Q: Ever since our baby was born, it seems like my wife and I are growing apart from each other. We hardly even talk anymore. She’s a stay-at-home mom, and I work a lot. We used to be great at communication, talking to each other about our days, discussing our child and what she is learning. I’m afraid our relationship isn’t as strong as it used to be. What happened?
A: Nearly all new parents experience a drop in the quality of their communication. Half the time it’s permanent. Here are some of the factors that researchers have found contribute to this decline in couples’ communication skills:
- The lack of spontaneity. Before your baby was born, if you wanted to go see a movie or even just sit around and talk, you could just do it. But now, as parents, you don’t have that luxury. If you want to go out, you have to get a sitter a day or so in advance, make sure the baby is fed, be back at a certain time.
- Physical exhaustion. Even if you stay home together with your partner, there’s a better then even chance you’ll be too tired to stay awake for an entire conversation.
- There’s a general decline in intimacy-promoting activities such as sex, hanging out with friends, etc.
- With so much of time and energy focused on your baby, you and your partner may find that your pool of common interests is shrinking fast.
- There’s a lot less time and money left to pursue individual interests and activities outside the home. As a result, many new parents find that their communications skills have "rusted." They don’t have nearly as many new things to talk about and they’ve lost (partially, at least) the ability to hear and understand each other.
- If you or your partner has left the workplace, you’ve lost a lot of conversation topics-now there are only half as many stories to tell about the people at the office.
How to keep your communication on track:
- Get a family calendar. This can keep double-booking and scheduling miscommunications to a minimum.
- Set aside at least fifteen minutes a day to talk about things other than the baby. Sounds easy, but it’s harder than you think.
- Go out on dates with your partner. Getting time alone with your partner is absolutely critical to the long-term health of your marriage. Get a sitter if you can, or ask friends or relatives to step in. You might also want to set up an informal baby-sitting cooperative with a few other parents in your neighborhood; they need to get out as much as you and your partner do.
- Do something special for each other, but be flexible and understanding. If you’ve made surprise plans and your partner is too exhausted, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you. Try again another night or put the "surprise" on the calendar.
- Schedule sex. Sounds incredibly unromantic, but just having the big S on the calendar may actually make it more fun…. And anyway, if you’re still interested, this may be the only way it’s going to happen.
- If your partner is at home with the baby during the day, try to give her some time when she can be completely alone every day, when she doesn’t have to take care of anyone but herself.
- Don’t blame the baby for your troubles. Too many couples interpret their communication problems as a sign that the baby pushed them apart and that they shouldn’t have become parents in the first place.
- Talk to other people. Hook up with other couples with kids to find out what they’ve been through, what works and what doesn’t. You might also join a new parents- or new fathers group.
(Re)Learning to Talk
“I get the picture sometimes of two people who may be very much in love and very much together, having private dreams that shape their lives, but not letting each other know the content,” says U. C. Berkeley professor Phil Cowan. Frequent, open, and honest communication is "the key to an effective transition from couple to family," he adds. But because so many couples seem to forget how, let’s go over the basics:
- Open your mouth. Although many men have been socialized into thinking that we don’t have strong feelings or emotional needs, this, obviously, isn’t true. Nevertheless, a lot of guys are reluctant to talk to their partners about their needs and feelings, fearing that they’ll seem weak and will be letting their partners down.
- Close your mouth and open your ears. One of the most widespread stereotypes about men and women is that women are more open than men about discussing their feelings and emotions. If your partner is a natural talker, great. But plenty of new mothers need some gentle, supportive encouragement. "A great deal of needless suffering goes on because mothers and fathers are ashamed to express feelings they have that see ‘unmotherly’ or ‘unfatherly,’" writes Phil Cowan. So encourage her to talk, ask her about her deepest feelings about the baby, tell her you love her, and reassure her that you’ll be there for her.
- Speak the same language. Sound’s silly but it’s not. Some of the biggest communication breakdowns come because people don’t (or can’t or won’t) agree on the definition of some very basic words. For example, does the word "love" mean the same thing to you and your partner? Do the two of you express your love for each other in the same way? Probably not. Men commonly express love for their partners by doing things. Women, however, are more likely to express their love verbally. Unfortunately, most people want to be communicated with in their own language. Consequently, what you do may not be loving enough for your partner and what she says may not be enough for you. Learning to understand and express love differently is like learning a new language. Granted, it’s a little more complicated than high school French, but it can be done.
Ground rules for putting your newly polished communication skills to work:
- Schedule a special time and place for your discussions. Let’s face it: if you can’t have sex without a schedule, you won’t be able to have a serious conversation without one either.
- Tell her what’s on your mind. Tackle one issue at a time and stay away from phrases like "you always…," "you never…," or any other comment whose sole purpose for existing is to put a quick end to your conversations.
- Ask her to tell you what she heard you say. Just saying "I understand what you’re saying" isn’t enough here. It’s important to have your partner tell you in her own words what you’ve just told her.
- Confirm for her that she heard you correctly. If she didn’t, tell her again.
- Go back to Step 2, but switch roles: she talks, you listen.
- Learn to compromise. Understanding each other’s concerns is a great place to start, but it doesn’t do much good if you can’t figure out how to bridge the gaps.
- Get professional help if you need it. Set up a monthly appointment with a marriage counselor to give you and your partner a safe place to discuss your relationship, differences, problems, worries, etc.