Everyone says that having a baby changes everything, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than in your relationship with your partner. Numerous studies show that new parents are the most uniformly dissatisfied group when it comes to marital satisfaction. Anyone who's had their party of two crashed by a magical (but exceptionally demanding) third wheel doesn't need to read the research. We're living it.
Maybe it's because romantic comedies and diaper commercials are selling us a bill of goods. "Many expectant parents absorb social messaging that says, 'You'll fall in love all over again – but more deeply!'" says Sarah Best, LMSW, a psychotherapist at the Seleni Institute. "That's a lot of pressure, and it leaves many new parents feeling like relationship failures." When you think about the severe lack of sleep and new demands on everyone's time and attention, it's no surprise that so many couples struggle in their child's first year.
Best urges couples to start by "getting real" about how tough the transition to parenthood can be on your relationship. "The transition itself is difficult, but it's made even harder when couples have unrealistic expectations about how they 'should' be affected," says Best. Here are her top five tips to keep your relationship strong after you become parents:
Recognize that your partner is in the thick of it too. "It's human nature to feel resentful or play the 'who has it worse' game," says Best, "but try and remember that each of you is dealing with a major identity shift, and bringing 20, 30, 40 years of 'stuff' along with it. Your experiences may look different and still be equally intense." Acknowledging that will help you both be more understanding with one another.
Set aside time to have the tough conversations. Table those late-night, resentment-driven squabbles for a weekly check-in. "When you're exhausted, it can be so easy to have a litany of complaints about what your partner is doing or is not doing. But if you say, 'We can talk about it on Wednesday,' things that might have been inflammatory in the moment may fade by the time you have your designated check-in." And then you will both be more open to seeking resolutions rather than just spewing grievances.
When you do talk, talk effectively. Expressing your anger and frustration in a way that doesn't cause your partner to feel defensive isn't easy. Best suggests owning your feelings, avoiding direct criticism, and being specific about what you need from your partner. "Saying, 'I'm feeling really overwhelmed and would really appreciate you giving the baby a bath tonight,' will probably go over a lot more smoothly than saying, 'You don't help!' A statement like, 'I'm starved for adult conversation and would love to have dinner at the table so we can talk' will kick up much less defensiveness than, 'You never pay attention to me,'" she says.
Find time to connect – even if it looks nothing like you think it should. "The most important ingredient for intimacy is staying connected, period," says Best. "For one couple that might mean binge-watching a series on Netflix because that's all they can handle at the moment." If that sounds like you, cuddle or hold hands while you do it. She also recommends talking about what you both miss from your pre-baby days. "Verbalizing what you each miss (time together, sex) and fantasizing aloud about what you wish was different (not sleeping in shifts) is a great way to preserve intimacy, even if it's a different kind of intimacy than what you enjoyed before baby," she says. Regardless of how you choose to come together, the goal is to be real about how your relationship is at this moment, even if that feels about as sexy as a pair of old socks. (Hey, at least it's a pair.)
"Parent" each other. Most of us have far more patience, compassion, and forgiveness for our children than we do for our partners. When your baby cries for no apparent reason, you may do everything in your power to soothe her, but "when our partners snap at us in the mildest way we become indignant," Best points out. "If you can take the compassionate approach you have for your children and offer that to your partner, it will go a long way."
Your relationship after baby may not be the fairy tale you envisioned. (Some days it may feel more like the Battle of the Roses.) But remember that bonds formed in battle are strong, and although having a baby can indeed change everything, amazing things can happen when you learn how to change together.