Babies are hard on marriage, really hard. As much happiness as babies bring us individually, they place a tremendous strain on our relationships. Research shows that roughly two thirds of couples report a significant decline in marital satisfaction after the birth of a child. This statistic is not surprising, when you consider the many changes that come with having a baby; the stress on our pocket books, the sleepless nights, less time for ourselves and our partner and changes in our identity, priorities and values to name a few. So, what can you do to protect your bond with your partner?
Adjust Your Expectations: Babies change everything and it is important to adjust our expectations of ourselves and our partners accordingly. Know in advance that there is not going to be as much time, or sleep or just about anything else as there use to be and plan accordingly. It might no longer be realistic to keep our homes as tidy as we use to, to sleep in on the weekends, or to have as much free time for each other and ourselves. Weekly date nights may become monthly date nights and a romantic gesture might be our partner letting us sleep in for hour. Unrealistic expectations lead to disappointment and frustration and can prevent us from appreciating and enjoying what we have.
Make time for each other. One of the biggest mistakes new parents make as they transition from partners to parents is neglecting their relationship. This is an easy thing to do when our children, particularly our newborns, require so much of our time and energy. It might be hard, especially in the beginning, to have a regular date night, but it’s important to prioritize your relationship if you want it to thrive. Make time for just the two of you. Try to set aside ten to twenty minutes every day to connect as a couple and use this time to talk about non-child related topics. Having a daily ritual goes a long way to keeping romance alive. Try to be creative and flexible about when and where these conversations happen. It can be over a cup of coffee in the morning, while the baby is napping, or even in the shower. Try not to get in the habit of saving these conversations until the end of the day when sleeping instead will be tempting. Plan a date night together and go on it. These don’t have to be weekly occurrence and you don’t even have to leave the house but get them on the calendar and keep them. If finding time seems overwhelming, keep in mind that your baby won’t always be as dependent on you as they are now, it will become easier to find more time alone together as they grow.
Give your partner the benefit of the doubt. We all have the tendency to attribute other people’s actions to their personality traits and our own behavior to the situations we are in, this is called the fundamental attribution error. When my first son was born one of my greatest frustrations was finding a dirty diaper still on the changing table. The diaper pail was right there! Why wasn’t my husband tossing it in? How gross! How lazy! And how embarrassing after having loudly complained about this, I did it myself. I just left it there for a minute, while I tended to something else, I had every intention of placing it in the bin, but as people do, I got distracted. Chances are our partners, much like us, are doing the best they can and could use a little slack. Having a hard time doing this? The next time you identify a negative personality trait in your partner, also identify it in yourself. Think of a time you were forgetful and left a task undone, or lost your temper, or whatever it is. This mental exercise encourages you to see things from your partners perspective and will hopefully enable you to have more empathy for them.
Avoid the blame game. When you do have a grievance focus on the behavior you are unhappy with or the problem that needs to be solved, not your partner. Too often we play the blame game, which pits us against each other. Focusing on yourself by using I statements can be helpful. Try to remember that you are a team and tackle problems together instead of attacking one another. Keep in mind that speech is not the only way we communicate. Be aware of the impact of your body language and tone of voice.
Express appreciation. Saying thank you goes a long way. Everyone likes to feel that their efforts are noticed and appreciated and and as a bonus, if you let your partner know you appreciate something, they’re more likely to do it again. While its easy to remember to say thanks when someone does something wonderful and unexpected it’s a lot harder to remember to express our thanks for the little everyday things. However, if you’re not taking the time to notice and appreciate the extra time your partner is taking around the house and or with the baby, you’re taking it for granted. If this is something you’re not doing enough of, set a goal for yourself. Start by expressing your gratitude a minimum of two times a day. The more you do this the easier and more natural it will become.
Nurture yourself and support your partner in their self-care. Your relationship wouldn’t exist without you, and one way of protecting your relationship is by taking good care of yourself. This is especially hard during this phase of life, but caregivers run out of steam quickly when they’re not mindful of their own needs. Make a list of things that are important to your self-care. Maybe you need time out with your girlfriends, or more time by yourself. Whatever it is - and there should certainly be more than one thing - carve out time for it. Have your partner make a list of the self-care essentials in their life and support each other in these endeavors by taking turns, reminding each other and encouraging each other to do them.
Relationships are hard work. If your marriage does seem to be struggling, seek the help of a qualified marriage counselor. Reaching out for help can be a hard and scary thing to do but your relationship is worth it.
Robin P. Giesen is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and Bringing Baby Home Educator practicing in Long Beach, CA. Robin specializes in the treatment of maternal mental health and couples counseling.
This blog is not intended as a replacement to a mental health evaluation or therapeutic treatment.