Finding the Partner/Parent Balance

Annoyed looking man with family in backgroundI was talking with a colleague recently about balancing our personal lives and our private practices, and she said something that really hit home. She shared her observation that the areas to which we direct our emotional and physical energies tend to thrive, while the others don’t. That’s not to say those other areas fall apart, but perhaps they stagnate a bit or just coast for a while. They certainly don’t thrive and grow. This made sense to me. Since we have a finite amount of energy to direct toward anything at any given point in time, not every aspect of our lives will get the kind of attention it needs to grow all the time. I think this explains why we so often feel that we just can’t have it all—at least, not all at the same time. This can cause distress, as we think we “should” be doing so much more. Sometimes we feel as if all areas are suffering because we feel pulled in so many directions at once. This is a common theme for many clients I see in my practice.

I often talk with clients about finding ways to balance the four “P’s” in their lives—parent, partner, person, and professional. Each of those areas requires time and energy, but when we have finite resources, they don’t each get the attention we might wish them to all the time. There is a natural ebb and flow as we direct our energies to the areas that are most pressing or meaningful at the time. Some parents put professions on hold to dedicate more energy toward parenting. Often, though, being a parent requires significantly more energy than we anticipate, and something’s got to give. I think this is why so many new parents struggle with being effective partners after the birth of a child.

I see this dynamic with many of the couples I see. This wondrous new being comes into their lives, one who is a physical manifestation of the love they have for each other. Yet this infant can actually drive them apart. Parents might feel like their partners no longer pay attention to their needs—not when there is a hungry, tired, fussy baby who has very pressing and immediate needs. It can hard to fan the flames of passion when you are sleep-deprived, you’ve been feeding every three hours, and you’ve spent much of the day changing diapers. As much as one might intellectually get why this is the case, it can still lead to feelings of rejection, abandonment, resentment, and even guilt about these feelings.

I know many new moms who wonder if today is the day they will actually get to take a shower. If they don’t have time for taking care of their own needs, how can they tend to those of their partners? They might be frustrated that their partners don’t seem to be making things easier. They might feel criticized or guilty for not meeting more of their partners’ needs. They might be frustrated with themselves that they can’t both feed the baby and do the laundry. A partner who comes home at the end of the day to a frazzled and exhausted new parent and asks “but what did you do all day?” can run the risk of alienating his or her partner. The frustration each feels at being disconnected from the other can sometimes grow into much larger schisms that threaten the relationship down the line.

There is good news, though. Some couples navigate these transitions without disconnecting. Often they are the ones who acknowledge and accept that their new roles naturally have an impact on their relationship and adjust their expectations accordingly. They don’t feel that their relationship is threatened because of the shift in focus or attention. They are able to continue to meet their needs to connect, and don’t personalize the perceptions of rejection or isolation. They are flexible. Most importantly, they communicate with each other. They tell each other honestly what they need and how they are feeling. They carve out time to spend together, and they find creative ways to stay connected.

When I work with clients who are struggling, we work on asking and answering the following question: “What do you need from me, so that you can meet my needs?” In other words, how can each partner make it easier for the other to connect and support the other? This is not always an easy question to answer. Sometimes one partner simply needs to hear the other say that he or she is doing a good job, is being a good parent, and that their child is thriving. Sometimes one partner needs the other to bring home dinner or do some laundry. Both usually need understanding and compassion as they shift into new roles and work on finding their balance. Whatever the specific strategies, the essential piece is to open the lines of communication, to validate the feelings and needs of the other, and to recognize and accept that taking on new roles means that some other areas will not get the same kind of time and attention as they did before—and that this is OK.

© Copyright 2013 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC, Family Therapy Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • martin

    February 20th, 2013 at 11:46 PM

    so important to remember that things are bound to change.varying expectations that are closer to reality also help.also the best thing I liked about this is the suggession on opening the communication many times we live with the person everyday but forgo talking about certain things that rally matter.they may seem small talk but they can be the difference.

  • amh

    February 21st, 2013 at 5:48 AM

    Since becoming parents my husband and I have kind of lost that balance. We went all out on being the ebst parents that we could be but giving very little consideration to how that was not making us the best partners to each other. After seeking out counseling for something that out daughter has been going through we have decided that it is a good time for us to begin working on our own relationship again too. Something that the counselor said to me really hit home, and that is if we don’t have a strong partner relationship between the two of us then how are we going to manage to give our daughter the love and support that she needs and deserves? So this is a very timely article for me, it feels like I found it at just the right time and have no more doubts that by beginning to work on ourselves again we are doing the right thing for all of us.

  • Emelie

    February 21st, 2013 at 7:33 AM

    funny and sad at the same time ow so often we forget the things in life that are really important (family, marriage) and focus more on that which in the end just pays the bills

  • Garrett

    February 21st, 2013 at 9:52 AM

    I can’t tell you how many times I have heard of people having a baby to “fix” their marriage. They mistakenly feel that a baby will pull them closer together. I have no idea how in the world they ever get this idea as any parent will tell them that is anything but the truth. A screaming, crying, self-centered being only pulls people apart. And, that’s just the husband’s behavior. Throw in a baby, and all bets are off! :0)

  • Ivan

    February 21st, 2013 at 10:03 AM

    My wife and I are close to being able to get things back in balance. We have a 14 and 10 year old. While the 14 year old can be extremely trying just b/c she is 14, they do not need us all the time for everything anymore. We can actually go on walks, go to the movies, or go out to dinner without them. It has allowed us to reconnect and, good news! We still like each other !

  • Janet A

    February 21st, 2013 at 10:10 AM

    My husband and I were able to stay close through out our children being little. I think it’s b/c he did what I was hoping he would and even more. I was always afraidI would be stuck doing all the domestic stuff like chores and taking care of the kids. But, he was very willing to jump in and do what needed to be done without being asked…well, most of the time. At any rate, I was able to go and do things with friends without having to worry about giving my kids a bath first, feeding them, or getting them into bed.

  • Erika Myers

    February 21st, 2013 at 10:49 AM

    @amh – so glad to hear that this resonated and encouraged you to keep doing the work.

    @ivan – good for you and your wife for taking the time/ making the effort to connect – and thanks for reminding us all that it does get easier to find that time eventually. Kids still take time, but not quite as intensively as in those first few years.

  • Ivana

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:07 AM

    Doesn’t matter how great the therapist is-still can’t get the hubs to go.

  • Arianna L

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:10 AM

    Being honest with your co-parent and telling him/her what you need is key. Very important and necessary…and HARD!! When you are just so tired you can hardly think straight anymore, communicating your needs is just something you can’t find the energy to do. Not having needs met leads to frustration and it is usually taken out on the co-parent or other older children. It’s a bad dynamic to set up. So, please, please, please speak through the pain of fatigue and let your needs be heard!

  • Hollis

    February 21st, 2013 at 11:07 PM

    You know the general feeling is that when the baby arrives things are gonna be awesome and you’re going to be extremely happy as a couple. While that is not untrue, there are also problems that arise once the baby comes. You do not have time for each other and the baby needs constant tending to.

    That is something inescapable yet can be so stressful. Therefore it is important that a couple talks about it before the baby arrives so they are better prepared to handle the incoming stress. Such prior arrangement can easily calm nerves and can even help protect the relationship from bruising that is not uncommon at the time.

  • April

    February 22nd, 2013 at 3:46 AM

    No one ever said that having it all would be easy, right?

  • Alan

    February 22nd, 2013 at 10:47 AM

    Sometimes I feel like my wife wants too much, like she wants that perfect life outside of the home as well as in the home and I fail to see how to make all of that mesh. Somewhere along the way it feels like you have to give up something and she doesn’t want to hear that. But I think that I would find it impossible to always get it right 100% of the time in ever aspect of life but that’s what she wants and I don’t know how to do it.

  • Erika

    February 22nd, 2013 at 1:35 PM

    @ Alan – it sounds like “should” is playing a part in the situation you are describing. It can be hard to find balance when the idea of what you SHOULD be doing, or what your life SHOULD be like is running the show. It sounds like you are taking a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and it is causing you stress. Maybe instead of talking with your wife about what you feel you have to give up, you might want to talk about what you are choosing – where you want to direct your time and energy, what life you want to have. If you get stuck in that conversation with her, you may want to consider talking with a therapist together.

  • Erika

    February 22nd, 2013 at 1:39 PM

    @ Hollis – you are so right – communication is key! Having the conversations ahead of time won’t prevent the stress, but can make it much easier to manage.

    @ Arianna – it is so very hard – particularly when you are sleep-deprived and have very little energy to give to shaping your message in ways it can best be received. Humor can help!

  • Erika

    February 22nd, 2013 at 1:41 PM

    @Janet – it sounds like you and your husband did a really nice job of supporting each other as partners, and encouraging each other to take care of yourselves as people too!

  • Liam

    February 23rd, 2013 at 4:54 AM

    For what it’s worth, here’s what I think. I think that if you have a tsrong marriage before you bring kids into the picture then you will continue to have a strong marriage even after you have children. Of course there are some thing that you may have to change or give up or even give up for a short time while you adjust to being new parents. And of course as stages of life change all of this at some point may have to change again and again. But great partners are going to be there for one another and they will remain great partners no matter the situation. I think that marriage is meant to be fluid and ever changing and it is those who don’t adjust well to that in other areas of their lives will find that they have a difficult time with that change in their marriages too.

  • clive

    February 23rd, 2013 at 9:47 PM

    this is exactly the reason why deciding to have a baby is a big decision and an even bigger responsibility to undertake.its not just about the finances,its not just about finding a babysitter,its about making changes in your life and in your relationship.that is a bigger challenge than of money or anything else in my opinion.

    as long as that is not sorted out,having a baby will only result in conflict and frustration.very important to work these things out before hand.

  • Farrah

    February 24th, 2013 at 9:48 AM

    I love my husband so much and one of the biggest reasons why is that before making any kind of big decisions we have always been able to sit down together and talk about the ways that it would affect both of us.

    We have never been about doing something if it is good for one and not together. We see marriage as a joint venture, and just because something works for one of us is not a guarantee that it will work for the other.


    February 24th, 2013 at 8:33 PM

    Never is it more important to stick together and balance energies than at the arrival of a baby. It can be stressful and can test the most energetic individuals. And the marriage can take a hit too. Frustration grows, partner time reduces-and all this can drive one crazy. Important to understand the ‘limited energy’ concept and apply that limited resource judiciously.

  • Billie

    February 25th, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    I get so frustrated with my husband sometimes because he seems to leave it to me to make all of the sacrifices while he continues on his merry little way.

    He has no concept of the terms give and take, he is simply all about the take. I never realized how much this was true until we had children and now I am expected to do everything that remotely involves them. I do all of the cooking, carpooling, cleaning, and he somehow thinks that he has it worse because he works outside of the home.

    I have tried to show him all the things that I have to do in a day but it is like he has blinders on and does not want to see or hear that. I am honestly so put out with him right now that if I could i think that I would just up and leave!

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