Why this sudden surge in marital discomfort? According to Gottman, it’s partly because parents are tired and don’t have a lot of time for themselves. Another reason is that parenting is much more work than most couples expect, and it’s easy to let the pressure come between them. Whatever the reasons, the important thing is finding a solution. After all, if there is one friend we probably take for granted more than any other, it’s our husband. And yet, no friendship is more precious, more valuable, and more important than the one we have with him.
Following are some of the most important tips I know for befriending your husband as the two of you struggle, dazed and confused, blissful and sleep-deprived, through the biggest challenge that will ever be presented to your relationship: parenthood.
Know Your Husband’s Fears: You may have had the baby, but he probably had a meltdown. “Pregnancy was nothing compared to this!” my husband blurted out just a month or so after we brought home our baby. Fatherhood is a huge adjustment for men. They may appear calm on the outside, but when a baby arrives most men feel like they’ve boarded a runaway train.
If you think you’re the only one who’s nervous at the prospect of being wholly responsible for the welfare and moral development of a living, breathing human being forever, you don’t have a clue about the sheer panic your husband is experiencing. After all, women at least come equipped to feed the precious bundle, while many new fathers are still trying to figure out how to fee themselves. The more you can tap into your husband’s feelings about being a dad —the good as well as the fearful feelings —the better your relationship will be.
To help you do this, consider some of the most commonly reported fears men have about fatherhood. One of them has to do with losing control. Your husband, for example may fear that no matter how hard he tries to protect the baby, something will go wrong. Other fears have to do with loss. Does your husband fear losing his sense of adventure or his leisure time? Many men fear that youth as they know it will end when they become dads. But perhaps the most important fear worth exploring with your husband is his potential feeling that you may love the baby more than you love him. Whatever his specific fears, it will be well worth your time to gently explore them.
Speak Your Spouse’s Language: Studies have found that if couples understand each other’s goals, worries, hopes, and fears, as well as the details of each other’s day, it protects them from a dramatic upheaval in their relationship. With that in mind, it only makes sense that you take some time to brush up on your communication skills.
1. Send clear and accurate messages. Precise statements facilitate good communication, while imprecise statements hinder it. Consider the difference between these two statements: “The way you treat me really hurts” versus “I feel hurt when I think you take all my work with the baby for granted.” The latter statement is far more likely to result in a sane conversation than the first (which is guaranteed to leave your husband clueless as to what you are referring).
2. Avoid incongruent messages. Do not send simultaneous messages with mutually exclusive meanings. How many messages are contained in the following statements? “There is nothing wrong! And I don’t want to talk about it!” Most often, those types of messages come from a statement that is not in sync with the person’s facial expression or tone of voice. When you say “I’m happy to make dinner,” but your tone and posture indicate that you are definitely not happy to do so, you are sending an incongruent message destine to cause a communication breakdown.
3. Be empathetic. Empathy can be defined as listening with your head as well as your heart to truly understand what your spouse is thinking, feeling and experiencing. Empathy involves putting yourself in your partner’s shoes and imagining what that would be like from his perspective. When your husband tells you about feeling rejected by someone at work, for example, put yourself in his position. Use your heart to imagine how you would feel if rejected. Then use your head to accurately understand if what you would be feeling is the same as what he is feeling. Every time you empathize, you will be better able to understand what your spouse is saying.
4. Be generous with supportive and positive statements. We all like to feel good about ourselves. When we give recognition to our spouse, when we compliment his accomplishments, and when we reassure him of how important he is to us, we not only make him feel better, we build a stronger foundation for communication. When we feel supported and are supportive, many of the other basic communication skills fall more naturally into place.
Sharing the Parenting Load: One of the most important things couples can do is share the parenting load together. Research has found that successful couples, those couples who do not experience a significant drop in marital satisfaction after their first baby, share parenting responsibilities more equally. This means that dads need to pitch in on baby care. One of the best ways to have this happen is to let your husband know how important his help is to you. And when he does help, affirm the job he is doing. Your affirmation will do more than just about anything to help you hold onto your friendship with him.
Consider His Approach to Bringing Up Baby: Conflict inevitably arises when you and your husband have radically, or even slightly different approaches to caring for your child. To maintain the marriage you want it is essential to sidestep the “my way is better than yours” approach to parenting. In many homes, this problem arises because the mother thinks it’s her job to take complete control on the child-rearing front. The typical result: Mom elbows Dad out of the child-rearing chores and takes on too much herself, then begins to resent her husband for not doing his part. Dad, meanwhile, is building up a lot of resentment for being left out. It’s a vicious cycle that drives couples apart and shatters romance.
One way to avoid such conflict is to make sure your husband gets some time alone with the baby. That may not always be easy —for Dad or Mom—but it’s often worth the extra effort. Even when Baby John was a few months old, I made it a point to find special activities that my husband and he could do that did not involve me. That way I couldn’t nitpick, and it allowed me to gain more confidence in my husband’s ability to handle John on his own (not to mention the time it gave me to do something for myself).
Let Him Know You Remember Your Sex Life: Okay. So you’ve been pawed, sucked, pinched, and gummed all day [by your baby]. The last thing on your mind is sex. Too bad. You’re not the only one in this marriage. Not that you should completely set aside your own desires and become hot-to-trot in a new negligee each night between making baby bottles and changing diapers on less than three consecutive hours of sleep. But in case you haven’t noticed, your husband’s sex drive, in spite of the same lack of sleep, hasn’t diminished since your baby came home.
Now, if he’s relatively sensitive, he knows you’re not thinking about sex. Maybe he hasn’t even mentioned it. But he’s thinking about it, you can be assured of that. And all he really needs is a sign, some small signal that allows him to keep hope alive.
One of a husband’s greatest fears after becoming a father is that sex as he remembers it is over. Kaput! Gone! He wonders if you will ever again be the creature that invites romantic play. He wonders if you’ll now forever be so tired that your bed is used only for sleep. Each time you kiss and hug your baby, then look to your husband and say, “Could you hand me a diaper and some wipes?” he wonders if even a semblance of your sex life will ever get back on track. So talk to him. Let him know you are still attracted to him. Tell him you’re looking forward to a chance when you can be more romantic. Flirt with him once in a while —without being only a tease.
Remain a Couple: One of the biggest mistakes most new parents make is to neglect the things they did as a couple before they were parents. The only topic of daily conversation has to do with everything baby: from the child’s spit-up and drool to his each and every move. Have you fallen into this hazardous trap? Since you became parents, have you forgotten you were partners?
After Baby John was born, I’ll never forget the first time my husband and I felt once again like a couple. One evening, many weeks into the venture of parenthood, John fell asleep a little earlier than usual. We popped some popcorn, stuck a new-released video into the VCR, propped our feet up, and snuggled on the couch. I don’t think either of us stayed awake until the end of the movie, but that didn’t matter. It was the gesture, the message we were sending to ourselves that mattered: “We are still a couple, and our life will go on as a couple.”
Since then, we’ve learned to set aside one evening out of our week where the baby-sitter comes in and we go out as a couple. If you’re not doing something that helps you keep your couple hood together —if it seems that this week that will send a different message to your husband.
Celebrate in Small Ways: Parenting a preschooler can seem like a hundred-hour workweek. Some day you can barely keep your wits together, even with the help of Extra Strength Tylenol. But in the midst of baby-proofing electrical outlets, racing to the store to pick up more formula, phoning your child’s pediatrician to reschedule a follow-up appointment, and slathering your child with sunscreen, you can find joy.
A deep, abiding sense of well-being surges in moments when you realize that you and your husband have created a life together. And that joy, so indescribable, is meant to be shared. Don’t neglect the small celebrations, the momentary merriment that is a gift to every parent. Share these times, these feelings, with your husband. Bring him into your joyful heart. It’s too easy and too costly to assume he knows how happy you are. Your small celebrations will go a long way toward helping the two of you walk the parenting path not just as friends, but as soul mates.
The above article came from the book, If You Ever Needed Friends, It’s Now, written by Leslie Parrott, one of the little books for Busy Moms published by Zondervan Publishing House. In this book Leslie Parrott shows you how you can learn to nurture great friendships, find fellowship with other mothers, and make sure that friendship doesn’t end up at the bottom of your list.