Relationships need love and patience just like your new baby does. Yet who has time and energy to take care of everyone?
You dreamed about having a baby. You imagined how your bundle of joy would bring you closer as a couple and how parenthood would enhance your lives. Now that your baby is here, you and your partner find yourselves at odds, fighting more than before and worrying that your relationship won't recover.
That's the bad news. The good news is that you're not alone and with a little effort, you can help your relationship get back on track. Research indicates that 9 out of 10 new parents report a decrease in relationship happiness during the first year of their baby's life.
What causes this nose-dive in relationship satisfaction? Here are three of the main culprits and how to overcome them to keep baby AND parents happy:
Reason #1 -- Lack of sleep:
Sleep deprivation 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. Research backs this up: there's a "bidirectional" connection between sleep and relationships. The better we sleep, the happier we are with relationships; the poorer our sleep, the more negative we feel about relationships. Conversely, when our relationships go well, we sleep better, though we're up at night when strife impacts our love lives.
Parenthood often starts a cycle that wreaks havoc with that; a baby arrives and parents sleep less, lack of sleep triggers increased frustration in parents, increased frustration shows up as relationship dissatisfaction, relationship unhappiness makes us sleep poorly, and so the cycle continues. I'm exhausted just writing about it!
Reason #2 -- A steep learning curve:
No matter how many younger siblings you have, how many kids you babysat, or how many diapers 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); plus, 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 often level the full brunt of our frustration.
Reason #3 -- Expectations when you're expecting:
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.)
By the way, just because moms believe dads are doing less than moms thought they would do doesn't mean it's true or that dads agree that they're doing less than they promised. Bottom line: trying to prove to dads that they really, really are doing less than they promised or should be doing not only serves to frustrate dads, but moms too will likely ramp up their stress. (See below for an alternative approach.)
Given the challenges that a new baby brings to many relationships, how can you and your partner ease postpartum conflict?
3 tips to help your relationship:
Normalize: 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 stride, cut them short, or try to repair them faster because you know they're part and parcel of the postpartum experience, normalizing conflict does wonders for easing conflict. Just make sure to let your partner in on this information, too, so he or she can normalize frustration with you! Also, if you can keep a sense of humor 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!"
Repair: 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. For most couples, asking your spouse to admit he or she was wrong doesn't work as a repair. Why? Because often you both believe you're right and, because most fights are based on your subjective beliefs and opinions, you are both right to some degree!)
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 helpful 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 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?
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."
Accept: 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 differs widely. That's not always a bad thing, yet 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.
Here's another tactic: 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 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.
If you want to your relationship to thrive as parents, go further than dreaming about holding your precious baby in your arms. Envision embracing your partner, too, holding each other as your hold your baby. Parenting is an incredible journey. The more we can find ways to take that journey as a team, the more we enhance our own fulfillment and support our kids' well-being.
An earlier draft of this post appeared on YourTango.com.