The postpartum stage is not just a vulnerable time for mothers, but for couples and their relationships. Baby changes EVERYTHING. The bad news is that relationship satisfaction tanks for over two-thirds of couples after a baby. * Worse, 50% of marriages end in divorce after 7 years. The good news is that there are things we can do to keep relationships strong, happy, and satisfying after growing from a couple to a family. Loving that little squish is easy. Staying kind and calm and forgiving with your spouse when you are both sleep deprived, stressed and possibly hormonal? Read on…
Here are my top 6 tips for keeping your relationship strong after baby:
1. Go to bed at the same time, in the same bed.
I am all for cosleeping with baby. To me, it is the most natural thing in the world. Sleeping next to baby, at least in the first 4-6 months, is the easiest way to multitask: respond to baby’s needs, nurse, feel comforted by knowing baby is okay and breathing, AND catch some sleep.
But, for the sake of still feeling like a couple, try at least periodically to get baby to sleep, if only for a few hours, in a crib or bassinet. Even if baby wakes in the middle of the night and it is easier to bring him to bed, at least reclaim the marriage bed for the first hour after you have gone to bed.
Resuming a sexual relationship after giving birth is a whole other topic. Consider the baby step of any physical intimacy, touching, hugging, cuddling, or spooning to be a success. It may also lead to more…
After baby, time is a precious commodity. Nighttime might be the only opportunity to catch up on work or personal projects. If need be, schedule a time for your date. And leave the phone or tablet in another room, lest it become the new bed partner!
2. Figure out if you are a distancer or a pursuer. Are you an Elsa or an Anna?
I love this post by Kim Blackman, LMFT, on relationship lessons from Disney’s “Frozen.” Just as Elsa shuts her sister out under stress, some of us tend to want distance from our partners when things get tense. Often the other partner will be more likely to pursue a discussion and, like Anna, feel hurt and rejected and not understand a “closed door.”
The distancing and pursuing pattern, or dance, turns into a vicious cycle. Do you recognize yourself or your partner as one or the other? Just acknowledging your different styles, and understanding your partner’s behavior, can take the personal hurt and sting out of it.
3. Take time outs when discussions get heated.
It is natural to become defensive when we feel attacked. The problem with defensiveness is that when we put up a wall to protect ourselves we are unable to hear and understand our partners. When we are flooded with emotions or finding ourselves in “fight, flight or freeze” mode, a time out can help.
Marriage and family therapists, Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT and Andrea Knox, IMF, recently shared their advice for postpartum couples from a Gottman perspective at the last Postpartum Health Alliance lecture. The key to time outs, they shared, is to do something to truly relax. Don’t stew and keep yourself worked up about how “right” you are. In addition, couples often make the mistake of not coming back after a time out. Try to check in with each other after 20 minutes.
4. Offer your partner a massage.
Knox and Panganiban shared that research on postpartum couples has demonstrated that giving and receiving massages from one another can lighten the baby blues. This is one way to turn towards each other when things are hard versus turning away.
5. Beware the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse: Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt and Stonewalling. *
Psychologist and relationship expert John Gottman, Ph.D. has conducted research on 40,000 couples over the last 40 years. He identified the four above harbingers as predictors of divorce (with contempt being the strongest predictor.) If you and your partner are struggling frequently with “the four horseman,” it may be time to consult with a therapist. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 619-289-7818, and if I am not a good fit for you, I will find someone who is.
6. Commit together to take a small amount of time and energy to devote to the relationship.
Naturally, 150% of our focus has shifted to making sure our vulnerable little love survives. But once it seems like a newborn is doing well, remember that the foundation of the family is the loving partnership between parents. I don’t think it is realistic to spend tons of time daily talking about the state of your relationship. But try devoting half an hour once a week to acknowledging and listening to one another. The greatest gift you can give your baby is a strong and healthy relationship. *
* This post was inspired by the Postpartum Health Alliance lecture in La Jolla on 6/17/14, “Postpartum Couples: A Gottman Perspective” with Kimberly Panganiban, LMFT and Andrea Knox, IMF of the Couples Institute of San Diego with Trish Stanley. Points with an asterisk were taken from their lecture.
If you missed hearing about the previous PHA lecture, on helping parents overcome the trauma of the NICU experience, you can read about it here.
Additional Reading for Keeping a Strong Relationship After Baby
The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts by Gary D Chapman