Before I had a baby, my husband Tom and I rarely fought…then we became parents. We mostly battled about the fact that even though we both had jobs, somehow I had ended up doing almost all of the childcare and household chores.
I decided to save my disintegrating marriage (and even wrote a book about it, with the very, ahem, straightforward title of How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids). Now, with effort, we hash things out like grownups.
Here are the best tips I’ve learned.
1. Don’t shut him out.
If Tom was struggling to bathe our daughter Sylvie when she was a newborn, I’d grab her and say, “Let me do it.” If he tried to change her diaper, I’d direct him over his shoulder. This behavior, in which mothers limit or control the fathers’ interactions with their kids, is called maternal gatekeeping—and I did it all the time. It puts off a hesitant new dad (and who isn’t hesitant, at first?) and makes him less likely to lend a hand.
So let him figure it out.
Research shows that kids thrive in so many ways when they have an involved father early on. I now see that maternal gatekeeping comes in many sneaky forms. When I was texting with a group of moms recently about an incident at school, Tom asked me what was going on. “Oh, you wouldn’t be interested,” I said, and then I stopped myself: Why was I excluding him?
2. Remember that he can’t read your mind.
I can’t believe how many wasted hours I spent banging pots and pans in the kitchen and glaring at Tom, hoping he would intuitively leap in and help with the dishes. Then my resentment would build until I exploded. My first helpful step was to stop playing the victim and ask, clearly and directly, for what I wanted: “Please empty the dishwasher.”
With a Herculean effort, I keep my request at one sentence,or even just silently involve him in what I’m doing. If I empty the dishwasher, I hand him some bowls. (What’s he going to do—throw them on the ground?)
This tactic works a lot better than brooding, or yelling, “I’m doing everything around here,”— an observation that swirls around with nowhere to land.
3. Describe the problem, not the person.
I now know that saying “I need a little break from the baby” works a lot better than, “You’re a jerk, you never take the baby,” which just puts your spouse on the defensive and sabotages your chance of being heard.
Focus on your feelings, which is not only kinder but also strategic.
When I once asked Tom to stop by the grocery store for milk and bread, and he came home with a bachelor party fiesta of beer, salsa and chips, I didn’t accuse him of living in a single-guy bubble, as I normally would have. I simply said, “I feel bummed that you didn’t remember to get basics like milk or bread at the store.” Well, he can’t challenge or question my feelings, can he? I feel bummed. This sort of statement also invites sympathy. Rather than argue, he was remorseful (more so when I asked him to go back to the store.)
4. Ask yourself: What does it cost you?
This useful advice, given by New York City time management expert Julie Morgenstern, has prevented many a scene. If your mate wants a nap or a run or a night out with friends, what is it really costing you? Is it increasing your workload or robbing your child of all-important quality time—or is it just annoying, because you would never presume to take a nap?
One Sunday morning, Tom was sleeping in while my daughter and I spent the morning creating a tea party for her stuffed animals.At around 11 a.m., I went into our bedroom for a sweater and saw Tom quickly stash his phone under his pillow and shut his eyes. Normally my impulse would be to say, “Quit hiding—time to get up,” but I was having a lovely morning with my daughter. His lingering in bed wasn’t costing me a thing. I was just irritated on principle. So I pretended I didn’t notice his ruse and shut the door.
As marriage counselor Terry Real memorably puts it, “Don’t pee on the gift.”
Meaning that if I tell Tom I’m okay with him taking a long Saturday bike ride, I cannot be resentful or pull the silent treatment when he returns.
5. Say ‘thank you’ and say it often.
A University of Georgia study found that what distinguishes marriages that last from those that don’t is not necessarily how often couples argue, but how they treat each other on a daily basis when they are not bickering. Expressions of gratitude, they found, were “the most consistent significant predictor of marital quality.” The power of a simple ‘thank you,’ as it turns out, is pretty huge.
6. Date nights: a necessity.
Some of my more together friends manage weekly date nights, but the most Tom and I can do is once a month—and it’s still one of the most important ways of strengthening our bond.
How liberating it is to talk without having a kid interrupt you forty times!
On a daily basis, it was transformative to take just ten or fifteen minutes a day to talk about anything—anything—beyond scheduling, our child, or that we’re out of paper towels.
Eminent couples therapists John and Julie Gottman suggest building intimacy by asking each other open-ended questions, like:
—In what ways has our child changed our relationship?
—How do you think we could have more fun in our life?
—What things are missing in your life?
—Who is your role model as a parent?
—What are your biggest worries about our future?
7. Have sex to connect
I know: when you have young kids, sometimes sex can feel like one more thing you’re doing for somebody. But how about aiming for once a week, to release oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ that promotes feelings of devotion and trust?
A long-range study published in Social Psychology and Personality Science found that for couples, having sex once a week was the sweet spot for maximum well-being—more than that, and happiness actually leveled off (and that finding held true for men and women, and was consistent no matter how long they had been together.) Not only that, but a Penn State survey of sex researchers found that after foreplay, the optimal, most enjoyable stretch of time for sex is a mere 7 to 13 minutes.
That’s doable, right?
8. Small things often.
This edict from the Gottmans has raised our game considerably. Small, specific, everyday gestures of affection that take almost no energy—giving a quick squeeze, buying the special ice cream your spouse likes, sending a funny text—can make for big changes over time.
What you do every day, the Gottmans claim, matters more than the things you do once in awhile.
One of the greatest gifts you can give to your child is a loving relationship with your spouse—and with it, a sense of security, peace, and permanence. And investing in your marriage while your kids are young is vitally important for their future: children whose parents have happy unions are much more likely to have stable relationships themselves as adults.
Our family life has a newfound ease and sweetness. It turns out that Tom was the ally I didn’t know I had.