It’s amazing how quickly it happens, isn’t it? One day you’re two. The next, you’re three. Not parents and then parents. All of a sudden there’s this little creature who shares both of your DNA staring at you from a bassinet. It’s incredible how quickly a baby’s presence completely retools every relationship you have — with yourself, your friends, your family, your job, and, especially your partner. And if you don’t react to the change, your marriage can suffer.
Claudia Luiz, the author of The Making of a Psychoanalyst, puts it bluntly: “Children really do ruin marriages.” Not that that’s always the case, she notes, but the groundwork for real trouble is there from the moment a baby arrives. “The relationship changes from being one where you’re going in the same direction with the same goals to being competitive,” she says. “Suddenly you’re competing for time. Because the baby needs so much, there’s so much dependency and you get strung out.” Per Luiz, there’s nothing you can really do to prevent those feelings, because you’ve moved into this new developmental phase. “There’s grief over what you’ve lost when you become a parent. You’ve lost your freedom, your sleep, money. It’s very depriving.”
Now, don’t go mourning your old marriage for too long. Luiz adds that this doesn’t have to be the norm. If you and your spouse both can stay the course, communicate openly, and be willing to ride out the storms when they hit, then you’ll be okay. In fact, you might just decide to do it all again. In any case, here are some common relationship issues new parents face and how to keep them from spiraling out of control.
The Problem: Sex is Off the Table
The Cause: It’s not just a question of being tired all the time. There’s also a sense of neglect that can build up when all of the attention is being lavished on the squalling newcomer in your home. “Because there’s so much neglect and competition when a new baby is born,” says Luiz, “that can arouse anything that’s been unresolved.”
The Solution: “It’s really a matter of negotiating the energy,” Luiz says. “Often couples end up feeling triggered and like they have nothing to give each other and the first few months with the baby are a complete and total nightmare. But for couples who are enjoying the fulfillment of the baby, they won’t feel that shift in sexual need and desire.”
The Problem: One Partner Stops Taking Care of Themselves
The Cause: Let’s be honest, when you’re up at three every morning, covered in regurgitated formula and baby poop, looking sexy isn’t top of your to-do list. But, for some couples, whether dad has chosen to not shave and forgo pants or mom opts not to wash the Enfamil out of her hair, not taking care of your looks can trigger some unexpected issues. “Where the developmental need in courtship is to be attractive, as soon as you get into child rearing, the developmental need is to be available to the child,” says Luiz. “So becoming attractive, there’s no motivation for it. This can be experienced by the spouse as a rejection. ‘Well, why don’t you want to be attractive? What is going on?’”
The Solution: A lot of it has to do with the feelings of security that one brings into the marriage. If you and your spouse are confident in each other and yourselves, then how you look won’t make a difference. Some of it also depends on your own upbringing. “If your parents could weather the storms of deprivation and sacrifice, then it won’t be that big a deal when you fight,” Luiz says. “You might enjoy this unsexy phase of the marriage.”
The Problem: One Partner Keeps Getting on the Other’s Case
The Cause: “Personality traits have a lot to do with it,” says David Silverman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in New York. “If you have one person who’s a controller and one person who’s more relaxed about the way they do things, you get a lot of resentment or fighting on both sides. It becomes the focus of their relationship. You can get into a power struggle and once you get into a power struggle, you’re not going to be able to work as a team anymore.”
The Solution: “They should definitely talk about shared responsibility,” says Silverman. “Sometimes it’s going to be a lot more responsibility for one partner than the other because one might be working and the other one might not be. But they should talk about shared responsibility so that they don’t get resentful.”
The Problem: You Have Different Parenting Strategies
The Cause: Some parents take a very relaxed approach to raising a kid and, in the abstract sense, that can be all well and good. But, when the reality sinks in, it can be a game changer and one parent’s fast-and-loose style of child-rearing might be at odds with the other parent’s more focused and disciplined approach, and problems can arise. “A lot of couples don’t discuss this before the child is born and they can have a lot of difficulties later on,” says Silverman. “The most important part of being a good parent is that the two of you work as a team together, not where one says one thing and then the other one does the opposite. Kids are a lot more successful when they have two parents that agree.”
The Solution: Make sure you both know what you’re signing up for at the outset and how you’re going to handle it. “Preplanning is an important part of doing things,” Silverman says. “If you were building a house, you wouldn’t want to just start building the house, you’d want to preplan it. You’d want to get all the dimensions and the drawings first before you start laying down the bricks and the concrete. Otherwise, the house is not going to stand up straight. That’s the same thing in raising a family. You have to kind of set your goals and your priorities before you get into the thick of it. It just makes it easier.”