Differences become more visible. How a couple’s relationship changes after having a baby
Having a baby is probably one of the most powerful experiences in a couple’s life, shaking up routines and testing relationships. However, there are couples who believe that having a baby will strengthen and repair their relationship. How couples’ relationships change as families grow and other issues for new parents.
It is painful to admit, but the birth of a child sometimes becomes the reason for a couple’s divorce. Why does this happen?
I think there are as many reasons for divorce as there are couples. I also have the feeling that having a child does not in itself become a reason for divorce, but rather only exposes and exacerbates existing relationship problems. Just as a dentist, after a check-up, names the teeth to be repaired, there are stages in a relationship when, in the face of more serious challenges, “gaps” are visible. Because we rarely expect our teeth to never need maintenance and never have holes, we choose to fix them or take better care of them. However, we often have different perceptions of relationships. Modern culture, social media and an industry that caters to people who yearn for everlasting and unconditional love, suggest that relationships should happen on their own, can be perfect and make us happy.
The only rule about relationships after childbirth is that there are no rules.
It is not surprising that after the birth of a child, couples often go through more or less of a crisis, accompanied by intense anxiety, tension, insecurity, confusion, despair, when the couple’s usual ways of functioning or the available resources no longer work. That is to say, a relationship that has been successful on its own suddenly stops “happening on its own” and begins to require a determined effort, a certain reorientation. Such changes, especially when they are unexpected and in no way compatible with extremely high expectations, can be very frightening and make people want to run away. But crisis also means opportunity. Some languages show this very well. For example, in Greek it means “turning point”, in Hebrew it means the place where new life is born, in Chinese it means threat and opportunity at the same time.
A relationship crisis is inevitably a change – a break from the routine of life, and this break is neither pleasant nor easy. But it also has infinite potential for transformation, growth and maturity. Choosing to use it is courageous, yes, the work is not easy, but the rewards are worth the attention. I think that deep in the hearts of many people there is a desire to grow old together, but it is not always thought that the road to this is paved with conscious choices, sometimes quite difficult ones.
After having a baby, it seems like there is no time for dating, at least for the first few months. We also don’t give each other much quality attention. Not surprisingly, the couple’s intimate life also suffers. What’s more, women often don’t even want or need intimacy when they are raising a baby. They may therefore experience guilt, feelings of inadequacy, anxiety about the relationship or even fear of abandonment. How justified are these fears? What are the dangers of giving up intimacy?
I think that this question reveals a very important but often forgotten topic. I think the secrecy of the question is due to the experiences of guilt and shame that I have already mentioned on this subject. It is frightening to admit this to oneself, let alone to express one’s fears out loud. We are faced with a certain paradox where a subject so rarely mentioned becomes, perhaps, the main criterion for evaluating personal relationships. Often people tend to unconsciously assume that whether we make love, how many times we make love, is a certain indicator of relationship satisfaction. It is therefore not surprising that a lack of intimacy is frightening, worrying and associated with relationship problems for which women bear most of the responsibility. However, there are some things that make us feel more at ease.
Free from the rules of who gets to cook, who gets to look after the baby, who gets to have a career, we have created a world of unlimited choices, but there is a price to pay for this freedom: everything has to be mutually agreed. It’s not that simple – we’re not used to it and we don’t know how to do it yet.
Often, guilt is only a secondary feeling, designed to control the situation so that something bad doesn’t happen. Underneath it often lurks various fears. It is worth asking yourself: what am I afraid of? Maybe I am afraid that there will no longer be passion in the relationship? Maybe I am afraid that the other person will leave me? Or – will it always be like this now? Is love over? When we name our fears, share them with our partner, our fears seem to fade away – they lose most of their energy and are no longer in control.
After childbirth, a woman’s body also does incredible work. In short, evolution protects women from intimacy to help care for the baby and prevent premature pregnancy. To this end, the body subverts the entire hormonal system: after childbirth, a woman’s body’s estrogen levels drop significantly and, during breastfeeding, prolactin is rapidly produced, which stimulates milk production and further reduces estrogen. In addition, the brain is flooded with the love hormone oxytocin, which is directed directly at the baby. I do not know whether it is worth reminding you that, apart from these physiological processes, the mother is on 24/7 duty, producing milk, constantly touching the baby, cuddling him, kissing him, carrying him. It is not surprising and even very normal that at the end of the day you want to snuggle, curl up – to get hugs yourself.
I probably won’t surprise anyone when I say that intimacy has to be pleasurable and cannot be imposed. Forcing it will not only not please the body, it will make it even tighter, more closed and it will take a lot of time, gentleness and patience to earn its trust again. Any coercion in a relationship carries a much more significant risk than openly admitting that I am not ready, do not have the resources or simply do not want to do it right now. Once this has been expressed and accepted, it is possible to go a step further and ask together how passion can be generated in the relationship. It is also worth bearing in mind that intimacy is not just about sex. There are many other ways to experience intimacy with a partner. Sometimes a back pat, a foot massage, a long hug or a morning kiss can mean so much more and bring that much-needed passion into a relationship. The drama of the situation is also diffused by the realization that this is only a certain time in life. Relationships are not static. On the contrary, they are cyclical, ever-changing, one season replaced by another, and that’s great – it means that life happens!
What do you think are the basic rules for having a good relationship after having a baby?
Probably the only rule is that there are no rules. Couples’ relationships have changed a lot over the last decades. For a long time, everything was very simple and clear: centuries-old traditions, religion had established rules for how a man should communicate with his wife, and a wife with her husband, children with their parents, parents with their children. There were no decisions to be made about who would be the main breadwinner, whose career was more important, who would get up at night to feed the child or who would cook. Free from these rules, we have created a world of unlimited choices and possibilities, but we pay a price for this freedom: everything has to be mutually agreed. It’s not that simple – we’re not used to it and we don’t yet know how to do it. However, the willingness and readiness to communicate openly as a couple is one of the most important guarantees of a sustainable relationship.
The importance of communication is particularly evident when a couple faces challenges – one of the things couples notice after having a baby is that their personal differences are more apparent than ever. Often, the differences that were the basis for falling in love and admiring each other at the beginning of the relationship are more irritating than ever and become the cause of conflict. How we react differently to this small, subtle being and to events in a new situation can be surprising as well as frightening. The free, spontaneous, creative partner suddenly becomes too careless, irresponsible, disorganized in the eyes of the other, while the caring planner and calculator becomes boring and too predictable. One may wonder: did I choose this person at all? But most probably you did – the human subconscious, being infinitely wise, subtly guides man to what he lacks. This seems to create a magnetic attraction between opposite poles of a certain quality, enabling one to experience both poles with one’s other half. Herein lies part of the answer: instead of fearing these differences, one can try to find ways in which they can be complemented. The ability to tolerate and appreciate difference is very nurturing and enriching.
Relationships that have been successful up to now seemingly by themselves suddenly stop “happening by themselves” and start to require a determined effort, a certain reorientation.
It is also useful to remember that before we can share love, attention and tenderness with another, we must have it ourselves, otherwise we will have nothing to give. This is where creativity comes in, asking yourself what are the things that fulfill you, allowing you to come back to yourself, to forget, at least for a while, about the “motherly” and “fatherly” responsibilities. Often it’s good to get out of the house – for a massage, a coffee with a friend, a basketball game, or a movie. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to come back completely different – fresh, with lighter thoughts. Shared rituals are also important – for example, on the first Saturday of the month, have brunch just the two of you. Rituals are harder to implement at home, and time spent together reminds you that you are much more than just parents.
Finally, satisfaction with the relationship and with one’s partner is often increased by the realization that one person cannot provide what different social sources can. To expect a partner to be a source of meaning, passion, deep connection and fulfillment would be both unfair and unrealistic. Discovering different ways of experiencing intimacy, friendship, can free relationships from unrealistic expectations and lead to greater fulfillment.
What would you recommend or how would you comfort families who feel that they are on the edge of a relationship and are seriously considering going their separate ways?
I would say that they are not and should not be alone. Not only because thousands of other couples are going through similar problems, but also because they should not have to deal with them alone. It is normal to face serious challenges or to consider divorce – one should not be afraid of similar thoughts and considerations. A relationship crisis does not mean that a couple is weak, unable to cope with challenges. A crisis is a healthy human response to a very important, significant event. Moreover, a strong couple is not one that does not stumble, but one that passes through challenges. Perhaps one of the decisive moments is what we decide to do with this difficult experience: to remain alone in our suffering until we can suffer no more, or to dare to ask for help and look for new, perhaps hitherto unknown ways to create a healthy, mutually satisfying relationship. With mutual willingness and commitment, with the help of a professional – a psychologist, a psychotherapist – the power of a crisis situation can be transformed into a force that changes and restores relationships.