While the rewards and joys of parenthood can be immensely satisfying and deeply meaningful, those who cling to an unrealistic and romanticized vision of having a child may be set up for a very rude awakening. Having a baby, especially that first baby, not only turns any parent’s world upside down, but it also causes a dramatic paradigm shift in a couple’s relationship.
Almost overnight, partners experience a significant change in their relationship dynamics. They instantaneously are no longer simply lovers, they are now parents — mothers and fathers who, at least initially, must function in a sleep-deprived state. Their relationship inevitably takes a back seat to the responsibility of caring for a newborn baby. If the couple hasn’t prepared in advance or somehow acquired a realistic understanding of what to expect, their relationship is destined to suffer. Even couples who have prepared struggle to escape the fallout from the sudden change. Unfortunately, and not surprisingly, the divorce rate is quite high for couples with young children which only reinforces how difficult this phase in a relationship can be.
The importance of having a good support system in place, as well as being financially and educationally prepared for this life-changing event cannot be overstated. Just in case it’s not already evident, clearly “having a baby to save a marriage” is worse than a bad idea, it may ensure the relationship ends in short order. A relationship without a previous solid connection will not be improved with the additional stress and increased responsibility of parenthood.
While it takes a lot of effort to stay connected as a couple, doing so with a new baby is far more challenging. Additionally, even couples who had a strong connection before having a child, will struggle to maintain their connection. Viewing the struggle as a temporary situation may make it seem easier to manage, particularly at first. Some couples efficiently function as a “partnership,” raising the kids and living together as a family, but not otherwise connecting with each other for years. These are typically the people who find they no longer have anything in common, and experience “empty nest” syndrome most severely after the children grow up and leave home.
Keeping connected as a couple takes lots of time, energy, and commitment. It’s hard, but doable — if both parties commit to what is needed and follow through to make it happen. Here are some suggestions that will help you and your partner stay connected after your baby arrives:
1) Have the “how to stay connected” conversation well before your baby is born. Ideally, discuss this even before the pregnancy.
2) Remember that the relationship is a priority in addition to the baby. Don’t let caring for the baby’s needs always take precedence over the needs of the couple. The longer your needs or the needs of your partner are put on hold, the more difficult it is to reconnect down the line.
3) Schedule time alone with your partner either as an actual date night or just simply connecting for 10-15 minutes at home during the baby’s nap. Use the opportunity to talk about something other than your new infant.
4) Divide the chores. Nothing can create resentment faster than one partner feeling like the other is not doing their share of the household work. Both partners need to come to an agreement and understand the need to split chores or switch them around after the baby comes. Ideally, again, this conversation should occur even before having a baby. Don’t wait until after the fact to find out your partner won’t change diapers!
5) Schedule solo time for each partner, agreeing as a couple on how much and how often. Staying connected with friends and personal interests is necessary for individual well-being, as well as the strength of the relationship.
6) Don’t stop doing little things for each other: That greeting or goodbye kiss, quick text, or phone call just to say “I’m thinking of you” truly means a lot, and goes a long way to staying connected with your partner, with or without baby.
Go ahead and try the above tips. If you are still struggling to reconnect, it is important to not wait to reach out for professional support.
Unfortunately, depression is very common – ten percent of adults in the United States are struggling with some level of depression at any given time, according to recent statistics. That means even if only one-quarter of depressed adults are in a relationship, a high percentage of people are affected one way or another.
Which Came First?
Although not talked about very much, depression can not only dramatically affect someone’s life, it can eventually devastate a relationship. A tricky part of dealing with the problem is that often the non-depressed, or “healthy” partner, may not be aware of what’s happening. They may notice that their significant other is distant, or showing other depressive symptoms, but not sure why. Are problems in the relationship causing the depression, or is the depression negatively impacting the relationship? Or is it some combination of the two?
Depression can clearly make relationship problems worse, but also makes it hard for an intervening therapist to figure out exactly what’s going on. Sadness, irritability, anger, decreased libido, and decreased motivation, along with being critical and argumentative, are all symptoms partners may exhibit when depressed and/or experiencing problems in the relationship. A lack of communication and general withdrawal from life and their significant other, are concurrent signs of both individual and partnership trouble.
There are also characteristic gender differences in depressive symptoms. Men tend to act out more, either in angry outbursts or other abusive behavior (physically or verbally). Women have a tendency to turn inward when depressed, sinking into despair or otherwise internalizing their emotions.
Gender differences surface in counseling as well. Men are often reluctant to acknowledge and talk about their problems. Stereotypically, they struggle with exposing any vulnerability. The hesitancy to ask for assistance means that depressed men are more likely to go untreated, and this is often the case regarding their physical as well as mental health. Women are generally more open to discussing problem issues, and are more likely to seek professional help. They may already be in individual therapy and/or under medical care for their symptoms prior to seeing a marriage counselor. Severe depression, for both sexes, is usually best treated with a combination of antidepressant drugs and psychotherapy.
When in couples counseling, the first step is to identify if one partner is depressed. When the depressed partner readily acknowledges his or her mood, communication in the relationship can improve. This can be challenging, however, when the depression is not recognized and discussed by either or both partners. It’s also important to not assume that depression is the main cause of the relationship problems. Even if one partner is significantly depressed, both partners in the relationship are contributing to their relationship issues.
After the problem is identified, it is important to formulate a plan together on how to deal with the depression. The couple needs to determine both individual as well as a relational plans to restore their connection.
Helping Your Depressed Partner
Often it is important that the depressed partner attend individual counseling. Also, it is usually a good idea for them to schedule an appointment with their family physician for a complete exam, to rule out any physical factors that could possibly be causing or contributing to their symptoms. A family doctor may also prescribe an antidepressant (or refer the partner to a psychiatrist) if the depression is severe.
In addition, it is important that the non-depressed partner begin educating him or herself about depression and its symptoms. Please see the following resource on depression. In couples therapy, it is important for the non-depressed partner to learn how his or her behavior may be exacerbating the situation and contributing to the relationship difficulties.
Although it can be daunting and even feel hopeless at times, with open and honest communication, well-formulated plans of action, and a therapist’s guidance, the ability to recover from a partner’s depression in a relationship is an achievable goal.
The very short answer would be to start having lots of sex!
It’s not that easy. According to Newsweek magazine, 15 to 20% of all marriages in America are considered “sexless.” What exactly is a sexless marriage?
What Is a Sexless Marriage?
A sexless marriage may not literally equate to zero sex, but it is a relationship in which sex does not play a regular role, perhaps occurring only once every couple of months or less. Some consider 10 or fewer occasions per year as “sexless.”
Whether infrequent sex is considered an issue or not is actually relative to each couple. If both partners are satisfied with the amount of sexual contact, be it twice a year or twice a week, they are in balance. It becomes a problem when the partners disagree on the frequency, leaving one feeling needy and the other feeling put upon. It’s important to note that without a healthy sex life, couples are often challenged to find other ways to become connected and intimate with each other non-sexually.
Sexual disagreements are one of the most frequent areas of conflict in a marriage, on par with financially-related conflict, and more frequent than parenting and extended family issues.
Causes of a Sexless Marriage
There’s an old joke that asks, “What food will take away 95% of someone’s sex drive?” The witty answer is “Wedding cake.” The topic of why marriage often destroys a couple’s sex drive merits its own article, but one answer is that by the time many couples get married, the honeymoon phase starts to wear off, causing their libidos to recede. In addition, as the relationship becomes more routine, a couple’s differences surface and their closeness and intimacy can be affected.
Another contributing factor is that in this country both partners in a household typically work outside the home. After a full day at the job, followed by running errands, helping the kids with homework, preparing dinner, and doing other household chores, sex is the last thing on their minds when a couple finally crawls into bed — late and exhausted, with another work day ahead. Too often, this describes the female role, which plays into the paradox: Men usually feel closer by having sex, and women often need to feel close to be interested in being sexually intimate. It’s hard to feel close or sexy if you’re stressed, fatigued and/or angry about your partner not pulling his weight.
As the cycle continues, more distance between the couple equates to less sex. A disparity in libido can also contribute to feelings of rejection and resentment. A wall begins to build between the partners, and a sexless marriage develops.
Health issues can impact sexual frequency. Physical and mental illnesses, including erectile dysfunction, dyspareunia(painful intercourse), and depression, can all play a significant role in a couples’ level of sexual intimacy. Seeking appropriate professional help is critical.
A couples’ early history can also play a role. How people are raised, or previous negative sexual experiences, can affect attitudes about sex. If sex was considered evil, wrong, or dirty; or if sexual or physical abuse occurred in the past, having sex is likely to be avoided (though it can cause some people to become hypersexual). Counseling may be necessary to work through these issues.
Regardless of the reason, problems between a couple impact the quality and quantity of their sex life. As time goes by and the lack of communication and distance between them grows, it no longer feels okay or safe to try to initiate sex.
Prevention and Repair
Couples should be careful not to let a few sexless months turn into a few years. Over time, the issues only intensify. After a prolonged period of little or no sex, it’s important for them to try to address the issues and determine why. They should be honest with each other and identify the main contributing factors. There are usually past and present resentments and issues to uncover.
Partners should keep in mind that complaining or whining about a lack of sex will typically not get them very far. Both partners need to learn to express their needs in a respectful and proactive way. Couples may need to reflect on the beginning of their relationship and start “dating” again in order to rekindle the attraction and sexual connection to one other that existed originally.
One way to start is by recreating past pleasurable experiences and shared positive memories that originally drew them close to one another. Then they can begin to shake things up by finding new creative activities and interests that are mutually enjoyable.
Finally, while not spontaneous or appealing to all couples, scheduling sex dates can help. It may seem forced or awkward at first, but for many busy working couples with children, it’s often the only realistic way to make it happen.
Couples — go ahead and try some of the above suggestions. If you and your partner both make a real effort, you can have a more active sex life! If you get stuck along the way, or the issues appear to be overwhelming on your own, be sure to seek out professional help.
As a marriage counselor, when I see a couples for the first time, I frequently observe how each partner tries to show the other (and me) that they’re in the right on a particular issue and their partner is wrong. When this happens, I am quick to point out that when couples are focused on righteousness, their relationship can quickly become the big loser in this dynamic.
What is “Fair Fighting?”
The goal in fair fighting is for couples to try to understand and completely take in their partner’s perspective. This is not as easy as it appears to be. To do so, both partners must at least temporarily let go of their position and understand their partner fully. They need to not just understand their partner’s stance in a factual way, but they also need to fully absorb their partner’s emotional place about the issue in question. Fortunately, with effort and practice, couples can reach this goal of having a “respectful disagreement.”
Not surprisingly, fighting fair really doesn’t involve any fighting at all. Engaging in an open dialogue, which is done respectfully and tactfully while sharing each other’s viewpoints, is far from a fight. If you were to witness a healthy couple disagreeing on an issue, it would be hard to determine that they were having a difference of opinion because of the how skilled they are in having a respectful discussion/disagreement.
Keep Negative Emotions Out of The Room
Before engaging in any controversial discussion, it’s important that both partners not only check their righteousness at the door, but also to be sure to check their temperature before starting any conversation. If they’re too frustrated or angry, any subsequent exchange is highly unlikely to become a healthy and respectful dialogue. Both partners should take the time to self-soothe or calm themself down before addressing any issues with their partner.
Sometimes calling a timeout in the middle of the discussion may also be necessary to regain composure. John Gottman’s research indicates that if the heart rate is greater than 100 beats per minute, people are too upset to engage in a productive conversation (partly because they physiologically can’t process information or truly listen). If a break is required in order for one partner to calm down, it is important to always schedule a follow-up discussion, so the other person does not feel put off or stonewalled.
6 Quick Tips to Engage in a Healthy and Productive Discussion
- Speak to your partner in the first person, using “I” statements instead of “You” statements, which can come across as criticism or an attack: “You always do this…” Also, try to avoid absolutes such as “always” or “never” in your statements, which usually only upset your partner and are rarely true anyway.
- Use feeling words like, “I’m feeling frustrated/sad/glad/mad” to express yourself. It’s also important not to interrupt your partner, letting him finish his thoughts before speaking.
- Try initiating a conversation in a gentle way which is also called using a “soft start-up.” To learn more about using a soft start-up, go here.
- After hearing his perspective, focus on truly understanding your partner’s position.
- Restate what your partner said to make sure you correctly understood him. This validates your partner, and makes him feel heard.
- Respectful dialogues maximize the chance of compromise, but there is no guarantee a compromise will be found. When no compromise or understanding is reached on an issue, the final step is to clearly determine how this issue will be handled in the future.
Remember that the “healthiest couples” have differences, but engage in respectful conversations and are skilled at dialoguing productively, often allowing them to reach an agreeable middle ground or compromise on any topic.
Sometimes, the best couples can do if they truly have different and uncompromising perspectives, is to agree to disagree. The issue can always be revisited at a later date, to see if there’s been a shift in information or a partner’s opinion, which might now allow a compromise to be reached.
One common trap couples should try to avoid is “issue hopping.” Make sure to completely finish discussing the current issue or problem before moving on to another one. Partners can take turns sharing what’s important to them.
Ultimately, remember that having a healthy difference of opinion doesn’t involve fighting or actual conflict. It’s the word choice, tone of voice, and respectful nature of the conversation that determine the quality and outcome of the discussion.
Perhaps one of the trickiest challenges to navigate in marriage involves the extended family. Laying the ground work for good relationship foundations should ideally begin even before a couple announces their engagement and intention to live happily ever after. Starting off on the right foot with the in-laws, from the first introduction, can help prevent much future heartache and stress. Remember: As long as you have a relationship with your spouse, you will have a relationship with his family. Getting along well in both situations is obviously to everyone’s advantage!
Often the toughest person to win over when a couple’s relationship becomes serious is a disapproving parent. In our society, the classic “mother-in-law” problem is usually what first comes to mind. As the parent who typically has the most time investment in her children (and their choices), this tendency comes as no real surprise. Even if her child’s selection of a spouse seems perfect, the fear of being replaced in importance, “losing” her child or no longer being needed at all, may loom large. This issue is more pronounced when children who are younger marry, as opposed to those who are older or have already been living independently for some time.
The separation/letting go struggle may not just come from the parenting end, but also from a young adult struggling to separate from the parent’s influence. If your mother and significant other aren’t seeing eye-to-eye, it can be tricky to navigate.
One of the most common mistakes is trying to stay neutral, and one of the worst mistakes is siding with your parent over your partner. The need to be supportive of your spouse, even if you don’t agree with their stance, is of vital importance. You may not be able to stay out of the clash 100%, but you need to support your partner on some level. Trying to mediate or “tranquilize the problem” is often not the answer either, as it prevents a one-on-one discussion between the two disagreeing parties who need to deal directly with each other in order to fully resolve the issue.
Presenting with your partner as a “united front” is key to dealing with other issues too, such as how to raise your children. Often grandparents and other relatives can be critical of the discipline or rules you set in your household. Showing respect for their opinions, while at the same time sticking to your own, can put the issue to rest in a diplomatic way.
Agreeing on family traditions, particularly during the holidays, is also an issue to be decided as a couple. Each partner needs to consider which traditions they deem most meaningful and want to keep. They may need to educate each other on their importance. This may be particularly necessary if traditions have a religious significance, and the couple comes from different backgrounds/faiths. A compromise or blending of traditions establishes new ones that are significant just for you as a couple, and strengthens your personal bond.
While a comfortable, loving relationship with your extended family is obviously ideal, keeping the relationship civil may be as good as it gets. Getting past the anger and frustration largely depends on your ability to assertively communicate your feelings and your preferences. Keeping your distance from controversial topics or events and refusing to compete with other family members may be the wisest strategy you employ. Look for the positive and search for something to appreciate in every situation.
From the very beginning, treat your partner’s parents and siblings as you would your own, or as you would treat your best friend. Try not to find fault with them, or their way of doing things. Just because there are differences, it doesn’t make them wrong. Develop an attitude of tolerance or better yet, of acceptance. All of your efforts will go a long way in strengthening your relationship with your significant other as well, and making the “happily ever after” a truism.