Why New Parents Fight More & What Birth Professionals Can Do About It

by Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC

Newsflash: 9 in 10 couples report a drop in relationship satisfaction after their first baby is born. Many say the drop is steep. Plus, conflicts increase exponentially.

If you work with new parents, or have children, this information is old news. While babies might enhance relationships by deepening our connection with spouses, parenthood often loosens even the best of bonds. It’s not uncommon for new parents to feel disconnected from partners, resentful and short-tempered.

I’m likely preaching to the choir in this post, so bear with me as I list three of the many factors that account for increased conflict. I’ll then provide a few tips on how to help your clients cope. I welcome your input on additional reasons why new parents fight, so please add those to the Comments.

  • Interrupted and insufficient sleep: This one’s a no-brainer. Literally. When we don’t get enough sleep, our cognitive and other abilities are impaired, e.g., we’re less able to make rational decisions and remain calm under stress; we’re more accident-prone and physically inept. Plus, there’s a bidirectional connection between relationships and sleep: The better we sleep, the happier our relationships; the poorer our sleep, the more convinced we are that our relationships suck. The reverse is also true: We sleep better if we’re in strong relationships and worse if not. So if we have an infant and we’re fighting with spouses, we enter a vicious cycle of sleep and relationship challenges.
  • Steep learning curve: Despite the popular belief that having babies is a wholly natural and instinctual process, for many parents—moms as well as dads—childcare is filled with as many daunting and terrifying tasks as wondrous ones. Learning new skills can be seamless—e.g., some babies latch on easily—or challenging—e.g., others don’t. Plus, what’s easy for one parent might be hard for another. Whatever the skill in question, crankiness and being argumentative are common responses to feeling inept or afraid.
  • Failed expectations: Research shows that a new mom’s relationship satisfaction is tied to her pre-birth expectations of her husband’s childcare and housework. The wider the gap between what she expected and what she thinks he is or isn’t doing postpartum, the greater her dissatisfaction. Failed expectations often breed resentment and resentment easily dovetails into conflict. (Thus far, studies about postpartum expectations focus on heterosexual couples.^)

How can birth professionals help new parents navigate these challenges? Here are 3 tips to help your clients, and you, ease postpartum conflict*:

  • Normalize: As simple as it sounds, normalizing heightened conflict between new parents can ease their distress and, sometimes, lessen the frequency and intensity of fighting. Let your clients know that fighting more and a drop in relationship happiness are unfortunate yet very common aspects of having a baby. For a lot of couples they’re also temporary. *
  • Advocate Sleep: Parents usually seek help from sleep consultants for their baby’s slumber, yet they ‘re in dire need of adult-focused sleep advice postpartum. Help parents understand why sleep is crucial to their whole family’s wellbeing. Paint the big picture for key baby-care decisions, e.g., whether or not to breastfeed exclusively in the first 1-3 months, to opt for the family bed, to nest or accept assistance from loved ones. Depending on the couple, each choice can support health in some areas and threaten it in others, e.g., breastfeeding exclusively (meaning, without pumping/bottle-feeding) is a boon to attachment parenting for moms, but also increases moms’ sleep deprivation and potentially delays or supersedes dads’/partners’ attachment bonds. When parents don’t understand the big picture, they sometimes fail to make informed decisions. Help parents make choices that are right, or most right, for them.
  • Set Expectations: If you work with expecting couples, encourage them to talk about postpartum expectations regarding childcare and housework before the baby arrives. And help them articulate how they want to be with each other if their expectations aren’t met. If you solely work with clients postpartum, and sense that failed expectations are an issue, normalize the “disconnect” between what they expected and what transpired. Our fantasies about parenthood and reality are, often, different.

Encourage couples to share their expectations of themselves in terms of the division of labor and then of each other. If you’re comfortable doing so, help them home in, so to speak, on where their expectations diverge. Let’s say mom thinks dad isn’t changing diapers as often as expected. Ask dad if he’s willing to shift toward mom’s expectations by 10% or 20% and, if so, how he can do so? If he won’t budge, ask mom if there’s another way dad can help ease her burden by 10% or 20% and see if he’ll agree. Sometimes, allowing spouses to shift behaviors incrementally helps ease resentment and inspires more teamwork.

There are more ways to help reduce conflict among new parents, including for professionals to become more familiar with your own conflict triggers so you can stay calm when your clients are agitated and resist being drawn into their battles. While I hope to provide more strategies in another post, or an IMPI course, I also know that many readers are seasoned professionals who possess effective tools for dealing with postpartum conflict. Please share your tips in the Comments.

 About Rhona

Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC helps parents stay sane and stay together. She also assists expecting couples prep their relationships for a baby and supports birth and parenting professionals better serve families. To learn more about Rhona, visit www.parentalliance.com.

 

^ At least one research study indicates that, on average, lesbian parents fight less frequently about childcare and housework than straight parents.

* Please note: Sometimes conflict is so frequent or intense that it’s best to refer couples to a trained professional, like a seasoned relationship coach or therapist. If you suspect verbal and/or physical abuse, or if one or both spouses struggle with addiction, refer out to a qualified therapist/counselor. If only one spouse is willing to seek professional help, encourage him/her to do so ASAP, for their own sake and the sake of their child/ren.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of  the International Maternity and Parenting Institute.

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