It’s no secret that having a baby can cause strain in a relationship. What’s not always mentioned, however, is the strain that a stay in the NICU can place on a relationship. While it may be obvious that this is a stressful time (worry and fear about wellbeing of baby, maternal healing, sleep deprivation, separation from baby and partner – to name a few), it may be hard to figure out how and why time in the NICU can create such a disconnection in couples. Here are a few of the underlying things that might be causing an increased feeling of relationship distress:
- Unmet expectations: Did you expect that your partner would be there for you or provide for you in ways that they didn’t?
- Grief process: There are many layers of grief that can arise in the days and weeks after a babe is born. This could be connected to the loss of your birth plan, the loss of being able to take your babe home from the hospital, the loss of being a “normal” mom with a newborn.
- Guilt. No one does guilt better than a mom. You may experience feelings of guilt or shame around your babe’s experience in the NICU, or around your birth. Guilt can chip away at us and strengthen our negative inner dialogue. This can sound like “Did I do something to cause my baby to be in the NICU?” “I’m a terrible mom, I have to leave my baby every day!” Guilt can be a barrier to connecting with your partner – it is an emotion that can be hard to express.
- Relationship Injuries: Dr. Sue Johnson defines a relationship injury as “an abandonment or betrayal of trust during a critical moment of need”. These wounds can create a massive fissure between you and your partner and can show up as anger, conflict, sadness and disengagement.
These may sound like some big issues to try to overcome as new parents! But, rest assured that these are common experiences and all is not lost.
Follow these 3 steps to begin to express your needs, connect and heal with your partner:
Step 1: Be mindful of your expectations. Remember that expectations breed resentment. Ask yourself: “What are my expectations of my partner? Does my partner know about these expectations? If these expectations are unmet, are they causing me to feel angry, resentful or alone?”
Step 2: Share with your partner what your hopes and expectations, fears and thoughts are surrounding your experience in the NICU and as a new mom. Ask your partner to share their experience as well. This may sound like: “I really need you to be here with me in the evenings, this is when I feel most alone and scared” or “I was expecting you to process all of this with me, and when you shut down I feel really lonely and sad”
**It is important when expressing yourself to be aware of words and phrases that can elicit defensiveness from your partner. Avoid placing blame or starting a sentence with “You never talk to me” — this can put your partner on the defence and cause the conversation to quickly derail. Instead begin with “I Statements” as shown above.**
Step 3: Make a plan to prioritize and meet each other’s needs. Sometimes these need to be explicitly stated: “I need a hug from you.” “I need you to tell me that it’s okay to be scared” “I need you to be at the hospital with me.” It is helpful to check in regularly with your partner to ensure that both of your needs are being met. Some couples will practice an informal “check-in” at the end of the day. This can look like: “How are you doing? Do you need anything from me?” “Today was rough – how are you? Is there anything I can do for you?.” Rituals like this can be a way of maintaining open lines of communication and is a way of reassuring your parter that their needs are important.
Step 4: Repeat steps 1-3 🙂 Staying connected with your partner once you become parents will take attention, care and regular check-ins.