My partner and I are fighting all the time. Can the baby hear us? Are we emotionally scarring them?

Excerpt from Asking for a Pregnant Friend: 101 Answers to Questions Women Are Too Embarrassed to Ask about Pregnancy, Childbirth, and Motherhood

When I was pregnant, I wrapped a blanket around my stomach when Eric and I argued, figuring this would protect Hudson from our un-perfect relationship. I soon discovered I didn’t need to be as worried about what our son heard in utero as about the stress hormones he was exposed to. And before we all get stressed about being stressed, know that it’s impossible to have a completely stress-free pregnancy, where only rainbows and unicorn smiles pass through the placenta — stressor hormones are a normal part of life. But regularly elevated levels of said hormones don’t have to be.

So why do so many women experience elevated stress during pregnancy? As this Q&A implies, tension with a partner can be a big factor. As your body and many aspects of your life (and your partner’s) change — or prepare for change — it’s common to argue about finances, shifting priorities, intimacy, wet towels on the floor (oh wait, that’s always), and so much more. For many, our partner is our rock — our numero uno for emotional and physical support. So when it feels like they’re our adversary, we can crack.

When I was in my second trimester and Eric was in the throes of graduate school, he had a meltdown one evening while I was partaking in a joyful perineal tissue massage. He started sighing really loudly, which is usually my cue to say, “What’s wrong?” But I didn’t — I was focused on stretching out my vagina so a head could fit through it. His sighs turned to grunts, and I snapped. “Just say what’s bothering you!” I barked from the bathroom. And then it happened. He erupted in tears, complaints, and infuriating raised eyebrows. The pressure of school, working full time, and having parenthood looming in his near future was too much. He didn’t think he could do it, and he was terrified.

Usually, I would see this as a cry for help and let him vent as I fur- rowed my own brows and nodded. But not this time. I was pregnant, and he wasn’t. In that moment I believed he was just trying to make my life harder — that he was implying pregnancy was more difficult for him. I went off. We yelled, cried, and blamed…then he left .It was the worst fight we’d ever had, and I was a puddle. I convinced myself that he was never coming back, and that Hudson and I would have to forge ahead alone. I was shaking, and Hudson was going crazy in my uterus.

Something had to change. While Eric and I would obviously argue again, I had to make a plan for keeping things civil. My body and baby were giving me clear signals that what had just happened was toxic for all.

After Eric and I reconciled, I made a list of how to avoid that toxicity in the future —you’ll find it in the “What to do” section. I also researched the effects of high levels of stress on a fetus. It’s not great. When a pregnant woman is regularly in “fight or flight” mode, cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine, and other stressor hormones flood the body. According to a study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, a fetus’s exposure to these hormones could potentially cause symptoms of anxiety, depression, and increased stress reactivity later in life. In addition, a study published in Women & Birth found that maternal stress could increase the risk for preterm birth. The final study I’ll drop, published in Obstetric Medicine, reported that prenatal stress could result in low birth weight and impact the child’s learning and memory. For mama, high levels of stress can lead to anxiety or depression, headaches, nausea, cramping, digestive issues, and sleep issues.

When I read about these risks I was overcome with guilt, certain that my blowout with Eric had led to irreparable baby-damage. But hold up. While studies like this can be frightening, they’re not saying our babies are doomed to a challenging life just because we’re occasionally stressed. After I chilled, I saw the potential risks as encouragement to do everything I could to limit my stress, work that list I made, and remember that while prenatal stress isn’t dire, it should be avoided as much as possible. So how do we do that? We do that by empowering ourselves to take back some control over our stress levels and creating a more harmonious relation- ship with our partners.

Note: If the fighting you’re experiencing contains even a thread of emotional or physical abuse, seek support. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (thehotline.org) offers guidance and referrals for women who are experiencing domestic abuse or wondering whether certain aspects of their relationship are unhealthy. It’s best to seek help now. As much as we want the birth of a baby to heal a deeply fractured relation- ship, it often does the opposite. You and your baby deserve an environment of emotional and physical safety and support.

What to do

Make a list of everything that stresses you out. When you get to how your partner stresses you out, be really specific about the topics you often argue about and the triggers you both have. This exercise takes the mystery out of your relationship stress and gives you a jumping-off point for resolution and eventual maintenance. With your list in hand, try out the following argument- and stress-reduction tools.

Pause. When you feel your anger sparked, resist the urge to vent. In- stead, take a pause. Go to a private space, take ten deep breaths, and look at what’s going on. Is your partner being a total jerk, or are you just reading into what they’re saying? Are they doing something that requires a talk, or can you let it go because your reaction’s coming from something else that’s going on with you? Take a hot second before you pounce on the opportunity to argue. (I used to be so bad at this.) This feels super awkward the first few times you do it, and if your partner’s not used to it, they may respond by trying to get you to react immediately. But if you stick with it, you can likely keep those stress levels in check and avoid unneeded disputes.

  • Fill your partner in on what it’s like to be pregnant. So many of the fights I had with Eric revolved around him not getting what I was going through. I thought he should just know what it’s like to have cankles that feel like they’ve been injected with Play-Doh, to feel bullied by the constant shifts of the hormones responsible for regulating my emotions, to be freaked by the idea of pushing a human out of my vagina. But he didn’t just know. So finally I told him. Do the same with your person. Tell them the nitty-gritty of what you’re experiencing, and then get specific about how they can help. Remind them that this is an incredibly tender time for you, and you’re going to need a lot of slack to be cut.
  • Give compliment sandwiches. Partners can be irritating and sometimes incredibly hurtful, which means there will be times when you need to speak up. And because all humans have sensitive egos (even those who swear otherwise) you can avoid critique-backlash by using the trusty compliment sandwich. Here’s one I remember recycling often when Hudson was a baby: “Hey babe. I love your dedication to surfing — it’s awesome to see how happy you are afterwards. While I definitely want you to keep having time to do that, it would be great if you could shorten the surf sessions. Maybe you could try to be back in two hours instead of three? Hudson and I really love having you around and it would be amazing to see more of you on your days off.” Kind of cheesy, but it usually worked. The times I forgot about this sandwiching technique and threw out, “It’s selfish and ridiculous how long you spend surfing!” he would usually peace out for even longer, and then we would fight. #SayYesToTheSandwich
  • Practice gratitude maintenance. The longer we’re paired with another human, the easier it is to see their annoying qualities and the harder it is to see their lovely ones. This natural phenomenon breeds contempt.

One of the quickest ways to replace contempt with appreciation is for you and your partner to make a list of ten things you appreciate about one another. It can be really specific, like, “I love the way you make a smoothie” or “You’re really skilled with your tongue” (never hurts to throw in some kinky gratitude!). When you have your lists, read them to each other. Don’t follow this up with lists of the things you don’t appreciate — just sit in the space of gratitude for a few minutes. Whenever you feel the contempt creeping back in, repeat the exercise. Give hugs. It’s really hard to hold on to stress and be mad at someone you love when you’re engaging in a long, warm hug. While it’s beautiful to embrace after you’ve resolved a conflict, you can also do some- thing wild and initiate the hug mid-argument. If you feel yourself spinning out or notice an argument is becoming unproductive, step forward, ask your partner if you can hug them, and then do it. Make it a long one. Hold the embrace until you feel them soften. This can be one of the simplest and most effective ways to hit the reset button.

Regarding the other life-stuff that stresses you out, try the following when the going gets gruff:

  • Sing. Music helps control cortisol levels. So when you feel stress escalating, turn on your favorite jam and belt it out.
  • Decompress. Even when all seems merry and bright, pregnancy hormones can dump a load of stress on you. When this happens, wind down from the tension by meditating, taking a warm bath, getting a prenatal massage or acupuncture, listening to good old Enya, or doing anything else that helps your mind and body release.

And finally, ask your partner to do any or all of the above. As much as we try to shield ourselves from our partner’s moods, they still impact us. So getting your person to utilize some of the same argument-soothers and stress-relievers you’re trying can help you both land in emotional equilibrium.

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