Two months after the birth of their son, J.P., Alicia and Jon Maricle, both airline pilots in Colleyville, Texas, found themselves tired, busy, and seriously irritable. "Most of our day consisted of changing J.P.'s diapers, nursing, pumping, burping, playing, rocking him to sleep, and repeating this seven more times -- which meant we didn't get enough sleep," says Alicia.
One day, after yet another tough night, Alicia asked Jon to mow the lawn before he went to a ball game with his friends. Interpreting her request as bossiness, he blurted, "You don't do anything!" After cutting the grass, he went to the game, leaving Alicia to stew for several hours. "By the time he got home, I was insisting that we either get marriage counseling or try out a Do-It-Yourself-Divorce website."
Fighting words are hardly foreign to couples, but for new parents like the Maricles, conflicts occur all too often. The arrival of a baby usually has a profound effect, both joyful and straining, on a relationship. According to the Gottman Relationship Research Institute, a research and counseling center in Seattle, up to 70 percent of couples experience a decline in marital satisfaction after a baby is born. This dissatisfaction is due in great part to increased fighting, says John Gottman, Ph.D., cofounder of the institute and author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work. Chronic arguing is unhealthy not only for your relationship but also for your baby. Children of all ages pick up on tension. "Infants will typically be irritable and have eating and sleeping problems," says Pamela Jordan, Ph.D., a nurse, the author of Becoming Parents, and an associate professor of Family and Child Nursing at the University of Washington. The occasional tiff, especially one in which a resolution to a problem is worked out, is relatively harmless, notes Jordan. It's the constant, aimless fighting that can cause trouble. "When the home is a battle zone, family members walk on eggshells or avoid each other, and kids learn unhealthy ways of interacting," she says.
Here, the biggest culprits behind new-parent tiffs, and how to put the peace back into your relationship.
The "I'm So Tired I Could Scream" Syndrome
Sleep deprivation -- one of the most common gripes among new parents -- can spark dramatic mood swings and unprovoked arguments. "Without adequate amounts of sleep, we can become short-tempered," says Rhonda Nordin, author of After the Baby: Making Sense of Marriage After Childbirth. The key: recognizing when anger toward your partner is actually just crankiness and circumventing the argument before it escalates. "The heat of the moment is the worst possible time to try to deal with something," says Jordan. "We often push issues at these times because we think if we postpone them, they'll never be addressed." Put discussions off until later that night when the baby is in bed, she suggests. "You'll learn to trust that the issue isn't being brushed aside but merely put in a place where it doesn't take control of your life." The Maricles learned their lesson: "We overreacted to what might normally be a perfectly appropriate comment, and that turned into an argument."
The Maricles also needed to work on making themselves less exhausted. Alicia went for a tried-and-true solution: "Sleep when the baby sleeps!" she says. "I would take a little nap when J.P. was napping instead of trying to clean the house or do laundry." The couple also agreed that it wasn't necessary for Jon to wake up with Alicia for all of J.P.'s night feedings. "I realized that there was no reason for both of us to lose sleep," says Alicia. "Now, Jon gets some extra sleep and really appreciates my 'sacrifice.'"
The Lopsided-Duties Dilemma
One night a few weeks after their son, Adam Jr., was born, Adam Westley, a golf service worker in Dayton, Ohio, came home and complained to his wife, Amber, that the house was a mess -- dirty dishes in the sink, baby gear strewn around the living room. "He said, 'This makes me not want to come home sometimes -- I can't stand a dirty house,'" recalls Amber, a stay-at-home mom. "Then I said, 'If you don't like it, then you can clean it!'"
One of the biggest points of contention among new parents is an unequal division of labor. The problem isn't necessarily that the duties are lopsided but that one spouse's expectations haven't been met, says Maureen Perry-Jenkins, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, who conducted a five-year study about how couples cope with the transition to parenthood. In the Westleys' case, neither partner's expectations were being met: Adam expected Amber to clean; Amber expected Adam to help out more. Clear up any misunderstandings about who should do what by talking openly about itóbefore the baby arrives, if you can. "Couples need to be clear about their expectations for the division of housework and childcare, and then their actions need to match those expectations," says Perry-Jenkins.
The "Mommy Knows Best" Myth
Depending on which parenting books you've read and how your parents raised you, you won't always agree with your partner on how to best care for the new baby. But remember: The two of you are helping each other raise a child. If you find yourselves butting heads over little issues -- such as how to hold the baby when he's crying or which outfit to dress him in -- back off every now and then, suggests Gottman. "Realize that there's more than one way to burp a baby," he says. "If you really feel your spouse's approach is unsafe, direct him to your pediatrician."
The Money Pit
Thanks to the new expenses they found themselves saddled with during the first few months following their son Tyler's birth, Scott Scheirer, a factory worker in Reading, Pennsylvania, and his wife, Lori, fell into a regular pattern of arguing about money. "If I'd buy myself a pair of shoes for work, she'd complain that I couldn't buy her sneakers," Scott says. "We'd always end up shouting."
With a new baby comes the need for gear, clothes, and childcare. But it's not just these costs that can cause conflict. No matter how wealthy they are, all couples argue about money. Why? Money symbolizes power and control. Typically, the person who earns it is the one with the greater amount of perceived control in the family. "Many men who earn more money (than their wives) feel that they should have authority over spending," says Olivia Mellan, author of Money Harmony. Conversely, "research has shown that women who make more usually want to share the power democratically." Therefore, she says, it's up to women to teach men the benefits of teamwork, no matter who has the bigger paycheck.
How to do this? Talking about how your parents viewed money can offer a lot of insight into your own and your spouse's financial views, says Mellan. Discuss your goals and values when it comes to saving and spending and try to find common ground. Then keep it up with monthly or even weekly money talks. If one parent usually handles the money maintenance -- paying the bills, dealing with the bank -- it can leave the other person in the dark without a clear picture of the family's financial situation. Take turns balancing the checkbook or simply spend five minutes every month going over it together.
The "Partner or Parent?" Problem
"Unfortunately, we don't seem to be one of those lucky couples that are even more passionate and loving after having a baby," says Kristen Chase, mother of a 6-month-old in Plainville, Massachusetts, about her relationship with her husband, Brian. "The romance has been put on the back burner. Right now we're more in mommy/daddy mode than we are in husband/wife mode."
The Chase's situation is typical: Couples don't make their relationship enough of a priority after a baby is born. Sex often disappears and their time alone diminishes, says Gottman. The standard advice can really make a difference: "Plan a weekly date, make sex a priority once a woman's desire returns a bit, and plan romantic getaways." Revel in the new light in which you can now see each other. Does your husband look adorable and sexy when he is rocking your baby to sleep? Is he amazed that your body could produce such a miracle? By focusing on all the joys of parenthood (yes, there are joys!) and remembering why it was you wanted to have a child together in the first place, the inevitable arguments you have with your partner will just be small bumps in the road.
Michelle Lee is a freelance writer based in New York City.