One little secret that no one tells you is that your marriage will be different after having a baby. Or maybe they do try to tell you, but it doesn’t register until it’s too late.
About two-thirds of couples will see a drop in marital satisfaction after the birth of a baby. Your routines go out the window, days and nights blur together, eating is erratic, and don’t even think about having sex. Conflict and emotional distance are routine.
My husband and I definitely did not think this would happen to us. We were so happy, so nauseatingly PDA with each other, our relationship was immune, right?
In his book You Can Be Right (or You Can Be Married), Dana Adam Shapiro interviews divorced people to figure out what makes marriages end and how to make them last. In one interview, a divorced mother explains:
“That first year after you have a kid is all about survival. And I don’t know a lot of couples who are having much sex. The underlying thing you have to know is that, as the husband, you are totally displaced. And that’s a bummer…. The baby gets so much love and attention and the mother gets so much satisfaction from the child—there’s just not a lot left for somebody else.”
Nail ? head.
So, what can you do? Here are a few ideas we applied to our relationship from marriage + family experts who helped us:
1. We have a weekly logistics meeting.
As popularized by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families and supported by research, we have adopted a weekly “meeting” where we hash out the logistics for the week. Who’s doing pick-ups, drop-offs and otherwise playing with the little one throughout the week? Dinners, work schedules and social engagements all go on a Google Calendar. Life with three is way more complicated—you’ve got to use every tool at your disposal.
To get started, check this out from the Center for Effective Parenting.
2. We talk about something other than the baby.
For a while, we played a game each night when we got home: We had to tell each other three new things we were grateful for that happened that day. This is an adaptation from the “Minimum Daily Requirement” as described by Gary Chapman in The Five Love Languages, where he encourages a “daily sharing time in which each of you will talk about three things that happened to you that day and how you feel about them.”
We also played a variant where we thought of three things we planned to tell the other about the day. It kept us connected and thinking about each other throughout the day, looking for interesting things to tell the other when we got home.
We purposefully kept this sharing to things not related to our baby so we maintained a connection beyond our child.
Many people recommend a weekly date night, which is great in theory... but that requires a babysitter and a lot of planning, and we found we missed more weeks than we made.
Sharing three things might sound cheesy, but it’s free and you really have no excuse for skipping it.
3. We bring feelings to the surface as they come up.
One major way we’ve learned to avoid unnecessary conflict is to label feelings as they come up. This is important for me in particular. For example, telling my husband, “I’m starting to feel frustrated” saved us from more than a few fights. It was a signal to pause and investigate before a heated conversation turned into a major blowup.
Bonus: Recognizing and labeling a feeling lessens its intensity and makes you feel more in control. I first came across this in an article by Gretchen Rubin from The Happiness Project, where she says: “If you’re feeling a negative emotion, you can work to reduce it by labeling it in one or two words.”
4. We stopped fighting to ‘win.’
You will feel very passionate that you are right about a lot of things in parenting, and your partner will feel just as passionately that you are wrong. You will fight, and your goal will be to convince the other person to adopt your viewpoint. This is a road to continued unhappiness. A “Fighting Fair” guideline explains:
“Remember that the idea is not to win but to come to a mutually satisfying solution to the problem.”
We finally figured out that there are just some topics we’ll never agree on. We now try to fight with the goal of being heard and understood, rather than to agree. This has been huge for us.
5. We’ve learned to listen to understand.
It’s important to signal to the other person that you’ve heard what they’re trying to say. “Reflective listening,” or reflecting back to the other person what you heard them say, is another cheesy-but-powerful practice that has helped us avoid or resolve a conflict. Here is a brief primer.
6. We’re working on a true partnership.
One study found that both parents were more likely to be satisfied with the marriage when household chores were equally divided. Women were also more likely to report sexual satisfaction when they reported that they shared household duties with their husband. So apparently, the way to a woman’s heart is through the dishwasher??
Finally, just remember that it will get better. Most of us need to work at it, but your marriage will get better even if it stinks for a while after baby. You won’t have time to read any self-help books, since you’ll barely have time to pee when you become a parent. But don’t be afraid to ask for advice or hire a therapist before things get bad.