Nothing can prepare your marriage for the changes parenthood brings. That cute little innocent infant is akin to a bomb being dropped into your relationship. And it’s not uncommon for all this flailing to cause a mountain of marital resentment. I experienced this in spades after the birth of our daughter.
But things changed when I read Jancee Dunn’s How Not to Hate Your Husband After Kids. The circumstances Dunn found herself in — doing 99% of the household chores and furious about it, never taking any time for herself but watching her husband confidently claim time for his own hobbies — were so woefully familiar to me, I couldn’t put the book down.
Here are a few of my favorite takeaways from her book that I started implementing right away and still use to this day:
1. Watch your mouth
Who me? Yes you. Screaming “I can’t believe I ever let you impregnate me!” at your husband mid door-slam actually is a big deal. I know you’re tired, but you can do better.
Rationally, of course, we know that this kind of behavior is cruel. None of us would want our kid to grow up to treat others this way. But Dunn has eye-opening news for us that you should keep in mind as your kids get older: children absorb this behavior, even really young ones. That is, if your kids can hear it—through the walls, or from the back seat of the car — you might as well be yelling directly at them. There’s no differentiation for them.
If you’re prone to outbursts and feel one coming on, practice the art of the Time Out. (Dunn and her husband do a “T” sign before she leaves the room.) Take as much time as you need to calm down.
2. WWAHND? (What Would A Hostage Negotiator Do?)
It turns out that the methods used to contain a terrorist situation are also good for containing a nasty marital argument. Who knew? Dunn consulted with the chief of the FBI’s Crisis Negotiation Unit and learned that the best way through a bad fight is to use active listening. If you don’t know what active listening is, it’s the opposite of the “But–!” thing that I like to employ. Instead, you’re supposed to paraphrase what your partner says so he or she feels less defensive and more willing to work out the problem.
You’re concerned I’m not going to get ready on time and we’re going to be late for our flight again, is that right? you might say. Or: You’re panicking that I’m going to lose the credit card bill under this pile of crap on my desk and won’t pay it on time.
The idea is to communicate that you get the other person’s point of view.
And, as unnatural as it feels at first, try labeling your partner’s emotion. I see that you’re really angry. Yes, this is weird and you may feel like you’re talking to a toddler (how many times have I said to my four year old, in the wake of a meltdown, “You seem frustrated!’”) But guess what? It works with adults, too. We all want to be understood, and when we’re agitated, having our partner slow down and take the time to notice as much goes a long way toward diffusing tension and creating goodwill.
3. Your new mantra: Affectionate though unmovable
First thing to remember: your husband isn’t “helping.” He is not the babysitter. He is your co-parent. Dunn suggests that the best way to get what you want is to be assertive — yet kind — in expressing what you expect. Men actually respond better to clear requests (rather than my favorite tactic of unloading the dishwasher really loudly until my husband realizes he should be doing it.)
Clearly and specifically state your needs and wishes. Do not shame, infer, assume or project. Do not be vague. Do not huff and puff and harumph around the house assuming your husband can read your mind. (It doesn’t work.)
It would be great if you could unload the dishwasher at night before you go to bed. When I need to load the dirty dishes during the morning rush, it really slows things down when the dishwasher is full.
No resentment, no annoyance: just a simple request. Think of it as asking a co-worker for a solid. That’s it.
4. Broker a Deal
Another way to get what you want is to broker a deal. Does your husband love sleeping late on Sundays and it drives you mental? Do you want some time to go to a kickboxing class? No problem. I know Mattie would love a long father-daughter date on Saturday afternoon. And, in exchange, if you want to sleep in on Sunday morning, I’ll do that for you.
Ask for what you need, and find out what he needs in return. If you don’t ask for what you want, you’re not going to get it.
5. Revive your sex life… by being hands on.
Babies are notorious for ruining sex lives. Breastfeeding, sleepless nights, wonky hormones… none of this enhances your sex life. A simple way to rediscover physical closeness with your partner is through non-sexual touch. Even just touching each other’s hand or shoulder as you go through your day can significantly alter your mood. It might seems insignificant, but studies show that small daily acts of affection can actually save marriages that are on the fritz. A loving pat on the back doesn’t take a lot of effort but it can calm discomfort and distress.
6. Use your words
Words turn women on — and I don’t mean dirty ones, I mean romantic ones. Compliments, more specifically. We want to feel, even after many years of partnership, that we are still our partner’s chosen person; that we are seen. It may be awkward at first, but one way to get in the mood is to lie in bed together and ask your husband for specific compliments. So, not things like “You’re a great mom,” but “I love the way you dance so freely and confidently when we’re out at a party—like you don’t care that anyone’s watching. I couldn’t keep my eyes off you.” This may feel totally absurd and forced, but in the haze of parenting, it’s easy to forget to really take one another in.
7. Step out
So many of us bitch about the sheer volume of invisible work we do to keep our families running. Well, get out of Dodge. To the degree that you can, anyway. Go hiking for an afternoon! Take your friends up on that ladies’ weekend! Go on that work-related conference you’ve been interested in! It can do a lot of good for you to cede some control over child rearing, take care of yourself (you have an identity beyond motherhood, after all), and, in the process, give your partner-in-parenting a chance to take the lead. In the process, resist the urge to prep every meal in advance, wash every sheet and leave a list of the kid’s favorite snacks pinned to the fridge. Let him figure it out. He will figure it out. It’s good for you and it’s good for him, and you will probably come to find that a) your children are still alive, b) he’s not utterly incompetent, and c) you actually did pretty darn good in picking him.