Parents-to-be spend time researching what furniture or apparatuses their baby will need or what will be helpful as they care for this new little one. Many people receive gifts of clothing, blankets, or strollers. Couples may attend classes about childbirth and spend time thinking about whether they would like to have their baby in a hospital or at home.
In addition to preparation for the birth of their baby, more attention has come to the possibility of post-partum depression or anxiety in new mothers. Public health visits and pediatrician visits often now include questions about whether the new mom is feeling down or more anxious than usual. Later, various child issues can crop up and continue concerns including issues with specialists such as child psychologists, speech pathologists, optometrists etc.
Among all the excitement and preparation for the new baby, new parents often disregard the impact this event will have on their relationship with each other. In fact, the research shows that overall, relationship dissatisfaction increases after the introduction of a child into the family whether from birth (Lawrence, Rothman, Cobb, Rothman, & Bradbury, 2008) or adoption (Ward, 1998).
It is important for expectant couples to know what it is about a new baby that might impact their relationship, as well as what can be done to help with the transition.
Decline in Relationship Satisfaction
In her review of research on couples’ relationships and sexuality after their first baby, Susan Pacey (2004) noted that the most critical changes occur between the baby’s birth and first birthday. A new baby shifts the focus from the couples’ relationship and demands a significant amount of attention.
This tends to disrupt couples’ usual way of interacting and understanding each other and can take some time to find the new balance. Particularly in couples who consider themselves to have less traditional roles, a new mom staying home and taking care of the baby while dad goes to work can feel very confusing and uncharacteristic.
Pacey also indicated that while parents may consider themselves a team, the birth of a baby will profoundly affect each parent in a different way. Women who have given birth have experienced significant physical and hormonal changes in a relatively short period of time, which often continue long after the birth of their baby. Adding in the societal pressures of recovering after birth and varying opinions on parenting choices such as breastfeeding, it may seem like every part of her life is new.
Fathers do not have the same physical indications of a life shift, but will be faced with different kinds of pressures. They may feel less prepared to care for a child and uncertain about their role. Expectations for fathers have changed in the past decades and finding where they belong in the family can be stressful. Men who work outside the home may be expected to function at work as if nothing has changed, despite a complete transformation in his home life.
The individual experiences often result in a polarization between couples, with each person feeling further away from the other. Pacey’s research summary includes the possibility of health risks, postpartum mental health concerns, and decline in sexual intimacy as other factors that put pressure on a couples’ relationship.
Preparing Your Relationship
- Expectations for each parent’s involvement. Talk about how each person views their future role as a parent and what they hope for from their partner. Different upbringings and cultures may result in different expectations, as well, many people have different skills and strengths that apply to different roles.
- Expectations for extended family involvement. The role of grandparents can be controversial for some couples and guidelines about visits and childcare ahead of time will help to ease some future tension.
- Current conflicts and differences: As mentioned above, a new child tends to magnify previous problems. While couples don’t have to have all their problems figured out before having a baby, it is a good time to develop healthy relationship patterns and coping strategies.
- Ask your partner about how they are doing. Each person is going through the change and it’s easy for even the most considerate person to focus on themselves. Set aside a few minutes every week or so to check in with the other person and hear about their experience.
- Communicate your struggles. This is good advice for any relationship, but is especially important for new parents. Talk about health changes and concerns, feelings about your sexual relationship, difficult emotions, and how your partner might help you.
- Help each other to take breaks. With a lot of changes going on, it can be helpful to have something stable to hold on to and feel like you are still yourself. This might be a hobby, a sport, or spending time with friends. Observe each other for when one person might be at the end of their rope and need half an hour to go for a walk or maybe need some time alone to nap.
- Spend time alone together. Often one big change when a new baby arrives is that it is more difficult for couples to do activities together outside of the home. Everyone is different when they feel comfortable to leave their baby in the care of someone else, but when that time comes, family members or close friends are likely more than happy to help you take a date night.
- Spend time as a family. It’s easy to get caught up in wiping up spills, doing laundry, or changing diapers, and it often feels like too much work to leave the house. But, part of keeping your relationship strong as a couple is figuring out how you interact together with this new little person. Being outside of your home can be helpful to have a fresh perspective and be away from the household responsibilities.
- It is important to ensure that your child's behaviour is as positive as possible to reduce stress on your relationship. Child psychologists can help you understand if your child's behaviour is normal and they can also help you with strategies for managing difficult behaviour patterns.
It can also be helpful to seek out help if you are finding it difficult to manage the transition into the parenting role. Seeking a child psychologist, other professional, or parenting courses and books can help you manage this transition.
By the Couples Clinic
Lawrence, E., Rothman, A. D., Cobb, R. J., Rothman, M. T., & Bradbury, T. N. (2008). Marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Psychology. 11, 41–50.
Pacey, S. (2004). Couples and the first baby: responding to new parents' sexual and relationship problems. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 19(3), 223-246.
Ward, M. (1998). The impact of adoption on the new parents' marriage.Adoption Quarterly, 2(2), 57-78.