When We Becomes Three
Maintaining Friendship and Intimacy After the Birth of a Baby
The information presented in this article has been culled from my years of experience working with expectant and new parents in my psychotherapy practice and from the research and training presented in the “Bringing Baby Home” certification workshop. The program grew out of the results of the more than 13 years of research conducted by Drs. John and Julie Gottman and The Relationship Research Institute. The findings generated from these studies provided the basis for a research-based protocol for implementing effective couple’s therapy for new parents.
Becoming a parent is one of the most significant developmental milestones in adulthood. New parents find that notions of who they are as individuals, as sons and daughters to their own parents, and as partners in their relationship are areas that are impacted in important ways with the arrival of their new baby. Childbirth preparation classes may briefly touch on the topic of relationships but remain primarily focused on strategies for managing the actual birthing process and how to traverse the first few weeks of life with the new baby.
Research tells us that the first year after childbirth is a profoundly important time in the life of the couple. Partners often speak about this time (if things are going well) as magical, when they each find themselves falling deeply in love with their new baby. It is also a time of role adjustments, sleepless nights, hormonal shifts and surfaced expectations. No amount of book reading or even discussions with other parents can truly prepare a couple for the demands of caring for a new infant. Couples whom up until this time had been quite competent individuals and well functioning partners often find themselves questioning their instincts and wondering about their capabilities. Anxieties about doing a good job coupled with the 24/7 nature of new parenting can lead to distance and discontent in the partner relationship. New dads often report feeling on the outside of the incredible dyadic bond of mother and child and moms report feeling preoccupied (and exhausted) with their new role as mother. Finding one another in the midst of all these demands can be a challenge.
The most commonly reported areas of concern for new parents include; changes in relationship roles, an increase in quantity and quality of conflict, a decrease in non-baby related conversation, overwhelming fatigue, and with all of the above, including fluctuating hormones, an unsatisfying sexual connection.
The first choice approach to dealing with difficulties is always prevention. Couples have a much better chance of navigating the uncharted waters of new parenthood if they are armed with not only facts about infant needs and development but also with some understanding about what to expect from one another. Pre birth discussions should include at least tentative agreements about; child care responsibilities, built in provisions for back up, an understanding about what financial impact the birth of the baby will have, an agreement about a parenting approach, and a recognition that breast feeding tends to suppress sexual desire for women.
Research from the Gottman group highlights two important findings. Maintaining a strong friendship and handling conflict effectively and respectfully are the essential ingredients of a successful partnership. Remember and speak about what brought you together as a couple, recognize that conflict will occur and work on skills that allow you to express your needs while still remaining open to consider the needs of your partner. Be willing to compromise, be willing to laugh, remember that touch is important even if it doesn’t always to lead to sex. Create and appreciate the memories and history that you are making together, develop rituals that honor your commitment and connection.
The journey through parenthood requires couples to continuously reorient and to locate one another. To remain good partners it requires flexibility, perspective, patience, loyalty, a sense of humor and a bond of affection, all the components essential for a life-long friendship.