Back in 2005, author Ayelet Waldman proclaimed boldly that she loved her husband more than she loved her children in a New York Times article. This announcement seemed to strike a nerve, with quick reactions in the media that she must be an unfit mother and shouldn’t have had children to begin with. Waldman remained undeterred, however, and stated that the best foundation she could give her children was a strong partnership with their father. Whether you share Ms. Waldman’s feelings or not, she can be applauded for beginning a conversation and for shaking up our expectations of what kind of partnerships best serve both parents and children.
As a society, we do not always acknowledge the toll that having children can take on a relationship. Research has shown that 67 percent of parents report a drop in marital quality and satisfaction after the birth of a baby. Challenges can be expected as parents initially adjust to this tremendous event, but the truth is the changes of parenting kids keep us forever on our toes. We need to be able to adjust to the shifting sands of parenting in our relationships with our kids and in our relationship with our spouse. The ability to be flexible and the desire to put work into the relationship will help your partnership to thrive in the midst of parenting.
The challenges of parenting a new baby can be overwhelming. New parents often feel like a bomb has been dropped in the middle of their old lives, leaving them scrambling to adjust to a new normal. If subsequent kids come along, parents may feel better able to anticipate the enormous responsibility of having a newborn, but must still accommodate new relationships and new demands on their time and energy.
Here are some of the top stresses that parents of young children face:
- The difference between expectations of what parenting will be versus the reality
- Differences between partners in parenting style or philosophy
- Lack of time with each other and emotional intimacy challenges
- Changes in sex life and physical intimacy
- Lack of sleep and ensuing physical symptoms, such as crankiness and exhaustion
- Both partners dealing with new identities and role shifts
- Challenges with division of labor in the household
- Differences in how you and your partner were raised may come to the forefront in new ways. This includes dealing with in-laws and setting boundaries around your new family.
- Career and work issues, including financial concerns
The key is to recognize these changes, being gentle with your self and with your partner. It is important to recognize that all relationships have times of calm and times of challenge and that you have the love to work through hard times together. It’s also helpful to hold the duality that you need to feel comfortable in your relationship and trust its strength while also continuing to put new energy and attention into it. You must at once trust your partnership to hold steady in a hard time, while not neglecting it entirely.
What Makes a Relationship Work?
According to John Gottman, a researcher at the University of Washington who has studied relationships for over forty years, there are some essential tips to making your relationship work. They include:
- Create special one-on-one time with your spouse
- Express positive emotions towards one another
- Express your needs directly
- Listen to your partner empathetically
- Avoid criticism, put-downs, and stone-walling (emotional withdrawal)
- Be tolerant of each other’s faults
- Learn to make and receive attempts at repair
It’s interesting to note that these tips also apply to our relationships with our children, or with anyone else for that matter! Sometimes our partner ends up receiving all of our negative emotions simply because they are available and safe for us show our darker sides to. Often, we protect our children from our anger and frustration and it ends up being passed on to our partners. Instead, we can learn to recognize our feelings, channel our frustration in healthier ways, and express our emotions with kindness and directness to our partner to avoid hurt feelings and ensure that our messages are received clearly and non-defensively.
Five Love Languages
We often express our love to our partner (or to our children, for that matter) in the way that we appreciate being shown love. The truth is that different people feel loved in different ways. Gary Chapman has expressed this well and has come up with five different love languages:
- Words of Affirmation
- Acts of Service
- Quality Time
- Physical Touch
Consider asking your partner what she thinks her love language is. Tell her what yours is. You can also think about your child’s love language. This is a wonderful way of trying to take on your loved one’s perspective and to practice having compassion for her point of view.
Other Research-Based Tips for a Strong Partnership
- Consider putting your own needs first and filling up your own tank before trying to connect with your spouse. If you are worn-down and exhausted, you are unlikely to be able to form strong bonds or have enjoyable moments with those you love. Practice taking good care of yourself and see that act as an important way of caring for your family as well.
- Rethink date night by having an adventure together. Think about whether you can incorporate an activity where you learn something new together into your night out. Sharing novel experiences builds relationships.
- Balance time together and apart. Try to think about the various components of your family and create time as a whole family and in separate dyads. You and your partner need time alone together, but you may also find great joy in time with one child at a time. Research also supports some kind of family mealtime. This doesn’t have to be dinner and it doesn’t need to be every night, but some kind of ritualized family gathering is beneficial to kids and parents.
I leave you with the long-term view. Parenting is an intense endeavor that will take as much from you as you are able to give. Continuing to invest in your relationship with your partner, even in the midst of the all-consuming love and attention you feel for your children, is important, both for the long-term health of your partnership and for the children themselves. Children thrive when their parents are able to offer a model of a loving, respectful, flexible relationship and will carry this model into their own future lives.
Truly, Madly, Guiltily, by Ayelet Waldman (article)
All Joy and No Fun by Jennifer Senior (book)
Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler (book)