What happens to a partner-relationship when a baby becomes part of the family?
It appears that it's time for an open and direct conversation about the dynamics between couples within a family. This topic is, and will likely continue to be, one of the most common reasons people seek psychotherapy, and even beyond that. Many individuals come to therapy with precisely these types of questions: "Help me mend my relationship with my partner! Help me comprehend what isn't working between us. Why do I feel so unhappy in this relationship? How can I encourage the other person to change for the betterment of our relationship? What changed between us after the baby was born? It seems like I'm considering divorce because my partner no longer fulfills me, neither emotionally nor sexually. My spouse seems solely focused on the child, neglecting our connection. Our intimate life has dwindled, and we're stuck in constant arguments since the child came into our lives. I strayed from my marriage because my wife is emotionally distant and constantly criticizes me. I was unfaithful to my husband because our emotional connection has been absent for an extended period, and he fails to comprehend my need for it." Let's look into this significant aspect of our lives and relationships.
The reasons people seek consultations may vary, but about 90% of the time, they revolve around issues within partner relationships. And it's no wonder! Building a healthy partnership, navigating life's changes, facing challenges together as a team, and sustaining the relationship afterward is undeniably tough. In the past, people rarely lived together as long as they do today. Modern life expectancy has significantly increased compared to our ancestors just three generations ago.
In earlier times, people lived up to 40/50 years, and that was considered the norm. Some passed away even sooner, so couples lived together for a maximum of 20 years. Contrast that with today, where we're talking about long-term relationships lasting 40/50 years—twice or three times longer than before! It's akin to experiencing two or three long-term marriages with the same partner. The extended duration of modern relationships is a new and unique challenge that many couples face.
In today's world, the idea of living together for a lifetime can seem like a nearly impossible task, yet many still see it as the ideal way of life. Given the challenges and changes in modern life, it's not as surprising anymore when people divorce after 20 years of marriage and start afresh. The desire for a new beginning is a sentiment many can relate to.
Everyone is unique, and we all approach creating relationships in our way, shaping a comfortable way of living together. There's no longer a single norm or correct method to build a family. I strongly oppose rigid rules and outdated beliefs about this. I don't believe a woman should be confined to traditional roles—staying at home to care for kids, manage the household, and cook for the family, potentially sacrificing her own aspirations. Similarly, I don't think a man should be solely focused on the family's income, spending long hours at work. While this model might have worked for our parents and grandparents, there are now diverse family structures that function well. The key is finding a model that satisfies both partners, making it the most crucial indicator of a successful relationship.
As times rapidly change, our individual needs become more diverse. I believe it's essential for every young family to openly discuss various everyday issues that shape their life together. When you come together, consider questions like: What time suits us for bedtime? What's on the breakfast menu? Shall we cook dinner together or opt for takeout? Do we want children, and if so, should we focus on our careers now or prioritize starting a family? How do we envision raising our children? Will I want to be a mom? Who will stay with the child at home—until they are three or in kindergarten from a younger age? How will we manage our finances? Joint budget or splitting expenses? How important is intimacy to each of us? How will we handle difficulties, and what's our plan of action? Do we want to spend all our free time together, or should we designate specific times for individual activities? Who will take maternity leave? How will we navigate situations when the children get sick? These are just a few of the many questions couples face when deciding to start a family. Even before the arrival of children, there are diverse situations that need to be addressed, requiring equal involvement from both partners.
This month, I want to delve into the first significant relationship crisis that affects couples with the arrival of a baby. This challenge tends to recur with each subsequent child, although the intensity may diminish after the initial experience. It's a topic that's personally significant to me. While I could share many insights from my own journey with my husband, Edgar, I'll save those details for video lectures. The first crisis was a turning point, a time when the idea of separation lingered in the background, unspoken yet palpable. I'm grateful that both of us persevered, sought help together, and received not only informative but also psychological support from specialists early in the crisis.
Before delving into our experience, let's explore the needs partners have from each other. Understanding these needs will shed light on why this crisis arises and where potential solutions lie. In the not-so-distant past, our ancestors entered marriage for different reasons than we do today. Coexisting increased survival chances, facilitated child-rearing, and ensured better care for offspring. Marriages were often motivated by financial and economic considerations. Women managed household affairs, while men provided for the family. These partnerships had different expectations; requirements were less demanding. Simply not causing physical harm, treating each other reasonably, bringing home a salary (the mammoth), and ensuring basic needs like shelter, food, and warmth were often sufficient.
Nowadays, relationships are often formed for psychological reasons, reflecting shifts in needs and expectations. Today, women are financially independent and don't rely on a man for security. Similarly, women are fully capable of getting pregnant and raising a child independently with services like sperm donors and nannies; individuals can navigate parenthood alone. Similarly, men can handle household tasks, since that can be outsourced through various services (cleaner, food delivery, restaurants, etc.), reducing the need for a partner with specific domestic skills. Also, there is no need for a permanent partner to have sex. Against this backdrop, it's evident that our ancestors' needs have evolved significantly.
Current expectations revolve around fulfilling psychological needs. Partners seek acceptance, understanding, support, love, intimacy, respect, and encouragement. The desire is to feel secure, confident that they won't be abandoned, and free to be themselves in the relationship—a foundation for secure attachment.
When partners do not get these needs met for an extended period, they experience pain, resentment, rejection, loneliness, disappointment and other unpleasant feelings. Accumulated over time, these feelings turn into a huge tension, a wall between the couple that prevents them from being close to each other. Distrust, deceit, and, ultimately, relationship breakdown can result. Both partners may lack the strength to address the issues, leading to a belief that the relationship is burdensome and not meant to be.
That way, the relationships are being damaged, there's ongoing dissatisfaction, and it may seem like the other person is the source of all problems. However, the reality is quite different—it just appears that way from an external perspective. The primary reason for this frustration? We often have limited self-awareness, lacking understanding of our inner psychological needs such as attachment, the desire for warm and secure relationships, autonomy, and the need for self-actualization.
Our past experiences play a crucial role—was our mother nurturing and accepting during childhood, or was she cold and distant? Did our father express affection, or did he withdraw and remain physically present? Reflecting on school days and first love reveals whether these were positive memories or moments of heartache and disappointment. Distorted self-perception leads to self-loathing and various other challenges.
Often, we don't realize what's happening within ourselves. In these moments, the other person becomes a mirror reflecting our own wounds. Strangely, we remain oblivious to it! While we were alone, many unresolved issues quietly slumbered, but the partner relationship becomes the arena where everything suddenly comes to the surface with great intensity. It begins to feel like the other person is as dismissive and cold as my father, or perhaps my partner just blames me about everything. The partner might develop habits like drinking and partying, mirroring my father's behavior throughout my childhood, and I find myself slipping into the role of a savior, just like my mother used to do. Despite having a family, with a spouse and children, I start feeling extremely lonely and find it hard to trust anyone. Slowly, I sink into a deeper depression, losing meaning in life. This powerlessness echoes back to my childhood, where I felt indifference and emotional abandonment by my parents.
Each one of us holds a unique story, filled with both delightful memories and those we wish to erase! This, combined with the challenge of not fully mastering the art of constructive communication about our internal worlds, needs, feelings, and desires, creates hurdles in navigating complex life situations together. When a relationship crisis emerges after the arrival of a baby, it becomes challenging for both partners to navigate it jointly. We miss the chance to emerge from the crisis stronger, more connected, and more experienced, as each successfully navigated crisis brings us closer emotionally, enhancing the overall quality of our relationship.
Looking forward to connecting with you in the upcoming blog articles and video lectures.
Gestalt Therapist / Founder of the Psychology Center AUGT