A new baby can be a time for great celebration, but it can also be a terrifying and stressful experience. The first night – and many afterwards – can create anxiety as the new parents try to figure out how to take care of this fragile new human. Unfortunately, this anxiety that comes with inexperience and uncertainty doesn’t stay contained in the role as a parent – it affects how people behave in their role as spouse. It’s no wonder that marital tensions skyrocket during the first three years of parenthood. The bad news is that there’s no way to keep stress from your marriage and from your new family. The good news is this doesn’t mean resentment and distance have to become the new normal.
Here are a few guidelines adapted from John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman’s book, And Baby Makes Three – an easy read about their years of research on first-time families. These will help you and your spouse – and the baby – stay connected and loving through the good – and the stressful – days ahead.
PRIORITIZE YOUR MARRIAGE
Remember that you have a partner, not just a baby
A huge source of tension comes from one partner feeling that he or she has been replaced by a newborn. It is important to continue to have joint time with the baby, as well as one-on-one time with your partner to keep the intimacy going.
Appreciate your partner
When you feel like there is so much to do, remember that you and your partner are a team. Both of you have responsibilities. Both of you participate in the never-ending list of chores. Be sure to tell your spouse what you appreciate about her. Tell him you love him. Let her know you see what she is doing and thank her for it.
Keep communication open about desires
Things are different now. What may have been pleasurable earlier in the relationship may no longer be pleasurable. Remember that the female body has just gone through a natural, but still traumatic, experience. Her body is initially keyed to the baby, whether breastfeeding or not. She may not be ready for sex. And when she is, she may not like the same things. Whether sexual or non-sexual attention, it is important for both to express their readiness and desires.
CHANGE THE WAY YOU FIGHT
Approach topics gently
Remember that both of you are tired and stressed with all the extra work and all the sleepless nights both of you have endured. Even though it will be one of the hardest times to do it, have patience with each other and present your needs or desires in noncritical ways.
Apologize when you mess up
Nobody is perfect all the time. Again, remember that both of you are under a lot of pressure. You’re going to say things you don’t mean. Or use a harsh tone. Or forget to do something. The important thing is that when you do let the stress get the better of you, just apologize. Making things right in the moment helps to keep the tension between the two of you from building.
Don’t argue in front of your baby
This is actually a crucial piece to keeping your baby healthy, especially in the early months.* It doesn’t mean that you can’t argue. In fact, it would be unrealistic and detrimental to the relationship to hold things back. However, babies pick up on the emotional atmosphere, and it is important for them to maintain a calm and happy environment. Pick a time and a place where you and your partner can go to discuss whatever may be bothering you, and then come back together with the baby once neither of you feels agitated anymore.
*This will begin to change once the baby gets to be a year or older and they have stronger cognitive abilities to understand arguments
Remember that this is a time of transition for both of you. No relationship is the same forever. There will be trial and error for both of you. But in the end, your family will thank you.
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Gottman, J. M. & J. S. Gottman (2007). And baby makes three. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Contributed by Elisa Squier, M.MFT, LMFT Associate
Clinical Supervision by Amy Fuller, PhD, LMFT-S, LPC-S