The most commonly quoted statistics on marital satisfaction put it bluntly: marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born. The birth of your first child is major milestone in many relationships, and the built-up anticipation of the moment can make it all the more exciting when the baby is finally born. And indeed, the experience is a uniquely memorable one; having a child changes one’s identity by creating an entirely new dimension to who they are and the roles they hold as an individual, a partner, and now, a parent. Adopting this new role means facing new challenges, some we expect, but it can be surprising how many relationship problems arise after having a baby. Parenting causes an increase in conflict simply because there are now hundreds of decisions almost daily which are mutual and involve compromise and negotiation between partners. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in their little bundle of joy and balancing the demands of work, family, and life all while functioning on minimal sleep. It’s easy to understand how things can go bad fast in a relationship under these conditions. How can so much joy bring so much conflict? Well, because…
Parenting is Hard
Becoming a parent means facing a whole new series of hurdles—some of which are common to any new child, but many of which may be unexpected. Dealing with the challenges that come up only gets easier when you can approach them as a team. Communication about the division of labor is crucial to setting your team up for success. Make no assumptions about who will get up in the middle of the night when the little one wakes up at 4:00 a.m., or who will take off work for that upcoming doctor’s appointment. Having an open dialogue about the allocation of responsibilities can not only ease the friction that this added stress can bring, but on some level, can even bring the couple closer by encouraging collaboration and reinforcing of being mindful of not only the child’s needs, but each other’s.
Tend to Your Foundation as a Couple
Communication about responsibilities and the “divide and conquer” conversation of who will tend to what responsibility is important, but even more important is remembering to make time to have other conversations. Given the time and resolve required to tend to the many needs and obligations of parenthood, it’s easy to approach the work with a business-like efficiency. Playful conversations over dinner become checking off to-do lists, and questions about each other’s day become questions about this or that task was completed. Remember that you relationship with your partner existed before you were parents, and while your relationship is changing (and will continue to evolve), the foundation of your partnership is still very much there. So much in the same way that children need care and attention, this foundation must be nurtured in order to continue to grow and thrive. Gestures of affection and gratitude go a long way to preserving and enhancing happiness in relationships. Indeed, it’s often these smaller gestures of appreciation that can make more of a difference than large romantic displays.
Intimacy is Critical to a Happy Partnership
Another big change comes in intimacy and in sexual satisfaction. The spontaneous passion that might have existed between partners before children became part of the picture may not be feasible or realistic anymore. You’re both tired; by the time the little one falls asleep, both partners are often so tired that “going to bed” means falling asleep before heads hit pillows. The hours spent lying in bed together become abbreviated, as time is precious—time for sleeping, doubly so. Because of this, it becomes all the more important to appreciate the little moments that the two of you do have. Being mindful and intentional about squeezing in a hug or a kiss before work may not be the same as spending an evening together, but the act (and the sentiment behind it) can go a long way between date nights. Flirtatious text messages or a written note slipped into a briefcase before work can help to inspire and retain some of the same playfulness that it can be so easy to lose.
That being said, date nights should be prioritized. The social pressure on new parents to display or demonstrate their competency or investment in their children can often give rise to the idea that sacrificing everything for one’s children is a good thing, when in fact, this poses a number of threats to our own mental health as parents. It may feel forced or ritualistic or even like another obligation on the long list of things to do, but getting into the habit of regularly allocating one evening or afternoon or even one morning every 2-3 weeks or even a month as time exclusively for you and your significant other can not only help prioritize and maintain romance and intimacy in your relationship, but can give the two of you something to look forward to.
Exercise Your Right to Say “No”
Another effect of this social pressure on new parents is that parents often feel compelled to take very active roles in all aspects of their child’s life—the pressure is high (whether perceived pressure from other parents or pressure that we put on ourselves) to volunteer to bring snacks to school or to help organize this or that after school event. This issue comes up often with kids who are very involved in sports—many parents may want to attend our child’s games and support them by watching and cheering them on. The research says this is good—kids like it when parents attend their games. However, when we begin to feel compelled to attend these games or events, or guilty when we can’t, it’s time to cut ourselves some slack. It’s great to attend events when possible, but missing these things here and there is not only OK and understandable, but it’s highly likely. Perfect attendance is the exception, not the rule. And while kids do tend enjoy having their parents in attendance, this is also not always the case; in some instances, children may begin to feel as though they are playing for their parents rather than for themselves.
Engage in Self-Care & Support Your Partner’s Self-Care Needs
Relationships do change when kids become a part of the picture—there’s no way around that. The joy and excitement that comes with being a new parent typically outweighs the frustration or disappointment. However, the relationship tension that often comes up under this added stress cannot be ignored. Similarly, the focus on the newest member of the family should add and not detract from the partnership that preceded it; nurturing the new child is critically important, but it isn’t selfish to tend to your own needs, too. Good parents aren’t necessarily the ones that sacrifice themselves entirely for their child, but rather the ones that know they can’t pour from an empty cup, and as such, work to balance their own needs with that of their child in order to provide the very best for their little one.
If you are experiencing damaging conflict or distance in your relationship after having children, couples therapy may be a beneficial option. All of the therapists at Bergen Counseling Center have extensive training and expertise helping couples communicate, maintain or regain intimacy, and grow together after having children. Call or fill out the contact form on the right sidebar to learn more or schedule an appointment.