I had a couple come in for therapy last week because they were pregnant and nervous. She was 20 weeks along and just starting to show. He was starting to panic. They were concerned about what the new baby would do to their relationship. Essentially they wanted to know how to “baby-proof" their marriage.
I told them the truth: You can't.
A baby—especially a first baby—is like a tiny sweet-smelling grenade that gets thrown into your home and disrupts everything. There's really no way to predict your baby's impact or “proof" yourself against the inevitable havoc that impact will wreak on your bodies, your minds, your psyches your whole relationship.
The birth of a couple's first child signals a decline in relationship satisfaction for two out of every three couples. The most common window for divorcing couples is between years four and seven of marriage, which is also consistent with when most first babies are about 3 years old. It takes an intentional, consistent effort to prevent your relationship from becoming a statistic.
The good news is that there's plenty you can do to begin preparing for this incredible change.
1. Talk about it.
This may sound obvious, but it isn't for most couples. Very few couples make time for intentional conversation. And I've found that most couples are surprised by the amount of stuff they've never talked about. I have an advantage in that it's my job to ask and investigate and reflect—but this is not a natural instinct for most people.
As you prepare for the baby, make sure you're talking about more than what color to paint the nursery or which stroller to buy.
Go deeper, on purpose.
For example, here's an easy one: What do the words “mom" and “dad" actually mean to you? These words have meaning based primarily on our own parents, but that meaning is about to change for you—profoundly. What does it mean to you to take on a whole new identity?
Be intensely curious. Out loud. About how your priorities as parents will change over time. About your fears and your hopes. About what you need from one another, even if you don't yet know what that is. About your assumptions and expectations. There is so much that you don't even know that you don't know. Be curious. Out loud. It's really important that you talk about it.
2. Prioritize time together.
It is so very easy to want to give all your time and energy and attention and love to your new baby. Indeed, the baby wants all of that and more, and doesn't care if you don't have any left over for your partner. You might say that, in this way, the baby actually wants to destroy your relationship.
Couples make a huge mistake—often with noble intent—when they don't make time for one another after the baby arrives. I know it's hard to trust someone else with your baby. I know that childcare can be expensive. I know that the last thing you may want to do when you get away from your baby is stay awake. But it's a mistake not to be creative and intentional about carving out time for your relationship.
It doesn't have to be a big production. Just get out and take a walk. Or plan a monthly date. Or shower together. Make time to remind one another that you were a family before the baby came, and you will continue to be a family after she grows up and goes away to college. The second most popular window for divorce is around 23 years, when couples become empty nesters. If you don't want to become a statistic, it's critical that you learn early to prioritize your time together without kids.
3. Take care of your bodies and minds.
One of the most problematic realities of having a baby is what that will do to your sense of time and space. You will no longer be able to just go for a run, or take a shower, or sleep. Your space is no longer your own. You may even feel like a stranger in your own body. You'll need to be proactive about taking care of yourself. Ideally, you'll help one another by encouraging a practice of physical and mental health.
Additionally, it will be important to focus on emotional and intellectual intimacy while physical and sexual intimacy become less of a priority. (Note: Intimacy and intercourse are not the same thing.) Especially while Mom is dealing with the changes in her body caused by childbirth and breastfeeding, you'll need to be patient with each other.
Drink plenty of water. Breathe fresh air. Hold hands. Exercise—even if it's just a short walk around the block. And by all means, sleep. Sleep deprivation is a big deal for new parents and it makes everything harder. Go out of your way to find help. The best thing your can do for your baby is take care of yourself—body and mind.
Again, there's no way to completely protect your relationship from the impact of a baby. A baby is disruptive. A baby is also wonderful and amazing and life-altering in powerfully good ways.
But if you don't want your marriage to suffer, these principles are a good way to protect your relationship from the standard obstacles. Make sure that you get out ahead of these four issues. If you don't, you run the risk of becoming a statistic. Don't be a statistic.