All parents want their baby to thrive and be healthy. But so much time, energy and love is channeled into perfecting a child’s nutrition, sleep routine and play activities, that the parents’ relationship almost inevitably takes a back seat. And this can have major consequences.
Psychology professor emeritus John Gottman’s groundbreaking research into marriage and relationships began 40 years ago, and has involved long-term studies of those who are successful in their relationships - the ‘Masters’ - and those who are less successful - the ‘Disasters’ – in order to identify what couples need to do to stay happily married. His research found that (unsurprisingly) after baby’s birth most couples are no longer able to treat their relationship as a priority.
Not putting time and energy aside for the relationship may seem like the only option, as the baby has to come first. Unfortunately, instead of solving a problem, the long-term consequences are significant: 2/3 of couples experience a significant drop in marital satisfaction during the first three years after baby is born. As marital satisfaction drops, conflict and hostility in the relationship increase. This disrupts both co-parenting and overall family life, which in turn has a negative impact on baby’s social and emotional development. The Gottman research results are clear: baby does not benefit from parents sacrificing their marital happiness for their child.
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So what are busy, stressed-out new parents to do? The Gottman Institute (set up by John Gottman and his wife in 1996) has created a Bringing Baby Home workshop for new parents, designed to help new parents transition into parenthood without experiencing a drop in marital satisfaction. Follow-up studies on couples who had taken the workshop showed that they had less relationship meltdown, higher relationship satisfaction, less interpersonal hostility and the incidence of postpartum depression is significantly reduced. And, the babies benefitted as well both socially and emotionally. Hence, by preventing problems from developing in the relationship, the whole family benefitted.
"Baby doesn't benefit from parents sacrificing their marital happiness for their child"
The two main interventions that parents are taught in this programme are how to strengthen their friendship and how to manage conflict, both of which help to promote and safeguard love and affection between a couple. Based on the Gottman research, here are five ways that you can strengthen your marriage (and thereby become better parents) when baby comes along:
1. Maintain and increase friendship
Strong and happy relationships are based on friendship. This means that the spouses know each other and like each other. A strong friendship nourishes affection and romance and a connection between the spouses. The friendship base is the foundation of the relationship. What does this mean in practice? In practice this means that as a couple you need to put time aside to connect with each other. You may need schedule it in your diaries to make sure it happens. During this time find out what is happening in your partner’s life right now. Listen carefully and do not interrupt. Focus on understanding and refrain from giving advice. Take turns as speaker and listener. There is no shortcut to knowing the other person. It requires time and commitment. Some couples may be able to connect daily, others may need to set some time aside weekly.
2. Ask open-ended questions
Another good way that can help you and your spouse stay connected is to ask open-ended questions. When life gets busy and stressful discussion between the two of you may start focusing entirely on practicalities. As important as it is to know if the AC has been serviced and how much it cost, it does not help you to know about your partner’s fears and hopes. You can ask almost anything. The questions do not have to serious. What is your spouse's favourite superhero and why? Which relative is the closest to your spouse and why? What is your spouse’s proudest moment this year? How about what adventures your spouse would like to have before they die?
3. Learn to manage (not solve) conflict
Conflict in relationships is inevitable as both spouses have their own needs and wants. While disagreements cannot be removed from a marriage, they should not be allowed to destroy the relationship. Hence, John Gottman talks about conflict management, not solving conflict. Conflict and hostility can easily increase after the baby is born as there are new demands to juggle in addition to the existing ones. In order to learn to manage conflict, couples need to learn to talk about their differences and disagreements while accepting that very seldom there is a final compromise or solution. However, temporary compromises and an ongoing dialogue have been found to help couples avoid the negative impact of marital conflict.
4. Stop wanting to be right
If you are able to stop seeing conflict as a situation where you are totally right and your spouse is horribly wrong you are doing well. If you are able to stop seeing conflict situations as an opportunity to convince your spouse that their position is wrong and see how right you are, you are doing even better. Managing conflict is about accepting that both of you have a valid point that deserves to be heard. When the disagreement becomes about you wanting to hear what your spouse has to say and be influenced by their perspective - and vice versa - you have moved from hostility, defensiveness and gridlock to managing conflict. For some disagreements it is relatively easy to find a good enough solution. Other disagreements may require ongoing discussions and temporary compromises. John Gottman found that only 31% of the disagreements between spouses has a solution. This applies to all couples, both the Masters of relationship and the Disasters of relationship. Thus, in all successful relationships the key to conflict is an ability to talk about the 69% of disagreements that do not have a solution in a gentle and respectful way.
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5. Understand that it’s normal for it to be hard
In the ideal world all new parents would have access not only to antenatal classes focusing on the birth and caring for a new baby but also preparing them for their new roles as parents. This would not only reduce incidents of marital distress and postpartum depression but also benefit the baby whose birth kickstarted this transition into parenthood. Research shows us that this transition is much harder than previously anticipated for the majority of parents. Hence, if you find that becoming a parent has taken a toll on your marriage, you are far from being alone. The good news is that by strengthening your friendship and practicing being gentle with your spouse in conflict situations your relationship can become even better than what it was before the baby was born.
Matleena Vanhanen is a licensed Counselling Psychologist working in Dubai. She offers psychological assessments as well as short and long-term counselling and psychotherapy to individuals and couples and runs Bringing Baby Home workshops for new parents. See http://uaepsychologist.com/