Having a baby tends to change your marriage. How could it not? You’re adding another (beautiful) human being to your household. A human being who requires you to fulfill their every need, usually every few minutes, and who rarely lets you sleep. And most of us aren’t exactly at our best when we’re sleep deprived, stressed and spent.
When you add postpartum depression (PPD) to the mix, your marriage might feel especially fragile. Even after you’ve recovered from PPD, your foundation may be shaky. You might feel disconnected from each other. You’re physically in the same house, in the same room, and yet your hearts are many miles apart.
So much may remain unsaid between you. So many (mistaken) assumptions may be made. He resents me for having struggled with depression. He thinks I’m a terrible mother. She thinks I didn’t support her enough. She thinks I’m a horrible husband. She wants to be alone. He doesn’t want anything to do with me.
In their thoughtful, insightful and practical book Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression Karen Kleiman, MSW, LCSW, and Amy Wenzel, Ph.D, ABPP, share eight “tokens” or principles to help partners reconnect and solidify their bond. Kleiman is the founder of The Postpartum Stress Center, a treatment and training center for prenatal and postpartum depression and anxiety. Wenzel is a clinical psychologist who specializes in depression, anxiety and relationship problems.
The tokens are: esteem; collaboration; compromise; selflessness; sanctuary; expression; tolerance; and loyalty. Below are five tips from their book based on some of these tokens to help you reconnect.
Speak the same language.
Even if you’ve been married for years, you still might make incorrect assumptions about what your partner needs and prefers. And they can do the same. It might seem obvious to you that you want your spouse to ask how you’re doing. But they assume you want to be left alone (maybe because that’s what they prefer when they’re stressed out).
To help you speak the same language, Kleiman and Wenzel suggest completing the below sentences. Ask your partner to complete them, too. Then discuss your responses.
- “I love it when you _________________.”
- “When you ______________, I have a hard time understanding what you want.”
- “I know you have really heard me when you _____________.”
- “It might seem silly, but when you _____________ it makes me feel totally loved by you.”
- “I feel like we communicate best when we _______________.”
- “When you are upset, perhaps it would be best for me to _______________.”
- “However, when I am upset, I would prefer you to ______________.”
“Always, always, be aware of how your partner is feeling,” write Kleiman and Wenzel. In fact, they believe that “what is most fundamental to the well-being of your marriage is how much you care about what your partner is feeling.”
Before telling your spouse what you need, name their emotional state: “I know you are ____________ (tired, busy, frustrated), but I need ____________ (you to, go and, take a). Or mention how your partner might see your request: “I know you hate to hear this, but I would love it if you could ___________.”
Be kind and curious.
This isn’t easy to do when you have a baby, but when you have the opportunity, engage in novel activities together. Try a new hobby. Take dance lessons. Play a sport.
Talk to your spouse about something you’ve never talked about before. Share a part of yourself that you’ve yet to share. Say nice things to each other. Don’t underestimate the power of a compliment or of showing your admiration for each other.
Even when you don’t feel like it, check in with your spouse. This shows them you care unconditionally. As the authors write, “One of the things my clients hear me say, over and over again, is that you don’t have to want to do something, to do it…”
Ask questions, and listen fully to the answers (without interrupting or judging what they say). Kleiman and Wenzel share these examples: “Are you feeling better today? What was the best part of your day? What happened at your meeting? How does your back feel today?”
Remember your love.
“As marriages move beyond recovery and readjust to the transition into parenthood, couples can easily begin to take each other for granted,” write Kleiman and Wenzel. You might forget why you fell in love with your partner in the first place. You might forget the qualities you’ve always admired. Instead you both might be focused on the annoyances, on any resentment that’s built up.
To remind yourselves of your love, each make a list of the qualities you love about the other and the initial reasons you fell in love. Talk about your lists. Talk about why you married your partner. Or tell your partner what you miss. Or talk about “why you are dedicated to doing this work and finding your way back home.”
And, again, instead of making assumptions, talk to your spouse. Be honest about your feelings and needs, without lashing out or criticizing. Listen to each other.
Reconnecting with your partner after PPD may be a circuitous, bumpy process. The above tips can absolutely help. They speak to the things we forget to do when we’re stressed out, there’s a lot on our plates and we’ve been together for a long time. They speak to the small steps we can take in loving, respecting and caring for each other.
But the best course of action is to work with a therapist who specializes in couples. A professional can help you successfully navigate your specific issues.
And please don’t blame yourself. Postpartum depression is an illness. It’s not something you can control or will away. It’s not something that characterizes you as a person or your ability as a mom. Even though you’ve recovered or are recovering, you still might feel fragile and emotionally raw. Do whatever you need to do to keep getting better. Again, this usually includes continuing to see a therapist.
Take good care of yourself, and take good care of your marriage.