Q&A: new baby and stress on relationship

Jodi writes:

"I wondered if you had encountered the same experience upon the arrival of your first child. My husband and I are very close, and were particularly close during my pregnancy, which was a little difficult because I was quite ill in the last months....we have been good friends forever, and really only argue about one thing....in-laws...but that's another post!!!! Because of the strength that underlies our relationship I was absolutely shocked to find our relationship in disarray after the arrival of our now two-week-old baby. He is extremely involved and had two weeks "paternity" leave and really does his share of housework--but we are bickering about the stupidest things and seem to have a disagreement, harsh exchange, or argument once a day (granted our days have become much longer)!  I feel a little isolated and lonely, especially sensitive, and really am grieving for my buddy and the fun and love we had--as much as I love and adore my new baby--did you have an experience like this and did it get better??? "

Oh, yeah.


Did I meantion "yeah"?

Everyone, please comment about this. Women, men, people with opposite-sex partners, people with same-sex partners, people who are married and people who are not married to their partners, people who had been together for a long time before the arrival of the baby and people who had only been together for a short time. (To comment anonymously, put a fake address like "www.google.com" or "www.fake.com" in the URL box.)

Why do our relationships go south so quickly after the arrival of a baby?

Hormones. If you gave birth your hormones are going completely wacko, as some rush out of your body and new ones are coursing through it. There's not much you can do about it (besides drinking a lot of water and eating a lot of leafy green vegetables), and it really does take at least 12 weeks to normalize at all.

If you didn't give birth to your baby, you're still having a crazy hormone rush from all the contact with your baby and the love fest. It's wonderful, but it's overwhelming, too, and no one pays attention to your hormonal level, because people forget that just being a parent affects your hormones (whether you're a man or a woman) even if you didn't give birth.

Sleep deprivation. There's a reason sleep deprivation is used to break prisoners mentally.

Physical pain. You're probably recovering from some kind of physical pain from either exit wounds of one kind or the other from giving birth, or a long flight or some other physical trauma from adoption, or just from lugging around a wiggling mass of flesh for hours at a time or sleeping with your neck cricked constantly. Maybe you're having nipple pain from nursing. And everyone's adjusting to a bizarre sleep schedule and the physical wear and tear of caring for a baby (or the intense jaw pain of being headbutted repeatedly by a toddler). And this is something no one at all warned you about--how much parenthood was going to hurt physically.

Your entire life has gone into the toilet for now. Let's just admit it. These are the sucky days. You do nothing but give and give and give (both of you), and the baby can't or won't even smile back at you yet. How can you not be a tad shell-shocked and bewildered and terrified about it?

Stockholm Syndrome combined with guilt. You're so stressed, but you love the baby so much. You can't get enough of the sweet smell and all the coos and teeny little toes. Even the crying at 3 a.m. is so precious. You love the baby with your entire soul, and would gladly throw yourself under a bus to save his or her life, but why can't someone else just come take care of the baby for a few hours? And what kind of horrible parent thinks that sort of thing? Everyone else with a new baby is probably handling this so much better, and how could you have gotten so lucky as to have this baby, which you're surely going to ruin somehow? Rinse, repeat cycle of adoration-guilt-recrimination, adoration-guilt-recrimination. The only place to turn your resentment and sadness is on your partner.

So, next question: Does it get better?

Yes, but probably not right away. From what I've observed, most couples seem to have a lot of trouble either right at the beginning, or around the 9- to 12-month mark. But if they can make it to 2 years, things get a lot better, whether they actively work on it together or not.

I think there's a certain amount of, well, "denial" isn't exactly the right word. Maybe "deliberate ignoring." There's a certain amount of deliberate ignoring that has to go on, because there's just no way to effectively address all the stuff going on between you and your partner while you're in the thick of it. I mean, how are you possibly going to be able to get to the bottom of a power imbalance when the baby won't sleep for more than 2 hours at a time at 10 days of age, or you're both working full-time and the baby is cutting teeth? Instead, you're going to have to use direct behavioral approaches to keep things from running off the road completely.

What I mean by that is that you need to just tell your partner directly (even if s/he previously seemed to read your mind) "I need you to wash the laundry today, and be responsible for dinner tonight. I will eat anything you put in front of me." And if something happens that is sending you over the edge, just say it: "It makes me feel like I'm about to lose my tenuous hold on reality when I ask you to do the laundry and you don't specifically make the time to do it." If in the past (or future) you may have had the chance to discuss the underlying dynamics and some kind of structural framework for who does what, and how your partner's mom was a SAHM and yours was a WOHM, and how you think that affected both your attitudes toward division of labor, well, no. You just don't have the energy to go there. Write it down somewhere and save it to discuss in a couple of years.

If your baby is older than around 6 months, so you're out of crisis mode, you probably want to do some work on anything that keeps coming up over and over again. I can't say enough good things about the Harville Hendrix book Getting the Love You Want. There's some theory at the beginning about why we keep having the same arguments all the time, and just reading that will help give you a little more insight into why you keep poking at each other. But the real bonus is the end of the book, which is a series of exercises designed for you to do together to uncover your main sensitive areas and how to start helping each other heal from those things instead of making them worse. It's a very thorough, non-blaming model of therapy, but you do it alone together, at home, on your own time (we picked one set night a week, after our son was in bed). If you want someone else to help you with it, you can check out Hendrix's website to find a weekend workshop or therapist near you.

You're definitely in the weeds at this point, but if you can try to just keeping going and ignore the really egregious offenses, you'll get back to being the wonderful team you were before, just with bags under your eyes and no more weekend daytime sex.