By Amie M. Gordon
I became a parent a year and a half ago, and my life changed forever.
When I was pregnant, lots of parents gave me advice (Enjoy going to the grocery store by yourself while you still can! Go out on dates! Clean your house!). One even warned me that becoming a parent would "rock my world." I thought I understood. I thought I was prepared for the huge change coming. And while I wasn't unprepared, I really had no idea exactly how life-changing becoming a parent would be.
Now I try to explain to my friends who don't have children what exactly getting swept into parenthood felt like, and the best I have come up with is this--I had my daughter and she was more wonderful than I could have imagined, and the rest of my life fell into chaos. One of those pieces of my life was my relationship with my husband.
We look at each other and marvel that we used to sit around on the weekend and lament that we did not know what to do with ourselves. Now we would give anything to learn the secret to freezing time. Now we try to hold on as life rushes by. Now I tell my husband we need more time and he agrees but asks, "what time?"
In just a little over a year and a half, our life before baby is becoming a distant memory. Nights cuddled up on the couch together, lazy weekend mornings, and all-day hikes are a thing of the past. I know they'll be back someday, but I fear in the meantime we might get used to the "new normal" of having very little time together. I worry that the stress of jobs, long commutes, lack of sleep, and the realities of taking care of a sweet little girl who can't take care of herself yet will do a number on our relationship, and it might have bent into an unrecognizable shape by the time we again find ourselves able to cuddle up on the couch to watch a movie.
I worry about what parenthood might be doing to our relationship because I have spent the past 12 years studying the psychology of relationships and there are countless articles examining "the decline in marital satisfaction during the transition to parenthood."
There are disagreements about how bad that decline really is, whether it is worse for men or women, and what helps prevent it. And because researchers can't randomly assign people to have children or not, we can never have the necessary experimental evidence to definitely say that parenthood is bad for marriage. But studies of couples who were followed from before they had children until years after their first child was born (and compared to couples who did not have children) seem to consistently show that for a sizeable portion of couples, having a child is hard on the relationship.
But these studies also show that this hit to your relationship is not an inevitability. There is always variability and some couples in these studies aren't in a downward trajectory after having their first child. Of course, we all want to know how to be one of these couples. Some of it is not easy to change--having more financial resources, having a planned pregnancy, and having parents who didn't divorce have all been suggested as protective factors. And of course, prioritizing your relationship and finding time together as a couple is important. But that is easier said than done.
So regardless of your income level or whether you planned your pregnancy, even for those of you who can't or don't want to hire a babysitter for regular date nights, here are a few suggestions for how to maintain (or reignite) the spark in your relationship.
1. Prioritize sleep
Easier said than done. But researchers think that one of the reasons the transition to parenthood might be hard on relationships is because that adorable bundle of joy wreaks havoc on your sleep. When you're low on sleep, you might find yourself feeling more irritable and hostile and reacting more strongly when something bad happens. And my colleague and I found that couples fought more, and were worse at resolving conflict, if either partner had slept poorly the previous night. Even if you are no longer dealing with nighttime wakings, you might still be suffering from a massive sleep debt. After several days of sleep loss, people report not feeling as tired, but they still perform poorly on mental tasks.
I, of course, am bad at prioritizing sleep--it's hard to leave the dishes unwashed and the living room strewn with toys and sometimes you just want a little bit of me (or we) time at the end of a long day. But even if you are still waking up at night to care for your little one, there are things you can do to prioritize sleep. For example, try giving yourself a bedtime, don't take your phone or tablet to bed with you, engage in good sleep hygiene so you're not tossing and turning all night long, and even consider sleeping in a separate bed from your partner at times if you wake each other up. Think about whether there are ways to divide up the night so that you can both get a bit of consolidated sleep.
The bottom line: Everything is easier and better if you're facing the day fully rested. You'll be more efficient, get your work done faster, make fewer mistakes, and have more control over your emotions. So rather than stay up to deal with some household, work, or personal problem, get some sleep and see if that problem isn't easier to solve in the morning. Oh, and forget the old adage "never go to bed angry." Instead, try "if you're angry, say I love you and goodnight, and see if it's still a problem in the morning."
2. Give each other the benefit of the doubt
So when your partner snaps at you, forgets to do something you asked them to do, or just isn't as loving and affectionate as you'd like, rather than getting angry, trying chalking it up to the fact that, like you, he or she is probably sleep-deprived and stressed. Blaming minor relationship issues on external causes like lack of sleep or baby-induced memory loss can help you keep things in perspective, possibly preventing something small from turning into a big, sleep-deprived fight.
Of course, it's hard to remember to give the benefit of the doubt, especially if you are running low on sleep, so you could try creating a rule for yourself (called an implementation intention). For example, every time you start to feel annoyed at your partner, you could repeat to yourself, "It's not him, it's the lack of sleep," or something along those lines. You could also try to remember the last time you did something similar and remind yourself that you are both going to make a lot of mistakes during this time.
Of course, if you find yourself facing real relationship issues, it's not healthy to just shrug them aside; there are things you can do to reduce conflict in your relationship. But it is still important to keep a good perspective.
3. Be appreciative
Research shows that more grateful people are more satisfied with their relationships, and this might be particularly true during transitional times like having a baby. So little things, like recognizing your partner's efforts, taking a few moments to feel lucky you get to share this chaotic journey together, or reflecting back on how you felt when you met and then expressing those feelings to your partner, might help keep the spark alive.
And if you start expressing your gratitude, you'll likely find that your partner is more likely to express his or her gratitude as well. And how good would it feel to receive a heartfelt thanks for all those dinners you've made or those diapers changes that you thought went unnoticed?
4. Start a new (not time-intensive) hobby together
Research shows that engaging in novel activities together is good for couples, and this might be particularly true during the transition to parenthood when so much of your time is spent focused on things other than your relationships--especially if you find that your old hobbies don't work well in your new lifestyle.
Sure, we go on walks pushing our daughter in the stroller, but it's no longer reasonable for us to take day-long hikes up the mountains each weekend or make pancakes and watch a Psych marathon on Saturday morning. Nights out at the movies or late-night dinners are also a thing of the past.
Even if you are able to engage in some of your old hobbies together thanks to a babysitter, it still might be worth finding a new hobby the two of you can start together. A new hobby could bring you together, give you something new to talk about, and provide you with a little bit of fun during a time when the majority of your interactions sans children might feel like business meetings.
Of course, I'm not encouraging you to pick up skydiving (maybe after the last kid leaves for college?). Choose something not too time-intensive that you can easily fit into your new lives. If you both like reading, start a book club with just the two of you or take turns reading a chapter to each other before bed at night. Pick up a new game--I played boggle for the first time in years this summer and thought how easy and fun it would be to play 10 minutes of boggle together a few nights a week. Into food? Find a top-10 list for restaurants in your area and commit to trying one every few weeks and work together to plan out what you'll eat before you go.
5. Commiserate with each other
If you know that your partner is also tired and wishes more than anything he or she could run away to a deserted tropical island with you, you might not feel so alone and frustrated. It's not that your partner doesn't care, it's that she is also struggling with getting through her day and forgets to tell you that she cares.
You could even schedule a weekly gripe session--just five minutes on Friday night to sit down and take turns complaining and commiserating with the other person's woes could help you stay a "we" rather than turn into a "you" and "me."
Did you have a hard time in your relationship when you became a parent? Did you find any strategies that worked? How old were your kids when you had time together again?