How Will Your Baby Impact Your New… | Center for Growth Therapy

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How Will Your Baby Impact Your New Marriage

Tonya McDaniel

MSW, MED, LSW, ABD — Therapist, Director of Program Development

How Will Your New Baby Impact Your Marriage? For many couples, the addition of a new baby into the family is an exciting, joyous, and uncertain time. Whether the couple is dealing with the physiological repercussions of giving birth or the psychological challenges associated with fostering or adopting a child, the period immediately after bringing the newest family member home is a huge adjustment.

This period is often referred to as the “transition-to-parenthood” and it has a significant impact on relationships. Depending on the stage of your relationship, you may experience different types of stress and challenges. A more established couple that has been together for years might face different issues than a couple that has just celebrated its one year anniversary. The former has had more opportunities to establish good communication patterns and conflict resolution, whereas the latter may still be in the honeymoon phase and uncertain about how to manage intense emotional issues. Also, depending on the type of relationship you had with your partner prior to children, you may experience different transition challenges. For example, if your partner was your best friend for whom you turned to for all your emotional and supportive needs, you may experience a greater feeling of loss or frustration during this transition, whereas if you partnered together with the focus on starting a family right away, you may adapt to the new family dynamics quicker because you haven’t had years solidifying your routines and role expectations.

Regardless of where you are as a couple, most relationships experience a change as the energy dedicated to growing the couple relationship is funneled into child care responsibilities. For many couples, this can create strain, and intimacy can take a backseat to raising the kids. Intimacy is defined as the feelings of connection, trust and respect that partners have for one another. Managing a baby, or even multiple babies as in the case of twins and triplets, can become a fulltime job and it can be hard to find time to reconnect with your partner. Here are a few areas couples report significant changes.

How You Spend Your Time Together. Many couples report an inverse in the proportion of leisure and functional (e.g., household chores) activities after having children. In other words, prior to having kids, they could spend more time engaged in pleasure-driven activities as compared to obligatory activities. Considering that a big part of creating intimacy is how you spend time with your partner, it is not surprising that this shift can cause a strain on the relationship.

For example, imagine the difference in the type of connection partners can have if they (1) go out to dinner where they can have an uninterrupted discussion about their hopes and dreams for the future, followed by a leisurely, hand-in-hand stroll around the neighborhood watching the sun set; versus if they (2) quickly shove food in their mouths in-between trying to feed the kids who are more interested in playing with the food, followed by bathing the food-covered children, completing the endless steps to getting the children in bed (and asleep!!!), cleaning up the kitchen disaster, packing backpacks and lunches for the next day, and starting a load of laundry. Obviously, the first scenario helps foster a positive, connection with your partner, whereas the second scenario leaves very little time to connect with each other as a couple. It is not surprising that the more time a couple spends engaged in functional activities can lead to a change in how the partners perceive their relationship.

How You View Your Relationship & Yourself. Often couples during this transition will view their relationship in terms of a partnership (e.g., “I feel like we are roommates”) as opposed to a friendship (e.g., “He/she is my best friend”) or a romance (e.g., “I find him/her so sexy”). When a couple spends the bulk of its time attending to the needs of the children and work/home obligations, then partners leave little time to grow other aspects of their relationship. Instead, they become business partners in “Raising Children, Inc.”

Another big contributor to this change is how couples integrate their new “parent” identity into the couple relationship. For first-time parents, the novelty and intensity of the “mommy” or “daddy” identity can overwhelm all their other identities (e.g., wife, husband, best-friend, artist, triathlete, lawyer, activist, singer). When different parts of our identity are suppressed or overshadowed, we become almost two dimensional and this can lead to feelings of loss and confusion.

Depending on our family histories, we may have very strong feelings about how a parent is supposed to act. This can lead to a suppression of our sexuality (“Parents don’t have sex!”) and personal desires (“Only selfish moms spend time away from their kids to engage in hobbies”). During the transition-to-parenthood, it can be very challenging to have a strong sense of ourselves independent of our children. This can make it very challenging to connect with our partners. It’s hard to feel sexy, desirable, interesting, and sophisticated when you haven’t showered in two days, have baby food stuck in your hair, and can’t stop using infantile words, such as “potty,” “boo boo,” or “milkies.”

Our perception of our relationships significantly impacts our feelings. Modern couples have an expectation that our partners will be able to successfully fulfill the roles of a best friend, lover, business partner, co-parent, confidant, champion, and so many more. When other aspects of our relationships are neglected, we may start to wonder if this relationship is the right one for us.

How You Divide Up Chores. One area of significant conflict post-partum/adoption is the division of labor. This includes household chores, work outside the home, and child-care responsibilities. Prior to having children, many couples have established a balanced (or balanced for them) division of labor. However, many couples report taking on more traditional roles with regards to the division of labor after having kids. Meaning that one person, often the man, becomes responsible for the bulk of the work outside the home, whereas the other partner, often the women, becomes responsible for the lion’s share of household and childcare chores. This pattern even holds true for many gay and lesbian couples. This change in the “relationship contract” or agreement/expectation we have with our partners can generate a lot of negative feelings and frustrations. If one person feels like he/she is sacrificing his/her needs for everyone else and doesn’t feel appreciated, then this can breed feelings of resentment.

How You Manage Conflicts. Prior to having children, couples may have gotten by with poor conflict resolution and communication skills because they had more time and energy to devote to resolving their disagreements. After having children, couples are faced with a deficit of resources (i.e., less time, energy, motivation, etc.) and an increase in opportunities for conflict due to the physical and psychological demands of raising children. Additionally, old traumas, family-of-origin (i.e., the family you were raised in) issues, and tendencies to consume too many cocktails can all be reactivated during this significant time of stress and transition. Not to mention, many couples have to figure out how to manage the onslaught of “helpful” parenting advice from extended family members and friends (both real and cyber) as they try to figure out their own parenting philosophy and approach (“Do we want to put bourbon on our teething toddler’s gums like our parents did? Those amber teething necklaces are popular. What is the long-term effect of using Tylenol on a daily basis during these endless molar eruptions?”).

All of this can create a perfect storm for on-going conflict and fighting. Without the basic tools to be able to constructively express your feelings, see/appreciate each other’s perspective, and identify a mutually acceptable solution, couples can fall into unhealthy patterns: passive aggressiveness, name calling, hyper-criticalness, withdrawing/avoiding, etc.

The combination of these relationship changes and additional stressors related to raising children can negatively impact the couple. According to 30 years of research, many couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after their first child is born/adopted.* Considering that marital satisfaction is a key predictor of whether a couple will stay together, it’s not surprising that many relationships dissolve within this transition-to-parenthood time frame. Although it may seem like having children means certain death to the dyad relationship, there is still hope. In the next article of this transition-to-parenthood series, the key predictors of a successful relationship will be explored.

If you and your partner are struggling with your new parenting roles and the impact of these roles on your relationship, you can make an appointment for either individual or couples’ counseling with one of our highly trained therapists who can help you successfully navigate this challenging phase in your life.

Gottman’s book, “And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives” provides a brief overview of transition-to-parenthood research and offers parents simple activities they can do to create intimacy in their relationship.

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