How Couples Reconnect Even When They're Super Busy—And You Can, Too
Building a strong relationship is hard enough. Then when you add in kids, pets, full-time careers, hobbies and household chores, things can get really challenging. It can feel like you're two ships passing in the night—cliché, but all-too true. In other words, you and your partner can easily become disconnected.
According to Kirsten Brunner, a MA, LPC, a perinatal mental health and relationship expert, when you’re short on time, “relationship maintenance usually falls to the bottom of the priority list even though it should really be at the top.” You’re so focused on putting out fires, and tending to work, household and family commitments that you end up neglecting your relationship, she said.
Also, “small niceties and gestures that keep a relationship strong usually fall through the cracks with busy couples.” That is, you stop cuddling on the couch. You stop saying “thank you.” You stop smiling at each other—and maybe you stop looking at your spouse’s face altogether. Playfulness might disappear, too. In fact, Brunner said, light-hearted, playful banter is often the first thing to go. “When you are rushing around from place to place and task to task, it’s easy to become very stern and task-oriented.”
But it’s not all doom and gloom, of course. A busy life also can be a full, fulfilling life with a healthy, satisfying marriage. The key is intention. As Laura Vanderkam, a bestselling author and mother of four, said, “Couple time isn’t going to just happen. You make it a priority by scheduling it in.”
Below, you’ll find insights from several therapists, along with how super busy moms maintain a strong connection with their partners.
Evaluate your days. If you find yourself feeling stressed and disconnected, see what commitments you can delete (or delegate) from your schedule, said Brunner, mom to two sons, co-founder of BabyProofedParents.com, and co-author of the new book The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads. “We tend to say ‘Yes!’ to everything and feel like we should be able to do it all, with a smile on our face. Unfortunately, our mental health and relationships suffer when we overcommit,” Brunner added.
Build in rituals, big or small. On some Saturdays, Vanderkam and her husband of 15 years cook and savor a special dinner while their kids play in the basement or watch TV. One Friday each month, they have childcare until 8 p.m. so they can grab an early dinner, or visit a museum with evening hours. A favorite ritual for Tonya Dalton, a productivity expert and founder of inkWELL Press, and her husband of 18 years is “Sunday Night Movie” at home. Their kids, 12 and 15, rarely interrupt them. “We made it a point to explain to them since they were very young that this is time that’s important to us, and that our marriage is the foundation for the family—it needs attention and love just like they do,” Dalton said. In fact, their daughter calls this weekly ritual “Mommy-Daddy Night.” “[I]f we have an extra hectic weekend, she will…point out that we need [to] have our time together.”
On most mornings, Mary Susan McConnell, host of the Mama Bear Podcast for women raising kids with special needs, and her husband, a #1 songwriter and touring singer, have coffee together. They maintain this ritual while he’s on the road— “even if it’s a texted picture of a paper-cup coffee at 5 a.m. in an airport.” High-risk pregnancy expert and perinatal mind-body wellness counselor Parijat Deshpande, MS, and her husband, a software engineering manager, watch a show together. As parents to a newborn daughter and 5-year-old son, they don’t always finish an episode the same night. “But we'll watch it together however long it takes, and then analyze it afterwards.” After their 20-month-old son goes to bed, Parita Kuttappan and her husband sit next to each other for 15 to 20 minutes. Sometimes, they talk; sometimes, they don’t. “I think this works for us because no other part of our day allows us to truly relax with each other,” said Kuttappan, a senior project manager whose days start before 5 a.m. and end at 10 p.m., when her head hits the pillow. Kuttappan and her husband, a radiology resident physician, also make a conscious effort to discuss their days. “[We] fill each other in on what some may call mundane details. He truly takes an interest in what I do and how things are going and vice versa.”
Create space for self-care. When we get busy, it also becomes harder to take care of ourselves. But it’s vital. “When we feel refreshed or we have a moment to de-stress by ourselves, it can clear our minds and bodies to welcome intimacy,” said Keisha Reaves, mom to a toddler and a licensed professional counselor who specializes in women’s issues. Self-care could be anything from journaling to listening to a guided mediation to practicing grounding exercises, Reaves said. McConnell has a potter's studio at her house. Kuttappan loves to read and write. Vanderkam runs every day.
Stay in touch during the day. “My husband is really good about calling throughout the day just to check in, [even] if it's only for a 5- to 10-minute phone call,” Reaves said. When McConnell’s husband is touring, he calls their 8-year-old daughter before and after school. In the evenings, they Face-Time before he hits the stage. “Getting to chat about our days while my daughter and I can literally see him backstage is a fun way to connect.”
Have team meetings. “If you think about it, [couples] are running a very complex, multi-layered enterprise together—they are raising kids, running a household, managing a budget, keeping a joint schedule, setting goals and tackling joint projects,” Brunner said. She suggested having a weekly meeting to discuss how the week is going, what’s coming up, and share any feedback. Start each meeting with two gratitudes and one thing that went really well, she said. Vanderkam and her husband, both of whom travel regularly for work, have similar meetings. They bring their calendars and discuss upcoming trips, date nights, kid activities and potential issues: “I’m in California and you’re in Texas on Monday and Tuesday—did we arrange overnight childcare? Who’s home for the choir concert on Wednesday?”
Prioritize playfulness. Brunner stressed the importance of finding “ways to lighten things up.” Which might be anything from planning a getaway to laughing more to sharing a hobby. “In many ways, having fun is our number one priority and we plan our lives with that expectation in mind,” McConnell said. This might mean listening to a new vinyl record or watching a comedy special. Kuttappan and her husband send each other silly messages and memes throughout the day.
Share your feelings. “If you're feeling overwhelmed, if your schedule is full, and you have a lot going on, communicate that,” Reaves said. “Make sure your partner knows what you're dealing with,” and thank them for being supportive, she said.
Avoid magical thinking. Magical thinking is making assumptions, Reaves said. “Sometimes when one partner is busy the other may feel left out or unwanted.” The best way to avoid this, she said, is to remind ourselves that the love and connection are still there. Similarly, Kuttappan suggested keep an open mind, and asking questions. “As my husband likes to say, ‘Nothing I do or say is meant to hurt you.’ This mindset helps us resolve issues a lot quicker than if we went in with our defenses up.”
Get creative. Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of the new book Juliet’s School of Possibilities: A Little Story About the Power of Priorities, has been studying people’s time logs for years. She’s seen couples create time in all kinds of ways—such as working from home on Fridays and breaking for lunch. “If the kids are all at school, this could wind up being a very exciting lunch break, if you get my drift!” Because Deshpande and her husband don’t get much time to talk, they use Voxer to leave each other voice memos throughout the day. “It fosters a bit more connection than texting because we can hear each other's voice without having to coordinate a time to talk on the phone,” said Deshpande, author of Pregnancy Brain: A Mind-Body Approach to Stress Management During a High-Risk Pregnancy. “And it's a fun way to check in and stay up to date on our very different days.”
Being busy can sometimes turn into being overwhelmed. Which means doing one more thing—like anything with your spouse—can feel impossible. But, as Vanderkam said, “connecting doesn’t need to be elaborate. Sometimes we’ll have a conversation in the minivan on a weekend family excursion while the kids are watching a movie in the back seats.”