by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
I'm sitting at a café and a pregnant woman and her husband just walked in. No biggie, right? Except, since I started working with expecting and new parents, whenever I see a pregnant couple, my brain starts spinning with post-baby research like…
I have to admit, I feel daunted when I share this information with expecting couples. Why? Because no matter how many examples of stressed relationships we've witnessed among the new parents we know, many of us remain convinced we'll avoid those challenges with our spouses.
I get it, I really do. Plus, there are all sorts of variables to the data, like socioeconomics, education, and pre-baby romance levels. But variables aside, and at the risk of being the Grinch who stole our fantasies-of-post-baby-relationship-bliss, I'm going to make a stand for loving your spouse and your relationship enough to PRACTICE.
Patience: The first few months after a baby's birth are challenging, if only because of sleep deprivation and new learning curves. Acknowledging that can normalize relationship bumps, like snapping at each other or full-blown arguments. In other words, heightened stress in the baby's first few months will pass, so try to stay as calm as possible and ride it out.
Rest: Research shows that adequate sleep and relationship satisfaction are connected. What to do if/when newborns keep you awake? Support each other to grab shut-eye whenever, wherever, however, even if it means sleeping separately at times. And consider that your gripes with your spouse might mostly be about exhaustion.
Adjust Attitudes: When we're tired and navigating major transitions, tempers can flare. Understanding that goes a long way, as does doing our best to keep a sense of humor, and finding other ways to adjust our attitudes. If we get snapped at, consider asking, "What's your intention behind that tone (or comment)?" If we're the snapper, take a breath and try to answer with what we really want, minus the edge, for example, I want help, I feel frustrated, or even, I don't know!
Compassion: Parents are great at having compassion for babies; we know it's hard to be small and helpless! Yet, we often forget to be empathetic with each other and ourselves. Before babies arrive, discuss how each of you defines compassion and how you like to receive it. Try to express compassion for yourself and your beloved freely once the baby's here, and ask for it when needed.
Tackle Toxins: Psychologist John Gottman cites 4 primary toxins (negative attitudes and behaviors) that erode relationship satisfaction: disrespect, criticism, defensiveness and stonewalling. I know "toxins" sounds intense, but what we're talking about is stuff like eye-rolling, finger pointing, shirking responsibility and refusing to talk. I have yet to meet someone who doesn't have a talent for at least one of these toxins. What to do? Admit your favorite to your spouse and, together, discuss possible strategies to diffuse toxins when they show up, for example, call them out and pause your conversation long enough to excise them.
Intimacy: While sex can be a battlefield after babies are born, we can limit the impact of differing desires, first, by understanding that hormonal shifts in women post-birth, especially those who breastfeed, can lower sex drives. So let's add patience and compassion to our sexual expectations. It's also important to stay intimate, even without full-on sex. Don't short-change quick connections: a loving look, a tender touch, a kind word and, if you can swing it, some degree of sexual intimacy. Before your baby arrives, discuss how you want to be with each other if intimacy/sex becomes a challenge.
Choice: Though we're not usually taught how to communicate, turns out there's a slew of choices we can make about how to begin conversations, especially those about touchy subjects. Since nine out of ten conversations end how they begin, consider starting chats gently: don't blame; speak from an "I" place and avoid the word "you"; try the I'm-not-a-know-it-all mode, by using less adamant phrases, like "I'm not sure..." or "My best guess is..."; and get curious before making suggestions by asking open-ended questions (those that begin with "what" or "how").
Endurance: Turns out, 70% of relationship issues are ongoing; meaning, they won't ever go away. (Yes, you read that correctly!) In the absence of resolution, the goal is to identify recurrent problems, avoid them, or resolve them quickly without dragging in toxins. Before babies arrive, spend time listing what you and your spouse consider your enduring, recurrent problems and, together, brainstorm suggestions for how to avoid them, and how to limit their longevity if they make an appearance.
If it isn't obvious, I could write an article about each of these techniques and it's likely I will! So if you're feeling daunted, not to worry. It takes PRACTICE to integrate new ways of communicating into our relationships, just as it takes practice to navigate the learning curve of becoming parents.
As long as we remember patience and compassion for ourselves, for our spouses, and for the relationships we craft together, we're on the right path.
And if you suspect that these approaches remain useful after your baby's first year – or for couples without kids – you're primed to give your relationship the attention it needs and deserves, now and in the future.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a professional Relationship coach and founder of Parent Alliance®, a resource for expectant couples and parents with young children who are committed to ensuring their relationships thrive after they have kids. Rhona received her training from the Coaches Training Institute and the Center for Right Relationship and is accrediated by The International Coach Federation. She is mom to a pre-schooler and will be welcoming her second child this summer. From her office in Los Angeles, Rhona coaches couples across North America.
Copyright © Rhona Berens. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.