How to “Master” the Transition to Parenthood

Becoming new parents is a joyous experience, but it can be a very stressful one as well. Even if you and your partner have countless conversations in anticipation of baby’s arrival, you may never be fully prepared and there will be bumps along the way. These bumps are normal. But according to Dr. John Gottman, how you handle them could make the difference between being a “master” couple of the transition, or a “disaster” couple.

What exactly happens to the relationship when a baby arrives? Dr. Gottman’s extensive research with 300 couples over the span of 30 years showed that relationship satisfaction significantly dropped for two-thirds of the couples, and conflict within their relationships increased dramatically. These new parents reported feeling exhausted, bewildered, and disconnected. Not surprisingly, their intimacy deteriorated and partners felt lonely and isolated from one another. These “disaster” couples failed to recognize how much work having a baby entailed, and they constantly battled over who should do what. As baby took centre stage, any focus on the relationship disappeared and romance between these partners disappeared as well.

What about the other one-third of the couples, or the “masters”? These couples seemed to be able to rebound and reconnect. They made time to talk and to listen to one another, and they saw the transition to parenthood as a storm they would weather together. They also recognized that these bumps are things that every new parent experiences and that stress is normal. These master couples did not try to blame one another for the changes; rather, they worked hard to support each other and find solutions together. As a result, partners reported experiencing less post-partum depression and higher relationship quality.

The good news is that the skills are teachable, and can be broken down into three main suggestions:

1. Spend 5.5 hours per week on maintaining your relationship. Relationships are extremely hard work, and even when you have a great relationship, it still takes 5.5 hours of connecting time over the course of a week to maintain it. That may sound like a lot time to invest when there are so many things competing for your energy, but over the span of seven days, it’s miniscule. Some examples might include sending a text, having a two-minute conversation, or eating a quick dinner together. It’s really important to get into the habit of prioritizing your relationship and creating that routine prior to having children.

2. Acknowledge that all new parents are in the same boat. Most couples enter into parenthood with high expectations for how well they will manage things, and may be unprepared for how stressful it really is. In 1957, a study done by LeMasters claimed that 83 per cent of new parents went through moderate to severe crisis in the transition to parenthood, and many studies since then have confirmed that claim. What it boils down to is that feeling stressed and experiencing some crisis is normal, and every couple goes through it. Understanding that fact can help you to empathize with each other, instead of turning away from one another.

3. Learn how to calm down conflict. Conflict is normal and most couples fight, especially when they are over-taxed and tired. Having conflict that is constructive rather than destructive is really the key. Staying calm when you are trying to talk through an issue is important. If you are going around in circles and not really getting anywhere with the argument, chances are that things are too heated and you need to take a break. Giving yourself and your partner room to breathe for at least 20 minutes can make a big difference. Once you’ve had a short break to calm things down, make sure to come back to the conversation.

Welcoming a new baby can be an opportunity to grow even closer if you are prepared to share the journey of the stresses, challenges, and milestones together. View the time you invest in your relationship as a healthy and necessary part of creating a supportive environment for your new family to thrive. The greatest gift you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship between the two of you.

Dr. Tanja Haley is a psychologist, and a Certified Gottman Couples Therapist who gets to do the work she loves with fantastic clients every day. For more information about her individual and couples therapy, or to check out the workshops she offers, visit drtanja.com.

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