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Becoming parents: From initial euphoria to crisis?

Children can put a relationship to the test. How can you keep your relationship alive while changing nappies, doing the washing and looking after your bundle of joy? Tips from a couples therapist.

Text: Katharina Rilling; photo: Unsplash

It’s goodbye to red wine and talking for hours while putting the world to rights and hello to milk, baby talk and exhaustion. Although most parents see children as the ultimate culmination of their love, the transition from lovers to parents can be a tricky one. The vast majority of couples experience strain in their relationship after having children.

So, once the initial euphoria gives way, do babies cause relationship crises? When asked whether children are toxic for a relationship, couples therapist Felizitas Ambauen answers, laughing: “Certainly not, but they may act as a catalyst! They aggravate relationship dynamics that were easier to handle alone.”

However, it’s important to put this into perspective and realise that it’s OK for a relationship to be less satisfying and more boring for a few years while the children are young. “It’s a dry spell that – to a certain point – you have to accept and put up with.” To prepare for life with children, Ambauen advises couples to deal with their problems as early as possible and eliminate sources of stress. “Ask yourselves: Where and when do you have arguments in everyday life? How does your partner irritate you – and how do they help calm you down? This is important because the increased stress after the birth will probably cause more conflict.” If you understand yourself and your partner better, you’ll benefit from it later on when the children take up a lot more of your time.Strengthen your relationship

To help couples build a strong foundation, Felizitas Ambauen runs a couples workshop with her husband. It is geared towards people who want to work on their relationship even though they’re not in any kind of serious crisis. “We provide tips and tricks for everyday life, but we don’t play the blame game. We show them that their relationship is special and explain how they can strengthen it.” It is based around positive psychology, which puts the focus on people and their strengths. We explore how relationships can be improved further still. And how to find joy and satisfaction in your own life.

Communication is key

The birth of a child is an exciting time for parents, so why can it put so much pressure on couples? “One big challenge is that couples don’t have the energy to open up and listen. The child takes up all their time. He or she interrupts conversations, disturbs their sleep, and so on. As a result, the quality of communication between almost all parents declines after the birth of a child.” Another major issue is self-care, says Ambauen. “We can only function at our best in a relationship if we have enough time to ourselves. And unfortunately, not enough people take this time. It’s like oxygen masks in a plane: You have to fit your own mask first before helping others with theirs.”

Tips from a couples therapist

Mastering difficult everyday situations

1. We all know that it’s important to have time alone and time together as a couple. But many of us don’t put our good intentions into practice. How do we overcome our inner laziness and save our guilty conscience?

“You don’t. You make time for yourself despite your guilty conscience. A guilty conscience doesn’t vanish into thin air. You’ve simply got to face it: The more time you make for yourself, the less you’ll feel bad about it. My tip is to schedule me time, date nights and team meetings to discuss organisational matters in your calendar and make them a priority, which means they can be postponed if necessary, but not cancelled altogether. This shows appreciation for your partner and yourself. And once scheduled, you don’t have to renegotiate the dates every week. This may sound unromantic and more hassle than it’s worth, but although spontaneous dates – sound better, they don’t actually work. New rituals are always exhausting at first, but once they work, they become a necessity.”

2. Sleep issues: the baby has driven my partner out of our bed. Are separate beds the beginning of the end?

“No, sleeping separately for a time can help save a relationship. Sleeping well keeps you healthy and makes you more patient. Moreover, the quality of a relationship hardly depends on the distance between bodies during sleep. It’s silly to think that everyone needs to suffer. Tip: Sleep separately during the week and in the same bed on weekends. Take stock of the situation as time goes by and adjust the arrangements as necessary.”

3. One partner comes home from work tired, while the other is looking forward to adult conversation and would like to feel appreciated for all the time they’ve spent with the baby and doing household chores. Disappointment is inevitable.

“A classic situation! Tip: many parents benefit from incorporating a “buffer zone” into their routine, whereby one of them is allowed to retreat for half an hour after the working day to shower, read or go jogging. This can help alleviate any potential tension. It’s also helpful to text ahead to explain what kind of mood you’re in. How do you feel? Are you stressed or in a good mood? This way, your partner is prepared and can react accordingly.”

4. We simply can’t agree on some issues, for example when it comes to raising the children. When this issue comes up, we often both lose our temper.

“Most couples have to face these issues. First you need to take a closer look and think about why you’re so touchy when it comes to this particular topic. Spoiler: it’s almost certainly related to your own upbringing. Couples often sweep explosive topics under the carpet – until they come to a head again. But this just hides the issue rather than solving it. It’s better to schedule a time when you and your partner can discuss the problem calmly – instead of when you’re both raging mad.

And you can agree to disagree on some things, provided that you both know where you stand.  Children don’t mind if mum and dad handle things differently. You just have to appreciate the fact that your partner has a different style of parenting.”

5. If I’m honest, I feel like I’m in Groundhog Day when I listen to my partner always talking about the same things. But we rarely argue.

“When you’re exhausted, you don’t really want to interact with people. Would it help to take time to recharge your batteries? Or perhaps sleeping in separate beds and making time for yourself could help? If both partners meet regularly with friends, there will also be more to talk about. And if you treat date night with your partner like your first date, this can work wonders. You could arrange to meet after work, spend time getting ready, set the mood with music, and forget about the mundane day-to-day topics for a while. It sometimes does you good to put your parent role to one side for a while.”

6. There’s very little time for sexuality or physical closeness any more. I’m slowly starting to worry

“It depends whether we’re talking six weeks or six years after the birth. I think it’s normal if it takes around a year for mums to rediscover the joy of their sexuality. Some women no longer feel comfortable in their bodies or need to recover from injuries they suffered during the birth. And many mums feel overwhelmed by closeness, because the baby demands so much attention. Women often rediscover their desire for physical closeness if they make more time for themselves. What’s more, it’s often hard to switch on the feelings from one minute to the next. My tip is to schedule sex dates, too, and to try to stick to the schedule even if you’re tired. Sometimes you need to set the scene to stimulate desire. It can also help to organise half a day of childcare from time to time. Then you’ve really got time to focus on your partner. But it doesn’t always have to be about sex.”

Want to find out more? Felizitas Ambauen talks about pressing relationship issues every two weeks in her podcast Beziehungskosmos (only in German).