by Gina Hassan, Ph.D.
One of the most common complaints following the arrival of a new baby is, “I had no idea how much having a baby would impact my relationship.” Even couples with a solid relationship can experience mounting conflict, along with a sense of drifting apart, following the arrival of a new baby. In fact, Drs. John and Julie Gottman, renowned for their research on couples relationships, report in their 2007 book And Baby Makes Three: The Six Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives, a 65% decline in marital/partner satisfaction after the birth of a new baby. Why should this be so, and what can partners do to strengthen their bond during this joyful and yet challenging time?
When a baby is born, a parent is also “born.” But the job of parenting, unlike most other jobs that involve sudden, exponential increases in level of responsibility, is one for which we receive no prior training. In fact, with less sleep and probably more stress than we’ve ever known, we are expected to move into our new role with grace and ease, and yet the transition can leave us feeling both overwhelmed and under-supported. While we may be accustomed to turning to our partner for support during stressful times, our partner now is suddenly less available and more needy than ever before, leaving us feeling progressively more isolated.
During the early period of parenting, partners often feel depleted, left out, isolated from one another, misunderstood, under-appreciated, disinterested, and neglected. (Of course none of these feelings are familiar to you or your partner.) While our relationship, may have felt like a source of comfort and support prior to having a baby, the stress of a newborn can leave us feeling like we have nothing to give, and yet need more from our partners than we have previously. Arriving in this place can be particularly difficult for partners who have prided themselves on being independent. Negotiating new roles, coming up against unrealized expectations and disappointments, can put stress on a couple’s relationship, especially when they are simultaneously dealing with sleep deprivation, loss of alone time, diminished sexual intimacy, stress of conflicting wishes and expectations from extended family, and more.
So how can we smooth out this transition and make the ride less bumpy, while strengthening what is best in our relationships, so as to feel both more supported and more gratified in the transition from partners to parents? Three key strategies that may seem obvious when we think about it, but are not always accessible to us when we are sleep deprived and desperate are;
- Improving communication
- Tending to our relationship
- Thinking about parenting as a collaborative versus a competitive endeavor.
As stress can cause us to regress towards our most primitive ways of being, we may find ourselves behaving, without awareness, in ways that are destructive to both our relationship and ourselves. Increasing our awareness of these potential pitfalls can improve our overall sense of well-being as well as the quality of our partner relationship. In an effort to work towards our best ways of being it may be helpful to make use of the following practices.
Be Aware of How You Are Communicating:
- Make time to communicate clearly with one another.
- Speak about what you need in positive terms, as opposed to letting lashings fester and blaming one another.
- Be clear about what you want/need and don’t assume that your partner can read your mind.
- Don’t bring things up in the heat of the moment: your partner may be unable to receive what you have to say when you are angry and agitated. Find a time when you are both calm and capable of listening to one another.
Tend To Your Relationship:
- Speak words of appreciation.
- Make time to be intimate even if this just involves holding hands or cuddling, without necessarily being sexual.
- Make time to do things together that you can both enjoy, like taking the baby for a walk in the evening as a way to connect and to talk.
- Check in with your partner on a regular basis.
- Support one another in getting some time alone. (It is hard to give to a partner when you have no time to give to yourself. This is a gift to your partner and your baby and a necessity for everyone’s well-being.)
Parenting As A Collaborative Rather Than Competitive Endeavor:
- Remember that you are in this together. Try to figure out how to make things work, as best you can, taking everyone’s needs into account, and making sure that everyone gets some of what they most need, some of the time.
- Take pleasure in your baby together and avoid getting into a competitive stance regarding who is doing more. You are both doing more then you ever imagined possible.
- Keep in mind that you and your partner are each having “different” experiences: This is not a battle over who has it “harder” and/or who is “right.”
- Respect your partner’s different style of coping, and try to find ways to meet in the middle.
If we can remember to make use of these three practices—minding our communication, tending to our relationship, and thinking in terms of collaborative rather than competitive parenting—our relationships are bound to improve. Relationships are rather like gardens: without tending to them, weeds take over. No one benefits from an overgrown garden choked with weeds and lacking in the nourishment that makes gardens thrive. We may have gotten into a comfortable groove before baby arrived, but to preserve a healthy relationship after baby arrives takes some effort. While it can be hard to put the effort in when you are feeling depleted, a little effort can go along way. If you put something in, there will be more to go around. Try it and see!
Gina Hassan, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in working with pregnant and postpartum women, and has a particular focus on working with mothers and couples around the transition of early parenting. She has a private psychotherapy practice in Berkeley, and runs Mindful Mothering and Mindfulness-Focused New Moms Groups.