“We brought couples into the lab and had them argue with each other. And we found that how negatively or positively, they interacted with each other, actually predicted their experience of the birth! So, prenatal couples conflict predicted stress during childbirth and the baby’s medical outcomes. Couples are such an interesting target for prevention and intervention. We’re now thinking about how to support relationship quality,” said Dr. Darby Saxbe, Professor and Researcher.
Some couples have grown closer in the pandemic. But most have not. We’ve heard from over 2,000 parents, mostly Moms (97%) who are married or cohabiting. And the loss of date nights and personal space, combined with the rise in housework and childcare, has been a recipe for marital stress.
The gendered power struggle continues to test relationships for many Moms partnered with Dads. Who gets to have leisure? And who gets to do the laundry? It’s tricky to disagree without damaging trust. Particularly when the topic, sharing the work at home, is a well-worn source of tension. So, what can we do?
Invest in Better Communication
“There’s been much more demand on everything from meals to dishes, to just supervising kids in the pandemic. So, the stress on couples has really multiplied,” Darby said. But she’s seen couples get aligned. “There are great approaches to couples therapy. And improved communication, can help couple’s problem-solve and improve how they negotiate domestic labor,” she explained,
The lopsided impact of the pandemic on women, in the workforce and at home, put the gendered division of labor on stage. And difficulty sharing housework is a common source of disappointment, among couples. Darby added, “So, make good communication your number one priority and use the empathy muscle as much as possible.”
Because Bad Conflict Can Be Unhealthy
Not all conflict is equal. Arguments can get ugly. And negative behaviors during a disagreement, like criticism and anger, cause lasting damage. And it’s not only harmful for couples who are expecting. Darby cites studies in her research that show, negative couples conflict can lead to reduced immunity and even higher blood pressure. Seriously. If an argument with your spouse goes off the rails, you likely understand how long it can take to recover. And when we can’t navigate differences, over time, we can lose confidence in the relationship. What are our options to avoid this downward spiral, that hurts our marriages and health?
So, Learn to Avoid Negative Fights
Wait, aren’t all fights negative? Sort of. Couple’s researchers use Gottman’s SPAFF codes to differentiate the problematic behaviors, like contempt and defensiveness from positive ones, like humor and validation. Although most of us know when an argument has taken a bad turn, it’s often afterwards. If you know what characterizes a ‘good’ disagreement from a ‘bad’ one, then you’re more likely to prevent arguments from getting too heated. Although fights are rarely constructive, learning how to fight better and repair trust, is important for a healthy partnership.
And How to Cooperate
Raising kids together creates a tight bond with your partner. But the stakes are higher. And everything is more complicated. Whose traditions are celebrated? Which values are honored? And once you’re aligned on priorities, setting your child’s moral compass, consumes a lot of time. Years. So, the connection with our partners begins to take a back seat to cooperation and caring. Caring for kids, the home and about the careers that fund it. And there’s less time spent caring for each other. And some relationships grow stale or toxic.
Make Time for Connection
In our pandemic study, if couples are happier (about 30%) than they were pre-Covid, there are common themes. They gained time for each other or themselves. Either Mom lacked support before but having her partner at home through lockdown, improved support. Or Dad, in Mom/Dad couples, became more hands-on with the kids and household during quarantine, in ways his pre-Covid schedule didn’t allow. Or grandparent care, removed pressure for everyone, by adding more adult hands.
In the families with kids who are more independent, like teens or young adults, the pause created more self-care space. And in some families, couples successfully renegotiated a more even split of who does what.
And Take Breaks. Even if They’re Short
As the world reopens, so will options for time alone. But in the meantime, Darby wisely reminds us to put this in context. “Social distancing shrunk our social world. But for people who are living with a partner or with kids, it actually created more social contact than they may have had before. So, it also made social contact inescapable. Because suddenly, everybody’s doing everything together, often in a small living space,” she said. Sigh.
Darby added, “Recognize that humans need social connection. But they also need solitude and time to reflect. And that it’s healthy to take time and space away. One intervention is to try to take breaks. I walk up and down my street probably 10 times a day.” Darby said.
Update Your Systems. Often
The pandemic isn’t the reason couples argue. Family schedules were complicated before Covid. But the pandemic made what was already hard, that much harder, for most. And few couples pause to reset how they navigate their changing needs. But sharing the mental load, having healthy boundaries and the ability to reprioritize, as life evolves, has always been essential.
Which places importance on not only good systems but regular systems updates. There are great resources to help. Once you understand, track, depersonalize and routinize household operations, there’s less friction during discussions about it.
Share your pandemic experiences! How are the latest changes affecting your life? It’s quick and the results from this study are used to advocate better support for parents.
Employers, let us help you transform your workplace into an environment where caregivers thrive. Learn about Allies @ Work.
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Darby Saxbe!
Darby Saxbe is Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Southern California, where she directs the USC Center for the Changing Family, an interdisciplinary hub for family studies research across the university. Her research, currently funded by the National Science Foundation, focuses on the neurobiological underpinnings of the transition to parenthood. She received her B.A. from Yale University and her Ph.D from UCLA.Tags: equal marriages, healthy marriages, strong couples