How to Thrive (or Survive) after Your First Baby

By: Dr. Willard F. Harley, Jr. from Marriage Builders, Inc.

(note: this article has been shortened for length)


...It's tragic, but true, that the first baby often sinks a marriage. You'd think that it would be the other way around, that a baby would draw a husband and wife closer together. But there are very good reasons why children in general, and babies in particular tend to make marriages worse, not better.

It has to do with problem solving skills. Prior to the first arrival, a couple's ability to resolve conflicts is not really put to the test. Peace and order usually reign in marriages before children arrive. There may be conflicts, but they are few and relatively easy to resolve. But after the first child, couples are faced with conflicts they've never seen before, and they often do not have easy answers.

How Most Couples Resolve Conflicts

Most couples use one of three different strategies to resolve conflicts. The first and most common of the three is the Dictator strategy. This strategy assumes that one member of the family, usually the husband, has the wisdom and compassion to make most family decisions correctly. While other members of the family can lobby to have him (or her) take their interests into account, when a decision is made, it is final.

Sometimes that strategy works. But, especially here in America, it usually doesn't work. For one thing, dictators have not been known to be all that wise or compassionate. They tend to make decisions in their own interest and at the expense of their citizens. The same thing happens in marriage. When one spouse is given the right to make all final decisions, the other spouse usually suffers.

Those who have had bad experiences with a Dictator, often modify their approach to problem solving by creating a second strategy, the Dueling Dictators strategy. This approach raises both spouses to dictator status, and solutions to problems are decided by strength and determination. Each spouse proposes a solution to a conflict that is in their own best interest, and the war begins. After the dust settles, one spouse wins the decision, which means that his or her solution is put into effect...

Unfortunately, the Dueling Dictators strategy works well enough to be the working strategy for millions of unhappy couples. Clearly, this approach makes problem solving unpleasant for all involved, but at least there is a solution. And it seems more fair than the Dictator strategy because the pain alternates between both spouses instead of being borne by only one. With each decision one spouse wins and the other loses. The spouse that suffers varies from decision to decision. Instead of one spouse being consistently victimized, both spouses are alternately victimized.

If you were to make the mistake of adapting the Dueling Dictators strategy, you would try to force your husband to care for your baby whenever you could, whether he liked it or not. You would pull out all the stops, and face fire with fire. You would threaten him, keep him awake at night, withhold sex, and tell his parents what a terrible father he has turned out to be. From time to time, your tactics would work, and he would care for your son while you take a shower, watch TV or, better yet, go out with your friends.

The failure of the Dictator strategy and the Dueling Dictators strategy often leads to a third approach to marital conflict resolution, the Anarchy strategy. This strategy gives up on the idea that marital conflicts can be resolved, and takes the position "every man for himself." A husband and wife each do whatever they feel like doing. This strategy has the advantage of preventing either spouse from forcing the other to submit to their wishes. That's because both spouses refuse to do anything that the other wants them to do.

This strategy, of course, is only one step away from divorce, but almost everyone faced with failure to resolve conflicts tries it. An example of this strategy would be for you to drop your son off at your mother-in-law's house and tell her that it's your husband's turn to take care of the child. He, in turn, would ignore his mother's telephone calls, and go on with his life as if nothing happened. In other words, this strategy doesn't resolve the conflict, it overlooks it.

There is a variation of this strategy that I call Limited Anarchy, where only one spouse completely abdicates responsibility. In this case, your husband decides not to deal with the issue of child care, leaving you with the complete responsibility to raise your baby. In this scenario, your husband doesn't tell you what to do, he simply ignores the problem. You, on the other hand, end up caring for the child because you have not yet abandoned your responsibility. As is the case with total Anarchy, Limited Anarchy also leads to divorce. In fact, it is the most common reason that women leave men (see my article "Why Women Leave Men").

How Couples Should Resolve Conflicts

Thankfully, there is one more strategy left. It's the Democracy strategy. This strategy is guided by the Policy of Joint Agreement (never do anything without an enthusiastic agreement between you and your spouse). When this strategy is used to resolve a conflict, a husband and wife do not make a decision until they are both in enthusiastic agreement.

Unlike true democracy, where only a slight majority can impose it's will on the minority, the Democracy strategy for marital conflict requires unanimous consent. Neither spouse can impose their will on the other. Of course, that's because there are only two people involved in every decision, and a slight majority for two turns out to be 100 percent.

The Democracy strategy is very different from the others. In the Dictator strategy, marital conflicts are resolved by the decisions of one spouse (usually the husband), leaving the other to suffer it's consequences. In the Dueling Dictators strategy, conflicts are resolved by winning spouses imposing their will on losing spouses. The Anarchy strategy has no winners or losers because neither spouse is willing to submit to each other's wishes, and the conflicts are never resolved. But in the Democracy strategy, conflicts are not only resolved, but they are resolved with no victims. The outcome of each decision is in the best interest of both spouses.

Why isn't the Democracy strategy used in all marriages, or even in most marriages? Self-centeredness is one answer. The most powerful person in a marriage may feel that if he or she can always prevail in a conflict, why not? That puts the Dictator strategy into play. Once it's tried, the other strategies I've mentioned eventually follow.

Another reason that couples don't use the Democracy strategy is that it requires more time and skill than the others. As a quick description of what's involved, let me explain the steps you should take when you use the Democracy strategy to resolve your conflicts.

1. Set ground rules to make negotiations pleasant and safe.

Before you start to negotiate, agree with each other that you will both follow these rules: (a) be pleasant and cheerful throughout your discussion of the issue, (b) put safety first--do not threaten to cause pain or suffering when you negotiate, even if your spouse makes threatening remarks or if the negotiations fail, and (c) if you reach an impasse, stop for a while and come back to the issue later.

Under no conditions should you be disrespectful or judgmental of your spouse's opinions or desires. Your negotiations should accept and respect your differences. Otherwise, you will fail to make them pleasant and safe.

2. Identify the problem from the perspectives of both you and your spouse.

Be able to state each other's position on a conflict before you go on to find a solution. In the case of negotiating for help with care for your baby, state what you would like to have done, and what form you would like his help to take. Your husband should then explain his reasons for having not helped in the past. Be sure you don't argue with him, just get to know how he feels.

3. Brainstorm solutions with abandon.

Spend some time thinking of all sorts of ways to handle the problem, and don't correct each other when you hear of a plan that you don't like -- you'll have a chance to do that later. If you give your intelligence a chance to flex it's muscle, you will have a long list of solutions.

4. Choose the solution that is appealing to both of you.

From your list of solutions, some will satisfy only one of you but not both. However, scattered within the list will be solutions that both of you would find attractive. Among those solutions that are mutually satisfactory, select the one that you both like the most.

These steps take time and thought, something that the other strategies do not require. But the steps themselves will not only give you solutions to your problem, but they will also draw you much closer to each other emotionally.

How to Care for Your Baby

[Note, some of the following direct advice is referenced from a letter to Dr. Harley] You love your new son, and love caring for him. So much so, that you want a job that keeps you at home so that you can provide the quality of care you feel he needs.

But you also want your husband to share in your joy, and in the responsibility for his care. You are feeling abandoned by your husband, because, when you need a break from the care of your son, he refuses to help.

I made the same mistake when my wife, Joyce, and I had our first baby, Jennifer. I was a full-time graduate student and had a full-time job to support our new family. I reasoned that with all that work, Joyce, who quit her job to be a full-time mom, should take full responsibility for our daughter until I finished graduate school. It seemed reasonable to me at time, but Joyce still remembers how I didn't help her care for our baby.

It was the first time our problem solving skills were really put to the test, and I found myself dropping into the Dictator strategy of conflict resolution. I told Joyce the way it was going to be, and she accepted it, with resentment. If I had it to do over again, she and I would have thought it through until we arrived at a mutually agreeable solution. After considering the alternatives, Joyce may have enthusiastically agreed to take full responsibility for the baby until I finished graduate school. If we had come to a mutual agreement first, there would not have been resentment later.

But maybe she would not have agreed. She might have explained to me that my active role in caring for our new baby was more important to her than my job or my schooling. If that were the case, I would have needed to rethink my priorities, and reorganize my schedule to accommodate caring for our new baby. Perhaps I would need to slow down the pace of my education, or work a little less. I had incorrectly assumed that my schedule was something I was doing for both of us. I was wrong -- I certainly wasn't doing it for Joyce if my schedule had crowded out fulfillment of her emotional needs.

Your husband's help in caring for your baby is one of your emotional needs. You've never had it before, because this is your first baby. But you've now discovered that you need your husband to join you in taking full responsibility for the care of your son. When he does that, he deposits love units into his account in your Love Bank, and when he doesn't, your frustration withdraws love units. He doesn't realize it, but every time he refuses to watch your baby so that you can take a shower or watch TV, you lose a little love for your husband.

I squandered some of the love Joyce had for me when I didn't help her with our first baby. If she had explained it to me in those terms, I'm sure that I would have adjusted my schedule to accommodate her. But I didn't think it mattered that much. I thought she would adjust to it. I was wrong, because you can't adjust to an unmet emotional need.

I suggest that you explain to your husband (1) that you need his active involvement in the care of your new baby and (2) explain to him what he should do to meet that need. All of his arguments about working to support you, and being tired when he comes home doesn't negate the fact that he is not meeting your emotional needs right now. If he expects you to continue to be in love with him, he must learn to meet this very powerful, but new, emotional need.

Then, I would try to help him meet your need by explaining that you don't want him to suffer when he helps you with the baby. You want him to enjoy meeting your need. So, by discussing a variety of alternatives with him, you can create ways that he can enthusiastically join you in the care of your son. That will require you to implement the Democracy strategy to help you resolve this conflict. When you use that strategy, your husband can learn to meet your emotional need with enthusiasm.

Quite frankly, that's the way he wants you to meet his needs, too.