What do you and your spouse do before bed? Brush your teeth, swish some mouthwash, scrub your face, then get under the covers and watch old episodes of The Office on Netflix as you both drift off? Maybe you try to finish work, falling asleep before a screen full of spreadsheets because it’s the only time you have after the evening haze of bath routines, bedtime stories, and getting ready for the day ahead. Once the kids are in bed, most parents have a solid hour or two of uninterrupted time together. Unfortunately, we all tend to squander that time by watching TV or scrolling through our phones. But that’s a big disservice to marriage.
It can feel near impossible for parents to carve out quality alone time or to have an intimate conversation that doesn’t revolve around kids. And one difficult irony of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting quarantine is that despite the extreme togetherness it requires of couples and families, it’s as hard as ever to carve out those periods of connection and intimacy. One thing that helps? Structure and the introduction of new positive habits and rituals.
We all need time to wind down. But the time before bed is crucial for parents. “Due to our increasingly busy lives this is often the only time many have to connect these days,” says Dr. Clinton Moore, a clinical psychologist. That connection is essential for the health of a relationship — we all need time to feel like partners and not just parents. So when bedtime arrives, what do the happiest couples do? Here are five night-time routines that work.
They Ditch Their Devices
Phones — and the social media and games and apps they contain — are basically dopamine slot machines, designed to keep us scrolling, liking, commenting, email-checking, and shit-posting. The major thing they distract from? Relationships. Real human relationships. Nowhere is a device’s intrusion more apparent than in the bedroom. In a perfect world, phones and devices would never cross the bedroom threshold, but that’s unrealistic. Instead, try a more realistic approach such as a “No phones after 9” rule to dial back on device usage. “Electronics and TV should be used briefly in bed,” says Lutter. “They pull us apart.”
They Intentionally Make Time to Connect
Instead of just flopping into bed and turning on the TV, the happiest couples take 10 minutes before they both go to bed to do what Dr. Moore calls “The State of the Union.” This involves each partner taking turns at the role of either speaker or listener. “The speaker shares their experience for the week, and the listener simply has to show curiosity without trying to problem solve,” he says. “It’s important that the couple find space to do this without the children present.” The result: a consistent conversation that ensures both partners are on the same page and helps prevent resentments or imbalances from festering.
They Make Physical Contact
Yeah, it can be sex. But it doesn’t have to — actually, shouldn’t — always be sex. There can be more than one form of intimacy under the covers. But couples need to connect physically just by lying side by side or getting their spoon on. “Bedtime is connection time,” says Tiiu Lutter, a mental health professional and Director of Communication and Resource Development at Child Guidance Resource Centers. So snuggle, scratch each other’s backs. Giggle. Joke together. “Talking about the day is lovely, but not the details, the feelings. It’s not a time for problem solving, but rather to share how things impacted and affected us.”
They Go to Bed at the Same Time (Whenever Possible)
A lot of couples end up having different bedtimes, with one or the other staying up later to watch TV, finish up work, or take on a few last tasks of the day. However, keeping separate bedtimes leads to greater disconnection and the feeling that each person is living a separate life. For some, separate bedtimes can’t be avoided, but happy couples make sure to go to bed together as much as possible. “I recommend that couples try to go to bed together at least three times a week,” says Lutter. “and to not stagger upstairs after sleeping on the sofa, but to actually go to bed together.” Connections can’t me made if a couple is on different schedules.
They Set Boundaries With the Kids
It’s an easy trap to fall into: Prioritizing your kids over your relationship. But without a strong marriage and loving home, kids won’t thrive. In other words, you’re doing them a disservice by putting your spouse on the back burner. While there is a time for kids to get under the covers (nightmares, illnesses, the occasional thunderstorm), by and large, the experts agree that the bedroom should be treated as a sacred place for just the two of you. Spend your evenings with your kids, then send them to their own beds. “All the kid-hanging should have happened earlier,” Lutter says. “Don’t let your children take precedence over your relationship.” Of course, she adds, they want to come in and be with you, but it’s important to keep some things just for the grown ups. “Kids do better when they have things to look forward to as adults. And adults do better when their relationship is the pinnacle of the family.”