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  • Writer's pictureSusan Martin

Relationship Tips for New Parents

Updated: Feb 14

A seismic shift takes place when we create a family by bringing a new soul to the world. Babies bring joy and purpose to our lives - our worldview changes and parenting together with our partner affords us an opportunity to bring our relationship to a deeper level. At the same time, the realities of caring for a new little being and the intensity of an infant’s needs 24/7 can also be a real surprise as well as a source of friction for new parents. The reality of modern life with a new baby can take its toll from time to time in even the most connected relationship. 

Because our experiences and interactions with each other will impact our baby’s life in far reaching ways, raising children requires us to be adults to our fullest extent and to reflect on our behaviors, our limitations and deeply consider our actions. When there is conflict and challenge in our relationship with each other, taking stock of what’s happening and finding ways to positively steer the course of our joint journey is necessary. Some ideas to help you in minimizing conflict are outlined below, but first it helps to understand how these stressors arise in the first place.

Statistically, the most stressful years in a marriage (or partner relationship) are when children are under age five and again during adolescence (so, if you plan on having multiple children and want the longest latency period, sounds like some math calculations are in order). Why are these times more stressful? Well, humans take the longest time to mature to adulthood and during times of rapid growth (under age five and those renowned teen years), our children are at their most vulnerable stages and require a major input of parental resources (physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially) to ensure their well-being and safety. 

For our littlest members - our babies and toddlers - exponential brain growth occurs as babies are born with 25% of their brain matter and it doubles in the first year alone! Their physiological and psychological growth is dependent on an adult to be the external brain and nervous system that shapes theirs as they develop. If you feel your baby is sucking out all your energy (and side note: it’s not completely one way - we do also get biological and emotional perks by giving care) it’s because your baby truly depends on your system to regulate and grow their own. It’s not all in your head - you are truly transferring a lot of energy that is absolutely vital to their well-being in both the short and long term. 

All this has been hardwired by nature over millions years via species specific mechanisms that evolved to create healthy humans. If we’re wired for this, why does it feel so hard? Why does my relationship with my partner feel stressed? Why are we bickering all the time? Or we seem to be living in separate realities - moving like ships passing each other in the dark depths of night? 

The challenge is that most of us no longer live in a species specific environment, such as being surrounded by knowledgeable extended family and tribe members (a.k.a alloparents) who would help us with this parenting journey. We may live far from helpful relatives. We may have only unhelpful or clueless relatives. Or, we may have lost dear ones who have passed from this earthly plane. 

Additionally, living in a capitalist society, we need to have income streams to afford shelter, food and basic necessities, which usually necessitates being employed and working a job. To make matters more complicated, in the U.S. (unlike most other advanced countries) we don’t have adequate social and financial protections in place (such as federal paid maternity/paternity leave and work protections) to ensure the well-being of mothers, babies and new families. Financial inequity and a lack of societal sharing leaves many of us struggling and few with the resources they really need. 

Modern life for many parents looks a far cry from our evolutionary roots. 

So, if you are a parent of a little one(s) and your relationship with your significant other feels unbalanced or stressful right now, the first thing to know is this is likely normal. I don’t think any relationship is immune from the rigors of child rearing. There is probably nothing truly wrong with your relationship, even if it might feel that way sometimes. The feelings and behaviors you and your partner are struggling with are likely felt by other families and are a natural response to an unnatural situation. 

When situations are fraught or challenging, we want to know what to do to make it better. Understanding why things are tough helps, but there are also positive actions that may be helpful to try. Here are some ideas to consider if you are struggling in your relationship right now: 

  1. Find Support Beyond Your Partner: The families I observe who are the least stressed have the most support. They have relatives or friends who are engaged in their lives and provide some relief valves of practical support and social connection. Some lucky people are able to hire support when they do not have family. When we have to rely on our partner only this creates a situation of trying to get needs fulfilled that are beyond the ability of one person - who may also feel stretched to the max (I’m assuming an involved partner who takes their parenting role seriously; if this is not happening and a partner is clueless of their new role, this requires a frank discussion). Consider what you need most (is it help with a messy house, a chance to get a shower in, or do you need a listening ear and camaraderie?) With whom and where else might you get needed help? 

  2. Open Communication: How to go about this depends on the dynamics of your relationship - hopefully good and clear communication is a part of it (and if this is difficult, some couples find benefit in seeing a therapist together to gain needed skill-sets). Your partner is not a mind reader.  My husband hates to discuss things - he just wants to know what to do. For dads and partners, a great tip received in one of our class reunions was for them to ask the mother specifically “What are 3 things I can do right now to help you?” If work and routines make it difficult to get a conversation in, perhaps notes to each other or a journal that’s kept in a central location can be a good tool. A communication journal could also be a potential keepsake from this time in your lives. Written entries can be matter-of-fact for what’s needed - it could also include messages of encouragement. Good communication is crucial for preventing misunderstanding and resentment.

  3. Showing Appreciation: If you feel distant from each other, remember that oxytocin is the hormone that bonds us together. Eye contact, sharing food and touch all contribute to its appearance in our body, connecting us together. Simply looking each other in the eye when handing off the baby - intentionally and with appreciation and warmth - can make a big difference in our relationship. So can a gentle touch on the arm, shoulder or back. Or how about a hug? Hugs are known to be vital for well-being. We really need those. I would also add to internally appreciate the values and commitment you both share to focus on your child’s needs and your desires to set a good foundation for your little one. This itself can be a source of bonding for the two of you. Bonding occurs over a shared experience - even (and maybe especially) when it’s challenging.

  4. Grace and Understanding: All relationships need these two components, but especially if you lack support structures and it’s a two-of-you-against-the-world type of scenario (which my husband and I have personally experienced, so I have much empathy for anyone in this situation). It’s important to look at your situation with clear eyes and have an understanding for what needs to be prioritized now. Comparing yourself to others or holding onto fabricated, romanticized imagery of what relationships are “supposed to look like” is unhelpful to the extreme. It’s important to realize that each of you is likely doing the best you can in the circumstances and to have compassion for each other. 

  5. Realistic Expectations: About how babies grow and about our partner. Babies need a lot - meeting their needs is an investment in their future and ours. Our partner cannot be perfect and meet our every need - which modern life in our individual homes seems intent to thrust upon us. Each of us is a real live human being with strengths and flaws. Growing and learning. Our home is not going to be perfect. Limit social media - none of that is real life.

  6. Breathe: "This too shall pass," is a quote I love to share in class. It may not seem like it will because those days and nights can feel really, really, really long sometimes with babies, but I can assure you, it will. You can only work with this moment now. Don’t get too far ahead of yourself. Take five deep, slow inhales and slow, measured exhales.  

All relationships have bumps and valleys. Caring for little ones can be a major stressor because a baby has very intense needs that must be met for their well-being. It’s foundational work that requires some deep digging emotionally. There is often a shift in our roles and the dynamics in our  relationship. Things might feel unbalanced and unsettled. Take heart because some struggle need not mean the end of the relationship.

Ultimately, the only person’s behavior we can truly affect is our own. We can share and communicate with our partner. We can seek to understand them. But we cannot control them. We cannot make them what we think we need.

When there are challenges in a relationship, I like to think of them as growth spurts - we are not all going to grow at the same pace. Sometimes there are little mismatches along the way. That’s okay. The parenting road is a long journey with many more opportunities ahead. Honor your process and the little bumps along the way confident in the knowledge you will both meet again at a time where you are aligned. Trust in that. 

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