Reasons and possible solutions to the difficulties experienced by a couple since the arrival of a baby.

Marta Gray is a licenced Psychologist working at Sinews. She has a flexible approach combining different scientifically proven methods (Acceptance and commitment Therapy, CBT, EMDR) depending on the patient’s needs. Her main field of expertise is working with adults and she is specially interested in complex trauma, anxiety disorders, emotional deregulation and couple’s therapy.

Having a new member in our family usually means a crisis in a relationship and that is when many couples decide to start attending couples therapy for the first time. Many studies show a significant decrease in relationship satisfaction with the arrival of a new member in their family (Otero Rejón and Flores Galaz, 2016).

In a first couple’s therapy session, one of the members told me, quite angry and saddened, «I don’t know what happened. My boyfriend was my best friend, my rock. We have always been there for each other and, although we have had difficulties, we were always able to solve them without much difficulty. Our son has been a very wanted baby and he makes us very happy. But since he was born there has been nothing but reproaches, anger and defensiveness between us and I can’t quite understand what has happened. Out of a sudden we have become enemies». As her therapist I said to her this was completely normal and common; even when the relationship was healthy and stable and the new arrival was a very wanted baby. She was very surprised. How was it possible?

Anger is one of the most common emotions we encounter in couples’ therapy. Anger appears to inform us that we feel as if our rights were being disrespected in a specific situation. When we feel our rights are not being respected, it is very difficult to understand and empathise with the other person’s rights and emotions. There are several reasons why we feel discomfort in our relationship when a baby arrives and also different strategies to work through them.

In this article I will talk about the main 8 challenges a couple faces with the arrival of a baby and some possible solutions to them:

1. Fatigue and extreme tiredness:

I recently saw a meme on a social network that I found very funny. It said «You don’t really know what tiredness really means until you become a parent». Tiredness and fatigue play a very important role in the challenges a couple faces when a baby is born. You are never as tired as when you have a child.

Have you ever tried to come to an agreement, to empathise, to communicate assertively or to have an objective point of view at work with only 3 or 4 hours of sleep a day?

¿Por qué la llegada de nuestro bebé ha supuesto un desafío en nuestra relación de pareja

The same thing applies to your partner. Caring for a baby is a 24/7 job. It requires a lot of effort and becomes a stressful situation, no matter how nice your baby and your parenting skills are. Imagine you are in a beautiful beach. Do you think you would be happy or calm drinking pina colada on only 3 hours of sleep and not being able to do anything else? Not even talking to anyone or taking a walk? Just lying on a deserted beach drinking pina colada over and over again around the clock?

When we are tired, we cannot have an objective point of view and we need help. Now imagine the only adult person around is also feeling the same way. Tiredness and fatigue then become a real challenge and a source of stress.

Possible solutions:

Talk to your partner and take turns to rest. Rest is not just sleeping, but it also includes disconnection. Find time for both of you to rest and disconnect. Getting external help can also be a solution. Covering your basic needs such as eating, sleeping and hygiene is crucial for an emotionally stable mindset. Everything becomes way easier when your basic needs are met.

2. Sharing household chores and baby care. Asymmetrical dynamics:

Another challenge couples may face with the arrival of a baby is when the relationship doesn’t feel balanced or equal and there is an asymmetry in the sharing of tasks, responsibilities, power, free time, individuality, or anything important to the individuals and this is felt as unfairness.

¿Por qué la llegada de nuestro bebé ha supuesto un desafío en nuestra relación de pareja

Task sharing means distributing both the physical and emotional workload and also mental tasks.

In a different couples’ session someone told me the only thing their partner would participate in is doing the laundry while looking at their phone. After analysing the situation we were able to discover they were not just on their phone but also managing the mental workload: anticipating there would be not enough food for the baby and doing the grocery shopping, texting the nursery staff to let them know the baby would go to the doctor next week, finding photo printing shops in the area to have some pictures ready for the baby’s birthday that was soon coming up, or looking at the weather and buying a rain cover for the stroller to go out for a walk on Saturday.

It is the responsibility of both partners to keep up with taking care of the baby and the household chores. I have also encountered people who say things like «but just tell me what needs to be done and I’ll do it» to their partner. This kind of dynamic result in only one person carrying the emotional workload even if the physical workload is fairly distributed.

The same couple said to me: «Sure, we can share the household and baby tasks but in my case I work in the office 8 hours a day, 5 days a week and my partner only goes to her workplace 3 days a week, so I am therefore not as involved in the household tasks and the baby care». Yes… and no. Household work is hard work too, sometimes I have even had patients telling me that they feel they rest more when they go to the office than when they take care of the baby! If, for example, one member takes care of the baby and household chores 8 hours a day while the other person is in the office during that time, that leaves us with 8 hours of household tasks to be shared equally and that would be the fair thing to do. It would also make sense that the person who has been working in the office all week wants to spend more time with the baby during the weekend and for the person who spends more time with the baby during the week to want to spend more time doing something else in the weekend.

Some studies indicate the most satisfied members of a relationship are those who feel that their partners care for, educate and attend their children (Otero Rejón and Flores Galaz, 2016).

Possible solutions:

The truth is some people are better at certain tasks than others and therefore it is important to talk about what each of us is good at, and to write down all the different chores including the physical, emotional and mental ones. Make sure that both you and your partner are covering areas that are important to your sense of self. For example, imagine one member likes to play tennis and the other prefers to spend time with friends, make sure that both partners’ needs are met (when you have time) in a balanced way. With regard to the household, it is a good idea to have a schedule and assign tasks to both of you. Organise them from most urgent to least urgent and from most important to least important. Assign different tasks to specific days. A helpful tip would be to also focus on dividing free time. The relationship satisfaction increases when the spare time is assigned equally to both members just because it feels fairer and more balanced.

3. Communication, decision-making and conflict resolution:

Good communication is a great indicator of a healthy relationship and it increases the relationships´ satisfaction. A good communication implies using a flexible, optimistic and accurate style when communicating, doing our best to respect our rights as well as the other persons’ and with the aim of reaching an agreement. (Pérez Aranda & Estrada Carmona, 2006).

When we are trying to reduce our discomfort and to find middle grounds or agreements, some of the challenges we face include becoming defensive or avoiding conflicts. You can read more about it here.

¿Por qué la llegada de nuestro bebé ha supuesto un desafío en nuestra relación de pareja

Before the arrival of the baby each member used to dedicate more time to rest, to their friends and hobbies, to their individuality, and to their partner. There was also enough time available to find middle grounds and to plan a good communication with the other person. The challenge starts when the available time is limited and that leads us to cover the urgent and practical matters first. Limited time also means not regulating our emotions in a healthy way which leads to not using an ideal communication style when talking to our partner.

Possible solutions:

To use an assertive communication style (respecting both our needs and the other person´s), to empathise and to listen actively. Find a middle ground, be flexible. Be aware of your needs and communicate them to your partner, and then compromise on what the other person needs and is not so important to you. A very helpful strategy is to take time out from discussions when emotions become very intense. Less intense emotions lead to a better communication. You can read more about time-outs here.

4. Affection, closeness and intimacy:

¿Por qué la llegada de nuestro bebé ha supuesto un desafío en nuestra relación de pareja

One of the challenges couples may face with the arrival of a baby is the disconnection with their partner in terms of intimacy, sexuality, activities, finances and, in general, time spent with their partner. Healthy sexual relationships, physical health, emotional support received from your partner and intimacy in particular are important predictors of psychological well-being in a relationship (Pérez Aranda and Estrada Carmona, 2006).

Possible solutions:

We can focus on demonstrating small daily gestures of affection (even when time is limited), and on doing activities inside the house with our partner (such as playing a board game together, doing crossword puzzles, preparing a romantic dinner when the baby is asleep). These tips can help us reconnect with our partner.

5. Different emotional languages or different love languages:

¿Por qué la llegada de nuestro bebé ha supuesto un desafío en nuestra relación de pareja

Our learning history, family background and individual experiences shape and influence the way we express love to others. (I suggest you to read the following book: “Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love”. You can find a summary here.

Not understanding your partner’s love language or the way your partner relates to the baby is another challenge couples experience with the arrival of a baby. There are also times when one person has more emotional experience than the other, and, for example, is faster at understanding the baby’s needs, or sometimes one person tries to «educate» their partner, or feels overwhelmed when the other person finds it harder to grasp the baby’s emotions and even their partners, etc. Having different emotional languages is not necessarily a challenge on itself, but it may become one when each partner uses different styles when covering the baby’s needs and when each of them believes their strategies are crucial for their survival.

Our family background and our own ways of viewing life, our upbringing and our personal learning experience may influence our way to nourish and nurture our child and there may be disagreements about this within a couple. For example, there may be one partner who thinks it is best to focus on covering the basic needs and saving money, while the other person believes in always finding the best alternative for their child and therefore spending more.

Possible solutions:

To be able to communicate with empathy and to understand that different people have diverse ways of loving, educating, and seeing the world. I suggest people to find and read scientific information in regards to the education of their child, and to find middle grounds and compromises with your partner as long as the basic steps for a non-violent and positive discipline education are met.

6. Families of origin influencing the couple:

It is a good thing to ask for advice from people who have raised us and helped us become the people we are today. The challenge begins when families of origin give unsolicited advice, or meddle in matters that are solely the couple’s business, or cross the boundaries that the new family has set. A different challenge people experience is when they feel their partner does not set appropriate boundaries with another family member.

In my practice I have observed the above-mentioned situation can create feelings of loneliness, lack of affection and empathy, helplessness and anger, and a feeling that their partners do not prioritise their new family as much as their birth family and therefore feeling not important enough, which can lead to disagreements. For example, another patient explained to me: «My partner and I agreed that no one would visit us after 7 p.m. so that our baby could be calm and ready for bedtime, but my partner’s parents visit us after 7 on a weekly basis. My partner does not communicate our needs to my in-laws and the baby gets nervous”. In this case, she is finding it hard to set boundaries to her birth family and it creates tension within herself and also with her partner and baby.

Possible solutions:

Talk about what respect means to each of you. Discuss the different parenting styles, and create rules that work for you both in your new family. Learn to set assertive boundaries to the families of origin in the event that these agreements are not being respected. An example of assertive boundaries for this couple’s family of origin would be: «I really appreciate you coming to see the baby and we are very grateful you want to be part of their life, but when you visit us at this time of the day, the baby usually gets nervous. I understand that you can’t visit us earlier in the day, what do you think about seeing each other this other day in the morning instead?” Respectful limits and boundaries are a good strategy we can use and will not make the people who love us feel upset.

7. Our self-concept and individuality. Postponement of individual plans. Grief:

When an individual loses something important to them (even if it is temporary), they experience grief, sadness and loss. With the arrival of a baby, one of the challenges is the loss of individuality, hobbies, the idea of what we thought we were, spare time, social connection, exercise, rest, body image, individuality, etc. The baby is a great source of happiness, and at the same time this happiness can coexist with a sense of loss and grief.

Possible solutions:

It is important to understand that your partner is also going through a grieving process, and to try to find time to meet those needs that are not being met and to also give that opportunity to your partner.

8. Trying to control what is not under our control, perfectionism, fears, and individual problems that affect the couple:

Other things such as individual fears and issues can become a challenge in the couple’s relationship with the arrival of a baby. Some of them include to try to control what is not under our control: for example, to need things done in a specific way even when we are not around, or to want our partner to be a certain way or to adopt a particular attitude, etc. Other times it can be perfectionism, to try to do everything perfectly and expecting the same from our partner. Similarly, people sometimes anticipate the future (thinking that something horrible will happen if certain requirements are not met) or have individual fears and these can influence the relationship dynamic. Please note we can only apply these tips to balanced and equal relationships.

Possible solutions:

Ideally, we should take responsibility for our own emotions and discomfort and only focus on the specific things we can do ourselves to improve the couple dynamic, rather than on what the other person can do, and reduce our demands as much as possible.

Conclusions

As we have seen before, the arrival of a baby can lead to challenges in some couples, even when the relationship was healthy and fulfilling beforehand. Extreme fatigue and tiredness, difficulties in communication, asymmetrical dynamics, the influence of families of origin, difficulties when it comes to balancing work and private life., losses to our individuality and personal goals, time limitations that affects the intimacy, conflicts or challenges when finding middle grounds and compromises, that lead to a reduction in affection. In addition, different ideas about education, respect, and our own individual variables can become a great challenge with the arrival of a new member to the family.

The keys to increase satisfaction in a relationship would then be respect, understanding, good communication, an increase in affection and intimacy, good skills for conflict resolution, being flexible, the capacity to set boundaries, empathy, and finding time to meet both our own and our partner’s needs (Armenta Hurtarte and Díaz-Loving, 2008).

If after putting these tips into practice you continue to find your relationship challenging you can contact a specialised psychologist. At Sinews we are happy to help you get through this period in the best way possible, giving you practical tools to make your relationship more satisfying.

Your partner is the person you have chosen to spend the rest of your life with, and the person you spend the most time with. It is therefore a priority to give your relationship space and time to nurture and cultivate it.

Marta Gray Nuñez
Division of Psychology, Psychotherapy and Coaching
Marta Gray Nuñez
Clinical Psychologist
Adults and couples
Languages: English and Spanish
See Resumé