This is such a big topic, it’s hard to know where to start. I think it’s pretty obvious that becoming parents is quite likely to change your relationship with your partner. It doesn’t necessarily change it for the worse, but bringing a new baby into your family changes each of you individually, so it makes sense that it would also change your relationship.
I have to recommend a book that I read a few years ago called:
The Transition to Parenthood: How a First Child Changes a Marriage: Why Some Couples Grow Closer and Others Apart by John Kelly (Contributor), Jay, Ph.D. Belsky.
It’s a book of case studies culled from the largest research project into how couples are affected by their first child that has ever been done. It appealed to me because of its basis in statistics/science and also because it basically lays out the factors that change and are affected by a couple having a baby.
Of course I read the book and wrote the synopsis about 4 years ago so off the top of my head I can’t remember what the factors are that contribute to the type of change couples experienced. I can think back on my own experience though and run-through what happened for us.
Changes to Expect
On a practical note the biggest surprise to me was how we suddenly had NO time together as a couple. Henry was very high-needs as an infant and it didn’t allow for any time in the evenings to sit on the couch and catch up or linger over dinner and talk—things that I was used to before Henry was born. After a few months this improved because Henry started to go to bed earlier and gradually you gain back some time when you’re not actively caring for the baby.
One change that can affect couples is an immediacy of having to come to agreement. Tabitha actually pointed this out to me before I had Henry. Pre-kids you might not see eye to eye with your spouse on certain issues- potentially even important ones, but with a lot of things you can find ways to cope and just “work-around” the differences you have. It’s much harder to do this once you have a child. If you differ on how often the baby should eat or what you should do when he cries, you’re going to find yourself arguing frequently and with the added tension of an upset baby making keeping cool more difficult.
I think the single most important thing for new parents is to let each of you adjust to becoming a mother or a father. That process doesn’t happen overnight. Maybe you were a goal-oriented working woman and you’re having a hard-time seeing your newly developed mothering role as on-par with your work challenges, or maybe you’re a new Dad that really wants to connect with your newborn but your spouse just seems so high-strung and ready to pounce on you for doing it wrong. There are loads of scenarios, but the bottom-line is it takes awhile for both of you to come into your role as new parents. Standing back and realizing that your spouse is finding his way while you find yours is pretty powerful (and difficult) and can give you the time to become parents and then re-connect with each other when the dust has settled.
I’m not saying postpone connectedness for the first several months—in fact at the beginning it’s really great if you can both approach it like you’re a couple on the Amazing Race. It’s just that some of the kinks that will get worked out in your relationship can be better dealt with once you feel a little more settled in your new parenting role.
I think this topic ties in with taking care of yourself as you discussed earlier as much as taking care of other people. Lack of sleep, and new experiences can make your judgement and patience cloudy. I think one of the biggest things is to realize that if you experience an upheaval in your relationship, that's normal, do not freak out. There are some things you can do to help.
Most of us have certain ideals we wish to impart to our children and it helps to identify them early with your partner. How do you imagine you taking care of your little one, what are the things you want to teach them? From eating to sleeping to discipline to TV watching. Even though you are just now having a baby, you will be raising a child and these things will come up sooner than you imagine. It's best to have had a preliminary discussion about expectations and wants. If you find you are in opposition to you partner on some things. Try to determine if this is something you can give on. Maybe their issue is not your hot issue and you can compromise. Maybe you agree but you differ on how to handle things. Early discussion about issues important to you is imperative.
I will say, even with these early discussions, a lot happens so quickly and sometimes without much thought, that you may stray from your original plan. Just get back on track and don't sweat it. One of the wonderful things about children is they are resilient.
Even if you have a "good" baby, you may find yourself devoting more time to your baby than to your partner. A baby takes so much energy and patience that you may give it all to baby and have none left for your partner. I don't have a good solution for this but just to be aware of the issue. Whatever is testing your patience, lack of sleep, non-stop feedings, etc. will pass. Try to identify ways you and your partner can share responsibility by alternating feedings or having your partner help with wakings etc. If possible try to work this out before baby and be flexible when baby comes.
Different Parenting Styles
Another thing Tamra touched on is allowing your partner to be different. It's Ok if they change a diaper different than or give a bath different than you etc., as long as the final goal is attained. This is harder than you think to let go of. But it's very important to try to recognize that issue when it arises and make allowances for differences.
It's easy to become sucked into baby life and not the worst thing that can happen to a person. But babies are really portable (especially if you have just one). Take time to go to dinner, spend time with friends as you are able. One of the things that really helped us through was the ability to get out with friends and have dinner or visiting. It gave us an outlet to be ourselves together and something else to focus on even if for a couple of hours. Or if you have family close by, take advantage of it. Looking back, I think that's one of the things we miss the most is being able to rely on grandma or grandpa who would ALWAYS be ready to take on baby and give us some time to ourselves to reconnect.