by Holly Keich
Raising a baby is hard work. Harder than you can ever imagine before arriving home with your beautiful, new bundle. It’s a significant life change that requires 24/7 vigilance, love, understanding, compassion, and patience on just a few hours of interrupted sleep a day. I don’t know about you, but that’s a tall order for me. In fact, it’s a tall order for many parents and in turn directly effects couples relationships with each other as well. In fact, 67% of couples become very unhappy with each other during the first 3 years of life. (1)
The relationship between parents can become the first thing to take a hiatus when baby arrives. But studies show that the best thing you can give your baby is a happy and strong relationship. So how do you do that when you’re feeling overwhelmed and what used to be disagreements between the two of you turn into destructive fights?
Babies offer new things to fight over and before you know it you’re even arguing over things you agree on. How does this happen? Disagreements become less about the content or what the real issues are and become arguments about how you fight. For example, you disagree about where the bottles should be placed in the dishwasher. It’s an extension of your usual disagreement about the proper placement of dishes in the dishwasher. You think bottom shelf, he says top shelf. Instead of discussing the real issue, that you feel overwhelmed by this whole parenting thing and just want to do right by your child, you dig in and say he’s wrong and here’s why. He feels attacked when he was just trying to help and defends himself with a quick, snarky comeback.
All couples have arguments and disagree, it’s part of life. That won’t change, but how you relate to each other when there are conflicts could be significantly improved with just a few healthy conflict management skills. And Baby Makes Three by John Gottman, PhD and Julie Schwartz Gottman, PhD is a wonderful book that offer us guideposts for maintaining a relationship while parenting based on years of work with couples and a 13 year study that looked in detail at couples interactions after baby. Let’s take a look at what they identified as healthy conflict management skills.
1. Soften How You Start the Discussion
As soon as the first word is said, you know there’s a going to be trouble. Take a breath, check in with yourself. What are you feeling? How can we express what we need if we don’t even know how we feel. Once you’re clear with yourself, state how you feel, neutrally. Describe the situation and state what you do need, not what you don’t need.
2. Accept Influence by Recognizing There are Two Valid Viewpoints
We’ve all heard there are two sides to every story, but in the midst of an argument, we’re convinced that ours is the right side. Regardless, postpone your attempts to persuade your partner about how correct you are. Listen to your partners’ story, ask questions and restate them so they know you were listening. Get communication flowing before adding in your side of the story. Remember you’re in this together. If the boat sinks, your both going down and now the baby’s coming with you.
3. Calm Down by Self Soothing
When we’re in the midst of a fight it’s likely that we’re experiencing a heightened arousal state. And whether we realize it or not we become flooded. We move into a fight or flight state and our lower brain centers take control. It’s hard if not impossible to be rational when in this state. So take a mommy and daddy time out for at least a 1/2 an hour. Reduce the adrenaline and cortisol release flooding your body. Don’t sit and ruminate about the fight, unless you’re focusing on your contribution, how you feel and what you need. If you’re feeling completely beyond rational thought do something that is a soothing activity. Then schedule a time to get back together and reconvene the discussion.
It can be hard to consider, but compromise is a daily staple of a healthy relationship. It’s helpful to identify your core areas of need, things in which you can’t yield. Then consider what areas have greater flexibility? Then discuss how you can come together on a solution.
5. The Aftermath of a Fight: Process and Understand It
Sometimes this needs to be a scheduled event. Find a time where you have the time to sit and discuss your feelings and point of view without blame. Realize that you have an active role in the argument as much as your partner. Take turns confessing the part you played in the drama. Then take a look at how you could make it better next time?
6. Figure Out the Conversation You Needed to Have Instead of the Fight
As we mentioned at the beginning of the article, often we end up arguing about superficial things when the real heart of the issue is much, much deeper. Each of us have our triggers, some we may not even realize until we’re standing in the dust and debris after the smoke clears. Take a look at what triggers you more closely. Discuss your triggers with your partner so that they know these are the things that set you off and flood your brain with stress hormones. Delve into why these specific items are triggering. Where do they arise from – is it related to past experiences? How could you handle them differently? Make sure you each take time to listen to each other with compassion and avoid delving back into the argument. If that happens, take another parent time out and reconvene at another time.
7. Move From Gridlock to Dialogue When You Have Unsolvable Problems
Do you ever feel like you’re having the same argument over and over. It’s because you are. 69% of problems in the couples the Gottmans studied were repeats of the same issue. (2) Perpetual problems arise from fundamental differences in your personalities and lifestyle needs. In these scenarios, the Gottmans found that values, dreams, and personal philosophies also underlie our gridlocked positions. In order to gain a better understanding of ourselves and each other, we must become “dream detectives”. You’ll find more info here about what steps to take to undo the gridlock and make dialogue possible about these perpetual issues.
While these steps are extremely useful in cooling down heated situations in your relationship, there are many additional considerations to creating a healthy relationship after baby. Come join Marriage and Family Therapist, Lynn Brooks to take a deeper look at what makes a loving, connected relationship in We Become Three at Om Baby. We’ll look at additional strategies and techniques to help you face this major life transition while turning towards each other for closeness and bonding, finding joy in your new family.
Holly Keich is the owner of Om Baby Pregnancy & Parenting Center in Camp Hill. She is a Licensed Social Worker, Yoga Instructor, Certified Infant Massage Instructor, Parent, Wife and adamant student in the school of life.