This article is for everyone. It’s the first of a two part series that’s hoped to help women, men and couples understand the changes that can happen in their relationships over pregnancy and in the transition to parenthood.
This first part in the series provides an overview of changes that can happen, as well as considering how we can prepare ourselves and adjust. The second part of the series focuses more closely on intimacy. The information provided is based on findings from research conducted by a range of professionals as well as through my own clinical experience.
Researchers tell us that it is happier couples that go on to have children. Our family and friends who are established in their parenting roles can also tell us that those early parenthood months and years are ‘precious’, ‘magical’. Often going on to say that we should appreciate every minute as they go by far too quickly. Keeping this in mind it is no great surprise that couples approach pregnancy and parenthood with great expectations and excitement.
Pregnancy and the arrival of your beautiful new baby entail lots of changes. Some of these changes can be demanding and with this in mind it is less surprising that when asked confidentially, many couples report declining marital satisfaction and increased conflict in the transition to parenthood. In fact, the research shows that marital quality decreases sharply for 40 to 60 percent of couples.
Initially it was believed that the decline in marriage satisfaction affected women more than men, but in recent studies similar changes have been reported across mothers and fathers. Some studies argue that the changes may reflect typical fluctuations that occur in marriage, rather than the impact of parenthood. Showing that the typical timing of new parenthood can be a time of marital declines in non-parent couples.
Despite the variability of findings in the literature, it is generally accepted that the transition to parenthood can be a particularly stressful period for couples, with rapid declines in marital satisfaction occurring for many new parents. In fact the first year after having a baby has been found to be statistically the most difficult for marriages and partnerships.
|I hope I haven’t lost you…
As I sit here pregnant, writing this article, I can see the temptation to avoid reading any further after these doom and gloom findings! But I promise there is good news.
Approximately one third of couples report stability or increases in relationship satisfaction or love over the transition to parenthood.
In fact, just being aware that the transition to parenthood can cause changes, understanding why and how these changes can occur, can protect you and your relationship. Easing the journey ahead!
So what do we need to know and why can changes linked with parenthood affect our marriages?
Deteriorations in marriage satisfaction linked with parenthood have generally been attributed to the adjustment that is needed as a result of the changes involved in having a baby. Research in the area has identified five major changes that couples go through when they first become parents:
|Major changes in the Transition to Parenthood
1. A change in roles. It continues to be typical for women to take on more of the parenting responsibilities than men, if other responsibilities are not adjusted to respond to the additional child care tasks annoyance and conflicts can develop.
It is not simply the equality of task division that can pose problems. If a traditional gender role structure (with the woman taking on childcare and household tasks and the man assuming financial responsibilities) is not familiar to the couple, yet division of care has fallen this way without careful discussion, it may be difficult for the couple (or individuals within the couple) to accept, adapt to.
2. The potential for significantly less time for communicating and talking things through.
3. A decline in disposable income due to new financial responsibilities. This can mean fewer opportunities for individual and shared leisure activities (which can lead to less individual and couple self-care time).
4. Less good quality couple time due to competing baby related demands.
5. Frequency of sexual intercourse often changes.
Where there is poor adjustment to these changes, a ‘ negative pattern’ of coping can occur and this can lead to less positive marriage reappraisal. Research has shown there are a number of factors that can increase the likelihood of poor adjustment. These include:
|Factors linked with poor adjustment
Ø Higher levels of marital satisfaction prior to parenthood: Thought to link with greater difficulties in accepting and adjusting to changes.
It may also reflect a more ‘romantic’ understanding of the relationship, which reduces or creates unrealistic expectations around conflict and difficulties that could occur in the relationship.
Ø Higher levels of relationship conflict (poor management and severity) prior to parenthood.
Ø A shorter duration of marriage at the time of birth: This is thought to reflect the couples more limited experience of coping with and adapting to stressors within their relationship.
Ø Displacement: This is a phenomenon whereby a person unconsciously substitutes the cause or expression of their emotion to a new person. This happens when the original person who has generated the feelings is thought to be unacceptable in that position. In this context, the baby is the new addition that is the cause of the change, but a parent is unlikely to feel able to link any difficult feelings to the source of their joy. In this way the difficult feelings may be displaced on to the partner.
Ø Maternity Blues: Over half of new mothers are thought to experience a brief period of tearfulness and anxiety, termed “maternity blues.” Many parents are unaware of this and such feelings can be at odds with their expectations of happiness and joy. The contradictory experiences can cause frustrations, confusion and disappointment within a partnership.
A number of the above factors can be linked with limited communication between partners. Specifically, that partners are less able to talk openly about the problems and concerns they experience over the adjustment to parenthood. Limiting their ability to resolve these issues as a couple.
One article could not hope to address all of these areas in detail, but by providing an overview of potential changes and adjustment problems, it’s hoped that new parents can have a greater awareness of issues that can arise, and can consider how they communicate with one an other, to best meet the changes and challenges ahead. Below we have provided some tips on how to prepare for, and manage changes associated with the transition to parenthood.
Developing your Awareness as a couple
o Talk as a couple about the changes that may occur. There is lots of information and advice available. Get excited about your new arrival, but be realistic about some of the stressors that may arise.
o Ask the professionals. No question is foolish or unimportant. Professionals have a lot of knowledge, sometimes they make assumptions about what information is important for them to provide. Their busy schedules can mean that they focus on key aspects of care, rather than providing a broader picture. Medical jargon can also act as a barrier to understanding. It may feel uncomfortable to say that you do not understand. That doesn’t mean that the professional won’t be willing to take time to explain when they understand what’s important to you. Professionals also work as part of a team, they can advise you of other support available.
o Some topics can feel ‘difficult’ to broach, even with our nearest and dearest. It maybe that it’s difficult to talk about your feelings because you think they may surprise or disappoint your partner, or because it’s not something you have ever talked to your partner about before, but avoiding communication on these topics can cause concerns to grow into problems. Approaching concerns as something you and your partner have control of, and can solve together as a couple, is a good way to avoid expectations or situations that become unmanageable for one or both partners.
o By communicating our thoughts and feelings we can also facilitate our partners opening up. This creates an awareness of what is going on in your spouse’s thinking and an ability to respond to it.
o If a pattern of communication appears to be developing that makes you feel uncomfortable or unheard, for example your partner leading decision making/ leaving all decisions to you, it may be helpful to identify this pattern and to find ways of co-parenting/ decision-making.
Focusing on process as well as decision making
o There are many decisions that need to be made throughout pregnancy, birth and transition to parenthood. When decisions need to be made it can be useful to take time to communicate your thoughts and feelings about the decision. Encourage your partner to share in the decision-making, rather than making decisions based on what others think or what you may have been told is ‘right’ thing to do. **This does not include medical advice.
o Communicate your expectations about the transition to parenthood. Preparation can help to avoid or reduce conflict in areas commonly reported as problematic after birth such as, division of childcare, level of paternal involvement, how to create couple time, self care opportunities.
It is important for couples to be aware of sexual issues that can occur throughout pregnancy and during postnatal care. Knowing about sexual problems can prepare couples for possible changes in sexual frequency and satisfaction. Awareness also encourages open communication between partners and increases the likelihood of women seeking help in the event of sexual problems.
Read Part 2 now.
About the Writer
Dr. Alexandra Legge is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist at The Centre for Psychology in Singapore with extensive experience of working with children, young people and their families with a range of emotional and psychological difficulties. She also has particular expertise in working with people who have developmental conditions, such as Autism, Aspergers and Learning Disabilities.