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Helping your relationship survive a new baby

Published on: September 15, 2009

We know all the right questions to ask when a baby is born: How much did she weigh? What time was he born? Who does she look like? Is he healthy?

But there is one important question that rarely gets asked when couples make the transition to parenthood: How is the relationship between the two of you? For many couples, the transition to parenthood is a time of great possibility and hope. For others, it is a time of anticipation, anxiety, and fear. Research done by the Bringing Baby Home Program shows that for 67 percent of new parents, becoming a parent causes decreased happiness and relationship satisfaction. Why? We know from research that becoming parents can increase stresses and strains, alter values and goals, shift roles, diminish communication, and increase hostility. All of these changes are perfectly normal — but if we are honest with ourselves (and with each other), we may admit that these aren’t the changes we expected parenthood to bring.

Research shows that the focus of the relationship is mostly — if not completely — on the baby during this transitional time. This means that a couple’s needs may temporarily be greater in one area (physical: sleep!) than in other areas. However, couples who keep the magic going are successful because they find ways to acknowledge the discrepancy. They might laugh and say, “I know this is a busy time and we both just need sleep, but I really look forward to being more intimate again once we have settled into a routine.” Partners acknowledge and care for each other’s needs over time, thus reducing conflict.

Couples need to learn tools for maintaining their relationship after baby. Doing so can create small changes and can help couples find satisfaction in their relationship and in turn, will create a solid relationship upon which to build a family structure.

Are new parents happy?

Not usually. A 2003 analysis of approximately 90 studies looking at marriage showed that after the first baby’s birth, the drop in marital satisfaction is 42 percent greater among the current generation of parents as compared to their own parents. Additionally, research done by Dr. John Gottman found that new mothers experience a precipitous drop in relationship satisfaction starting about four to six months after their first baby is born and continuing through the end of the first year. The father typically experiences the same decrease in relationship satisfaction, but it begins late in the first year and continues through the end of the second year.

So, what can you do?

What can you do to help maintain your relationship? The first step is to learn to build the friendship with your partner. Without a strong friendship in your relationship, not only will you see a decline in your satisfaction, but your relationship will likely have difficulty weathering the storms that may lie ahead. Having a new baby is a busy time. The changes in your life can bring temporary conflict and chaos to your relationship, but by using your friendship as your strong foundation, you will find that your relationship may in fact become stronger as you make the transition from two to three.

Research conducted by Bringing Baby Home shows that the couples who are most likely to remain happy after becoming parents are those in which the husband admires his wife, keeps romance alive, and understands his wife’s inner world (a concept Bringing Baby Home calls Love Maps). Although it helps if the woman reciprocates these actions, the research shows that it is actually the husband’s behaviors that make the biggest difference.

Will your marriage survive?

It is easy to dream about a magical relationship, but it’s important to look at the specific things couples need in order to be happy or satisfied after baby. Research shows that for a couple’s relationship to be healthy, specific characteristics need to be present.

The characteristics of a magical relationship:

• Communication is open.
• Conflict is OK.
• Partners listen to one another.
• Play and relaxation are encouraged.
• There is freedom to participate in activities alone or with other friends.
• Partners trust one another.
• Individuals take responsibility for their behavior.
• Humor is used to cope with mistakes.

It is important to know that, just as each relationship is different, so too is the emphasis that will be placed on each of these characteristics (and the order of importance for the couple). Because having a baby changes every aspect of a relationship, the emphasis on these characteristics is expected to change over time.

Helping your relationship survive can be accomplished in five steps:

1) Build “Love Maps”: Really get to know one another
A love map is a road map of your partner’s inner psychological world. The map describes the details of daily life and emotional connection. They help us feel deeply known by our partner and show us that our partner wants to know who we are and how we are changing. Ask questions!

2) Express the 3 A’s: appreciation, affection, and admiration
This means expressing affection to your partner during very ordinary moments and recognizing the positive aspects of one another’s personality. Stop looking for mistakes. Couples can really strengthen their friendship by making a point of expressing the fondness and admiration they have for one another.

3) Turn toward one another, not away (and accept when your partner turns toward you)
The moments when our partners reach out for our attention are very important for building friendship. In each interaction, we have a choice in how to respond. Accepting the opportunity for connection is what will increase the friendship. Ignoring or rejecting our partner will decrease the positives in the relationship.

4) Make intimacy matter
Many couples find that after their baby is born, the passion and romance dissolve in their relationship. Couples fondly remember dating, but wonder whether they will ever have times like that again. The small bids for connection are the secret to romance and intimacy. Making sex a priority is important to keep the magic going. However, the sex doesn’t have to be magical! It can be simple, spontaneous, or most importantly, scheduled.

5) Have realistic expectations
Having a baby is a rewarding, busy time. Try to simplify your life, slow down, and allow friends and family to help. Discuss what is reasonable to expect of one another.

A gift for your kids

We know that the early years of a child’s life are critical. It is during this period that the foundation is created for the child’s emotional, social, intellectual, and behavioral development. If the parents are coordinated in their efforts with one another and if the relationship satisfaction can be maintained or increased, the child will have the greatest chance at a good outcome. It is known that children raised in these positive environments experience less anxiety and depression and greater physical health and well being. We know that a lot of the significant social problems in our society can be traced back to negative emotional climates in families. It’s really critical that we give babies the best possible start that we can, and the way to do this is to have a strong parenting team.

Carolyn Pirak is the director of the national Bringing Baby Home Program. She is married and the mother of two children.


Helping your relationship survive a new baby . . .

• Restore the balance in your relationship after your baby arrives.

• Develop your own family rituals.

• Assume your partner has the best of intentions.

• Turn towards one another.

• Talk with one another (not just to one another!).

• Listen!

• Regulate your conflicts.

• Find time (and energy) for intimacy.

• Realize the impact of your relationship on your baby.

Reading list

And Baby Makes Three by John Gottman, Ph.D., and Julie Schwartz Gottman, Ph.D.

Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman, Ph.D., and Joan DeClaire

Loving Each One Best by Nancy Samalin (about siblings)

Touch by Tiffany Field, Ph.D.

The First Relationship by Daniel Stern

Originally published in the September, 2007 print edition of ParentMap.

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