The best thing to hold onto in life, is each other – Audrey Hepburn.
Most mornings I listen to my eldest two children negotiate whose turn it is for the little bathroom stool they stand on while brushing their teeth. I’m kind of impressed at the way they’ve been able to handle this, coming to an agreement without any parental input (or interference, perhaps!?) and so far, no bloodshed!
Now, of course, we could have just bought another stool so they could have had one each, however that it’s not really how we roll around here.
I like watching my kids learn how to deal with frustration and disappointment and not because I’m a mean person, but because those are the moments which build character. But, oh my goodness, it’s become apparent that it’s not just their character that is getting a workout.
Having a child is one of the most significant life stresses a person will experience – it’s a strange paradox that the most beautiful, life-changing, love-filled moment in your life can also lead to immense frustration and marital disharmony. Perhaps you’ve also heard the whisper, “I sometimes wonder if I married the wrong person….”
Um, that was unexpected.
When I was pregnant with my first child I remember reading an article that said that couples experience “precipitously low” levels of marital happiness in the years immediately following parenthood. In fact, there are a loads of studies about this showing that about 70% of couples experience a lower sense of marital satisfaction in the first three years after a new baby.
I’ll never forget reading that sentence and bizarrely, feeling grateful for that knowledge. It comforted me to know that it was common to face challenges as a new couple and that anything may come, wasn’t actually about us. My husband wasn’t an ass before we had kids and he didn’t suddenly become one after, either. Far from it. This knowledge has also helped when we have had to work harder on our relationship, to not freak out about it and to be able to take it all less personally.
Since becoming a parent I have learnt a well-hidden secret – experiencing marital frustration and dissatisfaction at times is extremely common. It seems to me that marriage or life-partnerships involve two imperfect humans trying to build a life together – we should not be surprised that it’s not always smooth sailing! Having a child presents a particular set of challenges however, so I spoke with Senior Clinician Jayne Ferguson from Relationships Australia Victoria about how couples can navigate life together after children.
According to Ferguson, marital stress after children is triggered by two primary factors:
- Increased Conflict
- Decreased intimacy – both physical and emotional
We have more at stake, experience massive changes in role and relationship and get the ‘joy’ of dealing with these while we also facing exhaustion, fear, sometimes pain. Oh, and of course we have absolutely no idea what we are doing!
So, if you’ve ever wondered in the quiet of the night ‘did I marry the wrong person‘ perhaps this will help…
1. Increased Conflict.
This is probably ‘captain obvious’! New baby, lots of change = prime conflict opportunity! And of course, as the baby grows, theopportunitiess for conflict change.
We can experience conflict in relation to domestic chores and expectations, parenting styles, the change to our roles and identity and jealousy. And of course, we have much less time (if any) to sit and talk through everything without being constantly interrupted by the baby/child… all while being totally, mind-numbingly exhausted, of course!
Conflict is to be expected as parents, and Relationship Australia have a number of resources for couples who want to learn how to communicate well through conflict. I can also highly recommend the following books, these are some of those that you’d find on our bookshelves…
Five Languages of Love by Gary Chapman
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman
2. Role Expectations make things tricky
When it comes to family, we often fall into the models we have seen, and so even the most moden couples can be sidelined by a default that they didn’t anticipate.
We don’t have a long history of families who have found a way to hold career, household and raising children as issues of equal significance and responsibility for both partners. This makes it even harder! We are learning as we go on this and it’s really hard! I have no advice except to say we need to communicate role expectations and together decide what our priorities are.
3. Female friends are amazing but…
We can turn to them instead of our partners. On the one hand this is great, other women who understand what it’s like and who can offer support and encouragement are of immense value! Where it can get tricky is if what is ‘common’ is normalised; that “us and them” mentality that can exist among some women which can create futher distance from our partners. Personally, there’s nothing more jarring than to find myself out with women I’ve never met before as they launch into tirades about their useless husbands.
If your husband wasn’t a jerk before you had kids, he’s probably not instantly become one.
Have amazing female friends, be grateful for them and cherish them! I certainly do mine! BUT, also remember that they have their own stories and experiences that are not ours, and we need to make space to see things from our partner’s perspective. When we think we know our partner’s story we often fail to ask them about it (until things reach boiling point). If we can be mindful about this earlier, then it’s easier to find our way back to each other.
4. Scheduling isn’t a dirty word
Ferguson says, “When you are in a really busy period of life, scheduling really is your only option”. This is something that we do – a date night at home is better than nothing! I also think it’s really good and important for our kids to see that we prioritise each other – that as dearly as they are loved the world does not, in fact, revolve around them.
5. Sex Matters
Sex matters in a partnership – it matters more to some people, and to some couples than others but when there is a mismatch around this, there can be hurt, frustration and fertile ground for more conflict.
Physical intimacy is an important but not essential part of any healthy relationship and there may be times when one party may be less interested, or hesitant for a number of reasons. Ferguson says “We always have a right to say ‘no’ and should communicate around how and why we are feeling like that’ with our partner”.
Fear about pain, changes to appearance (and perhaps desirability), mismatched libidos and expectations are all common issues, finding a way to talk about this with each other is the best way to find a way forward.
Ferguson made a wonderful suggestion on this issue – if this is something you are struggling with in your relationship it would be wonderful for the person who is keener to share with the other person WHY they want this intimacy with YOU.
6. Marriage is work, and that’s not a dirty word.
When you fall pregnant there are doctors, midwives, hundreds of books, friends and family full of advice and stories and recommendations and of course, you have the internet hurling (often inconsistent) advice at you. When the baby arrives most of that (apart from the helpful internet advice) disappears. But parenting is hard, being on the same page as your partner when it comes to parenting styles isn’t a given, and so learning to communicate regularly and especially when things are good, can help you stand in good stead when things are more challenging.
When our kids see harmony, good conflict resolution, respectful relationships then they learn to imitate that. Our kids learn so much just from watching us (yikes!) so investing in your relationship is a wonderful thing for them as much as it is for you, me, us.
For more information about relationships visit Relationships Australia.