How to cope with conflict in your relationship
A new baby adds all sorts of new pressures and irritations to a relationship. Avoid unnecessary conflict with these strategies.

When new parents are sleep deprived it doesn’t take much to start an argument. It’s not just the mothers that feel the stress of having a new little person to take care of, it’s the dads too.

Babies are an enormous responsibility and when they’re not sleeping or eating or doing what you are expecting them to, you can’t take your frustrations (and anxiety) out on them. So it’s no wonder parents find themselves picking on each other for what are often not particularly good reasons.

There are a couple of topics that are like hot buttons to start an argument between parents and should be managed carefully, says psychologist Karen Viljoen. “Sometimes it’s not about what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it.

"When you’re tired it’s much harder to communicate properly because you don’t have the focus to think clearly. But in truth you’ll get through those difficult first months far better if you and your partner think before you lash out and are verbally gentle with each other,” she says.

Sleep is not a competition

How many times do new parents say things like, “It’s your turn to get up for the baby tonight,” or, “I was with her all day, you can do the night shift”?

When a new baby arrives, sleep becomes a precious resource and a thing to be negotiated. “Try not to compare who’s more tired than whom,” says Karen. “You’re probably both tired and lack of sleep can be a shock to the system. Vying for sleep can become a pointless task; rather discuss together how you are going to handle the coming night.

"If you feel your partner is taking too many nights 'off' to sleep, suggest to him or her that you prepare a roster so you know exactly what to expect for the week." You can easily negotiate how the roster will work, for example, one of you takes the early shift and the other the later one. Or one has two nights off, etc.

I’ve been at work all day – what have you done?

When you bring your new baby home it’s generally the rule that your husband goes back to work after a few days while you are at home with the baby. It’s startling for all new mothers how a small baby’s basic needs can take up a whole day. Between the feeding and the changing and the daily needs of a home, there’s little time to do much else.

The last thing you want to hear when your husband walks in is something like, “Why isn’t dinner ready?" "What have you been doing all day?”

“What you want to try to avoid is getting defensive,” says Karen. “Don’t start making excuses for all the things you haven’t done, or the favourite line, 'You try staying at home all day looking after a 5-week-old!'

Rather wait until you and your partner have both relaxed a little (perhaps once you’ve put the baby down) and tell your partner how a statement like this makes you feel. For example, “I feel defensive and angry when you ask me what I’ve done all day.”

Viljoen says this will help diffuse the situation and allow you to discuss how you can both work together to look after the baby and get all the household requirements met.

“It’s important to remember that whichever partner is at work, their role is still key to keeping the balance at home. This means planning with your partner things that they may be able to do to help, like taking care of the shopping or getting up early to do a feed before work. Again, the best way to avoid confrontation is to plan your needs together."

Fight fairly

It’s inevitable that during those first weeks you will have moments of frustration and irritation. By definition, fighting is a self-protection act but at the same time it negates the integrity of a couple as a unit.

“Hostility doesn’t serve intimacy well,” says Viljoen. No matter how tired you are, remember you are both in this together and you need to find common ground in order to reach a comfortable place and move forward with your new family.

Fighting “fair” is about sticking to the issue at hand and not resorting to names or belittling your partner.

Viljoen suggests you remember these tips when you’re next in that tired, stressed out space and want to avoid words with your partner:

1. Don’t digress.

Try not to bring up every past issue like, “You don’t change the baby’s nappy and last week you ignored her cries 4 times and the week before you never bathed her once!” Stick to the problem at hand and work towards resolving that one thing.

2. Don’t supervise, and respect your partner’s different parenting style.

If he’s doing the basic job, for example, putting her to sleep, don’t interfere as to HOW he should be doing it.

3. Say "thank you". 

4. Take some time out.

If things are getting too heated, take a break. Rather wait until you’ve had some sleep or taken a bath before you sit down and try to rationally discuss the problem.

5. Get help if you feel you need it.

Having a baby is probably the biggest change you’ll have experienced in your life up until now. If you feel you and your partner can’t reach a meeting of minds, seek professional help.

6. Get sleep.

Remember that sleep deprivation can make people irritable, depressed and more likely to argue. A few hours of extra slumber can make a surprising difference in your mood and outlook. 

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