Dr. Burford is a Christian minister practicing science-based couples therapy through Couples Therapy Inc. He works with all couples with a specialization on couples wanting a biblical perspective. This post originally appeared on his blog.
Research by The Gottman Institute (TGI)—the leading scientific authority on marriage and relationships—shows a 67% decrease in relationship satisfaction once a baby is added to the home. That’s the bad news. The good news is that this is not inevitable. There are practices and principles that can help you maintain the good feeling you had before kids, and even as your tribe grows.
My wife and I are leaders for TGI’s Bringing Baby Home® program. It normalizes the effects of parenthood on marriage and articulates research-verified practices by which mom and dad can maintain a healthy relationship even as they strive to raise healthy children. Among the findings are these:
A philosophical shift. Becoming a parent changes one’s self-concept, behaviors, and interactions with others, including one’s spouse. Regardless of a couple’s philosophy prior to having children, once little ones arrive, research shows that gender roles tend to skew in a traditional direction. Allow for this natural shift for yourself, for your partner, and for your partnership. We don’t know anything until we’ve experienced it; our philosophical ideas about life, meaning, identity, purpose and roles can’t but be affected by this profound experience of parenthood. Be willing to challenge or even change ideas in light of this new experience.
Relationship changes. Mismatched priorities, misunderstandings and conflicts increase, sex and intimacy decline perhaps for a year, and conversations between partners become more stressful, therefore tapering off in frequency. Expect this and improve healthy communication skills to mitigate them. Prioritize each other and the relationship, like you used to. Increase patience, grace, kindness, helpfulness, respect and tangible ways of being there for each other, even more than you used to.
Fathers withdrawal. Often, fathers withdrawal from their wife, from the baby, from both, and perhaps from the home. This may be because they feel superfluous, or that their efforts to help are rejected, overridden, or corrected; they give up. They may retreat to work or otherwise busy themselves elsewhere to reduce conflict, leading to resentment on the part of both partners—he feeling cast out and she feeling left to parent alone. Give each other grace in this experience that is new to both of you. Maintain a sense of humor at your wobbly efforts to parent. Instead of criticizing or attacking each other for doing things differently, come together against what you’re both striving to figure out. Give each other the benefit of the doubt that you’re each doing your best. Affirm good intent and voice appreciation whenever you can. Positive encouragement and affirmation are the best change agents.
Physical and psychological changes. Sleep deprivation leads to exhaustion and situational depression, if not postpartum depression. Moms may feel overly-touched and have less desire for physical touch with their partner. There is a tendency for relational distance, or inversely, an increased neediness for help and closeness. You’re not going crazy; you’ve become parents. Take care of each other. Kindly let each other know what you need for self-care; expect and accept that those needs may be different—even contradictory. Yield to each other’s needs. Show appreciation for the other’s efforts and let each other know what has helped. Keep updated as needs evolve. And don’t neglect the third “person” that exists among you, which is the marriage. A living being itself, needing time, attention, space, and nurture, like the baby.
The above changes may not have been anticipated and may not be welcome, but understand that they are normal. You’re not doing it wrong. You aren’t bad parents or bad spouses. And, as noted, the good news is there are some ways of managing these stressors in order that the blessing of a child also be a blessing to your marriage.
Stress results from, among other things, a multitude of factors demanding our time or attention or energy or margin or money or space or hands or all of the above, maybe all at once. Stress is like being pushed to the edge of a cliff; we feel our heels slipping over. Along with the gratitude and joy of having a newborn comes an unfamiliar new normal in search of a routine, sleep deprivation, postpartum hormonal adjustments—if not postpartum depression—uncertainty as a new parent, welcome and unwelcome influencers, 24/7 concern for this dependent life, added daily tasks, new messes in new places with new smells, new disagreements with the high stake of the child’s well-being, drastically-reduced time for self-care.
My children are grown now, but throughout our marriage and parenting years, I kept going back to school to earn another degree, or to change careers, or to gain another certification. All good things. But all of them drew from the limited time and opportunities I had to “be there” for my wife and my kids in big and little ways that form secure attachment. What benefitted me and my family academically and professionally cost us relationally. Relationships can’t be put on hold; they don’t fare well without time and attention any more than plants do well without water and sunlight. It’s a cost every family has to weigh. I chose to pursue what I pursued, aware of the price I was paying in both directions. My wife supported those endeavors and worked, as well, in jobs that allowed her to be with the kids. I fiercely defended family time by being home for dinner and play time and bed time, and staying up late to study and to work. My studies suffered as a result, but I wouldn’t trade that time with my young children for better written papers and a higher GPA, nor for a higher income. And my relationship with my kids suffered for the time I was away in class or at work. But that is part of being a provider for my family, so I wouldn’t have traded that, either. It’s a balance we all face. The trick is doing it with awareness of the cost we’re paying in both directions and paying the cost purposefully, on our terms.
Another potential casualty of the time and energy drain brought on by stress is—as referenced before—the third “person” that was there before baby… the relationship. The marriage relationship is an entity of its own, with its own needs. Twenty-first century culture, even without a baby, can steal time, energy, and nurture from a romantic relationship that it needs to survive. The blessing of a baby can add to the romantic connection, but also draw time and energy away from it. Back when a couple was dating, that “person”—the couple’s relationship—got plenty of time, attention and nurture. After school or work obligations, the relationship was our primary focus. When we were dating, many of us had a more limited agenda; there was plenty of time to have fun and enjoy each other. There were ample opportunities make and accept bids for connection. We went out of our way to protect those opportunities. We said, “No” to other things. There was a prioritization of time together; the dating couple was "there for each other" like they were for no one else. Nothing challenges that prioritization like children, whose needs are constant; the needs for their parents to be “there for them” is endless. The risk is that in being attentive parents, partners can become inattentive spouses.
I have had many couples come to me for marriage counseling once their children are teenagers or young adults. They often state right out of the gate that they’d lost connection with each other over the years as they poured themselves into the kids. This understandable gradual disconnection might have been further expedited by career advancement, pursuit of further education, commitment to sports, time-consuming interests, or stress-reducing means of coping (numbing?), which took the couple away from each other physically and/or mentally. All of these are natural; they come with life in its unfolding stages. The challenge is to continue to feed the child we began with (the couple relationship) even after children come along.
Again, think of the marriage as a child, needing its own time, attention, nurture, feeding, rest, comfort, and interaction, as much as our other children. When a second child comes along, we don’t stop feeding the first. We don’t tell the first child that now that their baby brother or sister has arrived, there’s no time for them; that they have to fend for themselves. We may feel at times that it would be convenient to do so, but we do not. We know the older child or children need our time, as well. We are attentive to them while the baby is feeding; we play with them during the baby’s nap time; we get them outside to run and play with the baby in a carrier or stroller or on a monitor; we read to them after the baby is in bed for the night. The marriage, likewise…
Well, that’s where the metaphor can fall apart, isn’t it? Unlike the third or fourth child we wouldn’t neglect, our partner (and seemingly our marriage) is an adult. They can fend for themselves, or so it seems. But marriages are like any living thing; they need food and oxygen, spelled in marriage: time, positive interaction, protection, assistance, nurture, comfort, love, respect, affection, and romance. With them, they thrive; without them, they die.
Marriages even need their own counselor. While it is true that healthy marriages are most likely to result when there are two well-adjusted partners, individual counseling will not necessarily improve a marriage; in fact; it can worsen it. This is because the “one” needing counsel is not the individual, but the pair. The dyad has feelings and needs and habits and developmental stages and challenges and opportunities and impaired insights and adaptive and maladaptive patterns of its own. Among the reasons that individual therapy does not automatically improve a marriage is that individual counseling is self-focused; it’s about me. Couples counseling is other-focused; it helps me understand you and us. Personal therapy is about self-protection and self-nurture; couples therapy is about other-protection and the protective nurture of the relationship. Counseling for oneself is in service to self-actualization; to process one’s past in pursuit of a healthy and satisfying future. Counseling for the couple is to process the intersection of our pasts in our relationship patterns, in search of a way to live together that is mutually satisfying and healthy.
I use the word “protect” a lot because the oneness formed by marriage is a fragile oneness. It needs protection, lest stresses cause it to disintegrate, or lest outside forces prevail against it. Marriages—like newborns and growing children—need the protective nurture of the adults involved.
There is an illustration often used in couples therapy, called, “The Cycle.” Dr. Sue Johnson is credited with its inception; Dr. Scott Woolley and others have added to it. The Cycle combines Emotionally Focused Therapy and Attachment (relationship) Theory to illustrate a couples’ “self-defensive cycle” or “self-protective cycle.” It helps a couple look at their conflicts as a pattern that grows out of attachment needs (met and unmet in childhood, in life, and in the couple’s relationship) and connected to primary emotions (peace, joy, fear, sadness, shame, hurt, loneliness, etc.) that emerge from those attachment needs. Disagreements, misunderstandings, regrettable interactions and conflicts can trigger wounds related to unmet attachment needs. The effectiveness of The Cycle lies in its ability to help a couple articulate their deep primary emotions stemming from attachment needs, rather than responding to surface-level secondary emotions like frustration, irritation, annoyance, jealousy, feeling like a victim, or sometimes anger (when relationally triggered). The Cycle provides a tool by which partners can identify and voice their primary feelings sparked by an incident and the connection of those emotions to attachment needs like safety, security, acceptance, belonging, nurture, comfort, love and respect. And their partner can do the same.
Thus The Cycle exposes for the two people involved, what the conflict or disappointing experience was really about. It wasn’t about the dishes or the diapers or the checkbook or the dog; it was perhaps about feeling unsafe, rejected, put down, or disrespected. That’s a whole different subject—or more accurately—that’s the real subject, calling for a different conversation. And that deeper conversation about real relational needs regardless of the conflict-of-the-moment, can result in a solution for the next time a similar incident occurs. If we can have the conversation from a posture of curiosity about what need the other was trying to defend, we can emerge with both partners better understanding what to protect for the other, so that neither of them feels the need to resort to self-defensiveness. If both partners have learned to protect the other’s most important needs in the relationship—whether security or respect or acceptance or something else—then neither will have to resort to self-defense. The relationship feels safe, accepting, nurturing, comforting, loving, respectful, secure. In short, each partner feels that—even amid the chaos and the dirty diapers and the barking dog and the sink full of dishes and the weariness—their partner is there for them.
Simple words, “there for them.” But scientifically, they are significant. Dr. Gottman’s four decades of observational research on couples identified Trust as one of two pillars that hold up his metaphorical “house” of seven floors, or principles. The other is Commitment. But lest you think that Trust means only faithfulness in the sense of not committing adultery, think again. It means that faithfulness, yes, but also a faithfulness to “be there for you,” my spouse. Partners who trust each other, in Dr. Gottman’s observation, can count on each other to be “there for them.”
Again, simple words… “there for them” or “there for me.” But, they are packed with meaning individually and together. “There” means present, available, reachable. The other is the first person each of them would call; they turn to each other for help; they depend upon each other for comfort; they can count on each other to prioritize them; even to drop other things when need be, in favor of them. “For” means for, not against. Trusting partners are allies, teammates, supportive of each other’s success, not competing with each other nor each defending their individual way, but defensive of each other and defending their union against all that could or would divide it. “Me” implies being known. Each can defend the other because they know their spouse—ideally better than does anyone on the planet. And with that knowledge, they are armed with knowing what to protect and defend for their spouse. They know the other’s attachment needs and how much they need safety, secuirty, a feeling of acceptance, nurture, belonging, love, or respect. They know how to tangibly give such things to one another. They have an internal confidence that “because my spouse knows me, loves, and is “there for me,” I can trust that he or she will come through for me and for our marriage.
As mentioned earlier, marriage creates a fragile oneness. In protecting that oneness, spouses will have ample opportunity—especially amid stressors—to yield their own preferences in order that the relationship may win. Marriage unites two people; anything can divide them. Will we let it? A question each partner can always be asking themselves is, “Is the issue more important than the relationship?” Can we let something go? How important is it, really? Can we yield to win? Maybe something is really important to one spouse! Hopefully, that spouse can respectfully communicate with words what is important to them and the other can hear that importance and yield. If both are willing to yield or to compromise their own preferences, desires, or methods in order for the relationship to win, then there will be an atmosphere of peace between them. People who are yielded to one another are not battling one another.
In addition to stressors dividing partners, control battles divide us. Without the Yield to Win principle, we can “win the battle and lose the war,” as they say. America and the West did not win the conflict in Vietnam, but we made sure that we won peace with the Vietnamese. Today, though Vietnam is a socialist republic controlled by the Communist party, there is friendly trade between our countries. We won the war with Japan, but in defeating the enemy, we made sure we won the peace by compassionately “being there' for the Japanese through reconstruction. The Allied Powers won the war against Germany in WWI, but the Treaty of Versailles was so punishing, unprotective, and shaming for the Germans that we lost the peace. We “won,” but the harshness with which we won created a resentment that festered for decades until Hitler would rally the country to regain their pride through an armed uprising against those who had not been “for them.”
So, in the myriad control battles that can be brought on by familial stressors, multiplied by the number of children and the importance of competing factors, the opportunity is for spouses to be one another’s ally, not enemy. The questions to ask are:
“Am I expecting that my spouse (like anyone I might have married) will have different feelings and perspectives, approaches, preferences and methodologies related to this subject?”
“Am I trying to understand what is important to my partner more than I’m trying to be understood?”
“Am I defending what is important to them even as I’m asking their support for what is important to me?”
“Am I yielding where I can yield and looking for compromise (not totally my way) where I can?”
“Am I doing my part in our mutual task to respect that third person (the relationship) and the atmosphere between us (as teammates, not competitors)?”
If the answers to the above questions are, “No,” then peace will be lost and the relationship will lose. But if we can change our stance toward disagreements and conflicts to one where we curiously investigate expected differences for a mutually-protective outcome, then we can move forward in peace. So, when differences emerge and control battles begin to form, we don’t get defensive, we get curious. We ask ourself, “How can my spouse trust me to be there for them?” “How can I support him or her, such that we make it through this incident at peace with one another?” “For what can I positively and respectfully ask my spouse’s support, even as I respectfully support what is important to my spouse?” Children bring ample opportunities to be there for our each other; to yield to win; to win the peace; for each partner to hear, support, and protect the other.
I love the “competitions” reflected in the New Testament. Paul says, “…outdo one another in brotherly love.” Now, there’s a worthwhile competition in marriage… to compete against one another in who can show more brotherly (think everyday, pedestrian) love. That means simple things, like who gets up to go fetch the bottle; who volunteers to run to the grocery store; who insists that the other get a little more sleep; who changes the diaper; who sacrifices their agenda first in order to care for the kids. What if each were striving to outdo the other in these things, not in order to win a plastic trophy, but out of a relentless heart’s desire to love their spouse in any way they can? Wouldn’t that be a worthy competition!?! Couldn’t we use more such “fights” in our culture, including in our homes? What if both spouses were competing to outdo the other in everyday, pedestrian forms of love (without keeping score)? Would each not feel that the other is “there for me?”
What else does it mean to be protective of one’s spouse and of one’s marriage? In Dr. Gottman’s bestselling book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, three of the principles involve how to handle conflict. They support what might be called a “listening-to-understand-in-order-to-support” approach to conflict. Step one in those three principles is always the same, whether addressing perpetual differences or one of the eight common hot spots in marriage. Step one is to not engage in the identified Destructive Patterns, or what I like to call the Six Toxins.
These identifiable destructive patterns are toxic to relationships. Any relationship. Any marriage we might have entered. No matter who we’d married these would be—and are—our enemy. Therefore, it’s helpful to know their names so we know what we’re fighting, lest we think we’re fighting our partner. They are Harsh Startup, Criticism, Defensiveness, Contempt, Stonewalling, Flooding (marked by Body Language), Failed Repair Attempts and Negative Memories. All of them are either unprotective, creating defensiveness, or are in themselves forms of self-protection (defensiveness).
Knowing their names is a good start. But do we know what to do, instead? Fortunately, Dr. Gottman has identified the antidotes to each toxin. And what might you guess is the common denominator to each toxin? Protection. Protection of one’s spouse and protection of “us.” As articulated above, if both spouses are feeling protected by the other who is “there for them,” including by disallowing toxicity in words and behavior, then it is far less likely that the relationship will devolve into a cycle of self-defensiveness. It would be unnecessary.
Specifically, the toxins and their antidotes are these:
Harsh Startup: Harshness (tone, volume, rudeness, accusations, name-calling, negative presumptions, sarcasm, disrespect, extreme adjectives, etc.) put a partner on the defense. The protective antidote is gentleness (like we’d be if the marriage were a child).
Criticism: Criticism is naming what we didn’t like or don’t want. Underneath every criticism is something we would like instead; something we do want. The protective antidote is to pause and state that preference as a positive request, even adding an affirmation if we can, of when our partner did exactly that. In so doing, we turn a criticism into a compliment, which is unlikely to raise defensiveness.
Contempt: Contempt is distain. It is a glass-half-empty perspective toward our spouse, nursing a dissatisfaction toward nearly everything about them, and finding fault in nearly everything they do. The protective antidote is to nurture fondness and admiration, choosing to see that which is admirable about them, giving the benefit of the doubt, finding what you can affirm in their behavior and choices that differ from yours.
Defensiveness: Defensiveness is self-protection. It arises when we're feeling unheard, misunderstood, disrespected, de-valued, unloved, taken for granted, unprotected, not prioritized, etc. The protective antidote is to reflect what we understand about the other’s feelings and point of view, asking “help me understand” about what we don’t, and accepting what responsibility we can, defending their position or needs as we can. (Note: The ideal here is balance and reciprocation. If you are always empathizing, taking responsibility, and defending your partner and not receiving the same, then an insecure attachment style, a personality disorder or abuse may be present.)
Stonewalling: Stonewalling is withdrawal. It is refusal to talk, refusal to answer, busying oneself, leaving the room, reading something, looking at a screen, putting in earphones, etc. Stonewalling is a form of self-protection. The stonewaller may have given up being understood, or may have become flooded, unable to think of anything to say or do that wouldn’t make things worse; so they are saying nothing in an ineffective attempt to protect their spouse and the relationship. The protective antidote is to engage in self-soothing and in mutual soothing of the relationship until the parasympathetic nervous system has restored the body to a non-flooded physiological state. We can then engage one another, seeking to understand and asking for reflective understanding from our partner.
Failed Repair Attempts: A “repair attempt” is an attempt to draw close again and reconcile after connection has been broken. The attempt may be an apology or a hug or a smile; it might be a gift like flowers, or an invitation out. It might be asking, “Can I take that back?” Success is not determined by the particular repair attempted, but by whether either party initiates an attempt and whether the other accepts it (considering timing, proportion to the offense, and penitence.) A failed repair attempt occurs when neither party initiates a repair or the other rejects the attempt, so the couple remains broken. The positive antidote is to make and receive repair attempts.
Negative Memories: This is the couple looking back on their history with discontentedness and a critical lens. It is a “glass half empty” look at their history together. Dr. Gottman found a direct correlation between how a couple chose to look at their past and how they regarded their present and projected their future. The protective antidote is to rewrite your relationship history with a lens of gratitude, focused upon those things for which you are thankful.
The above toxic patterns are destructive to relationships because they trigger defensiveness, which then cycles into mutual defensiveness that distances a couple from one another. Having names for these helps us understand what we would need to avoid for any relationship to work. The antidotes tell us what to practice, instead. And practice is the operative word. Such other-centered approaches don’t come naturally; self-defensiveness does. Old habits die hard; new patterns take determined practice. Replacing self-centeredness with other-centeredness and self-protection with protection of our loved one will take pausing our natural response, seeking to understand a perspective and needs that we don’t understand, and yielding to protect the feelings and needs important to the other. Repeatedly, until a new habit and safe pattern of relating is formed.
Thinking back to how people tend to engage with one another when dating—when trying to attract one another—such as attending to each other’s feelings, perspective, needs, and different ways of doing things (seen positively)—were natural. It was how we made ourself safe and therefore attractive. We were curious, interested and protective. Such attending to one's spouse requires margin - time, focus, and attention. Before the arrival of baby, that took resolve and personal prioritization; after baby it takes even more resolve and prioritization. It takes saying, “No" to certain time-consuming things that characterized childless life—and with regularity some of the myriad things that come with life-with-babies—lest they s of each other’s arm for a decade or more. Resolve and prioritization means giving time, attention, affection, help, and romance to the most important person in your immediate family—the one with whom you created your family; the one without whom there will not be a family.
The life you knew when you were single is over; you are now prioritizing more meaningful things. Yet, the relationship lives on. And it can be even stronger as you take the oneness you formed while dating and childless and apply that united force to something even more meaningful—creating and protecting the incubator that is your genealogical legacy. You already know how to do it; you did it in support of each other’s education, occupational pursuits, career shifts and developments. Now, the opportunity is to continue to give to one another the same time, consideration, tenderness, affection, help, teamwork, and adoration as you did before. It was attractive then; it will still be attractive now. It is these that brought your romance to life; it is these that will keep your marital romance alive and growing. The focus has just shifted from things primarily outside the home to things primarily inside the home.
When a baby arrives, the relational needs of each spouse will differ. This can be a matter of temperament, career demands, gender, abilities, temporal circumstances, or other things. Children—whether newborn or older—can be overwhelming and exhausting. A woman who has undergone the marathon of childbirth, and is now riding the roller-coaster that is postpartum hormonal adjustments, needs rest. She needs her husband to be her teammate against the relentless chores required to keep the house from falling apart while the children are kept alive and happy. In the 21st century, tasks know no gender divide except that decided by the couple—likely based on skill, schedule, preference and, ideally, mutual deference. Who changes the baby, makes dinner, does bath time, reads bedtime stories, mows the lawn, washes or folds laundry, does the grocery shopping, runs to the hardware store, etc., etc., is best decided by both spouse’s eagerness to help and relieve the other. Again, what a refreshing contest—to “outdo one another in love.” Beyond domestic support, a woman also needs to know – now more than she has ever needed to know and will always need to know – that her husband finds her attractive. Especially right after childbirth, her body has undergone changes, she feels heavy, her hormones are out of whack, she is in emotional turbulence, and is conscientious that she may look more like a mom than a model in a world's of would-be models. She needs to know and to hear that she is beautiful to her husband.
On the other side of the gender divide, men have needs that are also challenged by pregnancy and a new baby. In terms of Dr. Gary Chapman’s Love Languages® men often need physical touch and words of affirmation to feel loved. Their girlfriend and new bride used to give those a lot before pregnancy and giving birth. Afterward, baby is receiving all the holding and by the time evening rolls around, mom may be “touched out.” And those words of affirmation he used to get from his chief cheerleader have turned to choruses of criticism for his apparent ineptitude at infant care.
One of the ways in which gender roles skew in a traditional direction once baby arrives is that mothers tend to become… well… maternal. Women buy and read more books than do men and they’re eager to apply all they’ve read to raise their babies “correctly.” Mama bears are real, and not just in Yosemite. The protective and nurturing instinct of a mother toward the child she’s carried for nine months is different from the protective provider impulses of a man. Complementary, but different. The problem with different is that different can be regarded as wrong. Sometimes it is wrong. We once had a babysitter tape our daughter’s diaper to her skin. Wrong! But often, differences are just manifestations of gender, or maybe temperament, or background, or the fact that we’re both just doing our best—differently—as we try to figure it out. The risk is that the en vivo parenting course in which a couple has suddenly found themselves enrolled can threaten to disrupt their friendship. Parenting can elicit a run on the Love Bank if bad-feeling withdrawals are allowed to outnumber good-feeling deposits.
The opportunities for such withdrawals skyrockets with the introduction of children, as differing ideas of how best to take care of the baby, nurture, play, and eventually discipline children (a child under a year old is not to be disciplined, but redirected), are fueled by a woman’s often more informed approach, leaving a man to feel he’s “doing it wrong.” Depending on his wife’s reaction to his efforts, he may feel schooled, criticized, pushed aside, and overruled by his wife. The Love Bank is already threatened by the potential conflict between a man’s need for his wife’s confidence (that he is intelligent, capable and competent to handle the family’s challenges), and a woman’s need for input and influence (to be heard as she offers intuitive insight and caring help). A man can misinterpret her queries, which are her way to draw close and connect through shared decision-making, as questioning his knowledge or competence and as an attempt to seize control. And a woman can misinterpret his resistance to her ideas and help, which are his way of proving himself independently competent and up to the task, as dismissal or rejection of her attempt to draw close and come together through communication about the need of the moment. He misinterprets her words as critical and controlling, and she misinterprets his independence as unloving and as shutting her out. Thus, neither gender has their needs met.
The good news is that these all-too-common problems have a solution. Once we recognize these differing gender needs, our other-centered love can set out to meet those needs. Yes, gender needs have morphed as our lifestyles have evolved, and changing roles and occupations of men and women have changed us—some more than others depending on one’s context, experiences, and chosen and unchosen activities. We will need to check in with each other, learning from each other what the other needs to feel loved, accepted, respected, nurtured and protected. And therein lies the opportunity to count—literally count— what feels good to our spouse, so that we can keep account of whether our spouse feels good around us far more often than she or he feels bad. This concept also comes from from Dr. Gottman’s observational research. One of the things being measured by his research assistants as couples presented for observation in his University of Seattle “love lab,” was the ratio of positive to negative interactions between spouses. That is, in their micro interactions, how often did those feel good? And how often did they feel bad? Analogizing the "feel good" moments to deposits in a bank account and the “feel bad” moments to withdraws, he conceptualized that every marriage has Love Bank. Its balance increases or decreases interaction by interaction. With disaster couples (who persistently practiced the six toxins) had very low ratios. The master couples, who more often practiced the antidotes, and the seven principles that make marriage work had ratios in the 20:1 neighborhood (deposits to withdraws). This is great news for young families struggling to maintain the good feelings they enjoyed with one another before the stressors of parenthood. It makes for easy math. The question we can ask ourselves is whether what we are about to do, or the words and tone we are about to use are going to be a deposit into the loving feeling between us, or a withdrawal from it. And if a withdrawal, then why would I intentionally lower the balance in our love bank? Why would I do that to one I purport to love? Would I want my child’s spouse to treat him or her that way? At that point—or even proactively beforehand—we can challenge ourselves to say or do something better. We can ask ourselves, “What can I say or do that would be a deposit?” “What would I say or do if I were trying to attract this person, if they weren't already my spouse?” Creative ideas for deposits quickly follow such questions. We may think of ways to make the other smile or laugh. We may come up with creative ideas to bless them with a special gift, or to kiss or hug them for no reason. We may postpone something on our to do list just to sit down next to them and hold their hand. If we can manage our checking account balance by tending to the ratio of our deposits and withdrawals, we can manage the loving feeling in our relationship.
Our needs won’t be the same. This is where Dr. Gottman advises keeping up-to-date a well developed “love map” of one another… a deep knowledge of what makes the other feel loved. This is the basis of friendship, and step one in overcoming most of the marital challenges introduced by a baby. The second part of the solution is to focus on the positive. Both husband and wife need extra measures of encouragement, complements, and affirmations as the couple navigates together the uncharted territory of parenting. Spouses would do well to do what parents do well to do with children—that is,“catch each other being good.” Affirm, thank, and show appreciation far more often than you criticize, scold, or take efforts for granted. Behavioralism tells us that change is more motivated by positive reinforcement than by punitive judgment. And—coming full circle—Oxytocin will pour in, combining with affirmation to bond mom and dad as teammates in the care of baby.
Dr. Harley’s articulation of male and female needs names recreational companionship and an attractive spouse as top male needs. The need for an attractive spouse is probably the most threatening to women, who typically do not feel very attractive after giving birth. It is a rare woman who feels attractive while still carrying baby weight and the changes to her body that have come with manufacturing a human—changes which feel better in sweats and a baggy ,. The needs of men and women here collide, and require yielding to each other. A new father would be wise to keep his wardrobe advice to himself and tell his bride-turned-mother the beauty he sees in her. For her correlating needs include to feel attractive and lovable in her changed body, emotional capriciousness, physical sleepiness, and sexual unavailability. His and her needs also contrast over recreation. While he longs for his longtime friend and playmate, she needs to feel that he is committed to her and their family’s increased needs over his pre-fatherhood priorities. Again, the opportunity is not to argue for and demand what we each need, but to get curious about the needs of the other, striving to defend and provide what we’ve come to understand. He can thus prioritize the family’s needs like never before, and they can each defend the other’s independent time, and defend together their need for interdependent recreation.
Every stage of marriage invites renegotiated Shared Meaning. In TGI terminology, shared meaning is something tangible or intangible that is so highly valued by both partners that it binds the couple together. It manifests in shared goals and a shared direction on a mutual path. It doesn’t mean we’re walking the same way; it means we're on the same path, walking in the same direction. This shared meaning dictates much of a day’s activity, and to a large extent the expenditure of time and money. No matter what constituted a couple’s shared meaning before children, from the moment the pregnancy test shows positive, being parents is the new top priority giving meaning to their shared lives. Exhaustion may deplete our desire for recreation; at the same time, we need restoration. Shared meaning is where we sift through what used to restore each of individually and the two of us together, and see what will stick under new management. We may defend for each other a change of scenery, time with friends, cardio, and games we enjoy individually or together. We will find that recreation at this stage need not disappear; it simply grows wheels and front packs. Jogging and hiking are transformed into walks behind strollers and backpacks with legs. Cultural outings are swapped for child development classes, friends’ baby showers, preschool birthday parties and, of course—the chief recreation of all—enjoying our children together. Golf, tennis, rugby, movies, plays, concerts, video games and frisbee golf need not be abandoned altogether, they simply become luxuries instead of staples. They give way to the primary needs of our children and of our spouse. The best way to make these adjustments is not to argue for our own rights to maintain this or that, but to argue for and defend the needs of the other. As we’ve seen, in this way both spouses get their needs met without a divisive air of competition that leaves one spouse feeling like they lost. Because, if one spouse loses, the marriage lost.
One more thing deserves attention before I bring this article-nearing-book-length to a close. That is the task of parenting, itself.
Positive Sentiment Override is a TGI term closely associated with Nurturing Fondness and Admiration, and a tool for achieving a high ratio of deposits to withdrawals in our couple Love Bank. Put simply, it is having a sentiment toward our spouse that is over ridden with positivity. It's that "benefit of the doubt" and "seeing the best" we spoke of above with reference to nurturing fondness and admiration. It's the ability to look at our spouse’s perspective, parenting pursuits, measures, mentality, and methodology and see “different,” not “wrong” (assuming abuse is not occurring). It is helpful for moms and dads to go into parenting expecting there to be different ideas of what is normative, based on their different families of origin and childhood experiences. Also to be expected is perhaps the most typical difference between parents, sparking numerous conflicts. By some, that difference will be called a left-brain, right-brain difference. Others will regard it as a male/female difference. Still others might describe it as an attachment focus versus a skills-based focus. Whatever the terminology applied, it manifests as one parent leading with and valuing emotions as primary, with the measure of success being the closeness and security of the parent-child bond. The other parent leads with cognition, valuing thoughts as primary, with the measure of success being a child’s readiness for the world in terms of mental toughness and know-how. The first parent will be about comforting and nurturing; the second parent will be about confronting and toughening. You can hear the conflicts, already, can’t you? They start with sleeping, feeding, crying, playing, and potty-training, and steadily morph into parenting battles over cleanliness, manners, chores, language, schoolwork, sports, and on and on…. The battles seem numerous, but it is actually one fight with countless takes. It is a battle over which is primary… emotions or cognitions, and what is the basis on which to measure parenting success… relationship security or knowledge and skill mastery. It is a manifestation of the truth that opposites do indeed attract, and as Dr. John Gray concludes, “Opposites attract, then attack.”
Graduates of TGI’s Bringing Baby Home® program demonstrate the ability to look at these differences as complementary, seeing the benefit of both. They allow for mom and dad to be different people with different perspectives, values, skills, and methodologies, while coming to enough agreement that the child can expect consistency of rules and routines.
One way to navigate this and other inevitable parenting differences is to turn to parenting experts. This does not mean wholesale adoption of an expert’s advice. Rather, the value of turning to an expert is not only to learn something, but also to be able to react to a third party rather than against each other. Mom and dad can form their parenting style together as they entertain the ideas of a third party and decide what to incorporate into their parenting pattern.
In this regard, authors I personally recommend include: Dr. Karyn Purvis (Empowered to Connect), Dan Siegel (The Whole Brained Child), Becky Bailey (Conscious Discipline), and Drs. Cline and Faye (Parenting with Love and Logic) (for children beyond the infancy and toddler stage). Parents as Teachers, if available in your community, is also a tremendous educational resource and source of personal support for new parents.
So, back to the question: “How do you keep the blessing of children from becoming a curse to the marriage?” Continue to feed and nurture your first child—your relationship. Give it attention. Give it tenderness and affection. Help it. Protect it. Listen to understand each other so that you can support what you’ve come to understand. Help and comfort each other, coming to each other’s aid against the stressors. Accept your differences; and not only accept them, but regard them in the best possible light. Choose to like how your spouse is different from you. Treat your spouse the way you’d want your child’s spouse to treat them. And respectfully ask for the treatment you’d like to receive, voicing the request positively, acknowledging and appreciating when you receive it. And be thankful, daily, for the blessings that are your baby ,and your partner, and your relationship.