Two Ways to Babyproof Your Marriage
If you type “babyproof your marriage” or “marriage after baby” into Google, you’ll be greeted with plenty of websites and blogs telling you in list format how to stay connected to your spouse after a bundle of joy plops into your lives. I diligently read and took notes on all these lists while pregnant with my first child, but they were pretty useless once she arrived, not because the information was bad but because when I wanted to yell at my husband, I never, not once, thought back to those lists.
What Not To Do
Life with a new baby was rough at first, mostly because our daughter was colicky and my husband traveled a lot for work, often without access to his cellphone when he was flying. Instead of breaking out the lists I had dutifully made about how to stay connected in the midst of chaos, I allowed my frustration to reach the “voicemail point.” I’d call my husband and leave a voicemail that went something like this: “This whole staying at home with the baby isn’t working. Quit your job and get back here, now!” That was one of the nicer messages.
My husband knew not to take these voicemails as evidence he should quit his job. Instead of becoming defensive or angry, he accepted the voicemails as a sign of my need to vent, not as a personal attack on him. This is good because I reached the “voicemail point” a lot in the early weeks (okay, years).
I don’t mention my crazed messages because I think they were a good idea. The marriage lists definitely didn’t say leave emotional voicemails for husband. However, the way we handled the messages did reflect well on our marriage.
Why? To this day we never have any secrets about our emotional states. The voicemails proved I could vent to him, and he to me, without fear of judgment or of causing permanent damage to our relationship. If a vent, and there were many with all our babies, was too harsh, we let each other know. There is a difference between venting and being mean. Sometimes I crossed into mean territory, and he let me know. Sometimes he let me take the lead on childrearing too much, and I definitely let him know.
The Internet's Lists
Many of the internet's post-baby marriage lists depend on spouses acting as their best selves at the exact moment when the stress of new parenthood highlights their worst selves. I had never thought of myself as the type of person to leave irrational voicemails for my partner, but, alas, I was.
Sleep-deprived couples aren’t in the best position to overhaul their communication patterns. This is why articles that remind couples to stop scorekeeping, make deals, or say “good job” are wise, but useless in the throes of 2 am infant screaming.
Similarly, even though a recent article in Parents magazine gives great advice — keep a chore chart, schedule dates, talk about finances— these tips aren’t going to work without a base of good communication. Indeed, my husband and I do all those things, but we didn’t start the nitty gritty negotiations about chores, finances, date nights, etc. until we had mastered two essential items on the post-baby marriage list.
Sleep-deprived couples aren’t in the best position to overhaul their communication patterns.
What are the magic secrets for babyproofing your marriage (Hint: It doesn’t include leaving irrational messages for your spouse)? I’ll spare you another long list and distill my thoughts into two steps.
1. Be Best Friends Before You Have Children
Plenty of people have children before marriage, but the order of marriage and baby doesn’t matter so long as you get along with your partner. If you constantly argue, see the worst in each other, bring each other down, or don’t treat each other with respect, having a baby will exacerbate these problems.
Think of babies like alcohol. No one becomes a different person when under the influence of too much alcohol; rather, elements of a personality are highlighted, sometimes for the worse. Similarly, having a baby will highlight elements of a marriage that always existed. A baby won’t singlehandedly doom a relationship, but might bring to the fore poor communication strategies.
The psychologist John Gottman found that in 67% of married couples marital satisfaction declines after having kids. He studied the 33% of couples who don’t experience a decline; these couples understand and appreciate each other. In other words, they are already best friends. Luckily, the communication skills that foster understanding and appreciation can be taught, but learning this stuff before a baby comes along is much easier than catching up afterwards.
2. Have Good Faith
What is good faith? Assume your partner has good intentions, which means stop interpreting everything s/he says or does as a dig against you or a sign of incompetence. My husband and I still work on this — sometimes we need to say the words “good faith” to the other person as a kind of verbal code that prompts us to reevaluate our tone.
Without good faith, a post-baby marriage doesn’t stand a chance. Every discussion will devolve into an argument, or, conversely, couples will avoid communication for fear of causing an argument. Neither scenario is good. Constant arguing can erode a marriage, and constant silence can lead to distance.
Luckily, good faith can also be learned. Instead of getting defensive, ask yourself if you truly afforded your partner the benefit of the doubt. A small problem can spiral out of control if each person assumes the worst about the other, so if you assume the worst remember why you coupled up in the first place. This goes back to step 1. Conversely, couples who practice good faith can learn more about each other and develop a greater appreciation for their marriage when problems arise.
Ultimately, these two steps depend upon picking a good partner before you have kids. Therefore, the best way to babyproof your marriage is to marry the right person.
© 2018 M Riley