When my husband and I joined the ranks of parenthood nine years ago, we had no idea just how much it would change everything.
Don’t get me wrong. Having and raising children has been more wonderful than I ever imagined (which was already a lot). I wouldn’t trade being mother to my five little girls for the world. But, it’s also true that parenthood threw the rest of my life into chaos, and part of that was my relationship with my husband. The stress of jobs, addiction, running a household, kid activities, lack of sleep, and the realities of taking care of five sweet-but-crazy little girls has done a number on our marriage. Even when we thought we were being careful, it bent into an unrecognizable shape.
As it turns out, we’re not the only ones. There are countless studies examining “the decline in marital satisfaction during the transition to parenthood.” (Doss) 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 large portion of couples, having a child is hard on the relationship.
However, these studies also show this decline in your relationship is not an inevitability. There is always variability and some couples were in an upward trajectory after having their first child. Of course, we all want to know how to be one of these couples, so here are a few suggestions for how to maintain (or reignite) the spark in your relationship.
1. Prioritize sleep
Researchers believe one reason the transition to parenthood might be so hard on relationships is because those little beings wreak havoc on your sleep. When you’re low on sleep, it’s likely you’ll find yourself feeling more irritable and hostile and reacting more strongly than you usually would to stressful situations. Couples fight more and are worse at resolving conflict if either partner has 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.
Even if you are still waking up at night to care for your little one, there are things you can do to prioritize sleep.
- Give yourself a bedtime
- Don’t take your phone or tablet to bed with you
- Engage in good sleep hygiene so you aren’t tossing and turning all night long
- Find ways to divide up nighttime needs so both partners can get some consolidated sleep
- As a last resort, temporarily sleep in separate beds from your partner if you are waking each other up.
The bottom line: Everything is easier and better if you’re tackling 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 staying up to take care of the household, work, or personal problems, get some sleep and see if that issue isn’t easier to solve in the morning. Oh, and forget the old adage “never go to bed angry.” Instead, if you’re angry, try saying ‘I love you and goodnight‘, and see if it’s still a problem in the morning.
2. Give the benefit of the doubt
Everything you were doing before your little one came along doesn’t suddenly disappear once they arrive. On top of all you managed before, you’ve now added sleepless nights, a crying baby, and all the other demands of parenthood. While bringing a child into the picture is joyous in so many ways, this transition is also immensely stressful. Stress makes it difficult to be a loving and present partner.
When your partner snaps at you, forgets to do something you asked them to, or isn’t as loving and affectionate as you’d like, give them the benefit of the doubt. Rather than becoming frustrated, chalk it up to the fact that, like you, they are 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.” (Gordon)
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 positive perspective.
3. Be appreciative
Little time and lots to do may mean you find yourselves taking each other for granted. Who has time to say “thanks for making dinner” when you’re rushing to get kids ready for bed? But a little gratitude could go a long way.
Research shows that grateful people are more satisfied with their relationships. 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, help keep the spark alive. And as you start expressing your gratitude, you’ll likely find that your partner is more likely to express their gratitude as well.
4. Have fun together
Research shows that engaging in novel activities together is good for couples. 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.
Even if you are able to engage in some of your old hobbies, it still might be worth finding something new you can start together. This could bring you closer, provide something new to discuss, and supply you with some fun during a time when most of your interactions sans children might feel more like business meetings.
5. Continue to Build Emotional Connections
When things are at their worst, don’t stew in silence. Remember you are in it together. Even if you’re exhausted, cranky, and have no time for appreciation or new hobbies, it might help you feel better about your relationship if you take the time to emotionally connect with each other.
If you know that your partner is also tired and defeated, you won’t feel so alone and frustrated. Commiserating with your spouse’s woes could help you stay a “we” rather than turn into a “you” and “me.”
Have you survived parenthood?
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 finally had time together again? Let us know in the comments!