Becoming parents changes the dynamics in almost all our relationships, but the biggest shocker for many couples is how it impacts their previously peaceful partnership. Due to the physical and emotional stress of your new parenting lifestyle, you may find yourself bickering more with your partner at a time when what you really desire is to share the closeness and wonder that you feel for your new baby. Or maybe the two of you barely see each other anymore as you juggle the schedules of working and being home to support this new little being.
Rest assured, if you feel like your relationship with your partner (or anyone who helps you with baby, if you are a single parent) is going downhill since having your baby, you are not alone. In fact research shows that two thirds of couples feel less satisfied in their relationship in the first year of parenting.
The good news is, relationship research has come a long way. Neuroscience has shown us just how essential relationships are, especially in the first three years, for your baby’s brain development, social skills, sense of security, and learning about how things work in this world. The quality of your relationship with your parenting partner has a direct effect on how you parent, and on your child’s development. Studies have found that when the parent relationship is in distress:
- Parents have more difficulty coordinating with each other
- Parent-child interactions are more negative
- Infants withdraw from their fathers
- Children are less physically healthy and get sick more often
- Children are at risk of developing mental health or behavioral problems
- Children do less well in school
One of the best things you can do for your baby is strengthen your relationship with your parenting partner. And luckily, the 35 years of research done by Dr. John Gottman, looking at thousands of couples, was able to narrow down exactly which skills will predict success in your relationships. Not only are these great skills for couples, but they also are wonderful guidelines for developing a great relationship with your child.
Here they are, the five biggest things you can do to ensure success in your relationships.
Bring things up nicely:
Don’t bottle things up, it is good to talk about the issues in your relationship; but be kind. Gottman’s research found that the first 3 minutes of any conflict discussion predict how the rest of the discussion will go. If issues are brought up in a harsh way, the conversation rarely recovers. But if couples can learn to use what Gottman calls “Softened Start Up”, they have a better chance of getting their point across and having a productive discussion. What does a soft start-up look like? Here are some points to remember:
- Complain, don’t blame: try to stick to the complaint in question rather than making a generalization about your partner or child’s character. For example: “I noticed you forgot to take the garbage out a few times this month. Maybe you could set a reminder in your phone?” rather than, “What is so hard about remembering the garbage every Monday? You’re so forgetful!”
- Use “I” statements and “sportscasting”: speak from your own perspective and talk about what you saw and heard and how you interpreted that rather than what you assumed your partner or child was doing. Always try to convey that you are giving your partner or child the benefit of the doubt.
- Eg: “I noticed you just walked out of the van without helping with the groceries, and I felt frustrated. Was that intentional?” (you never know, maybe they really had to pee!)
- Treat your partner or child the way you would treat a guest. Use words like “Please” and, “Would you mind” and “Thank you” and be respectful. Express appreciation for the times your partner or child has succeeded in the area you are complaining about.
Make Repairs When Things Go Badly:
Every single one of us makes mistakes with our partners and our children. Sleep deprivation, life stressors and emotional overwhelm can shorten our fuse and cause us to say and do things we regret. Happy couples and positive parents know how to make repairs. Repairs help put the brakes on when a discussion is heading down a negative path, and help lower the intensity level. Some examples of repair statements:
- I’m sorry, that came out more harshly than I intended.
- I see your point (try using “and” instead of “but” if you are following this one up)
- I think we can work this out, it’s not too serious in the big picture.
- Tell me what you hear me saying? I don’t feel like I’m getting it across as I want to.
- Let’s take a break and calm down before we talk about it more.
Kids especially are usually quick to forgive and let things go when parents are willing to say “I’m sorry.” But don’t forget to forgive yourself too! Often we hold on to our guilty feelings when we have messed up with our kids for much longer than they hold onto the hurt. Learn from your mistakes and move on. Remember, you are just a newborn parent too—give yourself a break.
Maintain a High Ratio of Positives
This is my favorite piece of Dr. Gottman’s research because it’s so darn concrete. He found that happy couples have a ratio of 20 positive interactions for every 1 negative one, and even when they are arguing they keep a 5:1 ratio of positive: negative. Every little positive thing that happens between you and your partner or you and your kids builds up that “emotional bank account” so that when the bad stuff happens, the balance is big enough to cover it. I’m talking about small things here; asking your partner what’s up when they make a tired sigh, sharing a smile over something your baby does, singing a little song while you change a diaper, taking 5 minutes to hear about someone’s day. Find little ways to make sure the people you love feel and see your care. Express your appreciation for the things they do, tell them the things you love about them, and let the hear you saying good things about them to others.
Accept Influence From Your Partner and Child
In every disagreement, there are two points of view, and usually both have something “right” about them. Try to really understand your partner’s point of view and do your best to see some validity in it. Communicate to your partner that you understand and appreciate the validity of what they are saying. In arguments we often fall into the trap of repeating our own point of view again and again, as if finally we are going to explain it and our partner will say, “Oh, I get it now! You’re right, forget what I said.” Instead, focus on understanding your partner’s point of view, and accept influence.
Gottman’s research showed that it is especially important for men to accept influence from their female partners. Research has shown that males are socialized not to accept influence from females; as young as three years old, boys at play will accept suggestions from other boys, but not from other girls, whereas girls will accept suggestions from both genders. Similarly, ideas of parental authority sometimes block us from really listening to the point of view of our small child. Being willing to listen to another helps calm them down and increases understanding as well as feelings of being honored and respected.
Honor Your Partner and Child’s Dreams
Successful partners share a vision and also honor each other’s individual goals and aspirations. Having a child can change our dreams and aspirations, and also make it harder to pursue individual goals. Frustration can occur if one partner feels their responsibilities to the family are keeping them from pursuing some of the activities that make them feel valued and keep them growing. Do you know what your partner’s dreams are? Conflict often is rooted in frustrated ideals, values, and goals. Talking about these things with your partner can help you understand where each other is coming from and find your common ground.
As parents, we all have dreams for our children, but sometimes are surprised when the child we have does not match up with the vision we had. Try to understand and accept your individual child, and look for what they need to grow and develop, rather than what you needed as a child or what you thought would be best for them.
When we look back on our lives, I truly believe it is the love and relationships we built that will bring us the most joy and gratitude. I hope some of these research based tips help you create a family that serves as a safe, happy haven for all of you.
Katy Brookes, M.A., R.C.C. is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and certified Bringing Baby Home educator with a passion for helping new parents adjust to the transition to parenthood and create a strong foundation for their family. Katy also works with individuals experiencing the symptoms of trauma, anxiety, and depression, and counsels couples, families, and people in relationships of all kinds. Her desire is to help people envision life as they want it to be, and support them to take small steps towards that vision. Katy strives to create a down to earth, relaxed counselling environment where people can truly “come as they are”, and share their stories with no judgement or pressure.
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