Parenting can be hard on a relationship: Studies have long shown that marital satisfaction tends to go down and depression to go up after the birth of a first child. It seems parents might not even be in the clear once the kids leave the house, either. In recent years, although the overall divorce rate has gone down, the "gray divorce" has gained momentum — couples in their 50s or with an empty nest calling it quits after decades of marriage once the dust settles after the tornado of child-rearing.
But it is possible for a marriage to survive children. Experts have lists of tips for those of us still in the midst of the daily juggle of relationships, parenting, and work, but let's be honest: We don't have the bandwidth to check off a whole list of marriage-preserving practices on a regular basis.
Luckily, Melissa T. Shultz, mom of two grown sons and the author of "From Mom to Me Again: How I Survived My First Empty-Nest Year and Reinvented the Rest of My Life" told TODAY Parents that there really is just one big secret to making it to the empty nest and our golden years with our relationships intact.
"The secret to a long and successful relationship is a four-letter word," said Shultz. "T-A-L-K."
It sounds simple, but for most parents, said Shultz, making the time to talk to one another alone can be complicated — especially with the busy schedules that kids, work, and life demand.
"And if you’re lucky enough to have a date night, the idea of introducing difficult topics is not exactly a love potion," Shultz noted. "Trouble is, over time, little things can become BIG things, and resentment may build as issues get tabled. Pretty soon, the kids are off to college and you are left staring at one another, saying things like, 'Do I know you?' or 'I’m still mad at you for that thing you did ten years ago.'"
The Shultzes are celebrating their 26th wedding anniversary this year.
If she had known then what she knows now, " I would have made more time for us to be alone each week, not just to go on a date — even if it was just a walk in the park — but to talk about what was on our minds on a regular basis, without worrying the kids were going to overhear, so our needs and our own hopes and dreams were heard," said Shultz. "It's so important in a marriage to regularly connect as adults, not just parents."
TODAY Tastemaker and child development expert Dr. Deborah Gilboa said Shultz's advice is not only good for the adults in a relationship, but also for the children they are parenting.
As parents choose how to spend their time and energy, Dr. Gilboa told TODAY Parents they need to remember two things:
1. Your children will expect to be treated by their partners someday the way they see you treating your partner now. "So, if you don't want to listen to your daughter-in-law nag and criticize, or you don't want to watch your son-in-law dismiss or take advantage of your own son or daughter someday, model the marriage you want them to have," said Gilboa.
2. You're not going to rock on the porch every night — or travel the world — with your child when you're 80 years old. "Your future decades are for you and the adult in your life," she said. "So keep nurturing and tending to that relationship!"
Once children leave the home, life and relationships are different, Shultz said. "There are fewer distractions. Your life is sort of one continuous date — usually of the no-makeup variety, but still," she said. "You make time for one another. You find the kid in you again."
For Shultz and her husband, this has meant finding connection in new ways. "I wanted to be a good role model and not watch much television while our kids were growing up," she said. "Now my husband and I geek out and watch 1950s game shows and old horror movies together. We’ve got a running list of the best worst titles. 'Die, Monster, Die!' and 'The Boogie Man Will Get You' are a couple."
But kids or no kids, the heart of any successful and enduring relationship is always that crucial four-letter word, Shultz said. "Sometimes it’s not just what someone says that can ruin a relationship, but what someone doesn’t say. Let it out. Then let it go."