So today I wanted to spend a little time talking about conflict resolution. It’s well known that marriage is full of ups and downs, but the intensity of the downs after a new baby arrives often comes as a surprise to new parents. I know it did for me! In the months leading up to my daughter’s birth, I’d say we had never been closer. We were on this journey together and it was exciting and unknown and we spent all of our time doing fun things - planning and decorating the nursery, taking a baby-moon to Miami, buying clothes and supplies and just plain dreaming. And then she came, and I was sleep deprived, having all sorts of complications from the delivery, alone at home all day - and just mad at everyone - especially my husband Kris. On his end, he was also sleep deprived, away from his new baby all day and feeling the pressures of being the sole bread winner for the family. The constant bickering ensued and began to wear us both down.
Our experience is not a novel one though. Over the years, I’ve polled my friends and family, completed trainings on relationships and communication, reviewed the academic research and worked with many families to help them with exactly this issue. In fact, it’s pretty widely accepted that the first few years of parenthood are some of the most challenging of years for marriage -with marital satisfaction dropping to an all time low in the year after the first child is born. It makes sense - everyone - no matter the particulars of the situation -is exhausted, stressed, and pulled way too thin.
During this time, it is common – and completely natural - for couples to fight more frequently. As I mentioned in episode 2, the sleep deprivation that often comes with a new baby tends to lead to more conflict and less ability to resolve that conflict in a healthy way. And, starting a family or adding a new baby comes with new identities, new family roles, and shifting relationship responsibilities. Each of these needs to be processed and adapted to - ideally together. Add in the sleep deprivation, healing from childbirth, and lack of sex...and it can all feel overwhelming, desperate and so frustrating....almost as though you and your marriage are falling apart at the seams.
But all is not lost. When approached in a healthy - and head on way, the ensuing conflict and disagreements can actually work in your favor. Of course, all couples fight. But happy couples have a way of embracing their conflict and everyday disagreements instead of pushing them aside. They often use fights as an opportunity to work together, to find a solution and to move forward - while also maintaining respect for each other. They are a team. An approach and pattern that leads to a major strengthening in their marriage over time.
This type of approach to disagreements is not out of your reach either - no matter how much it may feel that way. It’s actually a quite simple formula and a few easy steps can alter your marriage and the ability to resolve conflict peacefully with your partner - forever. I’m going to walk you through the ultimate game plan to tackle the disagreements - and to maximize your marriage’s potential:
Set a time and place for discussion
Ok, so first - when something comes up you want to set a time and a place for discussion with your partner. . With a baby or small children around, it can be hard to find time to talk things over, but whisper yelling over a sleeping baby after a long day isn’t going to benefit any of you. Trust me, I’ve tried. When a conflict arises or you start to notice yourself feeling a certain way, hit pause and schedule a time and place when you can both be fully present. When the time arrives, and if you’re not completely on edge, pour a glass of wine or hot tea and take a moment to reconnect before beginning the conversation.
Define the problem
Once you’ve found the time to sit down and talk, then you’ll want to clearly identify and define the problem. What is going on? Be as specific and concrete as possible. Take a moment for both of you to share your opinion about whatever it is. For instance, let’s say you are exhausted and feel like you’re taking the brunt of the overnight work with your new baby. Express this frustration by using concrete examples. Did you ask for help one night and it wasn’t given? Or, do you feel as though you can’t ask for help? Explore your thoughts in detail. Then, give your partner your full attention and listen as he or she talks through their side of the story.
Next, Discuss how each of you contribute to the issue
Work together to determine how each of you may be contributing to the issue. Let’s take the example from before and assume that you’re frustrated with handling all of the night wakings on your own. Your role could be that you haven’t made your needs clear or aren’t asking for help. Or, it could be that you’ve been reluctant to let others care for the baby or to introduce a bottle, so you're left having to be the one who feeds the baby. Brainstorm each of your roles and how you have contributed to the issue together. Keep it current. Throughout this step it’s important to stay in the moment, focus on just the one particular issue you’re discussing and do your best to not get defensive. It’s way too easy to do, but it will get you nowhere! Remember that each partner has a role in every conflict. It’s important to reflect honestly about what yours is in order to find a solution that works best for you and your family.
Identify 5 possible solutions
Identify 5 possible solutions. Ok, so once it’s all out on the table then next you’re going to Brainstorm together and identify several possible solutions that you can discuss further. It’s important not to give this too much thought just yet. You want to think of all possible solutions - even seemingly crazy ideas that may not work at all. Try not to judge your partners ideas either. You want it all out there. So again, following the example from before, if you are exhausted and frustrated that you’re handling all of the night wakings on your own and you’re nursing, then you could start to introduce your baby to a bottle so your partner could take over one of the feedings. Or, you could take turns with your partner so that you each get a full night of sleep a few times a week. It’s important to be open and non-judgmental during this phase. Identify as many solutions as possible so that you can discuss each one together.
Discuss each solution idea
Ok, so now that you’ve developed multiple possible solutions, it’s time to review each one together. Go down the list and take turns expressing your opinion about each and every solution. Listen to your partner and encourage them to really listen to you. Sometimes the idea you thought was crazy is actually worth a shot. Again, it’s super important to try to be as objective as possible but you also want to discuss how each one may or may not be effective in helping alleviate the identified problem.
Choose your solution together
Finally, it’s time to choose your solution together. Once you’ve taken the time to thoroughly discuss each possibility, it may be obvious which one will work best for you as a family. If not, start by eliminating ones that you both agree will not work and then continue to discuss the remaining options until you’ve compromised and agreed on one solution to try. If you are stuck, remember that it doesn’t have to be the only solution - and that there will be time to re-evaluate later.
Which brings me to - Set time and date for re-evaluation
Everything in marriage and parenthood is fluid. Acknowledging this upfront makes it easier to continue the conversation and prevent additional issues from arising down the line. Just like with children, what works today may not work tomorrow. So make sure that you set a time and place in the future to meet again and re-evaluate if the solution you have chosen is still working for your family. Many couples I’ve worked with will agree to bi-weekly or monthly “family meetings” in order to keep the lines of communication open.
Using these simple steps will help set your marriage up to tackle anything - big or small - that comes your way. Make sure you print out your own PDF version of the guide (linked below) so you can share easily with your partner and always have it ready when you need it.
Disclaimer: Although Jennifer Howard is a licensed therapist, this podcast - or any information listed on this site - is not a substitute for therapy. If you are experiencing symptoms of postpartum or perinatal mental health disorders, please seek assistance from your local emergency room or schedule an appointment with a therapist licensed in your state. Postpartum Support International also has a wealth of information and local support for new parents. You can call their Helpline (1-800-944-4773) or text (503-894-9453) anytime for support.
Jennifer Howard, LPC, CLC, CHBE
A licensed therapist and pediatric sleep expert shares her infant and toddler sleep & maternal mental health expertise through weekly solo shows and interviews.