Couples are at a higher risk of divorce during the first seven years of marriage — especially after the arrival of the first baby  (iStock)

The divorce rate in the U.S.has been on the decline for over three decades, according to social scientists. But not everyone has reason to celebrate. One subset that is especially at risk: young couples in the first seven years of marriage.

Exactly why are new marriages so fragile? Researchers have focused on the transition to parenthood in order to make sense of this phenomenon.  And what they’ve found is sobering.

Respected psychotherapist and marriage researcher John Gottman studied couples from the newlywed period through the transition to parenthood. He discovered most couple break-ups within the first seven years were because they became parents. A staggering 67% of couples in the study reported a decline in relationship satisfaction after the arrival of the first baby. The decline typically shows up between six months (for women) and nine months (for men) after the baby comes home.

Whether you’re a new parent who is already experiencing the pain and strain of relationship decline or simply trying to avoid it, you’ll need to pay attention. Dr. Gottman’s research suggests at least four hurdles with the potential to trip up your marriage. You’ll have a better chance at surmounting them, however, if you have strategic conversations with your partner before the baby comes along, or very soon thereafter.

[Related: Treat your spouse like a stranger and other inspiring advice on how to be happy]

Hurdle  #1: You may not be aware of how the baby changes your family and individual identity.

You may be under the false  impression that when you have a baby, you “become a family.” The reality is you were already a family before the baby. Your family is simply bigger now.

But while the baby didn’t make you a family, she did make you a mother and a father. This is a profound identity change that requires your attention. Becoming a parent changes your views on values like money, careers, and faith, and these changes may surprise you. Becoming a parent also invites you to slip into more traditional relationship roles. This is often a stressor for relationships where both partners were free to express their individuality fluidly. It is critical for you to talk openly about what it means for you to have taken on this additional identity as parent.

How to surmount it: Discuss what it means for you and your partner to be a “family” already.  Talk about the values that have helped your family-of-two thrive. What would you like to hold on to? What do you imagine letting go of? How do you think the baby will enhance your family life?

Now talk about your definition of “mother” and “father.” How does your relationship with your own parents inform the way you think about becoming parents? What do you want to model? What do you want to do differently?

Schedule a regular time or times when the two of you will connect without the baby. This will be tough at first, but perhaps you can take a short walk while your mother-in-law presides over nap time. A few months down the road, maybe you can grab an overnight together. Plan now for specific activities without the baby around that will help you stay connected to one another.

[Related: The benefits of marrying in your mid-to-late 20s]

Hurdle # 2: You may not talk about the tensions a new baby causes.

Conflict tends to increase significantly during the first year after the baby’s arrival. You used to have almost all of your time to yourselves. Now you have to share with someone who wants all your attention now, no  matter what time of day. You’ll definitely lose sleep. You’ll spend more money than you’re used to. You’ll be hypersensitive about whether your car seat carries the right rating, whether you should breastfeed or use formula, and whether your binkies are hypoallergenic.

None of these things will help your relationship, but all of them are normal challenges faced by new parents.  However, if you keep your insecurities and resentments to yourself — either because you don’t want to stir up trouble or it seems there’s no time to talk about them — they’ll seep out nonetheless. The unstated expectations and unhelpful criticism will build up and erode the foundation of your marriage.

How to surmount it: Remind one another that the newborn phase is exactly that…a phase, normal and temporary. It may help to adopt a mentality that there will be a “new normal” right around the corner.

Talk about the changes with an emphasis on connection and stress reduction. Practice setting aside time (see hurdle #1) to talk out your concerns calmly and try to empathize with each others’ point of view, remembering that your partner is struggling to adapt just like you are.

Decide what you can do to maintain some sense of routine and, indeed, sanity. Is Tuesday always pasta night? Does mom always get a bath on Thursday morning? Does dad get to knock off his personal to-do list every Saturday morning? Establishing routine where you can will help manage expectations and keep chaos at bay.

Hurdle # 3: You may not take care of your health and well-being as individuals or as a couple.

The first year after a baby is born is a time of intense physical and psychological change. This is especially true for women. They must become reacquainted with a body that had just created and birthed another human being.  They also have to adjust to breastfeeding and the sense that their body is not their own. Both parents will likely suffer sleep deprivation and exhaustion that may lead to depression. It’s normal for sexual desire to decline and stay low during the first year, but this reality often leads to emotional withdrawal as well.

Perhaps the greatest challenge in this area is managing sleep issues. Sleep deprivation has a profound effect on the brain and can lead to clinical and psychological depression. When you are physically and emotionally exhausted, it is difficult to practice self-care. When sexual intimacy is interrupted, it’s hard to pursue emotional intimacy. Couples that fail to take care of themselves and one-another will inevitably turn away from one another. This kicks off a negative cycle that is prone to repeat itself without intervention.

How to surmount it: Agree now that sleep is not a luxury.  No matter who is staying home with the baby at first and who is returning to work, adequate sleep is essential for both of you.  Discuss how you will take measures to protect sleep for one another. Ask other couples or relatives how they handled getting enough sleep with a new baby. Ask a friend or relative or hire someone to come stay with the baby while you sleep.  See if you can pencil in a schedule that allows you both some uninterrupted sleep during the week and adjust it as you go if necessary.

Talk about how you will both continue, or begin, to exercise and eat right. Is that something you can do together? If not, how can each of you provide kid coverage for the other? You don’t have to train for a triathlon –just get moving. If you’re accustomed to exercising vigorously pre-baby, remember that you’ll be able to ramp up again in time.

Discuss how you will maintain intimacy even while having sex is not a priority or a possibility. What can you do maintain emotional, spiritual and conversational intimacy while you’re adapting to new realities? Taking care of each other in this way will help make the transition back to physical intimacy faster, easier and more rewarding.

Hurdle #4: New fathers will sometimes withdraw. There is an entire mommy-culture designed to support new mothers. Women are incredibly effective at supporting other women, both before the baby arrives and after. Even as today’s men are becoming more involved parents, they still don’t typically have the same kind of support systems. As a first-time dad, you may feel blindsided by the impact of a new baby and not know where to turn. When the stress of the baby becomes overwhelming,  you may find  yourself withdrawing from the family and the relationship.

Your  motive may be quite noble. In order to help with the new financial strain, new dads might spend more time at work. The problem is that this can create resentment toward the non-working partner and often the baby as well. No matter the motive, the withdrawal initiates a vicious cycle. When the baby picks up on your stress, you might find it harder for the two of you to bond.

How to surmount it:  Memorize this phrase: Dads don’t babysit. Now say it out loud: Dads don’t babysit. Twice more: Dads don’t babysit. Dads don’t babysit. Dads parent. Your baby is fascinated by your face, your voice, and the sense of play that you create. The value of your presence cannot be overstated. Discuss as a couple how you will prioritize dad’s specific role as a parent.

Discuss how moms and dads are likely to parent differently. Moms are clearly wired to nurture and protect. Dads tend to be much more tactile and provide a sense of play that  is vital for children learning to feel safe in the world. Talk through how those differences can be powerfully good. If you don’t anticipate this reality, differences become problems.  For example, women may criticize their husbands for being what they view as insufficiently protective. This can just make him withdraw more.

Talk through how you can be proactive about the shift in work-life balance. The new baby will necessarily put time constraints on your schedules. How can you get better about leaving work at work so that you can be more present when at home? And when you are home, how can you switch into the role of professional dad, perhaps even giving mom some time off?  It may help to set 10-20 minutes aside to decompress along after arriving home before you jump into the family fray.

The first seven years of any relationship is more fragile than you think. And if you’re adding a baby to the mix, you need to be careful to nurture the relationship much like you will the baby itself. Embrace the change. Talk about it. Take care of yourselves. And protect yourselves – especially dads – from the temptation to withdraw. Doing that will greatly increase your chances of a happy, healthy relationship.

Zach Brittle is a couples therapist in Seattle, WA where he lives with his wife and two daughters. He is a Certified Gottman Therapist and contributes regularly to the Gottman Relationship Blog as well as Verily. His book, The Relationship Alphabet is now available for pre-order at Amazon. You can reach him on Twitter @kzbrittle.

 

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