The divorce rate in the United States has been on the decline for 30- years, according to social scientists, but one group of married couples remain at risk: young couples who become parents in the first seven years of their marriage.
According to respected psychotherapist and marriage researcher John Gottman most couples break up in the first seven years because the spouses became parents. Gottman studied couples from the newlywed period through the transition to parenthood. A staggering 67% of couples reported a decline in marital satisfaction after the arrival of the baby. The decline typically shows up between six months (for women) and nine months (for men) after the baby comes home.
Dr. Gottman’s research suggests at least four hurdles that new parents must jump. Partners should talk about them before the baby arrives because they will have a better chance at surmounting them.
Hurdle #1: Partners may not understand how a baby changes their relationship to each other. Spouses may be under the false impression that the arrival of a baby makes them a family. No, says Dr. Gottman, the couple is already a family; the baby makes them a larger family. More accurately, the baby makes the wife a mother and the husband a father. “This is a profound identity change that requires your attention. Becoming a parent changes your views on values like money, careers, and faith, and these changes may surprise you. Becoming a parent also invites you to slip into more traditional relationship roles. This is often a stressor for relationships where both partners were free to express their individuality fluidly. It is critical for you to talk openly about what it means for you to have taken on this additional identity as parent.”
Spouses should discuss what it means to them to be a family, particularly the values that have helped them thrive as a couple, and the tradeoffs of parenthood and how the baby enhances their lives. Each should explain his or her conception of mother and father and a child’s relationship with parents informs his or her conception of parenthood.
New parents should schedule a regular time or times when they connect without the baby, such as a short walk around the block with a mother-in-law presiding over nap time and later an overnight getaway– specific activities that keep a couple stay connected to one another.
Hurdle # 2: A new baby causes tension and tension means conflict and conflict means fighting. Conflict tends to increase significantly during the first year after the baby’s arrival. The couple used to have almost all of their time to themselves; now they share with someone who demands immediate attention now, no matter what time of day.
The parent who bottles up resentments to avoid a confrontation finds that they percolate. The unstated expectations and unhelpful criticism accumulate and erode the foundation of a marriage.
Couples should remember that the newborn phase is exactly that…a phase, normal and temporary. It may help to adopt a mentality that there will be a “new normal” right around the corner. Once again, spouses should talk about concerns calmly and try to see the world from the partner’s point of, remembering that he or she also struggles.
Couples should take care of each other’s health and well being.
The first year after a baby is born is a time of intense physical and psychological change, particularly for the woman. She must become reacquainted with a body that had just created and birthed another human being. She must adjust to breastfeeding and the sense that her body is not her own. Both parents will suffer sleep deprivation and exhaustion that leads to depression. Sexual desire declines and remains low during the first year, and this decline often leads to emotional withdrawal as well.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is sleep. Sleep is not a luxury; it is a necessity. No matter who stays home with the baby at first and who returns to work, adequate sleep is essential for both. Partners must take measures to protect sleep for one another. If necessary, a friend or relative can stay with the baby while Mom sleep uninterrupted.
Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on the brain and can lead to clinical and psychological depression. A physically and emotionally exhausted person does not take care of himself. When sexual intimacy is interrupted, it’s hard to pursue emotional intimacy. Couples that fail to take care of themselves and one another turn away from one another. This kicks a feedback loop that without intervention repeats itself destructively.
New parents must exercise, which is something they can do together, and they must pay attention to their diets.
Couples should maintain intimacy even when sex is not a priority or a possibility, and maintain emotional, spiritual and conversational intimacy while adapting to new circumstances. Taking care of each other in this way helps make the transition back to physical intimacy faster, easier and more rewarding.
Hurdle #4: New fathers sometimes withdraw. The mommy-culture supports new mothers. Women are incredibly effective at supporting other women, both before the baby arrives and after. Even though men are becoming more involved parents, they still don’t typically have the same kind of support systems. A first-time father may be overwhelmed by a new baby and not know where to turn. When the stress of the baby becomes overpowering, a new father may withdraw from the family and the relationship.
In order to help with the new financial strain, new dads might spend more time at work. The motive may be quite noble. The problem is that this can create resentment toward the non-working partner (the “stay at home mom”). No matter the motive, the withdrawal initiates a vicious cycle. When the baby picks up on stress, dad finds it harder to bond. Dads don’t babysit, Dads parent. The baby is fascinated by a father’s face, voice, and the sense of play. The value of a dad’s presence cannot be overstated.
Moms and dads parent differently. Moms are clearly wired to nurture and protect. Dads tend to be much more tactile and provide a sense of play that is vital for children learning to feel safe in the world. Partners should talk through these differences before the differences become problems. For example, women criticize their husbands for being what they view as insufficiently protective, which can make men withdraw more.
Parenthood shifts the work-life balance, and a new baby puts time constraints on parents’ schedules.
The first seven years of any relationship is fragile. Adding a baby to the mix means the partners must be careful to nurture the relationship much like you will the baby itself. This means embracing the change. This means talking about it and protect themselves – especially dads – from the temptation to withdraw. Fighting withdrawal strengthens the chances of a happy, healthy marriage.