Redefining Love As New Parents
“When you have a baby, you set off an explosion in your marriage,
and when the dust settles, your marriage is different from what it was.
Not better, necessarily; not worse, necessarily; but different.”
One Sunday morning, I get a panicked call from a friend saying she is faced with a huge crisis and can’t make a decision.
“My husband and I feel we are ready to have a child, but I’m afraid that love would no longer be the same between us.”
She has seen relationships crumble after the birth of a child, she tells me, and she doesn’t want that to happen to hers.
I’ve heard similar sentiments from many clients who seek therapy in order to be mentally prepared for their new roles as parents. According to research by John Gottman, a psychologist with more than 40 years of experience studying and counseling couples, about 67 percent of couples report that marital satisfaction declines after a baby is born. From my personal experience, one of the most prominent factors in determining marital satisfaction after childbirth is the nature of the pre-child relationship. A caring relationship, with healthy communication and constructive responses to conflict, often provides a foundation that helps prepare couples to accept and adapt to their new role as parents.
Gottman points to three specific factors that safeguard against marital dissatisfaction (before or after a baby): building fondness and affection for your partner, being aware and responsive to your partner, and lastly, approaching problems as something you and your partner have control over and can solve together. These actions may become more difficult once a child is added to the mix, but they also become even more important.
Building fondness and affection
When I work with couples who have children, I have to remind them of the value of Couple Time, which often takes last priority to Me Time and Family Time. Parents often share stories about how they have forgotten what it is like to have time alone together. Sometimes, I ask these couples to take time out with their spouse for a date, maybe a dinner (without friends) or a movie (without the children).
Some mothers tell me they feel guilty about going to the salon, gym or even to restaurants with their partner. John Gartner terms this “worship of one’s own children at the expense of one’s marriage” child.ol’.a.try. He explains, in his Psychology Today article of the same name, how this can impact a couple’s sexual intimacy and also impact marital satisfaction. Similar to ‘helicopter parenting,’ child.ol’.a.try is characterised by over-involvement and obsession with a child’s life and can lead to marital discontent. Sometimes in therapy, I suggest these clients schedule time for sexual intimacy and/or physically expressions of love and affection with their spouse: hugging, cuddling, or even sitting together, holding hands.
Being aware and responsive
The time immediately after a child is born is a period of mixed emotions: awe and terror, elation and exhaustion. Couples are trying to understand their infant’s temperament and become accustomed to new responsibilities, all while getting poor sleep. The first 6 to 8 months can be very tough on the mother, especially, because of hormonal changes and breastfeeding. Extended family and the desire or need to go back to work can also be stressors.
At this point, it is important for couples to acknowledge and communicate with each other about the stress they are experiencing. Talk about how you and your partner can adapt together and help each other. Building simple rituals that help you to connect as a couple, or even as a family, can be a solution. One of my clients chose to cook breakfast for his family every Sunday while caring for the baby, so his wife could catch up on her sleep. Research indicates couples who are able to extend kindness and compassion to each other, as in this example, are well-equipped to raise a baby and find new ways of still being very much in love.
Approaching problems together
The first few months tends to throw in quite a few surprises and adjustments for a couple, as they transition into their new roles as parents. It can be easy to get in a pattern where you and your partner are not communicating enough, which stresses the relationship. Couples can avoid this situation by openly communicating about everything – including the stress that one or both of you may be experiencing – before anything begins to overwhelm and cause bigger issues. Learning to ask for help, along with understanding that your partner can’t read your mind, makes problem solving easier.
Post-baby finances can be a huge concern and source of conflict for a couple. A client once told me she felt she was sacrificing to save money, which had started to develop into frustration and irritability. When I asked her if her husband knew about this, she paused for a second and replied, “I don’t know.” Later, in a joint session, her husband admitted he had know idea what his wife was struggling with. When they started communicating their concerns, they took steps to list out their expenditures and savings. Both felt stronger and more comfortable in their new financial plan and goals. My client and her husband resolved the problem together, relieving her anxiety. It’s important to keep egos aside in situations like these. After all, problem solving is not about maintaining a score card.