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The impact of having children on relationships, and how to keep yours healthy.

Having children changes everything about your life, and your relationship is no exception. One day you’re doe eyed and full of devotion, skipping through fields holding hands with your heads thrown back in laughter. Kind of. Next thing you know you haven’t slept in months and are fighting over whose turn it is to unload the dishwasher. There’s no doubt that having children can deepen your bond with your partner to a whole level. Together you created these beautiful little humans that astonish you every day. You become a team, a family. I’ve never loved my partner more than when I saw him holding our daughter for the first time. But our relationship has undoubtedly changed, evolved. We are stronger than before but have to work harder at it now. Some days more than others. And I have yet to meet a couple that rule doesn’t apply to. 

The impact of having children on relationships.

I interviewed a group of willing mum friends on how they feel their relationship has changed since having children and where they think the problems lie. The same issues kept coming up repeatedly.

Lack of time as a couple.

When children come into your life, it becomes infinitely busier. With work, life admin, chores, and activities there’s very little down time. And when there is, you naturally prioritize family time as opposed to time alone as a couple. Unfortunately this inevitably results in less emotional and physical intimacy with your partner. A statement I heard a lot from the mums I interviewed was that “there’s just not enough hours in the day”. It can lead to Mum feeling overstretched, and Dad feeling neglected. 

Lack of individual alone time.

When a couple first become parents, both parties but particularly mothers go through a fundamental shift in their identity. Going from being lover/partner to mother is a huge leap. It is so easy, and so common, to lose sight of the person you once were. This is especially so because you just don’t have the time to do fulfilling things that you used to enjoy. The things that make you you. I am someone that needs a little time to myself to stay mentally healthy, and the surging rates of divorce and separation during the COVID lockdowns proves I am far from the only one. Combine that with the isolation from friends that you can experience as your priorities shift and the risk is an unhappy and dysfunctional person. If you don’t have time for yourself, it’s very difficult to have time for your partner.

Unfair division of labour.

This was a huge pressure point identified by nearly all of the women I interviewed. As much as we like to think of ourselves as a progressive and balanced society, the reality is that many couples still unconsciously fall into the gender stereotypical roles that have been passed down through generations. Perhaps it starts with Mum breastfeeding the baby and recovering from birth. As she can not work Dad takes on more of the financial burden by working more, and so Mum is left with more of the childcare responsibilities. Mum is exhausted by the end of the day and wants to hand over the baby to Dad for a bit, but he is in turn tired from work. Then more offen than not when Mum goes back to work she is still left with the tasks she was expected to do when she was home. If not handled openly, sensitively, and promptly the result is a cycle of frustration and resentment. 

Less sex/lower libido.

With the physical lack of time to connect as a couple and with ourselves as individuals, sex can become low on the priority list. Every single one of the women I interviewed said that they don’t have sex nearly as much as they did pre kids and that they feel their partner would appreciate more. Some even admitted that they pretty much never have sex anymore. The problem is, as well as the time factor, parenting isn’t sexy. Romps in the sack are replaced by doing the weekly shop or sorting through paperwork. As a mother your body has probably changed which can impact your self esteem. Raging hormones can kill your libido and even make sex painful. You might be struggling with your new responsibilities and navigating your new role. Sometimes after a long day juggling so many balls the last thing you’re interested in is…well…more balls.  As one mum eloquently put it, “the stars have to align”.

So what can you do to keep your relationship strong?

Spending less time as a couple, on our own, and having less sex are natural and normal facets of parenthood. It’s important to realise that is not something we are doing wrong. This misconception can lead to more pressure on both parties. It is something we need to work with and around. It is how you handle these things within your relationship that can make or break it. 

Taking more time as a couple is an obvious solution, although not always simple. Maybe you can get a babysitter for the evening and go out for dinner and drinks. Schedule in a fun activity while your little one is at school or on a play date. Respect each others need for ‘me time’ and prioritize time for them do their favourite hobbies. These things will help enormously if the foundation of your relationship is already strong at its core and only wavering under the normal pressures of parenthood. 

But sometimes the issue is deeper rooted and although a quick fix might act as a temporary bandage, the problem will eventually be exposed again.

I had a chat with Psychotherapist and senior lecturer in Mental Health Nursing, Rebecca (Becky) Fairchild to see if she could help bring some further insight. Becky clarifies “If the relationship is broken, strained, or one person isn’t invested, then a token forced ‘date night’ or a bonk once a week isn’t going to fix it”. (Side note; this may be the most refreshingly honest therapist I have ever spoken to!) 

Communication.

The most crucial thing you can do in these circumstances is learn to communicate with each other better. Gone are the days of long drawn out conversations pulling apart an issue and piecing it back together again. Literally aint no parent got time for that. So learning to communicate efficiently is key. Being able to communicate your needs and frustrations in a way that your partner can understand. 

The secret to this, according to Miss Fairchild, is to learn each other’s attachment style. 

“If you have a poor communication style or incompatible attachment style, having a child is likely to exacerbate the problem.” she says. 

What are attachment styles?

Attachment styles describe our patterns of connecting with the people in our lives. They are often rooted in childhood experiences, particularly traumas, and shape our individual coping mechanisms. The problem is that when people with different attachment styles become a couple, they can have trouble understanding and communicating with each other. Frustration builds at how the other person is acting because you just don’t ‘get’ each other.

And so, simply being aware of your own and your other half’s attachment style can help profoundly. Even couples with an “incompatible” attachment style can work brilliantly as long as they each take the time to learn and understand the other. Take a look here to learn more about attachment styles and ‘psychology today‘ for a test to determine yours.

Love languages.

Another proactive thing you can implement is to learn your partner’s love language and let them know yours. Our love language describes how we give and receive love. There are five kinds of love language; 

  1. Words of affirmation
  2. Physical touch
  3. Receiving gifts
  4. Quality time
  5. Acts of service

Perhaps your love language is ‘acts of service’ (me), needing to know that your partner is there by your side lightening the daily load. Maybe your partners is ‘words of affirmation’ (my fiance) and they need encouragement and appreciation. Knowing each other’s love language means you will be able to more expertly fulfil each other’s rudimentary needs and improve your communication.

Read more about love languages and find out yours here.

Therapy.

Sometimes, one or both people in a relationship might become so overwhelmingly resentful or avoidant of the other that they feel they are at breaking point. For those of you in that place, don’t despair, there is still hope. But it’s time to take action.

Both couples and individual therapy can help wade through the traumas that make you act as you do, and better understand your partner’s own traumas. Becky says “In short, we repeat our own trauma/bad habits until we address it and break the pattern”. 

For example, acclaimed psychologist Dr Nicole LePara says that “for adults that have been emotionally neglected, sex can be the only way to feel connection to another person”. Imagine then the impact when a child comes along and the sex isn’t as frequent. Understanding these nuances leads to acceptance. What may have seemed like them pressuring you for sex when you are already feeling harassed, becomes about them needing to connect intimately with you. 

Researchers have found that couples therapy is effective at reducing depression and other mental illnesses. After all a happy relationship equals a happy family overall. 

To take away.

I think for me personally the most relevant thing I have taken from researching this, is that no relationship comes out of having children unscathed. Not one woman I interviewed said that her relationship with her partner is as passionate and carefree as it was pre kids. I’m sure the dads would agree. A change in dynamic is completely inevitable, a challenge that we are all met with when we start a family. It’s not having a baby that is the problem. What matters is how you deal with the issues that arise from it. And how you communicate your frustrations to your partner. 

For me having a child changed my opinions on marriage completely. I was jaded from a bad relationship and witnessing many people close to me go through messy divorces. Marriage was never a priority to me. I would have stayed happily unmarried forever, and yet here I am engaged. Having a child made us a proper family. Aside from all of the legal logistics making more sense, I want us all to have the same last name (a combination of mine and my partners.) It softened me in that sense. I digress, but my point is simple;

Relationships change and evolve after having children. You have to work a little harder for it and grow as individuals. But with two willing and invested people, and the right tools in place to keep communication flowing, it can ultimately only add to your sense of fulfilment and happiness.

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