No matter how strong your marriage is, when your new baby arrives on the scene, the game changes. There is more love, but somehow less connection. More reason to feel bonded, but less opportunity to feel it.
Lack of sleep, lack of downtime, new schedules, plus a pandemic thrown into the mix… There are plenty of practical reasons why this might be the case. However, just knowing about these factors doesn’t make them any easier to deal with, or make it any easier to recognise what is happening. It can feel like you are drifting apart, which feels scary when it happens at the exact moment that you feel you should be closer than ever. Especially as there doesn’t seem to be any time, or energy to do something about it.
Matleena Vanhanen is a counselling psychologist in Dubai who has trained with the highly-esteemed Gottman Institute in the US, which specialises in relationships. She says, “I am trained to teach two Gottman couples’ workshops – ‘Bringing Baby Home’ and ‘The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work’. Having a baby, as wonderful as it is, is also a stressful experience. Transitioning into parenthood tends to be more stressful than couples anticipate. If the new parents are not prepared for the stress that the arrival of the baby creates, they may attribute the increased stress to their relationship, rather than the life stage that they are in.”
Just a phase
Through her workshops, Matleena helps couples to realise that it may not be that the relationship is not working, but that they are in a phase of life that is difficult. “If the couple realises that it is just a tough time, they are able to work better as a team and support each other during this period rather than let resentment and dissatisfaction grow.”
But why is it such a tough time? “There are two things that can make the bond between the couple weaker after the baby’s arrival: lack of time to nurture the marital relationship and increased conflict due to the increased stress levels in life. The less connected a couple is, the more negativity and conflict there is in the relationship and the weaker the commitment and trust becomes.
“On the other hand, the more we can trust our spouse and the more committed we feel, the stronger the relationship becomes. The strengthening effect flows both ways.”
Matleena shares ten tips for parents, and soon-to-be parents, on how to reinforce your relationship against the natural stress of having a baby.
“Make sure your friendship is strong and remains strong. Talk to each other about your hopes, dreams, aspirations and worries. Ask open-ended questions.”
2. Appreciate each other
“Nurture a ‘Culture of Appreciation’ instead of a ‘Culture of Complaint’ in your family. Notice what your spouse is doing right and express appreciation. Use words! Your spouse cannot read your mind. This same rule applies with your children, too.”
3. Be present
“Bring awareness and intentionality into your relationship. Put your phone away and turn towards your partner. What do they need this week to feel more loved? If you do not know, ask them.”
4. Physical connection
Make intimacy a priority, as far as possible.
5. Romance is key
“Schedule romantic dates and make time for just the two of you. Studies show that children benefit emotionally and socially when their parents have a happy, strong relationship.”
6. Let her be heard
“This one is especially for the men: accept influence. You do not have to agree with your wife on everything she says, but allow yourself to be influenced – even if only partially. Studies show that the relationships of men who do not accept influence implode in 81 percent of cases. If you do not accept influence from her, your wife will be left feeling unheard and unappreciated.”
7. Let him be
“This one is especially for women: allow your spouse to do things his way with the baby and in the home. It may not be the way you want things done, but if you micromanage everything, you will push him away and be left feeling overwhelmed and exhausted.”
8. Safe space
“Make your home a place of peace and calm. The world outside can be hectic and stressful. Find ways to de-stress when you come home. Nurture an atmosphere of affection, appreciation and fun. Make an effort not to argue in front of your baby, or child.”
9. Be gentle
“In conflict discussion, be as gentle with each other, as you would with your best friend, or your grandmother. When a discussion becomes too negative, take a 20 minute break and start afresh.”
10. Balance the lows with highs
“Make sure there is more positive interaction in your relationship than negative. When there is more negativity in the relationship than positivity, your relationship is in trouble. Talk things through when you have a disagreement. Seek help sooner rather than later.”