Relationships start for all sorts of reasons. They weather all manner of storms and traumas and either pull through or flounder. As a relationship counsellor, I have seen a number of couples over the years presenting a variety of different problems, some practical that can be resolved with relative ease and others that need far more in-depth discussion to unearth the underlying causes of hurt, pain and disappointment.
Parenthood by its very nature changes relationships. Where there were two people, there are now three or more. The birth of a child may be the most wonderful thing to happen to a couple. On the other hand, it may not be so clear cut. Often there can be a range of emotions, and couples who pinpoint some of their troubles starting when the children were born, also point out that they love their children and in no way regret their arrival.
A range of cultural myths surround pregnancy and birth. Women are told that they will bloom during pregnancy, and everyone involved is supposed to be happy that a new human being is on its way. Often it is far more confusing, and parents may have all sorts of reservations which they feel that they cannot discuss for fear of condemnation. Certainly a number of men in the counselling room have confessed to not wanting children, but have gone ahead because they didn’t want to disappoint their partner. By the time the child arrives there is already an agenda in place. The woman feels guilty and ends up doing everything for the baby, because she was the one that wanted it in the first place. The more she becomes absorbed in the baby’s routine, the less involved the partner becomes until he begins to feel isolated and neglected and she feels overburdened. The resentments build between them and before long there are moody silences, critical comments or blazing rows.
In many cases, couples can trace their problems back to the pregnancy or after the birth of a particular child. Whilst some men find a pregnant woman beautiful, there are those that don’t and sex lives can suffer tremendously, leaving a woman feeling much less attractive and undesirable. Following the birth, a woman’s confidence can be at an all time low if she and her partner can’t come to terms with her new body shape or breast feeding. There can also be the issue of the birth itself. In a society where many births are perceived as medical procedures, men can feel overwhelmed, powerless and excluded as they watch the medical staff take over. If the birth doesn’t go to plan and they witness their partner in pain and distress, they can feel they have let them down which can be a terrible blow to self-esteem. The one thing I have noticed time and again in the counselling room is that men still think of themselves as the protector of the family either consciously or subconsciously. When their role is dismissed at the time of the birth they retreat and bury themselves in their work. Women often express relief that their partners are not making demands of them at a time when they feel overwhelmed with a new baby. However, as time goes on, they begin to realise than an emotional distance has grown between them.
Sometimes women lose their sexual desire for a while after the birth or sex may be uncomfortable and painful, in which case they need to visit their GP. Most women say they are just too tired and that they have difficulty in switching off. The constant demands of motherhood can also leave women desperate for their own space. Sex can seem like just another demand and comes way down the priority list. Men, however, are actively looking for sex as a way of showing their partner that they love them and want to be close to them. It is important to most men that there is still a physical bond in a relationship, although there are times when both partners are so involved in their own pursuits that neither is particularly interested in sex. An emotional distance sets in and before long resentments build and neither partner feels loved or appreciated. It is usually at this point that couples no longer hear what the other is saying and there is a fundamental breakdown in communication.
When a couple arrives for counselling they can no longer see what the underlying issues might be. Often the children are toddlers by then or they may have started school. With the demands of the baby stage over, they come to realise that there is something terribly wrong between them. They both feel hurt and neglected and wonder what happened to the couple they used to be. Whilst all this may sound extremely gloomy, it does highlight some of the things you can do as a couple to ensure that you maintain your relationship throughout the early days of pregnancy and parenthood.
Listening, understanding and making yourself understood are important in any relationship. Discuss how you feel about parenthood from the outset so that you both know what each other’s expectations are. If you are intending to share your bed with the baby and breastfeed, make sure you understand what this might mean to you both. No one can ever really know how a baby will affect a relationship, but you can plan to some degree what you would like to happen. The important bit here is to remain open and flexible. When you plan ahead don’t set things in tablets of stone. Everyone has the right to review the situation and change their mind. Discuss how you feel about having sex once you become pregnant. Do you or your partner feel afraid of having sex in case something happens to the baby? Perhaps you don’t feel like having sex because you are just too tired? Maybe you feel as horny as hell and want much more sex! Whatever you are feeling, talk about it, so there are fewer misunderstandings. If your partner no longer finds you attractive, you need to talk about this too. It may well be as irrational as women finding their own menstrual blood disgusting. Cultural influences have a direct effect on the way we think and behave, and sometimes we can find ourselves without a rational reason for the way we think.
Talk through the birth plan and how you would like your partner to help. If you can, get to know your midwife together so that all three of you can work out ways to support each other. Try to be as clear as you can about what you want and remember things can change. When I prepared my birth plan, my partner was to massage my back with copious amounts of oil (when the time came I couldn’t bear to be touched) and to support me in the birthing pool (I couldn’t bear to be in water either). He felt like a spare part, but I will never forget how he insisted I turn onto all fours just before pushing. Months before I had been adamant that I didn’t want to give birth on my back. At the time I didn’t give a damn, but later I really admired him for getting me what I wanted.
Talk about what you want to happen immediately after the birth. You may decide that you don’t want crowds of people visiting at home yet; or if you are in hospital, when your partner goes home, you might feel quite alone. Sort out ways that others can support you and your partner, at this time. It is notoriously difficult to contact people from a hospital bed, so decide on the people you might like your partner to call when she/he gets home. If you expect your partner to read your mind you will probably be disappointed. So ask for what you want!
Try to work together to look after the baby. There are lots of practical things that your partner can do to help even if it is you that feeds and holds the baby most of the time. Show him that you really appreciate his support and encourage him to hold and change the baby to increase his confidence. Both of you will be tired and, as the euphoria wears off, your partner may be back to work where his world will be relatively normal and you will be left alone to cope with the demands of this screaming new bundle of joy. Most women find a new baby extremely hard work and the lack of sleep can lead to feelings of irritability at best, and depression at worst. The best thing you can do is to keep talking and supporting each other. When things are going well and you are both delighting in your new offspring, make sure you share the moment by holding hands, sitting together, kissing and hugging each other. Enjoy watching your partner as a parent and admiring the way they can be so warm and gentle with your child. Show your appreciation with genuine compliments to make them feel good.
When things are bad and you can hardly be civil, explain why you feel so down and make specific requests. If you want a hug, ask for one. If you want some help with the washing up, ask for it without making it sound like you are the only one who ever does anything around here. Don’t be a martyr by trying to do everything yourself, all it does is build resentment which will fuel arguments later on. Negotiate looking after the baby and enjoy your time away from him or her. So many partners feel guilty when they are the one not looking after the baby, instead of getting on and having some space to themselves. It is also necessary to continue to think of the two of you as a couple while all of this is going on. Try to eat together or watch a video when the baby is asleep. An issue that comes up time and again, is that once couples have a child their world becomes so much more home focused, and very often that means sitting in front of the television or playing computer games until they go to bed. Please, please try not to fall into that trap! It is very difficult to get out of and can obliterate communication between you.
We are told it is not advisable to have sex for six weeks after the birth. Depending on how a woman feels physically, this may or may not be a realistic option. The important thing is to keep in contact physically. It may not seem important immediately after the birth and while the children are toddlers, but it will become more important as time goes on. It will mean that physical affection is not all about sex, but about hugging, kissing, cuddling and being in contact with each other. When physical affection goes out of a relationship, many women feel that the only time they get a hug is when a man wants sex, and a man feels awkward every time he touches his partner because he suspects that is just what she is thinking. It can quickly become a vicious circle. Alternatively, the man may become so work oriented that he loses interest in sex, which can have disastrous consequences on the woman’s self esteem. Either way, both partners lose an opportunity to love and care for each other in a way that can keep a special chemistry in their relationship.
Baby Shock, Elizabeth Martin, Vermillion
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, Stephen R. Covey, Simon & Schuster
Gill Coleman is a couple’s counsellor with Relate. These are purely her own views and do not necessarily reflect those of Relate.
Illustration by Rolfe
First published in Issue 4 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.