This scene has played out in my office over countless initial sessions with couples seeking therapy. I eventually ask, “So, when did things start to go downhill for you two?” After some hemming and hawing the couple looks at each other and somewhat simultaneously says, “Probably after our first child was born.” There is plenty of research out there showing that relationship satisfaction declines once kids are brought into the fold. The Relationship Research Institute reports that about two-thirds of couples experience this post-child hit to the quality of their marriage. Every parent understands how adding a kid to the couple changes just about everything, and most humans struggle with change. A few key areas of change that seem to be the most impactful include;
The undivided attention we previously enjoyed from our partner suddenly becomes very scarce. Where we were once each other’s worlds, we are often left feeling like we are now playing second fiddle. Most people fall in love because they feel like a priority, important, and special to their partner. Well, that often ends quickly when the new baby arrives.
Most trigger points in the relationship will only become more sensitive once a baby is added to the family. Chances are, whatever you fought about before-money, chores, sex-will only get worse with the added stress of a child.
Wives become moms and husbands become dads. These are not always compatible, and it can be very challenging to pick one over the other. Leaving little baby Johnny to cry himself to sleep in his own bed instead of bringing him into yours often feels like picking the wife/husband role over the mom/dad role. This can easily lead to lots of internal conflict and external resentment towards our partner.
New (less fun) Priorities and Responsibilities:
Suddenly we are no longer sexting our partner over the lunch break, that is replaced with the text about who’s picking up diapers on the way home. We can’t follow through on the flirty text we didn’t send because little Johnny is being rocked to sleep. Husband and wife no longer connect over adult talk about politics because mom and dad need to get the logistics for tomorrow hammered out. Who’s picking up Johnny from daycare?
Not much explanation needed here. We all know sleep is a basic human need, everything sucks more when we don’t have enough of it.
The research paints a pretty bleak picture. However, we can’t just all stop having children. So, what can be done to minimize the dip in satisfaction?
It’s hard to understand how adding a child impacts your life and relationship, however, there are programs out there designed to prepare expecting parents to weather the new baby storm. Well known researcher John Gottman, PhD, developed a two-day program focused on strengthening the skills new parents need to maintain a happy relationship. A less formal approach would simply be to divide up the new tasks that will come with little Johnny before he’s here. Reoccurring sources of conflict should be addressed so that soon-to-be mom and dad can play on the same team. Parents that build the airplane before they are flying it tend to find more success.
Be Husbands and Wives:
Remember that you are a couple too, not just a set of parents. Don’t forget that these are very different. Date nights and childless weekends away are great and should be something we all do. Finding time to be romantic and intimate is a significant part of this as well and could be its own book. however, I’ve found that truly strong relationships are forged in healthy day to day interactions, and this is frequently overlooked. I encourage the couples I work with to find a little time every day to be a couple. This can be as simple to talking about your day or watching your favorite show snuggled up on the couch. Face your infant away from the TV and Netflix some Walking Dead together. Even 15 minutes is better than nothing.
Children don’t have to be the pale rider carrying death towards our relationship satisfaction. With some foresight and a good game plan, proud new parents can be a happy couple as well, and little Johnny is better off when they are both.
There is lots of literature and research available on this topic. Both the Relationship Research Institute and the Gottman Institute are wonderful resources. For couples that are struggling, the support and guidance of a marriage and family therapist can be immensely helpful.
About the Writer: Nicholas D'Amico, LMFT
Nicholas has worked with families and youth for several years in a variety of settings. He has extensive experience supporting struggling families and individuals in crisis involving issues such as; abuse, anger, delinquency, trauma, depression, and relationship distress. Nicholas employs a strength-based, family systems approach that fosters hope and happiness by empowering clients. He is passionate about helping couples enrich and strengthen their attachments, guiding families towards harmony, and supporting youth as they overcome the impacts of trauma and dysfunction.