By Nancy Heath, Ph.D., LMFT
Director, Human Development and Family Studies Programs at American Public University
Our baby is ruining our marriage
When Steve and Marilyn became parents six months ago, baby Lucy seemed like the best thing that had ever happened to them. They felt like a real family for the first time, and they enjoyed sending daily videos to their friends and family. Lately, though, the couple has started to bicker, and last week Steve stormed out of the house, complaining the baby was ruining their sex life and their marriage.
Let’s talk this out.
It’s true, babies can take a toll on the parents’ relationship. According to the National Institutes for Health marital satisfaction declines over time for all couples. But couples with children experience a sharper and more predictable decline in relationship satisfaction than their childless counterparts. Within three years of having a baby, two thirds of couples report a significant decline in relationship satisfaction. Mothers’ drop in satisfaction with the marriage begins almost as soon as the baby is born; men take a couple of months longer to feel the pain.
Why does the stork bring such turmoil along with the bundle of joy?
The primary issue seems to be the difficulty couples have in divvying up the work related to raising a child. Babies are a lot more work than most nonparents realize, and few couples are prepared for the demands. New parents also bring with them tacit assumptions about the “right” way to share tasks. Steve, baby Lucy’s new father, grew up in a household with three younger sisters, and a mother who was a pediatric nurse. He’d spent a lot of time around babies, and he assumed women just naturally knew how to care for them. Marilyn is the only child of older parents. Before Lucy was born, she’d never even held an infant. Steve is bewildered at Marilyn’s low self-confidence about her mothering skills, and he’s tired of propping her up emotionally. Marilyn believes Steve knows quite a bit about babies, and is resentful that he doesn’t pitch in more.
With these tensions riding high, Steve wants nothing more than a date with his wife, a good night’s sleep, and some of the playful morning sex they used to enjoy. Marilyn prefers to spend time with Lucy, and pushes away Steve’s romantic and sexual advances. Marilyn feels she’s now involved in a more compelling “romance” with her baby daughter, who she finds both demanding and fascinating. She feels her body belongs to Lucy now, and she is not interested in Steve’s pursuit. Both parents may be surprised by the intensity and exclusivity of the mother-infant bond. We can appreciate that this bond is useful for the perpetuation of the species—but it can result in others feeling neglected, or relegated to a distant second place.
Can this couple salvage their relationship? Here are few things that might help:
- Have realistic expectations. Marriages suffer after the birth of a baby. It may be easier to handle this decline if you know it’s normal. On the positive side, as people age, they tend to find satisfaction in other spheres, such as work or pursuing personal interests. Overall, individual happiness rebounds a bit in the 60s, but falls again after 75.
- Talk over how the household and baby chores are going to be divided. There’s no right way to divide domestic work, but it’s important that both parents feel involved and supported. Some experts suggest beginning these talks before the baby arrives.
- Take care of yourself! It’s critical that parents take care of themselves during the infancy period, but it’s very hard to do. Activities that used be spontaneous (e.g. eating out, sleeping, watching TV, having sex, sharing a laugh, spending time with friends) may need to be scheduled.
- Be able to identify and deal with issues like postpartum depression. Upheaval in routines and sleep deprivation are inevitable consequences of having a baby, but be on the lookout for the more serious problems, like postpartum depression. This clinical condition strikes about 20% of all new parents, and can affect both women and men. Postpartum depression is characterized by unrelieved sadness, irritability, anxiety, and crying episodes. It is a serious problem with potentially disastrous consequences for the parent and child; see professional treatment if you notice these symptoms.
Having a child marks the beginning of a new phase of family relations. Over time, successful families adjust to the new patterns, finding satisfaction in new roles and responsibilities. But it’s a tough transition, and some couples may benefit from the help of professional counselors or therapists, a church leader, or a wise friend. Don’t hesitate to seek the help you need. You are not alone—almost everyone experiences some upset and strain over the arrival of a new child. With flexibility and perspective, your family will learn to embrace the new challenges and pleasures.
About the Author
Dr. Nancy Heath earned her PhD from Purdue University in Child Development and Family Studies. Her professional experience includes work in the mental health and healthcare arenas, as well as 10 years of online teaching experience.
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