The most commonly quoted statistics on marital satisfaction is blunt—marital satisfaction decreases after the first child is born.
The birth of your first child is a major milestone in many relationships, and the built-up anticipation of the moment can make it all the more exciting when the baby is finally born. And indeed, the experience is a uniquely memorable one. Having a child changes one’s identity by creating an entirely new dimension to who they are—the roles they hold as an individual, a partner, and now, a parent.
Adopting this new role means facing new challenges. Some of these challenges we expect, but it can be surprising how many relationship problems arise after a baby comes into the family.
Parenting causes an increase in conflict because there are now hundreds of decisions to make daily. Both partners are highly emotionally invested in their little bundle of joy. They are balancing the demands of work, family and life all while functioning on minimal sleep. It’s easy to understand how things can go bad quickly in a relationship under these conditions.
How can so much joy bring so much conflict? Well, because parenting is hard. But don’t worry. With dedication and intentional attention to your relationship, it is possible to thrive in your relationship as you evolve into parenthood.
Here at five ways to overcome relationship and marriage problems after you have a baby.
1. Create a fair division of labor
Communication about the division of labor is crucial to setting your team up for success. Make no assumptions about who will get up in the middle of the night when the little one wakes up at 4 am., or who will take off work for that upcoming doctor’s appointment.
Having an open dialogue about the allocation of responsibilities can not only ease the friction that this added stress can bring but on some level, can even bring the couple closer by encouraging collaboration and reinforcing of being mindful of not only the child’s needs but each other’s.
2. Tend to your foundation as a couple
Communication about responsibilities is essential, but even more important is remembering to make time to have other conversations. Given the time and resolve required to tend to the many needs and obligations of parenthood, loving chit-chat and quickly evolve into talks that feel like you’re arranging a business deal. Playful conversations over dinner become checking off to-do lists, and questions about each other’s day become questions about this or that task was completed.
Remember that your relationship with your partner existed before you were parents, and while your relationship is changing (and will continue to evolve), the foundation of your partnership is still very much there.
So much in the same way that children need care and attention, this foundation must be nurtured in order to continue to grow and thrive. Gestures of affection and gratitude go a long way toward preserving and enhancing happiness in relationships. Indeed, it’s often these smaller gestures of appreciation that can make more of a difference than large romantic displays.
3. Prioritize intimacy—key for a happy partnership
Another big change comes in intimacy and sexual satisfaction. The spontaneous passion that might have existed between partners before children may not be feasible or realistic anymore. You’re both tired. By the time the little one falls asleep, both partners are often so tired that “going to bed” means falling asleep before heads hit pillows.
It becomes all the more important to appreciate the little moments that the two of you do have. Being mindful and intentional about squeezing in a hug or a kiss before work may not be the same as spending an evening together, but the act (and the sentiment behind it) can go a long way between date nights. Flirtatious text messages or a written note slipped into a briefcase before work can help to inspire and retain some of the same playfulness that it can be so easy to lose.
The social pressure on new parents to display or demonstrate their competency or investment in their children can often give rise to the idea that sacrificing everything for one’s children is a good thing. In fact, this poses a number of threats to our own mental health as parents.
It may feel forced or ritualistic—or even like another obligation on the long list of things to do—but getting into the habit of regularly allocating time for a date is so important. Aim for once every two to three weeks and don’t be afraid to get creative. A date does not have to be an elaborate night out. Intentional time together can not only help prioritize and maintain romance and intimacy in your relationship but can give the two of you something to look forward to.
4. Exercise your right to say “no”
Another effect of this social pressure on new parents is that parents often feel compelled to take very active roles in all aspects of their child’s life. The pressure is high (whether perceived pressure from other parents or pressure that we put on ourselves) to volunteer to bring snacks to school or to help organize this or that after school event.
This issue comes up often with kids who are very involved in sports. Many parents want to attend their kids’ games and support them by watching and cheering them on. The research says this is good—kids like it when parents attend their games. However, when we begin to feel compelled to attend these games or events, or guilty when we can’t, it’s time to cut ourselves some slack. It’s great to attend events when possible, but missing these things here and there is completely understandable—and normal. Perfect attendance is the exception, not the rule.
5. Engage in self-care + support your partner’s self-care needs
Nurturing the new child is critically important, but it isn’t selfish to tend to your own needs, too. Good parents aren’t the ones that sacrifice themselves entirely for their child, but rather the ones that know they can’t pour from an empty cup.
Work to balance your own needs with that of your child in order to provide the very best for your little one.
If you are experiencing damaging conflict or distance in your relationship after having children, couples therapy may be a beneficial option. Relationship therapists have extensive training and expertise helping couples communicate, maintain or regain intimacy, and grow together after having children.
This article originally appeared on Bergen Counseling Center.