How to keep your relationship strong once baby arrives

Babies throw a curve ball into the strongest of relationships. Here’s what to do (and what not to do).

Photo: iStockphoto

When my husband and I get a weekend away or even dinner out sans kids, it’s difficult to remember what we ever fought about PK (pre-kids). Every time we bid farewell to our boys, it’s like a second honeymoon. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration, but most couples really do struggle with their relationship once baby arrives. It’s an exciting time, no doubt—one filled with much joy and pride. But it can also be incredibly stressful. That carefree weekend brunch–slash–spin class you looked forward to all week is suddenly replaced with feed time, play time and nap time (baby’s, not yours). And while we wouldn’t trade it for the world, here are some ways to keep your relationship in tact while embracing the highs and lows of (new) parenthood.

Lost connections
About 70 percent of couples experience a significant slump in the quality of their relationship quality within three years of their children’s births, according to research by the Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle. “What’s lacking is fun and connection as a couple,” says Vancouver Island-based psychologist and sex therapist Cheryl Fraser. “People roll their eyes at ‘date night,’ but it clearly makes a difference.”

Toronto couple Sharon and Alex Mazelow, parents to three under four (including an eight-month-old) have created their own version of date night that doesn’t involve a sitter (or even leaving the house). Every evening after their last child falls asleep, they cozy up on the couch with snacks and watch an episode of their favourite show. “What was once a weekend at Niagara-on-the-Lake on a bike-and-wine tour has been condensed into 30 minutes of Girls,” Alex says. “But it’s even more meaningful now. It’s a way to unwind and reconnect, sometimes without even saying a word.”

When sex feels like a chore
Your to-do list is massive—and sex is probably at the bottom. Plus, you really don’t want to be touched ever since you’ve grown a new 24/7 appendage. And sleep! What could be better than sleep? (Not sex, that’s for sure.) There’s also the physical discomfort, for some, as well as the logistical issue of timing sex with baby’s sleep schedule (let’s just say babies have a sixth sense).

For some women, there’s also the physical discomfort, as well as the logistical issue of timing sex with baby’s sleep schedule. (Let’s just say babies have a sixth sense).

First of all, don’t panic—your libido will return eventually. “It’s really important to normalize the fact that when you have a baby or small children who aren’t sleeping through the night, it’s common to experience lower sexual desire,” says Carol Anne Austin, a psychotherapist who specializes in sexual and reproductive health at KMA Therapy in Toronto. Communication is key, she says. “One person in the relationship may feel interested in resuming sex before the other, which can sometimes lead to conflict or hurt feelings.”

She recommends setting aside time for a conversation about what’s going on, and approach it with a sense of openness and understanding. “There’s no right or wrong answer, it’s about hearing one another,” she says. “That fosters emotional intimacy, which may set the stage for sexual intimacy later on. You’re creating connection.”

Austin also recommends challenging the common script of sex being something that happens in bed, before sleep. “I encourage couples to push comfort levels gently. Is there a time of day other than right before sleep, or a place other than the bedroom, that you can take advantage of?” Fraser suggests adding kissing or a foot rub to the mix. “For all sorts of biological reasons, a [postpartum] woman can’t bear to be touched sexually from chin to knees,” she says. “With a foot rub, she can relax. Same with kissing. The connection is more sensual, not necessarily sexual.”

When your parenting philosophies conflict
You’re a firm believer in co-sleeping, he’s all about the cry-it-out method. What to do? Once again, the key is to communicate. “Reflect on whether you’ve really understood your partner’s position,” Austin says. “Try saying something along the lines of, ‘You’re saying it’s really important to you because you believe X, do I have that right?’ That way you’re validating their point of view and communicating that you hear their point. It de-escalates conflict.”

Then, she says, you can share your own perspective, specifically using “I” statements. “Don’t use the word ‘but,’ which negates everything that’s come before it. Instead, say something like ‘From my perspective, I was thinking about it like this’ and explain your position. You might not have a clear solution, but you can now understand one another’s point of view.”

It’s easy to feel resentful
Although it was more than a decade ago now, I vividly recall our son being two days old and my husband going to work or the gym while I sat on the couch and nursed every 30 minutes. I was resentful that his life hadn’t changed whereas the direction of mine had taken a total 180. Many new moms are bitter that they’re the ones up all night tending to baby while their partner keeps on snoring peacefully. “I wanted to smother him with a pillow,” one sleep-deprived mom confided to me recently (she was only half-joking).

“It’s normal that when we’re experiencing something difficult or painful, our minds will go to resentment,” says Austin. “What we’re really saying is, ‘I’m tired and I wish I was sleeping, too.’” She says it’s important to ask your partner for help when you need it. “And it’s okay to say, ‘I feel mad at you because you get to sleep right now and I don’t. I’m tired and in a lot of pain.’”

The trick is avoiding the blame game. As Fraser explains, “Remember that your resentment is not your partner’s problem, but your problem is. Talk to him about the problem and not the resentment. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, for example, tell him just that instead of, ‘You’re such a jerk, you get to go to the office all day.’” And, keep in mind, it works both ways: Alex recalls when Sharon insinuated that he was being lazy, when really he was feeling helpless after the birth of their first child. “Sharon is the most maternal person I’ve ever met, she instinctively knew how to get him to eat, to sleep…I didn’t know how to do any of that. I felt extremely insecure and my solution was to retreat.” Alex eventually revealed his anxieties and after a heart-to-heart, everything improved. “Just talking it out completely flipped things around for the better.”

Read more:
3 tips for surviving the first three months with baby
Helping your postpartum partner: a guide for new dads
How to find time with your partner among kid chaos

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