Let’s paint an all-too-realistic picture of new parenthood: The laundry’s piling up, the dog needs a walk, and somehow you’ve run out of baby wipes. You feel it’s your partner’s turn to step up—after all, you’ve been waking up three times a night to breastfeed.
You might say out loud, “Wow, the hamper’s really overflowing.” But somehow your beloved doesn’t take the hint. Resentment builds, and by the end of the day, you feel like you could scream.
Been there? We all have. You don’t even have to have a baby in the house to experience relationship challenges like these. But something about the combination of major changes plus little sleep makes new parenthood ripe for conflict.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and effective communication is the key, says Ashurina Ream, PsyD, PMH-C, a licensed clinical psychologist and perinatal mental health specialist. “Clear communication with your support system is so beneficial as you navigate these new and different roles,” she says.
Here Dr. Ream shares some tools to improve the way you and your partner talk with each other—and release some of that tension.
Time to Talk
Rest assured, communication problems are common in romantic relationships. Add a baby to the mix, and the stakes become that much higher.
“Most commonly, I find that couples struggle to find the right way to talk to one another,” Dr. Ream says. “They might become accustomed to communicating in a vague or unclear fashion. Or they might avoid communication all together, bottle up their feelings, and eventually explode.”
Life with a new baby might not leave much time for communication, period. As first-time parents, Stephanie and her husband were not prepared for just how much their schedule would change.
“Before we had a baby, we had really good communication and would talk all the time,” she recalls. But once their son was born, she found that much of that time eaten up by the many demands of caregiving.
With such little opportunity to talk, you need to make your words count.
3 Tips for Better Communication
To improve your communication style, consider these three questions—what Dr. Ream calls “checkpoints.” (She notes that these communication strategies work for all relationships, not just romantic ones.)
1. Is my communication direct?
Most people think they’re being clear when they aren’t. This is a time to be as direct and specific as possible.
“When we’re being direct, we need to spell out our needs. You want to be sure there’s little room for interpretation,” says Dr. Ream, who often sees this play out with her clients.
Instead of: “I need your support.”
Try: “Could you please give the kids a bath tonight and put them to bed?”
And if you’re thinking your partner should know all this already, Dr. Ream has further words of advice: “The reality is they don’t know and they don’t think like you. Being direct can really reduce frustration.”
2. Am I expecting my partner to read my mind?
This is another common communication trap. “All too often, we expect others to know what we want, but that’s not fair,” Dr. Ream points out. To put this into practice, avoid leaning on assumptions.
Instead of: “You know I’ve had a rough day. Why can’t you make dinner?”
Try: “I have been feeling so overwhelmed today. Could you please make dinner?”
Maria, a mother of two, acknowledges that asking for help means being vulnerable with your partner. It can take some getting used to, but that shouldn’t stop you. “Sometimes one of you will need something more than the other. You just have to be able to communicate that,” Maria shares.
3. Am I making accusatory comments?
Accusations are a surefire way to start conflicts. “This communication pattern may be a reflex for one or both of you, but it can really harm your relationship,” Dr. Ream cautions.
Say you’re looking for a much-needed (and deserved!) break at the end of the day.
Instead of: “Why are you always working so late when you know I'm struggling?”
Try: “I look forward to your help when you get home because it’s been especially hard for me to manage everything. Can you be home earlier?”
As new parents, you’ll have plenty of things to talk about, from the minutia of the grocery list to how you feel about sleep training. By brushing up on your communication skills, you can help prepare your relationship for the changes that come with having a baby. If you remember nothing else, let it be the golden rule: Always send a message how you'd like to receive the message.
Still finding yourselves stuck? Seeking out professional help can help you overcome some of these obstacles.
Most importantly, keep the conversations going. “Don’t be afraid to say when you need help,” urges mom Maria, “especially with your partner.”
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