From Partners to Parents: Changes in the Couple Relationship – By Dr Sofia Rallis

The transition from partners to parents

The transition to parenthood involves many changes over a relatively short period of time. One of those changes involves the shifts that occur within the partner relationship, as two members of a couple relationship navigate the world of parenthood. This includes learning how to co-parent with one another while also trying to maintain a connection as partners. Many individuals tend to believe that having a baby will bring them closer together with their partner; while this can be true in many ways, it can also be a catalyst for a decrease in marital/relationship satisfaction.

Over 90% of new parents report increased conflict in the first year after having a baby, and over 60% continue to report a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first three years of parenthood. These challenges often catch people ‘off guard’, which results in many couples making the mistake of thinking that their partner, or their relationship, has forever changed, and not for the better. The truth is, it is life that has changed – a lot! Learning to meet the needs of a newborn baby or growing children, sleep deprivation, new stressors and steep learning curves all add to the mix of a uniquely testing time. While none of these challenges are unusual in any way, couples often don’t realise before they become parents that they need to make a special effort to nurture and protect their relationship while going through all the ups-and-down of parenthood. Being mindful to support one another as partners will not only reduce the risk of a relationship breakdown but can also protect against mental health issues such as perinatal depression and anxiety.

So what are some of the most common challenges and sources of tension for new parents? Let’s look at some now.

• Different Parenting Approaches/Philosophies: Each partner may hold different beliefs about parenting approaches, health beliefs, care arrangements and priorities in general. This may be the first time parenting styles and attitudes are specifically addressed, with marked differences causing considerate distress.

• Less Time for Self as Individuals and as a Couple: Demands increase after a child is born, leaving less time and energy for yourself as an individual and as a couple. You may be used to regular nights out, weekends filled with fun social events and relaxing holidays. While such experiences are not out of reach, they usually require a lot more forward thinking and planning.

• Division of Labour: Division of labour often needs to be renegotiated as you transition from partners to parents. Usually there will be one partner that stays at home with the baby/children for a certain period of time, however this does not necessarily mean that they ‘have the time’ to take care of all the household chores, meal preparation etc. This may challenge the beliefs of some individuals which can be a considerate cause of tension.

• Loss of Freedom: Parenthood involves many ‘highs’ such as the new found sense of love and delight in the life that you have created, but also some losses. One of the most prominent losses relates to one’s loss of independence or personal freedom. Another one is the loss experienced by the fulltime caregiver who forgoes work for a period of time. While in some cases this may represent a welcome relief, for others it can result in an increased sense of loneliness and isolation.

• Changes in Dynamics: The changes in a couple relationship post-birth include both obvious and more subtle shifts. Often one of the lesser spoken about changes is the loss that is experienced when men (typically, but not always) ‘give up’ their central place in their partner’s life, as the baby now dominates her time, attention and often affection. While difficult it is important for partners to avoid feeling resentful but, rather, to recognise it is a period of adjustment which can best navigated via open communication about one’s needs and emotions.

• Changes in the Sexual relationship: Sex and intimacy changes after having a child, often leaving one or both partners longing for the connection previously had. It is important to consider what each woman’s birth experience has been and the subsequent recovery. This often extends well beyond the ‘six-week postpartum check’ from both a physical and emotional perspective.

• Financial stress: Concerns about financial matters often become more pronounced after having children, particularly when there is a transition period that involves going from a dual to a single income household. Increased financial strain is one of the primary stressors reported by men in particular and can exacerbate other stressors, resulting in greater distress.

In addition to the above changes and challenges, there are two additional experiences that often underpin relationship difficulties experienced by couples; namely a sense that the connection the couple had as partners has been lost and a breakdown in communication.

• Loss of connection: Partners connect in many ways and it is always painful when we feel a loss of that connection. It is hard enough with family and friends, but this loss is often even more profound when it relates to our spouse/partner. Each partner differs in the way they express and experience love and what helps them feel connected. For example, one individual may feel love and appreciation when their partner does some extra house work, however we can’t assume that such practical gestures are necessarily going to work in the same way for the other partner. Instead, they may feel most loved when the relationship is prioritised and time is set aside to talk or go out as a couple. The importance of affection, sex and intimacy can also differ within a couple. One partner may value regular or spontaneous sex, while the other may need to feel the emotional connection before sex can be considered. It is probably not hard to see how even the best of intentions can lead to disappointment and disconnection if couples aren’t aware of these different preferences and if they aren’t able to communicate openly about them.

• Communication breakdown: Almost every couple reports some level of communication breakdown after having a baby. This may be happening most of the time, or it may be specific to a certain topics such as care arrangements, money, sex, managing the in-laws etc. It is rather common for couples to get ‘stuck’ over certain issues, where they feel they just can’t get through to each other effectively. This often occurs when strong emotions arise and the ‘flood’ of emotions takes over. This can lead to an inability to think clearly while in the midst of an argument, and to say things we don’t actually mean ‘in the heat of the moment’. Couples can often find themselves caught in reactive conversations where one or both feels criticised and hence go into ‘defence’ mode. These interactions can become a pattern, leaving partners feeling stuck, distant and disconnected from each other.

A main cause of disconnection in couples is the build-up of issues that have not been addressed and the resulting feelings of resentment. Underneath many angry interactions in couples are often deep upsets and disappointments that stretch far beyond what has actually happened in that moment. When we experience a communication breakdown and we don’t talk about what’s really bothering us the distress will often deepen, and so the distance continues to grow. All too often both partners find themselves feeling hurt and misunderstood. The emotional and physical fatigue that is an ever present part of parenthood can often compound all of these issues, as feeling exhausted and depleted will make it more difficult to sit down together in a calm and compassionate manner to discuss what’s going wrong and what changes or concessions need to be made.

It is important to remember that experiencing these challenges to some extent is fairly typical. Unfortunately, for most people these can be difficult matters to talk about, which often adds to the sense that ‘nobody else seems to be having these difficulties’. This can further compound the sense of loneliness and distress experienced and makes it harder to reach out for help. Just because it is not spoken about openly, doesn’t mean that there is something wrong in your relationship if you are experiencing stress at this time. Too many couples fall apart unnecessarily when this happens rather than realising it is a particularly trying time for the couple relationship and that some extra care and consideration is needed.

What can you do to manage some of these challenges?

There’s much that can be done to prevent significant relationship dissatisfaction, and the associated depression and anxiety that often results, by focusing on preparing yourselves as a couple for the relationship aspects of parenthood. One of the first things expectant or new parents need to know is that all of what’s been mentioned in this article is pretty common, and shouldn’t be cause for panic. In order to prevent things from escalating however it may be helpful to work on some of the following areas:
• Recognise and adjust unhelpful and unrealistic expectations that each partner may have about key issues such as division of labour, caring for the children, sex and intimacy, managing family relationships etc.

• Schedule in some time out for yourself as individuals and as a couple to do some of the things you used to do before baby/children came along. Where available enlist the help of family and friends to make this possible.

• Where feasible enlist the help of external services to help manage some of the more mundane daily tasks (e.g., cooking, cleaning). This can help lighten the load and minimise arguments caused by such matters.

• Use simple, clear and direct communication to help avoid misunderstandings. Using open communication can help you both understand each other better and how to nurture each other’s new-parent self-esteem.

• If an argument has already occurred try and take some time to reflect on what was or wasn’t said, after you have ‘cooled down’. Consider what each individual may have contributed to the communication breakdown and how this can be prevented in the future.

• Identify what you need from each other to manage the emotional rollercoaster of parenthood. Many find this an enriching experience that can prevent a lot of frustration down the track.

• Remember that looking after your own physical, emotional and mental health is essential, so that you can care for each other and your family. Trying to fit in some exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, limiting alcohol and resting when possible are all small steps that can make a big difference in your own self-care.

• If you are experiencing many of the issues discussed and/or you feel it may be too difficult to address these on your own, seek assistance from a psychologist or relationship counsellor who can help work though some of the main areas causing the tension. As always, when assistance is not sought early, the impact of these challenges can build up over time, placing the whole family under even more stress. In turn, this may go beyond a ‘typical’ period of adjustment, and instead contribute to the onset of significant emotional and relationship difficulties, and an increased risk for family breakdown.

Summary:
Parenthood involves more than just our relationship with our children; it also encompasses how we feel about ourselves as a mother or a father, how we feel about our partner as a parent and how our relationships change with the important people in our lives. Maintaining a connection as partners is not easy in the midst of our busy lives, and as we try and find a way to juggle the demands of parenthood. It is quite common for the partner relationship to get ‘what’s left over’ at the end of the day after most of our time and energy has been invested in our children, our jobs, the everyday running around and whatever else may be going on at the time. It is so easy to neglect our spouse/partner and to also feel neglected ourselves. Maintaining a connection does take some time and effort, just like anything that’s important and worthwhile. As hard as it may be at times it is so important to place our partner relationships higher up on the priority list, rather than treating it as an afterthought. Be considerate and care for each other at this time of transition. Doing so is likely to leave you both feeling more fulfilled and united, and experiencing the broader rewards which are often immeasurable.

References and sources for additional information:
• Austin M-P., Highet N., and the Expert Working Group (2017). Mental Health Care in the Perinatal Period: Australian Clinical Practice Guideline. Melbourne: Centre of Perinatal Excellence.
• beyondblue. (2011). Clinical practice guidelines for depression and related disorders – anxiety, bipolar disorder and puerperal psychosis – in the perinatal period. A guideline for primary care health professionals. Melbourne: beyondblue: The national depression initiative.
• Beyondblue (2012).Managing mental health conditions during pregnancy and early parenthood: A guide for women and their families
• Australian College of Relationship Counsellors: http://www.relationshipcounselling.org.au/common-issues/family-stresses/parenthood-partners/
• Becoming Us: https://ellytaylor.com/becoming-us-buy-the-book/
• Partners to Parents: http://www.partnerstoparents.org/help/resources/
• Relationships Australia: http://www.relationships.org.au/relationship-advice/relationship-advice-sheets/relationship-difficulties-1/normal-differences-and-warning-signs-of-a-relationship-breakdown

Disclaimer:
Please note that the information provided in this article, and any associated references, is general and is not intended to be therapeutic in nature. If you feel that you would benefit from additional information, support and/or require urgent assistance please contact your GP, or one of the following services in your state.
Crisis and Support Services
National Services:
Lifeline
13 11 14 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.lifeline.org.au

Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA)
1300 726 306 (Monday-Friday 9am – 7.30pm (AEST / ADST)
www.panda.org.au

Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline
1800 882 436
https://www.pregnancybirthbaby.org.au
Centre for Perinatal Psychology
1300 852 660

Dedicated to Parent & Infant Wellbeing

MensLine
1300 78 99 78
www.mensline.org.au

Suicide Call Back Service
1300 659 467 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week)
www.suicidecallbackservice.org.au

Additional State Based Services:
Victoria:
Maternal and Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 22 29
Parentline VIC 8am to 12am Monday to Friday, 10am to 10pm weekends 13 22 89

NEW SOUTH WALES:
Karitane Careline 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 227 464
Parentline NSW 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 130 052
ACT:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline ACT 9am – 9om Monday to Friday (except public holidays) (02) 6287 3833

QUEENSLAND:
Child Health Line 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 13 43 25 84
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

SOUTH AUSTRALIA:
Child and Youth Health Service 9am – 4.30pm Monday to Friday 1300 733 606
Parent Helpline SA 24 hours a day, seven days a week 1300 364 100

WESTERN AUSTRALIA:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parent Help Centre WA 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 654 432

NORTHERN TERRITORY:
healthdirect Australia 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1800 022 222
Parentline QLD & NT 8am to 10pm, seven days a week 1300 30 1300

TASMANIA:
Parenting Line TAS 24 hours a day, 7 days a week 1300 808 178

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