By Natalie Stechyson
Hey, remember your partner?
No, not the haggard roommate who frantically helps you keep babies alive and fed and driven places, smells of coffee and diaper cream, and falls asleep beside you on the couch watching “Grace and Frankie” each night. Your partner — the person hiding beneath the too-sheer mom leggings or the frayed dad T-shirts.
The person you chose, and who chose you, for reasons you may not be able to remember in the parental haze of sleep deprivation, responsibilities, and fighting over whose turn it is to tell the daycare provider that you all have pink eye again.
Relationship challenges after kids are common
If you’ve forgotten who this partner is, or maybe you feel disconnected, unattracted, or even resentful toward them, you’re not alone.
It’s quite common for new parents to face challenges in their relationships with their partners, psychologist and relationship expert Nicole McCance told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview. In fact, 67 per cent of couples state that their marital satisfaction goes down until their children are about four years old, McCance said.
“It’s chaos almost all the time. You’re often not sleeping, your life is not really about your needs — especially when you’re at home being a parent — and as a result, you’re irritable. That combination is a perfect storm for arguments,” McCance said.
“We tend to take out our bad mood on our partner because by proximity, they’re the closest.”
What can even happen is that our brains start associating our partners with this stressful time in our lives, McCance said, and then we start blaming them for it, thinking that they’re the problem.
And issues or character flaws that you may not have noticed or cared much about when it was just the two of you — such as selfishness or disorganization — suddenly become a lot more important when you’re sharing the project of raising a child, McCance said.
“When you need each other the most, that’s when it all comes to a head,” McCance said.
“Because you’re giving a lot more to a baby, you need them to step up, and when it doesn’t happen … there’s a lot of resentment around this time.”
There are ways to keep the love alive
First of all, manage your expectations during the chaos that is raising young children, McCance said. And remember that a lot of other couples are going through the same thing.
“Babies don’t often make couples happier. It’s important for people to know that, because some people think that it will be the opposite,” McCance said.
It’s also important to remember that your partner can’t read your mind, so communication is key, McCance said. Passive aggressiveness will get you nowhere. Be clear about asking for what you need, and try to avoid blaming, which will make your partner go on the defensive, she added.
“And then you’re in this awful dance. If you go into how you feel — ‘I’m hurt,’ or disappointed, or ‘I’m anxious right now and need your help’ — they will listen to that, and not just feel attacked,” McCance said.
Focus on your individual strengths rather than expecting your partner to be like you, McCance said. If you’re better at organization, and your partner is more of a do-er, give them specific projects such as picking up groceries or handling bath time, McCance said.
And make sure to take care of yourself now so you won’t resent your partner later, McCance said.
Go on dates (with your partner) and schedule sex (also with your partner)
“Date nights will save your marriage,” McCance said.
Not only does a night out without your child give you something to look forward to, but it gives you the chance to let loose and have fun, McCance said. Dinners (where you can actually talk to your partner in a romantic setting) are ideal, rather than movies, which don’t really count since you’re not talking.
And it might seem mundane, but book times to have sex, McCance said.
“A lot of time can go by without you realizing it.”
Kids pick up on marital tension
It’s important to nurture your relationship at the same time that you’re raising children, McCance said, noting that the divorce rate is 50 per cent. (Older stats say the rate is more like 40 per cent for first marriages.)
And there’s a correlation between the strength of your romantic relationship and how strong you are as parents, she said.
“Kids can pick up on the tension, even if they’re still non-verbal. So it’s actually more important than most people think,” McCance said.
Remember, too, that your kids do grow up and it does get easier, she said. Marital satisfaction can go back up.
“But like anything, it takes an investment.”