Many new parents are shocked at how every relationship changes after a baby is born. Marriage is one of the biggest relationships to shift, and it’s critical to learn how to mitigate a relationship meltdown before it starts.
When my son blows out the candles on his birthday cake, the focus will be on celebrating the beautiful and healthy 5-year-old boy that fills our life with joy. The subtle second celebration will be that of being five years postpartum.
Milestones and transitions often require reflection as a means of crossing a threshold. I’ve been reflecting on how this journey has changed me, forced me to evolve my relationship with my husband, and expanded our family system.
After my son was born, the time and energy once dedicated to my own self-care and my creative expression was quickly refocused on my baby without another option.
The carefree timelessness my husband and I shared on fun dates, trips, and free time seemed to evaporate. We had taken courses, read books, and worked hard to prepare ourselves for parenthood. Those things were helpful but not adequate to maintain our health, marriage, and careers while battling chronic sleep deprivation.
Relationship meltdown causes
Thankfully, when life got tough, we were smart enough to re-engage with the experts and worked to adapt to save ourselves and our marriage. We turned to the Gottman Institute for research-based wisdom. The one thing we learned: ‘Relationship Meltdown’ stems from a vicious pattern, not a single event.
1. Bringing home a new baby
Gottman found that over 67% of couples report a decline in satisfaction after bringing their first baby home. When couples are asked how much of the burden they carry regarding parenting and managing the household, the answer always totals over 100%. Meaning each individual thinks they do more than their fair share.
This false perception of “I do more, and it’s not fair” can be the catalyst for chronic arguments among overwhelmed new parents. But what couples fight about isn’t as important as how they fight.
John Gottman, PhD says, “Most arguments are about absolutely nothing.”
2. Living in survival mode
We experienced a perfect storm in our early days as new parents. When overwhelmed with all things surrounding the baby, we were in survival mode. We lost the ability to be clear about our individual needs (what do I want and need right now?), be curious about my partner’s needs (what is going on in his world right now?), and work together to attune and help each other get our needs met constructively.
3. Falling into old, destructive habits
Too often, things erupted into criticism, attacks, and silent treatment. Couples must learn how to fight more consciously and not use the destructive tactics – coined “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” by Gottman – often learned while growing up.
Many couples spiral into the exact horrible patterns that Gottman’s research found is destined to lead to relationship meltdown.
A closer look at the Four Horsemen
For the sake of this section, it’s important to know and understand the four horsemen.
A common relationship pattern
For example, in my marriage, if my basic needs – sleep, self-care, connection, work-out, food, clean home – were unmet, then I might have engaged my husband when he got home with a “Harsh Startup,” which was usually fueled with Criticism and Contempt.
Then my husband would say I’m wrong and got Defensive.
We then typically argued until it erupted, and one of us stormed away, which sent us into Stonewalling.
Overcoming a relationship meltdown
Being stuck in this pattern was extremely painful. Our suffering, paired with our love and commitment to each other, drove our will to change and learn new ways of interacting and working together.
To overcome a relationship meltdown or navigate conflict, follow these steps:
- Let go of contempt: reflect and gain clarity on our own wants and needs
- Engage each other: with a “Soft Startup,” not using criticism or contempt
- Relinquish defensiveness: maintain presence and take responsibility for our actions
- Mirror, validate, empathize: take a break from the conversation, ask to start over, and mindfully re-engage in a dialogue
- Then break out of stonewalling: to understand each other’s world fully
These skills and practices have not only saved us, but they’ve also deepened our fondness and admiration for each other and strengthened our family. We are constantly practicing and still make mistakes, but we are committed to repairing, requesting healthy behavior changes, and coming back to love.