What Happened to us - Lyn Benson

Full article from the Term 4 No 1 2006 Newsletter

  • Do you have a family with young children?
  • Has your relationship with your partner changed since becoming parents?
  • Were your expectations of what it means to be a parent different from the reality?
  • Does your partner think differently to you regarding parenting and roles in the family?

When a couple becomes a family, the dynamics in the relationship change forever. That does not mean that the relationship necessarily becomes worse, but it does mean that the focus will go from just the couple onto what it means to be part of a family. The issues involved in becoming new parents are universal. However, there is very little written and even less discussed with new parents to prepare them for the changes that will take place in the couple’s relationship, once you become a family with children.

What couples complain about

In my Psychology practice, I often hear couples complain about the areas in their lives that are now so different from the time "before the children were born". One major area is friendship in the relationship. Prior to having children, the couple only have themselves to consider. Suddenly this relationship is changed by the inclusion of children. Couples complain that they have "lost their best friend", their partner, who now seems preoccupied with the needs of their growing family. Intimacy and sex in the relationship are often neglected due to lack of time, lack of money, sleep deprivation and general lack of energy. This can lead to feelings of rejection and resentment. There may be a belief that "things will get better" often without the skills needed to resolve conflict and regain the emotional and physical intimacy that most couples desire. Couples often complain about how lonely they now feel in their relationship.

Expectations of what it means to be a parent

Having a child is an enormous change in anyone’s life. Change, even a good change like starting a family can involve grief. For some men, having a first child can be like losing a relationship as he goes from being part of a couple to watching his partner having an intimate relationship with their child. The feelings can be overwhelming, as he might feel confused and ashamed of being jealous of his own baby and feel he can’t talk to anyone about it.

"When a woman becomes a mother, her relationships, her professional identity and her sense of self, will never be the same again. The fact is, the presence of children does not simply add to the lives of their parents, it transforms those lives completely. The precise nature of this transformation remains one of the best kept secrets of contemporary adult life, shrouded in a conspiracy of silence." The Mask of Motherhood: How Mothering Changes Everything and Why we Pretend It Doesn't" Maushart, S. Vintage (1997).

If we consider that women today are having children at a later age, traditional support (like extended family members) is often not available and given the media led idea that mothers will be 'super women', it is no wonder that women today may be confused about the realities of becoming a parent.

Roles in the Family

We only have to look at our family of origin to see what models we were shown regarding how household duties were divided, who did the disciplining, who did the emotional 'work' and how conflict was resolved. Mostly, couples report that they truly believed that their partner would 'think like I do' and ‘parent the same way as me’ without ever discussing these issues. These are common expectations, but unfortunately no two people think alike or have exactly the same values. We assume, wrongly, that because we love our partner, everything will automatically and magically fall into place once the children are born.

People can end up frustrated, lonely and even depressed if they feel unheard and misunderstood in their relationship. Both partners in the relationship will believe that the way that they want to do things is 'normal', that this is the way families work. In other words, your expectations of how a family works will be completely different from those of your partner, and you may both believe that you are 'right' and your partner is 'wrong'.

THE GOOD NEWS

The good news is that once these issues have been brought out into the open and if people have enough courage, unresolved issues and misunderstandings can be worked through and resolved.

Some Useful Suggestions

  • Think about what your expectations are of your partner regarding parenting; write down your expectations and ask your partner to do the same. If it is possible, discuss your different expectations and see if you can work out ways to compromise.
  • Take time to consider what roles you saw your mother perform in your family of origin, regarding sharing of household duties, emotional ‘work’, disciplining of children and allocating money. What were your father’s roles? Did you consider these roles ‘normal’? Did your partner’s family have a different separation of roles? Try and consider how what you experienced in your family of origin has influenced what you expect of your partner now. Remember, just because you think differently, it doesn't make one of you 'right' and the other one 'wrong';
  • Consider where you get your emotional support from now as an adult. Who does your partner talk to about their difficulties? Can you talk to each other about your concerns, your worries and your issues with each other?
  • How much time do you spend enjoying your partner's company without any interruptions? How long has it been since you had quiet time together to enjoy being a couple? If it is possible, try and organize a special time just to be together to discuss your relationship and how you would like it to be. If you and your partner feel 'stuck' in unresolved issues, seek professional advice.

Couples frequently want to regain the intimacy with their partner that they feel they have lost. Through discussion, mutual respect and enough good will, relationships can be rebuilt and become stronger than ever.

Lyn Benson
Psychologist and Family Therapist