You might be the most optimistic, affectionate pregnant couple right up until the moment your baby is born. The months after your first child’s birth, however, may be one of the most difficult periods of your or any couple’s life. Problematic communication patterns that couples that they had worked through may return, sometimes with more intensity than ever. This phenomenon is well documented in the scientific literature, and there are many films about it (Two days in New York, Knocked Up …). And yet, new parents often feel unprepared when it happens to them. These new parents are relieved to hear that it is normal to feel exhausted and disoriented in your new role as a parent. And it is also completely normal to fight more with your partner during the postpartum period.
Actually, two out of three couples experience a sharp decline in marital and sexual satisfaction during the first six months of parenthood. Of course, they do. During the first year, most parents miss out on their minimum uninterrupted hours of deep sleep. The sleepless nights, the stress of being novice parents often without back up, the postpartum hormones and those triggered by breastfeeding together make it completely understandable that you might not recognize yourself, let alone your partner, in these transformative times. Without sleep and under stress, none of us are at our best.
Under these less than ideal conditions, new parents find themselves struggling to answer the most important questions of their adult lives: who will do what share of chores, who will be responsible for childcare and who will work? Many heterosexual couples – even those who had shared housekeeping chores evenly until the birth of the baby- find themselves sliding into traditional gender roles: the female finds herself being responsible for most of the childcare; the male partner is often relegated to doing most of the work outside of the house. Both partners can feel resentment and frustration just at the moment when each of them needs empathy and support from their partner.
To add one more element to this perfect storm, young parents are often isolated from their former peers, unable or unwilling to engage in the social activities single young adults engage in for relaxation and community. Not being able to let off steam or laugh about their situation with compassionate friends, it is easy for couples to fall back in negative communication patterns. Further, just when their world is reduced to each other, one partner might begin to miss sex before the other partner is even ready to think about it…
The transition to parenthood can be rough: it is estimated that two out of three relationships suffer during this period. Divorce is likeliest to occur during the first 5 years after the birth of the first baby.
One-third of couples, however, maintain and even improve the good relationships they had before baby arrived. How do they do it? And what could they tell pregnant couples to help them prepare and give them a chance for postpartum romance?
So what should new parents know to be prepared for postpartum romance?
- Prioritize sleep: Notice how much sleep affects your own moods and behaviors. When you fight, allow your partner the benefit of the doubt “It’s not him but the sleeplessness talking”.
- Give each other a break: empathize with your partner’s complaints, show them gratitude for how much they do and encourage your partner (who will be more likely to encourage you in turn) to exercise, see a friend, meditate or take a night off.
- Cultivate your friendship with your partner by showing each other physical affection, even when sex feels off limits. Make a point to greet each other, kiss, snuggle or share a bubble bath.
- Learn to care for and play with the baby cooperatively- rather than competitively or combatively. This might require that mothers actively involve fathers in child care, something that boys are often not socialized to do. Both parents can develop the ability to respond to the baby’s cues and needs.
- Openly and honestly negotiate with each other about your new parental roles (chores, child care and work). These negotiations are very important. The arrival of the baby has made your old couple – and how you interacted – obsolete. So you are grieving the couple you were. And at the same time you are involved in building as quickly as possible a safe and capable family around your new child. Discuss with your partner your new tasks and roles and how you feel about them. Make agreements flexible enough to be changed when conditions change, but firm enough that you can trust each other to follow through. Happy partners shared chores equally and felt their partners would not betray agreements made.
- Do not avoid arguments. These are weighty topics, so do not avoid the intensity that goes with them. If you avoid fighting, you will only create distance between you, which is worse. Stand up for what you want and allow yourselves to “fight” in a constructive manner.
- Stay informed about each other’s’ worlds. Parenting can lead to a division of roles that can make you lose track of your partner’s everyday life. It gets harder to empathize with a partner when you do not know what they are experiencing. Go on dates with limited time for talking about the baby and instead focus on each other. For example, ask each other the “10 questions to fall in love”…
It makes complete sense that a couple would put their relationship on the back burner when a new baby arrives. You don’t talk about each other anymore. You talk about whether the diaper is full and needs changing. When the baby is a few months old, however, many parents continue to show less affection to each other, have sex less frequently and feel more resentment and anger towards their partner than they had before they became parents.
If you are one of these couples, it might be time for you and your partner learn to change your negative interactions and build again a loving and satisfying relationship. Family therapy is safe space where relationships and families can be re-built.
- Gilda Hirschberger et al, “Attachment, marital satisfaction and divorce in first 15 years of marriage”. In Personal Relationships (journal), 2009.
- John Gottman: Bringing baby home
- Jamie Gordon, “5 relationship tips for new parents”. Psychology Today, June 17, 2016
- Matthew Johnson. “Why having children is bad for your marriage”. Washington Post, May 6 2016.