Meghan and Charlie spent months planning for the birth of their first child. The Redmond couple enjoyed preparing for her arrival and even sailed through the first few weeks of parenthood without many challenges. Fast-forward and now Brooke is 14 months old. Meghan feels like she and Charlie have lost their spark. They often fight and they don’t seem to have much in common anymore.
Meghan recently attended a playgroup and listened to other moms talk about how much their relationships had changed since becoming parents. After the group, Meghan reflected on her own relationship and realized how much she missed her pre-baby relationship with her husband. That night, she told him, “I see you every day. We talk, sometimes fight. But I still miss you.”
Meghan and Charlie’s experience with the transition to parenthood is the norm, not the exception. Having a new baby changes a relationship on all levels. Research by the Bringing Baby Home program shows that sleep deprivation, philosophical role changes, finances and an exponential increase in household chores all contribute to changes in the quality of a couple’s relationship. More than two-thirds of couples report a significant decrease in relationship quality within the first year after the birth of a baby. For many, the decline continues through the second year. Research finds women typically experience dissatisfaction when the baby is approximately 4 months old, while men feel the decline at closer to 7 months. Both partners report that maintaining the friendship and passion becomes increasingly difficult because parents are primarily focused on the baby.
What can you do when the communication decreases and the stress increases? Many couples find themselves at a loss for how to get back on track. The solution may seem counter-intuitive. The key to maintaining your relationship during your first few years of parenting is not to push your partner away or give one another space. Instead, it is imperative to find ways to make your partner the priority. Many couples find that the details and tasks of baby care take over their lives and limit the ways they stay close.
Take your ‘relationship vitamins’
Relationship research is rapidly adopting a philosophy of prevention rather than intervention. Studies suggest that relationships are twice as likely to survive if couples manage stress as it is experienced rather than try to repair the damage done later. This is not to suggest that broken relationships can’t be fixed. Instead, it is simply more powerful to prevent relationship unhappiness rather than to cure it.
“Relationship vitamins” such as support and appreciation are key to prevention. Many new parents get offers of assistance from family and friends. Say yes, even if it’s just to have another set of hands available so that you can finish a meal together. Express appreciation often. When sincere, it is difficult to overstate the value of appreciation for your partner. This is a must for staying connected. Share household tasks. Turn toward one another.
Joni Parthemer, M.Ed., agrees with the research. “It is critical for couples to nurture their friendships with one another,” says Parthemer, an Issaquah educator. This can start very simply. For example, making the effort to stay aware of the details of your partner’s life (what happened at work, who was at the park) proves that you still care about each other despite the baby’s constant needs.
Jim and Kelly, Mercer Island parents of 5-month-old twins, say they realized that they had to make it a priority to reconnect with one another soon after the babies arrived. “With all the focus on the babies, we found it harder to balance the babies’ needs with our own,” says Kelly. Because they recognized that evenings were filled with feedings and household chores, Kelly and Jim decided to meet weekly for lunch together. The babies would often sleep during their visit, allowing an opportunity for uninterrupted conversation.
Many couples are surprised and confused to find themselves in this relationship rut. They don’t blame their child, but they recognize that a distinct change occurred when they brought their baby home. Couples find themselves arguing about topics they never knew would matter to them. Gina and Matt are the parents of 16-month-old Gabe. Gina is adamant that Gabe should give up his pacifier. Matt thinks Gabe should decide on his own when to give it up, arguing, “He won’t have a pacifier when he’s in high school!” This parenting struggle is now a point of constant conflict. Gina and Matt can feel their relationship pulling apart. Now what?
Four steps to connection
First, it is important to realize that stress can make mountains out of molehills and wreak havoc on a parenting relationship. Second, couples need to make time for a stress-reducing conversation. This can be as easy as finding out about the other person’s day. For example, Jim and Kelly have a tried-and-true ritual. “Right after we put all the kids down, and before we each get into our separate ‘night’s work,’ we spend a little while talking about today and the next,” Jim says. “It gives us a chance to catch our breath, give a kiss, and see whether the dishes are actually the priority.”
Third, couples benefit from acknowledging their differences. Looking for an area of compromise rather than focusing on “all the ways we disagree” can help move couples toward resolution. Finally, couples need education to recognize that these changes and transitions are normal and experienced by most new parents.
Recognize that parenthood is a marathon. When couples focus on making their relationship strong, the baby becomes a wonderful source of connection.
Carolyn Pirak is the director of the national Bringing Baby Home program. She is married and the mother of two children.
And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives by John M. Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman
Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less, and Communicate Better as Your Family Grows by Stacie Cockrell, Cathy O’Neill and Julia Stone
When Two Become Three: Nurturing Your Marriage After Baby Arrives by Mark E. Crawford
Bringing Baby Home workshops are offered at Swedish Medical Center, Overlake Medical Center, Jewish Family Service, Family Services, Tacoma General, University Presbyterian Church and other locations. Visit www.bbhonline.org/.