Will Baby Strengthen or Strain Your Marriage?

How relationships change with the arrival of a new baby.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on August 01, 2005
From the WebMD Archives

Maureen Kenny and Charles Winick knew they wanted a baby but never imagined they would have three at once. "Each has special qualities and quirks that are endearing, yet, together, they form a threesome that is so adorable," Kenny says. "I can't imagine life without them."

But doesn't having 10-month-old triplets wreak havoc on a marriage? Not according to Kenny. "It has brought us closer together," she tells WebMD. "We love to talk about the babies and what is happening with them. We plan for their future and look forward to spending time together with them."

"It has given us a common task," Winick says. "My wife and I have similar views about raising children, so we have formed a nice partnership. We help each other to stay consistent with the decisions that we have made about raising children."

Whether a new baby brings spouses closer together or drives them apart has a lot to do with the pre-baby relationship, says Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, a clinical psychologist and chairman of the department of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University in California.

"Having a child intensifies everything in a relationship," he tells WebMD.

"With the arrival of a first child, everything good in a marriage gets better, everything bad gets worse. A couple that has good intimacy will find a lot more to share, more experiences to get excited about together. A couple that has a lot of distance will find that a child becomes a wedge."

Stay Connected

Spending quality time with your partner before the baby arrives can put you on the right track.

To stay there, Shapiro says it's crucial to recognize that your role as a spouse doesn't disappear when you become a parent -- rather, it becomes even more important.

"The very best thing you can give your child is a good relationship with your partner. It provides security, an example of how people get along and how to deal with conflict ... things that are good for a child to see."

But a good relationship requires time and intimacy -- elusive commodities for new parents. "There is much less time for us as a couple," Kenny says. "We have only been out without [the triplets] about three times since their birth."

Psychologist Arthur Kovacs, PhD, recommends setting aside at least a few hours of couple time every week, "even if you have to schedule it."

This time does not have to involve anything fancy -- taking a walk, eating dinner together, or meeting up with friends can help you and your partner reconnect throughout the week. Make plans that are easy, so you'll be more likely to keep them.

"My husband and I are making an effort to get out more with friends or have people over to socialize," Kenny says. "Having people over to our house is best for us, as the babies have all the stuff they need."

Talk to Each Other

Once you carve out couple time, Kovacs suggests using some of it for honest conversation about the changes you're experiencing. He points out that parenthood is a major adjustment for both partners.

"The woman has to deal with all the physiological changes," he tells WebMD. "The man has to adjust to feeling a loss of companionship. He now has to share the woman who has been by his side. ... His emotional and practical needs come in second or third, so he gets demoted."

Lori Freed, a pharmaceutical sales representative with a 2-month-old son, says she has noticed the strain on her marriage. "It's like my son has become the new man in my life," she tells WebMD. "I'm always either holding him or feeding him or changing him."

Kovacs says many first-time dads are caught off guard by this change in family dynamics.

"There's an emotional or psychological transition that men have to go through that is particularly hard. Until their wives are pregnant, they have a friend, companion, and young lover by their side. Then this person becomes a mother. Now they have to make love to and cherish a mother instead of a young lover."

If couples feel a sense of loss during this transition, how should they cope?

"Laugh about it and talk about it instead of hiding it," Kovacs says. "The most important thing is to talk. The quality of a relationship can only be sustained if the couple shares fears and worries as well as positive feelings."

Sex After Baby

How soon couples resume having sex depends on the mother's physical and emotional readiness. In the early months, men usually have their normal sex drive, but women may not, especially if they're breastfeeding.

"While breastfeeding, estrogen levels are very low and that may affect libido," says Jennifer Niebyl, MD, head of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. She adds that low estrogen levels can cause vaginal dryness, a problem that may be relieved with lubrication.

But she says the biggest threat to new parents' sex lives is usually exhaustion. "You'd rather go to sleep than have sex. So it's a combination of fatigue and changes in hormone levels."

Niebyl tells WebMD the problem occurs more often in first-time moms because the adjustment to parenthood can be so stressful. "After having a second or third child, women are sometimes more relaxed," and that has a positive effect on libido.

If stress is a factor, Niebyl recommends having a babysitter or family member whisk the baby away for an evening. "It's hard to relax when you know the baby is about to cry in the next room."

Weekend Getaway

Even better than an evening off is a whole weekend to reconnect. Try to plan a getaway before your baby is old enough to experience separation anxiety, which usually develops around 8 months to 1 year.

If you're breastfeeding, you can still manage a short trip -- just freeze a stash of breast milk to leave with your baby's caregiver and bring along a pump to prevent engorgement.

According to Kovacs, "It won't hurt an infant younger than 6 months to be left with a different caretaker for a day or two so you can get away. If the parents want to take a quick second honeymoon, that is the time to do it."

Show Sources

SOURCES: Maureen Kenny, PhD, and Charles Winick, PsyD, parents of 10-month-old triplets. Jerrold Lee Shapiro, PhD, licensed clinical psychologist; professor and chairman, department of counseling psychology, Santa Clara University; author, The Measure of a Man: Becoming the Father You Wish Your Father Had Been. Arthur Kovacs, PhD, clinical psychologist in private practice. Lori Freed, pharmaceutical sales representative; first-time mother. Jennifer Niebyl, MD, professor and chairwoman, department of obstetrics and gynecology, University of Iowa College of Medicine.

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