Imagine that you are at work and your pay is cut by 50 percent, your workload doubles, your hours are extended, and you are on call throughout the night. What would the culture at your work be like? How would your most intimate relationships be affected?
This is essentially what happens after birth. Household labour increases substantially, while personal resources decrease, including sleep quality and quantity, and personal time with our partner and ourselves. It should be no surprise then that becoming new parents is a significant stressor on romantic relationships. Research indicates that the majority of couples suffer a decline in relationship satisfaction over the transition to parenthood. Given this startling discovery, you may be asking yourself the following questions:
Is your relationship important after having a baby?
Yes! Research shows that relationship satisfaction is associated with our physical and mental health. Our relationship quality also impacts the long-term mental health of our children. A substantial body of evidence shows that, even in intact families, couple discord negatively impacts child adjustment, increasing the risk of children experiencing internalizing (e.g., anxiety and depression) and externalizing (e.g., behavioural) problems. Children may also experience difficulties with peer relationships and display poor academic competence. In fact, interparental conflict has been proven to be a better predictor of child outcomes than marital status.
Is a decline in relationship satisfaction inevitable?
No! Just as a snowball rolling downhill gains speed, your emotions (whether they result from thoughts, interpersonal interactions, or the world at large), can gain momentum in your new family system, affecting the tone and interpretation of subsequent interpersonal communications. This is emotional momentum and can affect romantic relationships either positively or negatively.
What can you do to create positive emotional momentum within your relationship?
1. Identify your own negative emotions and their source as early as possible. One new mother I spoke to, Nathalie, explained: “I was just trying to be honest with myself about the emotions I was feeling and why I was angry. And is it all his fault, or is some of it because I’m upset about something else and I’m projecting my anger? It’s not his fault I don’t have a career right now, so I work very hard to make sure I’m separating all of that that stuff out so that I’m not projecting stuff onto him.” Just as it is easier to put out a small fire rather than a large one, the earlier we identify feelings of distress, the more effective our resources will be.
2. Halt negative momentum. Take your own “time outs” to help regulate your emotions, slow down your breath, and bring yourself mentally to a place you find calming. I like to imagine myself in a forest with the smell of cedar, and the cool forest air on my skin.
3. Co-Regulate. Experiment with your partner as to what helps calm each of you down when tension is rising. For many people, touch is the most soothing. For others, verbal reassurance may help (e.g., “you are important to me and I know we can get through this”).
4. Communicate at least five positives for every negative. Our brains are wired to scan for threats. Just as we generally keep our phone in the most accessible place, events associated with negative emotion are stored on the “top shelf” for faster recall. Therefore, we require a higher ratio of positive to negative in order to reach equilibrium. According to veteran couples researchers Gottman and Gottmans’ theory, a five to one ratio of positives to negatives is characteristic of relationship “masters.” Increased positivity can improve the couple’s friendship and increase their secure attachment to one another. For example, you might:
a. Send texts to your partner when you’re apart, letting them know you are thinking of them, love them, or lust after them.
b. Observe what your partner does well and share it with them! This might mean admiring how they kept their cool in the face of your baby’s distress.
5. Be intentional in your actions. This creates positive momentum in the relationship. Make your partner their favourite hot drink in the morning before they reach the kitchen! One new father told me, “I try to do that with my wife if she’s feeling a little down, a little tired — be positive you know? Bring some flowers home, top her glass up one more time – you know, whatever it takes, try to stay positive. I think that helps the relationship.”
6. Savour positives together. Another parent I spoke to, Bill, reflected on how parenting brings “quiet moments of joy too, like little epiphanies. Like watching firsts of your child – first smiles, first reactions, first teeth, first rolling over. It’s pretty amazing to watch a human figure herself out in the world . . . we had more to bond over.” Relishing positive experiences together is a bonding experience and creates lasting positive investments in your relationship “bank.” Each time you spend at least 20 seconds enjoying a positive experience, it creates more of a retrieval advantage in your brain. This means that, with repetition, it becomes easier to recall positive memories and experience similar emotions at other times.
7. Enjoy your identity as a couple. If the two of you were a brand, what would it be? What activities and ways of interacting are unique to you? When research participants spoke of doing more of the things that they identified as “us” in the future, they evidenced a sense of “we-ness,” which is linked to relationship stability over the parental transition, and provides more for you to celebrate as a couple!
The consensus among all new parents I’ve talked to is that having a child changes everything. However, with awareness and the intention to nourish your relationship, this change can be for the positive!
Want to learn more? Here are some resources:
The Science of Positive Brain Change
Gottman, John M., and Julie Schwartz. Gottman. And Baby Makes Three: the Six-Step for Preserving Martial Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Shapiro, A. F., Gottman, J. M., & Carrère, S. (2000). The baby and the marriage: Identifying factors that buffer against decline in marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 59 –70.
Cox, M. J., Paley, B., & Harter, K. (2001). Interparental conflict and parent-child
relationships. In J. H. Grych & F. D. Fincham (Eds.), Interparental conflict and child
development: Theory, research, and applications (pp. 249-272). New York: Cambridge
Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (2000). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Kiecolt-Glaser, J. K., & Newton, T. L. (2001). Marriage and the health: His and hers.
Psychological Bulletin, 127(4), 472-503.
Waite, L. J., & Gallagher, M. (2000). The case for marriage. New York: Doubleday
Weinfeld, N.S., Sroufe, L., & Egeland, B. (2000). Attachment from infancy to early adulthood in a high risk-sample: Continuity, discontinuity, and their correlates. Child Development, 71(3), 695-702.