This blog post originally contributed as a guest article for Psychotherapy for Maternal Well-Being, a private practice owned by Kendra Olson, MSW, LICSW, PMH-C in Minneapolis, MN specializing in perinatal care.
Maintaining Relationship Satisfaction As You Transition Into Parenthood
The journey into parenthood is a remarkable and transformative experience, one that brings joy, challenges, and a newfound depth of love. Yet, amidst the excitement of welcoming a new life, couples often find themselves facing unexpected obstacles in their relationship. Many couples share the sentiment that their partner doesn’t truly understand them anymore, as the dynamics shift and new roles emerge. Navigating this intricate terrain requires intention, effort, and a deep commitment to each other. In this exploration, we delve into the principles that can help you maintain relationship satisfaction as you transition into parenthood, drawing from the wisdom of John Gottman’s insights in “7 Principles for Making Marriage Work.”
Build Love Maps
Many couples express dissatisfaction in the relationship claiming they do not feel like their partner even knows them anymore. As you transition into becoming a parent there’s a world of thoughts and feelings that are all brand new. Without intentionally choosing to explore these with each other, you could begin to feel as though your partner doesn’t know who you are. Choosing to learn about each other builds what we call “love maps.” Love maps are the layout of your world and just as you learn your way around town using a map (or GPS) building love maps is how you become familiar with your partner’s changing world as you continue to learn what it means to be a parent.
Turn Toward Bids for Connection
Additionally, paying attention to each other’s needs is vital for maintaining relationship strength and friendship. Being a new parent is difficult for both partners but in different ways. Often the non-birthing parent can feel like they do not have a right to have needs and so they withhold sharing and not needs go unexpressed. This can lead to resentment and loneliness. When we turn towards each other’s needs, we communicate that we are available and that we can be trusted. As you pay attention to how your partner might need help, they know you are committed and will be open to influence as well.
Engage in Healthy Conflict
Conflict is not only inevitable, it’s crucial for maintaining relationship intimacy. Couples I work with often raise an eyebrow when I say they cannot have intimacy without conflict. Most of them fight tooth and nail to avoid conflict. This is because the type of conflict most couples have ends in distance and withdrawal. As you transition toward parenthood the changes you will experience require both of you to adapt. Choosing how to engage in healthy conflict is how you will successfully navigate through this and at the same time create more closeness between you.
1. Focus On Yourself
First, you have to shift focus from your partner and talk more about yourself. Yes, talking more about yourself involves sharing your feelings and needs using “I” statements. Instead of, “You’re changing the diaper wrong,” using an I-statement you’d say, “I’m nervous that everything won’t be contained that way, could you be sure to do it like this?” I-statements will lead toward less defensiveness and allow your partner to understand you better without feeling criticized.
2. Listen with Interest and Curiosity
Second, listen to your partner with interest and curiosity. It can be incredibly difficult to suspend judgment to hear out the other person but when you do, you’ll be able to catch the gems that are hidden beneath the surface. Having curiosity means asking deepening questions like, “Oh yeah? Can you tell me more about that?” and “What did you mean when you said… I’d like to understand that better.” Or “Is there anything else I should know about how you feel about this?” Choosing curiosity will help your partner feel that you are not stuck in your perspective and that their dreams and desires matter.
3. Take a Break
Finally, know when to take a break if you’re feeling overwhelmed. Even the healthiest individuals can get flooded. This is when the emotions grow to an overwhelming point and it becomes difficult to continue thinking straight. In conflict, it means you’re either shutting down or have escalated toward raging. No logical thinking or reasoning is happening when you’re flooded. Agreeing with each other that when this happens you will take a short break and try to return when you’re both calm is the best way to try and finish the conversation.
Create Shared Meaning and Rituals of Connection
Additionally, maintaining relationship health as you become parents involves creating shared meaning and rituals of connection. Shared meaning happens when, together, you know something special is occurring between you. We create shared meaning in several different ways. Symbols, for example, capture the essence of something we value with a simple word or picture. We also create shared meaning with roles. As you arrive at “who does what” in your relationship, you will come to appreciate the ways each of you contributes. Goals create shared meaning by allowing the two of you to vision a future for your growing family.
Rituals also create a strong connection and shared meaning. Not long ago I was working with a couple that was struggling to feel like they were on the parenting journey together. What I discovered was that they had divided up the roles so clearly that there was very little they were doing together! I encouraged them to identify certain points throughout the day where they could focus on the parenting responsibilities together. They decided that together they would bathe their baby and that when he arrived home from work each day, they would both get on the ground and play with their baby on the play mat.
As you embark on the incredible journey of parenthood, remember that nurturing your relationship remains an essential foundation for the well-being of your family. By building love maps through continued learning about each other, paying attention to each other’s needs, and navigating conflicts constructively, you lay the groundwork for enduring connection. Shared meaning and rituals of connection breathe life into your relationship, allowing you to share in the beautiful and challenging moments that come with parenting.
Amid sleepless nights and diaper changes, don’t lose sight of the love story that brought you together. Embrace the changes as opportunities for growth, both individually and as a couple. As you become parents, you’re not just adding to your family; you’re strengthening the foundation of your partnership. By embodying these principles, you can create a relationship that flourishes amidst the trials and triumphs of parenthood. Your journey together, marked by understanding, support, and shared meaning, will not only enrich your lives but also provide a resilient and loving environment for your growing family.