I knew having a baby would change my day-to-day. But I didn't know it would rock my relationship too. After our son was born, my husband, Aaron, suddenly had opinions about everything -- and most of them differed from mine. The first year of Eric's life was the worst of our marriage. And we're not alone. About two-thirds of couples become dissatisfied with their relationship within three years of having a child, according to research from the Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle. It's no wonder: Sleepless nights, raging hormones, scant time for long talks or sex -- they all converge to forge a divide between you and him.
Aaron and I are living proof that you can rekindle your connection. We just celebrated our 20th anniversary! But don't take my word for it. These couples also brought back the love after facing their own challenges. Pros share how to scale similar hurdles with your honey.
Ashley and Brett Quam
Columbia, South Carolina
Parents of Caleb, 3
The conflict Ashley, 28, and Brett, 33, loved seeing midnight movies and having leisurely breakfasts at their favorite diner. They also enjoyed quiet time apart -- thrift-store shopping for Ashley or an afternoon writing computer code for Brett. After Caleb was born, they missed those free-form days.
Her side "I was home with Caleb for three months. Some days all I did was take care of him. I envied my friends' freedom, and I took my frustration out on Brett. I'd snipe, 'No, you watch TV while I change his diaper.' I kept score: If Brett played poker with friends on Friday night, I'd tell him that he owed me time on Saturday to get out of the house."
His side "Caleb needed constant attention, so we put ourselves and our relationship on the back burner. I missed being able to just talk to Ashley, let alone surprise her with a weekend trip to the beach. Date nights didn't happen, since we don't live near family and weren't comfortable having a stranger watch our son. The lack of quality time took its toll."
The stay-close plan "Many couples have unrealistic expectations about how much time they'll have for themselves after the baby arrives," says Jennifer Jones, a therapist with the Council for Relationships, a nonprofit counseling, education, and research center in Philadelphia. Both of you require "me" time to reenergize you as individuals and "we" time to keep you close as a couple. So speak up when you need a break, and arrange an hour or two for your partner to watch the baby while you hit the mall (or do whatever makes you feel human again). If you're wary of using a sitter (or paying for one), set up a babysitting co-op with pals or trade off with the couple next door. An Rx for marriage monotony: Go on out-of-the-ordinary dates -- like a concert or hike -- as often as you can, rather than heading out for ho-hum dinners every week. You'll start to associate your relationship with fun again. And book together time at home as well to keep from drifting apart once Baby is asleep. "Scheduling a time to watch a movie or have sex doesn't make it less meaningful or romantic," Jones says. "It becomes something you look forward to."
How they're doing now Agreeing they needed alone time and couple time, Ashley and Brett worked out a win-win plan: At least once a week, they take turns watching Caleb for a few hours so the other can meet friends for dinner or just read a book. A regular sitter still isn't an option, but they go out for dinner or a movie when their parents visit, about once a month. They also have a sofa date at 8 P.M. after Caleb goes to bed. "Looking each other in the eye and talking or curling up to watch a show together makes us feel like a couple, not just parents," Ashley says.
Ashley and Joshua Adler
Parents of Sonya, 6; Eleanor, 3; and Abraham, 1 month
The conflict Ashley, 31, is a spender, and Joshua, also 31, is a saver. Money wasn't a huge issue until their expenses shot up after Sonya was born. Although Ashley wanted to quit working, the couple needed two paychecks to make ends meet. She changed nursing jobs twice in one year, taking salary cuts in exchange for more flexible hours, but continued to spend money freely. Joshua grew concerned about having a cushion for the future.
Her side "Growing up, I never had to save for something I wanted. I didn't learn the value of that. But I never ran up debt, and Joshua and I always paid our bills on time. Once we became parents, though, Joshua thought I spent too much on the baby. He questioned every nickel I spent, and I felt like he was trying to control me."
His side "It seemed like we were constantly writing checks for sitters, clothes, and impulse purchases. I nagged Ashley to cut back because we didn't have an emergency fund, which was even more important now that we had a daughter depending on us. Sonya needed clothes, but not every time Ashley went to the mall. And don't get me started on the little things, like coffee, that really add up!"
The stay-close plan "Couples often don't talk about finances before they become parents," says Bonnie Gordon-Rabinowitz, a therapist in Norfolk, Virginia. "Clashing money styles may not affect a couple without kids, but these differences will start to cause problems after a baby is born." So get your financial act together before your bundle arrives. Discuss your spending and saving habits and your long-term goals, Gordon-Rabinowitz advises. Review six months of expenses to see exactly where your money goes, and then add in the costs for baby must-haves. (If you're not sure how to estimate that, sign up for the free, ten-day Baby on Board Bootcamp at LearnVest.com.) Crunch the numbers to see if you can still achieve your goals based on your income and spending tendencies. Then set a budget -- excluding your salary if you plan to stay home -- so you can adjust to living on less even before you become a family. Designate a certain amount that the two of you can spend however you want.
How they're doing now Ashley and Joshua decided to see a financial planner, who helped them create a budget they could both stick to. They also went to counseling, which taught them how to talk through their differences. Ashley stopped spending as often and started shopping sales. Josh picked up extra work to help offset their escalating expenses. As for the emergency fund, they're still not able to save as much as they'd like. "Money will always be an issue for us, but we don't fight about it every day anymore," Ashley says.
Megan and Greg Haupt
Parents of Henry, 1
The conflict During her leave, Megan, 31, worked to get Henry into a healthy sleeping and feeding routine, and she expected Greg, also 31, to follow her lead. When she corrected him, it set off loud arguments that often ended in Megan's giving Greg the silent treatment. The couple also bickered about chores, because Megan wanted more help around the house.
Her side "I didn't know anything about babies, so I read a lot of books. I wanted Henry to develop good habits. It was so frustrating that Greg didn't take me seriously -- until his own way failed, and then he reluctantly gave in. We wasted time trying things I knew wouldn't work -- like letting Henry stay up so we could all go out to dinner. Greg's ideas weren't unreasonable, but we had different notions about what was best."
His side "I'm not a yes-man, so Megan shouldn't have been surprised when I voiced my opinions. Besides, who said books have all the answers? The real problem was that we have very different personalities: Unlike Megan, I fly by the seat of my pants. She liked that about me before we became parents, but once Henry arrived, she thought he'd be scarred forever if he got off schedule. During the first few months of his life, we constantly went to bed angry."
The stay-close plan "Parents commonly argue over whose way is right, because both partners are adjusting to their new roles and responsibilities," says Joyce Marter, owner of Urban Balance LLC, a multi-site psychotherapy practice in Chicago. "Many men feel left out, especially if the mother acts as the baby's primary caregiver. New moms often feel as if their husbands are ill-informed or less experienced, and so they become critical to maintain the routine that they believe works." One of the biggest mistakes: Most men don't learn about baby care until after their baby has arrived. The sooner expectant dads are schooled, the better, Marter says. Encourage your partner to attend doctor's appointments and prenatal classes with you. You can even look into an expectant fathers' class -- they're offered at a growing number of hospitals, community centers, and faith-based organizations nationwide. (Check out BootCampForNewDads.org, which offers programs in 45 states and on U.S. military bases.) Read books together or watch our baby-care videos at americanbaby.com/how-to. Make tough decisions as a team and stick to them.
How they're doing now At about 3 months, Henry started sleeping through the night, and many of the Haupts' disputes were resolved on their own. Megan's complaints about Greg slacking off were enough to motivate her husband to pick up the pace when it came to diaper changes and laundry. "We still disagree on Henry's care -- I think Greg is too laid-back, and he thinks I worry too much," Megan says. "But after a year of parenting, we've finally accepted our different approaches."
A growing number of therapists, hospitals, birth educators, and nurses are now offering relationship training to help expectant and new parents plot how they'll approach divvying up chores, tweaking their budget, and other hot-button issues.
Urban Balance LLC in Chicago offers a six-session, pre- and post-baby couples counseling program ($500) to manage the relationship pitfalls that come with parenting. The Gottman Relationship Institute in Seattle introduced Bringing Baby Home in response to marital strife among new parents. More than 800 educators nationwide are certified to deliver the two-day, 12-hour workshop on constructive problem-solving ($85 to $200, depending on location). For info, visit BBHonline.org.
Think you can't afford therapy? Most Employee Assistance Plans offer between one and eight sessions of couples or family counseling at no cost. "Check your benefits," Joyce Marter advises.
Also, many insurance plans also include mental-health benefits through contracts with in-network therapists. The number of visits covered and co-pays vary among plans, but sessions could be as little as $10 -- a bargain, considering that counseling can run up to $250 per visit in big cities. Call your insurance company to learn more and request a list of in-network providers. Other options: Some therapists and community health centers charge clients fees on a sliding scale based on their income, and local churches and synagogues may offer free counseling for new parents too.