The transition to parenthood is typically a chaotic and challenging time for new parents. Although preparation programs typically focus on the day of birth, the real work begins after the baby is brought home. Decades of research on hundreds of couples has shown there are very common stumbling blocks in the transition to parenthood, and there are also evidence-based tools that can improve couples’ relationship quality, improve parent-baby bonding, and decrease postpartum depression and anxiety.
The most common physical and psychological changes that new parents experience are sleep deprivation, decline in sex and intimacy, and gender roles becoming more traditional. These are major stressors that take an immediate toll on resilience, and the relationship frequently suffers. Most new parents report that they experience an increase in conflict, communication that is stressful, and often, overtime, one parent will withdraw. Additionally, many new parents struggle with a sense of lost identity and grief for their pre-baby self or relationship. All of these factors combined can lead to an unhappy relationship, even if the birth of the child was a joyous and much anticipated occasion.
So, how can new parents navigate the challenging waters of exhaustion and stress without letting the marital relationship suffer?
Strengthen and Maintain Your Friendship
Before you were parents, or even romantically involved, you were friends, right? So many people say “I married my best friend” but the phenomenal changes that occur in early parenthood can make that friendship feel like a relic of the past. It is a reality that just surviving the days (and nights) of parenthood is a full-time job – who has time for chatting, joking, and date night? Scientific studies that examine couples who navigate parenthood with ease have identified specific steps you can take to retain, and strengthen, a deep, bonding friendship with your partner. And, by remaining friends, your odds of staying happily married as parents increase enormously.
The first step in building and maintaining a friendship is to construct something the Gottmans term “Love Maps.” Love Maps are not actually maps, but they are symbolic representations of your partner – their history, their hopes and dreams, and the little idiosyncrasies only you, as the partner, can fully comprehend. To construct a Love Map you want to really get to know, and understand, your partner. Remember in early dating when you asked each other one thousand questions and could sit and talk for hours? That same fascination and elation in each other can be cultivated any time in your relationship. And guess what – people change! Your partner may have new favorite foods, movies, political views, and hopes for the future than they did the last time you asked. To build Love Maps, focus on the idea that you and your partner are growing and changing, and you want to grow together. The categories to think about as you work to constantly deepen your knowledge and understanding of your partner include: history, preferences, concerns, daily activities, and hopes and dreams. You can take turns generating questions, or make guesses about your partner and find out if you are right, or download the free Gottman Card Decks app for an endless supply of questions to get these conversations started. Building a friendship to strengthening your relationship does not require extra time, money, or activities – it is about connecting in a meaningful way during the mundane of daily life. Remembering to notice and acknowledge all that your partner does, for you and the family, can help to seal the bond.
Become Pros at Handling Conflict
Even if you are working diligently at strengthening your friendship, conflict will inevitably arise. Happy couples are not couples without conflict, they are couples that successfully navigate disagreements. The topics that are most common sources of conflict are: money, kids, sex, and time. There are specific techniques used by happy couples during conflict regulation. The first is a “softened start-up.” The way in which you bring up a topic to your partner is a significant predictor of the outcome; in fact, the first three minutes of a discussion of a problem determines the outcome of the discussion. The softened start-up technique will enlist the help of your partner so you can solve the problem as a team, rather than pit you against each other. An example of a softened start-up is to say “I feel…” – if you open by labeling your emotion, rather than criticizing, your partner will be more likely to try to see your point of view. Second, label the dilemma with a neutral description (for example, “I feel sad that we aren’t eating dinner together as a family” rather than “You are never home for dinner”). And finally, make a specific request, “I need…”. Using this format, and avoiding blame and judgmental talk, can drastically improve the discussion. Also, to decrease the likelihood of a blow-up: insert appreciations, be polite and kind, and avoid storing things up that make you mad. If one partner feels physiologically activated (example: increased heartrate), it is not a good time for a discussion. Take a break and resume later. Tips to keep both partner’s heartrate low are to use humor and compassion, look for the areas where your partner is right, and repair the conflict as quickly as possible. Finally, aim for compromise. You cannot be influential unless you accept influence, so find common ground and resolutions that are acceptable to both people – if you look hard enough there is almost always a way to resolve disagreements!
Foster (and focus on) a Sense of Shared Meaning
A sense of shared meaning in life is a huge factor in maintaining a healthy relationship. Luckily, having a new baby or young child makes it much easier to foster shared purpose! While relationship conflict often stems from unfulfilled dreams and ideals, talking about and mutually prioritizing both partners’ goals can unite you as a team. Support each other’s aspirations and find ways to make small steps toward long-term life goals. To do this, both partners need to be willing to make sacrifices and take chances. Partners need to build a strong sense of trust in the relationship so that vulnerability and risk-taking are acceptable. In addition to learning about and helping with your partner’s personal goals and aspirations, it is important to have family aspirations. Start with establishing rituals of connection. These can vary widely from the daily small habits your family adopts as routine (meals together, nightly gratitude, weekend walks), to bigger rituals like holiday traditions, summer vacations, and special birthday activities. These serve as milestones and positive anticipatory pillars that your family can share and build on year after year. Finally, no family should live in a silo. Even if you do not have extended family nearby, find meaningful and sustainable ways to integrate into the community. There are spiritual, volunteer, physical fitness, and social activism events available for entire families to do together. Engage in discussions to identify ways your whole family can become a part of something larger. Not only will this engender shared meaning, it also provides strong support that can enhance the parenting journey.
In summary, to babyproof your marriage, remember this adage from the Gottman Institute:
small things often. Research shows if you make small changes in your daily life, they will result in larger changes that increase satisfaction, increase communication, and help you maintain a happy marriage.
Felice Reddy is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist and certified Gottman Institute Bringing Baby Home educator. She is on faculty at UCLA in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences and provides psychotherapy and groups to new parents in California and North Carolina. Follow her on Instagram @wellmotherhood or access free postpartum mental health resources at felicereddy.com.