By Heidi Stevens
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) New York psychologist Guy Winch says, once a couple has a child, everything has to be up for renegotiation. With that in mind, Author Jancee Dunn examines how to re-negotiate with her own husband in her new book “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids”
The unfortunate thing about Jancee Dunn’s new provocatively named manual, “How Not To Hate Your Husband After Kids” (Little, Brown), is that husbands are unlikely to read it.
“How Not To Hate Your Spouse After Kids” would have been just as accurate and might have gotten the book’s extremely helpful (and often quite funny) message to more couples, rather than just wives.
Dunn’s own habits come in for as much criticism as her husband’s, and the fact that their marriage seems remarkably healthier and happier by the end of the book is a byproduct of both halves of the couple calibrating their expectations, participation and, most of all, communication style.
Dunn and her husband, Tom Vanderbilt, are New York-based writers who both work mostly from home. Before their daughter, Sylvie, was born, they divided and conquered domestic responsibilities, laundry, cooking, grocery shopping. When the baby arrived, Dunn took time off work to care for her, and adopted the bulk of the household chores as well.
Now, Sylvie is 6, and Dunn has been back to work for years. But Vanderbilt takes on a comically small share of the household chores, politely declining when Dunn asks him to do more and frequently forgetting when he’s agreed to do something outside his usual share, like pick up their daughter from school when Dunn is at a meeting with her editor.
“I wish his 10 percent effort was enough, but it isn’t,” Dunn writes. “I feel like he’s a guest at the hotel I’m running.”
Dunn, meanwhile, has adopted a passive-aggressive response to her husband’s slackery, silently seething with resentment until she can no longer hold it in, then letting loose with a toxic mix of sarcasm, rage and name-calling.
In short: No one’s happy.
Dunn consults reams of research and a team of experts, psychologists, sociologists, a hostage negotiator (!), for insight on why the division of labor is so central to a healthy union and what to do when your division is lopsided.
“We will test every strategy we can find to restore harmony to our marriage,” she writes, “and, by extension, our family life.”
A pivotal moment occurs when the couple visits Boston-based family therapist Terry Real, known for his celebrity clients and blunt advice.
Real calls Vanderbilt to the carpet for taking on so little at home. “When your work is done for the day, why wouldn’t you split everything 50-50? It’s not fair. You know that. Tonight you cook; tomorrow she cooks. Tonight you put Sylvie to bed; tomorrow she puts Sylvie to bed. Show up and participate.”
And to Dunn, Real has this to say: “You’re verbally abusive.”
“You can say, ‘I’m angry.’ But you don’t say, ‘You’re an (expletive),’ ” he tells her. “You don’t yell and scream. You don’t humiliate or demean. They’re off the table.”
Sylvie, Real points out, is the one suffering most from their dynamic.
Once a couple has a child, New York psychologist Guy Winch tells Dunn, everything has to be up for renegotiation.
“You both are managers of the household and should have regular discussions, every two weeks minimum, about how things are going, and brainstorm about what needs to be done, and track and tweak accordingly,” Winch says. “There is no organic way these things are supposed to develop. Couples should negotiate all the time, and it requires communication and coordination.”
By the end of the book, Dunn and Vanderbilt have adopted much of the guidance gleaned during the year of research, including weekly meetings to plan and negotiate the family’s needs for the days ahead. (Vanderbilt compares the meetings to preventive medicine, reasoning, that “It’s a lot easier to take a five-minute flu shot than lie in bed for a week.”)
Peace is largely restored, and Dunn sums up the bulk of her learnings in the book’s final chapter:
“He can’t read your mind. He’s not even close to reading your mind.”
“Stop complaining and ask clearly for what you want.”
“Say ‘thank you,’ and say it often.”
“Know that no matter what you and your spouse tell yourselves, your child is affected by your arguing. Period.”
And one of my favorites: “Don’t pee on the gift,” meaning don’t tell your spouse you’re OK with something he or she wants to do (a weekend getaway, an hours-long bike ride, an afternoon nap) and then fume about it after the fact.
“It’s embarrassing to admit that I started this project because I was worried about the effect our fighting had on our daughter, whereas it was barely a concern that my relationship with my husband was deteriorating,” Dunn writes. “Instead, Tom has become the ally I didn’t know I had.”
I suspect most couples will recognize their own marriage in at least one or two (or a dozen) moments of Dunn’s book. Ideally, that recognition inspires us to take a closer look at ourselves, rather than turn away out of defense or shame.