Will your relationship survive your kids?
Love, sex and the patter of little feet. One often leads to the other, but many couples find that it's difficult to keep all three going at the same time.
Here's a familiar story. Boy meets girl. They become hopelessly infatuated. Their relationship blossoms. After a few weeks they both realize its serious. For six months or so all they need is each other. At seven months, they have their first major blue. Their relationship survives it and starts to mature. Over the next few years they experience some highs and some lows. But they get through it. They start to realize this could be for good. They think about having kids. They are great together and having a family will only bring them closer. A baby arrives, then perhaps a second. And all of a sudden what seemed like the worlds most durable partnership comes under some serious strain. Dog-tired, with strange new roles and a myriad of new demands, boy and girl fight. They really fight. There doesn't seem to be time to be there for each other any more. They hardly have sex. The relationship is conducted more like a civil engineering contract than a marriage.
And there it is - one of the major paradoxes in western relationships. In the midst of living out one of the main purposes for which nature brought boy and girl together - to have a family - boy and girl find that far from bringing them closer together, their new status as a threesome or foursome is driving them further apart.
The pressures of parenthood in a modern Australian nuclear family are particularly great. Time and money pressures, expectations of continued independence and lifestyle, living at a distance from traditional communal support networks, trying to juggle career, family and partner ?these are some of the most pervasive causes of stress in relationships between parents.
And to make matters worse, often the old techniques for sorting things out aren't available. There's no time for long walks together, talking over your differences. Nor is time apart overly practical with a couple of little ones to care for. The statistics point to just how significant these issues are. A significant majority of couples cite increased marital conflict after the birth of a child, with communication and conflict resolution problems the two biggest relationship bugbears.
The secret to surviving and thriving as a parenting couple is to be proactive in taking care of your relationship. And the good news is there are some common things to watch out for and some straight forward things you can do. Put simply, you can learn to get on well as parents and you can go to training sessions to help you progress your "getting on with each other" skills.
Relationships Australia is Australia's largest community-based relationships service and has developed a toolbox to help couples prepare for and negotiate their way through parenthood. It provides up-to-date research-based ideas, exercises and techniques presented in a secure and stimulating way. Here's five of the best:
Be aware of your family of origin and how it influences the way you are as a parent and spouse. - Understanding the family you grew up in will help you be aware of how you formed views of parenting and the values and styles which you give to it. Recognize that if you and your partner came from very different families, then your approach to parenting may also be very different. Think about how your own mother and father parented and notice their influence in the way you behave. Talk about it with your partner and keep in mind what may be driving them in their parenting style.
Communicate, communicate, communicate - A real biggie! Parenting can be stressful. Really, really stressful. But bringing down the shutters in the middle of a midnight parenting disaster isolates both partners. You stop acting as a team. Communicating through even the most stressful situations will help you understand and support each other. It will allow you to synchronize plans and move forward. Afterwards, if you have had cross words, talk it over and make sure you tell each other what was going on for you. It's simple to say, and hard to do ?but effective communication is one of the big saviours of love in a marriage.
Sort through gender roles and the division of labour - This is one of the most debated of issues in parenting. Who does what, who should do what and who is genetically programmed the best for a given task. There are endless different views on the division of labour in relationships and what is "fair". You have to work out what is right for you and your partner, regardless of what others might think. It is a conversation you can have in a structured way and you can make informal, but clear agreements to guide your life together. Review your agreements from time to time and don't be bound by gender stereotypes.
Complete a pre-parenting "checklist" - If you haven't had kids yet, work through a checklist of issues together to clearly explore each of your attitudes to the parenting task ahead. A good checklist will examine your feelings of readiness to be a parent, your expectations of intimacy with your partner, what support you expect or require, the role of extended family, the most important ways you would like to see your partner's love expressed and will help identify constructive patterns of communication.
Balancing work and family - What is left to say about one of the defining challenges of our age? There are no formulae but striking a balance between personal fulfillment, financial security and available time with your family remains the most important challenge to overcome for many couples. The notion that it is possible to spend a short amount of turbo-charged "quality time" with your loved ones to make up for long absences is now largely discredited. What your children and your partner needs most is often simply your presence