Helping Couples Adjust to Parenthood

By Dr. Larry Beer

“We’re going to have a baby!!”

Both parents are excited and so are their families and friends. And they should be. Becoming parents is an incredibly exciting, meaningful and rewarding experience. Of course, they want to do a great job of parenting, so they read books and attend classes on how to become the best parents possible. This is great, but here is something missing: What about the parents’ relationship as a couple? They are going to have to deal with being sleep-deprived, feeling irritable, and becoming really frustrated with each other! I have always wondered about why we as a society don’t do a better job of preparing couples for the toll parenthood will take upon the parents’ relationship.

I first noticed this dynamic when I was doing the research for my dissertation on marital satisfaction, and all of the studies showed that marital satisfaction drops significantly after a couple has a child. If this isn’t bad enough, it drops even further after a couple has a second child. According to John and Julie Gottman in their book And Baby Makes Three, two out of three couples that they studied reported a significant decrease in their levels of relationship satisfaction. (I question the honesty of the third that didn’t admit to this 😊.) Parenting is more overwhelming than can be anticipated. On the other hand, it is also more rewarding than expected too.

I must admit that I experienced this first hand after my wife Cindy and I became parents. Both of us were convinced that our sharing of responsibilities was totally unfair. It made us feel ways toward each other that neither of us wanted to feel. While Cindy and I were able to navigate our struggles, I can only guess how much the stress of parenthood has contributed to so many couples getting divorced.

Almost all of the classes and readings expecting parents do are focused upon how to take care of the child, and very little is mentioned about how the parents can cope with the strain that parenting puts on each of them individually, as well as the couple’s relationship with each other. New couples are often encouraged to go through pre-marital counseling. The theory is that preparing for this transition usually allows them to better cope with it. Getting married is a big change so it makes sense! However, I believe that becoming parents is an even greater change than becoming a married couple. Why don’t we have pre-parenthood classes that focus on the significant stress that will now impact the parents’ relationship?

I sincerely believe that if we better prepared couples for this adjustment, it would reduce the rate of divorce and even improve the relationship between the parents who stay together. Couples are truly unprepared for the pressure that becoming parents is going to put upon their relationship. They are ambushed! This is why I think a much greater part of the preparation for parenthood needs to focus upon helping the couple better anticipate the coming changes. It is surprising how little is written about this topic, but I know of at least one very good book on the subject. That book is And Baby Makes Three by John and Julie Gottman. I think it should be a required read for every couple who is preparing to have a child.

Besides reading And Baby Makes Three, I would make the following suggestions:

  • Find a good couples’ counselor. This will provide the couple with a safe place to talk about the stresses that come with parenthood and their frustrations with each other. Additionally, the couple can work on their communication skills; especially communicating during challenging times, when they are tired, scared or angry.
  • Find a good babysitter. Babysitters are our heroes during this difficult time. They are not cheap, but they are an investment in the well-being of the family. Babysitters can help a couple find time for themselves and time with each other. It is important to remember that the reason the baby is here is because the parents had a relationship with each other. This relationship cannot be taken for granted, and too often it is. Even after becoming parents, we still need to have some time for ourselves and fun with our partners. Ignoring these needs will inevitably lead to hurt and anger, and create unwanted tensions in the family.

In sum, couples are unprepared for the toll that parenthood is going to take upon themselves and their relationship with each other. Receiving couples counseling, finding good babysitters, and reading And Baby Makes Three can help a couple manage the inevitable stress of becoming parents and reduce the likelihood of divorce or an unhappy marriage.

 

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