Parenthood brings so much joy—welcoming a baby to the family, getting to know your new little one, watching them discover their world, and helping them grow and flourish into healthy toddlers, preschoolers, teenagers, and eventually young adults. But in the transition to parenthood, couples shift their focus from each other to their children, while continuing to manage the everyday stresses of work, finances, extended families, friendships, health and more.
Parenting can be a significant source of stress for couples, leaving partners to feel like two ships passing in the night. Research published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found that couples experienced greater relationship decline following the transition to parenthood, compared to couples who did not have children—this suggests that during this most challenging transition time and the years to follow, couples need to take extra care to nurture their romantic relationship.
Here are some tools for keeping your relationship connected while being in the midst of parenthood:
1. Manage your stress
Being a couple means having the emotional space to be with another person. When we are stressed, our ability to tolerate difficulties decreases, and we experience anger and frustration much more easily. A partner’s sock left on the floor becomes a point of contention, rather than simply picking it up like the weeks prior. If you are not looking after your own stress level, you simply do not have space to look after someone else’s needs or emotions.
When it comes to looking after yourself, be mindful of the expression “You cannot pour from an empty cup,” which means you cannot give to others in you are not looking after yourself. Be sure to check in with your own stress levels before being able to tackle your relationship.
2. Be a united front
Dr. John Gottman, couple therapist and researcher, talks about couples moving from “me” to “we” which is created by finding ways to connect and understand their partner.
Moving into a “we”-ness also means becoming a united front as parents. Don’t blame the other person for a decision. Instead, take private time to discuss family decisions and parenting together, so that you can be consistent with your children, or with extended family.
Using “we” language helps others know you are a team. Stand up for your partner, or ask your partner to stand up for you. And be sure to let your family know that it is not okay to criticize your partner. This will send a clear message to your families that you are a package deal.
3. Listen to understand
Stephen Covey, author and motivational speaker, said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand. They listen with the intent to reply.”
We know that when you do not feel listened to and connected with your partner, you will either fight to be heard even more (i.e., pursue your partner), or you will shut down (i.e., withdraw from your partner). This becomes a vicious negative cycle as a couple. It is really easy to be in your own perspective. It’s like playing volleyball in a tournament of love—you only see the ball coming AT you.
While all of your feelings are valid, there are two people in this relationship. When stress levels are high, or you have reached a difficult moment in parenting, try understanding what it is that your partner is communicating or requesting.
Ask questions to understand the who, what, why, when, where and how of what they are expressing. Is there an emotion that they are not sharing with you? Can you accept this difficult emotion? What is it that your partner is longing for? Where does this come from? When do they feel it? And the hardest, how might you be contributing to it?
4. Share your own feelings and needs
When I say assertiveness, clients often say, “So I should say no?” That is not what assertiveness is. Assertiveness is a type of communication style that respects the needs of yourself while respecting the needs of the other person.
Try first to empathize with your partner about what they want or what they did. Next, share your feelings to help the other person understand what you need. Use “I feel” and “I need” language. But take note, this is not the same as saying “I feel like you never spend time with us as a family”. This is not a feeling. Try “I feel…” and insert happy, sad, scared, alone, etc., and help your partner understand when this happens and what you need. For example, “I feel sad that we don’t have time together. I need us to have a date night.”
Try to avoid criticizing your partner when asking for help—this will allow them to be more open to hearing your request, rather than growing defensive.
5. Know when to let it go
A healthy relationship does not mean resolving every conflict that arises. As two individuals, you each have your own thoughts, feelings, desires, values and opinions. It is inevitable that you will have disagreements. Recognize that it is okay to have differences—after all, these differences likely attracted you to your partner. You do not have to resolve every conflict. Instead, know when to let it go and to return to being on the same team.
6. Schedule a date
It’s so easy to slip into meeting everyone else’s needs and demands, especially as parents. In addition to taking time for self-care to manage your own stress levels, make a point to schedule time as a couple—and keep that commitment. It doesn’t have to be a formal date night with a sitter. It could be sharing a special drink after the kids go to bed, watching a movie, or playing your favorite game. Or perhaps it is an intimate conversation. Try downloading the Gottman Card Deck App to start interesting conversations that build connection. The point is to have uninterrupted time with just the two of you.
7. Seek professional help
Sometimes conflict, either related to parenting, extended families or issues in the relationship, has been long-standing. What we know about couples is that they can get into negative, reinforcing cycles, which prevent them from being able to resolve their conflict.
The average couple will wait six years before seeking help. Waiting to seek help can lead to further entrenchment of these negative cycles and make moving forward in your relationship more challenging.
There will never be an ideal time to work through your marital issues—something will always come up. I encourage couples to attend therapy sooner rather than waiting for things to hit rock bottom. A trained couple therapists can help you learn to change your negative patterns in your relationship, improve your communication, and increase your physical and emotional connection.