Relationship Help: Great Parents, Faltering Couple

“At the end of the day I have nothing left to give to my husband, Jason. I know we have to create time for ourselves, but if I’m being honest, taking care of our relationship ends up feeling like one more obligation on top of a pile of obligations, so I just put it off and hope he’ll understand.” ~ Suzanne, married eleven years (and the parent of a three-year-old and one-and-a-half-year-old).

If you’re a new parent, you might easily empathize with the bind that Suzanne finds herself in. 

Marriage and Parenting

When a couple becomes parents, their attention, time and energies are naturally redirected away from the relationship and onto their child(ren). Raising young children requires Herculean efforts and couples often feel depleted physically and emotionally by the ongoing demands and tasks of parenting—at the end of the day (and day after day), many new parents report that their emotional reserves are exhausted and they have little left over to give to each other.

In my marriage and couples counseling practice I see many couples who are trying to come to grips with a new post-child reality: The landscape of their pre-children life and relationship has been dramatically altered, and certain aspects of their relationship, for better or for worse, have now been placed on hold. 

The Difficult Transition Back to Being Partners/Lovers

“I was ready to start being a couple again, to be sexual and sensual with my wife after our two-year-old son went to bed or when we had family babysit for us, but it was obvious that she wasn’t into it…it was like she was somewhere else.”  ~Larry, discussing his wife Jennifer’s struggle to re-engage with him

While many couples are stressed immediately after becoming parents (stressed as well as surprised by how all-consuming and dramatic the shift is from full-time spouse/partner/lover to full-time parent), just as many couples are unprepared for how challenging it can be to shift back and forth between the parenting and spousal/partner roles—a difficulty that exists even after the demands of parenting start to level off. For some, this transition happens naturally, for others, continuous efforts must be made to jump-start these transitions.

What’s needed for a successful parent-couple transition?

1) Time

Many new parents know firsthand the struggle to carve out time where they can be alone without the intrusions of childcare. Here you’re dealing with practicalities, and some creative brainstorming might be needed. But it’s important to think small: Grab fifteen or thirty minutes with your partner whenever you can. If you’re lucky enough to have a reliable babysitter, shooting for a date night (which can be in the morning or afternoon too) might help you and your partner reconnect.

2) Preparation

Some couples find that when they do come together, they have little to talk about. Not to worry if this sounds familiar. Think of it this way: you’ve been focusing on and consumed with being parents, and as a result, your conversation repertoire (with one another) has atrophied—it’s natural to feel like if you’re not talking about Junior, you and your mate have nothing to discuss!  In order to reverse this trend, you need to exercise (and expand) your conversational muscle—so you may need to literally find things to discuss before hand. While this can feel artificial, it’s not necessarily a reflection that you and your partner are no longer compatible. Trust me on this one!

3) Mindset

When a couple becomes parents, a mental shifting and rearrangement occurs: Maternal and paternal instincts come alive and the survival and wellbeing of your child takes precedence. For this to occur, parts of your self (personality traits) that were once active and alive may go dormant (for instance, your sexual self; your adventurous self, etc.); this mental shifting helps clear away previous priorities that take energy away from the parenting tasks at hand.

This creates a challenge for one’s relationship for several reasons: when your parenting selves (the self you bring to the time you’ve carved out for one another) are dominant, it will be challenging to connect emotionally and physically as a couple since your mind will be pulling you to solely focus on the common denominator of being parents. Another challenge arises when one partner is more ready to reintroduce what is still dormant in the other partner (for instance, you want to be sexual with your partner while s/he is feeling very non-sexual). 

While patience is needed and mutual understanding for these struggles is essential, just as important is the realization that the spousal parts of you that have gone dormant may need a little help reawakening at some point. For instance, if you’re not feeling particularly attractive or sexual, slowly incorporating sensuality and romance back into your relationship can be a good starting point (back rubs, dressing up for one another, talking about what you are attracted to in one another).

This type of relationship CPR can help you slowly awaken your spousal mindset, which, ideally, will learn to co-exist side-by-side with your parenting self.

Marriage/Relationship Help Resource

Effective communication is essential to a healthy relationship/marriage. For information about my comprehensive couples communication ebook, check out Communication Breakthrough

Until next time,

Dr. Rich Nicastro

(Featured [top] image “Baby and father playing” by David Castillo Dominici/

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