By Alison Holland
The quality of a relationship and the quality of parenting go hand in hand. As a therapist, wife, and mother of three young children I am often asked for advice from couples about to embark upon the journey of becoming parents or those adding to their families. I usually begin with, “In all honesty, I was completely unprepared for how difficult being married and parenting children would be. I underestimated how all-consuming parenting is and how little energy I would have to think about my own needs, let alone someone else’s.”
Likely not what they are hoping to hear.
My husband and I had been married less than one year when our first child was born. Our beautiful daughter bounded into the world, bringing with her excitement and opportunity and at the same time challenging us beyond measure. The transition was a difficult one and our marriage faced its share of challenges. In speaking with many women in my circle, mostly first-time moms, I learned our struggles were not unique and that we certainly were not alone.
Research shows that within three years after the birth of a child, approximately two-thirds of couples will experience a significant dropin their relationship quality and will have a dramatic increasein conflict and hostility. (The Gottman Institute, Inc., 2014). Findings of a study of 159 families showed shifts within couples when they became parents, including:
4 Common Trends Among Couples When They Become Parents
- Profound Philosophical Shifts. This includes changes in identity, time takes on a different meaning, roles may become more traditional and values may change.
- Relationship Changes. An increase in conflict and a decrease in sex and intimacy.
- Some Partners Withdraw. Coping with changes in responsibility and financial stress may mean more time at work or out of the home.
- Physical and Psychological Changes. Sleep deprivation, an increase in stress and physical adjustments following childbirth and the adjustment to breastfeeding.
What I wish I had known then, along with all the nursing tips and sleep training methods, was that changes to a relationship are normal and to be expected andthat there are effective things you can do to enhance your relationship satisfaction after the birth of a baby. The question then becomes, “How can we maintain the quality of our relationship and also build a strong and healthy family?” The following are three research-based ingredients necessary to cope with the changes brought about by the birth of a child.
Three Ingredients For A Successful Relationship
1.Strengthen and Maintain Your Friendship
The first step in strengthening and maintaining your friendship is assessinghow well you know each other. This is often one of the first things people do when they start dating. Over candlelitdinners, uninterrupted conversations go on for hours with each partner taking turns asking all sorts of questions and being truly curious about the answers. This is also one of the first things people stop doing once they have been together for a while. We can become complacent, believing we know one another so well that there really isn’t anything to ask. However, people change over time and it is common for couples to lose track of what is meaningful to one another.
Making it a priority to show interest in your partner and givingthe necessarytime and energy to really know one another is an important step towards building a strong foundation for your family. Returning to a place of curiosity can be fun and it can remind you of the reasons you wanted to be together in the first place. It involves getting back in touch with each other and honouring the history that you have created in making a life together. It can be as simple as a “10 Minute Time Out”. This involves ten minutes in the day where all screens are put away and each partner is given five minutes to ask the other some open-ended questions. This exercise can go a long way towards restoring and rebuilding a connection with your partner.
2. Develop an Effective Way to Handle Conflict
Conflict is an inevitable part of all relationships. It is a signal and if managed well it can lead to greater understanding and connection. During the transition to parenthood it is natural that there are major changes to each partner’s self-concept. For most couples, this results in relationship challenges and can make conflict increase dramatically. A requirement for all stages of problem-solving to be effective is physiological soothing. Meaning, the capacity for both partners to be emotionally calm enough to stay present, think, and work through the issue at hand. Developing this skill while dealing with conflict can help ensure that learning and increased understanding are the outcomes rather than an automatic response to fight aggressively or run away.
One strategy to enhance emotional regulation is developing a mutually agreed upon signal for a break. This signal would be used when one partner is feeling flooded or overwhelmed by emotion. The20-minute breakallows the partner to return to amore relaxed state of mind. Some find it useful to engage in a self-soothing exercise during the break such as deep–breathing, muscle relaxation or meditation. Once the break is over, the conversation resumes.
3. Adopt the Relationship Motto: Small Things Often
Research conducted on thousandsof couples found that if you make small changes in your daily life they will result in larger changes over time whichincrease satisfaction, build awareness, and help to increase communication. This is so important because new parents are tired! Their ability to manage frustration is often low and even the idea of going on a date or engaging in conflict can feel so overwhelming. The fact that small gestures, done often, can have the greatest impact should give hope to those invested in strengthening their relationship but worried they may simply be too exhausted to do so.
One of my favourite strategies for adopting thismotto is “The Six Second Kiss“. The SixSecond Kiss is also referred toas “A Kiss With Potential”. Kissing for sixseconds is just long enough to create the opportunity for greater intimacy and connection without placing any expectation on it occurring. It’s hard to kiss for sixseconds and not feel a little bit lighter even if it’s just because you are laughing at how long sixseconds actually feels when lips are touching! This is the strategy that I strongly encourage you to try. What’s the worst that could happen? After all, it’s only six seconds.
Alison Holland is a Registered Social Worker who provides counselling services in Vancouver, BC. Her expertise as a Gottman Bringing Baby Home Educator complementsher passion for providing research-based training and therapy that helps families improve relationships, better manage stress and successfully navigate life transitions.
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