With all the “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” type of books out there, you would think that there would be more information to truly prepare couples for transitioning to parenthood. There are infinite resources on what happens during pregnancy and the birth process, as well as website and forums dedicated to all the gadgets, accessories, and tools you will need to care for the baby. You can watch YouTube videos about changing diapers, swaddling, and proper ways to use your Moby wrap. These are all valuable resources, but what is more valuable than maintaining a strong and connected relationship with your partner? Why aren't people talking about what really happens to couples in the postpartum period? In my opinion, it’s because some of the information is very scary-and we tend to avoid things that are scary.
Aren’t Babies Supposed to Make Couples Happy? Why does Conflict Increase?
We know from the research that conflict increases for 92% of couples in the first year postpartum, and 67% of couples remain unhappy for the first 3 years after having a baby. Wow, those are some scary numbers, right? Yes, that can feel overwhelming and terrifying at first glance. But here’s another way to think about it. Practically all couples report having more arguments with their partner, therefore we know it is completely NORMAL. You can expect it, which means you don’t need to panic when it occurs. You will have limited resources available when there’s a new baby, including little sleep, rest, and patience.
There are also unknowns involved, such as when the swing worked wonders yesterday to calm the baby but today he/she doesn’t want to have anything to do with it. What now?? Frantic parents are trying to problem solve quickly, with inadequate rest and a crying baby. Not so surprising that conflict is going to happen. The key is to slow down, tell yourself you can get through this, understand these times are hard, and now reengage and figure it out. Easier said than done, I know, but it can help tremendously.
So We’ll Be Unhappy For Three Years?
As for the couples that are dissatisfied for the first 3 years, they are the ones that have never figured out how to handle the conflict effectively. John Gottman at the Gottman Institute has created a program called Bringing Baby Home which covers strategies for managing conflict. Throughout his research, he confirms that all couples argue and have conflict, even the most successful couples that are happily married for 30 years. It’s not that you fight, but HOW you fight that matters. The 33% of couples that are happy in those three years after having a little one are the ones that have found ways to manage their conflict without tearing the other person down, attacking their partner's character, or getting to a place of shutting down. They listen, talk to each other, compromise on some things, leave other issues unresolved but explored, honor each other’s thoughts and opinions, and most importantly, they exit conflict discussions feeling more connected than before.
Why do I Feel So Alone Even When My Partner is a Great Parent?
Here’s another hard part about this whole dynamic-you have to start separating the partner from the parent. Let me explain. Your partner is in a special relationship with you as a couple, and that must be nurtured and strengthened over time to stay alive. When you become a family, that is a new relationship but it does not mean you leave the old relationship behind. You should still continue growing the couple relationship, but now it’s within the context of being a family and entering parenthood which has challenges. You can see all the things your partner is doing to be a great parent, such as taking over feedings, playing and laughing with the baby, reading books, keeping him/her engaged, and rocking them to sleep. These are wonderful things to do to nurture the parent relationship, but those activities have nothing to do with the couple relationship (but acknowledging and expressing appreciation for them do!). Both partners are usually trying to do everything they can to keep the house running and the family in status quo after having a baby that they forget to do anything for the relationship. There’s no time!!
How Can We Be One of the Happy Postpartum Couples?
Here's the thing-there is always time for things in your life that are valuable. Without dedicating some time and effort to the relationship, both partners will start to feel lonely, isolated, and unappreciated. There are many strategies you can find to actively work on enhancing the relationship, but one I’ve found particularly powerful for my clients is simple. Tell your partner everyday how much you appreciate and admire them. It takes 15 seconds, doesn’t cost any money, and means everything in the world to the other person. It’s the quickest and most meaningful way to connect to your partner. 9 times out of 10, they will reciprocate the sentiment, leaving you feeling connected again.
And remember, the successful couples that are happiest in the three years after having a baby are the ones that stay connected even after experiencing some tough stuff. Here’s my challenge to you (and you can do this at any stage of your relationship): Tell your partner one thing they do that you appreciate every day for just one week, and see if you notice a difference in the relationship. If you need help getting started, make a list in the comments below of things you can think of right now that your partner does well or that you appreciate. I dare you not to smile as you’re making your list (see, it's working already!).
If you and your partner are experiencing more arguments and fighting a lot during the postpartum period, know that is completely normal. However, if you are getting stuck in those fights and unable to reach a place of connection and happiness, I’m here to help. I am a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in the transition to parenthood. I am located in the Clear Lake area of Houston, Tx and I offer free 20 minute phone consults so that you can get a chance to learn how I can help and get all your questions answered. Call me at (832) 827-3288, and I’m looking forward to talking to you soon.