The World’s Cutest Wrecking Ball: How Not to Let a Baby Ruin Your Marriage

Relationship after BabyA baby is a wrecking ball~the world’s cutest wrecking ball.

I mean that figuratively, of course.  But science across decades is clear: About two in three couples are permanently less happy once a child is born—with major increases in loneliness, fighting, and hostility.  And they stay that way until the last child launches.  The data scared me so much that as I went to school for my doctorate in developmental psychology, I wrote a research paper on it, and seriously considered not having children!

Yet in some cultures, couples get happier once they have children.  And in mainstream American society, one in three couples maintains their pre-baby happiness.

Can you do it too?  Research suggests that’s a Yes, as long as you follow the example proven to work for the happy one-third.

Step 1: Acknowledge Baby’s Downside

Babies are delightful.  But really, it shouldn’t surprise us that they aren’t particularly helpful to Mom and Dad’s love affair.  Babies mean less time, less money, less sex, less sleep, less freedom, less intimate discussion…in short, less of everything that eases marital bliss.  The sleep loss alone is huge: In studies of healthy adults, 100% become clinically depressed if they’re deprived of sleep every night for just one month.

So babies are tiny and adorable, but they’re tiny and adorable stress-festivals.  And if science is clear on anything, it’s this: Long-term stress may or may not kill us, but it definitely doesn’t make us stronger.

Step 2: Accept the New Normal

Unfortunately, baby stress is long-term, because baby needs are long-term.  In a Zen-like way, though, fighting the stress only makes it worse.  How can you accept the new normal?

Let’s start with the common scenario of non-acceptance.  All this stress is made much worse by a common dynamic found only in unhappy couples, where Dad usually refuses to accept the new normal of “less Us, more All Three of Us,” instead grieving the loss of his wife, spending more time away from home and more time at work, and emotionally withdrawing from the relationship.

Meantime, Mom falls so profoundly in love with the baby—literally undergoing biochemical shifts that focus her intensely on the new child–, she often ignores, criticizes, or lets Dad slip away without much attempt to bring him near again.  She’s madly in love, and for the first time since she and Dad got together, it’s not with him.

This dynamic of mutually pulling apart just when you need to pull together is devastating for marital happiness.

In happy couples, Mom and Dad are stressed, too; anyone would be. They’re going through just as huge an adjustment as the folks who will remain unhappy.  And yes, Mom falls head-over-heels for Baby among the happy couples.  That part isn’t optional.

But the happy couples are doing something that makes all the difference: Mom and Dad are both accepting the stress as the new normal, and Dad is turning towards his new family rather than blaming his wife or child for the natural dynamic Baby brings, just as Mom is inviting him to join in this profound new love of hers.

It’s a mental shift.  And one science proves most anyone can learn to make.

Step 3: Get On The Home Team

Women, for you, this means welcoming and encouraging Dad into what Gottman calls the “charmed circle” of your intense love affair with your new child.

It’s natural for new moms to feel protective of their babies.  To a new mother, it can seem like they’re the only ones who can provide milk the right way, hold Baby the right way, burp Baby the right way, change diapers the right way, play with Baby the right way, bathe Baby the right way…

But we don’t want to “right way” ourselves out of marriage or marital happiness…right?

Research shows that women who remain happily wed post-baby are those who can let go of the need to always be right—even if that need comes from a deeply protective place—and remind themselves that there are several right ways to do most things.  These happy women avoid criticizing their mate and instead focus on bringing him inside the new family bond, and telling him how much they love and appreciate him as a dad.

And isn’t the biggest right thing we can do welcoming Dad to join us in parenting?

Men, for you, this means grieving, while jumping into the game of Family Life with Mom and Baby and refusing to be benched.

When your first baby is born, it’s time to acknowledge that you’re losing your wife’s primary attentions to someone who “stands” under 24 inches, farts publicly, and requires burping.  That feels tragic, all the more because it’s predictable, expected, mundane, and permanent.  You can’t win your wife back to your relationship the way it was before.  Denying, fixing, eliminating, withdrawing from, or waiting out the new normal is scientifically guaranteed misery.

But there’s a profound difference between grieving the Old Us, which is unavoidable, and losing your happy marriage, which is preventable. You have a strong element of choice in becoming very close to your mate post-baby, and here’s how:  Join the new normal, becoming a full part of the new world Mom and Baby inhabit.

As Dr. John M. Gottman, foremost researcher on the subject put it, “…where the husband is able to do this, he doesn’t resent his child.  He no longer feels like only a husband, but like a father, too.”

A lot of men let women push them aside in baby care, or mistakenly assume babies can’t or don’t want to play with Dad until they’re old enough to talk.

Wrong.  If you want this marriage, get on the Home Team now.

Happy couples are ones where Dad follows through on attending the childbirth classes and being at Baby’s delivery—and then is present and active and loving in Baby’s life every day thereafter.  So Dad, talk, read stories (yes, even from birth), sing songs, blow belly-berries, make faces, play peek-a-boo; carry Baby around through the house and on errands, let him sleep with his ear to your heart…  Your wife will adore you for it.  Heck, I’ll adore you for it!

Upshot?  As with so much else, happiness post-baby comes down to small shifts and behavioral changes that win big over time.  Women, open your love-struck eyes to thank and include the man who gave you this fantastic new human.  Men, grieve the loss of your #1 place with your wife, and join in the tremendous adventure that is parenthood.  Babies may be wrecking balls of the old order, but if you respond by strengthening family bonds, your marriage and your baby will thrive in new and beautiful ways.

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  1. Very, very wise advice. (Visiting you from the So Cal Lady Bloggers daily thread.)

  2. Great advice! I felt like the first months with our first child was like being newlyweds again. We had new roles and had to figure out how to work together again. Thankfully we did figure it out. My husband is super dad!

  3. And what happens when the father decides he doesn’t or never loved the mother like he feels love for the kid and decides he should separate the marriage ove this ephinany?

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