The transition to parenthood tends to be a stressful time for couples. Because kids radically change your relationship, said Nancy Gardner, Ph.D, a psychologist who specializes in couples and is certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy. “New parents have more to do than they possibly could have imagined, and they are tired.”
The sleep deprivation “affects our moods, which can cause irritability and lead to poor communication,” said Catherine O’Brien, MA, LMFT, a relationship therapist who specializes in helping families prepare for the transition from pregnancy to parenthood by managing overwhelm, creating more ease and deepening connection.
In fact, poor communication is one of the biggest reasons why couples’ satisfaction dips and conflict climbs, according to research from The Gottman Institute. Other research from the institute found that two-thirds of new parents experience a decrease in their relationship quality and an increase in conflict and hostility within 3 years of their baby’s birth.
These findings might make things seem bleak — especially since you’re about to or just welcomed a beautiful miracle into your life; a product of your love. But knowing that your baby will bring new challenges is a good thing, because it means that you can prepare and try to anticipate and navigate the obstacles. Once we can name a potential issue, then we can work through it.
Below, you’ll find four suggestions for navigating the major changes and cultivating a healthy relationship amid the potential stress.
Develop a “postpartum plan.”
According to O’Brien, it’s important to talk about how you’ll manage the days, weeks, months and even years after your baby comes home. She encourages her clients to develop a “postpartum plan.” To get started on your own plan, she suggested considering these questions:
- Who can you call anytime day or night if you are losing it?
- What is the plan if you are both overwhelmed?
- Who is your boobie buddy if your baby is not latching on or your boobs are producing too much or too little milk?
- Who can you call to come over while you cry?
- How often will you have a date night?
- What can you do to make sure you are getting the mental stimulation you need? This might include everything from reading a book to doing a puzzle.
- What are places you can go to or call for take-out and delivery?
- Who will you call to watch your sweet baby so you can make time with your partner?
- If you don’t have local friends or family to support you when baby comes home, who do you call when you and your partner are both “too tired”? For instance, you might check with your church or synagogue. Or hire a postpartum doula.
- What will you do when things are tough and you feel like you are not yourself, or like the emotions you are having aren’t “normal” and you need a professional to talk to?
Make a list of chores.
“Another major change is that there is more work, more chores, more overall tasks to complete because now there is this little person that you have to take care of,” O’Brien said. And many couples don’t discuss who’s doing what. They might have unspoken expectations that their partner will take care of a chore, she said. But often this doesn’t happen.
O’Brien suggests her clients make a list and talk about who’s going to complete each chore. Also, talk about what tasks you’ll delegate to someone else, like a housekeeper or dog walker.
Having a list is even useful when loved ones offer to help. Some of O’Brien’s clients ask their loved ones to pick a chore off their list. This way when you’re too tired to think about what you need, you have one less decision to make, she said.
Talk about how parenting is affecting you.
“Couples do best in early parenting if they can talk about how this huge life change impacts them,” said Gardner. That’s because it’s helpful to know that your partner is available and responsive to you, she said.
It’s also important for dealing with resentment. Many couples tell O’Brien that they feel resentful toward each other because they’re doing all the work. She pointed out that often this is true — for each partner. “They are taking on more work, more care, and ultimately have less time for themselves and each other.”
When couples talk about their feelings and struggles, they tend to see that they’re experiencing similar things, she said. The key is to listen intently to each other. Respond with love and empathy, and offer to help, Gardner said.
Adopt a playful perspective.
Play is vital for helping couples keep a healthy relationship. Relationship therapist Rebecca Wong, LCSW, stressed the importance of seeing parenting as an adventure you’re both sharing. Try to find the “humor in the mess and chaos.” This “will go a long, long way in preserving your friendship, the foundation of your relationship and good feelings towards one another,” said Wong, the founder of connectfulness.
Having children brings many challenges and can create distance in a marriage. But often the smallest gestures can have powerful effects. Gestures like turning to each other and really listening. Talking about tasks. Planning ahead. And changing your outlook to one of play, humor and even adventure.
New parents photo available from Shutterstock