Parenting can often feel like a never-ending battle for sleep, time, privacy, fun, a sense of control--a sense of self. It is unpredictable. It tears at the fabric of our self worth. It makes us anxious and insecure. It causes us to be frazzled and angry. Parenting strips us down to our very core resources and then asks us to give more. Parenting is hard. It brings out our most honorably resilient self and our most depleted and least likeable self. No wonder so many marriages creak and crack under the pressure. In our efforts to be our best selves for our children we are often our worst selves for our partners.
Parents often call me to get control over their children’s behavior. They have read book after book and have accomplished nothing. Their kids are wearing them down, getting into trouble at school, and tantruming at home. They can’t get on the same page and they find that they have a hard time being consistent. They come to me wanting a plan—a strategy that will make it easier.
Parents often ask for parent coaching because they are afraid to ask for couple’s counseling. They are often hesitant to admit that they have begun to resent their spouse. They argue more than they’d like to. They yell more often than they thought they would. The stability of their marriage is hanging on the awareness that they can’t imagine doing this alone even though they’ve lost touch with each other. Unfortunately, they can’t admit that to themselves or others because the idea that their relationship may be in trouble is terrifying. Because “Only couples considering divorce need couples counseling.” Yet, they have lost touch with the person that they were in love with on their beautiful wedding day. They’ve lost touch with the person they once were when they were in love with their spouse.
The problem is that the best parenting plan in the world won’t work if a couple has gotten into bad relationship habits. Why? Kids notice and feel stress in the relationship and this impacts their behavior. This is the primary reason that parenting plans don’t work, but there are other reasons as well. Parents who resent each other, can’t connect, or can’t trust the other don’t partner well. Therefore they don’t follow through on plans. They don’t have each other’s backs. So when the parenting plan calls for ignoring the tantrum, they cave. When the plan calls for removing a privilege, one parent gives it back too soon. When the plan calls for a family schedule, they avoid implementing it because they are too tired to try something new. So what can we do to set ourselves up for success in our relationship as parents?
Here are 10 things I recommend to any couple in the throws of parenting:
1. Be Generous: Many of you have seen the picture depicting hell as a group of hungry people sitting around a bowl of soup holding spoons with incredibly long handles. They can’t feed themselves and they don’t consider feeding each other so they starve. The corresponding picture of heaven is of a group of well-fed people with a bowl of soup and spoons with incredibly long handles. Because they are feeding each other, they are happy and full. Do this with your partner. When you believe you have nothing left to give, find something to give to your partner. Give them an afternoon to go for a hike, or get a beer with friends. And have your partner read this because they must do the same. If they don’t it doesn’t work because one person starves.
2. Come to The Table Truly Interested in Your Partner’s Perspective: Oftentimes couples come to a disagreement discussion ready to “prove their point” and “ready to win”. That means they come to the table either on the offense or on the defense, but definitely not on the same team. Even if you “win” you tend to feel like your partner still doesn’t understand you. In addition, it is typically the more articulate or aggressive partner who“wins” This ends in resentment down the road. Resentment is the killer of love. When heading into these discussions say this to yourself: “This is the person I loved and admired enough to have children with. Surely, their perspective is valid and respectable.” Then be open to truly hearing what they have to say.
3. Talk in Terms of Needs and Goals, Not Desired Outcomes: When you disagree with your partner use this statement: “Tell me more about what makes that important to you.” You may be surprised that an argument about which one of you takes the kids to practice has nothing to do with workload balance as you had originally assumed. Maybe your partner is uncomfortable with the way the coach deals with your kids and wants you to take a whack at it. When you know what the real need is underlying the stated desired outcome you open yourselves up to new solutions that work for everyone.
4. Have sex/Be Intimate: I know you are tired. I know you may not feel sexy. I know your partner isn’t as exciting as they once were. But find a way and make time to talk about your intimate life, know your partner’s needs and wants and find intimacy that feels genuine and loving for both of you. Then make time for it every week at least once a week. This may not be sex. It may be movie night in your bedroom (without the kids) with someone’s head on someone else’s shoulder. Get creative. Don’t wait until your kids are out of the house more often to tend to your intimate life. By then it may feel awkward and stale and just not worth the work. Without intimacy, many partnerships become co-parenting roommate type relationships. It’s only when the kids get old enough to not need you EVERY SECOND OF THE DAY that you begin to realize that the parenting part of your relationship is there but the romance is gone. This is often when couples begin to consider divorce or engage in infidelity.
5. Apologize, Don’t Justify: Apologize when you snap at each other—right away. And forgive each other for snapping—right away. You are not always your best self when you are a parent and you will get justifiably angry and express it in unjustifiable ways. What I mean is that you may very well be justified in your frustration with your partner. But it’s never justified to snap at, yell at or insult your partner. The issue doesn’t go away when we apologize for dealing with it the wrong way. Instead, we make space to deal with the issue in a more respectful way. When you know you’ve done it wrong say, “I’m sorry I snapped at you. I was tired and angry and overwhelmed and it just came out. But there is no excuse for me to snap at you. Let’s make time to talk about ______________ in a way that is more solution focused.” Do it in front of the kids and they see how a loving couple argues appropriately.
6. Have each other’s back: If your partner has “had it up to here” with your mother and your mother is insisting on a week long visit you need to side with your partner. Period. YOU tell your mom that your family is not up for a visit this month. YOU tell your mom when she oversteps her bounds. Do this even if you think your partner may be overreacting. Your partner is your rock in this parenting thing and if something is bothering them it needs to matter. This is also true with the kids and discipline. Parents question themselves a gazillion times a day. When your partner sets a limit with your kids that you don’t agree with, they are probably already questioning their decision. Have their back 100%. When you talk to them about it later say, “Can we talk about how to handle Jane’s tantrums? I know we want the same thing and I think we’ll be more effective if we have a plan.” If you have their back you are more likely to hear them say “I just don’t know what to do. I’m afraid if I don’t do it that way our kid will become a monster”. Then you can partner on how to teach the same lesson in a more effective way that you can both agree with next time.
7. Don’t Be a Martyr: If you choose to do a gazillion times more of the work than take responsibility for that choice. Don’t say it’s because your partner isn’t capable or willing and “I’m the only one who can do all of this”. If they truly aren’t capable, teach them what you know. Let them do it not as good as you do. Your children are unlikely to die as a result and they are better off having two involved but faulty parents than one superstar parent who is overwhelmed and overworked. Believing that you’re the only one who can do something leads to lots of marital issues. First, your self-esteem may become wrapped up in this idea that you are the only one who can do something. So even if you want your spouse to step up, you may find it hard to let them without feeling useless all of a sudden. Second, your spouse’s self-esteem as a parent will suffer, leaving them to avoid being an active parent because it makes them feel like crap to try and fail. Third, no one likes a martyr. It’s annoying, so just don’t do it. If your partner truly isn’t willing to do the work, set up a therapy appointment NOW. This imbalance will lead to resentment and, as I said before, resentment is the killer of love.
8. Be a Good Teacher and a Good Student: Teach your partner how to be good with the kids if he/she is feeling overwhelmed or incompetent. Yes, this means they will practice and botch things that are easy for you. It means the kids will have more fussing and tantrums and may end up at school in dirty pajamas. And the world will not end and your children will not be in jail because of it. And if you are the one feeling overwhelmed or incompetent, keep trying and ask questions and get better. Don’t isolate or disconnect from being an active parent and partner. Don’t let your pride get in the way of learning how to be effective. Your kids and your relationship will benefit from having two parents trying their best vs. one actively involved parent and one who only knows how to contribute by “bringing home the bacon”.
9. Have Perspective: There was very likely a time in your relationship when you looked at your partner and imagined a day when you would sit on your front porch together, grey strands of hair poking out, drinking some warm beverage in a mug and quietly enjoying each other. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget what you loved and admired about your partner when you decided to start this journey of parenthood together. Life will become less crazy some day and your partner will be stronger, more mature and still as amazing as the day you met. It is true that we sometimes realize over time that we are not very compatible and no longer want to be sitting on the front porch with our partner when we are old. But it is also true that sometimes we build walls of resentment, focus on the warts and forget to connect. Don’t let your partnership drift and break because you’ve lost perspective.
10. Reach Out and Reach Back: Ask your partner this very important question: “How do you like to be shown love?” Please don’t assume you know unless you’ve asked this already. You are likely showing them love the way you want to be shown love and that’s not necessarily what they need. If your partner doesn’t know, take a journey to the Love Languages website and learn how you each like to receive love. Then reach out every day to your partner in the way that they like to receive love. Yes, every day. If they love gifts than pick up a rock that you saw on your walk that you thought was pretty. If they need acts of service, do the dishes for them. You get my point. And when your partner reaches out to you, reach back. Don’t be too busy or distracted. Research shows that couples who reach out and reach back last.