Tamara's second child was 6 months old when her best friend encouraged her to join her in reading "How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids" by Jancee Dunn.
"The invitation actually came at a really good time for me," said Tamara. "I was in the thick of raising two children. Both my husband and I worked full-time jobs, and the biggest thing I was struggling with was feeling like I was doing everything. I was frustrated because I couldn't figure out how to get my husband to jump in and just do stuff without me having to ask. He was very willing to help, but he just wanted me to tell him what to do."
After reading the book, Tamara felt like she was armed with some tangible ways to engage with her husband differently.
"We actually sat down and divided up chores," Tamara said. "Clarity around responsibilities was huge for us. He does the dishes and puts them in the dishwasher. I unload the dishwasher. This used to be a huge point of tension for us. I don't mind letting dishes pile up in the sink, and he can't stand that. Now we've got our dance going."
In their discussion, they realized that the chore one of them liked the least the other one didn't really mind doing. They both noticed that clarity around who was going to be responsible for doing what removed a lot of frustration from their relationship.
Another huge takeaway for Tamara was to stop correcting her husband every time he did something.
"I used to go behind him as he was doing things and either redo them or point out that's not the correct way to do whatever," Tamara said. "Like the time he took initiative to sweep our hardwood floors but his sweeping technique was subpar in my opinion, so I waited until he was finished and then swept after him and took a picture of the huge pile of dirt and hair that he had left behind to show him that if he's going to do something, he needs to do it all the way, not halfheartedly (I'm not proud of myself.) Talk about creating tension between the two of us. I totally did not stop to think about how it would make him feel. He just basically started backing off because what's the point in trying to help when the person comes right behind you and does it their way? Letting go of that was big!
"Probably the most valuable takeaway from this read was understanding that we needed to learn how to actively listen to each other instead of allowing our conversations to get hijacked by our emotions," Tamara shared. "I think everybody could benefit from learning this."
Tamara said she was reminded of her high school anatomy and physiology class where they talked about the brain being the center of logic, and the limbic system, more specifically, the amygdala, processes emotions such as fear, anger and the "fight or flight" reflex. The prefrontal cortex controls judgment, logic and thinking.
Guess what happens when our amygdala is firing on all cylinders? The prefrontal cortex stops working at optimum levels. Stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol rush through our body, causing us to turn into something close to the Incredible Hulk. Our body is physically preparing for "fight or flight" from the perceived threat. This makes us hyperfocused on our goal of survival, which makes it next to impossible to actually understand or even hear what other people are saying. Think of a child's teeter-totter on the playground with emotions on one side and rational thinking on the other side: When emotions go up, rational thinking goes down.
"Maybe the biggest takeaway for me from the book was learning how to deal with my anger differently," Tamara said. "When things went south with us, both of us could ramp up very quickly. Harsh tones and hurtful words resulted in even more tension between us. The book talked about exactly what is happening in our brains when we are so angry with each other, and it said I needed to handle the situation as if I were an FBI hostage negotiator. Say what?"
Perhaps you are wondering exactly what an FBI hostage negotiator would do. They would use the Behavioral Change Stairway Model. It involves five tried-and-true steps to get someone to be able to understand your perspective and change what they're doing.
These steps are:
1. Active listening. Listen to their side and let them know they have been heard.
2. Empathy. You understand where they're coming from and what they are feeling.
3. Rapport. What they feel in return from your empathy; they start trusting you.
4. Influence. Work on problem-solving and come up with an action plan.
5. Behavioral change. One or both of you does something different.
It isn't unusual for couples to immediately jump to No. 4 before they do the first three steps, which can and usually does sabotage the process of coming to a resolution. Hostage negotiators will tell you, active listening is the most important step in getting someone to calm down.
Here are six techniques to actively listen like a boss:
1. Ask open-ended questions. You want them to open up, so avoid yes/no questions. A good example would be, "You seem upset. Can you help me understand what exactly is bothering you?" If something is bothering you and someone asks this question, seek to avoid responding with, "Nothing is wrong."
2. Effective pause. Try remaining silent at appropriate times for emphasis or to defuse a one-sided emotional conversation (since most angry people are looking for a dialogue).
3. Minimal encouragers. Let them know you're listening with brief statements like "Yeah" or "I see." If you show a lot of emotion in your facial expressions, seek to keep those to a minimum.
4. Mirroring. Repeat the last word or phrase they said. This shows you are trying to understand them and encourages them to continue. (Note: Don't overdo it ... mirroring could become really annoying, really fast.)
5. Paraphrasing. Repeat what the other person is saying back to them in your own words. Not only does this show you are truly seeking to understand, it gives them an opportunity to clarify if you don't quite have the whole picture.
6. Emotional labeling. Give their feelings validation by naming them. Identify with how they feel. It's not about whether they are right or wrong or completely crazy; it's about showing them you understand and hear them.
"Reading this book made me more aware on so many levels," Tamara said. "Even recognizing that it is important for me to do things that refuel my tank, but also actually telling my husband I need reassurance from him that he is good with me doing things with friends or going to work out because I can let 'mom guilt' get the best of me. He actually told me not very long ago, 'Taking time for yourself made you a happier person, happier mom and wife. I can see the change in you.' That made my heart happy for sure."
Tamara and Robert have now been married for seven years, and their children are 3 and 19 months old. Her advice to new moms? Read the book, but recognize that implementing the strategies takes time. She read the book 10 months ago, but slowly and intentionally they have been working toward a better dance between the two of them.
"I think both of us would say we have seen significant improvement in the way we engage each other, and that has been a really good thing for us and for our children," Tamara said.
Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.