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Many young couples wonder if their marriage can and will stay the same after they have had one or more children. The honest answer is “no.” You begin a new phase of your life after having a baby. Roles change, new identities emerge, and your connection with your partner is tested. Having a baby is also a “rebirth” of your relationship as a couple. As parents, you are “in the trenches together,” which is the realm where your relationship can become stronger. Now is when the romantic love experienced in the honeymoon period needs to be replaced by a more mature form of love.
Being a parent translates into at least two decades of focusing and giving attention to the child or children. Having a child is a massive project and changes a relationship significantly. While during the honeymoon period and potentially the years following that period, the energy and attention only had one receiver, the partner, it now becomes a balancing act of giving everybody enough love and attention. Usually, the children are at the top of the priority list. The partner is being “demoted” from number one to number two, three, or four, depending on how many children there are. Bonding with the baby is a natural, normal and important process. Especially the first year of a child’s life is crucial to their development. Too often, though, couples put their marriage on “auto-pilot,” sacrificing their relationship to be good parents. Today, one out of two children born to two parents can expect to live in a single-parent home by the age of eighteen.
Some major contributors to marriages failing are unrealistic expectations about birth, marriage and parenthood. We expect pregnancy and birth to be fulfilling life event that generates only positive feelings. That is not always the case. We believe marriage should always be interesting, stimulating, supportive and satisfying. The reality is that relationships go through peaks and valleys and require both partners to work on it. Becoming new parents is not an easy or completely smooth transition for anyone involved. Couples who acknowledge the changes and challenges are usually more successful at managing them.
According to research by Rhonda Kruse Nordin for her book “After the Baby. Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth”, most new parents falsely believe their marriage will turn to normal after a short adjustment period. Most couples believe that marital problems after becoming a family are a possibility, but not for them. 30 years ago, when I first became a parent, I felt the same. They expect that having a baby will be an all-around effortless transition and that they will adapt to parenthood without conflicts. Or in other words, they expect the changes to be largely positive, transforming each of them into new, improved versions of themselves as mother and father. They underestimate the cumulative effects one or more children will have on their relationship.
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Kruse Nordin reports that the birth event itself affects the relationship in 8 out of 10 cases. Giving birth is an important and powerful life experience. How the woman feels about her “performance” at birth influences her feelings about herself. And how she feels about her husband’s involvement, his support, and his reaction to it plays an equally important role. Many new mothers long for assurance. They wonder whether they are doing a good job as mothers and wives, whether they are still attractive with their bodies changing. New fathers or female partners of the birthing partner often become absorbed in the role of being providers. 70% of mothers leave the workforce in their first year of motherhood, and some never return. Having a baby, on average, means a drop in income for the new family. So men or partners also long for reassurance that they are taking good care of their family and are doing well as parents.
Dr. John Gottman, together with Julia Heiman from the Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, has found that during the beginning of a relationship and even during pregnancy with the first child, male and female desire for sex is usually equally strong. However, in the first three years after giving birth, men rate their sexual desire still as 4.25 on a 5-point scale, but women only at 2.95, so they are not feeling much in the mood for sex.
Women’s hormones are a factor, and they tend to have one or more little ones hanging on them, especially when breastfeeding. They are regulating their children’s emotional experiences, for example, by comforting them. Being a mother has a very different energy from feeling like a sexy woman. When we are out and about with our baby, we realize we have slipped into this other, more invisible category by being a mother. As women, we might be concerned about putting on some weight during pregnancy and not having the same time anymore to pamper ourselves and our bodies to feel pretty. Sexual desire starts in the head, and all those changes we experience as new mothers affect desire. Know that you are not alone. All marriages go through periods when lovemaking lapses, and the years when you have babies or pre-schoolers are certainly the most stressful period in a couple’s marriage.
More than 8 out of 10 birthing mothers experience a period of tearfulness and anxiety after childbirth that can last several weeks. At least a fifth of new mothers experience clinically diagnosed depression, but many go undiagnosed. Somewhere between 20-40% of all women suffer from late-onset postpartum depression. This depression usually begins 20-40 days after a woman gives birth but can occur any time during the first year of motherhood. It shows up as sadness, fatigue, loss of energy, feelings of futility, sexual disinterest and feelings of total inertia. Unfortunately, many women feel the pressure that they should be happy at this point in their life and hide behind a smile. As a result, they are diagnosed late or not at all. Their partners feel helpless and unsure of how to support their birth-giving partner.
Many people don’t know that postpartum depression also exists in men! Fathers can have exactly the same symptoms. So if you or your spouse experience symptoms that fall under the definition of postpartum depression, do not wait to get help.
Lack of sleep for the first weeks or months can be highly challenging for the marriage. Four of five primary caretakers describe an “overwhelming fatigue,” and the partner is also tired. We all need rest. Without it, we become irritated, short-tempered and incapable of problem-solving. That results in more unresolved conflicts.
When your family grows is the time when differences surface because having a baby or young children, there are many details to work out. Differences between the partners that were not a big deal before becoming parents now stand out more.
Many parents discover that their communication is not functioning well enough to survive without issues emerging. About half of the problems new parents experience tend to revolve around their ability to communicate and talk about their individual experiences. Seven out of ten couples report a decrease in communication level after having a baby, which, unfortunately, for half of them, becomes permanent. Often both partners end up being unhappy because they feel they cannot talk to each other, are not heard and understood, or the other one does not care.
Your relationship is the essential connection around which all the other family relationships revolve. You need to come to the table with mutual respect for your differences, trust in each other and the willingness to cooperate and compromise. This sounds simple enough but is difficult in practice. The help of a professional can make a big difference when a couple needs to develop better listening and sharing skills.
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What can you do to reconnect and not lose sight of your relationship with each other?
- Before having a child, examine your expectations of how you feel your marriage or long-term relationship will change after the birth of one or more kids. Talk to your partner about their expectations.
- Practice and fine-tune your communication, negotiating skills and conflict-resolution skills. Taking a workshop or seeing a relationship coach can help.
- Share your hopes and dreams and your true feelings with your partner. Contemplate your personal history and family background and decide which values or routines you want to continue and which interactions or habits you want to leave behind.
- Talk about and process the birth event. You have both gone through a tremendous and profound life change.
- Like any life change, so-called “happy events” can also bring up feelings of loss, sadness, disappointment, anger or other emotions. Not all parents feel an immediate connection with their newborn.
- Embrace the changes and challenges after having children and welcome them as opportunities to grow together.
- Most marriages go through changes regarding their lovemaking when children are in the picture. Talk about your sex life with each other. Be tactful and sensitive to your partner’s feelings. If you are struggling to speak about this critical topic, a professional can help you.
- Distinguish between emotional and sexual intimacy and stay emotionally connected, even when you do not make love. Nursing a baby or having a toddler clinging to her often fulfills a woman’s basic need for physical closeness, but she still needs the emotional connection with her spouse.
- Reassure each other that you are doing a great job as a mother or father.
- Be critical of yourself and check if you carry a fair share of the work at home. Ask if there is a way some tasks can be delegated to others, so you and your spouse have more time with each other.
- View your differences as something to work with. Do your best not to be judgmental with your partner but focus on how you complement each other and allow each partner to do the child-care tasks or housework their way. Holding on to your standards too rigidly is going to create unnecessary conflicts. Be appreciative of what each of you is doing.
- Set boundaries with intrusive and judgemental family members and friends. Show up as a team with them. You can thank them for unwanted advice and deflect it by saying, “we will think about it.” Be very clear that you and your spouse will make the decisions.
- Ideally, start before a baby’s birth to look for responsible and trustworthy babysitters. Your marriage needs alone time for the two of you. Your baby or toddler can handle periods of being cared for by others. It is good for them and very beneficial for your marriage.
- Once you are more settled with your baby, do your best to allocate a weekly or bi-weekly “off-family-duty” night for each parent, an evening to pursue interests and friendships. If new parents spend a lot of time together caring for the baby, that lack of separation also has a negative effect on their desire for each other. Sexual desire needs separation and novelty. Spending time apart is as important as spending time together.
In this podcast, I speak to Dave Anderson, a father of three kids under seven. Join us for our conversation on marriage after the children arrive.
Or you can watch our chat as a video:
To plan ahead as you start a family or to work through your current parenting conflicts,
reach out for individual sessions or couples coaching.