Expecting the first baby is an exciting time for most couples. Most couples understand that having a baby will call for certain sacrifices, but many don’t fully comprehend the challenges their marriage will face once two become three. The Family: A Proclamation to the World states that “husband and wife have a solemn responsibility to care for each other and for their children” (¶ 6). While babies do bring joy and rejoicing, they can be demanding and stressful. In these circumstances, attending to the baby’s needs may take precedence over caring for one’s spouse.
Sixty-seven percent of couples report a drop in marital satisfaction after bringing the baby home, but what about the 33% of couples who report that their marital satisfaction either remains stable or increases? What is their secret? Research suggests that mothers and fathers can maintain closeness and even become closer during the transition to parenthood as they focus on working as a team, learn to effectively manage conflict, and make time to build their friendship.
Work as a Team. With so many new tasks on their shoulders, it is important for new parents to feel like a team as they care for their new baby, which they can do so by supporting and encouraging each other. Compliments and gentle guidance can help mothers and fathers maintain equal roles as parents. Parents should also recognize the unique importance of both mothers and fathers for children’s development. Finally, spouses can strengthen their marriage relationship by working together at home. Perceived fairness regarding childcare and household labor is more important than the actual equal division of chores for marital happiness.
Learn to Manage Conflict Well. With the stress and extra demands, new parents occasionally do not see eye to eye. They can manage conflict by practicing good communication skills such as empathetic listening, sending clear messages, and compromising. The benefits of managing conflict extend beyond the marriage. Children whose parents manage conflict well are more likely to sleep better, be better at self-regulating, and be happier babies.
Building Friendship. Perhaps the most important thing couples can do to preserve intimacy once they have a baby is maintaining their friendship. Couples can cultivate their friendship by sincerely caring about getting to know each other. They can ask each other questions such as,
- “How can I be a better friend to you?”
- “What are you missing most since we became parents?”
- “What do you enjoy most about being a mother/father?”
- “What are your thoughts and feelings about religion and spirituality these days?”
In addition, couples who successfully transition to parenthood frequently express appreciation, affection, and admiration for each other. “Thanks for changing the baby’s diaper,” and “This dinner is delicious!” can go a long way. Although it may be tempting to focus on shortcomings, spouses should instead focus on things their partners do despite being exhausted and overwhelmed. And, of course, saying “I love you” frequently is also important.
Couples who maintain and increase intimacy after becoming parents often engage in what is known as “turning toward” each other’s bids for attention. Bids for attention are requests for a need to be met by a spouse. Turning toward each other would mean responding attentively. Doing these things to cultivate friendship can do wonders in helping the couple express humor and affection. It can also give them energy to manage conflict more effectively. Cultivating friendship in these ways can help spouses express humor and affection, manage conflict more effectively, and create a strong foundation for romance, passion, and satisfying sexual relationships.
Make Sex a Priority. Another thing successful couples do to build friendship is prioritize their sexual intimacy. Couples need to be intentional about making time to be sexual together. This can be difficult as couples transition to parenthood. Sometimes the challenges of pregnancy make sexual intimacy difficult even before the child is born. Researchers John and Julie Gottman1 have observed couples’ transition to parenthood and recommend the following steps for preserving sexual intimacy:
- Accept that things have changed since the baby arrived.
- Ask each other for sex.
- Communicate what feels good sexually and how to make it better.
- Continue nonsexual affection.
- Realize that in most cases, he’s a microwave and she’s a Dutch oven. Use that understanding for being patient with each other.
- Accept that spontaneous intimate encounters are as important and enjoyable as gourmet sex. Gourmet sex is defined as passionate, “divinely delicious and takes time” but good sex doesn’t always need such preparation.
- Accept alternate methods of reaching satisfaction together.
- Share your sexual fantasies.
- Discuss your innermost feelings, and don’t avoid conflict.
- Prioritize gourmet sex, and make time for it.
Prioritize Together Time. One important thing to note is that “all positive interactions are foreplay” when it comes to deepening intimacy.1 As such, couples would do well to prioritize not only time to be sexual, but also time to just be together. Date nights may be tricky with infants, but with a little planning, couples can reap the benefits of spending time with each other exclusively. One option that some new parents have found helpful is to exchange babysitting with other new parents so that each couple can enjoy time alone without raising costs.
Taking time away from baby may seem selfish, but parents should keep in mind that happier spouses make for happier parents. And with all the benefits a happy marriage can have for children, “the greatest gift we can give our baby is our love for each other”.1
Written by Amberlie Lane, Research Assistant, and edited by Stephen F. Duncan, professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University. September 20, 2018.
- Gottman, J. M., & Gottman, J. S. (2007). And baby makes three: The six-step plan for preserving marital intimacy and rekindling romance after baby arrives. New York: Three Rivers Press.