How Pregnancy and Parenting Affects Relationships

Having children is supposed to be a life changing experience for couples. Expectant parents often anticipate that a new baby will bring new challenges and joys to their family, but many do not realize the actual effects pregnancy and parenting will take on their relationship.

By Susan Eleeson, PhD
Sanford Clinic Women’s Health
 

Having children is supposed to be a life changing experience for couples. Expectant parents often anticipate that a new baby will bring new challenges and joys to their family, but many do not realize the actual effects pregnancy and parenting will take on their relationship.

Over the past 30 years, psychological studies have unequivocally shown that having children reduces a couple’s satisfaction with their marriage or relationship. Even the strongest couples will find that their priorities, time commitments and attention shift when a baby comes into the picture. 

A shift in focus
Those changes can start as early as during pregnancy. A growing baby forces a shift in the focus of the relationship. Couples may find that they have to adjust travel plans or can’t take part in activities they enjoy because of the mother’s nausea. Fatigue, swelling ankles or complications that lead to bed rest changes the dynamic in the home before the baby even arrives.

After the baby is born, even the best prepared couples are shaken by the adjustment to a new type of relationship – one that centers on the needs of their new child. Add a little sleep deprivation and struggles over how everything will be taken care of around the home and soon the new parents wonder why they are so unhappy with their growing family. 

So what should new parents do to keep their relationship strong? The best predictors of marital satisfaction are three factors: friendship, affection and attention. The healthiest couples realize that there will be changes in their priorities, but continue to take the time and effort to treat each other with consideration and love.

 
Share the work
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for families with new babies is the division of labor. I often see couples where the father continues to live his life without any changes after the baby comes home and the mother takes care of all of the extra work of taking care of children. A mother who watches her boyfriend or husband play video games or go for hunting weekends while she makes all the sacrifices required of a new parent is going to become resentful. Eventually that anger will replace the love they used to have.

Traditional arrangements where the man takes care of the financial support, while the woman takes care of the instrumental support (the housework, cleaning and childcare) doesn’t work in today’s families where both parents have jobs outside the home. I tell couples to make a list of all the chores that need to be done in and outside of the home and split them evenly using the actual hours that are involved for the tasks. 

Shoveling show and mowing the lawn rarely add up to the amount of time it takes to do all of the housework and indoor chores. Taking care of the physical and emotional needs of children is a big job that is best shared by both parents. Another added benefit of this approach is that not only are mothers are less stressed and overwhelmed, but also that fathers get to have a closer, more satisfying relationship with their children.

 
Take the time
To weather those difficult first years of parenthood, a couple needs to be attentive and affectionate with each other. Spending time together is essential to provide that emotional closeness you need as partners. Couples should both share the time parenting and time to themselves. Having a date night or even just time to talk is essential. 

The strongest couples have at least five positive interactions for every negative interaction they have. Something as simple as a smile, a hug or a special nickname that you share can boost your partner and your relationship. Couples who are emotionally healthy not only have the highest levels of satisfaction with their marriage, but have higher levels of sexual satisfaction, too. When partners have trust and emotional closeness, every part of their relationship is better. The happiest couples are really good friends who genuinely want to spend time together. 

Parenthood and a happy marriage or relationship can be hard, but the effort is worth it for everyone in the family. Children who have happy, affectionate parents have a good model to follow in their own adult relationships. Couples who make changes together and truly work as partners will find that the new dynamics of life as a growing family are rewarding and enjoyable.