Surviving parenthood as a couple - ways to nurture your relationship EVERY day, not just Valentine's
Parenting is hard. The first few years after becoming parents is the most challenging time for couples across the lifespan of their relationship. Research suggests that couples’ happiness ratings drop successively during the early years, picking up again once the children grow older and go to school, with increasing satisfaction through the teenage years.
So how can we nurture our relationship so that it can survive the onslaught of parenting?
Here are some challenges that commonly affecting our relationship as parents and some thing that can help:
Rest and Relaxation
Disturbed sleep is a huge strain on the relationship. You’re likely to be impatient, irritable, snappy and frazzled – you struggle to focus. Not only will it be harder for you to take your partner’s perspective, you might also lack the energy to care about what they’re going through. It’s just that much harder to be compassionate when you’re sleep deprived!
Try to set realistic expectations and be prepared to forgive each other for moments of unkindness. Get whatever rest you can to replenish your energy and so you can be more like the version of yourselves you fell in love with. Even a short powernap or a yoga nidra from the Nourish app can help top you up a bit and improve your mood. Being tired does not get you into the mood for intimacy either – being stressed and stuck in your head focused on the to-do list, is a sure fire way to kill your libido. Discuss how you can help each other and take turns to rest – being kinder to each other when exhausted is more about ‘paying it forward’ than ‘tit for tat’.
After bringing a child into the partnership, the partner being the secondary caregiver can get pushed further down the pecking order and may receive less love and affection than previously. There might be a mismatch in connection and a withdraw/demand pattern may establish: the person working might come home and want to reconnect with their partner, whereas the person caring for the child might want to be left alone, feeling ‘touched out’ from the constant demands. This can mean feelings of rejection, creating deeper rifts between the couple.
If the rejected partner can understand the reasons why, and support the caregiving partner through this phase, they can reconnect soon enough. Reconnect to who you are and what your needs are, so you can more easily communicate this to your partner. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
The transition into parenthood can be a tumultuous life change, going from two in a relationship to three (or more) in a family. You might also be depleted from pregnancy, birth or a long adoption process, and you also have the responsibility of caring for a child 24/7. Looking after a helpless infant is incredibly hard, but so is being the sole breadwinner in a growing family.
Both roles are challenging. Regardless of how equal you felt before becoming parents. Society pushes a lot of couples into more traditional roles with outdated gender expectations. Mother looks after baby; father earns the money. A mother is seen as having a ‘natural maternal instinct’ and should self-sacrifice everything for the baby while also ‘bouncing back into shape’ after giving birth; the father is described as ‘daddy day care’, an incompetent babysitting facility who should just hide at work rather than be a capable equal part in the child rearing.
These factually incorrect stereotypes are damaging to the couple relationship and put pressure on the individuals to conform to the stereotype. They can leave you both depleted, and your relationship polarised.
Try chatting about your roles and recalibrate anything which feels unfair or skewed. The weight of the mental load can zap any sparkle out of your relationship. Resentment can be avoided by focusing more on collaboration rather than competition, showing appreciation and gratitude for what each partner brings to the table.
Ways to support and nurture your relationship and help it survive parenthood
Use these practical suggestions to help combat the strain on your relationship from becoming parents:
• Have a weekly check-in with each other, asking what each partner wants or needs for themselves that week. Try to plan together as a team to negotiate your needs.
• Educate yourselves on ‘mental load’ and ‘emotional labour’, to understand the societal pressures on women to take on the caring role and managing of the household. Work on balancing the load and modelling this to your children, to help them pick up the values you want them to hold.
• Identify when you’re mind reading or wanting your partner to guess what you want and need. Use compassionate communication instead. Expressing yourself in ‘I’ statements can help, e.g. ‘I would like you to make food for us for tomorrow’ or ‘When you come home late I feel upset as I have been alone coping with the baby all day. I would like you to come home earlier to help me and so we can spend time together’, to focus on what you need to happen, but also the positive aspect of it.
• Make space for expressing the things you’re grateful for. We can easily get into the habit of being critical and stop recognising the good things our partner does. You might not always get it right, so it’s OK to ask for forgiveness when you get it wrong.
• Discuss how desire, sex and intimacy has been affected by parenthood and try not to put pressure on each other about any particular type of sex which may be challenging postnatally.
• Have realistic expectations for how life will be while you have young children and accept the mess instead of putting pressure on your relationship to be perfect.
About the author
Michaela Thomas is a Senior Clinical Psychologist and couples therapist with fifteen years’ experience. As well as her role as managing director and lead psychologist of The Thomas Connection, she is also the author of “The Lasting Connection”. Michaela’s special interests lie in Compassion Focused Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, perfectionism and couples relationships.