Sleepless nights, pelvic floor pain, plugged milk ducts. We talk frequently about these and other effects of having a baby, but you don’t hear a lot about relationships. More specifically, many of my clients come to me in distress about the state of their marriage after having children. They feel irritated with their partners, are fighting more frequently, and are disconnected.
No one ever told them to expect so much discord. And yet, it’s incredibly common with studies suggesting that 67% percent of married couples experience a sharp decline in relationship satisfaction after the birth of a child. I reference this statistic not to fear monger, but to normalize this phenomenon.
Relationships, even healthy and strong ones, take a hit after the birth of a child.
While the specific reasons for a decline in marital satisfaction are unique to every couple, there are some common culprits. Below are the 8 most common ones I see in my practice:
There is a reason sleep deprivation is used as a form of torture. Lack of good sleep is linked to depression, anxiety, irritability, negative mood, and difficulty regulating anger and hostility. Put two sleep-deprived people in the same room and conflict is almost sure to follow. Not to mention, when you are tired the last thing you want to do is take the time to nurture your relationship.
2.Lack of Time
To that end, there is very limited time to take care of yourself or your relationship when you have a young child. You may not realize the small ways you make time to care for the health of your relationship when time is abundant (think taking the time to cuddle in bed, talking about your day at work, sitting together over a meal). After a baby arrives you certainly feel the absence of that time and care.
3.Lack of Intimacy
After the birth of a baby, most couples are less physically and emotionally intimate with one another. They also have sex less frequently. Chalk it up to lack of time, sleep deprivation, and often a lack of desire, whatever the reason, lack of initiate connection contributes to a decrease in relationship satisfaction.
4. Relationships become Logistical and Transactional
When time is limited, and energy is short, many couples find that their relationship becomes about what I call the who, the how, and the what. Who is going to get up with the baby for the next feeding? How are we going to navigate public transit with a stroller? What do we need to prepare for daycare? Communication narrows to managing the logistical and transactional gymnastics of caretaking,
5. Resentment Reigns
When communication becomes transactional it is often a recipe for hostility and resentment. When I hear couples bickering about who had more sleep, whose turn it is to feed the baby, who got to take a shower, I get concerned about brewing signs of contempt and criticism, both of which are toxic to the health of relationships.
Becoming a parent involves lot of difficult conversations and big decisions. Whether its talking about finances, figuring out childcare, or making choices about your child’s medical care, navigating stressful decisions can contribute to conflict.
7. Identity Shifts
Becoming a parent involves navigating your own shift in identity, but it also requires adjusting to your partner’s identity as a parent. This inevitably involves some bumps and hurdles as you may not like aspects of your partner’s parent identity or may have trouble getting used to the change.
8. Emotional Labor
Emotional labor refers to the invisible (and unpaid) work of caring for your feelings as well as managing the feelings of others. It is the mental load of managing households, of being the one to remember important dates and appointments, of remembering birthdays, of ordering food before the fridge is empty. It is work that falls disproportionally on women’s shoulders. In my experience, emotional labor is to blame for so much of the discord I see in heterosexual couples with small children.
In sum, there are a lot of reasons why your relationship feels rocky after having a baby, but there are also many ways you can buffer against this before you have a child or course correct after the problem starts. Stay tuned next time for more on why emotional labor intensifies after having a baby, and some ideas on how to shift the weight.