You may already know that up to 25% of women struggle with postpartum depression (PPD) after the birth of their baby. And if you’re struggling with PPD yourself, you also know how dark and lonely it can feel. The good news is, strong relationships help PPD.
Of course, this may seem easier said than done, especially since your relationship has just gone through one of the biggest transformations it may ever experience. In fact, the stress of a new baby on a relationship can be a contributing factor for PPD.
Here are a few things to keep in mind for your relationship and yourself through the dark times of postpartum depression.
Your Relationship Changes After the Baby is Born
Between physical stress, change in lifestyle and routine, and lack of sleep, a baby really throws a wrench in the normal workings of a relationship.
Researchers have found that the relationship quality plummets for couples when the baby arrives (Gottman 2007). Dissatisfaction can reach its peak around one year after the birth of the child when the novelty has worn off and couples are in the thick of managing the household with all its increased chores, expenses, and parenting pressures.
Researcher and psychologist Dr. Sue Johnson writes in her book Love Sense that three years after the baby is born marital satisfaction drops in 2/3 of couples (2013).
You may end up feeling like you are parents before you are partners. You may harbor resentments for chores not finished or lack of intimate connection. Or you may simply feel too exhausted to put effort into intimate connection the same way you had before.
Regardless of whether you are home with the baby all day or if you work and care for the baby during all your non-working hours, your role has shifted. Your focus has shifted. And many couples experience a sort of separation or loneliness in their relationship after the birth of a child.
Lack of Intimacy is Common in New Parents
When you are planning how to pump-ahead and pack a baby bag for daycare or planning what you’ll do with the next nine hours home alone with baby, physical intimacy may be the last thing on your mind.
For some, you’ve had to share your body with your infant nonstop for the last how-many months and you want it to yourself for a little while. For others, simple exhaustion means you’d rather have twenty minutes more sleep than twenty minutes of physical intimacy.
Whatever the reason, new moms tend to be happy with having sex much less frequently.
On the other hand, new fathers tend to crave sex with the same, or renewed, fervor as before. Sex is often a way that men connect with their partners, and they’re wanting that connection more now than ever.
Perhaps the pregnancy or postpartum recovery was difficult and he’s been looking forward to getting back to sex for months. Or maybe his partner’s change in focus toward the baby and managing baby-care has left him feeling lonely.
Marriages can Destabilize
These changes in the structure and focus of the relationship, along with the decline in intimacy can lead to the destabilization of the marriage. Just when women struggling with PPD need the stable, secure support of their relationship the most.
In generations past, marriages were partnerships first and foremost. They did not have the same focus on intimacy and friendship that relationships do today. That is to say, modern marriages prioritize romantic love in a way they did not, or could not, in the past. Which also means that when a relationship’s focus shifts away from romantic love, today’s marriages suffer.
According to Dr. Johnson, “The decline in marital satisfaction after the baby’s arrival is about twice that reported by new in 1960s and 70s. Loss of time and intimacy is more troubling because it’s more valued” (2013).
When New Mom is Experiencing PPD
New moms have a lot on their plates between hormone shifts and new responsibilities, learning the cues of your new baby and navigating changes in your romantic relationship.
It can leave you feeling exhausted, lonely, uncertain, and even depressed.
A vast majority of new moms will experience “baby blues” in the first two weeks following the birth of their child. But when extreme sensitivity, irritability, and fatigue persist longer or show up later, these can be signs of postpartum depression.
When you’re experiencing PPD, you need additional support and connection to feel like you can manage your every-day routine. You need the connection and secure support of a strong relationship with your partner.
Strong relationships help PPD in reducing the depth and duration of the hardest times.
It’s Not All in the Hormones
Yes, hormones have a lot to do with the sensitivity and shifting moods in pregnancy and following the birth of your baby. However, researchers are beginning to uncover the role the romantic relationship has in a new mom’s postpartum experience.
Romantic relationships, according to researcher John Bowlby, represent the primary bonds for adults. We need secure attachment to feel safe and reduce our discomfort during times of stress.
And what’s more stressful than a new baby?
This is a time you are reaching out to your partner, longing for their support. You want to know he’s still there for you through the hard times. You want reassurance that he loves you even though everything is changing in your lives.
If you reach toward your partner and he doesn’t show up for you, you may feel rejected and abandoned. This will heighten the feelings of loneliness and insecurity that contribute to depression. Say your partner has thrown himself into work since the baby’s birth, he’s not available and all the care for the baby is on you, it can feel like the emotional equivalent of abandonment.
From the other partner’s perspective, if he is reaching out for physical intimacy and is repeatedly turned down, he may be left feeling rejected. His need for emotional connection is also left unmet, and the foundation of the relationship can start to feel shaky.
These cyclical patterns of reaching out to each other in times of anxiety and stress and the needs going unanswered can plunge new moms (and dads) into depression.
How Strong Relationships Help PPD
In contrast, when you reach out for connection with your partner and your need is met, your anxieties are calmed. The feeling of loneliness and stress lessens. This may also make you feel more confident.
Strong relationships act as emotional buoys to carry you through stressful times.
Women who are strongly bonded to their partners are better able to ask for help and support when they’re depressed and continue to parent in healthy ways (Johnson, 2013).
Finally, secure attachment also results in higher satisfaction within the relationship, and an easier time dealing with conflict. One study of 1,568 women found that even if a woman is predisposed to developing PPD, those with strong relationships were less likely to report symptoms of PPD (Banker & LaCoursiere, 2014).
The Vicious Cycle of Bad Relationships and PPD
Insecure, distant or conflictual relationships add to the anxiety and depression you may already be experiencing with postpartum depression.
When you reach out to your partner and he doesn’t respond, instead of calming your nervous system and providing you strength, it leaves you feeling more anxious and more alone than before.
As a new mom experiencing postpartum depression, you need the bond of a secure relationship to help pull you through. Strong relationships help PPD by breaking you out of the cycle and calming your nerves.
Your Strong Relationship Can Protect You from PPD
The best preventative medicine, so to speak, for PPD is a strong relationship.
When you go into the stress, upheaval, and change of having a new baby, you need to know you can count on your partner to be there when you need them. When you know you have that kind of support, it’s easier to take risks and easier to come back from any lows.
Example of a Supportive Relationship
Jenna was a new mom who took three months of maternity leave from her high-powered career to care for her newborn baby.
She thrived in the fast-paced work world and was very successful in her job. She thought she had this new mom thing under wraps. When she and her partner brought their baby home, however, she realized her skills at the office didn’t translate to soothing a colicky baby or waking up every three hours for weeks on end.
When Jenna reached out to her husband for support, he responded to her need.
He told her, “This is all brand new. We’re just learning what our baby needs right now. I know you’re always successful when you put your mind to a task, and I know you will be with this too. But we’re in this together, and I’m going to help. You’re a good mom.”
His words helped her cope with bouts of the baby crying during the day and gave her confidence in her transition into motherhood.
In turn, Jenna was able to give her partner similar encouragement when he felt discouraged or anxious as a new father.
Couples Therapy Helps
Couples therapy has been found to be highly effective in cases of a combination of depression and marital distress. The most effective form of couples therapy, Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, is an effective way to treat PPD and the relationship between new parents. The resulting strong relationships help PPD symptoms diminish.
While treatment has previously centered on the mother individually, research now indicates that couples therapy is actually more effective.
To illustrate its effectiveness, Dr. Johnson cites a study in which women with PPD attended counseling sessions either individually or as a couple with their baby’s father. At the end of the study, those attending individual sessions reported a decrease in relationship satisfaction, while those attending couples sessions reported an increase in relationship satisfaction (Johnson, 2013).
Not only that, multiple studies have shown that women with PPD who attend couples therapy report greater overall happiness and fewer depressive symptoms (Johnson, 2013; Gottman 2007).
How Couples Therapy Can Strengthen Your Relationship:
- It helps mom feel like this is not just her problem.
- Couples can discuss how to share responsibilities in taking care of the baby.
- Dad/partner is able to take an active, supporting role in treatment.
- Dad/partner can also receive support and healing from mom.
- Both partners can share their worries about having a baby and feel heard by each other
Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy (EFT) for new parents is designed to help couples identify unhelpful patterns of interaction and behavior, change them, and become emotionally closer to one another. The result is a stronger support system and more resilience for a mom struggling with PPD, and increased relationship satisfaction. Following couples therapy, many couples report feeling as close or closer than they’ve ever been.
Do You Need Relationship Help to Help You with PPD?
Dr. Irena offers online therapy for couples in Houston, The Woodlands and New York City. She is a certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist with over 20 years of experience working with women and couples who are dealing with PPD.
If you need help with your relationship after having a baby contact Dr. Irena at 281-267-1742 or email her at [email protected] to discuss your situation and find out how she can help.
Banker, J.E., and LaCoursiere, D.Y. (2014) Postpartum Depression: Risks, Protective Factors, and the Couple’s Relationship, Issues in Mental Health Nursing, 35:7, 503-508, DOI: 10.3109/01612840.2014.888603
Gottman, J. M., and Schwartz Gottman, J. (2007). And Baby Makes Three: The six-step plan for preserving marital intimacy and rekindling romance after baby arrives. New York, NY: Crown Publishers.
Johnson, S. (2013). Love Sense. New York, NY: Little, Brown Spark.