By Stephen Mitchell, PhD
“…you and your partner are in a “slow drift” away from each other…”
This is an honest question, and a question that I find any couple that has had kids entertains at some point in their relationship. The question may pop up after the 18th night of sporadic sleep or after months of a mom trying to juggle going back to work; breastfeeding; and trying to crush it like she used to at her job or following a year of feeling like you and your partner are in a “slow drift” away from each other like two icebergs moving in opposite directions in frigid waters.
“We used to have fun together, we used to laugh, we used to be able to talk about anything…”
Couples say it all the time, “We used to have fun together, we used to laugh, we used to be able to talk about anything, we never fought, we didn’t have any problems…and then we had kids.” The way a lot of couples interpret this is that their kids have ruined their relationship and they desperately want to “go back to the way things were before.” This is where I come in with some good old-fashioned reality, “That‘s not going to happen. Your old relationship before kids is done. It’s over. You are never getting it back.”
“Your kids have not ruined your relationship they have revolutionized it…”
And this is what couples struggle to see, you can’t go back. Your kids have not ruined your relationship they have revolutionized it in such a way that going back to acting like a couple without kids is an exercise in futility. Think about it. All the research is very clear. When a couple has a baby their physical bodies change, their psychological realities expand to new levels, and their emotional lives are opened up in profound ways that have not been accessible.
“Being a couple and having kids means you are dealing with new realities… realities that your pre-kid relationship was never equipped to handle.”
Because of this radical change that couples experience they have to think about their relationship and themselves on a new level and in drastically different terms than pre-kids. Being a couple and having kids means you are dealing with new realities like division of labor, mental load, breastfeeding, child development and attachment, the societal pressure as a mom to do it all and be superhuman, the societal expectation for dads to be a “dumb dad” that barely knows their kids’ name, grandparent relationships, increased financial strain, and the list goes on and on. These new realities are something your couple relationship has never seen before and they are realities that your pre-kid relationship was never equipped to handle.
“But what we had was working, can’t we just get back to that?”
One of the most shocking things I tell couples in sessions is: “Even though you have been in a committed relationship prior to kids and felt like you ‘had it figured out,’ you have a whole new set of relationship skills to learn to thrive as a couple that is parenting.” This comes as news to so many couples. They say, “But what we had was working, can’t we just get back to that?” They think their relationship is struggling because they can’t have date night anymore or they don’t have dedicated time to pursue their own interest. This leads them to spend a lot of time trying to orchestrate life so they can have what they had before kids.
“…it’s not the date night that is going to save you.”
This is missing the point. Is it good for couples to try and find time together and for themselves? Sure. Yet, so many couples end up getting a date night and then spend the time fighting about their relationship. So, it’s not the date night that is going to save you. Rather, couples have to learn the new skills of curiosity rather than defensiveness, vulnerability rather than blame, and trust rather than protection.
- Curiosity rather than defensiveness—So often in a couple relationship when one partner brings something they are unhappy about to their partner they are met with defensiveness. One partner says, “I am angry because you were late getting home from work and left me to do bedtime with the kids.” The other partner says, “I have been on time everyday this week and all you ever do is highlight the one time things didn’t go perfectly.” It is natural to be defensive when our partner brings something to us they are unhappy about, but it is not helpful. Defensiveness breeds defensiveness. Curiosity breeds curiosity and this leads to open and productive communication. One partner says, “I am angry because you were late getting home from work and left me to do bedtime with the kids.” The other partner says, “I know me coming home late and you having to manage bedtime alone does not feel good. Was there something about today that made it feel especially bad.”
- Vulnerability rather than blame—Many couple conversations that go south start with blame. One partner says, “You always forget to think about what the kids might need when we leave the house. I have to think of everything and you just think of yourself.” This is an instant guarantee that your communication with your partner will not go well. Leading with vulnerability results in open and productive communication. Saying, “I am feeling so overwhelmed today. There are a million things to keep track of and when I got into the car and saw that the kids didn’t have water and there weren’t any snacks it felt like the last straw. It would make things feel so much better if I could count on you to think about this kind of stuff and take care of it next time.” In this dialogue there is not blame but there is a vulnerable expression of how you feel and what you need. It is an invitation not a condemnation.
- Trust rather than protection—If couples can make it a habit to lead with curiosity and vulnerability the net result is trust is built between partners. Partners begin to see that their partner is making an effort to understand and respond to their needs. When there is trust there is no need for partners to try and protect themselves from getting dismissed or belittled or blamed or corrected. They don’t have to protect themselves against these barbs and this allows for open and connected relationship.
“Just like a new baby grows and develops and changes over time your couple relationship has to grow and develop and change.”
Having a child does not ruin a relationship; it revolutionizes it. Couples have to live into the new context of being partners and parents by becoming a new kind of couple. Just like a new baby grows and develops and changes over time your couple relationship has to grow and develop and change. You can’t come to parenting as a couple with the old relationship tools you had pre-kids. If you are a couple and parenting, it’s time to revolutionize your couple relationship.