Babyproofing Your Relationship
Prior to becoming parents, it is not uncommon to fantasise about what life would be like with children. We can conjure up blissful images of family picnics, taking a child to the zoo or park, and sweet cuddles with a sleeping infant. Parenthood can include these moments, although the reality of being a parent tends to be far more complex – many difficult lows to go along with the joyful highs. A significant factor in determining how smooth or rocky the transition to parenthood will be is the relationship with your partner. For some relationships, the addition of a child creates a tight-knit, happy family unit. For others, the relationship deteriorates and, ultimately, breaks down as both parents struggle to cope with the challenges of caring for an infant.
What determines the difference between a happy, stable relationship post-baby and a breakup? As it turns out, one of the biggest predictors of the quality of your couple relationship after becoming parents is the quality of your relationship before becoming parents. Research on this issue suggests that 2/3 of parents experience a dip in relationship satisfaction when the baby comes along, and this dip can last up to three years. This makes intuitive sense. You’re tired from sleepless nights, stressed from a lack of time to rest and recharge, often overwhelmed with uncertainty, having way less sex, and unable to make quality time for each other. Of course, your relationship is not going to feel as close and happy as it was. If you add a baby with health issues, colic or difficulty sleeping, postnatal depression, financial stress, or any of a host of other worries, this can compound relationship difficulties. Interestingly, though, research suggests that for relationships that were functioning well prior to baby, satisfaction gradually starts to improve as time goes on and returns to pre-baby levels. For relationships that were not functioning well, however, the dip in relationship satisfaction typically continues its downward trajectory. Therefore, if you’re wondering if a baby will improve your troubled relationship, the answer is a resounding no – this is highly unlikely.
If you are struggling in your relationship and want to improve it before starting a family, or if you are in a stable relationship and simply want to ensure as smooth a transition as possible, there are a number of things that you can do to minimise the stress of the transition to parent. Being a parent can be one of the most enjoyable, rewarding and enriching parts of your life, but you would be hard-pressed to find many parents out there who describe it as easy. Here are a few tips for babyproofing your relationship.
- Improve communication and conflict management. There are many books and online courses that you and your partner can do to learn new strategies for your relationship, and a detailed description of those is beyond the scope of this article. If you try to do this and find that you are still stuck in old patterns, see a couples psychologist.
- Be clear with each other about your expectations about parenting roles. It can be easy to assume that your partner knows what you expect of them as a mother or father, but it is an issue that comes up time and again in couples therapy. Perhaps a mother assumed that the father would be home from work earlier to help out with the baby. The father may assume that the mother will return to work earlier than she had planned, or give up a career when she always wanted to be a working mother. Discussing these issues calmly and negotiating expectations is critical. How will the baby’s arrival impact your careers? Social life? Who will be the primary caregiver? How much will each partner get up in the night? What role will extended family play in the baby’s upbringing? What will be the financial impact? Answering these questions can be very valuable in preventing conflict after the baby comes and the need for an answer is more urgent.
- Carve out time for each other. This is way easier said than done, but it is very important to continue to nurture your relationship. Early on, parents can feel guilty about leaving their infant with another person, even briefly. However, it can be helpful to think of it as an investment in your child’s future. After all, a child with two parents in a functioning, stable relationship has significant advantages. Think about who you might be comfortable with watching the baby before the baby comes, and approach that person about providing some regular help. This may be a family member or friend. It is best to have a few people in mind if you can manage it. If you do not live near family, it may be helpful to get to know a professional babysitter prior to the baby’s arrival.
- Remember that you’re on the same team. It can be easy to snap at each other or to assume the worst about your partner’s intentions when you are tired and stressed. Try to assume the best possible motivations behind your partner’s words and actions, even when they drive you crazy. Err on the side of being kind and forgiving.
- Show empathy for each other and practice random acts of kindness. If you are struggling, chances are your partner is struggling, too. Listen when your partner describes how exhausted he or she is and validate their concerns. Try not to let it become a competition over who is more tired. Little things like taking the baby from a parent who seems to be stressed or bringing a cup of tea to your tired partner can go a long way toward strengthening the relationship.
- Check in with each other regularly. Just asking the question, “How are you doing?” can go a long way toward making your partner feel valued. Be sure to listen to the answer, too.
- Show appreciation for your partner’s contributions. It never hurts to show your partner that you see the effort they put in and that you are grateful for it.