How Do We Limit Relationship Stress After the Baby Arrives?

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

I'm sitting at a café and a pregnant woman and her husband just walked in. No biggie, right? Except, since I started working with expecting and new parents, whenever I see a pregnant couple, my brain starts spinning with post-baby research like…

Conflicts skyrocket after birth; 90% of couples report a drop in relationship satisfaction after their first child; perpetual issues appear more frequently post-birth.

family soon to welcome a new babyI have to admit, I feel daunted when I share this information with expecting couples. Why? Because no matter how many examples of stressed relationships we've witnessed among the new parents we know, many of us remain convinced we'll avoid those challenges with our spouses.

I get it, I really do. Plus, there are all sorts of variables to the data, like socioeconomics, education, and pre-baby romance levels. But variables aside, and at the risk of being the Grinch who stole our fantasies-of-post-baby-relationship-bliss, I'm going to make a stand for loving your spouse and your relationship enough to PRACTICE.

What do I mean by PRACTICE? Patience, Rest, Adjust Attitudes, Compassion, Tackle Toxins, Intimacy, Choice, and Endurance.

Patience: The first few months after a baby's birth are challenging, if only because of sleep deprivation and new learning curves. Acknowledging that can normalize relationship bumps, like snapping at each other or full-blown arguments. In other words, heightened stress in the baby's first few months will pass, so try to stay as calm as possible and ride it out.

Rest: Research shows that adequate sleep and relationship satisfaction are connected. What to do if/when newborns keep you awake? Support each other to grab shut-eye whenever, wherever, however, even if it means sleeping separately at times. And consider that your gripes with your spouse might mostly be about exhaustion.

Adjust Attitudes: When we're tired and navigating major transitions, tempers can flare. Understanding that goes a long way, as does doing our best to keep a sense of humor, and finding other ways to adjust our attitudes. If we get snapped at, consider asking, "What's your intention behind that tone (or comment)?" If we're the snapper, take a breath and try to answer with what we really want, minus the edge, for example, I want help, I feel frustrated, or even, I don't know!

Compassion: Parents are great at having compassion for babies; we know it's hard to be small and helpless! Yet, we often forget to be empathetic with each other and ourselves. Before babies arrive, discuss how each of you defines compassion and how you like to receive it. Try to express compassion for yourself and your beloved freely once the baby's here, and ask for it when needed.

Tackle Toxins: Psychologist John Gottman cites 4 primary toxins (negative attitudes and behaviors) that erode relationship satisfaction: disrespect, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. I know "toxins" sounds intense, but what we're talking about is stuff like eye-rolling, finger pointing, shirking responsibility and refusing to talk. I have yet to meet someone who doesn't have a talent for at least one of these toxins. What to do? Admit your favorite to your spouse and, together, discuss possible strategies to diffuse toxins when they show up, for example, call them out and pause your conversation long enough to excise them.