyler, certified sex therapist and director of The Intimacy Institute, encourages couples to get creative with the limited time they have. She says it is especially important for new moms to have what she calls “restorative, regenerative time” in order to show up to the relationship sexually.
“For a lot of women, the ability to be aroused comes from having space for arousal to emerge.” She says because most women can’t just switch from Mom to lover in the blink of an eye, having time alone is essential, even if it’s just 20 minutes to soak in the tub.
Cunningham-Sumter says that even carving out a few minutes for chores, like folding laundry or doing dishes by yourself, “can be your time to turn on your music and just be with yourself.”
While any time away from your partner can be helpful, research suggests time spent in solitude may be especially valuable. Relationship expert David Bennett points to a recent study in which alone time was found to promote relaxation and reduce stress.
My husband gives me time to work out because he knows the more I sweat, the more pleasant I am to be around. Though he doesn’t necessarily care to hear about the way my leggings chafed or how my GPS lost its signal during my run, he does care that I’m still the athlete I was when we met.
Likewise, I rarely deny his occasional request to take himself and his fantasy novel out for a beer and a burger. He always returns in a better mood than when he left. Because sometimes time alone is exactly what we need to come together.