How to instantly upgrade your relationship

“Parents are the ultimate role models for children. Every word, movement, and action has an effect. No other person or outside force has a greater influence on a child than the parent.” – Bob Keeshan

As a fresh parent, you may have already discovered that conflicts are a normal part of married life. This is especially so during the first year of having a first child. Lack of sleep combined with feeling deprived and overwhelmed are some of the reasons why both husbands and wives feel irritated and moody at times, which of course can turn any relationship into a challenge.

However, recognize these two truths:

  • TRUTH #1: Most couples experience what you are going through when they welcome their first baby.

  • TRUTH #2: To improve your relationship, you don’t need to eliminate disputes. All you need is to improve the way you argue.

Today, I want to show you one simple way how you can instantly improve your relationship with your spouse. But before I do so, let’s understand what happens to most couples, when they start fighting.

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

According to research conducted by John Gottman, a leading expert on marriage, couples often experience a trigger of events that cascade into a downward spiral of conflict and tension. He speaks about the ‘’Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’’ that so many couples experience.

For example, many couples start off an argument by criticizing each other’s characters ‘’you never take care of our son’’ or ‘’you are so selfish’’ instead of complaining about a specific incident or behaviour ‘’ I feel upset that you didn’t have time for our son last evening’’. Over time, both partners feel offended, and so the initial kind acts and positive feelings are overrun by nasty exchanges of contempt, often initiated by feelings of revenge. Eventually, after suffering from continuous attacks, at least one partner becomes extremely defensive, and no longer really listens to any conversations they have. At this stage, it becomes almost impossible to communicate in a meaningful manner. Finally, it is usually the man who completely shuts down in what Gottman calls “Stonewalling’’, as he can no longer bare the intensity of the conflict. Unfortunately, his quiet and unresponsive attitude towards any existing problem only invokes more anger and frustration for both partners, and the issues at stake become more frequent and dramatic.

ACTION STEP: For the next week, try and catch yourself whenever you are disputing with your wife and are falling into the trap of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Then, instead of beating yourself up, think of small tweaks that would make your conversation more constructive and friendly:

  • Instead of saying ‘’You are always so selfish’’, try ‘’ I feel that I need more support from you from whenever this happens…’’.

  • Instead of  defending yourself, take some responsibility as well.

  • Instead of ignoring what she says, propose you both have a constructive talk when things cool down a bit.

Why Conflicts can harm your baby

It is easy to have fights when we feel exhausted, stressed and overwhelmed. But while the marital decline is normal for couples with their first baby, it does not mean feelings of hostility are not harmless for our little one. In order to really understand the impact of our relationships on our kids, we need to appreciate that their brains are very susceptible to their environment.

When a baby is born, her lower brain (consisting of the Reptilian brain and the Mammalian brain) is already fully alive. This means that from almost birth an infant enjoys basic instinctive emotions. The upper brain ( Cortex)  however, which is responsible for sophisticated thinking, is still underdeveloped and takes many years to fully develop. In fact, during the first three years of life, key neural processes are being formed that are connected to a baby’s ability to self-soothe, focus attention, trust his parents and emotionally attach to his mother and father.

In other words, a child’s brain is both changing and changeable— repeated experiences literally shape the physical architecture of his brain. Everything he sees, hears, feels, touches or even smells impacts the brain and the way he will interact with the world.

So when parents fight, an infant does not feel safe. In fact, various studies show that even babies under the age of 6 months can detect when something is wrong and experience physiological changes, such as increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones when their parents argue. This is because they are helpless and constantly observing us parents, with whom they strive to create a secure bond. If a baby’s requirements are not being met, stress hormones put her into an either a constant state of high alert, or complete collapse.

Either way, an overload of stress makes a child struggle to calm down and regulate his emotions. As these are two key skills that can hugely impact how a kid will perform at school and interact with friends, the relationship of parents will usually have a huge impact on a child’s development.

The Secret to better relationships

Probably the biggest gift you can give to your baby is for you and your partner to engage in a loving and respectful relationship. This does not mean you won’t have conflicts, but it does mean that when they do happen, you are both committed to resolving them in a constructive manner. Parents who enjoy successful relationships are also in a better position to help their children cope with their own emotional feelings, especially if they can provide their little ones with good examples how to express differences in an amicable manner.

Resolving disputes more effectively may sound challenging at first. But if we think about how disputes usually escalate, we can also find solutions how to reduce tensions.  Sociologists Richard Nisbett and Edward Jones found that perceptual asymmetries lie at the heart of most conflicts. They observed that while people view their own behaviors as originating from circumstances beyond their control, they would normally consider other people’s actions as originating from inherent personality traits.

For example, if a husband finds no time to take care of a baby, he may ascribe his decision to stay at work and miss dinner on being busy and having last minute commitments. His wife at the same time will attribute his lateness from being selfish or careless, which is why in this case she may criticize her partner’s character, instead of simply verbalizing a complaint about a specific incident.

To understand what distinguished lasting marriages from those that failed, Gottman looked for the common denominators of happy couples and found one key ingredient that almost always guaranteed for a successful relationship. It was the ability of both partners to demonstrate empathy, regardless as to whether a conflict seemed solvable.

Empathy according to Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Babies is so powerful, as it is the ability to show understanding, rather than find solutions that promote loving relationships. He suggests we develop an ‘empathy reflex’’ when we encounter the hot feelings of our partners, by ritualizing two simple steps:

STEP 1: Describe the emotional changes you think you see

When you sense that your spouse is upset, try and understand what happened to trigger those feelings. For example, you may be coming back from work, and you see your wife is already steaming.

So you could say: ‘’Hey Honey, you look quite upset’’.

By doing so, we start the interaction in a more soft and loving manner.

STEP 2: Guess where those emotional changes come from

You could then continue:

‘’ I guess you feel exhausted because you barely slept three hours. And you were with our baby all day so you also felt extremely lonely and even overwhelmed. And it feels unfair that I was able to sleep, head to the office, and now I am coming back home late. I am really sorry, and really appreciate everything you did today’’.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but you will get better at guessing the source of your partner’s mood changes, the more you practice. By learning to connect to her inner world, you will gradually understand her much better, and able to show the kind of support and acceptance she needs in that moment, while giving her a sincere invitation to express herself so that you can both engage in a productive dialogue. Incidentally, you will also be practicing exactly the kind of skill that will help you connect with your infant at a much deeper level.

ACTION STEP: Next time you argue, try and build your empathy reflex by starting off describing what you believe your wife is feeling. Then, make a guess as to where that change of heart is coming from, and show some understanding for whatever it is that she may experience.

PS. Remember to share with me how this process is working for you below.