Keeping Your Relationship Strong After the Birth of A Child
(and other relationship tips)
By Dr. Whitney Wall
John and Julie Gottman of the Gottman Institute (https://www.gottman.com/), located in Seattle, WA, are leaders in the field of couples counseling and have dedicated their careers to the mission of engaging in research and developing related interventions to support the health of couples and families. Chances are, if you’ve visited our office for couples counseling or related support, we’ve referred you to and/or provided you with resources from the Gottman Institute.
Their most recent initiative has involved supporting couples and families as they transition to parenthood, with their research-based book, “And Baby Makes Three,” and new/expectant parent training course “Bringing Baby Home.”
Research suggests that rates of marital/partnership satisfaction drop significantly after the birth of child. While the transition to parenthood can be exciting, rewarding, and beautiful; it is also one of the most stressful, emotionally demanding, and physically exhausting life experiences that inevitably puts strain on marriages, partnerships, and other relationships. The data is clear: people tend to struggle, and relationships are tried, after the birth of a child.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to Seattle to participate in the “Bringing Baby Home” workshop and received lots of valuable information to share with my clients and the KKJ community! Here are some quick tips from the workshop that I think everyone, especially those transitioning to parenthood, might find helpful:
Small Things, Often
Who wouldn’t want to be swept away on a romantic getaway or receive an expensive watch or diamond earrings? However, these grand gestures don’t seem to matter in the long-term health of a relationship. Gottman’s research suggests that it’s the everyday “turning towards” our partners’ bids for our attention that better determine the health and quality of the relationship. It’s asking a follow-up question when our partner shares news that matters to them. It’s putting the phone down for 30 seconds to greet your partner when they walk in the door at the end of a long day. Implementing these small things can be particularly challenging post-baby when everyone is exhausted and personal time feels non-existent. Yet, knowing how important the small stuff really is might make it a bit easier to do.
Learn to Manage Your Emotional Triggers and Self Soothe
This one is hard and maybe the most important. When we are emotionally triggered, we are not good partners. Period. We can’t listen. We say hurtful things we don’t mean. Empathy? Forget about it - we experience tunnel vision and no one else’s perspective seems to matter. Biologically, all of this makes sense.
When we feel threatened, we enter into fight or flight mode as a means of survival; this is often not helpful when it comes to relationships. There is no amount of healthy communication training that will facilitate healthy effective communication when one is emotionally overwhelmed - it’s just not cognitively possible.
As you can imagine, emotional triggers and overwhelm can be magnified when also coping with the transition to parenthood – not to mention the hormonal effects on mood and the common occurrence of mood disorders post-pregnancy.
The key is to be able to identify when you and/or your partner is emotionally overwhelmed and STOP engaging, practice self-soothing, and reconnect when calm. This is easier said than done and many people struggle with this process. Utilizing a counselor to support this work is often helpful and additional support to treat underlying disorders is also indicated.
You can listen and validate your partner even when you don’t agree
Disagreements are often not problematic, but rather inevitable. Instead, it’s the process by which we disagree that can cause relationship trouble. As new parents, there are so many new decisions to make surrounding routine, childcare, in law boundaries, etc.
The more you can listen to your partner’s perspective and validate your partner’s feelings, EVEN when you don’t agree with them, the more you will be able to resolve your disagreements in a healthy way. Instead of building your case/rebuttal in your head while your partner speaks – try being present to really understand their perspective and validate their feelings. Remember, understanding does not equal agreeing.