Would you and your spouse go on holiday without your baby? When wealthy celebs swan off to tropical islands sans brood, people love to pour scorn. But many of us know full well how difficult it can be to keep the spark alive once children are thrown into the mix.
According to our online survey, 60 per cent of Dubai mothers say it’s hard to spend quality time with their partner, while a further 15 per cent say that they rarely get the chance to connect with their husband anymore and that the only thing they have in common with their spouse now is the children.
The truth is, the majority of couples find communication and intimacy gets relegated to the back-burner once they become parents. 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."
Three’s a crowd
Dubai-based parent 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.”
Some men are fine with this, says Carmen. 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, without family around to help, new parenthood can become a pressure cooker.
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“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 can make husbands (and wives) more likely to stray when things get tough, says psychotherapist Aamnah Husein: “Cheating happens everywhere. But in the UAE, many people are far from close social networks, which can make them feel anonymous and like they can get away with it. They may feel more removed from the implications and repercussions of cheating. Also, people travel a lot for work, which poses new challenges to relationships – especially if underlying problems exist and are not being addressed.”
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.”
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 and that it usually begins with libidos that are no longer in synchronicity. 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. What they need is support and affection rather than sexual advances, which simply begin to feel like yet another task they have to manage.
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, “Women told us that romance evaporated after the kids were born, and the 10pm shoulder tap just doesn’t work. 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.”
However, Carmen 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.”
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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 Diana.
You can pre-empt certain situations by arranging for family members to come and stay to help soon after the birth (provided you get along with them); "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 Diana.
Although many mothers feel like they should be doing everything themselves, you need to accept help, adds Diana. "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 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 getaway. 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.”
Maybe it's time to book that baby-free vacation after all.
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‘We make an effort'
We ask three couples with the young children how they baby-proof their marriages and the time for each other
Kirsten Fairfield is a mum of three and co-owner of the online store www.babysouk.com
“When work is busy, we can go through some weeks feeling as though we are ships that pass in the night. We would love to do more together but fatigue is often the factor that decides whether we’ll go out or not. So we do a movie and takeaway every Thursday night without fail – strictly no computers allowed!”
Kate Edwards is a part-time marketing manager and has two daughters aged four and one.
“We play board games, we cook together, we walk on the beach, or play tennis after school drop-off. We also go camping, put the kids to bed at sunset and sit by the fire. It’s one of our favourite connection times. Our weekends are precious so we sometimes decline brunches and birthday parties for family time.”
Olivia Johnson has a two-year-old daughter.
“Every couple of weeks we go on a ‘date night’ and at the weekends we will often go for a run together as a family. I find that if we don’t make time for each other we just coexist and get ratty with each other. It’s easy to take your partner for granted. We are happier and more connected if we have made some time for each other like the good old days!”
This article originally appeared in Aquarius magazine