Bickering More After Kids?

The New York Times 2 weeks ago
Credit...Tiago Majuelos

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your spouse makes breakfast for your children while you get ready for work. When you get into the kitchen, right before you’re all supposed to leave the house, you see gobs of chalky egg yolk on the table and under the table and on the island, and the entire room smells like sulfurous death.

Because you’re over it, you possibly shoot your spouse a glare that would melt aluminum or say something cutting about the mess while you rush to clean it. Your spouse responds with a scowl, and says something like — I’m just spitballing here — “Why don’t I get any credit for making the girls breakfast every day?” Because there isn’t time to unpack this, and you’re trying to get the preschooler to stop putting stray pennies and lint in her pockets, you both leave the house mildly annoyed.

If this type of exchange feels familiar to you, you’re in good company. Squabbling — which I’m defining here as the small day-to-day skirmishes that never add up to an enormous row — is likely to increase after you have kids. The majority of couples report lower levels of marital satisfaction right after they become parents, which makes sense, since there is a whole new set of chores, responsibilities and stresses to divvy up, and rest is in short supply.

That lack of sleep is one reason couples spar, said Stephanie Wilson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Wilson has researched the relationship between sleep and marital conflict, and found that the worst case scenario for squabbling was when both partners were sleep deprived. If only one partner is exhausted, the bickering isn’t as bad.

That’s because when you don’t sleep well, it’s harder to regulate your emotional responses, which means it’s more difficult to slow down and see a situation from your partner’s point of view, Dr. Wilson said. And when both partners are extremely tired, neither can give the other grace.

In other words: Discussions are more likely to devolve into criticism and defensiveness, which is how researchers would describe that exchange about the breakfast mess, said Don Cole, a licensed marriage and family therapist with a doctorate in ministry who is the clinical director of The Gottman Institute. One spouse criticizes (“you left the kitchen a mess”), the other responds with defensiveness (“I’m doing something good, why don’t you give me credit?”).

Criticism and defensiveness are two of the four negative reactions that can put relationships in danger, Dr. Cole said. The other two reactions tend to be signs of more serious issues: contempt (when you express a lack of respect for the other person) and stonewalling (when a person stops responding at all during a conflict). At the Gottman Institute, where Dr. Cole works, criticism, defensiveness, contempt and stonewalling are known as “the four horsemen of the relationship apocalypse.” Once you start having negative interactions with your partner, Dr. Cole said, “it’s like a whirlpool” — it’s easier to enter that negative space than to exit it.

So what’s the antidote to negative conversations? Positive conversations, and more of them. Dr. John Gottman, the renowned relationship researcher and co-founder of the Gottman Institute, labeled the call and response of typical conversations “bids” and “turns” — based on the idea that responding to a “bid” for connection means deciding whether to “turn” toward or away from your partner.

You don’t need to be gushingly lovey to have a positive conversation. You just have to throw out a bid as simple as “How was your day?” or “Did you read that article?” and your partner just has to respond to you with a “turn” that’s telling you about his day, or sharing her opinion on that article. This may seem overly simplistic, but these easy gestures really help you feel connected, especially when you don’t have the time or energy to have in-depth conversations.

If you do have a problem with your spouse, though, that doesn’t mean you should keep it inside. In the case of the not at all real couple with the kitchen mess, both people could have dealt with the situation in a more positive way. If you have an issue with a messy kitchen, Dr. Cole said, you might wait until a calmer moment and get the accusatory “you” language out of it. You could talk about your own feelings and needs, saying something along the lines of: “I feel really stressed when the kitchen is messy.”

If you’re the partner who is accused of perpetrating that fetid, eggy smell, you can simply take responsibility, Dr. Cole said, and say something reparative like: “I know it frustrates you. I’ll try to give myself a few more minutes in the morning.”

After I hung up the phone with Dr. Cole, I thought about my own relationship, and how I might mend some ongoing low-stakes conflicts my husband and I have. I tend to judge the outfits he allows our daughters to wear (let’s say his definition of “pants” is more flexible than mine is). Shortly after the interview, I saw that our 3-year-old was wearing a skirt over a dress, and instead of saying something snarky, I held my tongue. It sure beats hiding old egg yolks in his pillowcase.


Want More on Relationships After Kids?

  • Sunday’s Modern Love column by Brenda Janowitz was relevant to this newsletter, and has a highly relatable headline: “He’s Never Going to Put Away That Shirt.”

  • If you’re fighting constantly right after you become parents, we have a guide for that.

  • It’s very hard to maintain intimacy after you have kids, and as our reporter Christina Caron discovered, just telling people to go on a “date night” is not the only answer.

  • Our plucky, brilliant readers also submitted their tips for keeping the romance alive in their relationships. Read them here.

  • The Gottman Institute was founded by John Gottman and his wife Julie, both psychology Ph.Ds. The pair were profiled by the Times this spring. They shared one of their “rituals of connection” — every year they ask each other: “What sucked about this year? What was good about this year? And what do you want next year to look like?”


Tiny Victories

Parenting can be a grind. Let’s celebrate the tiny victories.

My generally affable 4-year-old cries foul if anyone else wins in a game. I raced him once, won the race and intentionally fell at the end point. Instead of bawling, he comforted and congratulated me.

—Ritula Anand, Boston


Tags: Parenting

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