I love being married.
I am the self–proclaimed master of all things relationship–oriented, while my husband, well, he does everything else. We each surrender to the other’s area of expertise. Like everything else in life, our marriage has its good days and cranky days, and days when the relationship simply must take a back seat to everything else. Now that our children have grown and moved out of the house, we have the luxury of looking back at the early days through the filter of long–gone precious moments and hindsight.
While I acknowledge my comfort with my role as our relationship healer, and agree that it is something I do fairly well for the most part, I am also aware of all the things I do wrong, or not–so–well, or not at all like other people might do them. So much so, in fact, that those closest to me are often taken aback by my intrinsic willingness to expose my vulnerabilities to the outside world. Friends and family, often stunned by my frankness, weigh in that I should, perhaps, be more discreet and less impulsive when it comes to disclosing my vulnerabilities. They may be right, to an extent, but it is a reflex of mine. I know no other way to be. When circumstances dictate, I restrain myself but it’s not a natural state for me and I believe with great confidence that this inclination to be forthright, is one of my greatest assets – one that accompanies me into every session with every client. I’m quite certain it’s part of what disarms a new client who is often paralyzed by unspeakable anxiety and hopelessness.
Though I suspect my affinity for directness has been a lifelong proclivity, the longer I do this work the more value I see in balancing my professional expertise with my perceived “weaknesses”. As a therapist, bringing one’s entire self into a session is risky, to say the least, and an act that should only be carried out with the wisdom of what it will mean to the client. I believe it’s critical to my work, that my clients see me as real. While initially it may seem counterintuitive, ultimately, it’s more human. Our genuineness as a therapist is our supreme tool. It holds infinite healing power.
Even so, what do my personal vulnerabilities have to do with the message of this book? I believe we all must work hard to put our best selves out there, in our work, in our marriage, in our lives. At any given moment, we can all be challenged by contradictions between what we expect and what we experience. There are powerful paradoxes within each of us. A person can be competent and emotionally accessible at the same time. Someone can be proficient in one area and less skilled in another. Someone can not feel good and still do a good job. A person can be successful and symptomatic, simultaneously. This last example is hard for postpartum couples to come to grips with. All too often they will misinterpret symptoms as a reflection of who they or their partners are. If someone feels bad, everything is bad. If someone is scared, everything feels scary. That’s because things appear very black and white for postpartum couples who are struggling to resume control over their lives and reconciling these apparent contradictions feels impossible.
Other examples of these paradoxes affect thinking during the postpartum period:
If I’m anxious all the time, I can’t be a good parent.
If I want to go back to work so badly, I must not love my baby.
If my partner isn’t acting lovingly toward me, I must be unworthy.
How can I attach to my baby if I feel so unlovable?
What if pain from my troubled past means I cannot be a good parent?
How can I possibly take care of my marriage if I can barely take care of myself?
These dichotomies are difficult to resolve, especially for new parents who are trying so diligently to do everything right. People forget that life consists of opposing forces much of the time. And after a baby comes into the picture? These contrasting desires and urges can squeeze the joy right out of the high expectations of this time in a couple’s life. It is precisely these paradoxes, fueled by depressive thinking, which can drive a wedge into the connection between the two of you.
That is why it is essential that you begin to understand that paradoxes do exist right now. Yes, I can be an effective therapist and not be good at speaking extemporaneously about a topic with which I am unfamiliar. Yes, you can be a good mother while you are experiencing excruciatingly scary thoughts. Yes, you can be a good father even if you are ashamed that you feel so bad. And yes, your marriage can sustain high levels of painful resentment and misunderstanding and still be a safe place for both of you to rest comfortably.
Depression sets the stage for many such paradoxes for any postpartum couple. Self–doubt permeates the martial system after depression takes hold. Unexpectedly, the relationship can be seriously jeopardized by ties that have shattered and replaced by an unfamiliar landscape of misunderstandings and ineffective communication.
Things that used to make sense, now feel unsteady and vulnerable.
Vulnerability can be an uncomfortable state, but it can also serve as a catalyst toward a better sense of self and a deeper relationship. In order for that to happen, you need to be willing to take the risk of letting yourself sound stupid, be wrong, be seen, be heard, be messy, make a mistake, or feel pain, in order to achieve authenticity and ultimately, greater intimacy between you and your partner. Brené Brown, a research professor, refers to this as “the courage to be imperfect” (Brown, 2012, p.218,) and believes this is the root of earnest parenting and partnering. Being comfortable with your own vulnerability is not easy but it is something you can learn. It begins with trusting yourself and believing that you have your own best interest at heart.
This is the only prerequisite for your work in this book. Open your mind. Believe in yourself enough for you to expect the best from your relationship. Find the courage and give yourself permission to lean into your marriage and see where that takes you.
The driving force behind this book
I am grateful to the postpartum couples who have been brave enough to share their stories, expressing what they needed most from me and from each other. Some express this with their words. Some convey it with the silence of what they cannot say. At present, almost thirty years into my clinical practice and thirty years of marriage, I am in position to merge these parallel life experiences into this book, on behalf of postpartum couples who have struggled with depression.
Sometimes it seems that couples put too much effort in the wrong direction and are unable to see what is often right there in front of them. Couples with new babies are tremendously preoccupied and busy worrying. They are too tired to understand what their partner is saying. They are overwhelmed by the demands of their schedule and too depleted to give anything back. So they often bark back and forth or decide to take care of things themselves, because it’s just easier that way.
When depression has been part of this picture, one or both partners may continue to feel angry, resentful or unworthy. These negative emotions can remain hidden by daily distractions, or they may blast into every single interaction. Either way, they are apt to fester. Even when the welcomed relief of recovery from depression brings renewed hope and anticipation of good things to follow, the fallout from the illness can confuse intentions and lead the marriage both astray.
Postpartum couples crave and deserve relief. The birth of a baby can inflame various forms of life’s ultimate contradictions: joy and despair, pleasure and grief, elation and exhaustion, euphoria and anxiety. The impact of these incongruent states of emotions can wear heavily on the spirit of a marriage. This book was a response to working with couples who have shut down from the weight of this pressure, to help them revitalize their connection.
TOKENS OF AFFECTION by Karen Kleiman with Amy Wenzel
Available here on Amazon