You’re sleep deprived, the baby is crying and now, your partner is driving you up the wall. It happens.
Forget every postcard-perfect picture you’ve ever seen of new parents, because the reality is, it’s tough. Relationships often struggle in the first 12 months on a new addition and yes, they do sometimes break down completely.
Sheridan Smith’s split from her fiancé, Jamie Horn, is a reminder of this. In a statement, the couple said they’re committed to raising their one-year-old son, but have “decided to have some time apart”.
Deciding to walk away – or simply acknowledging relationship problems – is not easy. So, wouldn’t it be a tiny bit better if we removed the stigma and just talked about it?
It’s common for the dynamic of a relationship to change once you have kids, says Clare Faulkner, a psychosexual and relationship psychotherapist accredited with the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists. In fact, it’s to be expected.
“I think it would be prudent to assume that it happens in any relationship, because we’re moving from a dyad to a triad – we are moving from two to three, or even four – so that is going to impact the relationship space, whether we deem it as positive or negative,” Faulkner tells HuffPost UK.
New parents have to navigate the switch from “who you were as an individual or a couple, to who you are now in this new role,” she adds. This perceived shift in identity is a common challenge for both parties in the first year.
“It might mean one person is not working or has given up that role to become a stay-at-home parent. What is the impact of that on them?” says Faulkner.
“That then feeds into money. There might be a reduced income. One person might feel financially dependent. You might need to have discussions around how money is spent that didn’t need to happen before, because there was an independence and a freedom.”
The usual ways we destress – whether that’s a stint at the gym or a night out – are often more difficult to schedule in the early days of parenting. This can compound the tension, says Faulkner, leaving little space for a positive outlet.
While many couples experience challenges in the first year, interestingly, most do not approach Faulkner for couples therapy until later down the line.
“In that early year, parents are so busy and deeply sleep deprived that they’re trying to just manage and get through it,” she says. “It’s often later on that they will present to me in my practice. They’ve got a bit more sleep and have been able to come up for air, so they can really stake stock and start to process the relational dynamic shift.”
This resonates with Luana D’Elias, who’s 33 and based in Epping. She had a baby two years ago and says at first, she was “in denial” about the changes to her relationship. But her partner broached the topic after seven months. D’Elias wanted to breastfeed for two years, so has only recently weaned her child. During that time, she says she didn’t want tactile attention from her partner.
“By the time I went to bed I didn’t need any more physical touch. I had enough physical contact and was fulfilled in that sense. In fact, all I craved was alone time. I wanted to be alone,” she says. “Most of the time I was too tired anyway and frequently chose sleep over sex or anything else.
“It hasn’t impacted my love for my partner at all. I love him all the same. I didn’t think there was anything wrong. But it has impacted him.”
After seven months, D’Elias’ partner brought up the topic and the couple have slowly reworked intimacy into their relationship. “Sex has changed too because I had a tear, it was painful for me initially, it took a year to feel better,” she says. “But there’s still certain positions I can’t do and am taking easy.”
The mum-of-one now feels like she has her body back, but says it’s “still work in progress”. She’s since launched Get Off My Back, a movement to support new mums and change people’s perceptions around birth.
D’Elias’ experience is familiar to Faulkner, who hears similar tales among her clients. She cites a 2000 study published in the Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, which found that in the first three months after delivery, 83% of women experienced sexual problems. This declined to 64% at six months, although 38% said their sex life had not reached its pre-pregnancy state.
Another review of studies conducted in 1999, found 40-50% of women have difficulty in their sexual relationships six to 12 months postpartum.
“There’s a variety of physical and psychological factors that might come into play,” she says. “There might be dyspareunia, which is pain during sex, which can include perineal pain, vaginal dryness, a change in orgasmic response, and episiotomy discomfort. There might be a change in body image, a decrease sense of attractiveness or a fear of injury.”
In order to relieve the pressure some couples feel around sex, we need to normalise the experience, adds Faulkner. “Our sex lives are a casualty of child birth, potentially, and that’s okay.”
Taking things slowly, physically, is obviously a good idea, but Faulkner recommends some gentle exercises you can try in the first year of parenthood to strengthen a relationship, too.
One technique, is to stick to short sentences to keep the conversation contained. Faulkner recommends taking it in turns to end these sentences:
I’m worried about...
I’m mad about...
I’m glad about...
In general, you should avoid saying “you never...” or “you always...” she says. Instead, phrases like “I’d be really grateful if...,” “Would you be able to...”, or “I need help with...” encourage solidarity.
Patience and a sense of humour is always useful, she adds, as is making time for conversations that are not about the baby.
“Try to be curious and find out something about your partner, in the same way that you do when you’re in that early dating phase,” she says. “Try to connect to that energy.”
It’s worth saying, though, that there’s no golden rule that says two people are meant to be together just because they’ve had a baby.
In fact, having a child might have simply exposed problems that already existed in your relationship. Because of this, it might be time to consider co-parenting, if you’ve tried to make it work and it’s just not happening – and that’s okay.
As Faulkner says: “Be kind to yourself and kind to each other and where possible.”