How Do We Limit Relationship Stress After the Baby Arrives?

I’m sitting at a café and a pregnant woman and her husband just walked in. No biggie, right? Except, since I started working with expecting & new parents, whenever I see a pregnant couple, my brain starts spinning with post-baby research like…

Conflicts skyrocket after birth; 90% of couples report a drop in relationship satisfaction after their first child; perpetual issues appear more frequently post-birth.

I have to admit, I feel daunted when I share this info with expecting couples. Why? Because no matter how many examples of stressed relationships we witness among new parents we know, many of us remain convinced we’ll avoid those challenges with our spouses.

I get it, I really do. Plus, there are all sorts of variables to the data, like socioeconomics, education, and pre-baby romance levels. But variables aside, and at the risk of being the Grinch who stole our fantasies-of-post-baby-relationship-bliss, I’m going to make a stand for loving your spouse and your relationship enough to PRACTICE.

What do I mean by PRACTICE? Patience, Rest, Adjust Attitudes, Compassion, Tackle Toxins, Intimacy, Choice, & Endurance.

Patience: The first months after a baby’s birth are challenging, if only because of sleep deprivation & new learning curves. Acknowledging that can normalize relationship bumps, like conflict. In other words, heightened stress in the baby’s first few months will pass, so try to stay as calm as possible and ride it out.

Rest: Research shows that adequate sleep and relationship satisfaction are connected. What to do if/when newborns keep you awake? Support each other to grab shut-eye whenever, wherever, however, even if it means sleeping separately at times. And consider that gripes with a spouse might be mostly exhaustion.

Adjust Attitudes: When we’re tired and navigating major transitions, tempers can flare. Understanding that goes a long way, as does doing our best to keep a sense of humor, and finding other ways to adjust our attitudes. If we get snapped at, consider asking: What’s your intention behind that tone (or comment)? If we’re the snapper, take a breath and try to answer with what we really want, minus the edge, e.g., I want help, I feel frustrated, or even, I don’t know!

Compassion: Parents are great at having compassion for babies; we know it’s hard to be small and helpless! Yet, we often forget to be empathic with each other and ourselves. Before babies arrive, discuss how you define compassion and how you like to receive it. Once the baby’s here try to express compassion for yourself and your beloved freely, and ask for it when needed.

Tackle Toxins: Psychologist John Gottman cites 4 primary toxins (negative attitudes & behaviors) that erode relationship satisfaction: disrespect, criticism, defensiveness & stonewalling. I know “toxins” sounds intense, but what we’re talking about is stuff like eye-rolling, finger-pointing, shirking responsibility & refusing to talk. I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t have a talent for at least one. What to do? Admit your favorite to your spouse and, together, discuss possible strategies to get rid of toxins when they show up, e.g., call them out and pause your conversation long enough to excise them.

Intimacy: While sex can be a battlefield after babies are born, we can limit the impact of differing desires, first, by understanding that hormonal shifts in women post-birth, esp. those who breastfeed, can lower sex drives. So let’s add patience and compassion to our sexual expectations. It’s also important to stay intimate, even without full-on sex. Don’t short-change quick connections: a loving look, tender touch, a kind word and, if you can swing it, some degree of sexual intimacy. Before your baby arrives, discuss how you want to be with each other if intimacy/sex becomes a challenge.

Choice: Though we’re not usually taught how to communicate, turns out there’s a slew of choices we can make about how to begin conversations, especially those about touchy subjects. Since 96% of conversations end how they begin, consider starting chats gently: don’t point fingers; speak from an “I” place and avoid “you”; try the not-a-know-it-all mode, such as “I’m not sure…” or “My best guess is…”; & get curious (ask questions that start with what & how) before making suggestions.

Endurance: Turns out, 70% of relationship issues are ongoing; meaning, they won’t ever go away. In the absence of resolution, the goal is to identify recurrent problems, avoid them, or resolve them quickly without dragging in toxins. Before babies arrive, spend time listing what you consider your enduring, recurrent problems and brainstorm suggestions for how to avoid them and how to limit their longevity if they make an appearance.

If it isn’t obvious, I could write a post about each of these techniques—and it’s likely I will!—so if you’re feeling daunted, not to worry. It takes PRACTICE to integrate new ways of communicating. As long as we remember patience and compassion for ourselves, our spouses, and our relationship together, we’re on the right path.

And, if you suspect that these approaches remain useful after your baby’s first year–or for couples without kids–you’re primed to give your relationship the attention it needs and deserves now and in the future.

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