Alamo City Moms Blog is thrilled to partner with the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement to help you maintain relationship satisfaction after parenthood. The following is a sponsored post, written by guest blogger Dr. Melissa McVicker.
So you’re having a baby! Maybe by this time you have done some preparations and planning, celebrated with family and friends, researched the best baby accessories, and possibly attended birthing or baby classes. But have you prepared your relationships for the transition into parenthood? Heads up: it’s not too late to make this a priority.
Researchers have found a significant drop in couple satisfaction after having a baby. Within three years after the birth around 66% of couples experience a decrease in relationship quality and increase in conflict and hostility. Why might this be? A mix of sleep deprivation, increased household tasks and demands, financial concerns, and changes in sexual desire and intimacy, topped off with changes in each parent’s new identity and role in this new life stage called “parenthood.”
When my husband and I were expecting our first baby, I was very aware of the statistics (and professional experience) of decline in marital satisfaction post-baby, so in addition to attending the baby care courses the hospital offered, my husband and I also made it a priority to attend a couples workshop focused on preparing to bring our baby home. The tools that we learned, conversations we had, and the challenges we could anticipate, were essential in supporting our new roles as parents, and encouraged us to focus on our relationship as much as we would on strategizing sleep, bonding with baby, and balancing the pull of new responsibilities.
As a licensed marriage and family therapist, I work with couples expecting their first child, yet it has been more common to work with couples who are experiencing a decline in relationship functioning after having children—usually presenting as communication problems, hostility, or disconnect between partners. The couple’s emotional connection is the foundation for a baby’s development, making the parental relationship a critical factor in facilitating healthy emotional and cognitive growth for the child, and supporting the mental health of the family.
So where to start? Focus on maintaining friendship and connection.
1. Know, and keep knowing, your partner. Remember in the early stages of dating, when you wanted to know everything about your partner? You were curious and interested in learning the details of his/her histories, hopes, favorite things? This is called building “love maps” of each other’s world—understanding your partner’s world, and sharing yours. Importantly, these love maps change over time: likes/dislikes, daily activities, and life dreams change as people change and life events happen. The key is to “update” these love maps with your partner on an intentional basis—to have the opportunity for growth, connection, and a stronger couple relationship. In addition, for expectant and new parents, knowing your partner’s history and current emotional world may provide an opportunity to better understand his/her outlook for parenting, life hopes, and role expectations.
You can deepen your love maps by asking open-ended and follow-up questions to each other, promoting curiosity and dialogue, qualities essential to a successful relationship. You can keep a list of questions/topics handy to take out on date nights, during relaxed/leisure time, or even during the 15 minutes designated as daily time to connect (my husband and I have found long car rides as great opportunities for love map questions!).
Example questions can include the following:
- What was your favorite book as a child?
- How do you feel about balancing work and home?
- What is the biggest challenge for you right now as a mother/father?
- How have your friendships with other people changed since we have become parents?
- Who is your role model as a parent? What makes you want be like this person?
- What goals do you have for our family?
This can be a fun, playful way to keep connected while intentionally bringing attention to what’s important to each other and how you are currently experiencing life.
2. Begin, and maintain, rituals. Marital satisfaction is predicted by shared meaning—the “we-ness” in your relationship. Couples who tend to do well after baby became a team early on (e.g., the “me-to-we” shift), especially during pregnancy. Having regular activities and rituals can draw you and your partner closer emotionally, while expanding to honor your new family life. Talk to each other about the kinds of traditions and rituals you each had growing up. What do they mean to you? Which ones do you want to carry on to your family now? What kind of good family times do you want to create in your family?
With a new baby, new rituals become important: bedtime stories, family events, and even individual time with one parent and the child. They can also give attention to individual self-care needs (e.g., time for self, getting a monthly massage, having a long bath at night), which can aid in supporting changes in identity and sense of self in the parenthood transition. Partners both have to make significant individual adjustments to energy and responsibilities, and often can have fewer opportunities and time to spend together as couple. However, the rituals you started as a couple before expanding your family are very important to continue and prioritize.
Before baby, my husband and I enjoyed going for walks together with our dog in the evening, which we then adjusted to include baby. This ritual also became an opportunity to have “check-ins” (love map building) at the same time. We also maintained our ritual of watching a favorite television show together every week (albeit with more pauses to attend to baby needs), and we prioritized the daily ritual of greeting each other and saying goodbye. These rituals helped keep “normalcy” and comfort while the world was being flipped upside down by this new thing called “parenthood.”
Let’s be honest; with a new bundle of joy also comes more stress. Having ways to nurture yourself when you are tired or overwhelmed is essential to the couple relationship (and relationship with baby). Make plans to spend time together to relax, laugh, and connect, emotionally and physically. Relying on regular routines can create opportunities for trust, comfort, and stronger connection between partners.
The intentional ways you connect with each other become rituals of connection. How do you want your values and goals to be expressed in day-to-day moments?
3. Express gratitude and appreciation. The quality of the friendship in the marriage is the best predictor of marital adjustment after the baby arrives. To maintain friendship in your relationship it is important to express affection and respect to one another. It is likely both you and your partner are working much harder, having more tasks and more responsibilities, yet often feel unappreciated. Expressing appreciations (small things often!) can promote a culture of fondness and positivity, which can help manage stress and buffer negative interactions. When you notice your partner doing something helpful or thoughtful, comment on it—don’t just think thoughts of gratitude.
Consider appreciating your partner’s characteristics. Do you admire your partner’s ability to be witty, reliable, generous? What a difference it can make to get a random text saying, “You’re doing a great job!” or hear “I really love how patient you are” at times when you’re running on minimal sleep or feeling uncertain in the new parent role.
Also consider how you best receive compliments and appreciation, as it is important to listen to and appreciate what your partner admires in you (try to hear the positive things and let them sink in). The most important point is to find a way to express appreciation and fondness, as well as to accept the compliments your partner gives you.
4. Work, and continue to work, on communication skills. The most important way, and the thread through all the previously suggested ways, to stay connected in the transition to parenthood is to work on communication. Researchers have found that when there is poor communication, the couple reports larger declines in relationship functioning after the birth of a baby. Importantly, the satisfaction in a relationship is not determined by the number of disagreements, but by the way conflict is handled when they do happen. When problems can be addressed in a constructive way, there is greater relationship satisfaction.
Couples who tend to transition to parenthood best are able manage their conflicts by being kinder, gentler, and funnier. The conversations are lighter, and easier—no criticizing, defensiveness, or blaming. Begin a conversation with a softened start-up: tell your partner how you feel about something (start with “I”), describe what is happening, and what you need (a direct request).
When you are stressed and overwhelmed, fights can easily happen. Again, it is not a matter of what you’re fighting about, but how you are fighting. If you find yourself getting too upset to engage in the discussion at that time (what we call “flooding”), take a break! Go for a walk, listen to music, whatever can help you self-soothe. With a new baby it may be challenging to find time to return to a conflict discussion, yet it is important to find a time to continue the conversation. Validate your partner’s point of view and admit your role in the conflict (Were you stressed out? Have you not asked for what you need?), and try to make things better the next time to avoid fighting over that issue.
With less sleep and more demands, partners often have less patience and focus their frustrations on each other. Avoid name-calling and generalizations (e.g., “always,” “never,” etc.), and make specific complaints and requests to your partner. It can be helpful to have a check-in with each other about how to best support each other’s needs and feelings, which can also open up problem-solving conversations, as well give attention to things unrelated to your partner (work, friends, etc.).
Overall, giving attention to your relationship as you navigate the journey into parenthood is essential to your couple satisfaction outcomes, as well as to your new baby’s development and mental health. So, while you are scheduling your hospital tour or creating your baby registry, also consider making an appointment with a mental health professional who works specifically with couples to focus attention on your relational skills. It can be the best investment you make for your relationship and for your baby.
“The greatest gift you can give your child is a strong relationship between the two of you.” —J. Gottman
Dr. Melissa McVicker is a licensed marriage and family therapist who works as an independent contractor with the Institute for Couple and Family Enhancement and provides therapeutic services to couples, individuals, and families. Her clinical interest is supporting clients as they navigate life changes and regaining connection and a sense of self after (and between) life transitions. For more information, please visit her website.