“Welcome to the end of being alone inside your mind
You’re tethered to another and you’re worried all the time
You always knew the melody but you never heard it rhyme,”.
(Lyrics from the song The Mother by Brandi Carlile)
Welcome to motherhood. Your hair is messy, your stomach is flabby, your boobs are swollen, and you don’t have much time to fix all that. There is a baby needing you. Life feels almost impossible to get on with like it was before. And your relationship is tense!
Small things like who is getting up this time to hold the baby or who’s turn it is to fold the laundry while the other cooks dinner become big.
And it’s frustrating!
The baby doesn’t settle long enough for a healing conversation about your relationship. And if it does, you’re watching the monitor worried about why the baby is sleeping so long and if you should go wake the baby up.
If this sounds like you…I hope you find comfort in knowing you are in the majority!
Lots of research has been done on couples and the postpartum period (postpartum means following child birth). This research overwhelmingly identifies that couples are at increased vulnerability for relationship problems after a baby is born.
Makes sense, right? You’ve both just experienced the biggest transition of your lives. You might have had some scares in the hospital or a traumatic event happen. You are surging with hormones, tending to a new baby, not sleeping, worried constantly, and just generally have a short fuze.
If you are experiencing a postpartum mood disorder like anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, mania or bipolarism, then the fuze is probably even shorter.
One of the hardest things about the postpartum time period is that sometimes you might feel like yourself again. Only to experience a backward slide hours later.
Relationship problems at this time can feel absolutely unsurmountable.
How do you and your partner stay intimate and connected when you’re upset and short with each other?
This is a great question because, after all, you wanted to have a baby with this person. Or at least you thought you both could come through it united and on the same page.
I’ll share with you what I know as a couples therapist that specializes in working with relationships postpartum.
I always start with the immediacy of calming tension and de-escalating conflict.
Here are some tips to try out:
1) Stop, Look, and Listen to your body…what is going on for you? Is your heart rate up? Is your breathing fast? Are you shaking or does your head hurt? 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 spouse…
1) Mirror what you heard. Mirroring 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 is…”. (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) Mirror 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 angry you are, how bruised your ego is or 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 also helping your baby to be calm!
When your partner’s neurological functioning is soothed and the amygdala is no longer triggered into fight, flight or freeze, your child will mimic those receptors and so will you.
Lastly, take time and space when you need it. Taking time is different then avoiding a conflict. Taking time is an opportunity for you to reset your nervous system and re-approach your partner to continue difficult conversations.
And consider seeing a couples therapist. A couples therapist can assist you in working to de-escalate conflict together and increase calmness and emotional security in the home.
It’s a fact that you won’t always be happy with your partner. But you do deserve to lift your relationship to the next level. A harmonious and mutually supportive marriage or long term commitment is well within your reach. With all that we know today about the mind-body relationship and interpersonal reactivities there is help, you need only reach out and get it.
Important Note: If you are in danger from your partner or if you are experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse, these tips are not for you. You and your baby need to get to safety. In Austin you can call the 24 hour SAFEline at (512) 267-SAFE (7233), text (737) 888- 7233 or visit https://www.safeaustin.org/.
If you are in immediate danger please call 911. You are NOT alone.
~Angela Jensen-Ramirez, LCSW is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in Austin, Texas. She works with couples of all stripes and relationship phases. If you or someone you know could use support in their marriage or relationship you can e-mail her at: email@example.com.