We bask in the glow of what we love most about each other, connect in anticipation of our baby’s arrival, and vow to not let what happened to other couples who had kids—bickering, sex/intimacy issues, disconnection—happen to us.
Yet as most new parents understand, having a baby throws a wrench—an adorable, precious, life-changing wrench—into our bliss and further erodes relationships that are already under stress.
While statistics don’t apply to everyone, postpartum research shows:
In the 1 to 3 years after our first baby is born, 9 in 10 couples cite a drop in relationship satisfaction and 2 in 3 say that drop is steep. Conflicts increase and persistent issues—those things we argue about repeatedly—appear more frequently.
Many expecting couples believe they’ll be the 1 in 10 to avoid postpartum relationship dissatisfaction…until they have a baby.
I have a few relationship-supporting suggestions,, specifically, designed to decrease dissatisfaction and increase connection, which I’ve dubbed “PRACTICE” for:
As is true for most things in life, one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to easing the impact of babies on our relationships. If you try these strategies, one technique might work for you but not your spouse, and each of you might define your terms (e.g., compassion) or needs (e.g., ways to repair the impact of conflict) differently.
Your differences are part of what drew you together in the first place, so respecting and trying to understand differences—which isn’t the same as agreeing with them—is helpful to sustaining relationships.
Patience: The first few months after a baby’s birth are challenging, if only because of sleep deprivation and new learning curves. Acknowledging that reality normalizes relationship bumps and reminds us that this too shall pass.
Rest: Research shows that adequate sleep and relationship satisfaction are linked. Support each other to grab shut-eye whenever, wherever, however even if it means sleeping separately at times. And consider that gripes with your spouse might be more about exhaustion than reality.
Attitude Adjustment: When we’re tired and dealing with major transitions, tempers can flare. If you can, try to keep a sense of humor and look for ways to adjust your attitude. If you get snapped at, consider asking: What’s your intention behind that tone or comment? If you’re the snapper, take a breath and try to figure out what you really want, minus the edge, e.g., I want help, I feel frustrated or I don’t know what I want!
Compassion: Parents are great at having compassion for babies; we know it’s hard to be small and helpless! Yet, we forget to be compassionate with each other and ourselves. Define compassion with each other and how you want to receive it. After baby arrives, express compassion for yourself and your beloved, and request it often.
Toxin Taming: Psychologist John Gottman cites 4 primary toxins (attitudes and behaviors) that erode relationship satisfaction: disrespect, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. We’re talking about common behaviors like eye-rolling, finger pointing, shirking responsibility and refusing to engage. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a talent for at least one. So claim your favorite one/s and, together, discuss strategies to rid toxins when they show up, e.g., pause a conversation long enough to remove them, and strategize ways to repair their damage, e.g., apologizing, affection.
Intimacy: While sex might be a battlefield after babies are born, limit the impact of differing desires, first, by understanding that hormonal shifts in women postpartum, especially those who breastfeed, can lower sex drives. Meaning, add patience and compassion to our sexual expectations. But intimacy remains important, even without full-on sex. Don’t short-change quick connections: a loving look, tender touch, a kind word and, if you can swing it, sex. Also, before your baby arrives, discuss how you want to be with each other if intimacy/sex becomes a challenge.
Choice: There are choices we can make about how to begin conversations, especially those about touchy subjects, to increase positive communication. Since outcomes for 96% of conversations are predicted by what happens in the first 5 minutes, consider starting chats gently: don’t blame; speak from an “I” place and avoid “you”; don’t be know-it-all, e.g., start with “I’m not sure…” or “My best guess is…”; and get curious (ask “what” & “how” questions) instead of focusing on solutions.
Endurance: 70% of relationship issues are ongoing; meaning, they won’t ever go away. So we need to identify our recurrent problems, avoid them or resolve them quickly without dragging in toxins. Together, make a list of your enduring, recurrent relationship problems and brainstorm how to avoid them or limit their impact.
It takes PRACTICE to maintain relationship satisfaction. If you suspect that these approaches remain useful after the newborn stage, you’re primed to give your relationship the attention it needs to thrive now and in the future.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a mom, and Individual and Relationship Systems Coach, passionate about giving parents fun and easy tools for coparenting success and relationship happiness. She’s the Founder of Parent Alliance® (www.parentalliance.com), a great resource for parents and expecting couples. With more than 20 years’ experience as an educator and mentor, Rhona delivers dynamic talks, workshops and webinars to parents, teachers, expecting couples and perinatal professionals. Rhona coaches individuals and couples across North America via phone and online video, or in person in Los Angeles. Rhona serves on the Advisory Board of The Children’s Project (http://bit.ly/IKHQaB), a non-profit devoted to helping parents and teachers raise emotionally healthy children. To learn more about Rhona or to book a complimentary individual or relationship strategy session, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Rhona on Twitter @AParentAlliance or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/parentalliance.
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