Keeping the romance alive

ROMANCE 911: Keeping the Romance Alive through the Demands of Parenthood

When a baby enters the picture, the dynamics of your emotional and sexual expression are forever changed. The love between two must now make room for three. However, the love you will develop for your new family member will be quite different from anything you’ve ever experienced before.

Yet the reality is that most couples are under-prepared for the changes that accompany parenthood and sometimes, the impact is nothing short of an emotional crisis. Both your personal and social life change significantly, and any pre-existing financial challenges are further heightened.

Although much has been researched and written about romantic relationships, far less has been studied regarding how love changes between a man and a woman after the baby is born. The romantic love that brings couples together is an intense exchange between two people, but when a child enters the picture this exchange not only redirects its focus, it becomes one way. And because a baby’s demands for care are intense, this forever changes that bond as a couple as they become both partners and parents.

Yet it also highlights an important part of the intimate bond between couples – care giving- which has a great impact on one’s level of relationship satisfaction. Despite this, little attention has been given to this aspect of sexuality. Instead, the focus has been predominantly on sexual desires and techniques in achieving physical satisfaction.

In my practice, I’ve observed that the amount of caring exchange between a couple is, in fact, a greater indicator of how they will survive the disruptions in the normal patterns of life (such as having a baby). More so than standard predictors such as personality traits.

Furthermore, by including caring exchange as part of the study of sexuality, other benefits of intimacy such as meaningful discussion, self-disclosure and inter-dependence are also taken into account. Although I have never conducted a forma! study on this, I’ve observed that the amount of caregiving or caring exchange between couples before they experience parenthood is a strong indicator for the survival of their romantic relationship (including the physical aspects of their sexuality) during and after their transition to parenthood.

Disruption of Normal Romantic Patterns

Almost every type of exchange between a man and a woman is abruptly transformed with the birth of their first child. Particularly precipitous is the change in your romantic life, both emotionally and physically. The adjustment is not an option; it’s a necessity. The new addition to your couplehood is a highly dependent little creature and, all of a sudden, you’re faced with new tasks on a daily basis.

Statistics reveal that the female usually takes on more responsibility for these new activities, yet both parents must deal with the stress of these extra physical and emotional demands (from loss of sleep to feelings of insecurity about one’s ability to be a good parent). Not exactly a conducive mix to sustaining the former fire in a relationship. So I encourage couples not to be so hard on themselves, and on each other. To cut each other some slack. Realize that you no longer have most of the activities you used to do together as outlets for “normal stresses”, much less this new experience of suddenly being tossed in the ring as a new parent.

In other words, now you’re both facing more stress with less opportunity to decompress. So your new role as parents becomes a far greater test for your relationship. That’s why it’s helpful to keep what I’ve just said in mind, so when things get a bit rough you can better understand what’s really happening between the two of you, rather than jump to the conclusion that some unpleasant new behavior by your partner is an indicator that the strength of your love has weakened.

Let’s face it … your physical and emotional ability to be there for each other has been strained. And that’s exactly why this notion of caring exchange or caregiving between couples is such an important indicator of how well your relationship will fare during this often difficult and typically stressful phase of parenthood.

The good news is, like all things, it’s a cycle – one which the two of you will adapt and adjust to as your baby learns to sleep through the night (so you can, too).

Now, let’s take a look at other correlations between the amount of caring between couples and how well a relationship fares after a baby is suddenly introduced into their lives.

The Adjustment in Attachment

The demands of caring for an infant can seem endless at times. Not only do couples need to make adjustments to include the child in their daily lives, they also need to modify their sexual schedules. Which also has an impact on their romantic attachment and the amount of caring between them as well as their overall relationship satisfaction.

Education and workshops for the “pregnant” couple abound and are quite popular. However, far fewer couples seek out programs to prepare themselves for life after the event. Although emotional and sexual behavior will begin to change during the course of pregnancy, especially the last trimester, few parents are equipped to handle the sudden changes necessitated after the child is born.

In my practice, I’ve noticed that within one to two months after the baby is born anxiety over abandonment as well as discomfort with intimacy (whether that be due to the woman’s poor body image, the man afraid of hurting his wife “down there” or sheer physical exhaustion) begins to become an issue for couples.

In addition, a couple’s sensitivity to each other, desire for sexual communication and intimacy, sexual satisfaction, and their usual degree of co-operation is affected. On the topic of sex, I’ve noticed that it is typically women who want to start talking more about sex with their partners (even though most report their desire had lessened, their satisfaction generally did not), while men focus on differences in their level of sexual desire (higher) versus their wives.

Often such issues can be solved by getting the couple to accept how different their world has become, and realizing that they are spending much less time together because they are concentrating most of their energy on caring for their baby. Then couples can make a more logical (i.e., less emotionally charged) acknowledgement that time is a huge variable in their emerging issues over sexual intimacy.

Nonetheless, even as the process of problem resolution continues, in the end the success rate seems more a variable of how much genuine caring and sensitivity is expressed between a couple as well as their openness to communicate about sex and receptiveness to each other’s desires. Likewise, these relationship qualities buffer the side-effects of the reduced time they now have for themselves as well as each other. The end result being an overall positive level of marital satisfaction throughout the transition and resulting adjustment to parenthood… the desired “happy ending”.

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