The World’s Cutest Wrecking Ball: How Not to Let a Baby Ruin Your Marriage

How Not to Let Baby Ruin Your MarriageA baby is a wrecking ball~the world’s cutest wrecking ball.

I mean that figuratively, of course.  But science across decades is clear: About two in three couples are permanently less happy once a child is born—with major increases in loneliness, fighting, and hostility.  And they stay that way until the last child launches.  The data scared me so much that as I went to school for my doctorate in developmental psychology, I wrote a research paper on it, and seriously considered not having children!

Yet in some cultures, couples get happier once they have children.  And in mainstream American society, one in three couples maintains their pre-baby happiness.

Can you do it too?  Research suggests that’s a Yes, as long as you follow the example proven to work for the happy one-third.

Step 1: Acknowledge Baby’s Downside

Babies are delightful.  But really, it shouldn’t surprise us that they aren’t particularly helpful to Mom and Dad’s love affair.  Babies mean less time, less money, less sex, less sleep, less freedom, less intimate discussion…in short, less of everything that eases marital bliss.  The sleep loss alone is huge: In studies of healthy adults, 100% become clinically depressed if they’re deprived of sleep every night for just one month.

So babies are tiny and adorable, but they’re tiny and adorable stress-festivals.  And if science is clear on anything, it’s this: Long-term stress may or may not kill us, but it definitely doesn’t make us stronger.

Step 2: Accept the New Normal

Unfortunately, baby stress is long-term, because baby needs are long-term.  In a Zen-like way, though, fighting the stress only makes it worse.  How can you accept the new normal?

Let’s start with the common scenario of non-acceptance.  All this stress is made much worse by a common dynamic found only in unhappy couples, where Dad usually refuses to accept the new normal of “less Us, more All Three of Us,” instead grieving the loss of his wife, spending more time away from home and more time at work, and emotionally withdrawing from the relationship.

Meantime, Mom falls so profoundly in love with the baby—literally undergoing biochemical shifts that focus her intensely on the new child–, she often ignores, criticizes, or lets Dad slip away without much attempt to bring him near again.  She’s madly in love, and for the first time since she and Dad got together, it’s not with him.

This dynamic of mutually pulling apart just when you need to pull together is devastating for marital happiness.

In happy couples, Mom and Dad are stressed, too; anyone would be. They’re going through just as huge an adjustment as the folks who will remain unhappy.  And yes, Mom falls head-over-heels for Baby among the happy couples.  That part isn’t optional.

But the happy couples are doing something that makes all the difference: Mom and Dad are both accepting the stress as the new normal, and Dad is turning towards his new family rather than blaming his wife or child for the natural dynamic Baby brings, just as Mom is inviting him to join in this profound new love of hers.

It’s a mental shift.  And one science proves most anyone can learn to make.

Step 3: Get On The Home Team

Women, for you, this means welcoming and encouraging Dad into what Gottman calls the “charmed circle” of your intense love affair with your new child.

It’s natural for new moms to feel protective of their babies.  To a new mother, it can seem like they’re the only ones who can provide milk the right way, hold Baby the right way, burp Baby the right way, change diapers the right way, play with Baby the right way, bathe Baby the right way…

But we don’t want to “right way” ourselves out of marriage or marital happiness…right?

Research shows that women who remain happily wed post-baby are those who can let go of the need to always be right—even if that need comes from a deeply protective place—and remind themselves that there are several right ways to do most things.  These happy women avoid criticizing their mate and instead focus on bringing him inside the new family bond, and telling him how much they love and appreciate him as a dad.

And isn’t the biggest right thing we can do welcoming Dad to join us in parenting?

Men, for you, this means grieving, while jumping into the game of Family Life with Mom and Baby and refusing to be benched.

When your first baby is born, it’s time to acknowledge that you’re losing your wife’s primary attentions to someone who “stands” under 24 inches, farts publicly, and requires burping.  That feels tragic, all the more because it’s predictable, expected, mundane, and permanent.  You can’t win your wife back to your relationship the way it was before.  Denying, fixing, eliminating, withdrawing from, or waiting out the new normal is scientifically guaranteed misery.

But there’s a profound difference between grieving the Old Us, which is unavoidable, and losing your happy marriage, which is preventable. You have a strong element of choice in becoming very close to your mate post-baby, and here’s how:  Join the new normal, becoming a full part of the new world Mom and Baby inhabit.

As Dr. John M. Gottman, foremost researcher on the subject put it, “…where the husband is able to do this, he doesn’t resent his child.  He no longer feels like only a husband, but like a father, too.”

A lot of men let women push them aside in baby care, or mistakenly assume babies can’t or don’t want to play with Dad until they’re old enough to talk.

Wrong.  If you want this marriage, get on the Home Team now.

Happy couples are ones where Dad follows through on attending the childbirth classes and being at Baby’s delivery—and then is present and active and loving in Baby’s life every day thereafter.  So Dad, talk, read stories (yes, even from birth), sing songs, blow belly-berries, make faces, play peek-a-boo; carry Baby around through the house and on errands, let him sleep with his ear to your heart…  Your wife will adore you for it.  Heck, I’ll adore you for it!

Upshot?  As with so much else, happiness post-baby comes down to small shifts and behavioral changes that win big over time.  Women, open your love-struck eyes to thank and include the man who gave you this fantastic new human.  Men, grieve the loss of your #1 place with your wife, and join in the tremendous adventure that is parenthood.  Babies may be wrecking balls of the old order, but if you respond by strengthening family bonds, your marriage and your baby will thrive in new and beautiful ways.

For more information about the author please visit www.lovefactually.co

 

 


Five Ways to Create and Maintain Stability In Relationships with BPD Partners

relationship advice bpd personThe shock of being threatened with a knife by his twenty-three year old wife Charlene hit Jackson really hard.

He arranged a separation from Charlene to recover, and to begin to feel safe again. The toughest moments came when he wanted to hear her voice that had encouraged him so often. Growing up in a home with a devouring mother who put him down when he wanted to think and act on his own behalf, he was attracted to Charlene’s adoration and constant attention. Sure, she was volatile – calm and caring sometimes but insatiable and stifling at others. But now, he was seeing another side of her, and feeling as abused as he had when he lived at home with his parents.

Not long after the threatening incident that led to the couple separating, Jackson discovered that Charlene had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). He was furious and felt he had been duped. Yet Jackson couldn’t stop wanting to talk to Charlene and meet up with her from time to time. He didn’t know how to get the more nurturing parts of Charlene that he needed to keep his confidence and spirit up, and how to be safe from her verbal and physical abuse.

Having a relationship with a BPD partner is like living in two worlds at the same time as Jackson discovered. It was heaven on earth when Charlene made him feel like he was the only thing in her world.  When she was feeling attracted to and attached to Jackson,  he was the ‘good’ guy. But when she was empty and desperate for him to fulfill the promise of being her idol, she would taunt him and nag at him until he focused solely on her. At those moments he was the ‘bad’ guy, withholding from her, making her feel as if she didn’t exist.

The Essential Relational Problems That BPD People Live With

Otto Kernberg gives a useful description of a  BPD person’s “splitting” defense in his book, Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism . He describes how they split themselves up into empty/bad and full/good parts, and do the same to their loved ones. When Jackson was doing the dishes or working on an illustration for his client, Charlene felt empty and therefore made Jackson into the ‘bad’ guy. But when he was attentive and focusing on her, he was the ‘good’ guy, filling her up again.

It’s exciting for Charlene to put pressure on Jackson to walk out on himself and join her in her state of anxiety and emptiness. She wants him to blur the boundaries and become part of her. That’s so satisfying. But as soon as he needs to be his own person again, she gets enraged and threatens to hurt him.

Why Can’t People with BPD Stay Full and Remember That They are Loved?

BPD adults have missed out on two essential developmental experiences that affect all their attachments.

  1. They can’t feel you and hold you as a constant loving being in their mind’s eye. You are either ‘good’, ‘bad’ or ‘absent’!  It’s called a lack of object constancy. So when Jackson went for a walk with Charlene just before they were preparing dinner the night of the threatened attack, she felt him as the good person, present with her. But the moment he wanted to do something else while she was preparing the dinner he became the ‘bad’ person, abandoning her and making her empty again.
  1. They have trouble imagining your intentions and needs. It’s known as trouble mentalizing. According to this theory of BPD, put forward by Bateman and Fonagy in their book, Psychotherapy for BPD, when Charlene gets angry that Jackson wants to do something else as she prepares the dinner, she cannot imagine that he may need the rest room, or need to check messages on his work e-mail, or just need to read a trade magazine. She imagines only that he is tired of her and wants to get away – hence the rage and threats. Mentalization based treatment is very successful in helping people like Charlene control their extreme feelings by learning how to read the intentions of their loved ones.

Jackson and Charlene didn’t stay apart for long. They had short periods of separation and reunion in waves. He needed her to make him the center of her universe and a worthwhile person who was necessary to her life – all the things he never got from his parents. She needed him to make her feel that she was better than his mother and could provide him with support, ensuring that he would stick around. It became a co-dependent relationship. It’s on the foundation of co-dependency that many relationships involving a BPD person and a narcissistically wounded person (Jackson) survive.

Finding Stability

Introducing structure and predictability really helps couples like Charlene and Jackson.

  1. Make specific times to be together with no other intrusions for short spans, so that Charlene will ‘know’ she isn’t abandoned or unloved and start poking Jackson to attend to her. It helps with the difficulty she has with ‘object constancy.’ Spell out the details like from ‘6pm-6:30 pm is sharing our day together time. Jackson starts talking first and Charlene listens for 3 minutes, then vice versa.’ It may sound calculated but in my experience BPD partners use the entire time to either vent or dig at the other for information to prove loyalty. Structuring the talking-listening makes the encounter satisfying for both.
  1. Plan to do things together during those times that bring both of them together in a world called ‘us’ – so that Jackson doesn’t feel he has to give up his world to be engulfed by hers, and so that Charlene learns that other worlds exist that include her.
  1. Engage in regular and constant ‘check ins’ with each other – saying out loud what you are feeling and thinking in the moment. It works by giving feedback about what is going on inside Jackson so that Charlene doesn’t go to her usual abandonment story. Jackson’s saying things like, “I’m really tired after that walk!” will help Charlene appreciate that he doesn’t want to lie down because he is tired of her, but that his body needs a rest!
  1. Have a network of friends outside the relationship. Family relationships are bad for both parties, so friends and colleagues become crucial in helping the couple avoid co-dependency that fuels the cycle of instability.
  1. Encourage your BPD partner to write down their feelings while you are not in the same place together. So if Jackson is at the Gym and Charlene is doing laundry at home, she might get anxious that he is meeting someone new and won’t ever come home. Writing down those feelings at the time and then sharing them later is a very effective tool to control volatile feelings and discuss them later when reality proves the anxieties unfounded.

Writing the feelings down helps settle the turmoil and release it in a coherent manner. It engages the more rational part of the brain with the emotional centers and helps the BPD person to get grounded and then do a reality check. It’s much less likely that when Jackson comes back from the Gym, Charlene will attack him with her unprocessed anxiety and fear of abandonment.

In my experience of working with couples where one person has BPD and the other is narcissistically wounded (the common combination of attraction) they agree to these five core stabilizing suggestions and use it for a short while. As soon as stability is created, they abandon the scheme and the whole cycle of volatile emotions, safety-issues and fear become center stage again.

 

Dr. Jeanette Raymond is a licensed clinical psychologist with a private practice in Los Angeles. She is the Author of: Now You Want Me, Now You Don’t! Fear of Intimacy: Ten ways to recognize fear of intimacy, and ten ways to manage it in your relationship.