Parenting does crazy things to couples. So much attention goes to the part of parenting that is child-focused. Philosophies, advice columns and blogs focus on the child’s development and what we as parents can do to help them thrive. Our kid-focus is justified; thriving children turn into thriving adults. But what seems to be talked about less, and what I really love, is the family behind the child. The Parent. The Couple. The people who are so deeply and profoundly impacted by children. A profound impact that, while beautiful, can create challenges for us as individuals and, especially, us as couples. The reality is that having children brings out parts of us that we never really knew were there and changes us to the core. Going from single, to partnered, to pregnant, to being a parent and a family brings on identity shifts and challenges that often go ignored. The identity that we form as a couple gets shaped and challenged and reshaped as the landscape of our family changes. Just as our children are constantly going through developmental changes, so are we as individuals, as couples and as families. And, while we pore over books and blogs and talk endlessly with our friends about the developmental stages of our kids, we have little connection to what is happening to us as individuals or as a couple.
So often I hear couples say things like, “We used to…” “We don’t talk anymore…” “When the kids aren’t around we just stare blankly at each other until we eventually start talking about the kids….” Just when a couple thinks they know each other, you throw a kid into the mix and the whole world tips upside down. Suddenly they don’t care about (or have time for) many of the things they liked to do together. Suddenly they are too tired to give each other the attention each partner needs. Suddenly life is about focusing on the child (and finding a way to take care of the rest of life so that we can focus on the child) and everything else gets left for another day. It can feel like our relationship is overshadowed by our children.
We talk about the struggles that children have as they take on new developmental challenges. Child/parental conflict is often really about a child learning to differentiate from the parent, express themselves in new ways or take on new responsibilities in the world. They are figuring out their role in the family and in the world and sometimes that is a frustrating, tricky and even painful endeavor. In the same way, couple conflict may often be viewed as a symptom of developmental changes. Parents suddenly have different agendas, different priorities, different needs and they are trying to figure out their roles with their children, their partner and in the world. They are figuring out who they are and how to get their needs met, and, just like for children, this is amazingly difficult. In the same way that the toddler can’t say, “Mother, today I want to get dressed on my own and this is going to be frustrating, but I just want you to sit by me and support me while I try,” but instead grabs clothes from our hands and screams, we have difficulty identifying and articulating what we really need, and rely on arguing, blaming, criticizing and isolating. Sounds a lot like a tantrum!
So often new parents come into therapy with a “parenting” problem focused on their child and, through their work, it becomes clear that their main conflict is with each other. They are negotiating their roles with each other and in the family and struggling with it. In fact, many of the same things that parents struggle with with their children, are actually being acted out in their relationship as well. Power struggles, neediness, not listening, responsibility, trust. These are common themes discussed in child development, but what about between couples? What if couples were able to consider their own developing relationship in the same way that they consider their child’s development? What would happen if we looked beyond the complaint and tried to connect with what each person was really trying to communicate? Here are some common themes. Let’s call them Developmental Triggers:
Power Struggles: “Every morning it’s a power struggle.” So often, couples end up in stalemates when it comes to every day conflict. Many times, when it comes down to it, neither partner really knows what it is they are power struggling over. Both people dig in their heels and refuse to back down. When toddlers power struggle, they are saying, “I have my own ideas, thoughts and opinions. I may have some control here. I think I will test out this boundary and see what happens!” When couples are power struggling, they may be saying to each other, “Everything feels so out of control right now, I have to find the limit somehow. I need to know where I stand.”
Independence/Autonomy: “He thinks he can just do whatever he wants, whenever he wants.” Children need to slowly gain independence and autonomy and interact more and more with the world on their own. As parents, we recognize that in them. But we forget the importance of this for ourselves and our partners. Prior to having children, we likely enjoyed the freedom to make decisions, go places, do things that were spontaneous and unplanned. Couples develop a pattern or routine that involves interactions with each other and with friends and family as well as having time to themselves when they want it. Kids enter the picture and that all changes. It takes weeks of planning to go to dinner with friends. There are babysitters to secure, bags to pack, logistics to consider. Not to mention, many parents just feel too tired at the end of the day to go out afterward. Independence all but disappears for both parents. And while we may love the newfound responsibility of parenting, the loss of independence is huge. Finding a way to support each other’s autonomy is tricky. Hearing “I need space from you and from the family” often results in hurt feelings, even if we know that giving that space results in happier, healthier parents. When couples are fighting about this, what they may be actually saying is, “I need to find myself again.”
Neediness: “It seems that she always needs something.” Kids may act “needy” when they feel insecure or need adult support. They may come up with unending and creative ways to get your attention. What they are really saying is, “I need to feel connected with you. Be here with me now.” With never ending child care needs and demands added to the already long list of everyday living responsibilities, both partners may feel that their to-do lists are overwhelming and that their own needs fall to the wayside. Often in therapy both partners will equally profess that their own needs come last in the hierarchy. This can lead to two people who feel lonely, overwhelmed and isolated. Fighting about this may be more about trying to communicate, “Be here with me now. I need to know I am not alone.”
Recognition, Responsibility, Respect: “I am tired of picking up after them. Why can’t they do their share?” Most parents will profess that they do more than their partner. More cleaning, more parenting, more shopping, more cooking. Feeling like the division of labor is unequal can often result in feelings of anger and resentment. But when couples are asked to empathically think about what the other person actually does, most can make long lists of the things that their partner does as well. It seems that usually this fight is less about division of labor and more a cry for recognition. Parenthood is about doing a million things every day that go unnoticed, undocumented and unappreciated. It can feel lonely and tiring and endless. The rewards are often subtle and long-term. On a day-to-day basis, we want to know that our partner gets how hard we are working for the children, for the family, for each other. Even if that means fighting about who did the laundry and who took out the garbage. The real message is, “I want you to recognize what I bring to the family. I want you to see me.”
Listening: “It’s like I’m talking to a wall. They never listen to me.” Communication is hard when you’re stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Listening is hard as well. It’s easy for partners to blame the other one for not listening, but the truth is oftentimes there is more to it than that. We aren’t identifying our real needs, we are fighting instead of talking, we are lecturing instead of communicating. Couples may choose times to try to talk that are so full of barriers to effective communication that it’s a lost cause (when one person is exhausted, while the kids are running frantic, while the family is trying to get out the door in the morning). And then we say, “Once again, you didn’t listen to me.” What’s really happening is that paths aren’t crossing. The real message is, “I feel like we aren’t connecting. We aren’t on the same page.”
Trust: “They question everything I do.” There is so much discussion about trust in parenting and its impact on child development. Trusting a child encourages them to develop naturally and with confidence. In the same way, we often fail to give our partners that same trust in their own development. Parents are each developing their own relationships with each child, their own nuanced communication patterns and identities as parents and often this can look and feel different from our own. (Moms are often the worst offenders here, not letting dads explore and define their own relationships with the kids, being quick to jump in and parent when things are tricky.) Partners need to trust each other so that each person can feel free to explore and optimize their role in the family. The real message here is, “Trust me, support me, learn with me.”
So what can we do to start to experience things differently? Many parents of older children (at least those whose relationships don’t end in divorce) will confirm that they eventually found each other again and things got easier. That’s good news for sure, and it’s important to remember that these struggles are transitory and will likely pass. Kind of like the “terrible twos.” But what if, like with our parenting, rather than just grinning and bearing it, we tried to engage with each other in a way that would encourage each other’s developmental growth, deepen our relationship with each other and strengthen our family during this amazingly challenging time? Here are some things to try:
1) Make a sacred time and space to talk about these issues. This is not a date night where you talk about the kids. Nor is it 15 minutes after the kids fall asleep when you are both struggling to stay awake. I’m talking about a regularly allotted time, both people fully alert and present, fully dedicated to talking about what’s going on. Maybe even take the list of Developmental Triggers that are listed above as conversation starters.
2) View each other with compassion. Remember that relationship stressors are normal at this time and that you and your partner are both experiencing amazing personal challenges. Letting go of frustration, breathing and looking at the situation through your partner’s eyes can allow you to see things differently.
3) It is human to resist change and try to hold on to what we think we know. Parenthood brings on such drastic changes to our family and to ourselves that we sometimes don’t know which way is up. Realizing that our relationships and our own identity may look very different and being open to that allows us to let go, relax and enjoy the new roles and relationships that are in front of us.
4) Talk about parenting! Embrace your new roles, encourage each other to explore parenting ideas and theories. Debate and discuss and read together. Rather than trying to hold on to your pre-kid relationship while each of you individually tries to figure out what your post-kid relationship is all about, dive in, let go of the past and relish in this stage of life. Soon enough, the kids will need you less and less and you will find yourselves sitting in a quiet house, staring at each other saying, “What do we do without the kids around?”
5) Find ways to support each partner’s development both as a parent and as a person. Make time in the family for individual interests and find ways that the family can honor and support them. How can the family, including the children, support the parent in developing their own thing? Does someone love to cook? Maybe they get a kid-free night to take a cooking class, then cook a new meal once a week that everyone enjoys together.
6) Rather than just missing the things you used to do as a couple, build new traditions, routines and shared experiences that fit into your new and changing life.
It’s all about embracing the change, the ups and downs, the challenges and struggles. It’s all about growing as individuals, as a couple, as a family. When we do this, when we really connect to ourselves and our partners, we will thrive in our own development and in our relationships. And when we thrive as individuals and as a couple, we can thrive as parents. And thriving families lead to thriving children, which as we know, lead to thriving adults. And that’s a cycle we should absolutely perpetuate.