The Couple Relationship: Where does baby fit?

by John Hoffman

I’ve said this before, but I keep saying it because it’s important. One of the single most important factors that affects fathering is the father’s relationship with his partner. Guys who have a good relationship with their partners tend to be more involved, happier and more effective as parents. Research has proven this eight ways to Sunday. What’s interesting is that the reverse is not true to anywhere near the same extent. Obviously, it’s better for Mom to have a good relationship with Dad than a poor one, but the partner relationship does not affect mothering as much as it affects fathering.

Let’s talk about early parenthood because it is a critical time for relationships. Seattle psychologist John Gottman has done a lot of research on heterosexual marriages and what happens to relationships after a baby is born. He says most couples experience a drop in intimacy and marriage quality after the first baby is born. No surprise there. The shocker is that, according to Gottman’s research, about one in four of American couples split up within the five years following a baby ’s birth.

So, a lot of marriage therapists advise parents to take care of their partner relationship after the baby is born. Good advice. Where some marriage advice-givers lose me, however, is that they have a way of trying to put the parent-baby relationship and the mom-dad relationship in separate boxes. They tell parents to have date nights and special Dad-Mom time, away from the baby. Fair enough. Every parent needs (and wants) couple time.  My point is that you can’t really separate the dad-mom relationship and the parent-baby relationships. They are part of each other. So, in early parenthood, if you can only build your relationship by getting away from the baby… Well, I don’t think you have much to work with.  That’s why I say new parents should be advised to connect through the baby, not just away from the baby.  That means sharing and enjoying the experience of parenting together.

Lots of parents do this without being told, of course. Donald Fraser, whose first child Clara is nine-months old, says he and his wife Krista do pretty much everything with Clara.  “We’ve tried to maintain a lot of the activities and outings we enjoyed before Clara was born,” says Fraser. “We just take her with us now. We take her on hikes, to music festivals, to the Pan Am Games. We even took her camping with us. And next summer we’ll probably take her on a canoe trip.” In other words, Clara has become a part of the shared experiences that are a big part of Donald and Krista’s relationship.

Obviously having wee Clara in tow is extra work. But Donald and Krista share that work. And having Clara along often enhances the experience. “Recently we were hiking through the woods and I had Clara in the backpack,” Fraser says. “The dappled sunlight on the trees caught her attention and she threw her head back and just stared with this delighted expression on her face. We’d seen the forest lots of times, but it was new and all encompassing to her. That made the walk more fun.”

There are lots of other ways to share the experience of parenting of course. It can be working together on the tasks of caring for your baby. Or it can be simply sitting on the floor together and watching all the cute fascinating little things your baby does. But my point is that the baby can bring you together, not just come between you. Sharing and enjoying the experience together will be good for your relationship and it will also help you be the good father I know you want to be.

Dad Central Ontario’s Dads! Renovate Your Relationship offers 14 tools to help fathers stay connected to their partners.


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