As a therapist, wife, and mother I find that writing about relationships is hard. Relationships can be looked at from Emotional, Developmental, Systemic, and Relational perspectives, to name only a few. All of which have deep theoretical and philosophical underpinnings and strategic applications that can be somewhat cumbersome to thoroughly address in a catchy snapshot. But this topic is so important.
If you have ever dated someone then you will know, relationships can be complicated!
In my musings about what happens to relationships after a baby comes home, I am repeatedly coming back to Dickens iconic words;
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the Spring of hope, it was the Winter of despair”.
Being in love and then adding a child to the mix can feel utterly epic—like the most momentous thing that might ever happen in one’s life. And at the same time it can feel profoundly isolating and almost like death as the old you begins to morph into the as-yet unknown. To add my own words to Dickens’ famous opening lines in relating directly to parenting with children;
“It was the deepest of bonding, it was the most unnerving…it was the season of Miracles, it was the season of Loss, it was the Spring of Life, it was the Winter of my Youth…”
Ask any mom about her marital relationship as a parent and you will get: 1) a distracted look that implies, “oh, I don’t know, I don’t even want to know, I do everything possible to not know what my marriage is really like right now” and then the lonely sound of crickets in the dark, or 2) a pensive pause with slight hesitation giving evidence of cautious thought and calculation of not disclosing how shitty things are or throwing her husband under the bus.
Very rarely (like almost never) will you receive an honest assessment of the ups and downs and sideways challenges that are happening for parenting partners behind closed doors.
In my opinion, it would be unrealistic to think partnerships would continue basking in the bliss of love after having children. It seems that parental attempts to reconnect and stay attuned to each other are often thwarted by unsuspecting invaders. Like that crazy little person living with you that successfully halts those advances toward unity.
Remember that time when you tried hugging in the kitchen for the first time in…oh, say a month, and your toddler dropped that engrossing game of throwing all his toys on the floor, spied you from the other side of the house, dashed over, and proceeded to whine and yell at you while prying your legs apart and strategically placing his head between your bodies. Physical contact denied.
And you thought you’d get a quiet moment!
And yet, that crazy little person responsible for all this havoc (more laundry, less sleep, more expenses, less sex) is actually profoundly dependent on the marital health of her caregivers for her emotional and developmental wellbeing. What we know today is that a secure parent in a calm and peaceful household will tend to be more interactive and attentive with a child. This, in turn, will create a secure attachment that will lead to a lifetime of benefit for that child—whereas a depressed, angry, volatile, and hostile home environment could lead to an insecure attachment.
Many of us new parents find ourselves becoming burdened with the guilt of not having harmonious relationships with our spouses. We want more for our children than we had, and yet we are only human, and subject to faults. This deep guilt of motherhood builds as a sort of anxiety, and sometimes inadvertently leads us down the road of depression, panic attacks and rage.
According to a study that John and Julie Gottman conducted with their relationship center and found in their book, And Baby Makes Three, “In the first three years after babies were born, a whopping two-thirds of parents experienced a significant drop in their relationship quality”. The participants in this study were just like you and me—loving couples that decided to marry, decided to procreate, and had dreams of sharing their lives together. This study indicates that 67% of these families experienced a significant amount of stress in their marital unit during those precious first three years of their children’s lives. These first three years are usually a time, I imagine, that parents had hoped to enjoy their little critter while marveling at each passing milestone. Yet only one-third of couples are saying that they have not lost “relationship quality” during this time. Just as an aside, not losing relationship quality does not mean the other one-third is in blissed out marital land. It solely suggests that their relationship did not drop “significantly” in quality.
If it is the case that the majority of relationships are struggling post-baby, why then are we not talking more about helping each other to thrive?
Granted, there are times that the dissolution of a partnership is for the benefit of parents and child. But often times, the heart aching reality is that the culprit responsible for the disintegration is simply ‘communication’. Communication is the single most identified problem in a marriage by people who are married. Problems communicating include fighting, yelling, blaming, stonewalling, berating, withdrawing, antagonizing, criticizing…communication is interwoven in every aspect of a couple’s relationship.
To be quite honest, sometimes it feels really good to just have someone to yell at when stressed by parenthood; or adulthood for that matter. One day, after getting into an argument with my husband and calling him some swarthy names in the heat of the anger, I asked him if he would just let me verbally berate him sometimes while not taking it so “personally”. He said “yes” and proceeded to request the same with me. After a millisecond of thought I quickly resolved that, no, we could not “tantrum at each other” and be verbally hostile with each other. Alas, I would have to be an adult about my feelings and take control of my behavior.
Wanting to just emotionally vomit cuss words at someone may be natural given the stress of interpersonal dynamics…but it tends to be a poor way of maintaining respect, compassion, and caring in a marriage.
In a wonderful book I’ve been reading titled, How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids, (which is hot of the press and humorously guides you through the evolving relationship of the author and her husband), Jancee Dunn interviews a chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit about ways to lead a hostile person off the proverbial cliff of relationship suicide. As a therapist, I loved the angle Mrs. Dunn uses to ironically lighten what tends to be a dense topic. Doing therapy with a volatile couple is much like hostage negotiation in a crisis. Tempers are hot, feelings are deep and each person wants to be heard while making sure their partner knows exactly how they are feeling.
The catch is that a partner cannot hear how the other is feeling when he or she is being attacked. It’s physiologically impossible (okay, maybe the Dali Lama can do it) but for the most part your spouse cannot be nice to you when you are being an asshole. Nor vice-versa.
The hostage negotiation thing works because it gives a clear outline to follow when in the heat of hatred. And it gives leadership. Considering yourself a crisis negotiator when your partner is falling apart actually adds just enough differentiation to the interaction that you can remove yourself and see your partner as he/she truly is…wounded, scared, alone, and confused. This in turn softens you, allows you to be more receptive, lowers the reactivity of the amygdala and brings the frontal cortex back online. As it turns out, fighting is a neurological matter.
For the past three years I have been trying to launch a couples workshop for parents. It has been unsuccessful thus far. It appears that while everyone tells me that couples workshops are desperately needed, no one actually wants to attend one. And I get it. Who wants to sit around with other couples that are having problems?! But I’m trying it again. Part of my workshop will be about communication. Here’s a teaser for you to chew on….
How to end a fight with your partner (anyone really, but let’s focus on the one you’re married to):
For you to do:
1) Stop, Look, and Listen to your body…what is going on for you? Is your heart rate up? Is your breathing fast? Check in and notice your reactions.
2) Make eye contact, take a step back and position yourself in a non-threatening way (like sit down or keep your arms to your side).
3) Open yourself up to hearing your partner. Remove the filter of defenses that come up for you and try to listen for clues on what your partner is really trying to tell you.
For talking with your angry partner:
1) Paraphrase what you heard. Paraphrasing means that you feed back to your partner exactly what they said. Do not insert yourself, your ideas, your criticisms, or your disagreement. You might start with, “What I hear you say”…(for example, “What I hear you say is you are overwhelmed that the baby is not sleeping and I’m not doing anything about it”).
2) Ask if you heard correctly. Say something like, “Did I hear you correctly”?
3) Paraphrase again until you got it 100% correct.
4) Agree with your angry partner. This can be REALLY HARD…and YOU CAN DO IT! Agree. Agree. Agree. It always takes two to tango. No matter how agitated you feel, how bruised your ego is, however many residual emotions come flying at you…you have played a part in your partner being upset. Taking accountability and responsibility for your part is the most critical step in diffusing an argument. All that other stuff that I listed before is nice…but worthless if you don’t take accountability for your share of the problem.
By agreeing with your partner you are doing so many wonderful things! You are admitting you have blame, you are softening their stance, you are showing them you hear them, you are attuning to them, and you are showing compassion for their feelings.
All these things are wonderful for you and your spouse. As a side benefit, you are teaching your child(ren) to do the same. When your partner’s neurological functioning is soothed and the amygdala is no longer triggered, your child will mimic those receptors and so will you.
The dance of lovers as they waltz toward parenthood is complicated and extraordinary. So many of us get lost in the mix, or we hold it together long enough for our children to get to grade school. And then we slowly dissolve. I say, “Lets not dissolve”! Let’s work with the notion that we loved this person for a reason when we decided to procreate. A lot of challenging obstacles suddenly come into play when we have babies, but that doesn’t mean your love isn’t real.
With some simple skills, empathy, caring and compassion we can keep our marriages alive and live the married life of which we were dreaming.
Angela will be hosting Love After Baby, a short workshop for couples who are recently new parents at Tiny Tots in Campbell on June 22, 2017. If you would like to try on a new “date night” activity this might be the right one for you. We will have fun, we will laugh, and we will learn new ways to make your relationship stronger. Click here to RSVP: http://store.tinytots.com/store/product/48778/Love-After-Baby-June-22/