The Best Way to Avoid The Communication Fail that Happens to Most Relationships after Kids
Communication falters when kids arrive on the scene
Kids are like a stained glass window: they may be beautiful and bring colour and joy into your life, but they also block your ability to see and hear your partner clearly. In this post, I’ll talk about how to break through this barrier and reconnect with your partner. Keep reading if you are interested in knowing how to improve communication for couples with kids.
Many couples aren’t prepared for how children will affect their connection with each other. They start their relationship in the honeymoon glow of newness, excitement, and intimacy. Connection and communication can seem easy – or at least there is space and time to work on it. Throw in a child or two, and suddenly everything shifts.
Here is my story. I watched the communication in my relationship deteriorate to epic lows – not once, but twice. In the beginning, my wife and I had a fairy tale romance – quickly fell in love and got married 10 months after our first date. Life was full of gourmet meals prepared together and eaten slowly. Bike rides and hobbies. Lazy Sunday mornings and late nights talking. Things weren’t perfect, but our communication was good and continued to grow.
Nothing could prepare me for our communication fail
Fast forward five years to the birth of our first daughter. One year later, we were both in therapy. With almost $20,000 spent on counselling, we managed to keep things intact. We worked hard, and our communication improved. But it was hard, long, and expensive. During this time, I completed my Masters in Marriage and Family therapy and was running my own private practice as a licensed psychotherapist specializing in couple therapy. As the birth of our second daughter approached, I thought that my $50,000 degree and thousands of hours of clinical experience would prepare me for the impending difficulties and additional stress.
Boy, was I wrong.
No matter my expectations, or how well prepared I thought I was, nothing prepared me for how difficult it still was with a newborn attached to my wife 24/7 and a 3.5 year old adjusting to a new sibling. It seemed like every morning began with her coming down the stairs nit-picking some little thing I did wrong. I imagine she would say that every morning began with me having a short fuse and forgetting to do the simplest things. The shots were fired equally from both sides. The disparaging way we spoke to each other left damage that rippled through all parts of our marriage. We cuddled and hugged less. Our arguments became more intense and frequent. We laughed, joked less, and had no time for hobbies. We basically did less of all the fun stuff that couples do – the things that bring couples together in the first place.
Neither of us liked this dynamic, obviously. But we also didn’t make much effort to change.
Our misery was real
But let’s be honest: what couple has the coping skills to communicate better when they have two young children melting down at their feet? What couple can rekindle intimacy when one parent has an infant attached to them most of the time? Our misery was real, and it sucked. Our misery was like so many other couples I see in my office. I won’t cite you research because I don’t need to. I don’t need to offer you the epidemiological rates because it’s a given that communication between a couple tanks in the days, weeks, and even years after the birth of a child.
Place the blame outside your relationship
In part because of my training, we have managed to improve things this time around without $20,000 in therapy fees (side note: this is a big reason why I practice solution-focused brief therapy – I don’t think you should have to spend $20 K on therapy to improve your relationship! Sometimes it only takes a few sessions to get you on the right track). The most important thing we do to keep our communication healthy is externalize the blame.
Let me say that again: externalize the blame.
Rather than point to our personal attachment styles as a source of blame, attempt to discern the origins of our attack/defend stances, or look to biology to explain our lack of intimacy, we blame our circumstances. This is called thinking systemically.
Why we shouldn’t blame parents
Far too many of my colleagues, and arguably most in the field of psychotherapy, seek to find the source of dysfunction for a relationship inside the people themselves. This is a mistake, in my opinion. Should we heap more blame on tired parents reeling from the tremendous workload that comes with raising young children? To me, this kind of thinking is unhealthy, unfair, and downright short-sighted.
As new parents, we shouldn’t shoulder the blame for our relationship difficulties while we try to raise little hellions. Instead, we can place that blame on our circumstances and open up space to connect with our partner instead of blaming them.
Imagine: if I could wave a magic wand and put you on a beach or a hiking trail or gourmet restaurant with just your partner, no kids hounding you for sweets or whining about toys, I bet you would see a smile stretch across your face, hear a different tone in your voice, and find yourself having a fun chat with your partner.
Our partner is not the enemy
By reminding ourselves that much of this communication difficulty stems from our circumstances, rather than from ourselves or each other, we can take a deep breath and get some perspective. We can come together to tackle things as a team instead of seeing our partner as the enemy. We can even connect with our friends who are going through the same thing we are. When we do, we discover we’re not alone, or crazy, and that our kids aren’t certifiable but just normal!
Good communication still takes work and a lot of deep breaths. It means taking a minute to give a smile or hug or a few words of appreciation or understanding. It requires reminding each other that you’re in this together and it’s not all your fault. But I promise you, those efforts are a whole lot more rewarding. They are also a lot less time consuming than the fighting, nagging and silent treatments!
“When we externalize blame, we are acknowledging that our circumstances influence our lives in large degrees. The beauty in externalizing blame is that we shift responsibility away from ourselves and partners – and who wouldn’t want to do that?”
What you can do starting today
Here is my challenge to you: tonight, after the kids are (finally) asleep (for the moment), sit down with your partner for five minutes before you turn on Netflix. When you do, take stock: remove some of that blame from each other’s shoulders and place it on the fact that you just grew your family. Recognize that this may be the real reason you’re in a crisis phase, and not because either you or your partner or your relationship is broken. You’re perfect as you are. You’re just under an incredible amount of pressure. Cut each other some slack and focus on one good thing each of you has done lately. Remember: you’re not alone, this is totally normal, and you have the power to make it better.
Another great resource…
If you are interested in learning more about working with a systemically-trained couple therapist, check out the American Association of Marriage and Family therapy (AAMFT) or follow this link to learn more about how a marriage and family therapist can help you. If you’re in Canada, the Canadian Association of Marriage and Family Therapy (CAMFT) can be found through this link.
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About the Author
Jonathan Van Viegen is a full-time relationship coach and licensed psychotherapist helping adults and couples improve one of the most important relationships in their life – the one with their partner. Jonathan’s approach has helped 100’s of clients struggling to maintain a lasting, loving relationship while navigating the challenges of parenting. Jonathan’s goal with this blog is to offer you a behind the scenes look at his life to show that it is possible to create the kind of relationship you desire – using simple skills that anyone can learn.