Keeping Your Adult Relationships Strong
Staying close to your partner, family and friends
Becoming a parent is exciting, but it's also challenging and most couples will need some time to adjust to their new family. Things like sleep deprivation, financial stress, health issues and differing parenting approaches can all become potential stressors for couples with young children. Understanding the process, and being open with those around you about your feelings and expectations can help keep your relationships strong during this time.
Transitioning from a couple to a family can be a big challenge for many romantic relationships. Research tells us that relationship satisfaction peaks in the third trimester of pregnancy, as couples await the arrival of their baby. But for at least half of all couples, this satisfaction declines throughout the first year of their child's life. It's a period where people who have more difficulty resolving conflict, communicating, and have higher levels of stress are more likely to feel less satisfied in their relationship. And parents with a history of mental health issues, or who've experienced the divorce of their own parents growing up, may find this time even more challenging.
Managing your expectations
You'll probably learn a lot about parenthood from those around you. But no matter how much you're told, it'll always be difficult to manage your expectations – and it's even harder to manage the expectations of your partner if you don't know what they are. That's why you should try to talk honestly and openly with each other during the pregnancy, especially about what you're expecting after the baby's born.
In a 2011 study that looked at parenting expectations, researchers asked pregnant couples how involved they were expecting their co-parent to be with caring for their new baby. Interestingly, they found that neither mothers' nor fathers' expectations were met. Overall, mothers experienced unmet expectations with fathers doing less than expected. Fathers, on the other hand, experienced overmet expectations with mothers doing more than expected.
These findings won't apply to everyone, but they do emphasise the importance of talking to your partner about the kind of involvement you're expecting from them – both during pregnancy, and after your baby arrives.
Strengthening your relationship
Recognising the stress that can come with new parenthood, and understanding the pressure it can put on your parental relationship is important. But it's not something you have to figure out by yourselves, there are programs that have been developed to help couples do just that. Parenting workshops teach expectant couples conflict resolution and communication skills, helps them to recognise and strengthen the positive aspects of their relationship (like friendship, romance and shared understanding) – and it also prepares them for the challenges of having a baby and the impact it could have on their relationship. It helps couples plan their roles together, agree on things like childcare and housework expectations, and teaches them about child development and dealing with a new baby.
This type of program is often really effective – not only with improving how satisfied and affectionate parents feel towards each other, but also with their relationships to their child. Parents in healthy and supportive relationships tend to be more empathic and affectionate towards their children, highlighting the importance of focusing on your relationship with one another to enrich your relationships with your children.
Parenthood will change your life in lots of different ways – and that'll likely include your other relationships as well. You might notice your social network getting smaller, and you'll probably start spending more time with your family, and with friends who also have small children.
It's a natural progression, but it's also really important to focus on keeping a social network. As you'd expect, research shows that couples who have a larger and more diverse social network before becoming parents, will be more likely to have a larger and more diverse (albeit reduced) social network after having children. But what's really interesting about this study is that mothers and fathers who were more satisfied with their friendships reported lower levels of depression over time, outlining the importance of maintaining and developing friendships after having children.
And these social networks can be even more important for parents making the transition to parenthood without a partner. There's often added challenges for single parents, which can leave them experiencing higher levels of stress – especially if they've got financial concerns or are balancing work and parenthood. Research tells us that higher stress levels and inadequate social support accounts for about 40% of variations in depression scores for sole parents – highlighting a special need for them to get support from their families, friends, and work environments.
A quick break down of the facts
- Parenthood is challenging – not only physically, but emotionally as well. And it can be a difficult transition for couples to make, especially if fatigue, conflict, and financial stress are affecting your relationship.
- The first year is usually the hardest – research tells us that at least half of all couples experience a decline in relationship satisfaction over the first year of their new baby's life. It's often caused by poor conflict resolution and communication skills, greater amounts of stress, and a history of mental health difficulties or family divorce.
- You don't have to figure it all out alone – there are a number of workshops aimed at helping couples deal with these difficulties. They focus on things like conflict resolution skills, strengthening positive interactions, and preparing new parents for the challenges of parenthood.
How to keep your adult relationships strong after having a baby
- Get things done together – they may be little, but babies add a lot of extra work around the house. It's helpful to talk to each other about what needs to be done, and decide together who should be doing what. You can even make a list of things for each person to do so you both know exactly what the other is expecting of you.
- Remember each other – even with a baby, your partner will still need your attention every now and again too. Stay aware of each other's needs and feelings, and help each other out where you can. Simple things like asking your partner about their day, bringing them a cup of tea, or offering to take the baby for a walk when they're looking tired can show you care.
- Use time together wisely – as you transition from a ‘couple' to a ‘family', it can be easy to lose sight of your relationship. So try to spend time together, doing the things you enjoyed doing before you became parents. It could be as simple as a movie before bed, or a game of cards – remember one of the best gifts you can give your child is a good relationship with each other.
- Make time for alone time – it's also really important to get some time to yourself to do whatever it is you love doing, and to make sure your partner gets that time too. If you both take some individual time out, you'll both be better parents – and partners.
- Talk to each other – be open and honest about your feelings, and if something's bothering you, talk about it. Small annoyances grow when you don't get them out in the open, so make time to communicate – and keep in mind that sleep deprivation can make you both more irritable as well. Even if you don't have an issue, it's helpful to set at least 20 minutes aside each day to talk to each other. It could be while you wash the dishes together, or you could go for a walk together as a family after work.
- Make compromises – try to solve issues with your partner by coming up with solutions you can both accept. And remember, sometimes this will only happen if you're willing to make compromises for each other.
- Remember, you both need sleep – so rather than both of you waking in the night for a crying baby, it could work better to take it in turns. If your baby's being breastfed, it might make sense for mum to get up during the night and have a nap during the day to catch up. And if your baby's bottle-fed, it could work to do alternate nights. Whatever you decide, finding a solution that lets you both get a little more sleep will make life a lot easier.
- Be specific – If you feel you need to clear the air after an argument right away, try to keep the argument focused on the issue that's bothering you. Tell your partner clearly why you're upset, and how you are feeling. If you're vague or make your partner guess, you probably won't resolve anything. Steer clear of generalisations like, "You never help". They tend to make people feel defensive. Instead, try to be specific about what has upset you, and talk about what you think needs to change. This type of communication will benefit you both a lot more
- Stay on track – it's never nice to feel like you're being attacked in an argument, and bringing up past wrongs can make people feel that way. So try to stay on topic, discuss what's happened and find a solution to the issue together.
- Resolving arguments and making up. – if you ever find yourself arguing in front of your child, make sure they see you resolve it, too. This doesn't mean you sort it all out in front of them – it's just important for them to learn that arguments can be worked out, and don't mean that people don't love each other.
- Communication isn't all about talking – listening is even more important. So if your partner wants to talk, stop what you're doing and give them your full attention. Ask open-ended questions, such as "Why do you think ..." or "How did that make you feel?"
- Talk about what you're feeling – rather than what your partner is or isn't doing right. Using ‘I' statements, rather than ‘you' statements, will help with this. For example, "I feel like I'm doing more than my share around the house" rather than, "You expect me to do everything around the house."
- Accept that things will change – your relationship may be entering a new phase, but that doesn't mean it's heading off track. Talk to your partner about the changes, and try to make the most of them.
- Grow the intimacy – it'll find its way back into your relationship eventually. Simple things like asking your partner about their day, bring them a cup of tea, or offering to take the baby for a walk when they're tired can show you care. It might not feel like it the first few weeks or months, but most couples do get their sex life back on track. Being kind to each other and spending time together can make you feel closer, and that's the best way to help things in the bedroom. If you're feeling too exhausted or caught up in your baby to even think about sex, just talk to your partner about how you're feeling and listen to what they have to say. It might sound unromantic, but some couples find it helpful to schedule time for sex. And remember, touch can help you connect even when it isn't sexual – things like massaging, cuddling and holding hands.
- It's ok to get help – if you feel like you're really struggling as a couple, it might be a good idea to get some professional advice and support. You could speak to your GP, or look online or in your local directory for relationship counselling services.
- Start the conversation early – pregnancy is a good time to start talking about what you're expecting from each other, as well as issues that could become stressors after the baby's born, like your finances. Relationship skills are increasingly being taught alongside childbirth education classes – but remember, you'll probably need to reassess these expectations and solutions once the baby arrives.
- If you're a sole parent – don't be afraid to ask for some help from those around you. Let your family, friends, workmates, neighbours and employers know that you need and appreciate their support, both practical and emotional.
- If you're a new dad – taking parental or annual leave when your baby's born is a great way to get involved with your baby's care and support your partner. You'll also experience the amount of time and energy it take to care for a newborn, which will give you better understanding of your partner does when you return to work.
- New mothers can be teary – and they may not be able to explain why. It's not something you can fix as a partner, just try to be gentle and understanding. This phase is totally normal a few days after birth, and will usually pass – if it doesn't, you should talk to your health professional.
Some deeper reading
Happily Married with Kids by Dr Carol Ummel Lindquist (Berkley, 2004).
Making Healthy Families by Dr Gayle Peterson (Shadow & Light, 2000).
www.askdrgayle.com This website of international relationship expert Dr Gael Peterson has a section on relationship issues.
The CoupleConnection is a ‘do it yourself' relationship support service created and run by OnePlusOne, the UK's leading relationship research organisation. They have a page for new parents: http://thecoupleconnection.net/relationship-advice/categories/becoming-a-parent
‘Relationship Advice for New Parents' - an interview with Gary Chapman, relationship expert and the author of The 5 Love Languages http://www.mothermag.com/relationship-advice-for-new-parents/