top of page
  • Writer's pictureIngeborg Weser

We are a couple - we become parents

Let us come straight to the point: Research shows that the partner's satisfaction with their intimate relationship decreases rapidly in the first three years after the birth of a child. It affects 67% of all couples - with a dramatic climax in the child's 1st year of life. This is not only true for parents for whom the pregnancy was full of conflict; couples for whom the child arrives at the right moment are affected as well.


How does that fit together with the joyful anticipation of living with a child, with the desire to have a child, that many couples feel deeply and with the happiness that they experience when the little one is finally there? Both realities are true: many couples find it extremely exhilarating to become parents, and they wholeheartedly intend to do everything possible to provide that child with a great home for life. On the other hand, it is a fact that life with a baby involves a lot of effort, whole new, highly emotional experiences, and many changes in the life of the partners.

The pregnancy affects the pregnant woman and her partner: It influences their identity, shifts roles, confronts images that both have about a child and living with him, often also changes the living conditions. Everything will be different; everyone will be a little different. The inner and outer world is in motion and needs time and attention to get back on track.

In this article, we will look at the effects of parenthood on your couple relationship. And of course: how you can guide your partnership through the ups and downs of the first few years with your child and be one of the 33% of couples who keep their love and maybe even strengthen it.

The two of us - not yet with a child

The relationship before the first child is usually characterized by years of intense togetherness, getting to know each other, and lively sexuality. You are in love! There is a lot to talk about, you can't get enough of being together, touching each other, making love. At some point it becomes clear: we want to stay together. You are ready to bond with this person and see a positive future ahead of you. Perhaps you will move in together or get married - it is getting 'serious'. Being in love becomes love. You feel: This person really likes me; I can be with him or her for who I am. You both feel emotionally safe. The bond between you feels stable and strong.

This description is certainly simplified, in any case it does not apply to all cases. People, couples, and their living conditions are of course always different. There are also heterosexual and homosexual parents, lesbian parents, non-biological parents, blended families, etc. Hopefully, you will still be able to use the following and translate it to your personal situation.

The two of us - with a child

A child turns a two-way relationship into a three-way relationship. The way you designed your two-way relationship no longer works. Because there is someone else who needs a lot of time and space. A child is dependent and vulnerable, needs a lot of care and energy and is suddenly the center of attention. Having a baby means little sleep, being always ready and present, putting your own needs aside. The whole day is organized around the child's rhythm. Much of what used to be easy and natural in the household is left behind. Often men and women react differently to the baby. Most of the time, the mother focuses intensely on caring for the child. First, she is utterly 'mother'. Even if many women are (self-)employed, it is common for the mother - certainly in the beginning - to take over most of the care tasks. Often with the result that her motherhood 'never ends' emotionally and it is not surprising when she soon feels hopelessly overwhelmed. Many men are particularly motivated by fatherhood to look after the family's financial well-being. They rush to work and their career. At the same time, more and more young fathers nowadays want an emotional bond with their child right from the start. Sometimes they are disappointed because the child initially reacts so strongly to the mother. The partner who spends less time with the child may feel left out. The contact between partners, which used to be a matter of course, with the freedom to meet friends, relax, talk to each other, and have time for sex, is dramatically reduced.

The relationship under pressure

What happens to a couple who get stressed? The emotional bond between the two is getting weaker. If the stability of the love bond used to be at least an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10, it now fluctuates between 5 and 7. Sandra and Paul are such a couple. They do love each other, they surely are incredibly happy with little Jonathan, but somehow the misunderstandings and dissatisfactions pile up. They start arguing and that only makes things worse. Sandra thinks that Paul does not contribute enough to the household. When he comes home in the evening, she wants to give Jonathan directly to him to look after him, she has been busy with him all day. She thinks it is not acceptable that Paul insists on doing his sports routine in the evening. Doesn't he care? Where has his empathy gone? Paul works a lot and is tired. When he looks into Sandra's reproachful eyes, he feels bad. Part of him would prefer not to come home. He no longer understands his own world. Doesn't he love Sandra and Jonathan enough? Somehow, he experiences the two as a unity. And he has no place there. Is he only good enough to bring the money home and take care of the household? Sandra also rejects him in bed. She tells him that she is tired and does not feel like it. He does not understand. Why is she so different from before?

Help! What now?

The dynamics of couples are of course a complex matter. How couples maintain their love and master difficult situations - and transition situations such as the beginning of parenthood are certainly part of this - are the subject of much research. In the context of this article, the topic can only be discussed practically and briefly. I am referring to the research by John and Julie Gottman (2007) and Susan Johnson (2014), among others.

1. Resolve your conflicts

Disagreements, dissatisfaction, and arguments are normal in relationships. They are unavoidable. If the partners can repair them in such a way that they lead to greater understanding, then everything is fine. Unfortunately, the opposite often happens: Even more arguments occur with an ever higher emotional charge, the occasions become more and more minor, the way we see the partner gets more and more negative. Distance is what makes our lives together difficult. The partners withdraw emotionally, give up, seek activities without the other, less and less speaking to each other, with the result of silence and distance that feels devastating.

Not always, but very often, it is men who take on the role of the 'withdrawer' when there is a weak bond between partners. Paul describes it like this: “Whenever Sandra is mad at me, I somehow get stressed. I cannot stand it, especially when she blames and criticizes me. To start with I come with justifications: ‘Are you not even aware of what I am doing for you here? ‘And then I tell her that she is reacting completely over the top emotionally. At some point I have enough and then I just leave. I watch TV or go jogging. Inwardly though, I'm busy thinking about what I'm supposed to do.” From the outside, it looks as if Paul is calm. That is what Sandra does think. She wonders how he can be so cool. Objectively speaking, however, he is anything but cool. Research shows that men in this state are in the highest stress. The emotional withdrawal is an attempt to regulate and protect oneself from the attacks of the other.

For Sandra, like many women, the weak bond between her and her husband brings up a different reaction pattern. She takes on the role of the 'pursuer'. She says: “When Paul is so distant and speaks to me with despise, then it is like a red rag to me. Then I get mad. What happens is: I cannot stop talking. I blame him ('You don't seem to care how I'm doing'), give him a poke below the belt ('I really wouldn't have thought that you are so insensitive’) and tell him that HE is the problem ('If you weren't doing your own thing all the time, then I didn't need to get mad').” Sandra as well is stressed out. She wonders about what is happening in herself. Normally she is not that vicious! If you take a closer look it becomes clear that the “pursuer” is trying to get through to her partner in dire need. She wants to feel again real contact with Paul. However, she does so in a manner that is riddled with anger and criticism. The tragedy is that this is not the way to reach him.

Both partners are caught in a cold dialogue, a dialogue that only weakens the bond between them. Neither of them wants that, but neither knows the way out of the spiral downwards. It would be helpful if they would understand that both contribute to this conflict. That they are caught up in a dynamic and only get out of it if they are both willing to see their part in it. It is also important to understand that this dynamic is accompanied by strong emotions. Many people think that 'resolving conflicts' is something rational: one should talk about it calmly and in an adult way, negotiate the various needs, come to an agreement or compromise. Unfortunately, this does not work when the emotional charge in the conversation is high. Then it is actually not about the issue of the conversation, but about the emotions that are hidden behind it.

The 'real' solution is when the partners manage to talk about the feelings that the partner's behavior or the situation arouse in them. This does not mean the feelings of anger; they are usually not particularly hidden. It is about the softer feelings behind it. Let us see what Sandra says to Paul about it: “When you seem so dismissive to me, then I actually feel really desperate. I then feel alone and quite lonely. I'm afraid that you actually don't like me anymore. This is terrible for me. I need you so badly.  Especially right now, with Jonathan. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the situation. And then I think that maybe I'm not a good mother and then I get even more stressed. There is so much going on inside of me. Please hug me when I feel this way. When I will feel the warm bond with you again, then everything will be fine.” The probability is high that Paul will be happy to respond to this request. Sandra talks about herself and her emotional state, she shows him her soft, vulnerable side. Then it is much easier for him to open up and to become soft.

Now Paul talks about his deeper feelings: “When you are angry with me, you trigger a raw spot in me. I immediately must think of my mother. When she was angry with me, she would yell at me. That was unbearable for me, I felt as if I am totally wrong. When you get angry, I feel guilty right away. I then think that I fail in your eyes, that I am not a good husband to you and not a good father for Jonathan. I also see how close you are to each other. I feel kind of unimportant then. As if I have nothing to contribute. I do not find it easy to tell you that. Somehow, it is easier to shut up and forget all about it. The worst would be if you left me out of anger. What I actually need is that you tell me that I am important to you and to Jonathan.” Sandra takes his hands in hers and tells him that she did not even know that all of this was going on in him and that he is totally important to her. And that she is happy that he is Jonathan’s dad.

Our ‘ideal’ couple can jump beyond their own shadow, perceive, and express deeper, soft feelings and even dare to express vulnerable needs. If that sounds a little strange to you, that is understandable. Start by realizing that your reaction is understandable, that you both inadvertently ended up in a dynamic together, and that there is a good chance that you will both want to get out of there as quickly as possible. Practice getting to know your own emotional world and sharing it with your partner. If you entrust your soft feelings, your bond will stabilize very quickly. Also, be aware that the two of you are in a very vulnerable life situation that puts pressure on the strongest bond: you are learning how to be a parent and in a loving relationship at the same time. This is a process and takes patience.

Another advice: do not carry out your conflicts in front of the baby. It is too small to handle that. However, if you manage to share your soft feelings, your baby will relax

2. Maintain your friendship

The base of a strong, long-term relationship is the feeling of friendship: the feeling of being interested in one another, of wanting to get to know the inner world of the partner, to know who the partner really is - and of course the willingness to talk trustfully about yourself and that what goes on in you. Both ways are not so obvious. In long-term relationships, we often think that we know the partner quite well. We forget, however, that every person develops further over time and with the circumstances in which they live. This is particularly evident in times of transition, such as the beginning of parenthood. Because in these times both partners change particularly strongly. In order not to lose each other during these periods, it is especially important to keep talking. And you can do that by genuinely caring about your partner's world and asking questions! Open questions (i.e., questions that cannot be answered with yes or no). Here are a few examples:

  • How do you think our relationship has changed since the child was born?

  • How do you feel about being a mother / father now?

  • What could we do to have more relaxation in life?

  • How do you imagine our life in two years?

  • What was the best time for you in our relationship?

  • Is there something you long for?

  • What is the greatest challenge for you as a mother / father?

  • What are the biggest stress factors for you?

  • How can I be a better partner to you?

Asking questions, of course, also means 'listening': giving space, allowing people to say what he or she has to say and being open to new and unexpected things. Be happy with the fact that your partner is different from you. Practice acceptance and here and there allow to adjust your image of your partner a bit. It is never boring for a couple who are ready to get to know each other again and again. By the way, research shows that the sex life of couples who maintain their friendship in this way is livelier and more satisfying.

3. Give each other positive attention

Every long-term relationship needs attention. Attention that strengthens and maintains your emotional connection: Show your partner your affection, show appreciation for how much he or she contributes to your everyday life and being together, express admiration and gratitude. This also means: you particularly like to focus your attention on what is going well in your relationship and emphasize the positive. And: You react to the contact signals from your partner with interest and affection. Of course, that does not always work. That is not decisive either. It is the small, everyday gestures that are effective: a small, friendly touch, a “Thank you for taking care of this for me”, “It tasted good!” Or: “Look how enthusiastic our child is about you!” The basic principle is positive attention for one another. The effect is amazing: positive attention creates more positive attention. It builds up a resilience that can counterbalance difficulties and stress. Then, even in the event of a conflict, you will not lose the access to positive feelings for your partner.

4. Build on becoming a team

It is especially important for couples who are taking the first steps into the new phase of 'parenthood' in their lives to be aware that they are now a family: being a WE and not just two individuals. That means: you are a team. You work together, you are considerate of your partner, and you are ready to put your own needs aside. Because it is also a need of yours to see your partner and your child to be happy and satisfied. In addition: You build a family together. A new family emerges from two people with different personalities, wishes and goals, different experiences in their family of origin, different traditions, norms and values, sometimes even different cultures. Create this new family very consciously: think together about

  • how you will raise your child,

  • how you will distribute the roles in your family,

  • how you will be in contact with parents, relatives, and friends,

  • how you will furnish your apartment,

  • how you will deal with money,

  • how to spend your holidays and celebrate your parties.

Your family will slowly emerge, your special, unique family in which you will feel comfortable, and your child will find its home.

5. Pay attention to your sexuality

Sex is a hot topic for many young parents! Sexual needs change quite radically with parenthood. Especially for the woman. Do not forget: during pregnancy and after the birth of the child, hormonally and emotionally, the focus is on caring for the child. It is in the nature of things that this has the highest priority because the child is vulnerable and needs to be the center of attention for a while. This cannot always be reconciled with passionate sex and hot feelings of pleasure. Sandra says: “I've been busy since Jonathan was born. Basically, day and night. If I want to sleep, I want to sleep above all. I am tired. It becomes a problem between Paul and me. He wants sex and I say no. I notice how difficult it is for me on the one hand, I don't really want to reject him, on the other hand I get more and more angry: “He only thinks about himself and his orgasm and he doesn't care how I feel. I find the whole thing quite puzzling. Our sex life used to be great and totally satisfying for me. Is something wrong with me or with our relationship?” Paul also feels stressed: “When Sandra says 'No', it's hard for me. I find it difficult to realize: 'Well, she is tired'. I think, Now that she has the little one, she doesn't need me anymore. My task is apparently done. I feel rejected, unwanted, apparently, I am no longer the attractive man I was for her once. I am so disappointed. I close myself down and withdraw from her."

For many couples, there is a big difference between the frequency and satisfaction of sexual contact 'before' and 'after' the baby. Men are much more likely to want sex than new mothers. They experience more orgasms and feel sexy, women mostly less so. These differences can put the relationship under pressure. If they also lead to misunderstandings and mutual negative attributions, then the relationship can get into a negative spiral.

Couples who manage to get through the 'post-baby' dry spell have some great pieces of advice for you!

  • Accept that the sexual relationship is different now from 'before the baby'. Be aware that this change is 'normal' and certainly not a sign of sexual problems or a lack of love and passion. Interpret the sexual lull as part of your parenting and stay a team throughout it.

  • Organize space and time for your intimate relationship. For most couples, a satisfying sexual relationship promotes a feeling of emotional connection and love. Even in less sexual times, it is worth paying attention to the intimate contact between the two of you. Sexual excitement needs time and space, especially for women. The idea that desire is only 'right' when it is spontaneous is anything but helpful. Therefore, organize times for the two of you. At some point, you may well entrust your baby to a babysitter! Talk about sex and intimacy. Exchange ideas about your wishes, what turns you on and what does you good and what does not. And if there is a conflict about sex, talk about it.

  • Hold each other tight, touch each other lovingly! Touch is a basic need for most people. It makes us relax and feel accepted and loved. Many couples experience non-sexual touch as pleasant ‘after the baby’. They ensure that the physical connection is maintained. They are like a refreshing breeze in times of sexual doldrums.

  • Many positive experiences with each other maintain your sexual friendship! As already mentioned above: Small gestures of loving attention that also increase the desire for one another. In case you did not already know, women generally function sexually more like an oven that needs to be preheated slowly. Men more like a soldering iron that gets hot in no time. A tip for men: The best foreplay starts in everyday life: Be friendly to her, give her compliments (instead of reminding her that she should lose weight again), take off her chores, praise her motherly skills! A tip for women: show and tell your man that he is important to you, that you are proud of him and that you find him very attractive, even if you do not always feel like having sex.

6. Make space for warm fatherhood

Mothers have a few advantages over fathers: they carried the child in their womb, gave birth and they can breastfeed. If they do not give their husband space at the beginning of parenthood, then he has little chance of developing an unencumbered relationship with the child. It becomes particularly complicated when the relationship between the parents is conflictual and under pressure. Then the woman will tend to keep the father at a distance. The father does not feel accepted and for his part will have the tendency to withdraw and look for connection outside the home. This is the beginning of a dubious development, because the man who withdraws from his wife, tends to withdraw from his child as well!

Fortunately, most fathers want to be involved in caring for their children. It starts when the child is a baby. Warm fatherhood from fathers (or father figures) who are sensitive to their child’s feelings and needs is beneficial for the relationship with the partner and important for building a bond with the child. Fathers also have a lot to offer: at least through their voice, they are familiar to their child from pregnancy. They are different and it is fun to be with them. Their play is physical and touch oriented, they challenge the child. They give the child more opportunities to try things, while mothers tend to be more protective and more cautious. Research shows that children who had an emotionally engaged father by the age of four showed more social skills by the age of eight.

7. Together enjoy your child

The happiness of together accompanying a child on its path through life connects you both in a special way. You not only feel connected as lovers, but also as a parenting team. A strong combination! When you enjoy your child together, you practice your skills as parents: your ability to be astonished, to be ready for new things and, in particular, you will practice the constantly changing relationship between the three of you. What a gift! Even your baby can be a teacher for you. It has known you both for nine months and will respond to you hoping and expecting your sensitive response. The baby is truly competent and already knows the art of relationships. It manages to get you to speak to it in a high voice and accentuate your words so that it can learn your language better. It also manages to make you smile at it, make jokes, or react empathically and 'sadly' when it is not doing well. It lives from its core, with no ideas about 'right' or 'wrong' that sometimes make life so difficult for us adults. It shows you what it is like to trust and be vulnerable and strong at the same time. It bonds with you without a safety net; it loves you with every cell of its being. What a wealth to experience this together!

A safe connection between you is a gift to your child

Being partners and parents that have a safe and strong connection is the greatest gift you can give to your child. Because parents who form a loving team are better parents:

  • their relationship is more stable,

  • they are more cooperative, more flexible, and more willing to compromise, and they manage to reconcile different parenting styles more easily.

  • They offer the child a foundation of emotional safety.

  • They solve conflicts more easily and therefore do not burden the child too much with their problems.

  • They offer the child a role model for loving relationships, for dealing with closeness and independence, and for contact between the sexes.

  • And one day they will help the child to break away from them, to live its own life, to find a loving partner and, in turn, to start a family: the birth of you as grandparents! In this way you are part of the cycle of life.

Gottman, J.; Schwartz Gottman, J. (2007): And baby makes three. The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby arrives. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Johnson, S.(2008): Hold me Tight. Seven Conversations for a Lifetime of Love. Little, Brown & Company, New York

English translation of the chapter: 'Wir sind ein Paar, wir werden Eltern' (Author and vertaling: Ingeborg Weser)

From: Gerald Hüther, Ingeborg Weser (2015): Das Geheimnis der ersten neun Monate. Reise ins Leben.

Beltz-Verlag, Weinheim/Duitsland.

Copyright: Ingeborg Weser


bottom of page