MORE THAN A COUPLE
Changes to Your Relationship When the Baby Comes
As your family grows from the two of you to the three of you, there will obviously be changes. We have mentioned some general differences you might expect in your relationship as a couple after the baby comes, but here we will discuss more specifically what research has shown can contribute to a difficult transition to parenthood for couples. Hopefully, recognizing areas of potential change and taking the time to discuss any anticipated challenges in them with your spouse will prepare you in a way that will make your transition easier.
The U-Shaped Satisfaction Curve
Perhaps you have heard that you can expect the happiness in your marriage to drop when your first baby comes and not rise again until after your children leave home. This common idea is based on research that reports people’s satisfaction with their marriage over time on a graph that looks like this:
There are a few things that you should understand about this way of describing marriage, however—what satisfaction has to do with marital quality, how scientific reports represent reality, and how this kind of general trend relates to your marriage.
Satisfaction—Part of the Myth?
First, remember the Myth of Marital Happiness we have discussed. Too often in our society people try to describe a good marriage only in terms of personal happiness of the individuals in it. They fail to include other important aspects of a good marriage—like the way a couple grows and develops together, the deep meaning they experience in life, and the strength they contribute to their community. The ups and downs of the emotional pleasure we feel in marriage do not necessarily tell us about the overall quality of our marriage over time. The adventures of child rearing do bring stresses, which may indeed make it more difficult to experience marital bliss, but they can also bring new depth and strength to a couple’s relationship.
Science and Statistics—Reality or Perspective?
Another important thing to keep in mind is the different ways research can be interpreted. This curve, for example, can be deceptive without the details of the information it represents. In reality, the decline people report experiencing in their marital satisfaction is not as dramatic as the first graph seems to show. Normally this graph is drawn to exaggerate the mild change in levels of satisfaction over a long time. When the graph is re-sized to more accurate proportions, it looks more like this:
Finally, you should also remember that the kind of general information research reports is based on the average experience of a small sample of people. While it’s helpful to get a rough idea of what many couples experience in marriage, this kind of research doesn’t necessarily tell you what you will experience in your marriage. In fact, more refined research has begun to show more specific differences in people’s experiences as they make the transition to parenthood. Some of the possibilities include the following:
The important thing for you to keep in mind is that you have some control over the way your relationship will change when your baby comes. The way you shape your expectations before the baby comes, the kinds of adjustments you make after the baby comes, and how well you practice the virtues we have discussed will all affect the quality of your relationship as you make this important transition. The following sections will describe in more detail some particularly challenging areas and how the virtues of friendship, generosity, fairness and loyalty can help you through them. As you read and discuss these sections with your partner, keep in mind that these are the areas research shows are “generally” challenging and may not entirely capture what you will experience. They will give you, however, a good idea of how to better prepare your relationship for what will come by helping you think and talk about the possibilities.
Some research suggests that having children is more stressful for the mother, however both partners experience great strain caused by physical adjustments of parenthood, including lack of sleep and more work. This can cause increased stress and tension which can lead to less positive interaction between couples. This is sometimes seen as an increase in conflict and a decrease in romance and affection.
This is generally a significant part of the decline in marital quality and further research has shown that the quality of marital relationships affects the quality of parent child relationships. In other words, as couples experience less love between each other, they also experience less love with their child. Finding ways to buffer the strain of this transition to keep the love between you strong will be critical to the strength and well being of your family.
Recently new research on these kinds of buffers showed that three things were particularly important: the husband’s expressions of fondness for his wife, his awareness of her, and her awareness of him. This sounds a lot like the virtues of friendship and generosity. As we have discussed, taking the time to know each other is an important part of a good relationship. And making the effort to express the good things we know and feel about each other build the kind of love that can buffer tired parents’ relationship when a new baby comes.
The same research found that husband’s negativity and expressions of disappointment in the relationship contribute the most to a difficult transition. This may have to do with the decline in love and affection a husband can feel as his wife’s body heals and her energy is turned to tending to an infant. Some husbands are distressed by a decrease in sexuality caused by their wife’s postpartum healing. Sometimes postpartum depression, or ‘baby blues’ makes it even more difficult for a wife to be responsive to her husband. As both partners come to understand the wife’s altered body shape and the new demands on their time and energy, generosity and loyalty will be vital. Accepting new situations and keeping the relationship a priority by creatively adjusting old ways to make new time for each other will help both husbands and wives through this challenging time.
One other factor that research found can contribute to a difficult transitions was a couple’s feeling of “chaos”. This feeling can come as a result of couples having schedules and plans continually disrupted by the demands of their newborn. This can be especially discouraging as the couple tries to make time to get away for much needed relaxation. First- time parents can be surprised at just how limited spontaneous recreation becomes, and frustrated by the difficulty of planning leisure activities. Money, energy, availability of babysitters, and the employment status of mothers become particularly influential factors on the way the couple spends their time together.