Did you know that most couples experience a significant decline in relationship satisfaction after the arrival of a baby? Many studies show high percentages of couples facing relationship problems in the year following their babies’ births. The unfortunate side effect is the significant impact that relationship struggles have on children. Research shows that marital dissatisfaction negatively influences co-parenting abilities. Also, when children spend their first years with parents in relationship distress, they are at risk of future depression, as well as social and academic problems.
So how is it that our cute little babies put such stress on our relationships? There’s a long list of possible answers. Fortunately, there’s also a long list of ways to avoid this stress. This article will shed light on some ways to prevent relationship deterioration. First, let’s look at the most relevant reasons that partners become disenchanted with their relationship after a baby enters the picture.
- Exhaustion. The lack of sleep and the sheer amount of work it takes to meet an infant’s needs are overwhelming. Parents are exhausted, and when you’re exhausted your tolerance for just about anything disappears. You start giving the baby all the good that you have within you, and your partner gets the bad and the ugly. When overwhelmingly exhausted, partners spend less time having significant interactions with each other. Conversations about anything besides the baby decrease, and sex and intimacy become less frequent and enjoyable.
- Pre-existing problems. If your pre-infant relationship was highly conflicted, having a baby will make things worse. There are, however, many struggling couples who decide to become parents thinking a child will bring them closer together. Some couples do manage to grow closer once they have children, but these are mostly couples who had very strong and balanced relationships to begin with.
- Depression. Parents have higher rates of depression than non-parents. One of the reasons that depression rates are high is that parents in many Western societies do not get much help from others. This lack of social support contributes to depression, and depression in turn contributes to relationship deterioration.
- Maternal gatekeeping. This is the process through which mothers shape how involved fathers are with their babies. Often unconsciously, mothers shut fathers out by criticizing how they take care of the baby. This leads to resentment on both sides.
- Unmet expectations. Life with a baby usually doesn’t meet parents’ expectations. No one realizes how tough it’s going to be. More importantly, there are expectations about how roles will be divided once the baby arrives, and usually the reality turns out quite differently. Mothers take on a bigger part of the work, often because they are on pregnancy leave, but then start resenting having to do so much. Both parents end up being disappointed with their roles.
- Different parenting styles. Differences in parenting styles can lead to a great amount of frustration. If one parent believes it’s ok to let the baby cry for a little bit, but the other thinks this has a damaging effect, relationship tension is sure to follow. For cross-cultural couples this is even more likely to be a point of distress. What you once loved about your partner’s culture might suddenly become a point of tension. As an example, imagine quarrels between a Northern European mom and her Southern European partner about their baby’s bedtime.
- Perfectionism. Parents who feel societal pressure to be perfect in their new roles often have a harder time adjusting to parenthood, are less confident in their parenting skills, and feel more stressed. This in turn stresses the relationship.
- Money and work. The amount of disposable income available to a couple diminishes with the arrival of a baby. This can cause tension, even when both partners keep working. But when one of the partners decides to stay at home (beyond paid parental leave), resentment can soon ensue. The working partner feels the financial burden and a sense of injustice about working all day while the partner at home gets to ‘do nothing.’ The stay-at-home partner feels guilty, underappreciated, and misunderstood, among other things.
Thankfully, there are plenty of ways you can avoid these pitfalls, or at least work on keeping your relationship in the best possible shape while transitioning to parenthood. Keep in mind though, that these are not necessarily easy steps to take when you are feeling exhausted, angry, and sad. If you think your relationship is in trouble, seek counseling as soon as you can.
- Learn to have fair arguments. You’re going to argue, this is almost unavoidable, but how you do it can make all the difference. Even though it might seem hard or weird, try focusing on your own feelings instead of on your partner’s faults. So, instead of saying, “You’re always so messy”, say, “I’m upset that there are clothes on the floor.” When arguments become very heated and you’re overcome with emotion, take a 20-minute break to soothe yourself and relax. This way you can avoid saying hurtful things that you will regret later that might have a lasting impact.
- Spend quality time together. This does not necessarily mean that you have to set up a mandatory date night. You can have other fun traditions, with or without your children, that are meaningful to you. Try having family dinners together, watching your favorite sitcom, going to a concert once a month, or going to the pool as a family. These are all experiences that strengthen a sense of shared purpose in your relationship. Also, if you’ve noticed a decline in your sex life, schedule time for intimacy. Even though it might seem unspontaneous and unromantic, scheduled sex is better than no sex, and a scheduled activity is more likely to happen. Make a commitment to keep conflict out of these fun, quality times spent together. If something comes up, put it aside and discuss it later.
- Plan ahead. During pregnancy, discuss the issues that might cause conflict once the baby arrives. Talk about the division of labor for doing housework and taking care of the baby. Write it down. Who will get up at 2am? Who will change diapers? Who will take out the trash? Go into as much detail as possible and revisit the list at least once a month. Also, share how you were raised and how you think you should parent your children. What are your long-term goals? What kind of home do you want to provide for your kids? Likewise, talk about money, and keep the conversation going frequently. What is each partner expecting to contribute financially? What is acceptable for both partners?
- Practice positive maternal gatekeeping. Instead of criticizing your partner’s involvement, encourage and praise involvement. It’s ok if your baby’s clothes aren’t color coordinated in the way that you like. It’s ok if your partner soothes your baby by taking a drive around the block. Let your partner and baby have their time together and appreciate your partner’s ways of doing things.
- Create a support network. Make friends. Meet other couples with babies of a similar age. Have trusted babysitters. Having a sense of support and connection to others makes us feel better about ourselves and can ward off feelings of depression. Creating your own support network is not as hard as it seems, because there are plenty of parents like you who are looking to do the same. Seek support through online communities like Amsterdam Mamas, baby classes (yoga, massage, swimming), or your child’s daycare.
- Keep communicating. As a couple, don’t think you know each other just because you’ve been together for a relatively long time. People change, dreams change, opinions change, thoughts change. Ask each other questions like, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” or “What events shaped you as a child?” Realize that you can keep learning about each other throughout your lives together. When your partner does something in a way that you don’t immediately approve of, ask him or her why they do it that way, and what they are hoping to achieve. Becoming a parent changes a person profoundly. Don’t assume you know how it will affect or has affected your partner.
- Anticipate problems. If you are still pregnant and you are aware of problems in your relationship, seek counseling as soon as possible. The sooner you work on communication skills and other issues you might face, the better off your relationship and your child will be. The same goes for when you are feeling depressed, both during and after pregnancy. The likelihood of counseling helping against depression is much higher than you and your relationship getting through it unscathed all on your own.
- Be aware of a new mother’s needs. Mothers go through an intensely emotional, physical, hormonal change during and after birth. This change can last for many months as they try to get a grip on motherhood. Partners, please be aware of this and, although it might be very hard, try to appreciate the intensity that she faces. Marital satisfaction has been shown to improve when partners express fondness and appreciation towards mothers and when they are highly attentive to maternal and relationship needs. Help your partner find supportive maternal figures to help her through these difficult times. Your partner might seem like a totally different person now that she’s a mother. Try to keep a long-term perspective and have faith that it will pass. Seek help yourself if you feel like it’s profoundly affecting you.
- Be real. If you feel like things aren’t going well with your partner, talk about it. If you feel like you’re struggling as a parent, share your feelings with other parents. Don’t put on a happy face and go through the day as if nothing is wrong. Every single person out there faces some type of struggle. Sharing it and supporting each other make it so much easier.