Parenting is hard, and it’s hard on a marriage. Myriad studies confirm that a sort of domino effect is triggered by the presence of a baby in a couple’s life. They have less time to spend together, which, necessarily, means they’re having less sex, which often leads to more frequent fights, which consequently finds both of them less happy. “Eventually, they readjust, but that doesn’t mean that they’re able to get back to where they were,” Eli Finkle, a social psychologist who runs the Marriage Lab at Northwestern University, said.”The truth is, of course, it’s hard to cultivate the relationship when you have this massive additional responsibility that requires so much attention.” In other words? You can’t lose focus. New parents must also bear in mind that their relationship needs their attention, too. Without that upkeep, things fall apart. So, what marriage advice should new parents keep in mind? These 17 tips, offered by psychologists, relationship experts, and parents, themselves are a good place to start.
Express Gratitude to Your Partner
Raising kids is tough, exhausting work that often goes unrewarded. One of the easiest things new parents can do for one another is show appreciation and gratitude for their partner. Did they nail that bedtime routine? Tell them. Did they expertly handle a tantrum or cry-fest? Tell them. Parents often stroke kids and acknowledge their terrific poem or great game they played, but we don’t acknowledge what we appreciate about our partners. Doing it is a show of support and love for their hard work at a time when it’s definitely needed — and, in the long run, shows an example to children as to what a loving, supportive relationship looks like.
Greet One Another With Affection
It’s easy for new parents to feel like ships passing in the night. Shit needs to get done and there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it. But this can create problems if routines are set and you feel like co-workers instead of a couple. “If you’re feeling like co-parents, try changing one thing about the way you interact starting today,” offered sexologist Dr. Jess O’Reilly. “For example, can you change your greetings and goodbyes. Can you wrap your arms around your partner when they walk in the door? Can you slip them tongue when you say goodbye in the morning? Or could you take 30 seconds to hold them, smell them, and feel their skin against yours when you wake up in the morning?” Small changes like these can produce big rewards.”
Focus on Your Friendship
Remember what you were like before kids came along? Good. Work to maintain that foundation. Because that’s the seawall that will keep the rising tide of stress at bay. “All of the psychological and physical adjustment [of new parenthood] can make people react very differently,” notes Brittany Carswell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tampa, Florida. “But another thing we’ve found is that the foundation of a couple’s relationship is very predictive of how they’re going to adjust to the transition. Having a strong friendship and a healthy emotional connection are hugely important in the ability to regulate conflict.” Fights are different between friends.
Don’t Schedule Every Second Around Your Child
If every second of the day is built around a toddler’s school schedules and playdates, then your marriage is going to suffer. From an emotional perspective, it might feel right that your kids are at the center of your marriage, but that’s a mistake. When you and your spouse are at the center, then the kids and everything else will fall into place. “Talk to your spouse about how you would like things to look,” says professional counselor Heidi McBain, “and start to set boundaries with your kids so you can start to slowly carve out alone time for you and your partner again.”
Don’t Put Your Kids Between You. Literally.
If, every time you and your family watch a movie, go see a school play, or even out to eat, the kids are between you and your spouse, that can negatively impact your relationship. Even something as simple as sitting in the backseat with your child while your partner drives can be a problem. “What happens is that even when the then-infant is now six years old, the child and mother may be both conditioned to follow the seating pattern,” says Dr. Jocelyn Markowicz, a Michigan-based psychologist. “Now the husband no longer expects his wife to sit next to him while driving. He no longer expects to have hand-holding or adult conversation with his wife. Intimacy has changed.” In other words, it’s important that your kids don’t form a rift in your relationship. This takes work and focus but it is critical to the health of your relationship.
Don’t Make Assumptions About Household Work
It’s easy for a couple to think that they’ll be great at splitting household duties and internalize their thoughts without every discussing it. This leads to serious problems because assumptions are made. The best advice? Talk about who’s doing what. “The couples who have the conversation [about division of household labor] are the ones who are more aware of it and they actually do the best,” says Darcy Lockman, a mom, psychologist, and author of All the Rage. “It’s when couples imagine, like my husband and I did, that it’ll just work out that way. That’s when people get into some trouble because things do tend to default to mothers without explicit conversations.”
And Always Maintain a Shared Awareness of Household Duties
Lockman knows a lot about the division of household labor and how, when it is seen as ‘woman’s work’, it can create deep rifts in a relationship. Her advice is something all couples should keep mind. “It’s not the 50-50 split of household management that is the goal. It’s more of a shared awareness of what’s going on in the home. People have other obligations and other things that will result in it being a fluid split.” Couples, she says, don’t have to divide everything down the middle — this is not possible. However, the point is to highlight this lack of awareness that is so partners are on the same page and resentment doesn’t fester.
Schedule Time to Feel Like a Couple
Parenting often comes with a biggie-sized side order of identity crisis. It’s easy to feel like roommates or co-workers instead of romantic partners. Couples must be sure to take measures to recognize this side. One couple we spoke to offered this wisdom: “Part of our issue was internal battles that Rebecca was having about parts of her that she felt like she had lost when she became a mom. About every two weeks, she would go through this cycle of feeling like she needed to get away. So, we just started scheduling, every two weeks, even if it’s just overnight, we do something that feeds that side of her. We put things in place to remember that she’s not just a mom.” Scheduling time to satisfy a partner’s needs goes a long way.
Just Listen to Your Partner
When people discuss the tenets of happy marriages, the word “validation” and “appreciation” are often thrown around. And for good reason: “People have a biological need to be needed or valued,” says Dr. Terri Orbuch, a relationship professor at Oakland University, and author of 5 Simple Steps to Take Your Marriage from Good to Great. When validation doesn’t occur, people tend to look for it elsewhere, which rarely falls into the Good Decision category.
One big aspect of validation that people don’t realize, however, and that really comes in during the early stages of parenthood, is simply being there when your spouse has a problem. This calls for: Not talking. Not saying how you did it or would do it. And, and, and not giving unsolicited advice. It’s about listening and offering a well-placed, “I’m with you.” But you knew that. When you’re in a conversation, the cues are pretty obvious.
Consider a Parenting Class
A frequent roadblock for new parents is a lack of a mutual understanding of how you’re going to talk about parenting. In the thick of raising young children, you may find that a parenting class helps you make sure you’re talking about the same thing. “Couples who take parenting classes together before having children report that they acquire a common language and foundation that makes future decisions much easier,” says psychotherapist Dr. Tina B. Tessina, and can prevent those pesky red wire-blue wire communication breakdowns that stress you both out and cause infighting in the bunker
Schedule Time to Talk About How You’re Both Doing
A major problem that faces all new parents is that dividing up the mountain of tasks you’ll have to accomplish separates you for much of the day, giving small resentments time to fester and grow. These will never go away, but it’s paramount to schedule in time together and to communicate through any impasses. “Try to organize your schedule so that you have some time together, without having to do chores or work, after the baby is asleep,” says Tessina. “Talk frequently about how you’re both doing, whether your arrangement feels fair, and encourage your partner to talk about what’s bothering him or her.” If you keep in constant communication about this, your baby’s many mini-explosions won’t rock the boat so much.
Set Boundaries with Your Parents From the Start
Setting boundaries with in-laws and relatives from the start will save you a lot of grief. The key to doing so lies intact. “Convey this boundary to your in-laws in a gentle way,” psychotherapist Susan Silver previously told Fatherly. “Be explicit if it becomes necessary, just know that it’s your job to make your in-laws – and, more importantly, your spouse – feel like he or she is number one. This will build trust and commitment, which are two important pillars of any marriage.” Hopefully, your situation won’t turn into a tag-team melee. But, if it does, make sure you’re in the right corner.
Remember: Consistent Baby Routines Lead to a Better Relationship
It sounds obvious but without set routines for your children, you won’t be able to carve out time for your relationship. “Routines start early and often,” says Donhauser. No, they’re not as regular as they like and babies and young children love to fight routines. But everyone benefits from them; you, your partner, and your child. “Couples with strong routines for their small children tend to feel less stress in their relationship,” she notes, “because they can predictably make room for their marriage and their children are often more regulated.”
Manage Your Expectations
A wide-scale psychological study published in April, 2016 explored how expectations influence marriages. Florida State University Psychology Professor James McNulty observed 135 newlywed couples from eastern Tennessee for four years. The couples were surveyed every six months about their expectations for their marriages and whether their marriages lived up to those expectations. In that same period of time, the couples participated in recorded interviews where researchers observed their behavior and how they communicated with each other.
McNulty found that expectations affected couples differently. For couples capable of providing mutual care, support, and independence, high standards improved marital satisfaction. When members of weaker marriages had high expectations, tension arose between their demands from their marriages and what they were capable of attaining. Ultimately, those expectations eroded the already vulnerable relationships.
“Some people demand too much from their marriages because they are requiring that their marriages fulfill needs that they are not capable of achieving, either because they have limited time, energy, effort, or skills to apply to their marriages,” McNulty said.
McNulty said expectations for marriage should be tempered to a Goldilocks-esque “just right” point resting between too high and too low. He advised spouses to ask of their marriages only as much as their marriages are able to give them.
No Matter What, Speak to One Another Respectfully
The early years of parenting are stressful and require partners to keep a constant dialogue as they’re learning their new roles. This can lead to disagreements and arguments, which is fine and natural. But parents need to keep in mind that how they talk to one another can have a great deal of impact on feeling respected — a barometer of marital happiness and success. “In a relationship, mutual respect looks like speaking to one another in a respectful and considerate fashion, keeping your partner in mind when you’re making decisions, and responding to your partners needs and wants,” says Saba Harouni Lurie, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and founder and owner of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles. “That doesn’t mean necessarily sacrificing yourself in order to make or keep your partner happy, but it means communicating with love, even when it’s difficult.”
Write Down Parent Vows
One of the best ideas we’ve heard from new parents? A couple who writes down parenting vows — a list of things they promise to do for each other after kids arrive “One night we were talking, and I told Ryan that I felt nervous about losing us and myself. Like, am I going to be that woman who always has spit up on me and who doesn’t go out anymore?,” the wife expressed to us. “And those things turned out to be true. But we wrote down our parent vows to each other. We vowed we’d always push each other to get out of the house and go do something fun with their friends, and we would have date nights as often as we could. I think so far we’ve been pretty good about both of those things.”
Understand What Respect Truly Requires
Partners who respect one another work better. This is both simple and not. Because when it comes to building respect equity in their relationship, couples need to focus on being responsible for how their actions affect the other. “Some of it is common sense and usually centers around being personally responsible,” Aricia E. Shaffer, MSE, a therapist and coach specializing in parenting, told us. “Don’t put the empty milk carton back in the fridge, clean up after yourself, let your spouse know if you’re running late. In other words, basic human consideration. But it also means taking responsibility for your own triggers or needs and having a talk with your partner as needed.” In other words: Without constant communication, true respect will never be achieved.