Category Archives: Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel

Appendix Eight: “The Feeling Good Handbook” Book Notes (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Forty)

Anger is natural. It’s a normal part of life. But we don’t want to experience it for longer than necessary. Fortunately, our emotions aren’t entirely out of our control; by questioning our negative beliefs, our accompanying negative feelings become less persistent and less convincing. There are many methods for doing so, but the one with the most evidence behind it is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

In The Feeling Good Handbook, one of the most-read books on the subject, David Burns details the process. I highly recommend this and other CBT books, or working with a therapist who uses the method regularly. (There are also CBT worksheets and instructions online.)

In spite of the prodigious amount of literature devoted to the subject, CBT is a simple, intuitive process. Working either with a therapist, or alone with a journal, you identify your most anxious, fearful or hateful thoughts. Then you examine it objectively, asking yourself if the thought is entirely true, or if it’s untrue or just partly true–an exaggeration. By the time you’re done, you’ve found at least a few more positive thoughts to counteract the negative ones, and as a result, your depression or anxiety is lessened. In a perfect world, every child would be taught the technique in school, and every adult would practice it regularly.

Notes and Quotes:

  • “If you want to break out of a bad mood, you must first understand that every type of negative feeling results from a specific kind of negative thought. Sadness and depression result from thoughts of loss…”
  • “If you say, ‘I just can’t help the way I feel,’ you will only make yourself a victim of your misery–and you’ll be fooling yourself, because you can change the way you feel.” . . . “If you want to feel better, you must realize that your thoughts and attitudes–not external events–create your feelings.”
  • “I don’t believe you should try to be happy all the time, or in *total* control of your feelings. That would just be a perfectionistic trap. You cannot always be completely rational and objective.”
  • CBT Steps: One: Describe the upsetting event or situation. Two: Write down your negative feelings about the event or situation. Three: For each feeling statement, write down the automatic thoughts, the distortions and the rational responses that match it.
  • Beware of the ten most common forms of twisted thinking, namely: all-or-nothing thinking; overgeneralization; using a mental filter; discounting the positive; jumping to conclusions; magnification; emotional reasoning; ‘should’ statements; labelling/name calling; personalization; and blame. When these show up in your thinking, notice the essential falsehood it gives rise to.
  • “Ten Ways to Untwist Your Thinking: Identify the distortion; examine the evidence; the double-standard method; the experimental technique; thinkng in shades of gray; the survey method; define terms; the semantic method; re-attribution; cost-benefit analysis.”
  • “From a practical point of view, how can you know when you should accept your feelings, when you should express your feelings, and when you should change them? The following questions can help you decide: How long have I been feeling this way? Am I doing something constructive about the problem, or am I simply brooding and avoiding it? Are my thoughts and feelings realistic? Will it be helpful or hurtful if I express my feelings? Am I making myself unhappy about a situation that’s beyond my control? Am I avoiding a problem and denying that I’m really upset about it? Are my expectations for the world realistic? Are my expectations for myself realistic? Am I feeling hopeless? Am I experiencing a loss of self-esteem?”
  • “Troubleshooting Guide: Have I correctly identified the upsetting event? Do I want to change my negative feelings about this situation? Have I identified by Automatic Thoughts properly? Are my Rational Responses convincing, valid statements that put the lie to my Automatic Thoughts?”
  • The book also gives many other specific strategies for dealing with depression, anxiety, phobias, communication issues and much more.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Seven: “For Better” Book Notes (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Nine)

I love a good journalist. Tara Parker-Pope is one of those. She’s done her research on the research, and now presents us with a thorough examination of the science of marriage. Here are my notes on For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed.

Highlights:

  • Contrary to popular opinion, “. . . marital stability appears to be improving each decade.”
  • Modern marriage is sometimes called the “soul mate marriage,” and the expectations on it are high.
  • “. . . Strong marriages have at least a five-to-one daily ratio of positive to negative interactions.”
  • Scientists have found a genetic link for monogamous and non-monogamous behavior.
  • Hormonal contraceptives can cause women to choose the wrong partner, blunting her natural instincts.
  • Marriage is a protective factor for colds, cancer, heart attacks, dementia and more.
  • The longer a relationship continues, the less sex women crave. “Researchers from Hamburg-Eppendorf University in Germany interviewed 530 men and women about their relationships and interest in sex. They found that 60 percent of the thirty-year-old women studied wanted sex ‘often’ at the start of a relationship. But within four years this figure dropped to fewer than half, and by twenty years, only one in five women wanted regular sex. The sharp decline in sexual interest wasn’t seen among men in the study.”
  • Researchers found that the way a partner describes how they met their spouse–whether their story of the event is tinted with optimism or with negative or regretful overtones–predicts their future with that spouse. (Happy couples also say “we” or “us” more often than unhappy ones.)
  • Eye rolling is one of the most reliable body language indicators of troubled marriages.
  • “Marriage researchers say that 70 percent of the time, the conflicts that arise between couples are never resolved. In one study, couples who were tracked for a decade were still fighting about the same things they had been arguing about ten years earlier . . . The lesson, say a number of noted marriage researchers, is that compatibility is overrated.”
  • “Studies show that women tend to initiate about 80 percent of fights. This doesn’t mean women are to blame for causing all the trouble in marriages. It just means they are more willing to take the emotional risk of trying to resolve problems.”
  • Physiologically, women respond with greater calm to conflict than do men.
  • Successful arguments often start with a complaint. Unsuccessful ones often start with a criticism.
  • Successful arguers know how to de-escalate a fight using calm tones and non-hostile body language.
  • New parenthood lowers marital satisfaction greatly, though largely temporarily.
  • A fair division of household chores is one of the best ways to avoid marital tension.
  • Often, women chose to take on more responsibility at home because they don’t want to give up control. They also care more about and are better at deciphering details.
  • Arguments between same-sex couples seem to contain fewer verbal attacks and less controlling behavior.
  • Couples who stay married often marry after the age of twenty-five, are not college dropouts, wait ten years before deciding whether or not to divorce, marry someone with similar interests and background, and marry someone whose parents are still married.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Six: “Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice” Book Notes (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Eight)

It’s the marriage book I recommend more often than any other: Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–The Key to Life, Love and Energy by John Gray. If you are uncomfortable with frank discussions of innate gender differences, this might not be the book for you; otherwise, have at it. It’s practical advice with a good bit of hard science to back it up.

Notes and Quotes:

  • Many of the differences between men and women are due to differences in hormones—both in their levels and in the ways they behave in their bodies.
  • When feeling stressed, men seek testosterone-raising and testosterone-releasing activities. When feeling stressed, women seek oxytocin-raising and oxytocin-releasing activities.
  • For men, testosterone is released during work-like, problem-solving activities and raised during rest/zone-out/no-talking time.
  • Women are different. “Testosterone feels good to her because it gives her a sense of power and capability and makes her feel sexy, but it doesn’t lower her stress level.” It may even raise it.
  • Instead, women seek oxytocin raising activities—primarily talking and bonding—and oxytocin-releasing activities—care giving.
  • Men are different. “Oxytocin feels good to him, increasing his tendencies toward trust, empathy, and generosity, but … [it] doesn’t lower his stress level.” it may even raise it by lowering his testosterone.
  • Cortisol, the stress hormone, is only good for them in a true emergency. As a daily response to modern life, it prevents people—both men and women—from maintaining healthy levels of their other needed hormones because the body prioritizes the making of it. Thus, when we’re stressed out, they feel the need to engage in even more oxytocin-raising and -releasing activities (for women), and even more testosterone-raising and -releasing activities (for men). Soon, their schedules are fuller than ever, and they become even more stressed out.
  • Tomorrow morning, you are going to have to wake up. You’re going to have to take the baby to the park and to the playdate you have scheduled, and pretend that everything is fine. How are you going to get through it? How in the world are you going to get out of bed, knowing the foundation of your life—your marriage—is crumbling?
  • Though the hormonal needs of individuals vary widely (some women need more testosterone than other women and some men need more oxytocin than other men), these needs explain the presence of traditional gender roles. Women enjoy nurturing others, then being nurtured through conversation and relationship, while men enjoy working and problem-solving, then spending time alone to rest.
  • Women aren’t cranky—their serotonin is depleted due to stress and fluctuating blood sugar levels.
  • Men aren’t lazy—they are chemically built to need more time off.
  • Women don’t prioritize chores over self-care—they choose to release oxytocin by taking care of the home environment.
  • Men aren’t insensitive—they don’t crave the bonding women do.
  • Women don’t want to avoid sex—they need oxytocin-building, caring words and actions in order to get in the mood.
  • Women don’t overreact—they experience a larger response in the brain when under stress than men do.
  • Women don’t complain endlessly—they talk about their feelings at length in order to rebuild their relaxing oxytocin.
  • Men don’t procrastinate—they choose to rebuild their testosterone levels through rest. They put off doing chores until an emergency, at which point their testosterone kicks in and tells them to act.
  • Women don’t worry an unreasonable amount—they simply enjoy nurturing others and thinking about their needs.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Five: Recommended Reading (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Seven)

Recommended Reading

My Favorite Marriage Books:

  • His Needs, Her Needs: Building an Affair-Proof Marriage, Willard F. Harley Jr.
  • Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–The Key to Life, Love and Longevity, John Gray
  • The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work: A Practical Guide from the Country’s Foremost Relationship Expert, John Gottman
  • The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages: The Little Things That Make a Big Difference, Shaunti Feldhahn
  • For Better: How the Surprising Science of Happy Couples Can Help Your Marriage Succeed, Tara Parker-Pope
  • The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, Dr. Laura Schlessinger
  • Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstandings, Resolve Conflicts, and Solve Relationship Problems Through Cognitive Therapy, Aaron T. Beck M.D.
  • The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love that Lasts, Gary Chapman

Spirituality Books with Practical Advice on Relationships:

  • Whatever Arises, Love That: A Love Revolution That Begins with You, Matt Kahn
  • When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chodron
  • The Wisdom of No Escape: How to Love Yourself and Your World, Pema Chodron
  • The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle
  • A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle
  • The Complete Conversations with God, Neale Donald Walsch
  • Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • The Work of Byron Katie: An Introduction, Byron Katie
  • Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
  • I Need Your Love–Is That True?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them, Byron Katie and Michael Katz
  • Who Would You Be Without Your Story?: Dialogues with Byron Katie, Byron Katie

Good Self-Help and Psychology Books:

  • The Feeling Good Handbook, David Burns
  • Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice: Counter Negative Thoughts and Live Free from Imagined Limitations, Robert Firestone
  • The Science of Happiness: How Our Brains Make Us Happy–And What We Can Do to Get Happier, Stefan Klein
  • The How of the Happiness: A New Approach to Getting the Life You Want, Sonja Lyubomirsky
  • Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, Dan Ariely
  • Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener
  • What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo
  • Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment, Martin Seligman
  • The Happiness Advantage: How a Positive Brain Fuels Success in Work and Life, Shawn Achor
  • Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, Martin Seligman
  • The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg
  • Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, Candace Pert
  • Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One, Joe Dispenza
  • Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brene Brown
  • Telling Yourself the Truth: Find Your Way Out of Depression, Anxiety, Fear, Anger, and Other Common Problems by Applying the Principles of Misbelief Therapy, Marie Chapman and William Backus

Parenting Books that Relate to Marriage, Too:

  • If I Have to Tell You One More Time …: The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids To Listen Without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling, Amy McCready
  • Parenting with Love and Logic: Teaching Children Responsibility, Foster Cline
  • Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting, John Mordechai and Joan Declaire
  • The Child Whisperer, The Ultimate Handbook for Raising Happy, Successful, and Cooperative Children, Carol Tuttle

A Few Good Marriage Memoirs:

  • How to Stay Married: The Adventures of a Woman Who Learnt to Travel Light in Life, Love and Relationships, Mary-Lou Stephens
  • Love Warrior: A Memoir, Glennon Doyle Melton
  • Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace with Marriage, Elizabeth Gilbert
  • The Wishing Year: A House, a Man, My Soul: A Memoir of Fulfilled Desire, Noelle Oxenhandler
  • Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis
  • A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Four: Even More Advice (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Six)

No married couple gets everything right. Here, a few pieces of marital wisdom that didn’t make it into Matthew and Rachel’s story.

1. Figure out the money thing. Different plans work for different people. The key is to do just that: plan.

2. Figure out which kind of fight you’re having. Is the fight about what it seems to be about–money, in-laws, whatever–or is it about feelings and egos getting wounded? If it’s the latter, deal with the feelings first. Then circle back to the mother-in-law’s casserole catastrophe.

3. Make it into a joke. I hinted at this one several times, but seriously–no, not seriously–this is funny stuff. Marriage is funny. Kids are hilarious. If you can laugh even while fighting, resentment and tension lessen considerably. (The kids will appreciate it, too.)

4. Keep the chores separate. Yours are yours and theirs are theirs. This minimizes chore fights and nagging considerably.

5. Figure out what you can control and what you can’t. Marriage is the Serenity Prayer all over the place.

6. Use “I” statements. You’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating: No matter how unnatural or uncomfortable it feels, make it about you. After all, it is about you. Otherwise you wouldn’t be dealing with it. Right?

7. Don’t punish your partner. They won’t learn a darn thing through it except to escalate and solidify their bitterness and anger. No one wants to feel like the bad guy. Whenever possible, make them into the good guy and yourself into the good but struggling guy. They’ll become the person you show them in your mirror.

8. Don’t yell. Ever. What is the point?

9. Most important, notice the small resentments and don’t let them grow any bigger. Seeing a few of my married-couple friends repeatedly pass entire evenings together barely looking into each other’s eyes caused me to suspect the discomfort in their relationships. I realized that I never wanted my marriage to get to a place where we could no longer really look at each other.

What would you add to this list? Let me know and if it’s not already in the book, I’ll consider adding it here.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Three: Common Questions (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Five)

Some of the advice in Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby is pretty standard stuff. Some of it, however, is not. Here, a lesson-by-lesson Q and A to help clarify a few of the more nuanced suggestions.

Lesson: Change Your Story

What if my partner is regularly rude, selfish and impatient? Should I still change my story about him?

What do you mean by regularly? Does your partner treat you well most of the time? Do you usually feel good when you’re around him? Does he bring much more happiness than unhappiness to your life? Is he holding up his end of the bargain? These are the questions you need to answer. Only you.

But maybe he really is just a bad person.

He’s not a bad person. He’s a person. Sometimes people appreciate you, and love you, and understand you, and sympathize with you, and you feel so lucky to be their friend. And other times, they get annoyed, and they get annoying, and they lose their perspective, and they try to find someone to blame. That’s just the way of things. When you relax your character judgments, you see more clearly. You are more able to make decisions about your relationship based on your needs, your feelings and your mental health.

Lesson: Don’t Fight. Just Talk Instead.

My husband suffers from chronic depression and anxiety. He is on edge a lot. It isn’t unusual for him to be in a bad mood as soon as he gets home from work. What is the best way to handle a bad temper?

First, don’t be afraid of your husband. Anger is often about control. Sometimes people yell because they feel out of control of a situation and want to merely let out the frustration they feel. Other times they yell as a way to intimidate others into letting them have their way. This is not a judgment; we all do it, and most of us do it regularly. However, anger is a sign of weakness. Yelling is the weak person’s way to feel strong. Know this, and know this with compassion.

Second, don’t respond to anger. Say nothing—nothing at all. Don’t apologize for or justify your partner’s temper, either to others or to yourself. Don’t pretend you agree with his perspective or placate him. Just let him be. Fully accept, embrace and acknowledge that this is not a good or justifiable quality, but merely a common one.

Say nothing. Let the silence be not a resentful one, though, but one that comes from a deep sense of self-respect; a caring, dignified silence.

A lot of the time, that’s what I do. I just ignore it and let it go. Other times I engage with him—either to agree with him and make him feel better or to defend myself, if the anger is directed at me.

No sometimes. No engagement in that moment. No response, other than a blanket statement like, “I hear you,” and that only if he specifically asks for it. He will be astounded at your self-control.

But then how will anything get solved? How will we work through the problem?

If the problem is just his problem—his anger problem—there is nothing at all for you to do other than offer an example of another way of being, praying for him, and suggesting he get outside help if needed. If the problem is a family or relationship one, simply wait to discuss it when neither of you are upset. It’s a lot more fun that way, and much more productive, too.

What about expressing your anger? Isn’t doing so a hugely important thing to do for your own mental health?

Admitting your anger to yourself is, I believe, hugely important. But talking about it with other people is often unnecessary (except in a self-controlled, reasonable way). Imagine being the kind of person who is able to deal with all of her anger, resentment and negativity internally, who doesn’t blame others for it or play the victim. Do you like that image? Maintaining your self-respect is reason enough to observe your pain in your own quiet heart rather than exploding at your partner.

One night after dinner I asked my husband to help me with the dishes. He said he would, and started doing them, but after a little while he stopped. I finished sweeping the floor, then started getting the baby ready for her bath. Then I asked my husband if he was going to finish the dishes. He said, “You said you were going to help but never did.” I said, “Can’t you see that I’ve been cooking and cleaning for over an hour?” He never finished the dishes or apologized. Now I’m mad at him. What do I do?

Why did you ask him to help you with the dishes, if what you really wanted was for him to do the dishes? Maybe this was just a communication issue. Say exactly what you want, even if the request is less attractive that way. If you want, tell him what you will do, too. Something like, “Can you do the dishes, Hon, so I can finish sweeping up and get the baby in the bath?”

Your fight wasn’t about whether or not he did the dishes. Your fight was about your feeling unappreciated or unloved. Know the difference, and deal with the real issue first. Tell him that you don’t feel loved in this moment, and ask him to acknowledge all the work you were doing.

Remember: Always assume his motives are good. Don’t start the inner monologue about his lack of character. And don’t hear insults where insults aren’t spoken. Instead, hear need— tiredness, stress, sadness—or just his desire to feel loved, too.

Chapter Four: Don’t Make It Into a Big Deal

Can you give me another example of how to pretend something isn’t a big deal? Is it just about ignoring the little stuff, or what?

No. It’s partly that, but it’s also about having a bit of fun with the process.

When something is bugging my husband and I know that it’s a temporary thing–a bad mood, tiredness or whatever–I use the opportunity to practice what I preach in this book: being nice, not getting angry, keeping my perspective. Here is sort of what that looks like: First, I don’t take hold of the rudeness he’s offering me. If he continues to offer it, I say something like, “Hon, are you okay?” Usually, that diffuses the situation pretty quickly. On the rare occasion on which it doesn’t, though, and he’s actually mad at me, he might explain what’s bothering him. That’s my chance to either talk it through or tell him that I love him but I’m choosing not to do what he wants me to do.

I’m a pretty serious person. I tend to be a little more like Rachel the list-maker than Genevieve the intuitive. How can I learn to not sweat the small stuff?

Control freaks do well to find other outlets for their passion. Do you have at least a few other close friendships? Do you have at least one hobby you really love? Your partner shouldn’t be your only source of endorphins.

Also remember that the whole letting go thing feels weird at first; when you’re emotional, your instinct is to directly deal with the situation. After a while, though, as talking about your relationship issues becomes less the norm than the exception, you begin to settle into a habit of ignoring stuff that starts you both spinning.

You become more at peace with peace.

What if we never get there? What if we never figure out how to be “comfortably in love” again?

Relationships aren’t always fun and easy. But they should be a lot of the time. If yours isn’t, you’re either not a good match—water and oil—or you’re really seeking out problems. Stop the problem-making habit and start a fun-making habit. If you do lots of enjoyable stuff together, little problems tend not to grow.

And definitely don’t get too much into his emotional business unless he shares it with you. Remember that your partner’s happiness is his job—not yours. Be the best partner you can be, and let him figure out everything else. Give him advice, then let him make his own choices.

Lesson: Be Uncomfortably Nice

What is the best way to show my partner that I love him on a daily basis?

Use a pleasant tone of voice. Always, always, always, unless you truly, in that moment, cannot. If you follow only one piece of advice in this book, follow this one. Use a (sincerely) pleasant tone of voice at all times, particularly during the mundane activities of life. This is where your relationship really lives. If you’ve fallen into that common but horrible habit of speaking with slight condescension to your partner on a regular basis, know that in order to make things work, this will have to change.

So, what about when your partner says something that’s not just rude, but super mean? The other day I told my husband I was really stressed out and he said, point blank, “I don’t care.” I couldn’t believe it. It hurt so much.

That does hurt. Have you asked him why he said it?

He said it because he didn’t care. In that moment, he didn’t care about how I felt.

Not necessarily. People say this stuff. He probably cares but at the time was upset about something else. My best advice is to ask him if he meant what he said. Ask him sweetly, at a time when he’s not mad. He’ll be impressed by your mature way of handling the situation. He’ll remember it, and if you handle rude comments this way regularly, he’ll eventually learn to be more careful with his words.

Countering not-nice with nice is the best way to get an apology.

So, how do you do this? I mean, we all snap at our partners and kids sometimes, right? We can’t be nice all the time.

Make it your number one priority for a week. A nice tone of voice, all day long. It’s a habit.

Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)

One of the things my husband struggles a lot with is getting time to exercise. He likes it, and it’s important to him, but there’s only a certain window of opportunity–in the hour after work–when he can get to the gym or take a jog. Lately, though, he’s been skipping this window and coming home early to crash on the couch. Then when it’s his turn to take the baby, he says he really needs to get his exercise done. It’s not fair, and the other day it caused a huge fight. What should I do?

It sounds like you have a schedule in place that you’re generally both happy with. If that’s the case, it’s just a matter of sticking to it–even if he doesn’t like it. Tell him that it’s his baby time, offer to discuss it, then walk away. If you need to, leave the house to force him to do his duty.

Oh, that’ll go over well.

Risk the argument. See it as an investment you make for your future happiness; if he sees you’re going to enforce your agreement, he’ll take future agreements more seriously. See it as practice for when you have to do the same kind of enforcement with your kids.

If you don’t take this advice, don’t blame him for taking advantage of your fear of confrontation.

Oh, and as always, when you leave, leave with a smile, or at least without undue emotion. He may not be smiling back. But that’s okay.

Lesson: Apologize Every Chance You Get

The other day, I was a jerk. I said some things I regret, and don’t know how to forgive myself and move on. Any advice?

I know how you feel. There are a handful of slammed doors behind me, too. Some I’m now a bit embarrassed about, but one or two, not so much. It doesn’t solve problems to scream, and should be avoided whenever possible, but when it happens rarely, it often buys you a few days of the handle-with-care treatment you need.

Did you ask your partner to forgive you yet? If not, do. Some of the tenderest moments in relationships come after fights and sincere apologies.

After that, take apart the argument. Pull the meat from the bone. What is the important stuff here? What do you need to do differently next time to avoid the argument? Do you need to renegotiate something? Time to look forward.

Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way

What about when there’s a behavior in my partner that really does need to change? In the book you show how Matthew slowly learned how to take on more responsibility for his child. In my case, I’d like to change the way my husband disciplines our kids. I want him to be more firm. Is this something that I can change about him? Are some qualities changeable, and others not?

Yes. But we don’t know which is which until we give our partner the chance to show us.

The way I see it, there are three ways to change your partner for the better. The first, and most important, is just believing the best of them, and treating them well. This is the one we should always be doing.

When this isn’t enough, we have two other options. One is the major argument or discussion, which involves detailed negotiation. The other is what I call “the slow nag.” This is when you make little hints and suggestions–maybe even good-natured jokes–about the issue without ever forcing it. When done right, it’s surprisingly effective.

Are you sure this will work?

No.

Okay, fair enough. But are you sure it’s okay to try to change your partner? Everyone tells us this is a terrible idea, that we need to accept them as they come or not at all.

Yes, I am absolutely sure that over the course of your marriage, you can and will change your partner in a wide variety of significant and not-so-significant ways. It’s not only possible but nearly unavoidable; we do it every single day. Whenever we look at someone, whenever we speak to them, whenever we have any kind of interaction, we affect the way they think and feel. Think about it: How would your partner affect your behavior towards him if he did what is recommended in this book, and treated you with utmost respect and love all the time? You’d change a heck of a lot. And the changes you didn’t make in spite of his caring suggestions would probably be the ones that meant too much to you to lose. Well, it’s the same for him. There are things about himself he won’t change for you or for anyone, ever. The question is: Can you live with those things? Are they deal breakers or not?

Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology

My husband is such a taker. He just takes and takes and takes, until I can’t give anymore, and I explode. Why are men like this? How can I get him to give more?

Don’t concern yourself with why. Men are simply better at getting their own needs and wants met than women are. When you can’t or don’t want to give anymore, simply don’t. Tell your husband that you need some “me” time, and take it–even if he doesn’t love the idea. The trick is to do this gently, without anger and with grace. For me, this has been one of the hardest marriage skills to learn, but now I get a nap every day. It was worth the work.

Here, it’s worth mentioning that personality differences, too–not just gender differences–affect the way your partner meets his needs. My favorite personality typing book is the (misleading titled) Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Personal Beauty Profile by Carol Tuttle. The book only discusses female personality types, but in other books of hers, males fall into the same four categories. Understanding not just your unique behavior but the basic internal beliefs that give rise to that behavior is incredibly therapeutic and healing.

The bottom line: There are four main personality types: wind, water, fire and rock. Wind people are bright and animated. Their driving purpose in life is to enjoy it. Water people are subtle, caring and soft. Their driving purpose is to love and care about people. Fire people are dynamic and passionate. Their driving purpose is to accomplish their goals and change the world. Rock people are bold and striking. Their driving purpose is to seek and disseminate truth. If you want to better understand the motivations behind your partner’s quirks, read this book.

Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself

Okay, so not defending myself. I get how doing so can be unhelpful and even counterproductive, escalating the fight even further. But self-defense is one of our primary human drives; we all want other people to acknowledge when we’re in the right, or to at least to basically understand our intentions. How can I avoid getting defensive?

Try this: Look forward with great anticipation to your next opportunity to be criticized by your partner in some way. Then, when it happens, in the moment in which it is happening, ask yourself, “What would it feel like to just not defend myself right now—to smile and say nothing committal, maybe even to agree with what my partner is saying? Would it make me proud?”

Then—just as an experiment, mind you—say something kind in response. Not necessarily an apology, if an apology feels insincere to you, but something sweet and understanding. Something like, “Okay. You might be right about this. I promise to give it some real thought.”

Now, observe how you feel about yourself in this moment and compare it to how you might have felt had you defended yourself. Do you feel more self-respect? And what about your partner’s response? Did their anger begin to dissolve?

It sounds like what you’re saying is that you should just accept whatever criticism comes your way, no matter how wrong it is. That’s not self-respectful, is it?

Yes, that’s what I’m saying, and yes, it is. You don’t have to accept the criticism as true, but you can listen to it in silence without agreeing with it in any way.

But doesn’t this just come across as a big “I don’t care what you think” attitude?

Preferably, no. At times, in an effort to be less defensive, I’ve used a superior tone of voice, responding with something like, “Okay, Honey. You have your opinion.” I’ve since come to the belief that this sort of attitude isn’t nondefensiveness—it’s ego, disguised as nondefensiveness. And it really, really didn’t work. It didn’t make me feel good, and it didn’t dissolve his anger; in fact, it fueled it big-time.

If you’re going to choose between shutting down your partner without explaining your side and expressing interest in your partner’s feelings, then asking him if you may explain your reason for what you did, choose the latter every time. At least you’ve shown that you are willing to truly listen, and by asking first to defend yourself, you’ve put them in a much more receptive mode.

Lesson: Appreciate the Gift

Logically, I know that marriage is a gift–even the hard parts, the arguments. But how do I go from knowing it to really knowing it, to feeling really grateful for my partner on a day-in-day-out basis?

I have two ideas. The first is to dote on your partner–to do loving acts regularly. The second is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about him or her.

A lot of people try to describe why it is that parenting, which (if you believe the cliche) is the toughest job on the planet, is also one of the most well-regarded and most sought-after. Here is my attempt: The beauty of parenting is that here is this perfect new person, and you have the privilege of loving them the most.

Teaching children is great. Watching them grow and admiring them and laughing with them is wonderful and awesome. But just loving someone this much, giving this much of yourself for another person every day—that is the part that really gets you. Well, it’s the same with any other relationship. It’s the same with marriage: the practice of loving another person just feels good. Making dinner for your partner, speaking gently with them when they’re in a bad mood, holding them when they’re sad–these are the things that give our lives real meaning, and the things that truly bond us.

Compliment your partner. Every single day. Say nice things, particularly when it’s unexpected. Be specific, too: something like, “I am feeling very tender and affectionate towards you today.” Genuine compliments are far too rare and far more valuable than most of us realize; whenever we get one, we really treasure it, don’t we? We remember some of them for a very long time.

My second idea is to relentlessly question your negative thoughts about your partner. In “Change Your Story” I describe the process of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and I cannot recommend it more highly. The theory among some psychologists and certainly many spiritual guru-types on its effectiveness is that when you remove the negative thoughts, love simply fills the gap, since love is who we really are underneath. Sometimes I’m skeptical that this is the case with me, but the more I journal my negative thoughts and replace them with the truth, the more cheerfulness and lightheartedness I feel, which naturally flows into my attitudes about other people. Particularly people I really, really like anyway, like my husband.

There was a time when I would have paid anything for a magic wand that could, with a wave, turn off all my husband’s worst traits. The other day, though, when I was talking to my sister on the phone about relationships, it hit me: At some point, I stopped wanting my partner to be perfect. What would it look like if he had no flaws? Would he do everything I ever wanted or asked him to do? And how long would it take before I started seeing him as a robot, an automaton: “Honey, will you wash the dishes?” “Sure, my dear.” “Then go wash the car and pack the car for our trip?” “Of course.” That’s not even a relationship, is it?

Marriage is one of the biggest challenges I’ll get in this life. I’m milking it for all the self-improvement it’s worth.

Final Questions

Why don’t you recommend therapy?

I do. I am a therapist in training and I think every single human should be so lucky as to have a skilled mental health professional to talk to once a week.

Some of your advice is strange. Are you sure it’ll work?

In my life there are very few certainties, and for the most part I like to keep it that way. One thing I do feel sure of, though, is that self-improvement efforts—no matter how small, no matter how flailing, and no matter how many times they seem to fail—are worth it almost every time. Because often, even when they seem to fail, they don’t fail all the way; somewhere inside you, something has changed. Maybe it takes a year or two for you to see the difference, but eventually you do.

Eventually, you’re glad that you tried.

May the greatest blessings follow you on your path to marital bliss.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix Two: Replacement Statements (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Four)

Appendix One: Replacement Statements

We human-types repeat ourselves a lot. Throughout the day we rely on a handy set of go-to statements in order to preserve precious brain power.

“Go slow,” we tell our toddlers. “Use your words. Be patient. Take turns.”

“It’s for the best,” we say to our friends. “It’ll all work out.”

We say these things many, many times.

My husband hears a lot of the same stuff from me, too: “Can you wash the dishes?” “Don’t stay up too late” and “Take the baby” are at the top of my list.

A bad mantra can be a hard habit to break.

Fortunately, a good mantra can be a hard habit to break, too. My advice: Pay extra attention to your oft-repeated statements, evaluating how well they help you achieve your goals. Then consider replacing a few of them with a nicer, more effective version.

Here are a few feel-good statements that can replace a whole variety of feel-bad ones.

Instead of “I can’t believe you did/said that” or “You are such a jerk,” try:

  • “Are you feeling grumpy today, Honey?”
  • “Are you feeling unloved today?”
  • “Are you okay today? Is anything wrong?”
  • “Is there anything I can do?”
  • “Do you want to talk about it or would you rather wait?”
  • “Hey! That wasn’t nice.”
  • “I love you. I know you mean well. But I don’t understand the reason you did this. Can you explain, please?”

Instead of a sarcastic “you’re welcome,” try:

  • “Will you say thank you, please?”

Instead of “It’s not my fault,” or “You’re the one who . . .,” try:

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “That wasn’t nice of me.”
  • “I’m feeling grumpy today.”
  • “Do you want to know why I did that?”
  • “Do you want me to explain now or would you rather wait till later?”

Instead of “I am so mad at you,” try:

  • “I am feeling angry right now, but it will pass.”
  • “Watch out. I might have to squish you/tickle you/[insert other completely comical threat].”

Instead of “You aren’t listening to me,” try:

  • “Do you want me to explain more, or do you want me to just listen to your thoughts and we can talk about my side later?”

Instead of “No, I’m not going to do that for you,” try:

  • “I’m not going to do that right now. But I love you.”

Instead of “Stop ignoring me,” try:

  • “I am feeling lonely today.”
  • “I am feeling neglected today.”
  • “I am feeling unappreciated today. Will you do something nice for me?”
  • “Do you appreciate me?”
  • “Do you love me?”
  • “Do you want to cuddle?”

Instead of “Well, ‘night, Hon,” try:

  • “I love you. I really, really love you. Good night.”
  • “I want you to know I respect you. Good night.”
  • “I’m truly glad you’re my partner, Hon. Good night.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appendix One: The Cheat Sheet (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Three)

One morning, you wake up to notes on the fridge reminding your partner to treat you better. What’s your reaction? Yeah, I thought so. Here, then, a cheat sheet with all of the main lessons in this book. My advice: use it flagrantly.

Lesson: Change Your Story

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to believe your intentions are good.”
  • “I promise to double-check my story about you.”

Lesson: Don’t Fight. Just Talk Instead.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise not to discuss an issue unless it’s worth the tension it will cause and unless I’ve given it some time.”

Lesson: Don’t Make It Into a Big Deal

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to underreact.”

Lesson: Be Uncomfortably Nice

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to use a kind, respectful tone of voice, even when upset.”

Lesson: Shamelessly Bargain (And Always Have a Bottom Line)

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to negotiate, not nag.”

  • “I promise to focus mainly on solutions, not emotions.”

Lesson: Apologize Every Chance You Get

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to take every opportunity to say I’m sorry.”

Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise not to nag you to change, but to gently encourage it instead.”
  • “I promise to mirror back to you the change I want to see.”

Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to focus on solutions, not emotions.”
  • “I promise to understand that your needs are real.”

Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to listen first.”

  • “I promise to ask permission before telling my side of the story.”

Lesson: Appreciate the Gift

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to remind myself that one of the best parts of marriage is how it helps me grow.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Appreciate the Gift (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-Two)

My Relationship Journal: December

Lesson: Appreciate the Gift

Book Notes and Quotes:

Whatever Arises, Love That: A Love Revolution That Begins with You, Matt Kahn:

  • When so-called bad stuff happens, don’t fight, don’t negotiate—just sit with the pain for a while. When the time is right, you’ll know how to handle the problem, but until then, allow yourself to feel what you feel.
  • When a feeling is “honored and given permission to be,” it eventually dissolves of its own accord—no striving, no fighting, no negotiation needed.
  • Your negative experiences can actually become your greatest gifts, “the source of your own fulfillment.”
  • No matter how many problems you successfully fix, life will always bring you more. So if you want peace in your life, learn to love what arises.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Pema Chodron:

  • “To stay with that shakiness–to stay with a broken heart, with a rumbling stomach, with the feeling of hopelessness and wanting to get revenge–that is the path of true awakening. Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic–this is the spiritual path.”
  • “Every day we could reflect on this and ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to add to the aggression in the world?’ Every day, at the moment when things get edgy, we can just ask ourselves, ‘Am I going to practice peace, or am I going to war?'”
  • “Those events and people in our lives who trigger our unresolved issues could be regarded as good news. We don’t have to go hunting for anything. We don’t need to try to create situations in which we reach our limit. They occur all by themselves, with clockwork regularity.”

My Relationship Resolutions:

  • I will be grateful for the challenges marriage brings. If Matthew was perfect, how would I grow? Marriage is one of the most complex, intense relationships in life—and the best opportunity I have to learn to love unconditionally.
  • When painful stuff happens, like an argument with Matthew, I won’t try to fix it right away. Instead, I’ll find a quiet place, and just sit with the feeling. Only when I’m ready to move on will I do so, even if it takes several hours or days.
  • I will remember that Matthew doesn’t have to be perfect for me to be happy. I’m tough; I can handle a few flaws.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to remember that one of the best parts of marriage is how it helps me grow.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

It Was Well Worth the Trouble, We Decided (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty-One)

The following week, I saw Genevieve. She asked how things were going with Matt and I. I told her of my change in perspective, of how much I appreciated everything I’d learned over the past several years. And I told her I appreciate myself more than ever, too.

“I really do love everything that’s happened with Matthew since becoming a parent,” I said. “Not just the good stuff, but the bad stuff, too. It’s gotten me from being a wife who truly loves her husband to being a wife who truly loves her husband and also knows how to be good to herself.”

“You’re stronger,” Gen said.

“Yes. I am.”

“And motherhood just adds to that.”

“Definitely.”

“That is what it’s about. It’s about getting stronger. Not just in marriage–in life. In everything.”

“I don’t know if I told you this already, but for a while after Poppy was born, I’d get these terrible thoughts about Matt. They’d come to me at night, just overwhelm me. They weren’t logical but at the time they felt so frightening. Mostly they were about how hard it was to be married and have kids, but sometimes they were about Matthew specifically. About his character flaws, about how selfish he was. Sometimes, I would just sit and think about all the pain that my kids are going to have to go through in their lives, and how crazy it is to have them knowing this. Well, at some point, it was weird–all those thoughts stopped. Not that I never have a terrible judgment about Matt or bad thoughts about parenting, but I don’t get that fear anymore. I don’t know how, exactly, but something changed in my head. I have this confidence that basically, we’re . . . normal. Matt is a normal guy. Our relationship is normal. Our problems are actually pretty insignificant. And when the hard times come, well, like I said, the hard times are just a part of it. They’re all just part of the adventure.”

Gen nodded. “I haven’t gone through that. Not exactly the way you’re saying. But I do have a lot of fears for my kids. And I like that attitude you’re talking about. In parenting, too, part of what we’re teaching our kids is to look at hardship as a good thing. It’s real, and it’s good, and it’s part of what we’re doing here. It helps us to grow and get better. Then, hopefully, the bad feelings go away for a while, and when they do we don’t have to be afraid of them coming back. They will come back, always. That is their job. And it’s okay that they do. Like you said: It’s normal.”

“It’s more than normal. It is a gift.”

***

How did Matthew and I survive those critical first years after Poppy was born? How did we regain the joy in each other we once felt, without significant damage or simmering resentment to show for our experience? Partly it was because we finally stopped the control battles, the tug of war—and when the game did restart, it was usually pretty friendly, and pretty short.

First, I learned to short-circuit unspoken fears by changing my story about Matt and reminding myself that he loved me. After that, I learned how to talk instead of argue–how to let the little stuff go. I was nice, even when Matt didn’t seem to deserve it. I found a way to bargain for what I needed. I humbled myself and apologized frequently. And I finally figured out what Matt needed, biologically-speaking. I stopped the nagging and ditched the defensiveness and when all else failed, I simply embraced the challenge. I reminded myself that marriage is a gift, not in spite of the hard times but because of them, and I remembered how far I had come.

For five years—five wonderful years—after Matthew and I met, our love for each other was easy. We were best friends. We hardly ever fought. Our relationship was straightforward, unmarred. Then we had a baby, and during the three years that followed that event, things were . . . well, they were different. Not awful, most of the time. Just challenging. Stretching. The big fights were big, and the little ones were frequent. By the end of those years, though, Matt and I had several key advantages we didn’t have before that to us, made the experience well worth the trouble. First, we had a deep understanding of what it takes to be a happy family.

Second, we had a happy family.

And that’s what we still have: a family. A happy one. It’s been five years since Harper was born, and things have never been better between us. I still talk to Gen and Marianne about my issues with Matt, read the occasional marriage book—even get advice from my inner self once in a while. But most of my self-improvement energy is now focused on parenting my two children. While relationship challenges with Matthew still arise—and with some regularity—the themes of my solutions are often repeated, revisited. I circle back to much of what I learned during that time, and mostly that’s enough to get me through. Part of the reason for this is that these themes are fairly flexible. And the other part of the reason is Matthew.

These days, Matthew just gets it in a way he didn’t before. Truly, he is a better husband. He talks to me more. He’s vulnerable, honest. He is, once again, the best friend I found when we first started dating.

And in some ways, he’s even better. He’s a dad now, of course, and an excellent one: patient, and giving, and wise. He’s not as moody as he used to be—he’s learned how to communicate his needs and feelings with more self-awareness. And he’s a great deal more helpful. Every single night, his schedule is the family’s schedule. He does the laundry. He reads to the kids, brushes their teeth, takes them grocery shopping. And he’s in for the hard stuff, too: sleepless nights, discipline, potty training. More important than any single thing he does, though, is the way he makes me feel when he’s with me.

These days, every day, I feel loved.

***

After the Classic Food Fight, there was a break in the tension between Matthew and I. Then, for several weeks straight, for a reason unknown to me, Matthew was in a terrible mood. When we went to Home Depot, and I misunderstood what he was looking for, he embarrassed me by speaking rudely to me in the aisle. When to keep his drill away from Poppy I hid it, then couldn’t find it again right away, he made a sarcastic comment. Finally, when the car insurance expired before I paid the bill, he chastised me unfairly.

Each time one of these episodes occurred, my first instinct was to defend myself. But I chose to remember my resolution, and find a better way to handle the situation.

A week later, Matthew’s mood still hadn’t passed, so I decided to practice a few of my other newfound skills. At dinner one evening, I smiled across the table, then pointed out something Matthew did that I appreciated. “You did the dishes yet again, I noticed,” I said. “Thanks, Hon. That’s a really big help.”

Matthew smiled back, and seemed to feel calmer.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Thanks for noticing, Rachel.”

Then I went in for the kill.

“Hon, I know you’ve been frustrated with me lately. It seems like something is really bothering you. Do you want to talk about it? Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I guess there is something,” he said. “I mean, I’m fine, mostly. But work has been totally sucking, and I hate it. Sometimes I wish I could just quit and move on. Do real estate, like I’ve always wanted. But this is a good job and I don’t know how I’d match the pay. So, here we are. You know.”

“Well, let’s talk about it. Let’s try to figure something out. But can I make a small request?”

“Of course.”

“When you’re feeling this way—and I know this is hard—can you just not take it out on me? Don’t get mad at me for little things that don’t matter. Talk to me about the real problem instead.”

Matt frowned. “Yeah, I can do that,” he said. And with that, the matter was resolved.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

The Classic Food Fight (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Thirty)

Chapter Eleven: Appreciate the Gift

One day not long after the Bad Wife Blowout, Matthew did not eat lunch—and it showed. Arriving home after work, he greeted me plaintively. Then he promptly asked for some food.

“I’m hungry,” he said, dropping his backpack on the floor and circling around me to the kitchen. “I worked through lunch. What’s for dinner?”

“Hi, Hon,” I said. I followed him to the kitchen. “I’m not sure. I guess there’s not much. I haven’t made it to the store.”

This time, I wasn’t just apologizing to apologize, either; I really did feel bad. Matthew loved food, but cooking wasn’t my specialty. I’ve said many times that I could never cook again and be better off for it.

Mind you, it wasn’t always this way. When Matthew and I first got together, I enjoyed making him a well-planned meal. Doing so wasn’t a hardship, but one of the little pleasures of my day—a way to express love and be nurturing. After the baby was born, though, food preparation was no longer a productive break from my computer and a chance to do something nice for my partner.

Suddenly, it was just a damned chore.

And so, I slacked off. I cooked less often and less well, and asked Matthew to order out or cook for himself once in a while. Soon, he was preparing many of his own evening meals, and I was grabbing something quick for the kids and myself before he got home.

“No food?” he asked. “Nothing? Again? Hon, I am really, really hungry.”

“I know, Matt. I’m sorry. It was that kind of day.”

“It was that kind of day three other times this week.”

“Matt, come on. Don’t start with me. You can handle making dinner.”

“It’s not just that. You’ve been ignoring me. I’m sick of feeling like I’m last place.”

“Watch out. You’re reading into this. Not cooking doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

“It feels that way to me.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

“I don’t know what to do about that, though, Matt. I can’t do everything, you know. Something has to fall off my plate. So to speak.”

Matthew didn’t respond. Instead, he grabbed his car keys and made his way to the front door in the kind of huff that has you defending yourself in your head for the next hour. He left without explanation, then returned with a pile of tacos.

By that time, I was mad, too.

“Was that really so hard?” I asked as I joined him at the dining room table.

“Well, it took forty-five minutes.”

I sighed. “Honey, look at me, will you? I’m exhausted. I’m done. I’ve been going nonstop all day. Every day feels like a marathon. What more do you want me to do?”

“I want food.”

I  stopped eating my tacos. A hard wind filled my lungs, but I slowly let it out. Then, in that small moment, I made a big decision.

I decided not to be angry.

I took a deep breath, then another one. Then I drank a glass of water. A few tacos in, I managed a smile–a fake smile, but a smile nonetheless.

It helped.

“Do you feel like I don’t pay enough attention to you, Matt?”

“Yes,” he said, exhaling a bit. “Or maybe, like you don’t respect me as much as you used to. Something like that. I don’t know.”

“I respect you, Hon. I do. I’m doing the best I can.”

He didn’t respond, and I didn’t go on.

That evening, we were quiet–both of us were quiet. Matt genuinely didn’t want to talk, and I was practicing my new non-defensiveness strategy. As we sat on the couch together, watching a movie, not touching, I realized something: I was okay.

So, Matt is mad at me, I thought, pretending to pay attention to the screen. What’s the big deal, anyway? I did what I could. I told him I cared about him. I stayed calm and didn’t make things worse. He didn’t want to hear my side, so here we are, on the couch. Kind of ignoring each other, but we’re still together. He’ll be mad for a while, but it’s okay. It’s okay. 

For me, this was a revelation.

That week as Matt slowly regained a more positive perspective on our relationship and I continued to reassure him, I contemplated the lesson a bit further. I asked myself what the point of relationships are, anyway. Are they for making us feel good all the time? No, I realized. That’s not what they’re for. Relationships–marriages especially–are about growth. They’re about learning compromise and communication and hell, just being a nicer person. Would I really want Matt to do everything I wanted him to do as soon as I wanted him to do it? What good would a robot husband be to anyone?

Looking back on that week, I wonder if that was the time that I first knew–truly knew–things were going to be okay with Matt and I. Since having our first child together we’d learned a lot of lessons, but did any of the others affect my attitude toward Matt as completely? In any case, the change that happened inside me that week was real, and it really did take hold. From that time forward, whenever Matt and I disagreed about something significant, I remembered to feel at least a bit grateful for the struggle.

This is how I’m becoming a better person, I told myself. This is how. Only this. No other way.

Marriage is a gift, and challenges are part of the package. I see how being married is changing me, and I like it.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Don’t Defend Yourself (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Nine)

My Relationship Journal: December

Lesson: Don’t Defend Yourself

Book Notes and Quotes:

Byron Katie:

  • “Defense is the first act of war.” It’s not the first mean comment or hurtful behavior. That’s just something that happened. War involves a response. (—Your Inner Awakening)
  • “Who started the war? I did. She just told the truth. And I start to punish her for being more enlightened than I am. If there is a war in my life, I started it. There’s no exception. If the war ends in my life, I end it. I end it, or it doesn’t end. No exception.” (—Who Would You Be Without Your Story? Dialogues with Byron Katie)

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle:

  • “Nonresistance, nonjudgment, and nonattachment are the three aspects of true freedom and enlightened living.”

The Wisdom of the Desert, Father Thomas Merton:

  • “And if anyone speak to you about any matter do not argue with him. But if he speaks rightly, say: Yes. If he speaks wrongly say to him: You know what you are saying. But do not argue with him about the things he has said. Thus your mind will be at peace.”

My Relationship Resolutions:

  • When confronted, I won’t immediately jump to my own defense. Instead, I will say either “interesting thought” or “okay.” After listening fully, I might say “I don’t agree,” or “I agree.” Usually, no elaboration will be required.
  • When I do find it necessary to explain my actions and behaviors, I will wait till a time when the other person is willing to listen. Before doing so, I will ask and receive their permission. No exceptions.
  • When someone uses an annoyed or angry tone of voice when speaking to me, rather than defend myself, I will ask him if he is feeling okay.
  • If someone is hurtful, I will politely ask him to apologize. Doing so doesn’t count as defensiveness, just self-respect.
  • I will give people–even my partner–the freedom to dislike me at times, and to disagree with me often.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to listen first.”
  • “I promise to ask permission before telling my side of the story.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Is It Giving Up or Is It Letting Go? (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Eight)

When I woke up the day after the Bad Wife Blowout, I was still emotional, but not as much as before. I apologized to Matthew, even though I didn’t want to.

It was the right thing to do.

That morning after our errands, Poppy and I walked to the park. It was cold, but the sun was shining. As I followed her from slide to swing, watching her play, I remembered the advice I’d gotten two years back from Marianne. “Ask yourself what to do. Use your intuition,” she’d said. It had worked before. Maybe it would work again.

I started with a review: the fight, my interpretation. My assertion that Matt was blaming me for all of our struggles. My fear that he didn’t feel close to me because he didn’t love me anymore. Then I said, “What now?” and got quiet.

The answer came swiftly: “What if none of this matters?”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “Doesn’t matter? Of course it does. Matt practically told me he’s disappointed with me as a wife. If that doesn’t matter, none of it does.”

“But did he, Rachel? Is that the real story? And even if it is, what can you do about it?”

“Well, I could talk to him. I could explain to him–calmly, I hope–how hurt and sad the comment made me feel. I could remind him of all the things I’ve done for him and for our family, how much I do every day. I could ask him to apologize.”

“Yes, you could. And it might help. But the way you’re feeling, Rachel–this isn’t about him, I don’t think. Remember the therapist you met at that party who told you that in general, your feelings about a fight are twenty percent about the fight and eighty percent about you? Well, you’re in the eighty zone, trying to deal with that part. The twenty is there, but it’s just twenty.”

“Okay. Say I believe you. What do you want me to do? Nothing? Just let the comment go?”

“Not exactly, Rachel. But what do you think would happen if, just this time, you didn’t defend yourself? What if when he got home from work and was annoyed at you already, expecting an argument, you just didn’t give it to him?”

“That’s crazy. Not defend myself?”

“Think about it.”

Then I did. And . . . it made sense. It was brilliant. It was brave. Not defend myself? I wondered as Poppy and I made our way home. Is it giving up? Or is it letting go?

***

That evening, when Matthew arrived home, I greeted him cheerfully. I gave him the baby, then started dinner. Over bacon and pancakes, I looked him in the eye, a smile crinkling a corner of mine. “I love you, Honey. I really do. And I’m trying really hard to be a good wife.”

“I know that, Rachel. And you are. Of course you are.”

I laughed. Of course I am. Of course I am? Okay. “Well, that’s not how I pictured the end of this fight. No asking for an explanation for my behavior? No hashing it out, figuring it out, dealing with it?”

“Dealing with it? I thought that’s what we just did.”

“You don’t want to know why I got so mad at you?”

“I know why. It was a rough night. You were tired.”

I nodded, my smile fading. I was tired. So it’s not that you were insensitive or said mean things. I was tired. That was the problem. I took a bite of pancake.

So, he doesn’t get it. He doesn’t know why I was upset. But wait–what’s this? Is it . . . peace? Am I actually enjoying the feeling of not giving in to my ego, of not proving my point? Maybe. Yes, definitely. I am.

“We should’ve made vegetables,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Matthew. “This is . . . a lot.”

“Tomorrow night, vegetables.”

“Vegetables and rice.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

The Bad Wife Blowout (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Seven)

Chapter Ten: Don’t Defend Yourself

I was learning. Matthew was learning. And yet, we had a long way to go; that much was clear to both of us. As we rounded the Year Three corner, another obstacle greeted us, though looking back, I’m not sure why it did, exactly. Was it because after two years of on-and-off tension we’d forgotten how to be comfortably in love? Was it because having solved several seemingly insurmountable problems, we were now expecting—even looking for—another?

Had we made annoyance a habit?

Whatever the origin of our latest issue, its nature was readily apparent: little mistakes or missteps were blown out of proportion, like tiny relationship land mines. When I repeatedly left the front door open while carting stuff to and from the car, Matthew furiously pointed out all the insects. When Matthew slipped his shoes off near the door, leaving them directly in my path, I picked them up and threw them across the room. When I scratched the car, Matthew was sarcastic and rude, and when Matt didn’t answer his cell phone, I sent him an angry text. In short: One of us would be annoying, and the other would get annoyed. Nothing too dramatic, but we needed a different coping mechanism.

Of course, there were the bigger fights, too, fights that were rarer than before but still awful. By that time, we’d learned not to yell most of the time, but it wasn’t a total solution.

Even when we were just talking, it felt terrible.

Fortunately, we had more to celebrate than fear. In a mere twenty-four months since becoming parents, we’d learned a lot about relationships. We’d learned how to laugh at ourselves. How to expect the best of each other. How to be nice. How to apologize. We’d learned how to bargain, how to nag the right way. How to talk without yelling. How to talk at all. The question now on my mind: How good was good enough?

How much patience, kindness, maturity, equanimity, selflessness and, well, logic could one reasonably expect from their partner?

Before parenthood took me by the collar and shook me up, I never thought to ask the question. “We treat each other well all the time,” I would’ve told anyone who did. “We don’t agree on everything, but we’re always nice about it.” But, to quote Genevieve, if you graduate parenthood with only one A, you probably got it in Humility. No longer did I assume my marriage was bullet-proof; weaknesses were now frequently recalled. And so, while Year One taught me how to love better, and Year Two, how to communicate my needs, Year Three taught me how to allow better—to accept Matthew as he was, and be at peace.

The argument that best represented our Year Three struggle began, as so many do, with a comment—one that at first seemed innocent enough. After three full months had passed without a mom-and-dad date, we had accepted a party invitation. We dressed up, then got the kids ready, too hurried to admire each other’s improved appearance. When we finally arrived at the daycare, we were late and stressed out, and not at all enjoying the experience thus far.

The woman at the front desk didn’t seem to notice. She smiled, welcomed Poppy and Harper and introduced them to the other kids. There was a cheerful goodbye, and when we got back in the car, relief came over us.

“It’s quiet,” I said.

“It’s weird, isn’t it?” Matthew replied. “They don’t cry all that much. But they’re really . . . loud.”

“They’re loud in our heads, even when they’re not talking or crying.”

Matthew laughed. “So true. Hon, I’m glad we’re doing this. Thanks for planning it.”

“You’re welcome. Why don’t we do it more often?”

And that’s when it happened: Matthew said something I wasn’t expecting, something that hurt me more than he could’ve predicted.

“I don’t know. Maybe because we haven’t been all that happy lately. We haven’t wanted to spend as much time together as we used to.”

My first thought: He doesn’t want to spend time with me? Has it really been that bad? Just when I thought things were getting so much better. I really wish he hadn’t said that.

Though I was hurt, I chose not to show it. I changed the subject, not wanting to ruin the night. And once we got to the party, I was glad I’d done so. In the presence of others, we came back to ourselves. We joked and talked, and were on each other’s side.

That night, before we went to sleep, I mentioned the comment again, but not in anger, exactly—more like in self-defense. I wanted to tell Matthew why I didn’t agree with what he’d said. I wanted to explain to him that after all the ups and downs he may have lost his perspective.

“Honey, what did you mean earlier today when you said we haven’t been happy lately?” I asked. “You said you haven’t been wanting to spend time with me. Did you mean it?”

“You mean what I said in the car?” Matthew said. “Hon, don’t be so sensitive. I didn’t mean I don’t ever want to hang out. I just meant that things have been rough.”

“But it’s not all bad, Matthew. We have mostly good days, you know. Don’t you appreciate all we’ve been through and how far we’ve come?”

“Yes,” Matthew said. “But for me, something’s still missing. I want to actually feel close to you.”

Here, I pulled away from him and sat up in the bed.

“Are you saying that you don’t? I feel like you’re looking only at what’s wrong between us, and ignoring everything else, all the good.”

“I know we’re not fighting all the time anymore, and I am glad about that. But we’re still struggling, you know.”

And that was when I started to cry. It was a quiet cry, the kind not easily detected in the dark. To hide it, I merely had to turn my face.

“We had fun tonight,” I said after a long, slow breath.

“Yes, we did.”

“So that’s at least a good sign.”

“Yeah. But we need to do better.”

“Wow. I had no idea, Hon. I really didn’t know you felt this way. You make it sound like I’m a bad wife.”

“You’re a really good mother, Rachel. And you’re a good wife, most of the time. But sometimes, you sort of forget about me.”

Matthew put his hand on my back, but I moved away, then let out a loud sob. I left the bedroom, and when Matthew followed, I went to the guest bedroom and shut and locked the door behind me. Then I stayed there the rest of the night with my thoughts.

So he thinks it’s all my fault that things aren’t perfect between us. Wow. How utterly predictable. I’m the one who planned our date tonight. What has he done lately to reach out? All he does is criticize and assign blame.

Can’t he at least see how hard I’m trying? Every day, I’m trying so damn hard. All I want for him is to be happy, and for us to be a happy family. I’m doing the work, and he’s just commenting on it.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Brush Up on Your Endocrinology (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Six)

My Relationship Journal: August

Lesson: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology

Book Notes and Quotes:

Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance–The Key to Life, Love and Energy, John Gray:

  • Many of the differences between men and women are due to differences in hormones—both in their levels and in the ways they behave in their bodies.
  • When feeling stressed, men seek testosterone-raising and testosterone-releasing activities, such as problem-solving and quiet, talk-free rest. When feeling stressed, women seek oxytocin-raising and oxytocin-releasing activities, such as talking, bonding and care-giving.
  • Testosterone increases cortisol (the stress hormone) in women and oxytocin increases it in men.
  • Women aren’t cranky—their serotonin is depleted due to stress and fluctuating blood sugar levels.
  • Men aren’t lazy—they are chemically built to need more time off.
  • Women don’t prioritize chores over self-care—they choose to release oxytocin by taking care of the home environment.
  • Men aren’t insensitive—they don’t crave the bonding women do.
  • Women don’t overreact—they experience a larger response in the brain when under stress than men do.
  • Women don’t complain endlessly—they talk about their feelings at length in order to rebuild their relaxing oxytocin.
  • Men don’t procrastinate—they choose to rebuild their testosterone levels through rest. They put off doing chores until an emergency, at which point their testosterone kicks in and tells them to act.
  • Women don’t worry an unreasonable amount—they simply enjoy nurturing others and thinking about their needs.

Love Is Never Enough: How Couples Can Overcome Misunderstanding, Aaron T. Beck M.D.

  • Male and female communication styles are instinctively different.
  • Men don’t ask as many personal questions, feeling that doing so is intrusive. Women ask lots of questions to show they care.
  • Men are less responsive and “. . . more likely to challenge or dispute statements made by their partners, which explains why a husband may seem to be eternally argumentative.”

My Relationship Resolutions:

  • I will make Matthew’s alone time a priority.
  • I will give myself time-outs when I need them, too.
  • I will communicate clearly. I won’t wait for Matthew to offer breaks, compliments, words of appreciation or anything else; instead, I will ask him for them.
  • I will focus on solutions, not emotions. This is an easier kind of conversation for men to have.
  • I will talk about my feelings with my female friends more often than I do with my husband.
  • I will avoid the temptation to compare lives. Sure, the number of hours I work is higher than the number Matthew works. But I get to play with Poppy and spend time with friends. He has to go to an office. With a boss.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to focus on solutions, not emotions.”
  • “I promise to understand that your needs are real.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Suddenly, I Have a Modern Husband (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Five)

Chapter Nine: Brush Up on Your Endocrinology

In August, I gave birth to our second child, a boy. He had fair hair and a placid demeanor. We called him Harper. Same hospital as Poppy. Same midwife, too. I even recognized one of the nurses. But if we were looking for similarities in the experiences, we wouldn’t’ve found many. Harper’s birth was, well . . . it was better.

Part of the improvement might’ve been due to my lessened fear; I’d done this once, and I knew I could do it again. I made better decisions, too: I got the epidural sooner. I walked more, which sped things up. But the biggest change was in Matthew’s involvement. He waited on me, bringing me ice and towels. He timed my contractions and pressed “play” on my audiobook. He took care of Poppy, explaining everything to her, and, significantly, he was just around more.

I wondered about the change. Was it because this time, Matt was already a dad and the parenting thing just felt more natural? Was it because I talked to him beforehand, describing my expectations in a loving way? Or was it simply because he couldn’t relax at home like last time since this time, he had to take care of Poppy?

Whatever the cause of the difference, I appreciated our time together. With Harper in my arms and Matt and Poppy at my side, my memory of the experience became one of unmixed joy. And there was another reason to be grateful, too. A week after arriving home, I noticed I felt differently than I had the first time. I wasn’t crying at night–or during the day, for that matter. I was elated by the sight and physical closeness of the baby. When three weeks later my postpartum depression still hadn’t returned, I mentioned the improvement to Matthew. He said, “Maybe it wasn’t postpartum depression. Maybe it was just me.”

“Probably.” I smiled.”I’m kidding.”

I was kidding. However, it was also true that ever since making our decision to work together every evening, balancing tasks between us, my stress levels were significantly lower. Rare, now, were the times Matthew crept away to the TV room after dinner, leaving Poppy to focus her requests on me; instead, he waited till we went to bed to be alone. Our time together became more frequent, more lengthy and more satisfying, largely because every afternoon, either Matthew or I said the magic words. “What would you like to do tonight, Hon?” It was a question that was more like an answer. With it, we acknowledged that I was no longer the default parent–that now, Matt was on the hook, too. Many evenings, I only requested that Matt play with the kids while I cooked dinner and did the dishes. He took to the role easily, even eagerly, and often found time to help with chores as well.

“Wow,” I said one night after watching Matthew start a load of laundry without being asked. “Suddenly, I have a modern husband.”

“I suppose that is what I am now,” Matthew replied. “Not that it was really my choice.”

“Would you rather have our schedule back? ‘Cause, you know, we could do that.”

“Nah,” Matthew said. “We’re beyond that. We have transcended the schedule, mostly.”

“Not entirely.”

“True. I still need a few guarantees in life.”

Then, in our second month with Harper, something came along that helped me appreciate my husband even more. That something was a wonderful book. Recommended by Genevieve and devoured by me in a single day, Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice: Hormonal Balance—The Key to Life, Love and Energy by John Gray was exactly what I needed, when I needed it. It outlined some of the main differences between men and women and (significantly) the hormonal reasons for them. And by the time I’d turned the last page, something inside me had shifted.

Though prior to Harper’s birth, my resentment had dwindled considerably, the feeling never disappeared completely. Then Harper was born, and in snatches, it made a comeback. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but still. Partly, I felt angry that Matthew couldn’t do some of the things that most needed doing. I had to breastfeed again–often, and sometimes painfully. I had to wake up with the baby at night. And, lest we forget, I had to push the kid out of my body. While reading Mars on Fire, though, there was a change that went deeper than information transfer. There was the start of a healing. My expectations had shifted. My chronic resentment had lifted.

For the first time, I felt like I not only understood my husband, but actually appreciated our differences.

Men really are men, I realized as I read. They really are their own thing. They need all that alone time that sometimes feels so selfish. They don’t need to talk as much as women do. They don’t get an oxytocin surge every time they help someone; on the contrary, testosterone makes them a bit cranky.

And that’s okay.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Change Your Partner the Right Way (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Four)

My Relationship Journal: April

Lesson: Change Your Partner the Right Way

Book Notes and Quotes:

Kira Asatryan:

  • Model the changes you want to see in your partner. This works because: “it’s positive, not negative” and because “it’s rooted in our physiology. We all have mirror neurons in our brains that make us naturally inclined to mimic the people we like. If your partner is fond of you, she’ll feel naturally inclined to adopt the behaviors she sees in you.”
  • “There’s nothing that makes another person more willing to change than seeing you embrace change yourself. If you know you have a habit that your partner truly dislikes, make an effort to work on it. The effort she sees you putting into improving yourself will be an inspiration and will soften her heart towards changing herself.” (—PsychologyToday.com)

Dan Savage:

  • “You sand off the imperfections you can sand off so you fit together more comfortably, but then you have to identify those things that, no matter how much you bitch and complain about, will never change. And you have to ask yourself, Is this person worth paying the price of admission to put up with that? And not put up with it and complain about it and guilt them about it all the time, put up with it and shut up about it.” (—StarTalkRadio.net)

My Relationship Resolutions:

  • I will figure out exactly what I want to change about my partner and our relationship. This can be harder than it seems.
  • I will determine whether or not I can help my partner make the change. Sweeping character alterations aren’t my territory. Changes of habit, schedules and circumstances might be.
  • I will only seek one big change at a time. This helps me clarify my needs, limit nagging and manage my expectations.
  • I will learn the art of the “slow nag.” Once I have a clear, main objective, rather than using the classic nagging technique—whine and repeat—I will use compliments, detached observations and jokes to good-naturedly encourage the change I want to see. Occasionally, a polite direct request will also do. An example of a detached observation: “That guy just bashed his wife to his friends. What a loser.” A joke: “You little stinker! Get your stinky butt out of bed!” And a direct request: “I really prefer it when you use a polite tone of voice when asking me to do something.”
  • Occasionally, after the slow approach hasn’t worked, I’ll use the confrontation method. During the confrontation I’ll use “I feel” and “lately it seems” statements, rather than “you are” and “you always” statements. I will focus on problems and solutions rather than perceived character flaws.
  • I will change, too. And talk about it with my partner.
  • I will be patient. People do change. People do grow. If I continue to expect the best of my husband, he will continue to move in that general direction (albeit rather slowly sometimes).
  • I’ll accept the things I cannot change about Matthew, even after four thousand super polite hints and conversations.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise not to nag you to change, but to gently encourage it instead.”
  • “I promise to mirror back to you the change I want to see.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

I’m Sorry I Nagged. Can You Do the Dishes? (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Three)

The day after the Dish Debacle I got up earlier than usual. I cleaned, cooked and played with Poppy, pretending everything was fine.

But that did not make it fine.

In the afternoon, I took Poppy to the park to meet Gen and Max. Knowing that between snacks, diaper changes and “Mom, come push me on the swing!” we wouldn’t have long to chat, as soon as we found a bench and the kids scampered off, I jumped right in.

“Matt and I had a fight. Another bad one. I’m not even sure what it was about. Housework?”

“Oh, one of those. Housework. Such a catalyst.”

“Yeah. I apologized, but it’s like, ‘I’m sorry I nagged you. Can you do the dishes?'”

Gen laughed.

“And then it was about our schedule, and me feeling like he doesn’t care enough about the family, and all the rest of it, yada yada.”

“Awww, I’m sorry, Rachel. That sucks.”

“I know. It does.”

“So do you really think he doesn’t care enough about you? Or . . . what’s the real problem here?”

“I don’t, but I do. I don’t know. Gen, you almost never complain about your marriage. Why is that? Have I ever asked you? If I haven’t, let me correct that error now.”

“I don’t think you have, Rachel. And I don’t know the answer. Maybe it’s all about having clear expectations. Who does what and when, and all that.”

“Yeah, that’s good, and that’s what Matthew and I have been doing, too. Ever since making our schedule. Still, I’m starting to wonder if its really the right thing for us. I can’t quite explain it, but it feels like something’s missing.”

“Well, has he been doing his part every day? And how does he do it? Is he dragging his feet?”

“Yes, he’s sticking to it, and so am I, pretty carefully—and it’s been several months now, so I feel good about that. But to your other question, yes, he does drag his feet. And then I end up nagging.

“And I really, really hate nagging. Not only because it’s thin-ice territory for him, and tends to make him grumpy, but because it makes me feel unloved. I start wondering why he won’t just do his part without my asking first as a way to show me he cares. Then we’re both in a bad mood.

“Sometimes I think we’re just planning everything too much. Why can’t he just look out for me, and me for him? Why does it have to be so complicated?”

“Well, it’s complicated because everything is complicated. He wants to look out for you, but he has to look out for himself, too. I mean theoretically, if you both put the other person first all the time, both of you would get your needs met. But relationships just don’t work that way. So get that idea out of your mind right now. Lose that expectation. His main job in life is to take care of himself. And so is yours.”

“Yikes,” I said. “That’s hard to hear.”

“Is it? Would you really want the job of making him happy? If he left you in charge of taking care of him, how would you make that happen? Would you just do everything he asked you to do? What about when what you wanted didn’t line up with what he wanted? Who wins? Do you each fight for what the other wants? Anyway, how would you even know what he wanted in the first place?”

“Okay. I see that. Okay.”

“Your husband is not going to put you first all of the time. Some of the time, but not all. Won’t happen,” Gen said.

“I get it.”

“But yeah, it’s complicated. And it’s going to stay that way. It’s hard enough when there are just two people’s needs to consider, but now there are three of you. That said, you could probably simplify things a bit.”

“How?”

“When I was pregnant with Max, Richard and I made an agreement. Since he was our third I knew that my alone time was basically over, at least until the kids were in school. So instead of trying to figure out an exact schedule to make it work, I told him that all I really wanted was for him to be present with us after he got home from work, pitching in and doing what he could until all the kids were in bed.”

“Wow. And what was that like?”

“Honestly?” Genevieve said. “It was the best thing ever. Before that, we were doing what you guys are doing—planning our evenings and weekends in advance as much as possible. But, well, it never quite felt fair. I was always the default parent, the one on duty when nothing else was negotiated. After that one discussion, our marriage really changed. It became more of a partnership.

“We still go by that guideline most days of the week, and a lot of the weekend, too. When Richard comes home, he plays with the kids while I get dinner, and we take turns with chores and bedtime stuff. It’s good for all of us, really. Even Richard can’t imagine it any other way. He’s gotten used to being together as a family every evening.”

“That sounds awesome,” I said. “But do you think Matt would go for something like that? It would be such a big change.”

“But he’s already doing a lot. Maybe he’d rather not be on quite as strict of a schedule. Maybe he misses your laid-back, unscheduled time, too.”

“Maybe. Or maybe our expectations would get fuzzy again, and I’d be nagging even more than before.”

“You never know. You might be surprised.”

“If it worked, I would be. It would feel like a coup. Like something fundamental changed in Matthew’s personality. And you know what people say about trying to change your partner.”

“What? That it’s not possible? They’re wrong.”

“What?”

“Oh, Rachel. We all change our partners, all of the time.”

“How? What do you mean?”

“People change, in small ways, to reflect your expectations of them. And even more so in marriage. A lot of the time, what you think you’ll get is what you get. They can sense it and they find themselves acting how you think they’ll act.”

“So have I changed Matthew?”

“What do you think?”

“Hmmm . . . yeah, I think I have. One of the first things I learned after having Poppy was to change my stories about him–to see the best in him. After that, I noticed a big change: he was less moody. Then we both learned how to talk instead of getting emotional about everything right away. I think he followed my lead on that one, too. He still doesn’t always apologize, and he still does hurtful things, but whenever I’m in a good mood, he’s much more likely to be pleasant, too. The other day I was feeling really positive and he picked up on that. He sent me a text that said, ‘I love you.'”

“That’s cute.”

“I know. And he doesn’t do that stuff just to make me feel good. He only does it when he’s really feeling that way.”

“Richard, too. So it sounds like what you’re saying is that Matt has changed for the better, but not from nagging. Mostly from just improving your attitude.”

“I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe nagging helps a bit, too. There are times when I think it has.”

“But nagging nicely. Nagging gently, and not all the time.”

“Yeah. It’s a different kind of nag. More lighthearted.”

With that, an interruption. First one, then a cascade. Max needed to use the bathroom, then both kids needed food and water. When the dominoes stopped falling, I picked up where we left off.

“So basically, Gen, what you’re telling me is that at times I can change Matt by expecting the best of him, and other times I can either learn how to nag in a nice way or have a well-planned, respectful conversation?”

“I might have said all that, yeah. Worth a try anyway. Can’t hurt to try. Won’t work with everything, but you might be surprised. Package it well. Show him the benefits. Most of the time, what you want is what will make him happy, too.”

***

That night, after Matthew came home, I popped some popcorn–his favorite snack–and we sat in the family room and discussed our relationship yet again.

“I know things have been rough for the past couple of months,” I told him. “And I’m sorry for not holding it together a bit better. I’ve been picking fights and hurting you, and I really don’t want to do that anymore.”

Matthew looked at me gratefully. He’s easy to soften, I realized. It takes such a small gesture. An apology. A loving touch. Even a smile will often do the trick. Why don’t I do this more?

“I talked to Gen today and told her a little about this, and she made a really good suggestion. She said that she thinks our schedule has been great, but that we might need a bit more flexibility. How would you feel about both of us working together in the evenings, instead of taking turns like we have been? I don’t want to be co-workers, watching the clock all the time, taking things in shifts. I want us to be more like partners.”

“Interesting,” Matthew replied. “That actually makes sense. We discuss each night what we need to get done, or just spend the evening hanging out together.”

“Exactly.”

“Hmmm . . . Yeah. We could try it.”

In the years to follow, I would know the true significance of this conversation. That evening, though, I only suspected it. I took another bite of popcorn and when Poppy held out her hand, put a few kernels in it. As I looked at her face, then at Matthew’s, a deep love for them came over me—as well as a great feeling of relief.

It’s true, I thought, I don’t need Matthew to always take care of me or put me first. I can do that. But I do need him to be there.

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

It Happened Because of the Dishes (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-Two)

Chapter Eight: Change Your Partner the Right Way

After the First Trimester Tussle, I promised I’d forgive myself. And I did—but that didn’t solve everything. Though in my second three months of pregnancy my nausea and discomfort decreased significantly, the unease I felt about my marriage lingered.

Matthew and I were still treading water.

In the months following the argument, we stuck to our child care schedule. Yet no matter how fair things seemed on the surface, I couldn’t shake the feeling something was missing. Matthew was doing his part. He was taking Poppy out, helping with the cleaning. I could do my work without interruption. But he was withdrawn. He was distant. He watched the clock, checked the boxes.

He was just doing his duty.

Which is part of the reason that in late March, just two months after our worst fight ever, we had another that was nearly as bad.

It happened because of the dishes. Well—not just the dishes, maybe, but the dishes as well as my repeated requests for Matthew to take care of them. One evening, before doing what I thought of as a favor to him–taking Poppy to an art class for two hours during his scheduled Poppy time–I repeated my request yet again.

“The dishes, Hon, the dishes. They’re really getting bad. Can you do at least some of them while we’re gone?”

Matthew gave me a grim look and did not respond, so I sighed, packed a diaper bag and left with Poppy. I enjoyed our outing, but when I returned later that night, the dishes were still in the sink . . . and Matthew was on the couch watching TV.

Seeing this, anger. Waves, like before. I’m getting tired of this. I need a boat already. Where is it?

I didn’t find a boat that night. But I did find a log to grab onto–one just big enough to give me a short rest. Rather than mentioning my disappointment to Matthew, starting an argument I couldn’t win, I asked him to take Poppy out the following evening.

He agreed. I was relieved. But the following night, just before he walked out the door, he called something over his shoulder.

“Can you do the dishes while we’re gone?”

I didn’t reply, but he didn’t wait for me to, anyway. I heard footsteps, then a purposeful bang. Matthew had closed the door and left without saying goodbye, something that he knew I hated.

My first response: Gut check. Wow. That was rude. Why would he shut the door on me like that? Is he mad at me for asking him to do the dishes last night? How petty. Now we’re in a fight, and for what?

That evening at the restaurant, Matthew and Poppy dined on thick fries and a thicker steak, but home alone, I didn’t eat much. The meal I’d planned and the book I’d selected were postponed for another day and I lay in bed and wallowed instead. When Matthew returned, I decided once again to break my own rule.

I started an argument at night.

And it was bad. It was bad for all the reasons sudden nighttime fights are usually bad—uncontrollable emotion due to exhaustion and the freshness of the wound. Added to that, though, was the built-up resentment that I’d been unable to let go of for so long.

Simply put: I was out of control.

The scene went something like this: Matthew and Poppy got home. When they found me in bed, Matthew gave me the baby. With glazed-over eyes, I took Poppy and started to nurse. Then I started in on Matthew.

“It was my first night off in a week, and you left in a huff. How could you be so rude to me, Matt?”

“All I did was what you did, just the night before. You asked me to do the dishes on my night off.”

“Your night off? That was my night. I gave that one to you. And the dishes would’nt’ve taken the whole time.”

“But the dishes are your chore. They’ve always been your chore. It’s like now that I’m doing more with Poppy, your standards have just gotten even higher. You want me to start taking on more of the housework and you’re nagging me about it every day. I’m sticking to the schedule. How much more will you want from me?”

“The dishes are my chore? I don’t think so.” I got out of bed and set the baby on the floor. I was shaking.

Here, we rehashed our chore breakdown in detail, as well as our evening schedule. Twenty minutes of shouting later, we still differed in our perspectives. While Matthew felt I should take on the responsibility alone, I thought we should each wash what we used.

“Anyway,” I concluded, “This isn’t just about the dishes. It’s about how rude you were to me. You walked out on me, angry. You ruined my night. You really need to apologize for that.”

“Apologize? Not a chance. You should apologize. You’re the one who’s nagging me all the time.”

“And why wouldn’t I? If I don’t, you conveniently ‘forget’ what we’re doing that night. I have to practically beg you to keep your agreements.”

“Hey, that’s not fair. I would do it without being reminded. You just never give me a chance to.”

“Fine, Matthew, I’m sorry. I know I’ve been nagging. I just don’t know what else to do.”

“How about not being such a control freak? You barely talk to me except to ask me to help you with something. I get less grief from my boss.”

“When do I even see you? When do we have time for a conversation? You’re working all the time. You won’t even take all your vacation.”

“And you continue to make things harder on yourself, Rachel. You still don’t take naps. You still won’t get a babysitter so we can go out together.”

“You know how much work it is to find a babysitter? Oh, no, you don’t–you’ve never done it.”

“Well, it’s not as if I’m not doing other things. Ever since making our schedule, we’ve stuck to it. What more do you want from me?”

“I don’t know.”

I sat. I took a deep breath. “I don’t know, Matt. I don’t know. I want you to be nice, even when you’re in a bad mood. I want you to want to clean the house and be with Poppy, even when you don’t absolutely have to.”

“You want to change me.”

“Yes, I guess I do.”

“Thanks, Rachel. Thanks a whole lot.”

“No, Matt, that’s not what I meant. I meant . . . I don’t know what I meant. I really just want to be a loving, happy family.”

“Well, then, we have to spend family time together. But when? With you working and me taking Poppy out all the time? Is there even time?”

I picked up Poppy and held her to my breast again. She nuzzled into my chest.

“I don’t know.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.

Apologize Every Chance You Get (Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby, Part Twenty-One)

My Relationship Journal: February

Lesson: Apologize Every Chance You Get

Book Notes and Quotes:

A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Eckhart Tolle:

  • Due to our ego, we’re constantly seeking approval from others. This seeking leads to resentment when any kind of disagreement—often even a minor one—occurs. So, get rid of ego. It’s just not helping. All that anger, defensiveness, arguing, making wrong, being right . . . all of that can safely go away. The death of your ego is not the death of you. Instead, it’s the start of your real life.
  • Don’t just get rid of your own ego, though: stop reacting to the ego in others. This is the most effective way to not only avoid arguments, but to actually dissolve the other person’s anger and bring back their sanity. Then real communication can begin.

My Relationship Resolutions:

  • I will take every opportunity to apologize. I will humbly ask for forgiveness, and generously forgive myself.
  • I will remember that my ego isn’t my friend. It causes me to interpret every confrontation as a potential threat, and makes me defensive.

For the Fridge:

  • “I promise to take every opportunity to say I’m sorry.”

Read the rest of the series at Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby: A Self-Help Novel.