Raising a family can bring immense joy, but it can also bring immense pressure, which may lead to communication difficulties among partners. As precious as the early days of parenthood can be, they are defined by a steep learning curve and dramatic lifestyle shifts. Sleep deprivation, less time for yourself and each other, reduced household income, and perhaps additional, unexpected challenges, such as a baby with high support needs or postnatal depression, can easily result in increased negative interactions with your partner.
So, is it normal for you and your partner to snap at each other? This was exactly the question that Inner West Mum Sophie – whose family numbers eight kids, including newborn twins – asked in the Facebook group recently. Sophie and her partner have found themselves snapping at each other during the exhausting nights when both babies are unsettled.
I ask Sophie if she’d share a little of her recent experience here. She explains: ‘My twins are eight weeks old. Before they arrived my fiancé and I each had three kids of our own, so now we have eight altogether. They have been born into a pretty amazing family.’ The relationship is just two years old, and two weeks after the twins’ birth, Sophie’s partner proposed. Her fiancé took six weeks off work following the birth of the babies, who were premature.
Of the pressures she and her partner have faced since the arrival of the twins, Sophie says: ‘Oh, the pressures … ! First there is the expense: double the nappies, formula, and a new car too! The twins were premmie so they have needed a lot of care. Our son spent ten days in NICU, which was so hard. And of course it’s a juggling act to keep the six other kids happy!
‘It’s definitely tested us at night, but all in all we spend most of our time feeling pretty lucky,’ she says.
To gain greater insight into changes that take place in a relationship when a couple moves from two to three – or adds further children to the family – I speak to psychologist Liz Neal, an Inner West Mum and owner of Elizabeth Neal Psychology in Gladesville.
‘What I see mostly in my work,’ says Liz, ‘is that the communication style changes. When we are tired, sleep deprived, exhausted, stressed and on edge from responding to the demands of children, we become impatient in our communication with partners. There’s an urgency in getting the message across, a very real urgency in expressing strong emotions. This kickstarts a major shift in the sentiment between partners.’
There are specific pressures on a relationship when caring for a newborn, Liz explains. ‘The majority of couples come out of the birth or the first few weeks in a relative state of shock. This level of stress, mixed in with sleep deprivation, not feeling supported enough, unwanted visitors, struggles with feeding, settling and fatigue all leave partners vulnerable to conflict, especially if one partner (usually the mother) sees her partner making decisions inconsistent with what she’s needing to get on track with the baby. When a mum feels as though her partner isn’t tuning in appropriately at that time when she’s so vulnerable, a great sense of resentment can start to form – and it can stay there for years if not dealt with properly.’
It is very normal for a couple to snap at each other, says Liz. Common topics that couples argue about after having a baby include specific ways of taking care of the baby, household chores, finances, parenting, relationships with in-laws, sex, and one partner feeling that the other isn’t present enough. But, Liz argues, ‘it’s the way in which these issues are dealt with that separates “good” relationships from ones in a “bad” place, rather than the presence of these issues themselves’.
In fact, according to Liz, couples can tolerate a ratio of five to one positive to negative interactions. ‘What matters is how a couple repairs afterwards.’ She emphasises that ‘constructive repair’ is key. This means taking responsibility, showing empathy, and acknowledging what the pair should have done differently. If that level of repair is absent or avoided, or if it’s attempted in a destructive way (for example, with defensiveness), ‘the couple will stay in an emotionally disconnected place,’ she says.
Many couples find they just can’t seem to get through to each other. Liz describes this as ‘gridlocked communication’. She elaborates further: ‘When one partner raises an issue, the other feels threatened and becomes defensive, while the first person feels dismissed. The original issue is not addressed and the couple ends up arguing about the way they’re arguing, rather than the original issue. With repetition of this style of interaction, couples can start to condition this pattern and become primed for conflict.’
I ask Liz how a couple can look after each other during this intense period. ‘Turn towards each other,’ she advises. ‘Understand what the other is going through. Ask each other open-ended questions to find out what’s really going on for each other. Work as a partnership. Put boundaries in place regarding other family members. Get good, useful help when it’s needed. Lower expectations. Take things slowly. Express empathy. Talk every day. Be respectful. Remember the good stuff.’
What are the next steps if a couple feels they require counselling? Liz explains: ‘In my personal opinion, I would suggest a therapist trained in The Gottman Method. Usually one partner initially contacts me via phone or email. We make a time to get together – either individually or with both partners. Depending on the circumstances, Medicare may cover a rebate for the service – speak to your GP to see if you are eligible.’
More articles from Ginny:
Focus on Women’s Health: Childbirth Injuries
Birth Injuries: An Uncomfortable but Important Matter
Finding Peace: An Inner West Mum’s Story of Domestic Violence
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The Day Cale Met his Idol Guy Sebastian
How to Support a Friend through the Loss of a Baby
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The Milk Wars
A Big Shift: How Three Women Transformed their Careers during Motherhood
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