If the transition to parenthood took a toll on your relationship, here's help.
Becoming a parent is a joyous, wondrous, tiring, and at times difficult experience. It brings with it the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. For many of us, it will be our most life-changing experience. And one of those changes is your life as a couple. Going from a couple whose main focus is on each other to parents who have to put a new baby as the top priority can be a difficult shift for even the most healthy and happy couples. Your relationship will often take a backseat to the demanding needs of parenthood. And as a result, as you settle into parenthood and the months go by, you may find that you and your partner have less fun together, annoy each other more, or are just more disconnected than you used to be.
If this is you, you are not alone.
There are countless psychological studies examining what psychologists call “the decline in marital satisfaction during the transition to parenthood.” There are disagreements about how bad that decline really is, whether it is worse for men or women, and what helps prevent it. And because researchers can’t randomly assign people to have children or not, we can never have the necessary experimental evidence to definitively say that parenthood is bad for marriage. But results from studies of couples who were followed from before they had children until years after their first child was born (often comparing them to couples who did not have children) consistently show that for most couples, having a child is hard on their relationship.
What these studies also show is that this hit to your relationship is not inevitable—some couples in these studies don’t launch into a downward trajectory after having their first child. So how can you be one of these couples? Some of it is not easy to change—having more financial resources, a planned pregnancy, and parents who didn’t divorce are all potential protective factors.
But one factor that you can control is choosing to prioritize your relationship and find time together as a couple. Of course, that is easier said than done with an adorable, needy baby who counts on you for its survival. But there are certainly some actions you can take to help maintain your sanity and your relationship through the early years of parenthood. And they don’t even require hiring a babysitter for regular date nights.
1. Prioritize sleep
Researchers think that one of the reasons the transition to parenthood is hard on relationships is because that adorable bundle of joy wreaks havoc on your sleep. When you’re low on sleep, you might find yourself feeling more irritable and hostile and reacting more strongly when something bad happens. And my colleague and I found that couples fought more, and were worse at resolving conflict if either partner had slept poorly the prior night. Even if you are no longer dealing with nighttime wakings, you are probably still be suffering from a massive sleep debt. After several days of sleep loss people report not feeling as tired, but they still perform poorly on mental tasks.
For many, it’s difficult to prioritize sleep—it’s hard to leave the dishes unwashed and the living room strewn with toys and sometimes you just want a little bit of me (or we) time at the end of a long day. But it is worth it. Even if you are still waking up at night to care for your little one, there are things you can do to prioritize sleep. For example, try giving yourself a bedtime, don’t take your phone or tablet to bed with you, engage in good sleep hygiene so you’re not tossing and turning all night long and even consider sleeping in a separate bed from your partner if you wake each other up. Also think about whether there are ways to divide up the night wakings so that you can both get a bit of consolidated sleep.
Everything is easier and better if you’re facing the day fully rested. You’ll be more efficient, get your work done faster, make fewer mistakes, and have more control over your emotions. So rather than stay up to deal with some household, work, or personal problem, get some sleep and see if that problem isn’t easier to solve in the morning. Oh, and forget the old adage “never go to bed angry.” Instead, try “if you’re angry, say I love you and goodnight, and see if it’s still a problem in the morning.”
2. Give each other the benefit of the doubt
Sleepless nights, a crying baby, and all the other demands of parenthood are added on top of everything you were doing before baby came along. Although a joyous time in so many ways, the transition to parenthood can also be incredibly stressful. Stress makes it difficult to be a loving and present partner. So when your partner snaps at you, forgets to do something you asked them to do, or just isn’t as loving and affectionate as you’d like, rather than getting angry, trying chalking it up to the fact that, like you, he or she is probably sleep-deprived and stressed. Blaming minor relationship issues on external causes like lack of sleep or baby-induced memory loss can help you keep things in perspective, possibly preventing something small from turning into a big, sleep-deprived fight. Of course it’s hard to remember to give the benefit of the doubt, especially if you are running low on sleep, so try creating a rule for yourself. For example, every time you start to feel annoyed at your partner, repeat to yourself “It’s not him, it’s the lack of sleep,” or something along those lines. You could also try to remember the last time you did something similar and remind yourself that you are both going to make a lot of mistakes during this time.
Of course, if you find yourself facing real relationship issues it’s not good to just shrug them aside. But it is still important to maintain perspective. See these posts (1,2) for some tips on dealing with conflict.
3. Be appreciative
Little time and lots to do may mean you take each other for granted. Who has time to say thanks for making dinner when you’re rushing to get the baby ready for bed? Plus, again, that whole not getting enough sleep thing—I have found in my own research that people tend to be less grateful when they aren’t getting enough sleep. But a little gratitude could go a long way. Research shows that more grateful people are more satisfied with their relationships, and this might be particularly true during transitional times like having a baby.
So little things, like (1) recognizing your partner’s efforts, (2) taking a few moments to feel lucky you get to share this chaotic journey with your partner, or (3) reflecting back on how you felt when you met, and then expressing those feelings to your partner, might help keep you feeling close and connected. And if you start expressing your gratitude, you’ll likely find that your partner is more likely to express his or her gratitude as well. And how good would it feel to receive a heartfelt thanks for all those dinners you’ve made or those diapers changes that you thought went unnoticed?
4. Start a new (not time-intensive) hobby together
Research shows that engaging in novel activities together is good for couples, and this might be particularly true during the transition to parenthood when so much of your time is spent focused on things other than your relationship. Especially if you find that your old hobbies don’t work well in your new lifestyle. Sure you can go on walks pushing your baby in the stroller, but it’s no longer reasonable for you to take day-long hikes up the mountains each weekend or make pancakes and watch a tv marathon on Saturday morning. Even if you are able to still engage in some of your old hobbies together thanks to a babysitter, it is worth finding a new hobby you can do as a couple—a new hobby will bring you two together, give you something new to talk about, and provide a little bit of fun together-time during a period when the majority of your interactions might feel like business meetings.
You don’t need to pick up skydiving (maybe after the last kid leaves for college?). Choose something not too time-intensive that you can easily fit into your new lives. If you both like reading, start a book club with just the two of you or take turns reading a chapter to each other before bed at night. Pick up a new game—I played boggle for the first time in years this summer and thought how easy and fun it would be to play 10 minutes of boggle together a few nights a week. Into food? Find a top 10 list of restaurants in your area and commit to trying one every few weeks and work together to plan out what you’ll eat before you go.
5. Commiserate with each other
When things are at their worst, don’t stew in silence. Remember you are in it together. Even if you’re not sleeping, are snappish, and have no time for appreciation or new hobbies, it might help you feel better about your relationship if you take the time to gripe together. If you hear your partner tell you about how tired they are and how more than anything they wish they could run away to a deserted tropical island with you, you might not feel so alone and frustrated. It’s not that your partner doesn’t care, it’s that your partner is also struggling with getting through the day and forgets to tell you that they care. You could even schedule a weekly grip session—just five minutes on Friday night to sit down and take turns complaining and commiserating with the other person’s woes could help you stay a “we” rather than turn you into a “you” and “me.”
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