Researchers have found that about 67 percent of couples experience a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first three years of a baby’s life (Gottman, 2015) and this deterioration often persists into subsequent years (Doss et al., 2009).
Though many couples are over the moon about their new bundle of joy, they also struggle with work-life balance, more loneliness, financial stress, friendship changes, more chores, and minimal free time. One study revealed that working couples felt their daily workload increased by 4 hours each day after they had a baby.
New parents are also sleep-deprived, which, research suggests, also greatly diminishes your ability to stay positive, communicate, and manage your emotions (Goldstein & Walker, 2014). One study showed that couples notice a 40 percent increase in arguments after having a baby, and two-thirds of these couples admitted that these were often "silly" arguments caused by stress or exhaustion.
By committing to science-backed tiny actions that bond, repair, or boost a relationship, couples can avoid unnecessary arguments as well as a "silent drift apart after baby." By completing these "micro-behaviors" (that often take two minutes or less), you protect your relationship from stress and grow it to the next level. These small rituals act as anchors for relationship closeness. They are based in positive psychology and Goldiamond's "constructional approach," which focuses on the importance of building positive behavioral repertoires, instead of just eliminating problematic ones (Delprato, 1981).
Make Greetings and Goodbyes Count
Have you ever walked in the door only to hear your partner bark, "You forgot to take out the garbage!" Researcher Bill Doherty argues that the most important moment in your marriage is “the moment of reunion” when you greet each other. He suggests that if you consistently greet each other well, you will maintain a sense of excitement about seeing each other. Set out to greet your partner with a positive comment like, “Morning, Beautiful!” or "So happy waking up with you!" or “Thanks for watching the kids all day!” or "Wow, you made a great dinner and painted with the kids this afternoon?" During goodbyes, say something warm or gracious like, “I’ll miss you today,” or “Thanks for working hard for our family today.”
Stir Up Some Oxytocin
Parents are often so busy snuggling their kids that they forget to snuggle each other. Touching releases the feel-good neurochemical oxytocin (nicknamed “the bonding hormone), so hug, kiss, or put your hand on your partner’s shoulder. Research suggests that hugs also help you buffer stress, help you avoid getting sick, relax you, and boost your mood. Researcher Sheldon Cohen states that “hugging is a marker of intimacy." Research suggests that people feel more loving and affectionate toward their partner when they cuddle. This simple act also inspires feelings of love, happiness, comfort, satisfaction, bonding, and feeling appreciated. Cuddling is also a time when many people go deeper in conversation and talk about relationships, the future, work or school, and friends and family (van Anders, Edelstein, Wade, & Samples-Steele, 2012).
Complete Kind Gestures and Surprises
When participants in a relationship study were asked, “What two things do you like best about your relationship?” they mentioned small words, gestures, and actions—like having their partner cook a meal for them (Gabb et al., 2013). A thoughtful holiday card, pouring a partner's coffee, a surprise breakfast in bed, letting a partner sleep in, ironing a partner's work clothes for the week, buying a partner their favorite food at the grocery store, or even playing a partner's favorite music add up to create goodwill between you. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that there need to be five times as many positive interactions between partners as there are negative for a relationship to be stable. Kind gestures are the perfect way to achieve what he calls "the magic ratio."
Thank Your Partner At Least Once a Day
Thank your partner via text message, post-it note, comment, or card. Each day, pinpoint one thing about your partner that you're grateful for. Research suggests that gratitude is a powerful “booster shot” for romantic relationships (Algoe, Gable, and Maisel, 2010). Gratitude predicts how happy someone will be in their marriage, improves levels of commitment to a marriage (Barton, Futris, and Nielsen, 2015), improves the quality of intimate relationships (Parnell, 2015), and makes it more likely that partners will stay together over time (Gordon et. al., 2012). Gratitude even counteracts and protects against the negative effects of arguing (Barton, Futris, and Nielsen, 2015).
Send Positive Text Messages Throughout the Day
Researcher Lori Schade and colleagues (2013) found that while aimless texting or arguing over texts can hurt a relationship, using text messages to express affection enhances relationships and creates a stronger partner attachment. Sending a loving text is even more strongly related to relationship satisfaction than receiving one. Try sending your partner texts with compliments, happy memories, flirtatious phrases, activities you're looking forward to, positive "Yes!" moments, or kindhearted jokes.
Go to Bed at the Same Time as Your Partner, at Least a Few Nights a Week
Go to bed at the same time as your partner at least a few nights a week, with time to talk, connect, cuddle, and be intimate before falling asleep. Researchers found that couples whose wake and sleep patterns were mismatched reported significantly less marital adjustment, more marital conflict, less time spent in serious conversation, and less frequent sexual intercourse than matched couples (). One surprising research finding is that going to bed at the same time makes female partners interpret daytime partner interactions more positively the next day (Hasler & Troxel, 2010). In addition, when couples talk after sex—“pillow talk”—oxytocin can make it more likely that partners will disclose positive feelings for each other (Denes, 2012). However, keep your phone out of the bedroom, as looking at your phone while talking to your partner can lower relationship satisfaction (Roberts & David, 2016).
Parts of this blog post have been excerpted from the book Joy Fixes for Weary Parents (New World Library, 2017) by Erin Leyba, PhD.
Copyright 2017 by Erin Leyba, PhD
Erin Leyba, LCSW, PhD is a counselor in Chicago’s western suburbs. www.erinleyba.com. She is the author of Joy Fixes for Weary Parents: 101 Ideas for Overcoming Fatigue, Stress, and Guilt - and Building a Life You Love (New World Library). Join her on Facebook or sign up to get free articles on parenting with mindfulness and joy.