Why Helping Couples Prepare Their Relationship for Parenthood Is a Crucial Component of Birth and Baby Prep

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

This is one of my favorite quotes:

“The greatest gift a couple can give their baby is a loving relationship, because that relationship nourishes Baby’s development.”

  • John and Julie Gottman, authors of And Baby Makes Three

In a culture devoted to encouraging expecting couples, especially moms, to make healthy in utero choices to maximize their babies’ postpartum wellbeing—Eat well! Exercise! Buy organic crib-sheets! Cultivate an attachment pregnancy! Plan to breastfeed! Etc.—relationships aren’t on most couples’ radar.

Yet new parents’ relationship satisfaction often takes a nosedive after the baby arrives. Pre-baby arguments—the recurrent ones about money, housework, and other issues—skyrocket postpartum. Plus, new conflicts tend to emerge, for example, around childcare, sex, and in-laws.

What’s the impact on children?

The poorer the quality of parents’ relationships, the more negative developmental outcomes in children. This is true in multiple ways and across a range of variables—sleep patterns, physical health, infant & toddler attachment, interpersonal competence, intellectual and emotional development, and social outcomes—and across racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. (See, for example, Kristin A. Moore et. al., “Parental Relationship Quality….” 2011.)

Parents with better quality relationships who coparent effectively—meaning, raise children as a team—have better adjusted kids.

We often use the term “coparenting” to refer to how divorced or separated couples raise kids. Researchers, by contrast, use it to describe parenting teamwork (or lack thereof) among all parents.

Children whose parents are aligned around parenting strategies, who find ways to compromise effectively, and support each others’ parenting efforts, are more likely to experience positive developmental outcomes, including a greater ability to self-regulate and a decrease in periods of distress. (See, for example, James McHale et. al., “When People Parent Together,” 2007)

Relationship prep for expecting couples isn’t just about finding ways to maintain relationship satisfaction. It’s also about laying the groundwork for effective teamwork and positive compromise, which supports children’s developmental health from infanthood to adulthood.

In my work with prenatal, birth, postpartum, and parenting professionals, I’m often struck by how vividly their stories about new parents confirm the intensity of the relationship conflicts noted above, and offer anecdotal evidence of their impact on children, e.g., sleep challenges, heightened emotional distress. I’m also deeply moved by professionals’ desires to support families and lessen their clients’ struggles.

In my opinion, the best way to help clients maintain or create relationship quality and coparenting success is to help them prepare their relationships for a baby. What if they’re too busy nesting to consider doing so?

Underscore the importance of preparing their relationship to their baby’s developmental wellbeing. Relationship prep is baby and childcare prep, and the more couples understand that, the more they will choose to devote time and energy to this crucial issue.

At present, there are limited ways to help expecting couples prepare their relationships for a baby, but they’re worthwhile nonetheless. (Scroll down for ways to help them repair relationship distress after the baby’s here.)

  • Educate yourself:
  • Learn more about the bidirectional connection between babies and relationships: meaning, the impact of relationships on babies and the impact of babies on relationships. The two articles cited above are a great place to start;
  • Take trainings for professionals, whether that’s a weekend workshop like Bringing Baby Home from the Gottman Institute in Seattle, or a shorter online or in-person class through a local professional organization. (I offer 3-hour workshops on this topic to professionals in the US and Canada, so hopefully there are other professionals delivering this information near you.)
  • Educate your clients:

(i) If you offer baby care or childbirth prep classes, add at a section on the importance of relationship prep and emphasize its crucial role in parenting;

(ii) If you meet with expecting couples in other ways, e.g., pre-birth consult, mention relationship prep and suggest resources, such as John and Julie Gottman’s And Baby Makes Three, which I consider the best book for expecting couples on this topic; and

(iii) Underscore that, even if only one member of a couple reads this book, or reads articles, or listens to podcasts on this topic, that will be helpful to their future family.

  • Refer out to those who specialize in helping expecting parents: There are some relationship coaches and therapists with short-term programs focused on expecting couples. The upside of working with a coach is that clients can coach by phone or Skype. Plus, coaching is a modality based on learning and taking action (as opposed to a medical model, which is at the root of most therapy). Coaching also offers tools as applicable to relationship dynamics at work as at home. Yet finding a coach who is well trained in working with couples is harder than finding a qualified therapist, which means it’s important that you research and know your referrals well.

What can you do once the baby’s here and couples are struggling to find their relationship equilibrium?

Birth, postpartum and parent professionals are in a unique position to offer help. Not only are you on the front lines with new parents, sometimes spending time with families in their homes, you work with them in an intimate way, which means you’re privy to their vulnerabilities and needs.

That’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the risks of offering relationship guidance include: possibly triggering shame, exacerbating postpartum depression, and escalating conflict. The risks of silence include bearing witness to the negative impact of parental discontent on infants’ and older children’s developmental health. It’s a challenging tightrope!

Here are a few ways to walk that tightrope more capably:

(1) In my last post for IMPI, I noted that it’s often helpful to NORMALIZE parental conflict and a drop in relationship satisfaction. Let your clients know that, at least some of the distress their feeling about their relationships is, while uncomfortable, also completely normal. (Interestingly, though not surprisingly, among heterosexual couples more moms report that decrease in the first year, while dads tend to experience it in years two and three.)

(2) Encourage couples to find small ways to reconnect, what I call

 “The 10% Rule.” Instead of aiming for a big activity or gesture, something that demands 100% focus and effort (e.g., planning a date without the baby) encourage them to expend 5% or 10% of their precious energy to come up with something they can do now, or soon, something they actually make happen (e.g., a candlelit takeout dinner when the baby is asleep). The goal is to encourage new parents to set themselves up for small wins that infuse their relationship with positive energy.

(3) Help new parents get to the heart of their complaints. 
I think of complaints as the hard candy that protects the chewy center of a tootsie pop; complaints cover what matters most. By focusing on complaints—“you don’t help enough with the baby,” “you work too much,” “you only care about sex”—we often further alienate partners by pointing fingers and blaming. By contrast, if we help couples get to the core of what’s upsetting them, to the personal need, request, or hope that complaint points to—“I want us to be a great parenting team;” “l miss you and wish you were around more;” “I miss my old body and feeling like my body is my own”—then couples are far more likely to get their needs met and understood.

(4) Refer out. If relationship tensions feel very high, and you believe there’s a palpable negative impact on baby’s or a parent’s health, then gently suggest that it might be a good idea to speak to a professional. If only one member of the couple is willing to seek assistance, encourage her or him to do so. As noted above, do your homework on finding the most qualified professionals in your area. If there are any addiction or abuse issues at play, or if you suspect postpartum depression or an active mental illness, refer your clients to a therapist with experience in these areas and do not refer out to a coach, unless you suggest coaching as a supplement to therapy.

While there’s no quick fix to relationship distress, especially in the months and sometimes years after having a baby, the good—no wait, the great—news is that helping expecting couples and new parents devote time and energy to improving and maintaining relationship quality and coparenting success delivers payoffs, especially for their children.

 

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC helps parents stay sane and stay together. She also assists expecting couples prep their relationships for a baby and supports birth and parenting professionals to better serve families. To learn more about Rhona, visit www.parentalliance.com.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  the International Maternity and Parenting Institute.

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