This is a chapter from my upcoming book “The Clueless Father’s Parenting Survival Guide.”
It’s also one of the longest chapters in the book. Sorry about that. But if I could spend an hour of reading and hopefully spare my child years of pain, I’d consider it a good trade.
I’d say probably about 15% of the book deals with preparing your relationship for having children and also things you can do to rescue the relationship if you weren’t prepared for what children would do to it.
Hope you find it helpful.
What to do When Your Relationship Goes Toxic After Having a Baby
It goes without saying that you and your partner both better be reading this chapter (even though I did just say it). It takes two to tango dahling.
So you had a baby and suddenly your relationship has started crumbling. The attraction you and your partner once felt seems to have gone out. You fight a lot more than usual. Blame gets thrown around and nerves are frayed. You don’t know if you can stay together with this person who you thought you once loved because you just don’t feel it anymore.
What happened? How did things go so wrong? Can you still fix it? Or is too late?
Ok. I think I put the appropriate amount of warnings in the earlier part of the book about how to prepare your relationship for having a child to avoid the problems which not only can occur, but which most definitely will occur, and if you are reading this chapter, probably already have occurred.
But that certainly doesn’t help if you are already in a relationship that’s soured. The truth though, is that solving this problem needs to be dealt with in the exact same way, but maybe a little faster since you now have a baby. And it just comes down to settling and sticking to agreements.
You could take the lazy way out and say “oh well, it just isn’t going to work.” You could continue to find fault with each other and not only will the alienation get worse, but your fighting and arguments will most likely traumatize your child. And hey, what the hell did they do to you?
Yes, it’s true, some relationships can’t be salvaged. Sure there are some people who just shouldn’t be together. And yes, sometimes the child is the result of careless sexual activities and maybe wasn’t planned for and you both got stuck together not by choice, but by circumstance.
But you know what? Tough. Maybe its time for both of you to take yourselves to the level of maturity that parenthood demands of you. And I’m not trying to beat you down here, I’m just trying to impress upon you the incredible overriding importance of one simple fact: You have a child now and they are depending on both of you to raise them.
So, it’s a little bit late for doubts isn’t it? If you had a shitty childhood yourself and your parents split, you know how painful it can be. Will your child survive it? Yes. But it sure would be a hell of a lot better childhood with both parents in a loving relationship. And even if you can’t be together in a relationship, you can still work together as a team to raise YOUR child. Believe me, they’ll know whether or not you both gave it your best damn shot. And that counts for a lot.
Look, if you are in this mess because you are expecting perfection from your partner, you dream. Life is just too damn complicated these days to expect anyone to be perfect. But you each certainly have the right to expect your partner to get things right at least 51% of the time and not to be wrong on anything truly important.
And whether you know it or not, probably the absolute crucible of every relationship is can the people in it make sensible agreements they both agree on and then stick to them?
Ok. Enough said. So everything sucks right now. What can you do to make it better?
For the baby’s sake, and whether or not you are going to stay together, you and your partner need to sit down and do the below steps. And please do this together before you go off in search of a marriage counselor or another person to help you sort this out. Unfortunately I don’t see marriage counselors doing much to improve the statistics of 50% and higher divorce rates nowadays so I don’t put much faith in their ability to help a relationship. And they sure can be expensive.
Ultimately a relationship can only be salvaged by the two people in it finding a way to keep it together.
If they can’t do that or just don’t believe that in any circumstance it would be possible then no one will be able to help them do it. If they think they can find a way, then yes, others can help them make that way succeed, but not until they’ve found it possible to stay together between themselves.
And let me blunt on something: getting divorced sucks. No matter what, there is always pain involved. Sure sometimes it’s necessary to amputate a limb to save the body, but don’t you want to ensure you’ve done everything possible first? And to really know that statement is true. Yes it might take some hard work, but you never know, it might just be worth it.
The below is a lot of writing and a lot of work, but it can save A LOT of pain. Try it before you throw in the towel. And you know what, even if you don’t stay together after this, hopefully you will have learned about what mistakes not to make next time and how to make the best of what’s ahead with you and your child.
1. Get two pads of paper, two pens and a stapler. Don’t do this on a computer or on your phone or tablet. Do it with pens and paper.
2. Don’t start with what you feel each other is doing wrong. That’s just getting going on a negative foot. You both have probably already yelled at each other enough by now that it’s obvious something’s wrong. Let’s deal with fixing the problem, not the blame. This sort out is about actions and doing things. And hopefully by doing those actions, the feelings can be sorted out.
3. Take the first page and write at the top “OPTION A: STAYING TOGETHER”
4. Think about the ONE thing which you feel is hurting the relationship most currently. Write down in a positive manner the ACTION they could take to deal with that.
Example: The fact that your wife doesn’t put down the toilet seat has driven you to the point of divorce. So write down, “if you truly value our relationship you will from this day forward, put the toilet seat down.”
Obviously I’m being ridiculous to make a point. Do your best in writing all this stuff down to write it down so that a person could easily understand it and actually do it.
Saying “Be there for me emotionally” could mean a million different things, and for a lot of people it means nothing. Try and express what that actually means to you. Maybe saying something like, “Please be willing to sit down with me at the end of each day or at least once every few days and ask me how I am doing and if there is anything I need help with. And also take the time to tell me about what is worrying you, things you are working on, things that are frustrating you, things that I can help you with.”
Or maybe, “If you see that I am upset, please don’t pretend that I’m not. Ask me what’s happening, I’ll do my best to stay calm and tell you. And after listening, please try and help me solve the problem that is worrying me.”
5. Next, answer and write down what you want your partner to provide in terms of duties related to the baby. What are you expecting from them? As in:
• Who is supposed to be primary caregiver? Who is supposed to be primary financial provider?
• How is diaper duty split up?
• Who washes the bottles?
• What household chores need to be done by who? Who is handling the grocery shopping? Cleaning the house, doing the laundry, taking out the trash, etc.?
• Helping feed the baby?
• How does it work during the night time? Who feeds the baby? Who changes the diapers? Do you alternate shifts? You take one day, they take the other?
• Who washes the baby and dresses them? Do you take turns?
• What else? Who makes and prepares the meals?
6. Answer and write down how you feel your time should be being spent. As in, there are work hours, but what happens in the rest of the time? Are you going to parks? Spending time with friends? Do you cover for each other a couple times a week so you can go do something for yourself, like a dinner with girlfriends or a gaming session with your buddies? Are you having grandma come over occasionally so both of you get a break and can have a relaxed dinner and maybe a movie?
7. Answer and write down how financial support is supposed to work in the relationship. Who should be contributing what? Is mom going to be a stay at home mom, is dad going to be a stay at home dad?
8. Answer and write down how financial responsibility is supposed to work. For most couples money gets really tight when a baby arrives. How should the money you have be spent? What shouldn’t money be spent on?
9. Answer and write down what you want your partner to provide in terms of emotional support. What do you need to feel from them? What do you want them to understand?
10. Answer and write down what you need and want from your partner sexually. I realize mom may have zero sexual appetite at the moment, however I’m sure there are romantic things she’d really appreciate (flowers, chocolate, songs, sensual massage, backrubs, footrubs). More than likely dad will still have a sexual appetite, but he better be ready for some lean months while mom fully recovers from childbirth, especially if it was cesarean.
11. Both partners need to understand that the longer a relationship goes without any sexual activity, the more likely it is that it will dissolve. Sex is after all a primary reason why two people are in a relationship in the first place.
Sure babies make it harder to have sex, but they don’t make it impossible. If both partners make it important, you can solve it. So write down your feelings and what you need and what you want on sex.
12. Write down what you need from you partner as relates to the rest of your family. Doesn’t matter how trivial it is, write it down. This might mean them calling your mom occasionally, or putting together photos to share with everyone or visiting for Xmas. Most of the time, your family is important to you, it should be important for them too.
13. Write down anything else that you really need from them to help you have a more ideal relationship.
14. Realize that sometimes we have so much stuff going on in our own heads that we might not notice something that the other person feels should be pretty obvious. Write out a way that you can tell your partner if you feel that you are about to explode so that you don’t actually reach that point in case they aren’t noticing. Give them a phrase you will try and calmly express and that they can be aware of to understand it means you are going to flip out. Could be, “Can we go for a walk?” or “I need to take a moment.” Also tell them what they should do when they hear it.
15. And finally, write down the little things that would mean a lot to you. Maybe it’s a surprise phone call once in a while, or a bottle of your favorite perfume, or a poem written in chocolate or just a walk in the park holding hands, having dinner ready when you get home, building a piece of furniture or just letting you play on your computer for a bit or giving you a time out to take a walk or have a coffee or drinks with your friends.
Who knows what these might be? Only in romance novels, film and other fiction do we know the intricate details and the curious peculiarities which make up the ideal relationship in our lover’s deepest guarded desires and fantasies.
I’d hazard a guess that neither of you are psychic, so don’t expect yourselves to be. Sure it may not seem as amazing as the romance story where the hero knows of every nuance of their lovers wishes without a word having to be spoken. But I’m sorry to break it to you, that’s utter shite. The best partners know how to tell each other what’s important to them and then they will find the perfect moments to go out of the way to express their love through those little details. But it starts by knowing what the hell they are.
16. Pull out however many pages you used to write all of this and staple them together.
Whew okay. That was a lot of writing. But you aren’t done yet. Nope. Time to talk about the shitty option and the first thing you need to realize is that one of you is going to have to take the baby and be the primary caregiver. And it’s really best if you can agree on this without getting into a legal battle on the matter. You’ll only traumatize the child and say things you’ll later regret. Only in the most extreme circumstances when the health and safety of the child is at stake is this an option worth pursuing.
Realize that most courts the world over will pretty much award the child to the mother. But that isn’t always the case depending on circumstances.
And the truth is that if you can’t raise the child together in a relationship, then you have to figure out the best way to raise them out of the relationship but as a team and ideally in a friendly manner. And that starts with agreeing on who is the RIGHT parent for the child to stay with.
Also remember that the child will most likely feel that the other parent “didn’t want them,” so you are going to have to go above and beyond to ensure that they know you were always there, and ideally the primary caregiver is in a frame of mind where they won’t be continually badmouthing and poisoning your relationship with your child. So if you are going to go this route, don’t do it the ugly way. Please.
But no matter which parent you decide, that doesn’t alleviate any of the other parent’s responsibilities towards their child, and factually they need to understand that they walk a tightrope. Because if you don’t honor your promises in contributing to your child’s upbringing, you may lose the rights to be with them altogether.
A parent doesn’t “deserve” time with their child, they earn it by contribution and valuable loving care. And if neither parent can see fit to do it, the State takes over and tries to find someone who will provide it. Why? Because a child deserves to be loved and supported, until such an age that they are able to contribute in return and earn the love and support they wish to receive.
So each of you from your view lay-out the following:
17. Take a new page and write at the top “OPTION B: SPLITTING UP”
18. Write down first: Who is going to have the baby with them?
Lay out what that would realistically entail. Does the primary caregiver have sufficient resources to provide for the baby, or would they have to move in with family for a bit? Be realistic here and lay out what it means for one parent to bear the brunt of having the baby with them the majority of time.
19. Write down what would be expected from the partner who won’t be with the baby:
• What financial support is expected or can be provided?
• What other material support or can be provided?
• When do they come and watch the child?
• Once they are a certain age, do they stay with them certain days a week?
• If the primary caregiver has something important that they must do, will the other parent watch the child or help provide assistance in finding a sitter or someone to watch the child?
• Who is going to be driving the child to and from daycare/school?
• How will medical bills be handled?
• Who is listed as the emergency contact on medical and school papers?
• What activities can you do together as friends with the child? Park trips? Movies?
• What other things should be listed out?
20. Write down what would be expected from the partner who will have primary custody of the child.
21. What are the rules in terms of dealing with problems or things that come up?
22. What things would cause the other parent to lose their visitation rights?
23. What would they have to do to make reparations to regain those rights?
24. What agreements need to be made in terms of when each of you find and have a new partner? Is it okay for them to also spend time with your child? What are the rules? What are the agreements that would need to be made?
25. As the child grows up and asks why you two aren’t together, what are you going to tell them?
26. What happens when you need help?
27. How do photos get shared? Would you agree to share cute photos you take during the time the child is with you?
28. How do you communicate? By phone, by email? What would the rules be in relation to this?
29. How do holidays work? When does who get the baby?
30. What would be the nice things to expect in this circumstance to keep the relationship friendly and making the best out of a not-great situation?
31. Anything else you feel should be known that would be a factor in this type of a scenario should be written down.
32. Pull out the pages and staple them together.
Now comes the tough part. It’s called changing. Change is always tough, that’s why so few people can do it.
You can have a computer or more pen and paper ready for this next part. And also go into this with the right attitude. Don’t go into this with hate or fault-finding at the front of your mind, go into it with as much humbleness as you can muster and an attitude of willing to be fair and willing to learn. Only the truly stupid or insane are unwilling to learn and use that knowledge to change for the better. So here we go:
33. Exchange each other’s papers. That’s right, read what each of you has to say and do it calmly. Even if you find things you don’t agree with, read it the whole way through. REALIZE THERE IS NO WAY THAT EITHER OF YOUR WRITE-UPS IS GOING TO BE PERFECT FOR THE OTHER PERSON. THAT’S OK. Accept this and keep reading. Hopefully your partner wrote this how I instructed and not with a bunch of blame or biting commentary, if they didn’t, try to hold your tongue anyways no matter how outraged you may feel.
Remember, this is supposed to be a learning experience and a last chance at trying to salvage something that at one point may have been beautiful and amazing, or at the very least something that was truly worth saving. Because maybe it can be.
34. After reading both, think over how painful would dealing with what has been listed under the separation option be versus making the effort required to try and make staying together work? Does trying to stay together even seem like a possibility?
35. Before you talk to each other about what you have read, ask yourselves the following questions:
• Are these reasonable requests?
• Are these things that I should have already been doing?
• Do I understand why the other person would be upset if I wasn’t doing these things?
• Are these things which for the most part I am willing to do or do some portion of?
• Am I willing to change how I am right now and the things I do to fulfill more of these requests?
• If the answer to these questions is largely no, move onto the steps covering separation down there at 43 on. However before deciding on this, I strongly urge you to just go ahead and give it a try for one month in satisfying each other’s requests. If it still isn’t working out and you don’t see any improvement, you can still separate.
• If the answer to these questions is yes, even if you don’t agree with everything, but you do see change is needed and you are willing to make improvements, go ahead and move on to the next step.
36. If you feel that the requests and agreements each other have made aren’t entirely unreasonable and that something could be worked out, then the first thing to do is to tell each other that you would like to at least try and sort it out to stay together.
Next, apologize to each other for whatever you recognize as having been a source of tension or failure in your relationship. Be strong enough as a person to be able to recognize this and own up to it.
This isn’t something forced, and you don’t have to apologize for things that you don’t feel are correct, just simply apologize for those things you realize may have been frustrating your partner. When your partner does this, accept and appreciate this as the beginning of making things better. Even if you didn’t hear everything you wanted to hear, the fact that you heard something means that they are willing to change. That’s a HUGE deal.
Then promise each other to do better. Don’t promise perfection, because that will be impossible to fulfill, just promise to start moving it in a better direction.
37. Next take each other’s STAYING TOGETHER write-ups and go through and note which things you completely agree with. Don’t niggle on things yet. Just go through and note which things you are wholeheartedly willing to do.
In a computer text document or another piece of paper list these out one by one under three different categories called TO DO DAILY, TO DO WEEKLY AND TO DO MONTHLY. The things which need to be done daily go on the daily list, the weekly stuff on the weekly and the monthly on the monthly. (If you need to, you can also make a yearly list).
As a note, you need a document for each of you. The things from your list your partner agrees to goes in their document, the things from their list you agree to goes in your document, you get the idea right?
38. With that done, go through and discuss which things you would like to amend or revise. DO NOT FIGHT OVER THESE POINTS. If you can’t agree on them, see if there is something that would substitute for it or a version of it that you can agree on.
In your new document, list out the revised points if you have managed to sort these out and put them under the TO DO category in each other’s documents.
Create another category in your document called “TO SORT OUT” and list here anything you couldn’t get a revision on.
39. Next go through and note each point which you just completely disagree with. DO NOT FIGHT OVER THESE POINTS. Express as calmly as possible why you don’t agree. See if the other person can see your point of view. Don’t spend more than 5 minutes talking over each of these points.
If after five minutes you can’t agree or revise the point, put it on the TO SORT OUT list in your document.
40. I really, really hope that you’ve managed to get on your lists more things that you agree with than you disagree with. If not, take another pass through everything and see if you can get it so that when you total the lists there is at least more things you agree with than you disagree. Even if only by one. If you just can’t do it, fine. Move on regardless.
41. Ok so you’ve got your lists. Now think of something that you’d really like to happen if you get more than 85% of your daily and weekly list done. Both of you agree on this, whatever it is, that if your partner gets 85% of their TO DO list done, that reward happens. Talk it over until you both find something you can both agree on.
42. Now think of something even better that you’d really like if you get 100% of your daily and weekly list done. Both of you agree on this, whatever it is, that if your partner gets 100% of their TO DO list done, that reward happens. Talk it over until you both find something you can both agree on.
43. Next, both of you agree that you are going to take the next month to try and make things better. This is to some degree a reset. So long as you both see improvements are happening, agree you’ll put a hold on expressing grievances from the past.
Also agree on what time (should be either Friday or Saturday) when you are going to sit down and discuss the progress made, review your to do lists and see what got done and also review the to sort out lists to see if you can come to an agreement on any of those points yet. And finally to plan for the coming week and get ready for it.
44. Get to it. Start doing those things you agreed to. Don’t think they’ll come easily either, it’s going to take WORK and repetition to turn these into habits. But give yourselves the first week to see how it goes. See how you do on getting the things done you said you were going to get done. And don’t be disappointed if you don’t get everything done, so long as you are moving in the right direction, you are making progress.
45. Review your progress after a month. Is it going better? If so repeat it until it just becomes habit. Make it a once a month sit down and review what improvements were made and what new agreements and improvements should be made. If it isn’t getting better decide whether there was enough improvement to give it another month. Or if not and you’ve both come to the conclusion that it just won’t happen. Move onto separation.
46. So you have decided to go your separate ways. Review each other’s papers on Splitting Up. Make a note of which things you agree on and try and resolve the others to a point of agreement. Do not agree to things that you don’t plan on doing. Just try and work out the agreements so that you can amicably split and not make it a painful and traumatic process for your child.
47. If you can’t do this in a somewhat peaceful manner, I can’t help you. Realize one thing, if you have any sort of assets, and you are going to try and use divorce lawyers, you are going to lose a lot of money. I suggest for looking for cheaper alternatives that can help you sort this all out for as cheaply as possible because you really are going to need to focus on being able to provide for the child and if the lawyers and courts have taken a massive bite out of your funds, it will only make that harder.
All the above being said, I truly hope you and your partner can work things out. There are just too many people taking the so-called easy road and splitting without even really trying.
My wife and I have been together for 10 years now. It’s great sometimes, really loud and frustrating at others and pretty good a lot of the time. When things start escalating towards fights and anger, we will usually let off some steam and then go for a walk and review our agreements and the failure to uphold those and then work a bit harder to make them stick and things start improving again.
For the longest time I have heard the expression “The grass is always greener on the other side.” Unfortunately most people don’t really realize what that means. It means the grass is greener where someone waters and cares for it. That means works at it.
Nothing worth having in life comes easy. Only movies and fiction make it seem so. When it does come easy, we don’t appreciate it, and it is then no longer worth having.
No relationship survives a lack of effort to keep it alive. No relationship carries along successfully without it changing, adapting and improving to deal with the ever-changing factors of life. You cannot treat your relationship the same before having a child and after having a child.
It takes work to make a relationship successful. It takes an almost impossible amount of work to make a relationship with children attached to it successful. But it can be done. Ultimately it comes down to making agreements so you know what to expect from each other, and then making the majority of those stick. And also understanding that shit happens. And sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you want it to but hanging in there and working at it as a team and making the best of it. Many couples are doing it, and I hope that you can to.
And as with anything else in this book, you are always free to send me an email at email@example.com if you need help with it or to suggest improvements.