"Jim" and "Barbara" had been together as a couple for several years before the birth of their first child, and had always gotten along fairly well and been satisfied with their relationship as a couple. Within six months of their baby’s birth, both were deeply unhappy with their marriage and were worried that some terrible problem in their relationship had been triggered by having a child.
In fact, these two were not victims of a tragic marital flaw but were going through what is often the hardest period in a marriage – the time when a couple has young children at home. Numerous studies of marriage have found that couples with young children typically express less affection toward each other, have fewer intimate conversations, have lower satisfaction with their marriage, and have higher divorce rates than childless couples, couples with older children , or couples whose children have left home.
It’s understandable that new parents would have difficulty maintaining a satisfying marriage relationship. The transition to parenthood is often considered to be the single greatest developmental step in an adult’s life. Learning the skills of caring for a helpless baby, extending one’s nurturing emotional resources, and redefining one’s self-concept all take time and attention and require substantial personal growth. The stresses of having young children also include reduced sleep, increased financial responsibilities, and less free time. It’s understandable that becoming a parent brings changes that affect the relationship with one’s mate.
While some increase in marital conflict among new parents is probably unavoidable, too much conflict is harmful to both of you and to your baby. Understanding the sources of distress and making some adjustments can reduce the level of conflict and enhance a couple’s relationship during this period. This article will discuss some aspects of marital conflict among new parents and suggest solutions that have worked for other couples.
Increased demands on your time are inevitable with a baby, and your enjoyable "couple time" is sure to suffer. Whether it’s going out for a movie on the spur of the moment, spontaneous lovemaking, or long, intimate conversations that "just happen" – you’ll have less freedom to be spontaneous at this time. Your baby’s needs (and those of other children you may have) naturally come first, and after that you may most need sleep, not contact with your spouse. A strong bond is essential for a psychologically healthy family, so be sure to schedule some time for yourselves. Hire a babysitter so you can go out to dinner and movie (or home for sex.) It may seem less romantic to schedule your intimate time with your partner, but the contact is vital to your couplehood.
Physical and psychological changes, as well as lack of time, can affect our sexual relationship. Due to hormonal changes, a new mother or nursing mother may be less interested in sexual activity than she formerly was. A man may feel excluded from the mother-infant bond and may envy the closeness and sensual, nurturing contact between mother and baby. While each partner may recognize and understand the external factors that have changed their sexual life, it’s worthwhile for a couple to continue to have intimate physical contact, to keep hugging and touching even if intercourse is less frequent. For some couples this can be a time to learn to be playful with each other. Especially if a couple’s sexual relationship had been rather "goal-oriented", transferring some of the physically playful behavior (tickling, fondling) that a baby evokes, to playing with your mate’s body, can add a new dimension of fun and pleasure to your sexual life as a couple.
Role changes that may occur in your family can also cause conflict. If a woman has left a career to stay at home and care for a baby, she may feel bereft of her usual sources of self-esteem and success. Her husband, meanwhile, may be working longer and harder with his career with the pressure of financial responsibility weighing him down. each partner may envy and resent the other.
Families in which both parents work outside the home have different stresses. A new mother returning to her job won’t have the same sense of independence she may have had before. She can easily find herself in the "supermom" dilemma, with her commitment of time and attention town between career, baby, and personal needs. Fathers will usually have added responsibilities while still feeling internal, family, and peer pressure to maintain career progress. For both partners, the added responsibilities and competing demands are tiring, sometimes frustrating, and can lead to anger at one’s mate for "not doing enough."
Make a point of talking with your mate about what you are finding out about your new role. Each spouse should be alert for opportunities to express appreciation for the other’s contributions. Sharing experiences with other new parents can also help you find support and value in your role. Try to view your new role in the perspective of your overall life plans. You probably won’t always be a "full-time-at-home-parent", "sole provider", or "super-parent". This period in your life can be more enjoyable and enriching if you remember that it won’t last forever.
Expectations About Childrearing: Yours and Your Relatives
You and your mate come to child-rearing with assumptions and beliefs about the best way to raise a baby. You’ve probably talked about many issues and found common values and ideas. Actually having a baby will bring up hundreds of choices and decisions you hadn’t thought of, let alone discussed. Some you can easily agree on; others you can negotiate or compromise. But some child-rearing decisions are likely to set off deep, upsetting feelings within you, and perhaps create conflicts between you and your spouse.
Often our strongest emotional reactions to child-rearing issues are on just those issues on which we have unresolved feelings from our own upbringing. One husband, for example, refused to allow anyone but himself or his wife to care for their baby – not even grandma could babysit. His absolute insistence on this drove him and his wife to all kinds of scheduling contortions and eventually to bitter fights. The intensity of the father’s feeling on this issue overlay his memories of having had many caretakers as a child, and of having been largely emotionally neglected by his parents. With understanding of the effects of these underlying feelings, he was able to become less rigid in his childrearing assumptions – to everyone’s benefit.
There is also potential for conflict in the changed relationship with your parents and in-laws. After a baby is born, many couples have more contact with their parents than they did when they were without children. This is usually an overall good both for the new parents and for the baby who gets experience with other family members. But your parents, like everyone else, have their own ideas about how children should be raised – ideas that may not always fit with yours or with your spouse’s.
If your relatives aggressively promote their views, and particularly if they criticize you or your mate’s approach to child-rearing, it’s important to be supportive of your couplehood. Unless the behavior in question is abusive or dangerous to your baby, don’t join your parents or parents-in-law in criticism of your mate. You may disagree yourselves in private, but your spouse is vulnerable in his/her role as a new parent, and needs your support in handling criticism from family members.
Personal issues of many kinds will be stirred up by a new baby. The direct, strong, elemental nature of a baby is bound to evoke strong emotions that often stem from our own infancy. Not only do babies evoke our own primal feelings, but they also call out our greatest capacity for intimacy, responsibility, and patience. Among the issues that new parents may face are: handling their anger at their baby, anxiety at their baby’s sensuality, uncertainty in the face of their child’s dependence; difficulty maintaining intimacy with a baby, and the sometimes surprisingly intense feelings of longing and love that a parent can feel for a child.
In whatever ways one uses to work with personal emotional issues, handling and integrating these issues will be among the deepest growth experiences of becoming a parent. However, it will be draining, and may leave you emotionally needy and feeling like you have little time to give to your spouse. It can be difficult to find the time or patience to talk about or listen to these personal thoughts. To the extent that you and your mate can share your self-discoveries, you may feel less disordered by your own changes, and you will maintain and strengthen the best in your marriage – the revelation of one self to the other.
Michael Abrahams, LCSW-C