Why Women In Unhappy Marriages Are Less Able To Be Good Mothers

Photo: Dasha Petrenko/ Shutterstock
Pregnant woman leaning against window

When couples are struggling in their marriage, particularly in the dynamic where the woman is the preoccupied attachment or “emotional” partner and her husband is the avoidant/”rational” one, the woman’s parenting tends to suffer more than her husband does.

Specifically, the woman’s patience levels and ability to express interest in and love towards her kids can drop more dramatically than her husband’s due to the relationship conflict. Why is this and how can it be a useful and transformative realization for couples?

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First the macro variables: Women generally do more childcare, although men are gaining traction in equalizing this. They usually do more night feedings and wakings and generally think more about the kids, far more than their husbands realize.

There are also higher rates of anxiety and depression in women, including premenstrual dysphoric disorder (PMDD), postpartum depression (PPD), and postpartum anxiety (PPA). 

Also, much of their identity is based on being a good mom, as our culture still has higher demands for women as parents than men.

All of this means that women, who are depressed and anxious at higher rates, also have more societally- and self-imposed demands in the parenting realm. When you enter a dysfunctional marriage, this pressure cooker tends to explode.

Then there is the attachment piece. In the above very sad picture, you see the mother monkey turning away from her baby. This is like when women find it hard to bond with their babies, which usually happens when a new mother is feeling very depressed, stressed, or isolated.

But imagine that in this picture, the wife is the baby monkey and the husband is the adult monkey.

If the woman feels like this rejected baby monkey in her relationship, abandoned and alone (which manifests as anger at being abandoned), she is at risk of replicating the same dynamic with her actual child, rejecting the child who then feels abandoned in turn.

She doesn’t feel loved, supported, or accepted, particularly in a woman who is already feeling very stressed by parenting and tends toward anxiety or depression, this may prevent her from giving love, support, or acceptance to her kids.

In my experience, men are better able to compartmentalize than women, and, for example, often can get a productive day of work in after a fight in the morning when women may struggle more to do the same thing.

This is likely also because more men have avoidant attachments and more women have preoccupied attachments (like this classic example).

I see the same thing with parenting; women’s parenting seems to be more dramatically impacted by marital conflict than their husbands are.

I believe this is because of my very un-PC point that men need to love their wives as much as their wives love the kids in order for the marriage to be happy (and for the family to be harmonious).

Women parenting small kids often feel anxious as a default, and they need extra love and support to feel confident.

Remember, in general, women do tend to be less confident than men, which is likely because of their higher rates of anxiety, and, in the parenting domain, the fact that more of their identity is bound up in parenting (especially if they are the primary caretaker).

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What do I suggest to men who are very concerned that their wives are not patient or loving enough with the kids?

Obviously, if the kids are being abused or neglected, you need to keep their safety in mind at all times and stop this behavior however you can. But what about when you and your wife are not happy together, and she constantly says she wants more support and love, and she is irritated and angry with the kids?

If your wife doesn’t feel loved by you, it is very hard for her to give love freely, especially if she also had a difficult childhood which means she doesn’t have a lot of family support or confidence in her own ability to parent.

Then she feels completely alone which causes attachment panic.

It is very hard to be patient, warm, and calm when you are panicked. Working with couples in therapy, I often see women become much warmer and more loving parents when their husbands learn to be more patient, warm, and loving toward them. Women who are the pursuer in a pursuer-distancer relationship do not have the bandwidth to be fully present for their kids.

If your wife has called you cold, difficult, unsupportive, or “a robot,” I can tell you that you likely struggle with all the issues I discuss in this podcast on avoidant husbands.

Therapy, both individual and couples, can help you recognize that your “Crazy Wife” isn’t the whole problem, and your coldness is making her into her worst self, just as her volatility makes you even colder. 

I have personally seen family dynamics transformed by an avoidant man coming forward and owning his part in the family dysfunction. And to be clear, his part is that his emotional avoidance keeps his wife’s anxiety at a fever pitch and thereby exacerbates whatever issues she already has with anxiety, depression, and her own family of origin issues.

If this “cold” husband has an epiphany that he is making things worse by withdrawing from his wife, and her anger toward him and the kids likely comes from feeling alone and unsupported, this can be transformational.

Ironically, the woman has often yelled this exact thing, about feeling unsupported and lonely, at her husband, but avoidant men ignore anything that is yelled at because the woman is “acting crazy.”

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Some men will take issue with me recommending that the man in this dynamic work on himself before his wife acts nicer to either him or the kids, and wants her change to happen first.

Look, I am obviously a huge advocate of women being loving and supportive of their husbands.

However, if there is ever a time for the man to step up and give more support than he gets, it is when the woman is in the young mother stage. 

This is a time when women need a lot of support because they feel very vulnerable at a basic, biological, evolutionarily-mediated level.

This never means that a woman should be nasty or mean to her husband, but if there is ever a time when he should be patient and loving when she is irritable, it is when she is struggling in the aftermath of childbirth, nursing, pregnancy, and exhaustion.

Couples counseling, along with individual therapy for both partners, would be ideal in this situation, but if anything has to be prioritized, it would be couples above individuals.

 Particularly if the woman in this situation has already been in a lot of therapy over the course of her life, she would benefit a thousand times more from a changed, supportive marriage than more therapy. (Of course, if she openly identifies as depressed or anxious, therapy can help as well as meds.)

It’s like what I always say about getting kids into therapy for anxiety. A parent working on their own anxiety and transforming the home into a less anxious place is usually better for a kid’s anxiety than anything they can do in their own therapy.

In this case, the analogy is that the improved marriage will be often better for the wife’s well-being and parenting than anything she can do on her own. Even clearer, if you are the man reading this: you working on yourself may help her calm down more than anything she can do on her own.

In a situation where the conflict is continuous, and you’ve tried therapy and it hasn’t worked, I have also seen women be much calmer parents after a divorce than before. They actually feel less lonely when alone than when married.

Also, women who remarry more supportive and emotionally generous men tend to become much more patient and calm mothers to their kids. There is a lot to be said for not constantly feeling like you are begging someone to hear you love you and pay attention to you.

A loving remarriage can reparent you and allow you to grow into your best self. Before you consider this, though, do your best to work on the marriage you are currently in, for the sake of your children and yourselves.

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Dr. Samantha Rodman Whiten, aka Dr. Psych Mom, is a clinical psychologist in private practice and the founder of DrPsychMom. She works with adults and couples in her group practice Best Life Behavioral Health.

This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.