How Your Relationship Can Survive Baby’s First Year
Written by Katie Hintz-Zambrano
Photo Courtesy of Brooke Schwab Photography
No matter how great you had it pre-baby, becoming parents can absolutely rock your relationship. What to do when a seemingly joyous time turns agonizing for the partners involved? We’ve tapped Gary Chapman, relationship expert extraordinaire and the author of world-renowned tome The 5 Love Languages (don’t judge the book by its cover), to offer some practical but powerful advice.
What are the biggest issues that arise with the arrival of a child?
“The biggest issue is that we change our focus from the relationship to the child. We’re so excited about this child and we’re focusing on its care, that we forget the relationship and start to take each other for granted.”
How do you suggest couples focus on each other when the child’s care is also so important?
“It has to be intentional. If you don’t think about it, you’re going to do what comes natural, which is focus on the child and ignore the relationship. You have to intentionally commit to each other that, although you want to be good parents, you also want to keep your relationship alive. One of the big issues is going to be scheduling your time. Letting the baby set the schedule is not going to work. You want to get the baby on a feeding and sleeping schedule as much as possible from the very beginning. This will allow the parents to have time together and to be alone. You need to talk about this and agree that you need alone time and together time, while both raising this child. These are times that need to intentionally be built into your schedule.”
“Also, make sure you don’t forget each other’s love language [Ed Note: For the unacquainted, the “5 Love Languages” are physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, acts of service, and receiving gifts]. We want to keep that emotional connection going and that deep sense that we genuinely love each other. We often get so focused on the child that we forget each other’s love language. So, you need to intentionally speak that language during the first year. And even if the mother’s love language is not acts of service, she’s going to really appreciate her partner’s help with the baby. A father needs to see himself as a partner in raising the child, not simply that his job is to bring home the money. When he is home, he needs to be engaged, not just in helping around the house, but holding the child, changing the diapers, and the rest of it. I think if we can talk about the joy of fatherhood, instead of the responsibility of fatherhood, it can help.”
Is there anything couples can do to prepare themselves before they have children for the stress that’s about to come?
“Before the baby ever comes, perhaps in the middle part of the pregnancy, assess the quality of your relationship. Where are you? I wrote a book about the four seasons of marriage, in which I used the seasons to describe the quality of a marriage. In a winter relationship, it’s cold and it’s hard and bitter and you’re hunkered down and not talking to each other. Spring is the opposite of that. We’re excited about each other, we’re doing things together. In Summer we have solved some of our conflicts and we’ve accepted those things that aren’t going to be changed, we’re watering the flowers and doing good things together. Meanwhile, Fall looks good on the outside, but the reality is, things aren’t going really well. The leaves are going to fall off in six weeks. I use that as an assessment to figure out where you are in a relationship. Because if you’re going into parenting and the relationship is rocky already, the baby is not going to help it or enhance it just by arriving. You need to build your relationship. First you need to look at your strengths, look at where are you are still struggling as a couple, and what you can do to enhance the relationship. You’ll often read books on raising babies while you’re pregnant, but you really need to focus on the partnership, too.”
Conflicts, frustration, and annoyance are bound to arise when negotiating the care of a new child. What advice do you have for airing grievances? (Do you tackle them as they arise, or set aside some time to discuss?)
“I definitely think it’s better to have a listening time once a week in which you set aside 30 minutes to an hour. In that time, you want to hear what the other person is struggling with. I think it’s better to do it that way. If you verbalize your frustration in the moment, it’s almost always negative, it’s almost always cutting, and it almost always stimulates negative feelings in the other person. Recognize that, ‘You know what, we’re going to be irritated along the way here, and you’re going to feel like I’m not doing my job and I’m going to feel like you’re not doing your job. So, why don’t we set apart some time once a week to listen to each other? What are your struggles? What do you wish would happen? And what can I do that would make things better for you?’ If you take that attitude, it’ll be a positive exchange and you’ll learn from each other and come up with solutions.”
If your relationship seems completely on the rocks and in the “Winter,” so to speak, what is your advice on starting the healing process when things seem broken?
“The first step is to identify your own failures in the relationship and to apologize for them. When a relationship is on the rocks, most people feel that the other person is the main problem. And even if you feel that way and even if it’s true, the better place to start is by identifying your own failures and communicating those to your partner. If we deal with our own failures, we open the pathway and make it much easier for our partner to begin to acknowledge their failures. If we just harp on their failures and tell them what they should be doing, and always express discontent about what they’re doing, we stimulate an argument. But if we deal with our own failures and begin to apologize, the relationship is already a little warmer because you’re tearing down the wall on your side, and you make it easier for them to tear down the wall on their side. When you’re in a Winter relationship, it’s not going to get better until someone starts apologizing for past failures, and then on the positive side, start to focus on speaking the other person’s love language. It’s about realizing that no one is perfect and we do hurt the one we love the most from time to time. And it’s not always intentional, but we have to deal with those things. You don’t have to be perfect to have a good relationship or be good parents, but you do have to deal with your failures. Otherwise, they sit as emotional barriers between the two of us.”
Any advice on tackling the common issues?
Sleep deprivation: “It’s important to recognize that each of us needs a certain amount of sleep everyday, or we don’t operate at the optimum level. So, work that out, depending on your schedules. For example, if the dad has to be to work at 6 a.m. and if the mom is staying at home, then perhaps she’s dealing more with the baby at night, because she might be able to sleep for an hour during the day, whereas he doesn’t get that chance. It’s a matter of looking at our schedules and being sensitive to that and meeting both partner’s needs. Because, either one of them, if they aren’t getting the right amount of sleep, they’re going to be irritable.”
Negotiating alone time for each parent: “All of us needs time alone. Whether it’s taking a walk or playing a sport. That means that one of us needs to be responsible for the child while the other can have that alone time. It needs to be discussed before and after the child arrives. It helps if you see yourselves as a tag team.”
Feelings of jealousy toward the child or other parent: “I think this happens when we ignore the relationship and one parent focuses on the child. Typically, it’s the father who gets jealous, thinking the child has taken his wife away from him. You need to recognize that this feeling is normal if the partners ignore the relationship. Again, we need to make the relationship a top priority, alongside raising the child. If we don’t, we’ll likely engender feelings of jealousy.”
Physical attractiveness, intimacy, and sex: “Our culture has exalted beauty and what the female form should look like. And sometimes women can get down on themselves after a birth because they don’t automatically go back to the size they were beforehand. But that’s just part of having a child. This is the process and this is what happens. It doesn’t mean she should ignore her physical body, but the reality is that our bodies change and this is one point at which a female body changes. The quality or nature of the sexual relationship before the baby came is going to impact what it is after the baby comes. If it wasn’t healthy beforehand, it’s going to be less healthy afterwards. If it was fairly healthy beforehand, then in due time, they can be back to having that same type of physical intimacy. It’s a matter of recognizing that it’s an important part of the relationship and something you want to keep.”
Different parenting habits: “It’s ideal, before the baby is born, to read a book together on what types of things to expect during the baby’s first year and try to find a meeting place on these issues beforehand. Then, at least you’re going in with exposure of what to expect and how you might handle these situations, like sleep training. The more things you can settle beforehand, the less conflicts you’ll have when you’re actually parenting.”
Extended family visits: “Brace yourselves for these visits. They’re going to happen. Your family members are typically going to stay with you if your home is big enough. Just realize it’s a unique time and it’s not going to last forever. So, just bare with it and let your family enjoy the moment, too. But if the in-laws live close by and often stop by unannounced, it can become a longterm problem. That’s not healthy, because you have your schedule. You need to talk to your own parents and say, ‘It would be helpful to us if you could call us and ask if it would be convenient to come by, then we can get ready for it, and it’ll be a positive thing for all of us.’ They might be miffed at first, but they will understand it with some reflection.”
Division of labor: “I think it’s ideal to talk about this during the pregnancy, with the realization that things aren’t going to be the same when the baby comes. When the baby comes, there’s a whole new set of responsibilities. It’s important to see each other as partners on the same team. The team members don’t necessarily do the same thing and you should play to your strengths when taking on roles. You’re both going to be doing different things but for the common good of the relationship and child. If you see each other as partners, it’s less likely to be contentious. On the other hand, typically if the father just assumes that the mother is going to take all the responsibility for the child, in addition to what she’s was already doing, and he’s just going to do what he’s always done, and his role hasn’t changed, he’s setting himself up for conflict. She’s going to be overwhelmed and frustrated.”
What are some simple and practical ways couples can stay connected during this trying time?
“I think the main thing is making sure you’re speaking your partner’s primary love language on a regular basis. You can sprinkle in the other four love languages for extra credit. But don’t ignore their primary love language. Because when you do, they’re going to begin to feel unloved, and when you feel unloved, the world begins to look dark. But if you’re speaking each other’s language, you’re both going to feel loved through this process.”
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