Couples awaiting a new baby are often filled with excitement, worries, and fantasies as they prepare their lives to welcome new little bundles. The focus is usually all about baby: reading baby books and blogs, stocking up on gear, planning for the birth, washing and folding new baby clothes and blankets. But relatively little attention is paid to the relationship of the couple stepping into this new chapter together.
Few couples intentionally spend time laying a foundation to support their relationship for the major transition of becoming a family. Many underestimate the stress caused by having a child.
Relationship Stress is Common
Research from The Gottman Institute has consistently shown that 67% of couples report feeling “very unhappy” with each other during the first 3 years of baby’s life. Relationship satisfaction plummets due the incredible adjustments both people are working through. New parents are exhausted, making their way through a life that is totally unfamiliar, dealing with grief over the life and identities they’ve lost, and often feeling utterly incompetent as they quickly try to adjust to on-the-job training from a newborn. They are understandably irritable, emotional, and argumentative.
The stress of adjusting every part of your lives to the demands of a newborn is visceral. And this stress is even greater when there have been additional challenges during this time like a traumatic birth, illness, medically fragile baby, lack of support, work stress, and postpartum mood issues.
Benefits of Tending to Your Relationship
One of the greatest gifts parents can give their children is a healthy, loving relationship between the parents. Couples who actively focus energy on maintaining their friendship, intimacy, and warmth have greater relationship satisfaction. Both parents tend to have better mental health, less frequent and less intense episodes of depression and anxiety. There is less hostility in the home. And all of this leads to greater infant development. Babies thrive when parents are emotionally responsive, calm, flexible, and find joy in the small moments. And parents only have the energy for this when they are emotionally well both individually and in the relationship.
Strategies to Prepare Your Relationship for Baby
Expect it will be challenging. Setting realistic expectations is the first step in managing your response. Our culture often paints a picture of new parents who are smiling, relaxed, cuddling baby and each other in glowing, pink lighting. And this image makes the reality of late night arguments as the baby wails and both parents flounder to navigate this totally unfamiliar situation while sleep deprived feel even more painful. People incorrectly assume they are the only ones who struggle, who don’t seem to know how to parent naturally. They feel like failures when in fact they’re in very good company. Expecting this transition to be physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging will set couples up to better support one another and offer compassion rather than judgement.
Line up support & get used to asking for help. You will need more help than you think. It can feel vulnerable and unfamiliar to ask for support. Humbling yourself to ask for it is good practice for the rest of your parenting life. There’s a saying in postpartum care “There’s a season in life for giving and a season for receiving. When you have a new baby, this is the season for receiving.” You will have opportunities in the future to offer help to others again. For now, identify people who will help making food, cleaning, providing company, caring for baby so you can take care of yourself. You may consider hiring help from professionals like doulas, cleaning services, meal services, lactation consultants, etc. Hiring out for help can reduce the emotional tangles of getting help from family and friends.
Support one another coping with stress. You both need to engage in regular strategies that reduce stress in order to be your best for one another and for baby. Encourage one another to make time for friends, hobbies, exercise, meditation, and whatever else you find stress reducing. Offer generously and don’t keep score. The more opportunities you each have to get a break and feel like your old self again, the easier it will be to be navigate the tough moments together.
Tend to your friendship. Reserve regular time for date nights, ideally weekly. Set aside distraction free time to have fun together, relax, talk about things other than the baby and your worries. Flood one another with words of appreciation and encouragement. Remind your partner what you love about him/her. Make an effort to respond to your partner’s efforts to connect with you. Show affection and maintain regular opportunities for physical touch and playfulness. You both are adjusting to new ways of relating in the midst of physical exhaustion. Focus on being gentle and patient with one another as you would with your best friend.
Practice conflict management strategies. Conflict will naturally arise and is not a sign of trouble. In fact, couples can develop deeper connections when working through conflict with respect and understanding. The key is to stop arguing when either of you is feeling flooded to avoid causing hurt. When we’re emotionally flooded, whether it’s with a feeling of anger, sadness, fear, stress, or frustration, we are no longer able to process information accurately. And conflicts can only be resolved when both people are calm enough to listen, appreciate the other’s perspective, and compromise. So give each other space to cool off and figure out the conversation that you really needed to have beneath the fight. This means taking the time to recognize that a fight about a dirty dish in the bedroom was really about something more, like feeling unappreciated or overwhelmed or lonely.
Dialog about your new roles regularly. Parenting requires an incredible amount of flexibility and humility. Keep a regular dialog going to talk about the roles you each play in the family life and remain open to changing these. New parents often feel taken for granted and unappreciated by their partners. Both feel they are constantly giving and sacrificing. To avoid building resentment and distance, take the time to talk about these feelings without criticizing. And ask for what you need without blaming or whining. Listen to the same messages from your partner so that you can continually negotiate a plan that works for everyone. You may recognize that messages from your childhood about parenting roles and expectations will surface during this time. Try to humbly develop insight into these patterns and make conscious choices that best match your family goals and values.
Recognizing the stress your relationship will face as you welcome a new baby, you may want to consider checking in with a skilled couple’s therapist along the way. Couple’s therapy is most effective when you are not in crisis. A few sessions to identify potential challenges and develop strategies to navigate gracefully through this transition can significantly help prevent relationship pain and suffering.
Written by Suzanne Smith, Ph.D. for the Lakefront Psychology Blog. If you are interested in more original articles about mental health, postpartum issues, wellness, relationships, and parenting, please subscribe to the blog using the button below. If you are interested in scheduling an appointment with Dr. Smith, please contact Lakefront Psychology at 216-870-9816.