One of my clients recently had a baby, and a few months ago she said something to the effect of, “My husband and I are really trying, but even so, it’s really hard to know what’s going on with each other! How on earth do couples stay connected after having a baby?”
Such a great question! That sense of not really knowing what’s going on with your partner is one of the main things that can drive disconnection in the immediate months and years after a baby enters a family.
Becoming a parent is such a massive life change for each person that it will predictably bring up a flood of new and intense emotions, new types of thoughts, and new desires or wishes — though you certainly cannot predict what this new stream of experiences will be. And if all that new stuff is going on inside, you can bet that both people start acting differently — perhaps strangely — on the outside. This is where the lessons of mindfulness can be helpful.
Having our beloved start to act in ways that we don’t understand tends to trigger negative judgments and reactions in us. If it were a mathematical formula, it would be: Confusion + Lack of sleep + Overwhelm = Judgmental Reactivity. This is definitely not a formula that keeps couples connected and close, which is a shame since this is a time when everyone needs support more than ever.
So how can mindfulness help at a time like this? If you are like most people, you’ve seen the word “mindful” everywhere. It has saturated many self-help books and magazines but it may not be a meaningful word to many people or is something that seems outside their reach or not very practical for day-to-day life. However, if we think about “mindfulness” as simply learning how to flex a muscle — our brain– to create a different formula — Awareness + Pause + Curiosity = Mindfulness/Connection — then this can be incredibly helpful for new parents. Add to this formula that recent research found that “one mindful breath” — the equivalent of a 6 second practice — has the potential to improve empathy and communication, and we have a winning equation to help new parents stay connected! (Read more on this research.)
Here are a few tips for using the practice of one mindful breath in communication.
Build awareness of your “go-to” thought patterns when you are overwhelmed. For example, do you tend to assume negative intentions? Is it hard for you to ask for help so you think angry thoughts when you aren’t getting the help you need?
Learn to “see” these judgmental thoughts as an alarm waking you up to a need (for example, needing help, needing to understand, needing to feel understood, etc.).
Here is the most important tip: Pause before doing or saying anything! (Breathe in slowly and breathe out slowly.) The slow, mindful, 6 second breath should build this in, and take more if needed!
Commit to Rather than assume you know what is going on, assume you have no idea what is going on with your partner
Commit to self-expression and loving inquiry. (i.e. “Hey honey, I am feeling really upset right now and trying to slow myself down so I don’t make any assumptions. I noticed you didn’t buy milk on the way home and we really need some. Did something happen?”)
Be gentle with yourself and your partner as you will inevitably make mistakes and get derailed as you try these mindful communication practices. If you find that you and your partner need more support, couples therapy is an excellent resource to use early and often. (BTW, this is a great practice for dealing with infants and toddlers, too.)