“My spouse and I just can’t seem to get on the same parenting page.” I hear that from clients all the time. In fact, the first time I heard it was from my sister complaining about my brother-in-law. Now, my brother-in-law is just about the nicest, most generous man you can imagine. I love being a guest in his house because the moment I walk in the door, he makes me feel like a queen who should get her every need and desire met. Great qualities for a good host! But unchecked, meeting a child’s every desire is not healthy–especially when Hank would come in the room and contradict what my sister, Allie, had just said. The scene might go like this:
Kids: We want waffles for breakfast!
Allie: I know you do, but we’ve run out of eggs, so it is going to be cereal this morning.
Kids: But we want waffles!
Hank: What’s this? You want waffles? Of course, you can have waffles!
Allie: Hon, we have no eggs, and I’ve just told the kids it’s cereal instead.
Kids: But, Daddy, we want waffles!
Hank: You want waffles? We can do waffles. I’ll run to the store for eggs.
Lucky kids, right? Yes, in the sense that they feel seen and heard and important, but kids really do need to learn that sometimes they don’t get what they want. Sometimes they have to make do with an alternative. Most importantly, however, kids need to know that their parents are in agreement and that they won’t undermine each other.
My sister and brother-in-law are a great example of how qualities which are attractive in a mate–who would want to be made to feel like a queen?–are not always the ones you want in your child’s father or mother–unless toned down to the common ground Allie and Hank were eventually able to work this out.
And I get it. I’ve been there, too. Here’s an example. (It may seem petty, but the fact that it drives me nuts is exactly what makes co-parenting so hard.) My husband is not a conserver of natural resources. In other words, he leaves on every light in the house and he lets the water gush forth while shaving (Did I mention we live in drought-stricken California?). In the interest of marital harmony–and perhaps because I am secretly envious of his confidence that the world will provide him all the resources he needs whenever he needs them–I had long since learned to roll my eyes at him rather than nag him to turn off the lights and the water.
The day came, however, when I called to one of the kids to turn off the lights when leaving the house, and he looked at me blankly and said, “Why? Daddy never does.” You know in the cartoons when the character’s face turns beat red and steam comes out of his ears? Well, that was what I am sure I looked like. That innocent question was like waving a red flag in front of my face. I’m afraid in the scene that followed I was not at my best.
So, how do couples find common ground, so they can provide a united parenting front?
First, let’s consider why issues with our spouse feel so much more charged when our children are involved. Here’s the thing. We care about parenting so very, very deeply that it is hard to be reasonable when it comes to our kids. It is often a shock when our parenting partner has a very different idea about what is appropriate. So, yes, it is hard. On the other hand, Penn State reported earlier this year in a 7-year longitudinal study that “Parents who have better co-parenting relations feel more supported and confident, less stressed and depressed and they show more warmth and patience with their children” (Indiver,19 January 2015). That reminds us how very important it is to work on the issue, even when it is hard and really uncomfortable.
But don’t despair. I have some tips for improving communication with your parenting partner. Each of the tips is designed to increase the good will between partners–to prepare the soil for the really sticky points.
TIP: ACTIVE LISTENING
Active listening refers to listening with the purpose of allowing one’s partner to reveal what is on his mind. But more than that, it really means listening without judgment and wanting to know not just the facts of the story or issue but what is in the speaker’s heart.
Here’s how to do it:
- Listen: Don’t comment, disagree or evaluate.
- Use your body: Eye contact, head nods, brief comments like “yes” or “uh-huh.”
- Prompt information: Tell me more. What else? What is important about that?
- Repeat back: Recap the gist said and wager a guess at the emotions present.
I recommend practicing this first with topics that are not controversial. For example, you might ask your partner about a happy childhood memory or a person he admires. Your main purpose in using active listening is to open up space in the relationship. By really digging into your partner’s feelings and motivations first you activate your own empathy and secondly you gather a lot of information about what is important to your partner (which provides you useful data when you are looking for places to find happy solutions what will work for you both). It feels good to be listened to. Think back to early in your relationship. Chances are you listened to your partner hanging on her every word. Just giving your partner that rapt attention again can bring those loving feelings he had when he courted you.
Once you have mastered active listening with noncontroversial topics, introduce a topic that could become more touchy like “What is a lesson you would really like our kids to learn?” This can be a scary question because your spouse might say something that really throws you for a loop like “I’d really like the kids to learn to hang glide.” Your comfort levels might immediately go into high alert. What?! Teach the kids something that dangerous?! What kind of responsible parent lets his kids up into the sky attached to a giant kite?!
If you can take a deep breath, however, and settle down into some active listening, you are like to learn something really interesting. Perhaps your spouse did it as a young man and it is the most alive he has ever felt and he wants the kids to experience that intense appreciation for being alive. Perhaps he felt closer to God. Perhaps he was terrified doing it but having done it, nothing in life has ever been as scary, and he wants his kids to know that facing their fears will serve them later in life.
Imagine how different you would feel listening to your spouse share such a meaningful experience and how touched you would be that he wants his children to experience something that meaningful, too. Listening Actively does not mean you have to give in to your children doing something you really disapprove of but having listened, you are now in a position to thoughtfully suggest an alternative.
I know some of you are saying no way could I get my spouse to start talking like that, much less learn to listen actively. That’s okay! You will find a shift in your relationship, even if you practice active listening only from your side of the fence. I want you to go and try it. The next time your spouse says something–about the kids or otherwise–that gets your dander up, instead of getting angry (or sullen), start getting really, really interested. I challenge you!