Before we became parents, my husband Tom and I were peaceful types. Then our daughter was born, and the battles began. Well, "battles" may not be the right word: I yelled, and he cringed. Yes, I was reeling from a typhoon of hormones and a hallucinatory lack of sleep. But in our case, it was more than that: I was resentful that somehow, while my life had turned upside down after the baby, Tom’s stayed pretty much the same. Even though we’re both writers who work from home, I ended up doing almost all of the housework and child care. Meanwhile, he took up fun new hobbies like surfing and long-distance cycling. It was upsetting: I now had the baby we’d wanted so badly, yet more often than not, I hated my husband.
Tom is a 21st century sort of guy, so I was mystified that things turned out this way. But we’re not alone: several studies have found that while millennial men say they fully plan on being hands-on dads who pitch in equally, once they actually have children, they backslide into traditional roles. Another new Ohio State study of working parents in heterosexual relationships revealed that new fathers took twice as much leisure time as moms did (obviously, not all parents are straight, but same-sex parents seem to manage all of this better—more on that later.)
I didn’t tell anyone about our terrible fights, because I was embarrassed that everyone else seemed to be handling parenthood better than us. My social feed was full of calm, beaming new parents holding their calm, beaming new infants (#soblessed, #backinmyskinnyjeans #neverbeenbetter).
But we were in danger of lawyering up. So I jumped into research, consulted with experts, and slowly brought our relationship back to life. It took over a year, but we did it. Fighting is normal. The key is to navigate conflict like grownups, not two toddlers scuffling over a Beanie Baby.
Here are the best things we learned.
Calling Your Husband A Dickhead Isn’t Super Effective
Almost every night, the same thing happened: While I was doing ten things at once in the kitchen, Tom would park himself on the couch and stare at his phone. So I would glare at him as I slammed cabinet doors and muttered.
Tom’s behavior only changed when I stopped expecting him to read my mind, and learned to tell him, calmly and specifically, what I would like to have happen
He didn’t notice. Yet somehow it didn’t occur to me to simply tell Tom what I wanted, rather than fume and then burst out that I was “doing all the work around here.” I was set straight by the refreshingly blunt Boston therapist Terry Real, who told me to stop being a martyr. "I’m always amazed that in this age of personal empowerment,” he said, “people still subscribe to the truly nutty idea that an effective strategy for getting what you want from your partner is to complain about it after the fact. This boxes him in and leaves him nowhere to go.”
Several social scientists told me that men respond better to direct requests. Tom’s behavior only changed when I stopped expecting him to read my mind, and learned to tell him, calmly and specifically, what I would like to have happen: hey, can you fold these onesies and give her a bath while I make dinner? Meanwhile, Real instructed Tom to make liberal use of the phrase, “How can I help?” Real also told me that if I told Tom it was OK for him to surf for an entire Saturday, I couldn’t be aggrieved afterwards — a behavior he termed "peeing on the gift."
Avoid Meltdowns (Yours, That Is)
Real also had us practice what he calls “full-respect living.” The concept is simple: nothing we say to each other should drop below the level of simple respect. That means no yelling, no ridiculing, no name-calling. This is a pretty lofty goal, but a good motivator for us was the considerable research on how kids are negatively affected when parents clash: a University of Oregon study found that infants as young as six months got a stress reaction when they heard angry, argumentative voices — even when they were asleep.
So when we felt a fight brewing, we used the “softened startup” pioneered by eminent couples therapists John and Julie Gottman. Take responsibility (“Sorry, I was already cranky because I slipped on some strained carrots”). Describe the situation without judgment, and state clearly what you need. Own your feelings with “I statements” rather than accusatory “you statements” (“I’d love for you to start emptying the diaper pail, which reeks,” rather than, “You’ve never changed the diaper pail in your life, it’s kind of amazing”). Admit your role in the fight, even if in your view, it’s practically nonexistent.
Then you should be sufficiently wound down enough to find a compromise (announcing “let’s brainstorm” puts you in a collaborative mindset.) Finally, repair with a few words, jokes or gestures that get you back on the same team.
I set a trap: I gradually eroded his confidence, and then complained when he didn’t jump in.
One repair strategy was given to me by Gary Noesner, a former crisis negotiator for the F.B.I. adept at tamping down out of control situations fast. He said it’s a universal truth that all people just want to be heard, so the F.B.I. often uses paraphrasing to calm an "agitated individual." All you do is state the other person’s perspective in your own words. It’s simple but amazingly effective. One of my issues with Tom is that I felt like he was tuning me out when we argued, so it was reassuring when he would say, "You’re upset because I scream-sneezed and woke up the kid." Yes! Exactly!
You Don’t Want To Become “The Expert”
This was me when Tom first attempted to feed our daughter solid food: Her bib is loose. Hold up, are you feeding her something besides carrots? Remember when she ate so many carrots that her face turned orange? Tom, she’s slumping in the high chair! Here, just let me do it.
This is called maternal gatekeeping, in which moms limit or control a child’s interaction with their father, and it’s incredibly annoying. It’s nerve-racking enough to fumble with the seemingly thousands of snaps on a onesie without someone hovering over you like a buzzard.
In this way, I set a trap: I gradually eroded his confidence, and then complained when he didn’t jump in.
So I opened the gate. I quit interfering. I left him alone with the kid. And as it turns out, the more agency he had, the more involved he was as a father. He arranged play dates, chaperoned school trips, went to parent teacher conferences solo. He began text-gossiping with the class moms.
Have The World’s Most Boring But Necessary Meeting
As many experts told me, when you have a baby, you effectively have a brand new relationship. So we approached chores by starting from scratch — and took a page from same-sex couples. A 2015 survey by the Families and Work Institute found that same-sex couples divvied up chores more fairly, according to personal preference, whereas straight couples tended to slide back into tired old traditional gender roles.
One afternoon, we sat down together, went through all our chores with a fresh eye, and split everything anew. (Writing it all down also highlighted the giant disparity between our workloads.)
Who knew that he liked vacuuming? Meanwhile, I get a demented satisfaction from cleaning the bathroom and taking out the trash. Tom took on full laundry duty, which I hated, while I signed up for grocery shopping (I like looking at food.) Our meeting was one of the most boring afternoons I’ve had in a long time, but switching things up prevented a lot of tension later on.
Now I protect my leisure time just like Tom does ... I make lunch reservations with friends. He takes the kid.
And it was important for our daughter to see Tom doing the laundry, because research shows she is forming direct expectations of how her guy or gal will treat her when she grows up (this really hit home with Tom.) Having your child see Dad do chores is no small thing: a 2014 study published in Psychological Science found that fathers who fairly split household duties tend to have more ambitious daughters whose aspirations soar beyond stereotypically "feminine" careers.
Aim Higher Than Peeing Alone
A 2015 BabyCenter survey found that while millennial parents are putting a higher priority on parenthood than earlier generations did, millennial moms are still careful to build in "me time." To which I say: good on you, millennial moms, for not believing the ideal mother must be endlessly self-sacrificing — a myth I bought into during the first few years of my daughter’s life. All my interests dribbled away because I rarely left the house: what if she needed me to cut up some strawberries?
But when you meet a friend for coffee or go for a run, you not only avoid burnout, but you’re actually modeling good behavior for your children, who absorb that moms deserve to have a little leisure time, too. Plus, it can help your marriage: researchers from the University of Texas at Austin found that people who maintained ties with even a few close friends or family members had much lower levels of stress when they fought with their spouse.
'Wait, you’re grabbing my boobs now, while I’m loading the dishwasher?'
So I stopped feeling guilty. New York time-management expert Barbara Reich told us to have a quick meeting every Friday going into the weekend and block off time for each family member so that everyone’s needs are met. (I know, again with the meetings, but as she put it, “systems work.”)
Now I protect my leisure time just like Tom does. I book a fitness classes and prepay it. I make lunch reservations with friends. He takes the kid.
Reach Out, Even If You’re "Touched Out"
It’s hard to muster up desire when you’re exhausted, leaking fluid from various body parts, and have had small, sticky hands glomming onto you all day. But how about trying for sex once a week? As it happens, that’s the ideal for maximum wellbeing, according to a study of over 30,000 adults. If participants had any more action than that, their happiness actually leveled off (and that finding, by the way, held true for both men and women, and was consistent no matter how long they had been together).
Several experts told me that while scheduling sex may not seem particularly sexy, it breaks up a common pattern among straight couples in which he initiates, and she shuts him down (“wait, you’re grabbing my boobs now, while I’m loading the dishwasher?”).
Being mindful of ways we could thank each other got us in the habit of looking for the good in each other, rather than repeatedly confirming the bad.
And nonsexual touching, several experts told me, is just as important for fried new parents to maintain a connection, and can prompt the flow of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone.” Give his shoulder a squeeze. Hold hands or sling your legs over his while you’re watching TV.
You Get What You Get, & You Don’t Get Upset
Researchers from the University of Georgia found that what sets apart marriages that last from those that don’t is not necessarily how often couples argue, but how they treat each other on a daily basis. And expressions of gratitude, they found, were the “most consistent significant predictor of marital quality.” The power of a simple thank you is huge, even if it means that sometimes you’re scraping a little: "Hey, thanks for heading off a meltdown with the old 'diaper as a hat' gag. Good one." And being mindful of ways we could thank each other got us in the habit of looking for the good in each other, rather than repeatedly confirming the bad.
After our yearlong effort, I am happier, Tom is happier, and so is our child. A New York therapist named Guy Winch told us to think of our relationship as a third entity, with its own needs, and to regularly ask ourselves: what are we doing for our marriage? That was a game-changer for us. My parents, who have been happily wed for 55 years, always told me that a long-term relationship is “work,” which bugged me because it sounded so dreary. I’d think: love should be spontaneous, organic, free! Now I know that OK, yes, it does take work.
Yet again, we have a brand-new relationship. But this one I like.
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