Parents Fighting: The Biggest Secrets We Keep From New Parents

Parents Fighting impacts babies and children. And yet it is so common to see parents fighting after the birth of a first, second or even third child. How you fight, however, turns out to be more important than just knowing that there’s parental fighting.

What Prospective Parents Need to Know about Parents Fighting

There was a landmark study in 1957 by E.E. Le Masters which made the incredible claim that 83% of new parents went from a “moderate” to “severe crisis.” Le Masters claimed that giving birth was an intense relationship stressor. Researchers were shocked.

These numbers were incredibly high for social science research.

So high, in fact, that this research was rejected by the skeptical and smug academic community of the 1950’s, who embraced the notion that “babies completed a happy family.”  In social science research, results over 80% indicated that you were either really on to something, or that there was a serious flaw in the design of the study.

It wasn’t until the 1980’s that this subject became the subject of clinical research, and the results continued to astonish researchers. We now know from more than 16 long-term studies that the stress of becoming new parents is powerful and acute.

Dr. K’s dissertation covered this material.  It was entitled:  Interactional Processes and Styles of Marital Adaptation to Parenthood. In it, she followed four “styles” of couples each having their first baby. In it, she learned that depending upon the beliefs of how a family should function, some couples have it easier than others, but all couples have many adjustments to make. Parents fighting with each other is only one of the many important variables that determine overall family happiness.

Parents Fighting Friendly: Fighting and Co-Regulation

Gottman reports that a baby’s blood pressure rises when they overhear their parents fighting. Fighting parents also miss emotional cues from their baby, which intensify the baby’s dysregulation. As time goes on, poor co-regulation begins to stack one upon the other. Just as parents who fight need each other to calm down and keep things friendly, they also needed to apply these same skills to the newborn. If they don’t get it from each other, it becomes harder to give it to their children.

Parents fighting materially impacts a baby’s ability to learn how to self- regulate. Gottman report that in the first three years of life, essential neural nets that determine the baby’s ability to self-soothe, trust in the love of care-givers, focus attention, and emotional attach. It logically follows that a baby with the unfortunate luck of being born to parents who fight poorly is at a disadvantage for developing the fundamental social skills needed for happy living.

Parents Fighting: Friendship Enhances Fighting

New parents who want to be great parents will treasure their friendship. Gottman says that understanding how your partner sees the world, expressing affection, appreciation, and admiration, and the skill to repair and turn toward each other and not away from each other are the fundamental skills that will shape your baby’s emotional future.

marriages problems after babies


Pregnancy as an Invitation for Teamwork

These abilities shine through when couples describe their pregnancy experience as a shared experience. The ability to adjust from a “me” perspective to a “we” perspective is a crucial skill. This skill is particularly important for young fathers. This is another cultural secret…fathers have enormous influence on the emotional climate in their families for future generations.

family of three with laughing baby

The Child is Father of the Man

          My heart leaps up when I behold
              A rainbow in the sky:
          So was it when my life began;
          So is it now I am a man;
          So be it when I shall grow old,
              Or let me die!
          The Child is father of the Man;
              I could wish my days to be
          Bound each to each by natural piety.

In the 1950’s Robert Sears conducted a famous piece of research on 300 five-year-olds. They were again assessed at age 31. The question was… what is the largest predictor for the capacity to acquire empathy? The study revealed that the best predictor of empathy is the degree of dad’s involvement with the child at the crucial neurological age of 5.  This is where the wet cement of empathy lies. Ten years later, at age 41, the capacity of the father’s warmth toward the child at age 5 was still, compellingly, the finest predictor of adult empathy.

In other words, a father’s involvement play’s a crucial role. But a father’s role may be shaped by the perception of threats in the environment. Anthropologist Peggy Sanday’s research suggested that men dominate their women and children when resources are scarce, and threats are many. I interpret Sanday’s work as suggesting that economic struggle, marginalization, and cultural dislocation promote patriarchy.

However, in safer cultures, moms and dads both play a role in nurturing babies. These more egalitarian cultures were less likely to be engaged in violent conflicts with other groups and also had more reproductive success.

This stress is multiplied when postpartum depression goes untreated in parents. For example,


About the Author Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. in Boston, Massachusetts, three seasons in Cummington (at the foothills of the Berkshires...) and in Miami during joint retreats with his wife, Dr. Kathy McMahon. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.

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