Nothing Looks Good at 3:00 am: 4 Tips to Handle Relationship Conflict at All Hours

You’re tired. More tired than you ever thought possible. And the bi-hourly wake ups with baby have put you in a state of perpetual grumpiness. The person who happens to be a convenient target for your general irritation? That snoozing lump next to you in bed.

If you’re someone who’s experiencing tension in your marriage in the postpartum period, you are not alone! In fact, as a therapist and parenting coach, I can confidently say that the first year with a baby is the toughest in a relationship. 

And that makes complete sense. Neither one of you have done this before and the overwhelm you feel about that fact alone is always bubbling under the surface. Layer on sleep deprivation and everything feels unsure, tenuous, with huge potential consequences if you screw it up. 

So the pressure is on and conflicts are bound to occur. 

Of course, disagreements are part of being in any relationship. You’re different people who see the world differently. 

But this is a new ballgame and you might be wondering… What’s the best way to avoid disagreements escalating into conflicts that drive your relationship off the rails? Especially when you need each other now more than ever. Here are 5 tips.

Lay down some ground rules with your partner for dealing with disagreements. 

If you are triggered, you’re not able to listen to each other. Usually, you’re just thinking about what to say next. If talking at each other doesn’t seem like the best way to figure out solutions, you’re correct. Anger gets in the way of problem solving. So, it’s important to communicate with each other about the best way to resolve an argument.

The key is the work out what to do before a fight ensues. Saying something like, “When I’m triggered or mad I can’t listen to what you’re saying. Going forward when I’m upset, I’m going to step away to cool down. I want to hear your perspective. I’m not abandoning you or the conversation. I just need time before we resume talking. Can we both agree to try doing this?”

When you notice your tone has taken on an edge, your stomach hurts, your head aches, or you’re about to blurt out an icy comment that you’ll regret, hit the pause button. Conveying contempt through eye rolling or sarcasm only divides you further. Clamp your hand over your mouth if needed! These are signs that you need to cool off before continuing. Stepping away for at least 20 minutes allows the adrenaline and cortisol to clear from your body. 

Actually cool down.

Notice, I didn’t say to step away and ruminate for 20 minutes about your best come-backs and how your partner was unfair and wronged you. Instead, distract yourself and stay present in the here and now–not the gloomy future you’re imagining. Shake out your hands, roll your shoulders. Notice where the tension sits in your body and breathe into that space. Listen to your favorite music or pod. Take a walk. Call a friend. Read an article like this one

Remember that your partner is not the enemy. You are on the same team. 

When you do resume talking, it’s best to use a soft, affectionate approach. Acknowledge your partner’s point of view and your role in the conflict. Use “I statements” and stay on topic. 

It’s easy to bring up a cascade of old hurts and disappointments that have little to do with the subject at hand. Shockingly, these “everything but the kitchen sink” arguments don’t usually help, as you get side lined defending yourselves without actually making progress on the issue that kicked off the conflict. 

Nothing looks great or gets resolved at 3am. 

Delay those tense, late night conversations until you’ve gotten a bit more rest. Everything looks a little brighter once the sun is up.

If your guiding principle as a couple is, “We don’t always agree, but we respect and love each other” you are much more likely to resolve your disagreements quickly and amicably. And get through this wild, sleep deprived stage with your love in tact.

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