4 ways having a toddler changes your relationship with your partner
It’s an unavoidable fact: Having a baby will change your relationship. If you and your partner struggled through the first year, be prepared: Toddlerhood packs its own punch! Certainly, as our child has grown from infant to toddler, my relationship with my husband continues to be taxed.
Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker, syndicated columnist, parenting expert and author of “Ignore it: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioral Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction,” says the toddler phase is “probably one of the hardest times in parenting. The kid is mobile, they’re talking, they’re needy, they might still not sleep great. It’s really a lot.” That said, the period of time can present “a real adjustment” for couples, Pearlman acknowledges.
Below, moms share the ways having a toddler changed their relationship, and Pearlman offers advice for struggling couples.
1. Basic communication becomes harder
You once spent hours talking to each other. Then, baby came, and his needs dominated your conversation. Now that he’s a toddler, you may not even have time for that.
“By the time the kids are in bed and we do have time to talk about parenting, we just don’t have the bandwidth left,” says Mandy Henderly, a mom of two from Hendersonville, North Carolina.
Jamie Bauer, a mom of one from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, adds that it’s particularly hard to have big discussions.
“Like making big financial decisions when you're running on empty at 9 p.m. and there's still lunch to pack and laundry to fold,” she says.
For Portia Zwicker, a mother of two from Niskayuna, New York, her daughter’s curiosity can be a hindrance.
“Our daughter is always asking what we're talking about,” she says. “So, I save some conversations for after she's in bed, or I spell out words, or say them in Spanish.”
The expert fix:
While talking to your partner face to face is generally best, Pearlman says, “Don’t rule out email or text” for shorter conversations, like confirming the date and time of a doctor’s appointment, for example, or double checking that a bill has been paid.
“Just be mindful of tone,” she says.
If there’s a big decision to make — like how in the world you’re going to pay that bill, for example, or addressing a child’s behavioral issue — create space to do it in person, Pearlman suggests.
“Get a sitter or ask a family member to come over so you can have an uninterrupted talk,” she says.
2. Romantic connection diminishes or disappears
If there’s little time to talk, there’s even less time (and energy) for romance and physical intimacy.
Nikki Jackson, a mom of two from Columbus, Ohio, says she and her husband’s biggest challenge is finding time to be “husband and wife,” not just “mom and dad.”
“I want some romance, too — dinners out, flowers every now and then, and, yeah, sex,” she says.
As the result of co-sleeping with their toddler, Diane N., a mom of three from New York, says that she and her husband don't have sex in bed anymore.
“The only sex that happens is in a shower or rushed during nap time,” she says.
New York City mom of three Kathy Banks-Langaigne agrees it can be a challenge to make time for sex. As she puts it: “Toddlers are a form of birth control!”
The expert fix:
“Look for nontraditional ways and places to connect,” Pearlman says, adding that couples should make an effort to be physically intimate even if there’s no energy for sex.
“Hand-holding, kissing, massage, sitting on [your partner’s] lap are small acts that increase physical connection,” Pearlman says. “Spend time sitting next to one another on the couch. Sometimes just watching a [TV] show together can reinforce connection.”
3. Arguments get heated and may feel harder to solve
Prior to having children, you don’t know what kind of parent you or your partner is going to be. Every parent approaches parenting differently, Pearlman reminds us. They come to parenthood with their own (sometimes strong) opinions about all the big “Year 2” parenting decisions and beyond. As a result, you and your partner might argue more frequently — and feel like you have an audience when you do.
Boston mom of one Kendra Rosalie Hicks admits that she and her partner fight more often since the birth of their son, and that as he’s getting older, it’s only gotten worse.
“Making parenting decisions and [having] different parenting styles causes arguments,” Rosalie Hicks says, noting that the increased tension may be especially true because their child is on the spectrum.
“My awareness of what I do and do not say is much higher since our baby became a toddler,” says Lieve de Lint, a mom of one from Oakland, California, who describes her 3-year-old son as a “living mirror.” “He is watching, listening and feeling all that we send out.”
As a result, Lint and her partner have worked to improve how they speak to each other and have gotten better at solving arguments.
“We try to resolve [our disagreement] in front of our children, so they see the whole process,” de Lint says.
The expert fix:
The small arguments that arise every day can and should happen in front of the kids, says Pearlman.
“Who should empty the dishwasher? Someone didn't clean out the cat litter. Or who will wake up with the kids. These are minor moments,” she says, and having these disagreements in front of our children teaches kids an important truth: “People argue, they find a resolution, everyone still sits down for dinner.”
Hold off on having more heated arguments — discussions that hit a nerve and require a longer conversation — for when the kids aren’t around.
“If it can’t be resolved with a quick compromise or an apology, save it,” Pearlman says.
4. Parents can feel invisible or lonely
Prior to parenting, you and your partner were the center of one another’s attention. Then baby comes, and that attention was divided. It may feel embarrassing to admit, but inviting a new love into your life might make you and/or your partner feel jealous or insecure.
“There are times when my husband can’t tune out the kids and listens to them before me, and it drives me nuts,” says mom of three, Alexandra Frost, of Cincinnati, Ohio. “Sometimes I want to be first like I used to be! It sounds petty, but it’s true. I never thought I, the mom, would feel that way.”
“I can get very irritated how my husband talks to my daughter while ignoring me and blanking out anything I have to say,” says another mom from London, England, who wished to remain anonymous. “He says it is because he needs to give her his ‘full attention.’ But I need attention, too.”
The expert fix:
“For some couples, they’re both on board, pouring love into their child and still loving one another,” says Pearlman. Other times, she says, one or both adults in the relationship “may feel a loss.”
In such circumstances, Pearlman says, “That’s a real feeling that ought to be addressed — and not shamed.”
Here’s the bright side to all this change
It’s normal. If you’re struggling to be a good parent while remaining a good partner, that’s normal, Pearlman says.
“There’s a transition period where you and your partner get on the same page as parents,” Pearlman says.
How long this transition takes, she says, varies from couple to couple.
“Some couples move through the transition easily and quickly,” Pearlman says. “It could be because they grew up similarly. It could be because they have understood or clearly defined roles. For other couples, it can be a long period, and they may need some help to get over the hump.”
Until then: “Give yourself some understanding that it’s a tough time,” she says.
The rewards are big
Certainly, the old adage “bigger kids, bigger problems” has proved true for my family. In our case, the period between 12 and 18 months was probably our roughest. And yet, as the challenges have grown, so have the rewards. From the first time he avoided a tantrum and used his words instead to the day he faced his fears and went down the slide all by himself, I am constantly reminded that the ball of baby I gave birth to is becoming a “little big boy” with a personality all his own. A big part of the joy of parenting is sharing this experience with my partner.
New York City mom of one Cynthia Kurzweil agrees.
“We obviously loved each other before, but since our son, I think our love has become deeper,” she says. “There is a certain type of love that overcomes you when you see your spouse and toddler bonding and being super-cute together.”
Of course, “If things deteriorate or feel too tough” — if you’re fighting more than you can tolerate, for example, you never see eye to eye and are considering a separation — “go to a couples counselor,” Pearlman says. “A professional can offer strategies to help you through.”
Read next: Signs your kid might be a brat
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