Marriage After Kids: 7 Big Ways a Baby Changes a Relationship
Becoming a parent changes everything about life — including your relationship. Here's what to expect — and what you can do to react.
No matter how prepared a couple might think they are for life as parents, once a baby arrives chances are they’ll never say, “This is exactly what I expected!” Marriage after kids is an exercise in reprioritizing. And couples are much more likely to say something like, “I never imagined anything could be so wonderful and so miserable at the same time.”
Fellow parents understand the contradiction. Most expectant moms and dads research as much as they can about how to care for their soon-to-be babies, but few consider how their relationship might transform after the baby comes, notes Ron Stolberg, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, professor at Alliant International University. And research suggests the kid will have an impact on couples’ satisfaction with their relationship, which typically drops once they have a child.
“Relationships are pretty easy when they’re the only thing you’re focusing on,” says Stolberg, who is also the author of Teaching Kids to Think. “Having a child is the most remarkable thing you can do together, but the changes are immediate and dramatic. There are so many things people don’t plan on. Coming together as parents makes the relationship much harder.”
All couples are different, of course, but there are themes that crop up between new parents as they navigate this marvelous and bewildering new phase of their lives. Since knowing has been said to be half the battle, here are the most common issues couples face after they become parents and some strategies for dealing with each of them.
1. It Fundamentally Changes Your Identity
The transition from couple to parents, and individuals to mom and dad, is a huge emotional adjustment. For one thing, many fathers feel comfortable supporting their pregnant partners, but feel less sure of what to do and maybe even irrelevant once the baby comes. The pressure of these adjustments can have a negative impact on your relationship.
“Moms are focused on the baby and maintaining their sanity, so mens’ fears of feeling irrelevant are completely justified,” says licensed marriage and family therapist Elisabeth Goldberg. “They’re not going to get the validation they’re used to getting, and it can be hard for them to adjust to that.”
During the early stages of parenthood, new fathers typically experience a crisis of their identity and how their life is going to change, says Bruce Linton, Ph.D., a marriage and family therapist and author of Fatherhood: The Journey From Man to Dad, whose research of fatherhood determined that the initial crisis stage for new fathers is confusion. Some dads, he notes, are better equipped to deal with this crisis period than others.
“It depends on people’s personalities, but some have a lot of difficulty with change,” Goldberg says. “Maybe they grew up in households where emotions weren’t valued so they learned to turn them off. Part of your personality is how you approach change and how you manage your stress, which most people have never learned to do at all.”
Key to managing stress is regulating one’s emotions. Men who haven’t developed this skill might not know how to deal with feeling left out while his wife bonds with and cares for the baby, Goldberg says.
Women’s experience as a parent begins much earlier than a father’s does, Linton notes: “It can be very hard for dads who shared in the pregnancy to suddenly feel so excluded,” he says.
What you can do: Be aware of the huge transition you’re both dealing with in addition to carrying out the innumerable tasks of parenthood. Use that awareness to be compassionate and put yourself in your partner’s shoes as much as you can.
“It’s easier said than done, and the relationship does get pushed to the side with a new child in the home,” Goldberg says. “It’s a kind of cognitive emotional skill to accept that things are changing and are not going to be the same during this time. There’s a lot of acceptance that has to happen.”
2. It Makes You Butt Heads — And Maybe a Lot.
Parenting requires a lot of sacrifice, and some people are just better suited to step up, Stolberg says. “If people aren’t used to making sacrifices, it really stresses relationships.”
A common scenario is when the working parent comes home and brushes off requests from the caregiving parent for help, saying they’re tired from working all day.
“Repeated refusals to help might eventually make the one caring for the baby conclude, ‘Maybe you don’t want to be here,’” Goldberg says. “It’s really the patterns that can add up to deeper issues.”
Also common is the earnest parent who has done research on child rearing and tries to correct what they think their partners are doing wrong, she says.
“I see couples where one will say, ‘This is the right way to parent,’ and the other feels inadequate,” she says. “It can really highlight the controlling side of people and be used as ammunition.”
Childcare advice, therefore, needs to be presented in a gentle way, Goldberg says.
Patience — with yourself and your partner — is also key, Linton says: “Sometimes, nobody knows why the baby’s crying, and that’s okay.”
What you can do: Be a little zen about bickering, Stolberg suggests, because it’s hard to avoid.
“With two people raising children, there’s no chance they’re going to agree all the time, so get used to bickering,” Stolberg says.
Particularly in the early days of parenting, keep it simple and just thank each other, Goldberg advises, because that might be all you have the time and energy to do.
“In an ideal world, you could set aside time now for your relationship, but that’s just not realistic,” she says. “But what you can do is try to have positive communication and say, ‘thank you for doing this, I love you,’ whenever you can.”
Stolberg agrees that little compliments go a long way in keeping parents content with each other.
“Feeling appreciated improves self-worth and builds self-esteem,” he says. “There’s also a subtle component of bringing awareness to what you’re doing: Sometimes we do things instinctually and don’t think about it, but if your partner says, ‘That was amazing how you dealt with that tantrum or her refusing to eat,’ it reinforces something you’re doing and empowers you as a parent.”
3. It May Make You Start to Resent Each Other
Resentment between new parents can crop up in numerous ways. One of you might be jealous that the other gets to go to work or gets to stay home with the baby. One might feel that household and childcare duties aren’t shared equitably enough, a huge issue for many couples. Caring for a new baby can make couples feel burnt out all the time, which might lead them to lash out at each other. Or give each other the silent treatment, which doesn’t help either.
In addition, certain personality types can make these issues tougher to deal with.
“Healthy, well-adjusted parents embrace the opportunity to be ‘we’ instead of ‘me,’ but folks more blind to selfishness struggle with that,” Stolberg says.
New parents who are a little more selfish with their time might have difficulty grasping why they can’t go to the gym anymore or sleep in on weekends, he says. Those who turn into “superparents” after the baby comes, on the other hand, might start resenting their partners for not making similar sacrifices.
“Not everyone is as intuitute as would be ideal for relationships,” Goldberg says. “So I think it’s important for [parents] to not take that personally and blow it out of proportion, and think, ‘They don’t really want to do this and think the baby is ruining their life.’ A lot of anger and resentment can build up.”
Although recurrent fights about the dishes, for example, are often a stand-in for deeper issues affecting couples, this period of new parenthood might not be the time to dig into it too deeply.
“Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” Goldberg says. “Just do the dishes.”
What you can do: New parents are too busy to get into the “whys” of why the other parent isn’t doing this or noticing that. So it can be helpful to start with something practical, such as the dishes, Goldberg says.
Another helpful tip is to try to talk to each other for two minutes a day, Linton says. Two was the number of minutes he settled on after some trial and error figuring out what parents could realistically manage.
“It doesn’t work for everyone, and if you’re both too tired, it’s okay,” Linton says. “But if they can swing it, they don’t talk about the relationship, just the experience of their day, or about their life or kid or work. And the other person just listens. Then they switch.”
If two minutes every night is too difficult, he suggests they try for just three nights a week, or if it’s easier another time of day, they can suggest another time to talk.
“This has two psychological functions,” Linton says. “First, the power of being heard is incredible. Having one of the most important people in your life listen to you has a profound effect. And two, there’s a built-in touchstone for the relationship without actually talking about the relationship.”
Dads can also find support and comfort in connecting with other dads, Linton says.
“I’ve found what is key is being in the company of other men who are also new parents,” he continues. “Especially dads with kids 5 and under, which is a really unique time.”
Fathers who got to talk with other dads during this period of parenting felt more competent as dads, Linton’s research suggests. When they talk about their anxiety and fears of fatherhood and hear others feel the same way, it normalizes those feelings instead of making them feel like there’s something wrong with them, he says.
“The family-forming stage brings up a lot of questions, especially because dads are expected to participate in parenting much more than they were in the past,” Linton says. “Talking with other dads, they learn they don’t have to be experts at everything and that they can learn.”
4. It Will Likely Create Zero Free Time, As Individuals and as a Couple.
“The biggest problem I hear about from couples is time management,” Stolberg says.
Caring for young children requires parents to think about them all the time, so they don’t get to turn their brains off. But “without self-care, you become bitter parents and resentful,” Stolberg says.
What you can do: Ask for what you need and work on compromises that support both of you. If one parent loves to sleep in, for example, maybe the early bird parent can agree to get up early with the baby on weekends. Or if regular workouts are a top priority for one parent, try to give them some time away from the baby to get them in, perhaps via a home workout subscription instead of driving to the gym like they used to.
5. It Makes Your Sex Life … Different.
You’re both exhausted and stressed. In addition, the birth experience can be traumatic for many women, so she might take months to heal emotionally as well as physically. Caring for and possibly feeding her baby with her body takes some getting used to as well; shifting from maternal to sexual can feel like too much, at least for a while. When your OB-GYN gives sex the green light, one or both of you might not be ready.
Among her patients, Goldberg says many times mothers are ready for sex again before dads are. He might harbor fears that sex might feel different, might have gotten used to pleasuring himself or he might not be feeling it if his partner has been yelling at him a lot lately, she says. The emotional connection he needs to feel sexual might be missing, and he might have trouble articulating that.
What you can do: Try to relax and be patient — chances are good that whatever’s happening or not happening in the bedroom is normal. Eventually though, if one partner is feeling neglected sexually, you’re going to have to talk about it.
“As horrible as it sounds, my prescription for repairing for sexual intimacy problems is to be as clear as possible, as in asking, ‘Do you want to have sex now?’” Goldberg says. “To have that clear message is important.”
It can be hard for people to ask for sex, especially if they’re used to being pursued. Men often have trouble verbalizing a need for greater emotional connection, Goldberg says. If it’s too overwhelming, discussing the issue with a couples therapist can help.
6. It May Create Big Problems With In-Laws
Couples whose parents were never an issue between them before might find they’ve become one once the baby arrives. It can be a problem of perception: Maybe she loves having her mother around all the time to help, or yours, and you don’t. Or you think it’s fine for your parents to let themselves in whenever they want to see the baby, but she’s horrified at the idea of giving your parents their own key. None of those views are right or wrong, but if your perceptions of healthy grandparent involvement in raising your baby differ greatly, it can cause problems in your relationship.
Attending to a baby 24-7 also can make mothers feel like they don’t have any privacy anymore, and too much grandparent action can compound the problem. It’s helpful to discuss some inlaw boundaries before the baby comes, such as what would be an appropriate number of visits per week or month, but no one ever does that, Stolberg says.
What you can do: Discuss some ground rules with your partner — protocols such as “If this happens, we do this,” Goldberg says. And resolve to back each other up if needed; it’s important for parents to be a united front.
“It’s challenging trying to please everybody, but important to put your partner first,” she continues.
Inevitably, things will come up that don’t fit neatly into your grandparent protocols, however. When they do, discuss it with your partner as soon as possible, Goldberg advises.
“People hate the phrase ‘asking for permission,’ but it’s not about that. You have to think of it as running it by your partner instead,” she says.
7. It Will Probably Deepen Your Bond as a Couple
It’s a myth that problems between couples magically go away when they have a child, but many couples do find the bond between them deepens in a profound way. One of Stolberg’s clients saw her partner in a new light once he became a dad “and probably fell more in love with him than when they were childless,” he says.
Having children helped Linton discover a deeper sense of empathy and he says he sees life as a richer experience now that he’s a dad.
“Developing a more open heart for the world in general is the great secret of fatherhood,” Linton says.
What you can do: Be compassionate and patient with your child and partner and enjoy your experience as a new father.