Relationships during pregnancy: exploring the realities

Sarah Wheatley, from Birth and Beyond, has written this useful information on relationships during pregnancy.

Sarah is a renowned BACP-registered Counsellor from the United Kingdom, with a background in social research and psychology.

Relationships during pregnancy

She has appeared in many TV and radio interviews, talking about a number of topics including Perinatal Mental Health and ways to improve the parent-infant bond. For further information about her work, please visit Birth and Beyond website

Relationships during pregnancy

Everyone is happy for you when you’re pregnant – right?

Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as that. Pregnancy has a habit of changing your relationships, not just with your partner, if you have one, but also with some of the people you might least expect.

Whilst hopefully the changes you experience will be positive, sometimes it can be harder to cope with changes, so it can be useful to think about these and ways in which you might be able to support yourself if they happen.

In this post, I will touch on some of the main ones that I encounter when people come to me for counselling:

– Parents

– Partners

– In-Laws

– Siblings

– Friends

– Colleagues

– The healthcare providers

– Yourself

– Your baby

Relationships with parents

One of the most important relationships we will ever have in our lives is our relationship with our parents. That might feel easy, or it might have been difficult, and whether or not we feel happy about it, it will have had an effect on the way we see the world.

You might find that when you are pregnant, you start to think more about your own experience of being a child and being parented. That can be really enjoyable to think about, or it might be less happy. You might find that there are things that you definitely do or don’t want your child to experience, as a result of your own experiences.

If your experience of being parented involved neglect or physical, emotional or sexual abuse, then you may already have had some kind of psychological therapy. It might also be a good time to think about whether you need a bit of extra support right now, as you become a parent yourself, as it might re-evoke some of the past.

Even if your experience seems unremarkable, sometimes it can feel as though becoming pregnant makes the past feel much more important. If that is making you upset, angry, worried or distressed, or having an impact on your relationships right now, then it might be worth speaking to a healthcare professional about getting psychological support.

Relationships with partners

Pregnant women are at an increased risk of domestic abuse, with prevalence rates of 5% to 21% during pregnancy. If this happens to you, the NHS has a site here with links to where to get help.

In most pregnancies that is not the case although it can be a bit of a testing time for some relationships, as your experiences and needs can be very different.

You might find yourself feeling resentful of your partner because they don’t seem as interested or preoccupied with the baby as you are. In fact, it has been shown that women’s brains change during pregnancy until up to 2 years after birth, making them more aware of their baby, whereas their partners do not experience this same change.

Likewise, your partner might find it hard to receive less attention from you, especially if this is your first pregnancy. It can be helpful to think of it as adding a new person into your relationship – it might not always feel like an easy adjustment to share your attention.

It can also be hard to manage the differences between your experiences of becoming a parent, especially if you are planning on having very different roles after the baby is born with one of you being the primary caregiver and the other not being there so much. In some relationships, it can feel as though this is the first time when your roles are more defined by your gender than at any other time.

It is good to be able to talk about these different experiences and the different worries that you might both have, in order to be able to stay connected. Some people find that antenatal classes or specialist couples workshops can be very helpful (such as Care for the Family) or else even a few sessions of couples counselling or coaching to help you prepare together.

Relationships with in-laws

Like many other relationships, it’s difficult to tell how pregnancy will have an impact on your relationship with your in-laws.

For some people, it can be a very surprising time, as they find that their relationships with their in-laws improve, and there is a different appreciation on both sides.

For others, it can increase tensions that were already there but have never needed to be addressed previously. Parents and grandparents can have differing views about the roles of grandparents, and pregnancy can be a time when these differences start to become apparent.

If you are struggling with your in-laws, one of the most important things is not to let that become a divide between you and your partner. If you are worried that your partner might struggle not to become defensive when you talk about your worries about his or her parents, it can be better to focus on talking about your feelings rather than about them. For example, if you talk about how you feel undermined when your partner’s parents talk about how they will come and take the baby out, without discussing it with you, then your partner might find that easier to sympathise with that if you talk about them being ‘bossy’.

Relationships with siblings

Becoming a parent yourself can sometimes have an impact on your relationship with your siblings. Depending on whether they have children themselves or not, it might reactivate feelings from your own childhoods about how you were all treated by your parents.

Some people find themselves disappointed that their siblings don’t seem more excited, especially if they have previously supported their siblings through having their own children.

Alternatively, other people find that their relationship with their siblings improves, as the prospect of the new baby provides a different focus. It might help you see each other in a different light.

Relationships with friends

We often don’t expect our relationships with our close friends to change during pregnancy, but sometimes they do. As with partners, your hormones, brain and body are the ones changing not theirs, and so you will be experiencing things that maybe they can’t relate to or feel excluded from.

Also, being pregnant can sometimes trigger responses in our friends which you can’t predict, especially if they are at a different stage of life or are jealous of your pregnancy.

Sometimes these friendships can adapt or come back again at a later stage, and sometimes they don’t. However it can be very disappointing and upsetting when your pregnancy triggers these separations, especially if you don’t expect it.

Whether or not this is the case for you, it may be useful to start building new friendships during pregnancy, with people who are also pregnant or already have babies, in order to be able to share some of these experiences with others who understand and can support you emotionally once the baby is born.

Relationships with colleagues

One of the things that some women start to encounter during pregnancy is the sense of juggling different priorities to the people around them, and the sense of isolation that can bring.

Many women experience exhaustion or sickness (during the first trimester at least) which they want to keep secret from their colleagues. This can be uncomfortable for some people, who have not kept secrets at work before.

Being pregnant might make you feel concerned about how different work colleagues will view your maternity leave. Some women talk about feeling insecure when their maternity cover is (or isn’t) arranged, especially if this is not handled well.

One way to help yourself feel more in control is to arrange ‘keeping in touch’ days and to give yourself and others a clear plan of how and when you will be returning. This plan might well change after your baby is born, but it can help relationships during pregnancy if you and they know that you are still committed to the work.

It’s important to remember that any separation can lead to a whole range of feelings, so colleagues might react in ways that you don’t expect.

The healthcare providers

Many women have not had much contact with the healthcare providers since they were children and can feel very different navigating the system as an adult.

Some women talk about how it can be hard to find ways of being more empowered and more of a partner in that relationship, rather than feeling swept along in the system and just trusting everything will be ok.

Like any relationship, there will be easier and trickier parts, and it is good to remember that you are able to ask questions – that you are an active partner in this process.

If you notice you are feeling uncomfortable or unsupported in some way, you might mention that to your your healthcare provider (such as the midwife or GP), or if you find it hard to talk to that person, there might be someone else within the service who you find it easier to speak with.

Often it’s the support of one or two key people that matter the most (you will often hear mothers talking about a particular person who really supported them), and if you can find someone you have an affinity with that can sometimes make all the difference.

Relationships with yourself

Many women talk about how they learn so much about themselves after having a baby, and this can start in pregnancy.

One of the things that some pregnant women experience is a sense of lack of control. For some women this comes easily and for others this is harder, for a variety of reasons, and sometimes lead to anxiety. If this is the case for you, then it is good to speak to a health professional in order to get more support.

It can also be made more complicated by the changes in your brain, which can make you more preoccupied with the baby and their wellbeing. This can make some people feel anxious, and even more so if you experience health issues before or after getting pregnant. However, knowing that a heightened degree of anxiety is common can maybe help you normalise that slightly, as long as it doesn’t start to impact on your life too much.

These are just a couple of the things that can have an impact on how you see and experience yourself when you are pregnant, and other things that can have an impact include how you experience the changes in your body (and any possible health issues), how you see yourself as a ‘worker’, how you see yourself as a friend or partner, and even how total strangers interact with you now you are pregnant (ever heard of the ‘pregnancy police’?). All these shifts can affect how you see yourself, and rather than pretending that these things don’t matter, sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that they can.

Relationship with your baby

One of the most important relationship changes during pregnancy is that you will be developing a completely new relationship with a completely new person.

It might feel difficult to start thinking about this early in pregnancy. However seeing your baby during scans and becoming more and more aware of them moving, might help you feel more in touch with them.

Other ways in which you help build your relationship with your baby are:

 – Thinking about who your baby is and what they are like.

Some mothers do this through chatting with other people about what their baby seems to be like, and noticing what kinds of things seem to make them more or less active (some people notice that certain pieces of music have an affect on their baby). Other people do this through keeping a journal or writing letters to the baby about how they are feeling and what they hope to be like as a family.

 –  Learning more about what your baby is doing now.

Some parents find it easier to think about their babies if they have an idea of what stage they are in their development. There are lots of videos on youtube, created using scans of babies that might help you with this, including this one.

 – Treating your baby as though they are there with you.

Your baby is with you, all the time, and you can talk to them whenever you like. Babies can often recognise their mother’s voice from 26 weeks gestation, and often your partner’s too. So tell them what you are doing, chat to them if they kick, and even ask them how they are.

There are times when it might feel hard to bond with your baby, especially if you are anxious about their health, or if you have health problems yourself. It can also sometimes feel hard to bond if you are experiencing stressful events.

This can be normal, but if you are finding that you feel can’t feel a sense of connection to your baby you might want to chat to your midwife or GP and get some psychological support to help you develop this bond even when things are difficult.

Final Thoughts

One of the main things to bear in mind if you find yourself struggling or disappointed in a relationship is that often our disappointment is a result of our hopes or expectations. Being able to look at the relationship more objectively and accept the reality of the relationship can help you bear that disappointment more easily, as your expectations might be more in line with reality.

And if you are really struggling emotionally, then getting a bit of support, either from people around you or healthcare professionals, can help you manage your feelings at this stage.