Having a child is right up there with your wedding and the honeymoon as one of the best times of your relationship…right? Right? Uh…maybe not so much. Sixty-seven percent of couples see their marital satisfaction plummet within one year post-baby, according a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology. Between lack of sleep, wacky hormones, and the stress of figuring out how to change a diaper or calm a crying kid—on top of the effort required to maintain a happy, healthy relationship, whether or not you have an infant to worry about—it’s no wonder people go through a rough spell.
Now, new research has pinpointed the top source of first-time parents’ gripes: how parents handle the different tasks related to raising a child. “For moms, their main happiness determinant is whether they’re satisfied with the division of labor of caretaking activities,” says study author Kari Adamsons, PhD, assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Connecticut. For dads, having a clearly defined role in child-rearing is key to marriage satisfaction. Find out which relationship issues crop up most often for new moms and pops—and how to make sure they don’t wreck your bond:
The problem: You feel like he’s not pulling his weight in child-rearing–and, by association, your relationship.
The solution: You don’t need to strive for a perfect 50-50 split of duties—many moms don’t even necessarily want that, says Adamsons. What matters is that you’re on the same page with your partner about which tasks you’ll each be handling. “Communication is key,” she says, “and you have to start talking before the baby is born.” Discuss who’s going to change the diapers at night, whether or not you’ll return to work full-time, if your hubby will take over baby duties when he gets home so you can have a break, whether you’ll use a bottle so he can do some of the feedings, who will handle things like bathing and putting the baby to bed, etc. You can always re-evaluate your roles after the little one’s born, but starting the conversation early on is smart so you know where the other person stands and you aren’t caught off guard later. And as Adamsons’ research found, fathers in particular respond well to having their duties clearly defined.
The problem: He feels picked on.
The solution: When your partner takes on baby-related jobs (yay!), resist the urge to let him know if he’s off the mark. “One reason men don’t participate more in caretaking is that women tend to micromanage,” says Carolyn Pirak, LCSW, founding director of the Bringing Baby Home program at The Gottman Institute. But when you criticize the way someone performs a task, they’re likely to stop doing it altogether. It may make you cringe to see him put the diaper on backward or use the wrong onesie, but as long as he’s not doing anything that could harm the baby, it’s better to step back and let him figure it out on his own.
The problem: Sex takes a nosedive.
The solution: One thing you should know: It’s (unfortunately) normal for your sex drive to dip after you have a baby. “It generally takes at least six weeks for your body to recover and be ready for intimacy,” says Pirak. Hormonal changes in your body can also make you averse to sex for—yikes—up to a year (it’s your body’s way of preventing you from getting pregnant again too soon). Understanding and anticipating these shifts ahead of time makes the dry spell easier to deal with. That said, physical intimacy is of course key to a healthy relationship. Beyond working out any unequal divisions of labor (which kills the mood for many women), try focusing on nonsexual but still romantic actions, says Pirak. “Does he hold your hand? Do you tell him he looks nice?” she says. Focus on those sweet things you used to do in the early stages of dating, and desire should follow.
The problem: You have zero couple time.
The solution: You don’t have to make reservations at a Michelin-starred restaurant to reap the benefits of spending time together sans infant. You can keep it casual—breakfast, a walk, a glass of wine on your patio before dinner while la bebe is sleeping, even running errands together. There are only two rules: Don’t talk about the kid (well okay, you can debrief for a couple minutes right at the beginning), and group hang-outs don’t count. This is clutch for giving you and your partner time to connect so you can stay in sync, says Pirak.
The problem: Your parenting philosophies clash, so you start to question your partner’s core values.
The solution: He rushes in the room every time the baby makes a peep; you want to let her cry it out. He thinks it’s no big deal for kids to play with iPads; you’re anti-gadgets. Parenting is full of hot-button topics, so when a disagreement comes up, have a discussion where you both voice your opinions. “Try out each person’s technique for two days, see how it goes, and then reevaluate,” suggests Pirak. When you test things out, it’s quickly becomes apparent that it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing; often you’ll realize there’s some value in the other person’s opinion and the solution will involve some sort of compromise, says Pirak.
No matter what difficulties parenthood throws at your relationship, remember to set a peaceful tone and express appreciation and admiration for your partner (like telling your man how great he is at comforting the baby or sending him a quick thank-you email for filling the gas tank). Also: Don’t forget to focus on the good stuff. “Babies are hard work, and many couples tend to dwell on the negative aspects,” says Pirak. You can be honest about your frustrations with your hubby, but how upset would you be if you let them overshadow the awesome parts of parenthood?