Even for the most well prepared couples, having kids is a life-changing experience. Becoming parents is extremely gratifying, yet comes with a whole set of unpredictable twists and turns along the way. Research from the Gottman Institute on Bringing Baby Home found that the majority of couples (67% in fact) report a drop in relationship satisfaction for up to three years after the birth of a baby. How can couples safeguard their marriage from the challenges of new-parent life? Bringing Baby Home research reveals that couples must accomplish two things in order for their relationship to stay stable and happy:
Strengthen and maintain their friendship and manage conflict in a healthy and positive way.
How well a couple knows each other and continues to invest regularly in updating one other on their likes, dislikes, interests, feelings and experiences fair far better than couples who just “buckle down and co-parent.” If you’re a new or expecting parent and feel like your relationship is more on auto-pilot as of late, spending 15 minutes per day strengthening your “love maps” is a way to remember and recognize the reasons why you wanted to be together in the first place. Connecting, showing affection and expressing empathy helps you get back in touch with one another. If you don’t take the time to invest in your relationship, you can often feel like two strangers sharing finances, household chores and dirty diaper changes together but when you commit to spending quality time truly interested in each other’s lives, you share mutual admiration, respect, tender moments and a lifelong friendship together.
Deepen Your Friendship With This Helpful Open-Ended Questions Exercise:
Spend 15 minutes going back and forth and asking each other the following questions.
- What kind of father/mother would you like to be to our child?
- Where do you see our family 5 years from now?
- What are your personal short-term goals? 3 months? 6 months? One year?
- What is your biggest regret within the past year?
- What is the most important value you want to instill in our child?
- How can we share household responsibilities and baby duties?
- What is your ideal date with me?
- What is your biggest success within the past year?
- How do you see yourself changed after having our baby?
- What do you want to teach our baby about relationships? How can we emulate what you want to teach?
Open-ended questions create a dialogue because answering them requires a longer, more thoughtful response. More importantly, they require the listener to tune in and pay attention to what is being said. Closed-ended questions don’t foster conversation and are often answered with a quick “yes or no.”
The second factor in a satisfied relationship post-baby is learning how to handle arguments that may arise within the relationship. You might find that conflict increases, tension is heightened and disagreements are plentiful when you’re sleep-deprived and have less time for one another. During the transition to parenthood, couples who can’t adequately regulate conflict drives them apart. Even the most successful couples fight, but happy couples tend to use soft and gentle ways of broaching a difficult topic rather than coming out with guns blazing. Working on problems in a constructive way leads to greater relationship satisfaction.
Step 1: Use a softened start-up.
The first three minutes of a conversation determines how it will end. If a partner raises an issue using any of the four horseman (criticism, defensiveness, contempt or stonewalling) then the discussion usually goes downhill from there. Relationship satisfaction decreases over time if this approach is used often. Both partners feel unheard, unresolved and become unhappy overall. Using a softened start-up means bringing up problems in a gentle way.
Topic: You’ve been feeling neglected lately.
Harsh start-up: You’ve been ignoring me for days!
Soft start-up: “I’ve been feeling lonely. Can we spend some quality time together?
Topic: You haven’t been getting as much help with the baby as you would like.
Harsh start-up: “I always get up with the baby at night. You never help me. If I wanted to be a single parent I would have!
Soft start-up: It would help me a lot if you would play with the baby after work or offer to take a couple nights with the baby so that I can sleep.
Topic: You want more intimacy with your partner.
Harsh start-up: Are we ever going to have sex again? (in a sarcastic tone)
Soft start-up: I miss cuddling with you. I miss your smell on me. I know you’re tired, but can we plan a night just for us?
Step 2: Accept influence.
Most problems (69%) that arise in our relationships are perpetual, meaning they will never be solved. Accepting influence is understanding your partner’s way of thinking even if it doesn’t align with yours. It means staying curious, asking open-ended questions, listening and expressing empathy.
Step 3: Repair the interaction and de-escalate.
When a conflict quickly turns south, repair it with humor, acknowledgment or affection. The focus is keeping the relationship in a positive state even during times of difficulty. Saying “I’m sorry”, embracing in a hug or teasing your partner can help bring down the negative feelings and feel more united to solve the problem together.
Step 4: Compromise
Finding common ground means being able to “yield to win.” The only way to be convincing of an argument and get your point across with a loved one is by also accepting some of their beliefs and perspectives.
Every couple struggles to find their footing during the transition to parenthood. Research shows that relationships can manage the buffers of having kids with ease by staying friends and managing conflict effectively. Making your marriage a priority and staying kind when you disagree makes the journey of new family life one of great joy and triumph instead of great strife and tension.