When I think back to the first year of either of my daughters’ lives, a lot of the details are fuzzy. Without looking at their baby books, I could not tell you when they started eating solids, when they pulled up for the first time, or when their first tooth popped through. What I can remember very vividly, however, is the strain parenthood put on my marriage—and how thankful I am that my husband and I spent time in couples counseling.
I was particularly struggling after we became new parents. I’d start fights with my husband over what felt like big things to me, but that he saw as minor annoyances. Like, how hard is it for him to wipe down the stovetop after he’s done cooking? Or, why am I always the one who is responsible for swapping out our daughter’s clothes that no longer fit for the ones the next size up? And, I’m sorry, but I’m expected to keep this tiny human alive, work a full-time job, and still have energy for date nights and a sex life at the end of the day? OK, sure buddy.
The bickering intensified for months until we finally felt exhausted enough to admit that our marriage was no longer healthy. At that point, we had to decide if we wanted to continue down this path (which would have likely ended in divorce) or do something about our situation. When my husband suggested couples counseling, I didn’t need any convincing to agree.
Despite our having a very strong relationship prior to welcoming our firstborn, we were experiencing a significant disconnect as we navigated new parenthood, and this situation is by no means unique to us. “I often call parenthood ‘the great excavator’ because it brings everything to the surface,” says Kellie Wicklund, MA, LPC, PMH-C, a licensed psychotherapist and owner and clinical director of Maternal Wellness Center in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, and she believes that the sooner a couple seeks helps, the better.
Is It Normal for Relationships to Change After Having a Baby?
“It is quite normal for a couple to feel like their relationship has changed dramatically after having a baby,” says Kirsten Brunner, MA, LPC, a perinatal mental health specialist, relationship counselor, co-author of The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads, and founder of Baby Proofed Parents, adding, “This new shared responsibility can put a strain on a couple who has never joined forces to raise a human before!”
Both Brunner and Wicklund say myriad factors cause a relationship to change after the arrival of a baby, and they are all pretty significant. Some of these contributors include identity changes, new external demands, a loss of alone time (both together and as individuals), a possible shift in roles and responsibilities in the home, and sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion that results in short tempers and/or lack of intimacy.
What are the Most Common Problems for Couples After Having a Baby?
It seems as though every part of a relationship can be affected by the arrival of a little one. From your daily communication to your shared social lives to your personal feelings of self-esteem.
“New parents might be sleeping at different times or in different rooms, which may lead to feelings of disconnection,” says Brunner, “a new mom might feel ‘touched out’ and not crave the touch or intimacy she once desired from her partner.” This lack of intimacy can result in one or both partners feeling hurt or rejected—and this can be particularly difficult for birthing parents who are also coping with a dramatic body change.
Additionally, Wicklund says, “lack of sleep immediately after having a baby can mean that people have less emotional resources to navigate conflict,” and when this happens it can make communication challenging. Similarly, Brunner notes that hormonal changes during the postpartum period can also play a significant role in misunderstandings and increased conflict.
Other common problems that Brunner and Wicklund say new parents often face include:
- Postpartum depression—either as the person experiencing it or the partner supporting someone with it
- A lack of alone time to connect as a couple, both physically and emotionally
- Mismatched expectations in parenting styles
- Feelings of inequity in parental and/or household responsibilities
- Coping with external and societal expectations, such as gender roles or the “mom influencer” lifestyle
How Can Counseling Help?
For me, counseling provided two invaluable things that continue to help my marriage thrive four years later. First, it offered us a safe space to talk about what we were each feeling and a mediator who validated those feelings—which was incredibly helpful for me. Second, we were given tools to help us communicate better, and we still use them today. It’s like we have our own language that allows us to calmly relay to one another how we are feeling about something, and this comes in particularly handy when one of us (usually me) is much more worked up about an issue than the other person.
“Therapy is the work of illumination. When people understand better what is happening in and around them, they see with new eyes and can make changes that promote relief,” says Wicklund, adding, “Our work as therapists is to work collaboratively with our patients as a guide back to healing, health, and wholeness.”
Brunner agrees and says to couples with a new baby, “a counselor will normalize the challenge that new parents are experiencing in their relationship, which usually calms and reassures the couple.” Additionally, she explains that counselors can assess for perinatal mood disorders, provide tools to help strengthen communication, offer referrals for specialists, and teach them how to care for their relationship while simultaneously taking care of their baby (which is no small task!).
When to Consider Couples Counseling
So, when is the ideal time to call in a pro to help you and your partner navigate your relationship problems and new parenthood? Ideally, the earlier, the better.
“Don’t wait until after [the baby arrives],” recommends Wicklund, “Couples counseling before baby comes can help things stay on track once the baby arrives.”
Of course, most of us have absolutely no idea just how hard new parenthood is before we are in the thick of things, so if you don’t have the foresight to do counseling before you bring your baby home, don’t worry, you aren’t doomed.
Still, both Brunner and Wicklund stress that the earlier a couple decides to get help, the easier it will be. “People often reach out when things feel emergent, but it is easiest if you reach out when you start to notice a disconnect. Mental health is just like physical health in that it is easier to maintain, rather than letting your problems grow,” says Wicklund.
Some identifiable signs that it might be time to call a professional, according to Brunner, include:
- You are arguing more or experiencing an increase in misunderstandings
- One or both of you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression, anxiety, and/or rage
- One or both of you are feeling grief or frustration over losing your old life or pre-baby connection and are seeking ways to feel close as a couple in your new roles
- One partner feels like they are carrying more of the load when it comes to parenting and/or household responsibilities
- You are struggling to establish healthy boundaries with extended family members or grandparents
- One or both of you are struggling to cope with the new responsibilities of parenthood or feel like you need additional outside support
Also, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to struggle as a couple to seek counseling. Both Brunner and Wicklund say that all couples can benefit from counseling—especially after welcoming a baby.
Whether you seek couples counseling as a precaution or as a relationship lifeline after becoming a parent, take comfort in knowing that, soon enough, things settle down. “Life with a baby can be a series of glorious ups and challenging downs,” says Brunner, “but most couples find that their relationship stabilizes with time and attention.” Just as you trusted a team of medical professionals to guide you through pregnancy and birth, allow a therapist to help you and your partner adjust—and learn to thrive—in new parenthood.