It is well documented that the transition to parenthood correlates with a precipitous drop in relationship satisfaction for new parents. This dip in perceived satisfaction largely persists until the children launch and leave home. While this trend is well supported by research, plenty of couples choose to undergo the transition to parenthood and many lack adequate resources to support the intimate or marital relationship through this period.
The first step in combating this trend is awareness and acceptance that the relationship with your partner will change dramatically when your family of two becomes a family of three. This does not necessarily mean that your relationship becomes less satisfying, but at least temporarily, you each have new priorities as parents that take away from the time and attention you can devote to one another and the relationship.
You are not powerless to the drop in marital happiness. In fact, you and your partner are the only ones who can fight it. To maintain a positive relationship and an intimate connection with your partner, you each must make active efforts to prioritize the relationship whenever possible. This can be more easily said than done, but these efforts do not have to be time-consuming or an added burden to your already exhausted state. Here are a few ways to integrate healthy relationship habits into your transition to parenthood.
- Expressions of Appreciation
A little goes a long way when you are exhausted, stressed, and feel like you have no idea what you are doing. These are common feelings for new parents, and partners often struggle with accepting if they are doing a good enough job in their new role. You can support your partner in this journey and concurrently foster connection by directly expressing appreciation for things your partner does on any given day.
It is easy to take our partners for granted or assume they already know we appreciate them. Your partner may already assume you are grateful, but it is still nice to hear it. Thank your partner for changing the latest diaper, for being patient during that last temper tantrum, or simply for being there with you at this scary and exciting time in your lives. It does not take a lot of time or energy, and it helps your partner feel acknowledged and loved.
- Physical Touch
New parents often lose a sense of intimacy due to exhaustion and because you each receive and offer most of your affection to the newborn. This is an essential part of parenting as it fosters a deep connection between each parent and the child. However, the growing attachment to your child can take away from the usual efforts you would offer your partner to feel close and emotionally fulfilled.
You and your partner can lessen the impact of this necessary adjustment by being more mindful of and physically affectionate with one another on a daily basis. Think small. Kiss and hug each other when you part and reunite each day. Hold hands and gently rub the back of the parent holding the baby. It is natural for sexual desire to fluctuate and lessen after the birth of a baby, but you still have needs for adult physical connection that deserve attention.
- Active Empathy
To feel connected with your partner, sometimes you simply need to put yourself in his or her shoes. New parenthood is stressful and exhausting. You are both struggling to define yourself in this new role and may ignore the needs of your intimate relationship in the process. This is natural and necessary as you adjust, and it is helpful to remember that your partner is also struggling with this identity shift.
Make active efforts to understand your partner’s perspective, and do not hold snide comments made in the middle of the night against your partner. Such attempts to widen your point-of-view can reduce the likelihood of developing resentment and help you feel closer to your partner because you understand what he or she is going through.
- Daily Check-in’s
Given the importance of empathy, it is essential that you check in with your partner to better understand his or her experience and to offer yourself the opportunity to feel heard and understood. This does not need to be a big discussion, but you should aim to have a five-minute check-in at least once a day. Let your partner know the highs and lows of your day, what you are most worried about, and what you are most excited for. The key to staying connected as new parents is to feel like partners, and daily check-in’s are a quick way to stay attuned to one another when the hectic life of new parenthood overwhelms you the rest of the day.
- Weekly “Dates”
The thought of having a weekly date night may seem preposterous to new parents, and in some ways it is, especially if you do not have the resources to hire a babysitter. However, once again you must think smaller to make this goal more attainable. Weekly dates do not need to be as extravagant as dinner and a movie. Focus instead on giving yourselves at least an hour a week of solid couple time. Go for a walk around the block. Take a shower with your partner or cook a new meal together. Simply sit with your partner on the couch and give one another your undivided attention.
Eventually you will get to a point where you are able to take longer date nights for the relationship, and it is never too early to foster that healthy relationship habit. You will be tired and may not want to feel like you have anything left to do once the baby finally falls asleep, but taking care of your relationship should not be a burden. Find a way to relax and reconnect. You will not regret it.
Author: Meghan Emerson, MSMFT