While we know that the first year after having a baby is statistically the most difficult for marriages and partnerships, we certainly cannot say that every woman who is struggling with postpartum depression or a related illness will also be in a marriage or partnership full of conflict. Nor can we say that women who are in conflicted relationships are also all working their way through perinatal mood and anxiety disorders.
However, I am pretty sure that most of us who have given birth to or adopted babies can agree that there are major shifts in relationships at home that require a significant amount of work, understanding, and re-inventing. And we know that inadequate social support, including marital conflict, is one of the risk factors in the development postpartum depression and/or anxiety.
So, with that said, let’s talk about sex. Well, not entirely, but let’s talk about relationships and the often emotionally challenging shifts and changes that occur when a baby enters the picture.
Research has identified five major changes that couples go through when they become parents, and each of these changes can lead to conflict between partners:
Regardless of the choices that couples have made prior to becoming parents, gender roles become more traditional once a baby is born. Caring for an infant can add 30-50 hours of additional “work” a week for parents and it is common for women to take on 2-3 times more of these parenting responsibilities than men, regardless of whether they are working inside or outside of the home.
Once a baby is born, there is significantly less time for uninterrupted couple-focused communicating.
Often, when a new baby joins a family, there is a decline in disposable income due to the new financial responsibilities that come along with that new bundle. This will often mean fewer individual and shared leisure activities (which often means less individual and couple self-care time).
Parenting is a busy time. Once a baby enters the picture, there is significantly reduced frequency and quality of couple time.
And sex: For most couples, intimacy and the frequency of intercourse changes or weeks or months after having a baby. After delivery, there is common discomfort and/or pain with intercourse for women, and most couples are exhausted after sleepless days and nights of caring for a newborn. Combine that with the demand of breastfeeding for those who go this route, and many couples will spend much less time being intimate. In fact, one study showed that 50% women and 20% men report reduced sexual responsiveness for 6-12 months postpartum. And one-third of couples with report this 2/3 years after birth. Women who are struggling with depression will have an extra challenge here as lowered libido is one of the very common symptoms of depression and at times a side effect of antidepressant medication.
So … what does all this mean? What this means is that having a baby is HARD on a marriage. Add postpartum depression and other mood disorders and this relationship stuff becomes even harder.
In the work that I do with moms who are struggling with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, the following issues come up around marriages and relationships:
Many women are skilled at hiding the true nature of their emotional vulnerability. Often husbands and partners do not know how much they are really struggling.
Despite this, most women expect (or wish?) that their husbands and partners will know what to do to support them.
Many of these women are very reluctant to ask for help for fear that they will disappoint, scare, or push away their partners.
When depressed, many moms will retreat into social isolation and withdrawal. This is often confusing for partners, as mom will often pull away from him/her as well.
Dads usually expect mom to be joyful in early parenting, and so they are often unprepared for the unexpected challenges if a mom becomes depressed or anxious. Dad may need to take on more nurturing and household chores than they were expecting and mom may feel incredible guilt over this.
Partners might know each other really well as individuals, but do not necessarily know each other as parents yet. Both mom and dad can become disappointed, angry, fearful, and confused when these new identities develop if they are not what they each expected. If mom is suffering with a mood disorder, dad can suddenly become overwhelmed with questions about where his wife/partner “went”—and of course, mom is wondering the same thing. This may be the first time that dad has witnessed his partner in such distress.
Most women will express feelings of disappointment, resent, anger, and/or sadness around the ways that their partners are reacting to the changes that occur with a new baby. Most of these women will also be at a loss as to what to do with these feelings. And many of these women will feel as though their relationships are doomed.
Any of this sound familiar?
Read part 2 tomorrow for tips on what to do to strengthen your partnership during this difficult time.
Kate Kripke, LCSW