PART III: Couple & Co-Parent Conflict
In conversations with new parents, one of the topics that often gets overlooked (and hidden) is the shock that the transition to parenthood can have on the couple. Some couples do transition to co-parents seamlessly, but more often than not, there is an enormous amount of stress associated with this shift, and growing pains to navigate.
[Before diving in, I want to acknowledge and honor that people (individuals and couples) enter into parenthood in a myriad of ways; for the purposes of this post, I am focusing on couples that have been together as romantic partners prior to becoming parents.]
As if the addition of a tiny human wasn’t stressful enough, the transition from partners to co-parents can be one of the most fraught, and often deprioritized. Suddenly, you now have two relationships to foster – your romantic one, and your co-parent one. (There is an upcoming post on the romantic relationship post-baby, stay tuned!)
Often, in times of transition we experience a spike in stress, depression, anxiety and conflict. This applies to everything from moving to a new city to losing a job, and even losing a loved one. Transitions are some of the hardest things we go through as humans – and frequently, we have trouble navigating the new environment we find ourselves in. Couples can have it particularly hard – as each parent attempts to navigate the demands of parenthood for themselves, they also have to simultaneously make that adjustment as a team. As you can imagine, or you have already experienced, this new territory (plus sleep deprivation) can create the perfect storm for couple conflict.
Why is it important to minimize couple conflict?
While I think most of us can agree that fighting with our spouse is generally unpleasant (and unwanted), we may not have enormous incentive to change our behavior and curb our conflict. Conflict doesn’t just impact our marital satisfaction and mental health, it also impacts our physical wellbeing. There is research linking hostile couple conflict with heart disease, and a slower rate of healing. (Dunn, 55). If that isn’t incentive enough, we have learned that children, even our babies, react negatively to conflict.
Researchers at the University of Oregon were able to conclude that infants as young as six months old react negatively to angry argumentative voices (Dunn, 23). According to Julie and John Gottman, children three to six years old believe that they are the cause of their parents fighting, and children ages six to eight tend to pick sides between parents during conflict (Gottman). In fact, psychologists have found that the day after a conflict, mothers are better able to compartmentalize and return to normal parenting mode with their children, whereas fathers had a much harder time returning to family life, therefore impacting their relationship with their children. They found that the conflict between parents often spilled over for the father, and resulted in friction between him and the children even days after the fight (Dunn, 24).
So, what does this mean for childhood development? Researchers from Notre Dame found that kindergarteners whose parents fought frequently were more likely to suffer from depression and anxiety, and struggle with behavioral issues by the time they reached seventh grade (Dunn, 24). Babies raised in unhappy marriages have shown a plethora of developmental problems, from delayed speech and potty training to inability to self-soothe (Gottman).
It is unrealistic to assume that you and your partner will never fight. In fact, it would be a disservice to your children if you never showed them conflict at all. Think about it as an opportunity to be on your best behavior to show your children that people can be mad and still love each other. Those two things can certainly co-exist, but the important part is to model fair fighting.
Tips for fair fighting & Reducing Conflict:
1. Active Listening Techniques (Dunn, 72-76)
1. Emotion Labeling – helping to name your partner’s emotions (if you see frustration, you might say – “you seem frustrated”); naming and validating these emotions can take the person from a purely emotional state to a more reflective, rational state (Dunn, 73).
2. Paraphrasing – simply restating your partner’s message in your own words; this tells them that you are listening and absorbing what they are sharing with you.
3. Offering minimal encouragement – this is offering either non-verbal nods, or verbal “mhms” and “yeahs” in order to convey to your partner that you are still tracking them while they speak.
4. Asking open-ended questions – The goal is to avoid yes or no questions but to give your partner more space to share; you can do this by saying “can you tell me more about that?” or “I didn’t understand what you meant by that, but I’d like to. Can you help me by explaining further?” (Dunn, 75).
5. Using “I” Messages – The “I” message allows you to share your feelings in a less provocative manner. Rather than saying “You are always late!” you could try “I feel so frustrated when you’re late because …”
2. What NOT to do – Gottman’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Gottman, )
1. Criticism – insults, using phrases like “you always…” or “you never…”
2. Defensiveness – counterattacking, whining, denying responsibility
3. Stonewalling – freezing out your partner and shutting down mid conversation; 85% of stonewallers are men because they tend to become so overwhelmed by conflict that their limbic system shuts them down, unable to take in new information (and leaves their partner in the lurch.)
4. Contempt – cynicism, attacking your partner’s character, eye-rolling, mocking, and sarcasm(!)
3. Take a time out
Sometimes, conflicts can just become too overwhelming and out of control. If you are “deadlocked” – take a break. Gottman found that it takes approximately 30 minutes for the chemicals released during a conflict to exit the body. After this time, come back together and try discussing the topic with some of the included tools (Gottman).
4. If all else fails: here is a helpful script (courtesy of Julie & John Gottman and Jancee Dunn)
[Share hidden soft emotion, like hurt/sad/betrayed/isolated] when [describe what happened without blame]. Then, [State your need clearly]. [admit your role in the conflict] and [accept influence]. Finally, [repair.]
For example -
[share soft emotion] I felt hurt when [what happened without blame] our childcare plans fell through last minute and I was left to figure it out by myself since you were out of town. [ask for what you need] I need you to help me set up childcare and backup options so that the burden isn’t entirely on me. [admit your role] I was already stressed when this happened, so I totally acknowledge that I lost my cool with you. [accept influence] I trust your ability to help choose babysitters so I would love your input. [repair] I’m sorry I lost my temper when we discussed this before and I’m hopeful we can get through this together.
Sources & Resources:
Dunn, Jancee. How not to hate your husband after kids. Little, Brown and Company, 2018
Gottman, John M., and Julie Schwartz. Gottman. And Baby Makes Three: the Six-Step for Preserving Martial Intimacy and Rekindling Romance after Baby Arrives. Three Rivers Press, 2007.
Gottman, John M. and Silver, Nan. The seven principles for making marriage work. Cassell Illustrated, 2018.