It’s no secret that having children can make it hard to spend quality time with your partner. Add the stress and constraints of COVID-19 into the mix, and there’s little wonder that Dubai lawyers noted a steep spike in divorce enquiries at the beginning of the pandemic.
But the truth is, the majority of couples find communication and intimacy gets relegated to the back-burner once they become parents – pandemic or not. And, while this is the case in all kinds of marriages, the situation can be even more challenging in marriages between expats.
"Expat spouses can often have higher than average expectations of one another, given that they are usually away from family and only have each other to count on," says Dr Diana Cheaib Houry, psychotherapist at the Human Relationships Institute in Dubai.
"Each partner may look to the other to meet certain needs that being in a foreign context can create; a lack of familiar references, a lack of the sort of close friends they had in their home country, etc. This means expat parenthood can be particularly intense, and the couple will have to be even more united to manage the challenges of childrearing as well as those of being an expat - from adapting to the new environment, to work stress, a general sense of instability and cultural differences."
How a new baby affects the relationship dynamic
Parenting educator Carmen Benton says that struggling to keep a spark alive post-parenthood is a common problem the world over, and couples need to prepare themselves for the changes their relationships will undergo once a baby is on the scene. “When a woman has a baby,” she says, “it’s an all-consuming experience that completely takes precedence – and that’s totally normal. But it can be the cause of two big changes.
“First of all, a new mother loses her old identity and becomes someone whose sole purpose is the care of another. Her priorities have changed. Her body has changed. Her entire sense of herself is now different due to the massive physical and hormonal changes that have occurred through pregnancy and birth.
“Secondly, this is compounded by lack of sleep, the post-birth healing process, stress caused by breastfeeding and the huge responsibility of a newborn baby and it’s hardly surprising that, for a while at least, couples often experience a diminished sense of intimacy and closeness.”
Fathers can feel left out
Some men are fine with this, says Benton. They understand their partners need time and emotional support to get through this period of adjustment. But others find it much harder. Especially in an expat environment - during a time when it is not even possible to travel easily to see family, let alone have them around to help - new parenthood can become a pressure cooker.
“New fathers can feel very left out. Suddenly their wives are entirely focused on this small person who receives all their love and affection, while the spouse finds themselves distanced both physically and emotionally from their partner.
“These elements can lead to resentment, jealousy and prolonged emotional and physical distancing within the relationship.”
Expat marriages in particular can be at risk, because the unique nature of the expat environment – when couples are often living far away from their close social networks back home - can make partners more likely to give up or stray when things get tough, says psychotherapist Aamnah Husein.
Dubai-based counsellor and relationship expert Maria Chatila says new parents need to remember that their relationship is still a top priority. She says, “They need to invest in the relationship as it is the ‘root’ of their family. If the roots stop growing, the rest of the plant will begin to suffer and eventually the plant may not survive. Parents should be aware that a lack of investment in their relationship can have dire consequences over time.”
However, the pandemic has not been all bad for every marriage, says Tanya Dharamshi, Clinical Director and Counselling Psychologist at Priory Wellbeing Centre, Dubai. Here she shares her thoughts:
“The pandemic has enabled a time for reflection and re-evaluation for many couples and for closer scrutiny of their relationship with their partner. This has affected couples in different ways – some positive, some negative.
“Some couples have definitely struggled and developed a greater sense of loneliness and isolation. They have experienced feelings of claustrophobia and frustration as a result of spending considerably more time together, often trying to balance working from home with home schooling, housework and chores.
“For many there has also been financial stress and worries to contend with. Married couples may find that their partners are often working long hours and the quality time they once had to air concerns and effectively problem solve also becomes drained, leaving them feeling burdened and isolated.
“Many are suffering from a lack of ‘personal space’, dedicated ‘me time’, and a lack of clear boundaries separating home and work life. As a result, the pressure on many couples has been immense and has naturally led to conflict and feelings of resentment on either side. Feelings of anxiety and depression were - and still are - common and are directly linked to sleepless nights, addictions, mood swings and boredom – all adding significant stress to any relationship.
“However, many couples have become closer during this time and have felt their relationship strengthen as a result of spending more quality time together, learning new ways to communicate with each other and appreciating each other more. COVID has made many realize the fragility of life and the value of each moment resulting in more family time and more appreciation.”
Reclaiming your close connection
Julia Stone, co-author of Babyproofing Your Marriage: How to Laugh More, Argue Less and Communicate Better as Your Family Grows, says that loss of intimacy, in particular, is a serious issue for new parents. She explains, “A man’s libido not changing after having a baby is normal – but a woman’s changing is also normal. Intimacy is the glue that keeps relationships together.”
Stone’s premise is that women often lose interest in intimacy with their partners for a while after the birth of a baby as a result of hormone changes, overwhelming feelings of responsibility and sheer exhaustion. Men, on the other hand, often express affection as intimacy. When their advances are spurned, they can simply back off emotionally and view it as rejection. Stone believes much would be resolved if men took a more active role in terms of sharing chores, helping with the baby and allowing new mums a break so that they can re-charge their batteries.
She writes, “Springing for a babysitter and a regular ‘date night’ would give both parents some time to relax and enjoy each other’s company again without distracting baby duties. Or try a ‘dad on duty’ night, with the father taking over the nappy changing, cooking, and clean-up while mum relaxes with a book, or a long bath. The pay-off could be a rested and ready partner. And there’s no reason you can’t add a bouquet of flowers and candles to a dinner eaten while baby naps.”
No quick fixes
However, Benton argues that there’s no quick fix. Intimacy issues, she says, cannot be resolved by a bit of romance and that placing time frames on couples to resume marital relations can also be detrimental. Instead, support and communication are the way forward.
“Pregnancy and birth is a huge thing and some women even suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result of a difficult birth,” she says. “Fluctuating hormones, poor self-image post birth and a sense of losing themselves and their identity can lead to them disconnecting for a long period of time. However, this can be addressed and resolved. Couples should seek help if they believe that the emotional connection in their relationship has become distanced.
“Otherwise, kindness, patience, support and making time for each other on an emotional level again usually leads to a happy resolution.”
Babyproofing your marriage
Having a child is a big change in any couple's life. Expat parents or parents-to-be should anticipate that there may be challenging (as well as wonderful) times ahead, and not jump to any dramatic decisions if the relationship seems to be struggling for a while, says Dr Houry.
You can pre-empt certain situations by arranging for an extra pair of hands to help soon after the birth – whether that means investing in a nanny service, or arranging for a family member to stay for a while, if they are close by or able to travel during the pandemic; "After delivery the presence of a family member to support the new parents can be a great help especially for the new mother experiencing lack of sleep, fatigue and dealing with the intense needs of her baby," says Dr Houry.
Mums need to accept help
Although many mothers feel like they should be doing everything themselves, she needs to accept help, adds Dr Houry. "When both parents are full-time workers, as many expats are, the stress of becoming a parent can be more intense and requires being meticulously organized to be able to manage day to day life. Accepting the necessity to rely on external help like nurseries, nannies, is a reality expat parents should deal with."
Maria agrees, but points out that leaving a baby can be stressful for a first-time mother, particularly for expat parents, where extended family members are often not available to step in. But, while it may be hard to actually leave the house, Maria says not going out shouldn’t prevent you from investing time in your relationship.
“It could be anything from holding hands to splurging on a weekend staycation. There is no ‘quality time rule book’,” she says. “Look at your relationship as you would your car. How far would your car get if you didn’t keep refuelling it or servicing it? Why not look at ‘us time’ as the fuel for your relationship? Don’t take your partner for granted.”