Balancing Attachment Parenting and Intimate Relationships

By Kassandra Brown, parent coach,

Attachment Parenting International offers Eight Principles of Parenting. The eighth principle is about balance in personal and family life. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some ways to bring balance into your marriage or intimate partnership. I hope that everyone who values strong relationships can find a few insights in the ideas of finding balance offered below.SONY DSC

Attachment Parenting is wonderful for babies. It helps children feel secure and loved. These children then grow into adults who are able to form secure attachments and who do not resort to violence to resolve discrepancies.

But is Attachment Parenting good for the marriage or partnership?  When practicing Attachment Parenting, it can seem like babies and children always come first. When is the time for nurturing the relationship between parents? If the adult relationship is not nurtured, it will eventually deteriorate. The fear of this deterioration can lead parents to choose more authoritarian, distant or punitive parenting styles than they may otherwise prefer. Their motivation? To create space for the parents to still be intimate partners and individuals. If connection and attachment are correlated to loss of freedom and loss of self, it becomes much harder to embrace attachment principles.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Nurturing your children and nurturing your partnership are not mutually exclusive. Doing both at the same time does ask each parent to become more creative, loving and forgiving. It may ask each partner to grow and resolve old childhood wounds. In my opinion, this makes it more, not less, valuable as a parenting path. Let’s take a look at some ways to form and maintain strong connections with both children and adult partners.

Be realistic. Many of us have an after-birth image of the sexy mom with her body back in 20-something fitness and open for lovemaking within months of the baby’s birth. This image is hard to live up to for most women, but it is hard to let go of. A steady barrage of media lookism and behavioral expectations keep fueling the image of the woman who can do it all, perfectly, right now. A great deal of suffering happens when we try to make ourselves this woman and then judge ourselves as failures. The antidote comes in the form of connection. When we connect and talk with each other, we get a more accurate idea of what is normal. Relaxing into loving yourself as you are is another great antidote and wonderful aphrodisiac.

Take time for oxytocin. Bonding behaviors increase oxytocin. This is the hormone that helps during labor and birth, helps a mother bond with her new baby, and also helps with long-term pair bonding (that’s you and your partner!). Why not try three things every day like eye-gazing, forgiving a hurtful remark or massaging your partner’s shoulders?

Intimate connections. Sex can happen anywhere. It does not have to be in the parents’ bed, so fears of being inappropriate around a sleeping child or of not having any sex at all can be allayed by getting creative. Try different rooms and different positions. Remember being a teenager? Try it out. It might spice things up.

Make dates with each other and keep them. Then be flexible when children interrupt. One thing that inhibits a woman’s desire and responsiveness is worrying that a child will interrupt and that her partner will get angry or feel rejected.

A tip for dads—if you’re being loving with your partner and the baby or older child interrupts, you get bonus points for getting up and taking care of the child’s needs. Tell your partner to stay put and that you’ll be back. Then be flexible. Maybe the mood will be broken, and you’ll just share a melting hug or foot rub before one or both of you need to sleep. Being flexible and forgiving this time increases your chance of finding a partner who is willing and eager to try again next time.

Creatively use babysitters. If you find loving, reliable babysitters, teach them about Attachment Parenting. Show them how to use your sling or wrap. Then send them out on a walk or take a walk yourselves. Have a picnic in the park. Stay close to home initially so that these early excursions are good experiences for all.

Staying flexible and keeping expectations low will also help. If the first time you get a sitter you plan an extravagant overnight in a luxury hotel, you’re much less likely to do it again and much more likely to be disappointed if you don’t have a wonderful romantic connection. Keep it simple and you’ll be more likely to experience success. Success makes you more willing and eager next time.

Easy does it. Some children do not tolerate separation well. Especially if the birth was difficult or if there are underlying stressors in the home, children can strongly resist spending time with anyone other than their preferred caregiver. This is usually, but not always, mom. When this happens, it’s easy to see the problem as the child’s and try to force separation.

One woman I know had a daughter who would not reliably stay with anyone other than her or her husband until the daughter was 7. This was hard on the family. Part of the hardship was the advice and resistance from people outside the family. People labeled the child as having separation anxiety and said the mother was damaging her child by not insisting she stay with sitters. Instead, this mother trusted her instincts, the support she received from her parent coach, and what she had learned through API. She did not force separation. She gently encouraged it, looked for underlying causes of her daughter’s anxiety, and cultivated relationships where her daughter got to know other adults. When her daughter felt safe, she willingly went with one trusted friend. Soon after, she would go with a variety of caregivers. The change was swift and dramatic but not traumatic.

Sometimes change takes longer than we’d like. Please be patient, get help when you need it and trust your child and yourself.

Sequencing and seasonality can help. Trying to keep love alive and balance in your relationship can sometimes feel like a lot of work. What if you take things in smaller bites and let them happen according to their proper season or sequence? Taking a longer-term perspective can make it easier for both partners to see that, while sex may lull or take a  backseat during the early months or years, this is not a permanent state of affairs. It does not mean the marriage is over and all the fun is gone.

Just like the earth goes into hibernation and returns to lush new life in the spring, so too can sexuality and ways of connecting go through phases.  Intimacy may take on new forms. Sex may become less athletic and more about gentle connection. Other areas of the partnership may grow in ways that complement sexuality later.

All of these tips are easy enough to try, and yet trying to do all of them all at once can be overwhelming. The changes mentioned here may call on you to question some significant ideas in your worldview. That sort of self-examination and change are much easier with support. Please go slowly, ask for help, and remember that human beings learn by making mistakes. That means if you’re learning, you’re making mistakes.

Adult connection and intimacy are important. Attachment Parenting is not to blame when intimacy breaks down. There are creative choices you can make to bring the desire and intimacy back to your relationship. Along the way, you will grow as a person, parent and partner. I offer these suggestions as seeds to get your own creative juices flowing. Please share your ideas, successes and failures with us. What helps you find balance in your marriage or partnership and adult friendships?

8 thoughts on “Balancing Attachment Parenting and Intimate Relationships”

  1. This is a serious and senstitive topic. I know several AP families with struggling marriages. It’s easy to blame AP; but often, closer inspection reveals other issues in one of the partners, or in the marriage, that are easier to ignore when a child’s needs become the focus of the family.

    In our family, we’ve raised several children by predominantly AP methods. Our children now range from older teen years to younger elementary. Our marriage has had it’s ups and downs, and we’ve certainly used co-sleeping as an excuse not to deal with some marital issues; but overall, our marriage is strong, perhaps even stronger than it was when we first married. Our intimate life together is strong as well. No boredom over here!

    Part of being an AP parents means being creative. We’re already used to making affection a priority, and we’re used to thinking outside the box. We do it well with our children. Now, it’s time to learn to do it with our spouses.

    In our family, we share our affection throughout the day. We’ve learned to be open with hugs, kisses, and hand holding throughout the day; and, we’ve learned to take time for and engage in “date” conversations throughout the day–those are conversations that have nothing to do with the children, the home, the jobs, etc…. Our children respect those times because they enjoy seeing us being “in love” with each other. (they’ve seen us grumpy with each other, and I think would prefer to do anything to keep us loving each other rather than grumping at each other!)

    We’ve never had a babysitter per se. When our oldest was young, we did try using a family member, but for many reasons, that didn’t work. As the kids got older, we tried to coordinate activities with friends in such a way as to give us some occasional time alone together. We have always been open about coordinating of “date” time, and offer to reciprocate for the parents of the friends.

    Honestly, though, we’ve learned to be creative. When the kids were all young, we had date nights almost every night. After the kids were in bed, we might watch a favorite show, read a book together, or just sit and visit in the living room. Often, we would share a special desert. We had intimacy every night, and tried to engage sexually several times a week. If I was particularly tired, I tried to catnap during the day. Affection for my husband was as important as my children’s, so making his time a priority was just as important as making the children’s time a priority. I learned this the hard way though, by ignoring him when I was really tired. He was wonderfully patient, but I realized that what I was communicating to him must have hurt him deeply as it must have appeared that I had all the time in the world for the kids, but not for him.

    I didn’t want to see him hurt. He was my best friend, and I wanted him to know that. So, I had to learn to make him a priority, and not take him for granted quite so much!

    We didn’t watch a lot of videos, especially when the children were young, but if I needed to put on a video so I could take a 30 minute catnap when the kids were little, I felt like that was a valid trade-off. Sometimes, as I nursed my child to sleep, I would get another catnap. My husband would often use the time to wash dishes from the evening, or to work on some of his projects around he house or from his job. He enjoyed the downtime, and knew that might catnap was benefitting him too!

    I think because I made my husband a priority, he was appreciative, and so was more than understanding if I needed the occasional night, or even season, just to cuddle or sleep. There were many nights I fell asleep with one of my children, and he made the decision to let me sleep, or suggest that I go back to sleep if I woke up to be with him.

    As our children grew, finding truly private spaces and time became more challenging. We are both very private people. But, still, there were late night showers, or movies, middle of the night or early morning encounters, planned outings for the kids, etc… Campouts in the yard also allowed us to sneak back into the house, and were a huge treat for the kids. We would often put them to put in the tent, then sit out by the fire and talk. The older ones could hear us talking, and seemed to enjoy that distant closenss of listening to our conversations. As everyone slept soundly under the stars, we could slip inside for a few minutes of private time. Then, sneak back outside to curl up in our sleeping bags in the middle of sleeping children. If the children woke up, they would assume we had gone inside to change into night clothes, brush teeth, etc….

    As our oldest became a teen, and our youngest became a bit older, there were options for us to go out to dinner, go for long walks, etc… so we at least had the personal time to connect, touch, etc… That made it easier to have shorter, more intimate evenings without compromising the connecting part of our relationship. We had already had the connecting part during the day, so we could have shorter, more physical intimacy during the evenings. That was important to us because we didn’t want the children to walk in on us.

    There are so many places…. in a living room, an office, a guest bedroom, a bathroom, a tent, an rv, on a blanket under a trampoline, etc… there is nothing sacred about a bedroom. We’ve never had sex in our bedroom when a child was sleeping there, and we’ve had children in our room for close to 2 decades. Maybe because we have to work and be creative for that intimate time together, our sex life is far from boring or stale. And, because we have been through seasons of “missing” each other, when we come together again, that aspect of our life is rich, powerful and special. We truly appreciate that aspect of our relationship together…. We continue to try to make our physical intimacy an extension of our relational intimacy…which keeps us growing closer to each other. And, since we are Christians, it keeps us growing closer to God as well. God desires all of us to be attached to him, and to each other; so, it makes sense that we would attach to our children, and also to our spouses! Our journey has been one of discovering just how to do that as we’ve gone through the hills and valleys of life together!

    AP is absolutely NOT responsible for intimacy issues between husbands and wives; if anything, it encourages deeper intimacy as the husband and wife learn to attach to each other during the ups and downs of life, just as they are learning to attach to their children during their ups and downs!

  2. My marriage is failing, my husband has moved out and we are in counselling but things are very bad. My husband dates his unhappiness in our relationship from the time our first daughter was a few months old, and things got very bad after our second was born. I don’t think this is cooincidence. He loves the children very much but he felt “neglected”, my whole focus was on the children, I didn’t have anything left for our relationship. I breastfed the first for almost two years, kept her in our room for a year and a half. I didn’t tell him about AP because he normally dismisses things I “find on the internet”. I think AP needs a lot more focus on the “balance” principle and less on some of the others. In the end my children will suffer a broken family, that is not in their interests and it is not worth some of the lengths I went to to follow AP.

  3. E, I’m sorry, but it sounds as if you had problems apart from AP. The answer is in your post. You didn’t tell him you were doing AP, he felt neglected. Of course he did. He must have thought you preferred the children to him. I don’t think you can blame AP for your communication problems, or for having a husband who doesn’t take you seriously.

  4. Hi .. I feel sad for E , and there will be complex reasons that contribute towards any relationship breakdown, and the arrival of a new child can add pressures to any relationship. There is , rightly , a high focus on the needs of the Mother and unborn child, both in families and the media. .. this can sometimes leave men feeling excluded, lacking a role,..(and the usual frequency of sex !) at a time when both parents will struggle with additional financial pressures,poor sleep, hormonal changes, and an abundance of outside advice which in some cases can trigger feelings of guilt and frustration. AP and investing in our children from an early stage does not have to be detrimental to the parents relationships,but there is a need to ensure that changes for new Fathers are acknowledged, shared , and that men are able to feel they have a valuable contribution during the pregnancy and birth and beyond. This is a process that has,.. and often still is.. dominated by women .. but there have been great changes made to see men more included in childbirth. In the UK a lot of Child Welfare and Child Birth agencies , such as Sure Start, NCM, NHS, NSPCC, Barnado’s ,recognise this and provide advice and support for new Fathers,I am sure there will be similar organisations in the USA. There are a huge amount of complex reasons why Men will always respond differently to child birth and the needs of children than women,.. but different does not badly. If Men.. as well as women are encouraged to invest their energies in seeing their children grow up with a secure sense of indentity and confidence there will be lasting positives for the Children, Women and not least Men themselves. For new Fathers ..( an Mothers who want to support them.. don’t laugh at the irony of this..!) I would reccomend reading : From Lad to Dad: The Ultimate Guide to Pregnancy for Blokes. (White Ladder Press) by Stephen Giles.Also these Websites. NewdadssurvivalGuide and The Fatherhood or Dad Talk websites. Im sure API would be able to reccomend similar resources which are directed at new Fathers in the US. I hope that there is a positive conclusion for E. and her Children, and their Father. Remember secure children grow up to be more secure adults and are more likely to develop more secure relationships.

    Regards Richard .W.Yorkshire. England.

  5. My husband and I never planned to be attachment parents, mostly because it gets a lot of bad press and I hadn’t done much research on it. Once our baby was born 3.5 months ago we just kind of naturally fell into doing many things which would be considered attachment parenting. We bed share, wear our baby, I nurse on demand, and we respond appropriately whenever our baby needs us.

    We continue to reiterate at our marriage comes first before anything else. Yes, we do need to attend to our baby and we want to raise her in the best and most loving way possible, but with the mindset that our marriage is the most important thing, we are constantly reminded to also attend to one another.

    Yes, I pay a lot of attention to our baby girl and I no longer wake up before my hubby to fix his coffee, lunch, and write him a love note before seeing him off to work. I am up every two hours right now and this would be unrealistic. However, I prepare and pack his lunch on the weekend and I insist he come wake me up for a goodbye kiss when he leaves in the morning. We touch, kiss, hold hands, and still do everything together. My husband bought a PS3 for our bedroom so that when he wants to play video games but I am chained to a baby going through a growth spurt, he can play and also be with me.

    We say I love you countless times per day and snuggle whenever we can. (Like when I am nursing on my side and he comes and spoons me). We still have a fairly decent amount of sex (maybe four times a week) though it is more hurried and prone to interruption now.

    I know our baby is young and we still have a long way to go, but I have a great example in my parents who are still mad about one another after 28 years of marriage. My dad still calls my mom on his way home from work every day because they cannot wait to be together. My parents basically did AP with their five children. They managed to keep their marriage together and happy even after losing their first child at six months, then having five more children who were all under seven at one point!

    I am very happy with our parenting choices so far and we will continue to fight very hard to keep our relationship strong. I believe it needs to be a priority and never something you should allow to slack. I love my husband so intensely and want to make sure that he ALWAYS knows it, no matter how I feel on a particular day.

  6. I have checked back into this site after some time. My husband and I are doing much better now and he is planning on moving back in. As some comments above rightly point out, the way I approached AP was one issue which pushed us apart rather than bringing us together, but of course we had other issues too, and communication was a big one.

    I don’t wish to blame AP for our problems, but rather I would like my experience to somehow help others from having the same problems. I suppose I wish I had read some of what I am writing below before I had the problems.

    I have learnt the following things through my own experience, which I would like to share:

    – Parenting should be team work. If one partner is more hands-on than the other (ie a breastfeeding mother, a parent who spends more time with the children than the other parent etc), the more hands-on parent should take care to nurture and encourage the relationship between the other parent and the children, and involve the other parent in parenting. This means not only the other parent indirectly supporting the hands-on parent to support the children (ie by cooking, providing, doing household work etc) but also direct involvement of the other parent with caring for the children whenever possible. The other parent needs to take responsibility for doing this, but also needs to be encouraged. Yes the father may take more time to settle the baby, and the baby would be more quickly and easily settled with a breastfeed, but sometimes if the baby is not actually hungry, the father should try to settle the baby to sleep (by cuddling, soothing, rocking etc), or sooth the crying baby, as this is part of building his relationship with his baby, and the mother should refrain from just saying “give him to me, I’ll get him to sleep”, but take the opportunity to go somewhere else (preferably where she can’t hear the crying). The baby crying for a bit longer due to be soothed by the father rather than being soothed instantly by the breast may actually be a price worth paying in order to build this father-baby relationship.

    – It is important to give a lot of weight and consideration to your co-parent’s opinions on parenting, even if these contradict your own opinions and even if these are not in line with AP approaches. Setting an example has a good role, but completely “taking over” is probably not a good way of encouraging your partner to embrace AP approaches – better to discuss openly, compromise on things which are less important to you, listen and ask questions “why do you think that approach is best? have you considered this?”. Better two 50% AP parents than one 100% AP parent? My husband at one point in counseling said “she listens more to people on the internet who she has never even met than to me, and I am the father”.

    – Any sort of “extreme” can be bad sometimes – for example if you take some of the other 6 AP principles to extremes, the chances are you may be neglecting the balance principle number 7. It seems there are some people for whom breastfeeding and co-sleeping for more than 2 years, complete avoidance of leaving the babies/children with babysitters, maximisation of time spent with children so there is no time for the couple on their own etc does not interfere with the parents relationship but I think there are probably many others for whom these things do interfere. Most couples need time alone together, and not just quickly snatched time which can be interrupted by a child at any moment, but relaxed, no-interruptions time.

    I agree with Rich that there is a very high emphasis by society on supporting new mothers, which is a good thing, but there needs to be more emphasis on supporting new fathers through what is often a very difficult time when they sometimes feel excluded and “useless” and not really part of the new family, they feel more like a convenient appendage who does some chores and/or provides, whereas the “important job” of actually caring for the baby is the mother’s.

    Also the AP community needs to somehow address the issue of couples where one parent is much more enthusiastic about AP principles than the other one, or issues about parenting differences between co-parents generally. Two parents each come from their own personal histories and family backgrounds, and bring different perspectives to the table. Perhaps the AP community could come up with a sort of “guide for parenting discussions” which encourages couples to go through a process to come up with shared parenting values and their own set of principles, emphasising that the AP principles can be useful inputs, but should not simply be “adopted per-se” but rather considered as one source of inspiration.

  7. I have a beautiful 2 year old that we have been co sleeping with for 2 years now. My partner is an awesome mum, and baby boy is nothing other than better and happier for his feelings of love and ability to breast feed/graze throughout the night. Sadly I mostly feel guilty, sad and lonely because of this, as I miss any connection of touch or intimacy that I previously took for granted. How can I counter the argument that I “simply don’t agree with attachment parenting”, when that is the block between us finding a happy middle ground? For the record, I do see the benefits etc, and it may just simply be my partner and how she sees it, but I seem unable to start a reasonable conversation about it so we can move forward with me involved.

  8. Hi Billy,

    There are some API resources that you may find helpful as you navigate this situation in your family:

    1. Marriage and AP page on API’s website,
    2. API Recommended Reads on API’s website. You may find some of the articles in the “Strive for Balance in Personal and Family Life” section especially relevant.
    3. And Baby Makes Three, a book by John Gottman, PhD, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD

    ~The Attached

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