Dear Maxwells: My partner and I had our first child about a year ago. Ever since we became parents we’ve been fighting a lot more, about big things and also even little things that wouldn’t have bothered us in the past before we became parents. Why is this happening, and can we ever get back to the place we were before?
Dear Reader: Thank you for your question. Becoming parents is the biggest transition a relationship can go through besides the loss of a family member.
You were two before, and now, you are three. And yes, you wanted to become three, but that still doesn’t mean that you aren’t grieving the loss of when you were just two. This is completely normal and many couples don’t allow themselves the space to go through this transition and acknowledge both the complex emotions that accompany it, as well as the very real changes that happen to the relationship.
Personally, the hardest moments of our marriage have been during the first six months after each one of our children was born. While there are many reasons why this transition can be such a crucible for a marriage (including hormonal changes in both women and men), we’ll focus on one of the main, overarching culprits today and hopefully it will help shed some light on your situation.
The first thing to think about is that when you become parents, your heart is now almost entirely focused on your child versus on your relationship. There are primal, biological reasons for this, but regardless, this is a massive change to the relationship. It can literally feel like there is no room left in your heart anymore for your spouse once you have experienced the love that you feel for your children. This is where the increased fighting stems from. It's much more difficult to be patient, forgiving, kind, connected, present etc., when your heart is consumed with the love you have for your child. All of a sudden, things that didn't used to annoy you about your partner, even idiosyncrasies that you may have found charming or cute before, now have the potential to drive you crazy.
Up until you welcomed your child into the world, the primary focus of your relationship was on the relationship itself … on each other, the things you would do together, how you would feel about each other and the world as a unit. You also had a lot more autonomy, both as a unit and individually. As soon as you become parents, the primary focus of the relationship is now keeping your children alive. To remedy this involves learning how to make room in your heart for both your child and the relationship between you and your partner. Talk about growing pains!
A good way to think about this transition is to relate to the relationship as it once was, as over. Mourn the loss of it being just the two of you as part of your celebration of it becoming the three of you. You will never be the same. With the birth of this child, a brand-new relationship between you and your partner was also born and that requires you to literally learn how to expand your heart wide enough to have room for both your relationship as well as the all encompassing love that you feel for your child. Ultimately, this is about expanding your capacity to love in all ways. How beautiful!
The importance of this transition can’t be understated. Our children are raised inside of the ecosystem of our relationship. How we love each other is imprinted into the subconscious minds of our children, and they can only thrive as much as our relationship is thriving as well.
It's not just how we love our children, but how we love each other that teaches our children what love is and what love isn't. Given the importance of how impactful our union is on both our own wellbeing and our children's, please be patient with each other.
Be forgiving with each other. Assume the best of each other versus look for the worst. Most importantly, get help! Either a great coach and/or therapist is key during this period. Remember that this is a process. You are learning how to be both a couple and parents, together. You are learning what that means for the future of your relationship. You are in a stage of becoming, and hopefully becoming something that is better than the sum of its parts.