Even in a self-identified ‘happy marriage’, many men openly admit to looking ‘elsewhere’ – but looking, being the operative word. It’s generally the prototypical glance at another woman which might instigate a brief series of questions and conversations in one’s mind about oneself and how life is progressing; a brief harmless interaction which temporarily excites then dissolves into nothingness; or maybe it involves a more prolonged ‘creative visualization’ (ahem) in one’s mind about the subject of interest. However, it all generally stops there, perhaps only re-engaged in and/or re-enacted in fantastical moments or times of stress and overwhelm, and then life takes over once again.
It’s those times of stress and overwhelm that can cause problems between couples. There’s no better way to create some friction and distance between you than… having a baby.
No one can escape the challenges and difficulties that can come with a woman’s pregnancy and the birth of a baby. ‘The Process’ in its entirety (which from this point forward is meant to encompass everything from the first confirmation of pregnancy, right through to researching how to clean vegetable puree from a deep-pile rug) often involves a whole lot of confusion, uncertainty, overwhelm, disconnect, and tiredness. Roles and expectations change. Bodies change. LIFE changes. Even when you are a happy couple, these changes are often hugely underestimated beforehand. But that is actually where some of the magic lies too—not only getting to marvel at how the body can produce a tiny human being and then getting to see your bundle of joy evolve over time (oh the pride!), but finding out about, and tapping into, parts of yourself that you never knew existed. The lung capacity that enables you to change a soiled nappy without taking a breath for up to 2 minutes. Reservoirs of patience when the baby is screaming an unrelenting high-pitched scream in public. Maybe you like to think of yourself as a 3am ‘Milk-Warming-Warrior’? Maybe you are a ‘Nursery-Rhyme-Nerd’?
Or maybe you’re a Flirt.
What? What you ask? Who me?
Sometimes, when the pressures of upcoming fatherhood and the monotony of post-delivery days roll together, the appeal of an easy, carefree interaction is too enticing for some. But why does it happen? Let’s look at some specific challenges of ‘The Process’.
Especially with a newborn, there can come a time in the weeks and months post-delivery where you almost forget what day of the week it is. Sleep is unheard of, and stress is at an all-time high between both partners. There are ongoing potential risks of medical issues with a newborn, as well as post-natal depression for both partners often developing from significant adaptations in spousal roles and lifestyle. If there were any stressors in the household prior to the birth (financial, cultural, psychological etc.), these issues can hugely complicate ‘The Process’ too. Thus, whilst you feel compelled from societal pressure to love every moment of parenthood (unless you want to suffer monumental guilt), there is a very likely risk that at some point you might not. This is the Danger Zone. It is the time when, even momentarily, people feel bored, depressed, exhausted, and resentment filled—when the so-called positives are not enough to buffer your depleted psychological and physical reserves.
This situation can even occur in the months prior to delivery if the female is feeling less than attractive. She may have pregnancy-related health issues, anxiety, low libido, or she may be facing bedrest (common with multiples)—so the last person she will be able to focus on is you. It’s difficult for her, even if she wants to. And whilst you may want to help, or take control, or do something meaningful for your partner, you might actually end up feeling very powerless, isolated, and even unappreciated. Indeed, people wouldn’t usually think of going to therapy during this time or even generally admitting their innermost feelings to their partner or friends, so they keep trying to forge ahead towards the next stage of their life.
This is what some of my male clients did. They kept trying to lead their normal life, and erroneously perceived that the baby would somehow fit in. They didn’t quite expect the baby to take over their life and their wife. So, when they finally got to leave the home and go to work each day (no mass generalizations intended; this was a small sample size), they got to have a glimpse of feeling somewhat normal and like ‘themselves’ again. It’s not that they were not proud to be new fathers, that they did not love their wife, or that there wasn’t another whole level of (oft unacknowledged) pressure related to work obligations that they had to contend with, but simply that they already pretty much knew what they were faced with in the career territory—they could be prepared, more in control, perhaps being highly regarded as a valuable asset to their company, and they could feel competent and appreciated again. Like they were before having children.
So you can imagine what could happen at this particular time of life, if, simultaneously, a female friend or colleague gave you her undivided time, attention, support, compliments or understanding ... or just a kind gesture or a longer handshake. This is not to say that all men go weak at the knees when these things happen, but it’s certainly possible given high-stress levels and deficits in other areas.
Men may contemplate flirting, actually engage it in, or even take it further—to feel flattered, to get those emotional highs (which historically become few and far between in ‘The Process’); or some might even say, to see that “he has still got it” (the latter touches upon evolutionary concepts of procreation). Can it really all boil down to that you ask? Absolutely. Everything starts somewhere. The point is that the likelihood of doing it may be greater for those who feel less in control or uncertain about some aspect of their life (think, incompetent husband/father who feels like he hasn’t got anything right on the home front). For most however, flirting may be merely fleeting and relatively innocuous (it might have been happening all along in a harmless manner anyway), but for others, it remains and grows into something more. More emotional. More connecting. More addictive. And that’s how affairs start.
1. It pays to be aware of common dynamics and hurdles in the pregnancy period and beyond. Attend courses or workshops together so you feel you can both have each other’s’ backs. Life will change, which means attention to affection (physical and emotional) will change also. Women’s bodies also change and they can suffer from short and long-term body image and related problems, probably far more than you realise. If you have needs that are going unmet, express them as soon as you can. Rather, tell your partner that you are missing her affection, than going into unknown territory and causing a greater problem down the line.
2. Take time out together to reevaluate where each other stands in the relationship and how things can be improved. If one partner continually feels unheard or unsupported, in the long term, it is going to get messy. Listen now.
3. Think about your value system. Is engaging in playful conversation part of your natural friendly banter (and something that anyone can hear), or could you be giving off the wrong signals? Seemingly harmless flirting (the type where your wife would roll her eyes at you) can actually progress and cross the line very quickly. Then it’s more difficult to turn back time.
4. Find ways to continue making your partner feel appreciated and supported. Doing the ‘5-Love Languages Quiz’ (Gary Chapman; online) can be a helpful way to recognise how to emotionally “fill each other up” quickly and in a meaningful way when times get tough. This means far less risk of unmet needs.
5. Regularly validate each other’s’ unique contributions. Women often say broadly that the man has it easy at work, whilst he says she has it easier “at home all day”. Truly recognize what each other is doing for the sake of the relationship and the marriage.
6. Communicate your needs peacefully and seek help (home-based, or therapy based) at the sign of any ongoing or difficult issues (e.g., repeat arguments over functional duties, unrelenting sadness, communication breakdowns).
Couples need to continually see the bigger picture and the many benefits of having children—whilst it can be difficult, it is also full of blessings and truly enriching to one’s life experience.
Dr. Melanie Schlatter (PhD) is a New Zealand educated Health Psychologist. She specialises in helping adults cope with psychological issues related to health and disease.