The more we can find ways to travel parenthood as a team, the more we enhance our own fulfilment and support our kids’ wellbeing…
You both dreamed of the day that your little bundle of joy would enter your life, envisioning how you as a couple would be closer and how parenthood would enhance your lives. But now that baby is here, you and your partner find yourself at odds, fighting more than before and worrying that your relationship won’t recover.
But you’re not alone! Research indicates that 9 out of 10 new parents report a decrease in relationship happiness during the first few years of their baby’s life. So, forget typical parenting advice that tells you otherwise.
What’s responsible for the nose-dive in relationship satisfaction? Here’s some advice for new parents about three of the main culprits of a decrease in happiness, how to overcome them, and how to keep both you and the baby happy.
This is a no-brainer. Literally. If we don’t get enough sleep – which is true for most new parents – our brains are impaired. Without a full night’s rest, we’re not as skilled at thinking rationally or as good at remaining calm under stress. Even science backs this up by citing a “bidirectional” connection between sleep and relationship dynamics.
The better we sleep, the happier our relationships are, and the poorer our sleep, the more negative we feel about relationships. Conversely, when our relationships go well, we sleep better, but we’re up at night when strife impacts our love lives.
When we become parents, a vicious circle often begins that wreaks havoc with that bidirectional connection; a baby arrives and parents sleep less, lack of sleep triggers increased frustration in parents, increased frustration shows up as relationship dissatisfaction, that relationship unhappiness makes us sleep poorly, and so the cycle continues. I’m exhausted just writing about it!
The better we sleep, the happier our relationships are, and the poorer our sleep, the more negative we feel about relationships
New baby learning curve
Regardless of how many younger siblings you have, how many kids you babysat, or how many nappies you changed in your pre-parenting days, caring for your child includes many challenging and sometimes scary tasks, in addition to the joyous ones. Figuring out how to handle the demands of parenthood can be easy (some babies rarely spit up) or hard (others projectile vomit before they’re off the nipple); what’s hard for you might be a breeze for your partner.
The bottom line is that when we feel inept or afraid, many of us get snippy and argumentative. This is especially tricky for new parents because we’re unlikely, or unwilling (thankfully), to direct our anger at our sweet, helpless infants. Great news for babies, yet bad news for partners at whom we direct the full brunt of our frustration.
Research suggests that the bigger the gap between a new mom’s impression of how much childcare her husband is doing and what she imagined he’d do when she was still pregnant, the greater her relationship dissatisfaction. Unmet expectations often breed resentment, and resentment quickly dovetails into full-blown conflict. (Thus far, studies about expectations focus on heterosexual couples.)
Now that you know the challenges being a new parent will bring, especially how what sweet baby might bring to your relationship, how can you and your partner ease postpartum conflict?
Here are three tips to help keep the peace:
1. Normalise the challenge
As simple as it sounds, knowing that it’s normal for you and your partner to fight more after your baby arrives can really help. Whether that means you take those fights in your stride, cut them short, or try to repair them faster because you know that they’re part and parcel of the postpartum experience, normalising conflict does wonders for easing conflict.
Just make sure to let your partner in on this information, too, so that he or she can normalise frustration with you. Also, if you can keep a sense of humour about it all, especially if laughter is something you commonly share, consider posting a sign that you create together when you’re not pissed off, like, “It’s totally normal that I want to kill you right now!”
2. Repair the damage
While conflict is a normal part of all relationships, and knowing how to “fight right” is important, one of the crucial differentiators between couples who thrive and those who merely survive (or don’t) is how they repair their relationship during or after conflict.
What counts as a repair? That depends on your unique relationship and individual preferences. A great way to come up with a list of repairs is to ask each other when you’re not angry.
Equally important is openness to each other’s suggestions and trying them out when or after you fight. Consider asking each other these questions: What could we both do to stop or shorten our arguments?
For example, agreeing to take a 20-minute break and revisiting the topic at an agreed-upon time when we’ve had a chance to cool down, coming up with a silly gesture or code-word that, when uttered by either of us, means that we back off the conversation until we’re calmer, or coming up with a gesture or code-word to remind each other that we love each other even when angry. After we fight, what could I do or say to help us reconnect?
Go further than just dreaming about holding your precious baby in your arms. Envision embracing your partner, too, as you hold your baby together
Or you could let your partner know what works for you with a phrase like this: “After we fight, if you did or said [fill in the blank], it would help me reconnect with you.”
3. Expect the unexpected
No matter how much we think we know exactly what it will be like to have a baby, the reality between actual parenting and our fantasy differ widely. That’s not always a bad thing, but it means that our expectations of how our partners will show up to parenting, and their expectations of themselves, might be out of sync.
If we go into parenting understanding that everyone’s acclimation to parenthood is hard to predict, we can often avoid relationship disappointment. We also sidestep the urge to punish each other (and ourselves) for failed expectations.
Another great postpartum tactic is to, first, share your childcare and housework expectations of yourself with your spouse and, then, share expectations of your partner. If you end up being on different pages about how housework should be shared – say, you expect more than they expect of themselves – ask if they’re willing to shift in your direction by 10% or 20%.
Together, brainstorm two or three ways in which your partner can help more and, then, let your partner pick. If we allow each other to shift incrementally we often follow through. Plus, resentment eases and teamwork thrives. Another potential antidote to failed expectations is for expecting couples to dream more into their togetherness as parents, to fantasise more about what it will be like for you to be parents together.
So go further than just dreaming about holding your precious baby in your arms. Envision embracing your partner, too, as you hold your baby together.
Parenting is an incredible journey. The more we can find ways to travel parenthood as a team, the more we enhance our own fulfilment and support our kids’ wellbeing.
Rhona Berens, PhD, PCC, is an Individual & Relationship Coach who helps expecting couples and parents stay sane and stay together, or co-parent effectively when apart. She also assists professionals – e.g., birth and postpartum workers, parenting professionals, teachers – to better care for families and themselves.
This article was first published on YourTango.