Conflict During New Parenthood Is Normal: But We Need To Turn Indirect Aggression Into Direct Aggression
New parenthood is a time in our lives when all our messiness comes out and sometimes couples can get mean in both direct and indirect ways. In some respects, this conflict between new parents is both normal and to be expected. As new parents, you’re building something very new together (even if this isn’t your first kid), all while not sleeping enough or getting enough support. You are under-rested, stressed, overwhelmed, feeling like the baby is getting all the love, or that you miss your old lives. Partners often feel blindsided by this experience so they go at each other while stuck at home together.
In my therapy with new parents, I frequently see this conflict come out through indirect aggression, which can hide a multitude of other feelings. As opposed to direct aggression, indirect aggression is done in more subtle ways. This includes ignoring a partner for a whole day without saying what you’re feeling, speaking harshly about a partner to a friend but not bringing it up with your partner, coming home late without communicating, reducing one partner’s opportunity to vent after venting your frustrations over and over (such as saying, “Oh, thanks for listening, but I’m just so tired. We can talk about that later.”), withholding conversations, sex or touch until one partner gets what they want, gossiping about a partner, and changing plans last minute without talking to a partner and springing it on them. Indirect aggression can look like saying, “Oh, so sorry I turned on the light. I just needed to get dressed,” while your partner clearly stated they were going to nap when the baby napped just five minutes before. It can also appear as mentioning, “Oh, my mom’s here. She won’t be in your way. She’s just here to see the baby,” when you had not discussed someone coming over that day or what the best plan might be for you both. This kind of aggression typically leads to partners feeling trapped, guilty, and angry. Ultimately, indirect aggression creates division rather than collaboration between partners.
Not all of these examples of indirect aggression are merely bad. For example, partners have the right to talk about their frustrations in their relationship with a friend or take a break and find space to sort out their feelings and reactions. However, it becomes a problem when this isn’t coupled with direct aggression (meaning saying directly what you’re feeling and seeing without being mean) between partners. I also should note indirect aggression may have existed in a relationship before the baby, centering around, for example, who called the shots about time, vacation, traveling to family, and how a couple spends time together, as well as what the power felt like in the relationship. After a baby, though, the power dynamics in a relationship get messed with all around and this dynamic can become more pronounced.
Just because conflict in new parenthood is understandable doesn’t mean couples are supposed to stay stuck in a relationship with indirect aggression. When new parents are acting out in indirect ways, the cure is direct aggression. By direct aggression, I mean talking about things, naming them, expressing where you’re at, and holding space for both partners to express their feelings and experiences so there can be connection and an active (rather than passive) expression of anger.
Indirect aggression sidesteps complex feelings about what is happening and what is needed, which is why it’s essential for couples to call it out and talk about where they’re at, what the imbalance is, and how to work together. This isn’t always easy. Often people are just getting to know who they are as a parent, as a partner who is now a parent, as a person who is sexy in a different way, or as a more needy person. In order to help, I’ve listed four things that indirect aggression can be hiding and five ways to work through this conflict as a couple:
1. Indirect aggression can hide what you really need.
As new parents, you need so much. You need more food, more hands, more sleep, and very likely are getting none of that–or at least, not enough. So in response, you can act out indirectly, giving the silent treatment night after night when putting the baby to sleep or saying, “I do too much and you don’t do enough,” even though you’re both pulling your weight the best that you can. When we’re in a dynamic that is indirectly aggressive, we’re hiding the things we really need. And these needs for new parents can be diverse and numerous. Maybe you, as a couple, need to embrace that there’s not enough time, sleep, or rest for either of you. Maybe you need to decide to set hard boundaries for talking to your mother or mother-in-law for the future year or for the life of your new family. There may be deep divisions in the relationship that were glossed over for years that now need to be addressed. Or there’s birth trauma or historical trauma in the relationship or for one partner that has been kept under lock and key. It may be simply that you both need to figure out how to do this new part of your life in a way that nourishes everyone.
2. Indirect aggression can hide how you feel about going (or not going) back to work.
There can be a lot of jealousy in the first few months of parenthood. Work often emerges as a sticking point or pawn for indirect aggression with partners making side-comments or making one partner feel bad for either leaving the baby or not working. With a lot of assumptions made about what the other partner is or isn’t doing in regards to work, partners can say: “At least you didn’t have to go to work without a night of sleep” or “At least you got to go to work and didn’t have to spend 24-hours caring for a baby who needs you all the time.” Usually the intent here is to make the other partner feel guilt rather than opening up the conversation for everyone’s feelings, experiences, and the complexities of navigating work as a couple and as parents.
3. Indirect aggression can hide how you feel about becoming a new parent.
While people often don’t like to talk about this, new parents can feel ambivalent about parenthood or even regret becoming a parent. Their adjustment may not be at all easy and how each partner feels about being a parent can be so unique to the individual. When this happens, people hide these feelings so, so deeply and it can come out indirectly such as by asking one partner to do all the physical work with the baby or not engaging but saying they’re doing so much by working, not going out, or sacrificing in the financial sense.
4. Indirect aggression can hide how you feel about your sex life.
Sex is an important expression of connection in relationships and withholding sex can be a huge method of indirect aggression for couples, which can make sex infused with power rather than play or collaboration. I should mention that an indirectly aggressive dynamic may have been present around sex even before a couple becomes new parents (e.g. only having sex when one partner wants it, making one partner work too hard to get their sexual needs or physical touch needs met, shutting down the other partner by saying, “I’m too tired” or “It’s boring,” etc.). However, under the stress of new parenthood, this dynamic may become more apparent. After having a baby, bodies change and take new forms, and it can take time to get back to liking our bodies again, especially in the stress and upheaval of caring for a new baby. One partner may withhold sex because they want “to get my body back the way it was.” While taking time to work out or feel right may be valid, it can sometimes be used in a way to wield power to make that partner feel in control and the other feel as if they have to adhere to the sexual decisions of the partner with more power, rather than collaborating on how sex can be fun in the bodies they have now.
What Can Couples Do?
1. Name and call out indirect aggression.
When we see or feel indirect aggression, but can’t figure out what it is about, it makes us feel paranoid and guilty like we may be causing all the problems. This is why it’s important to name the aggression as aggression, the mean as mean, and the withholding as withholding. Naming indirect aggression takes a willingness to self-reflect (even if it means having a healthily bruised ego), take responsibility, and collaborate to shift the dynamic rather than become defensive.
How can couples name it? Say “When I get mad, I do this,” “When I feel x, y, or z, I withdraw rather than going towards you,” or “I’m jealous that I don’t have an easy postpartum life like other couples. I know I get mad at you and myself.” There are also a ton of lovingly direct ways to call it out such as: “Hey, I don’t want to do threats or withholding love,” “It’s unkind to not talk. We have to talk about this,” or “Take ten minutes to cool down, but then come back and let me know what’s going on.” Once we name it, then we can work on it.
I should emphasize that naming takes two. Unfortunately, the partner not causing the indirect aggression is usually the one who calls it out. Because it’s easy for a couple to get stuck or feel lost in an unhealthy and un-collaborative power dynamic, this may also be a time when a couple needs a third party like a therapist to help hold the couple as they do the vulnerable work of disrupting this dynamic together versus letting this dynamic lead.
2. Slow down and be curious about feelings coming up in this transition to new parenthood.
Indirect aggression doesn’t allow for self-reflection, generosity, curiosity, or reflection as a couple. It blocks curiosity from living and breathing in a relationship. Couples need to slow down and build curiosity with each other. And new parents need a TON of curiosity to really ground themselves in their new family, lives, and relationship. There are a lot of feelings in the transition to parenthood that are all new. And this is okay–it means there’s more for both partners to know, to learn, to accept the loss or shift in their lives, to need, and to love.
Rather than racing through life as a new parent, slowing down means making space to let everyone air out what has been going on in their minds, hearts, and in the relationship. It’s important to enter into the conversation without judgment, while still being direct and honest about what is happening. The experience of being a new parent can be extremely isolating and can bring up a ton of stuff for both partners, whether about the relationship dynamic, each partner’s histories, or their own childhoods. Curiosity of both people leads us to feel closer to our partner’s experience during this transition.
3. Grieve the loss of your old normal.
Indirect aggression can happen when couples are fighting a transition and feeling that the power they used to have is changing. When building a new family, you have to leave your old normal behind. New parenthood ties a couple together in a more significant way, and the joy and enormous responsibility of having a baby changes routines and relationships. This may mean you can’t go out with friends every Sunday night like you used to or your role in your family has shifted to being a parent rather than a daughter or son. It’s key that couples allow themselves to grieve these losses together, whether the loss of their respective single-hoods or the loss of their smaller family of two. Whether talking about it and asking why, crying together, allowing yourselves to not know, or also just being sad or feeling the injustice together, grief is a way of accepting these losses as opportunities rather than entrapments, as well as an opportunity for couples gain power through a collective process rather than through control.
4. Talk about what you want as a family.
Indirect aggression means partners are going it alone and don’t slow down to talk about what the family really, really wants. New parents are so overworked, overwhelmed, and under-supported so it makes sense that couples would lash out indirectly rather than joining in a creative yet tough discussion about what a family needs. While it’s easy to say what one person wants, it’s complex math to figure out what a family wants or needs, as well as what individual needs (including the kid or kids).
But, these conversations are essential–you’ve never been a family in this way before. Couples should slow down and talk about what will make their new family as healthy as it can be, how to meet each individual’s physical, emotional, social, and intellectual needs, and what would make the family feel connected, safe, and secure. This doesn’t mean jumping to an immediate solution or goal, but really sitting with it, taking down the defensiveness of indirect aggression, and laying it all out. Maybe you both take a leave together so you can slow down, hire a trusted sitter so you can have these family and individual talks, or hire a therapist so you don’t have to do it alone.
5. Allow yourselves to disagree and come to a shared understanding of each other.
We can often be scared or frightened to share our needs with someone because they feel so big. When approaching a conflict with indirect aggression, these feelings are counter to the aggression at hand. When talking about what you need as individuals, as a couple, and as a family, you may come to disagree or not know the answer. That’s more than okay. Disagreement means growth in your relationship as long as you don’t get dug in on things, but collaborate and work together. Therapy can be a space where couples are able to disagree and create a more shared understanding of what is going on. In therapy, couples can work on shifting from an unbalanced power dynamic that is indirectly aggressive to one with collective power, in which both partners can talk about what is going on and come to an understanding, even if it means to agree to disagree or grieving and finding out. At least, then, couples can lay all their cards on the table and each partner can be seen, heard, and felt.