Author Jancee Dunn couldn’t believe how furious she would get at her husband after they had a baby. Here are her tips for working through it.
Before we became parents, my husband Tom and I were one of those annoying couples that almost never fought. Then our daughter was born, and we began to battle so much that we considered splitting. Then I thought, Hold up, I write about health and psychology — why not try everything I can to save my marriage? I plunged into research. I consulted hundreds of experts, including two FBI crisis negotiators. We went to therapy. We went to more therapy. One year — and one book — later, we are back on the same team. Don’t make our rookie mistakes! Here are the most valuable lessons we learned to keep the peace.
1. Sit down and divvy up your household chores. It’s boring, I know. Pour some wine if you have to. But it’s crucial to clearly divide all aspects of housework and childcare. As one marriage counselor after another told me, fights arise when your roles are not clear. Ideally, you do this while you’re pregnant, but if not, definitely during the first few weeks with your new baby.
If not, you’ll be amazed at how apoplectic you get about whose turn it is to sterilize the bottles. When our daughter was a few weeks old, Tom and I almost came to blows one Saturday morning over who deserved to sleep in more (I won that particular argument with I was up last night three times, and p.s., I carried her for nine months.) We could have saved a lot of bickering with a formula we hit upon years later: one of us sleeps in on Saturday, the other on Sunday. Done. Clear.
2. Don’t shut your partner out. I would get upset with Tom when he wouldn’t help me with the baby, but then I read up on something called “maternal gatekeeping,” in which mothers can open up the gate to encourage dad’s participation, or clang it firmly shut. This behavior can range from making all baby-related decisions without consulting him, to criticizing how he dresses the baby (“hello, where’s his sweater? Do you want him to catch a cold?”). This sets up a bad dynamic where the mother takes over completely, and he becomes more and more uncertain of his abilities and retreats. I made sure to ease up on the controlling and include Tom whenever possible. If he feeds our child dinner and doesn’t include a vegetable, the kid will survive.
3. Just do it. When you’re deranged from lack of sleep and your boobs are leaking, often the last thing on your mind is sex. When our baby was first born, we fell into a depressing cycle of Tom hitting on me and me curtly shutting him down. I could have avoided a lot of bruised feelings by simply telling him that sex was off the table for the first six weeks (If I got my mojo back during that time — bonus!)
Regardless, during that time, make sure you touch regularly to maintain closeness — a quick squeeze on the arm, slinging your legs over his while you’re watching a movie. Then, when you’re feeling ready, observe the Nike slogan and just do it. You may not be into it at first, but those happy chemicals that sex produces are good for you, too, and help you feel more connected to your partner.
If sex still feels daunting (or just one more thing you have to do for someone) try for once a week. As it happens, having sex once a week is the ideal for maximum wellbeing, according to a study of over 25,000 adults. Believe it or not, more action and their happiness actually leveled off (and yes, this was consistent for both men and women).
4. When possible, fight electronically. I used to think that we could squabble freely in front of the baby. It’s not like she can understand us, I reasoned. Then I came across this depressing study: University of Oregon researchers measured brain activity in babies, and discovered that infants as young as six months react negatively to angry, argumentative voices.
So if a dispute revs up, pull out your phones to battle it out. And the act of writing just may clarify your thoughts and calm you down. (I say may, but if not, writing U DICK is a lot better than yelling it, at least in front of your offspring.)
5. Know that he can’t read your mind. He’s not even close to reading your mind. I used to silently fume at Tom, and bang things around in the kitchen to convey my annoyance that he wouldn’t do his share. Then I chatted with New York psychotherapist Jean Fitzpatrick, who told me this: “very often, for some reason, women think that guys are going to just pitch in, and if they don’t, they’re deliberately choosing not to, or that they don’t care. So they go to, ‘Well, he doesn’t really care about me.’ And instead it would be really helpful to say, ‘Here’s what I need from you right now.'”
This became my golden phrase. Telling Tom, calmly and deliberately, exactly what I need has been a lot more helpful than glaring at him as he obliviously noodles with his smartphone.
6. Paraphrase each other when you’re arguing. An FBI crisis negotiator told me that simply restating your mate’s message in your own words is immediately disarming. It really does help to calm me down when my husband says, “so what I’m hearing is you’re upset that I sat on the couch while you made dinner, checked homework, and emptied the dishwasher.” As the negotiator told me, it’s a universal rule that everybody just wants to be heard.
7. For true “me time,” vacate the premises. If you go into the bedroom and shut the door so you can look up celebrity gossip websites, someone is going to open that door. If you take a bath, your toddler is going to gleefully join you. Hand the baby to your husband and get the hell out of the house. Take an evening walk, go the library on a Saturday, grab a coffee! Even for half an hour!
8. Say “thank you,” and say it often. The power of a simple “thank you” is considerable. Researchers from the University of Georgia found that what makes a marriage last isn’t necessarily how often the couple argues, but how they treat each other on a daily basis — and expressions of gratitude were the “most consistent significant predictor of marital quality.” So get into the habit of saying thanks even for the littlest things, even if it’s just “thanks for ordering pizza, I couldn’t face that kitchen tonight.”
I try to remember what couples counselors John and Julie Gottman told me, “small things often” — meaning that those minor, everyday gestures of affection matter more than things you do every once in a while. Of course, I still get angry at my husband — but with effort on both of our parts, he’s turned out to be the ally I didn’t know I had. Who knew?