The Evolving Pregnancy and Postpartum Relationship – Normal or Not?

57441453_22.jpgBy Carolyn Pirak, LCSW, Founding Director, Bringing Baby Home, The Gottman Institute


Having a baby is a profound life experience and one that changes the routines for every relationship. Whether a couple has been planning a pregnancy for years or if a new baby comes as a surprise, the transition from partners to parents happens quickly when baby arrives. Did you know that approximately 67% of couples experience a decrease in relationship satisfaction after their baby arrives? Research by the Bringing Baby Home Program has discovered that much of the decline in relationship quality is a result of three factors: an increase in conflict, a decrease in communication, and unrealistic expectations by one or both partners. Add to that the possibility of postpartum depression, and the arrival of a baby can be a difficult adjustment.

Normal Changes

The first step in making the transition to parenthood a positive experience is to expect the unexpected. Every pregnancy, every birth and every child is different. One of the best parts of parenting is that babies bring unexpected joy to a couple’s relationship. Although there can be variations in every parent’s experience as a result of social, cultural, emotional or economic circumstances, most of the changes that occur after a baby is born are universal and normal for all new parents. The challenge for many couples is to know what is normal during the transition to parenthood and what are considered red flags. A new baby brings:

  • increased household tasks
  • change in finances
  • changes in roles, responsibilities and life goals
  • relationship changes

Understanding these expected life changes in advance of baby’s arrival can help minimize the anxiety, fear or frustration once baby arrives. Conversely, recognizing the areas of concern that are not typical can provide opportunities for early intervention when things go differently than planned.

Discussing Role Changes

Making the transition from “me” to “we” happens in every parenting situation. Whether single or part of a pair, a parenting relationship between parent and baby is created at birth and redefines the relationships of everyone surrounding the new baby. When a baby is born, people become parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and the roles that accompany each of these is redefined. This is normal. Sometimes, the role changes are easy and much desired. Other times, the changes bring a sense of discomfort and create conflict. This is especially true if the relationships are strained or if the person was not yet ready for this life change. One of the best ways to handle role changes is to talk about expectations. Consider using the following questions in discussion with your partner before baby's arrival:

  • What is expected of each person when baby arrives?
  • Where can compromises be made?
  • How will baby tasks be divided?
  • Who is expected to provide childcare?
  • How will financial decisions be made?

Revisit these questions and plans after baby's arrival if you feel that changes in roles are needed. When role expectations don’t match reality, there is a set up for conflict.

Postpartum Couple Conflict

Conflict is another normal reality for many new parents. This can come as a big surprise as many couples find pregnancy to be a bit of a honeymoon period and expect everything to be blissful after baby arrives. However, with baby care, sleep deprivation, changes in work schedules, and visits by extended family and friends, some low-level disagreements are common. Couples that can talk or even laugh about the inevitable “hassles” of new parenting, such as the unexpected diaper blowouts, the days that pass by without laundry getting done, or even commiserate over the changes in finances or work-life balance, weather these storms fairly well! On the flip side, be aware of a red flag for those who fight loudly and often, who avoid talking about the changes, or those who resent their partner for their role in parenting. When conflict escalates to anger, help is needed, otherwise a downward spiral will quickly take over.

Beyond Conflict

Along with changes in household tasks, sleep cycles, and feeding schedules comes a change in emotions for one or both parents. It is normal for parents to experience highs and lows after a baby arrives. During the first several weeks, many new parents report feeling exhausted, experiencing “out of the blue” teary spells or feeling overwhelmed. The symptoms and severity of the baby blues vary from person to person, but if these emotional spells extend past the first few weeks or if significant depression, anxiety, or psychotic symptoms appear, it is a red flag and a signal that professional help is necessary. Often, the best person to observe and identify these changes is the partner!

Postive Outlook

The transition to parenthood brings many changes for the couple’s relationship. A decrease in communication between partners, a significant decrease in intimacy, increases in conflict, and a feeling of “what have we done” are all common. The key to keeping these challenges from becoming toxic to the relationship is to focus on communication, collaboration and connection. The following will help create a positive environment during this transition:

  • talking about how the relationship has changed
  • finding opportunities for fondness and admiration
  • expressing appreciation
  • keeping the positive perspective

Couples who are able to do these things return to intimacy sooner in their relationship and manage conflicts better than those who do not. Being able to recognize that these changes are temporary and that this is the new normal for the relationship can reduce the feelings of blame or contempt that can put a relationship into real trouble.

Getting the Best Start

Many couples prepare for the day their baby arrives -- they purchase car seats, cribs and clothes; they take classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and CPR; they even decide the best route to the birth center or hospital, and create detailed birth plans. While all of these are important, equal energy should be given to the parenting road that lies ahead. Preparing for the transition to parenthood is important, like taking the time to:

  • decide who does what in the relationship
  • agree on the role that extended family will play
  • work through perpetual problems
  • find ways to maintain intimacy

These key areas are critical for maintaining relationship satisfaction. For more information about how to increase relationship satisfaction after baby arrives, consider the Bringing Baby Home Program, a psychoeducational program that combines scientific research with information and activities for new parents. The program is offered nationwide and teaches couples the normal challenges of new parenthood and provides tools for making relationships work. Specific focus is given to both the parent-parent relationship as well as to the parent-child relationship. For more information and resources, check out www.gottman.com.

The Gottman Institute is the culmination of Drs. John and Julie Gottman’s life work as researchers and clinical psychologists. Their approach to relationship health has been developed from 40 years of research with more than 3,000 couples. It is the most extensive study ever done on marital stability and divorce prediction.

Named “The Einstein of Love” by Psychology Today, Dr. John Gottman is the founder of “The Love Lab” at which much of his famous research on couples interactions was conducted. Drs. John and Julie Gottman have published 200 academic journal articles and written 46 books that have sold over a million copies in more than a dozen languages. These books include the New York Times bestseller The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.

Their research-based Bringing Baby Home workshops prepare couples for life with baby and helps them be the best parenting team possible. In a relaxed and supportive environment, parents learn to strengthen their relationship and foster baby’s development during this challenging time. They build on what Dr. Gottman and colleagues found is the best predictor of marital adjustment after baby arrives: the quality of friendship in the marriage.

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