Becoming a parent is a lot like learning to drive a car—all the research in the world can’t prepare you for being behind the wheel. As a driver, you constantly have to make (often split-second) decisions about when to merge, turn, speed up, slow down, brake, etc. Even when you are coasting along the highway, there is a part of you that needs to be on constant alert for any surprise or danger that may befall you. With driving, you really never know what’s going to happen next!
If driving is tricky, being a passenger and watching someone else drive is often much harder. It is rare for any two drivers to drive exactly the same way. We all have our own way of driving a car based on our past experiences, how we were taught, our sense of risk/safety, etc. Other people’s driving often strikes as, well, wrong—they are braking too soon, driving too fast/slow, being too timid/aggressive, etc. Sometimes it feels downright dangerous to be a passenger!
Welcome to co-parenting.
As with driving (only more so), nothing in the world can prepare you for having a child and the constant demands and decisions parenting entails. As with driving, the way we parent is very much affected by our past experiences, how we were brought up, our sense of what is safe, and our perceptions of what is risky. It is rare for two parents to parent in the exact same way or feel completely comfortable with a partner’s parenting choices. Like driving, this can lead to mistrust, anger, or worse. Despite these challenges, I believe that harmonious co-parenting can be achieved through three goals.
Three keys to successful parenting:
- Letting go of some of the parenting decisions
- Communicating effectively with your partner
- Nurturing your relationship with your partner
Learning to Let Go
For all the reasons mentioned above, it is very hard not to intervene in a partner’s parenting. However, assuming that your child’s emotional and/or physical safety is not at stake, I believe it is very important that you don’t intervene. There are many reasons for this:
Ultimately, your partner is going to need to develop his/her own relationship with your child. Although you can offer your partner support or suggestions, in the end it is their relationship for them to negotiate and figure out. Your interference will only delay or prevent this relationship from getting worked out between the two of them.
It is important for children to experience different types of relationships. Having to deal with parents that parent differently helps prepare our children for the outside world where there are many different types of people with whom they will have to engage. Although as co-parents we want to be consistent, especially on issues of safety, kids can handle getting treated differently by each parent; in fact, it helps them be more flexible people.
Intervening in your partner’s parenting tends to undermine your relationship with your partner and his/her relationship to your child. It is rare to feel like a competent parent all the time—or, in some phases of your child’s development, any of the time! There is just too much uncertainty and ambiguity in parenting. Having your partner constantly watching over your shoulder, questioning and intervening in your parenting choices, can erode not only your confidence in yourself but also your child’s confidence in you. Our kids need to feel that we know what we are doing, or at least that we are comfortable not knowing. Feelings of mistrust and anger between partners around parenting issues also chips away at the bond between partners and, left unchecked, can damage or destroy even the most loving relationship.
Being supportive of your partner’s parenting, and acknowledging your partner’s strengths, tends to fortify your relationship with your partner and his/her relationship to your child. More often than not, your partner has unique strengths that s/he brings to parenting that can benefit your child. Looking for those strengths, acknowledging them to your partner, and showing the ways you respect his/her parenting can be very powerful antidote to all those moments that you feel critical of your partner. Acknowledging your partner’s strengths can be hard sometimes, partly because it often means acknowledging some of your own limits as a parent, which is an important (but never easy) thing to do.
So, now that you know some of the reasons to let go of some of the parenting decisions, what about knowing when to let go? How do you know when an issue is important?
Sometimes it is obvious when an issue is important—when your partner is being unsafe with your child, for example, if he or she lets your three-year-old run into the street, or if your partner is being verbally abusive—but mostly it is not so clear. Figuring out what is important can be very complicated. Ask yourself three questions when you find yourself wanting to criticize or intervene with your partner, or when you are unsure of what to do:
- How detrimental is this behavior to the well-being of my child? What do I think the outcome is going to be? How damaging is that? How is my child affected physically and/or emotionally by this decision?
- If I believe my partner is doing something detrimental to my child, where does this belief or value come from? Is it based on my understanding of my particular child? Something I read? Is it something my parents did or with me that I felt was harmful?
- Whose feelings and well-being am I worried about? Is the parenting behavior going to upset/damage me or my child? It is very hard not to identify with children and not to project our own feelings on to them; as much as possible, try to separate out your feelings from your child’s feelings. It will make it a lot easier to figure out what’s important.
Sometimes you may feel that your child’s well-being and safety is at stake. Other times you may feel that, even if safety is not an issue, you want to speak with your partner about some aspect of their parenting that concerns you. When and how you do this can make all the difference.
Communication is a very complex activity. When it comes to co-parenting and communication, however, I would argue that there are three important aspects to consider:
- Avoiding the blame game
- Understanding your own and your partner’s history
Timing: Although it might feel absolutely essential to tell your partner in the exact moment it is happening that he or she is doing something wrong with your child, this is usually a poor time to intervene—unless your child’s physical safety is involved. It undermines your partner’s authority and credibility as a parent; it interferes with his/her relationship with your child; and, what’s more, it greatly decreases the likelihood that your partner will be open to what you have to say.
It is usually much more effective to wait to bring up your parenting questions and concerns until a time when your child is not around and when you and your partner have enough space to really discuss the issues.
Avoiding the blame game: When you do sit down to speak, it is very helpful if you can speak about what you feel without moral judgment about your partner’s parenting choices. Finding a way to respect your feelings while also respecting your partner is one of the keys to effective communication, intimacy, and co-parenting. Naturally, it is one of the hardest things to pull off.
A good way to achieve this level of respect of self and others is to use “I” statements. An “I” statement doesn’t mean “I think you are a lousy parent,” or “I think you don’t know how to set the right limits with our child,” but rather, “I am concerned that when you don’t enforce the consequence, our child gets confused and doesn’t take the limit seriously.” This type of statement keeps the focus on the feelings and issues rather than on who is right or who is to blame. If you want to be heard by your partner, you have a much better shot when you present your concerns as your subjective feelings and perspectives rather than your superiority as a parent or moral being. Or, as I like to say to the couples I work with, “You can be right or you can be heard.”
Understanding your own and your partner’s history: We each bring our own histories and experiences to parenting, and these things greatly inform our parenting choices and styles. In some cases we replicate our own experiences, and in some we seek to offer our children an experience that is different than our own. Most often it is some of each. In any case, it is extremely helpful to be mindful of not only your own story, but also your partner’s. There may well be times when, based on your partner’s history, a particular issue will take on a certain significance. Knowing this might help you be more flexible in your own thinking and approach.
Nurturing Your Relationship with Your Partner
One of biggest “side effects” of having a child is decreased intimacy between partners. While raising a child together often deepens the bond between partners, it almost always involves putting the relationship on the back burner and prioritizing the child and his or her needs. To some extent, especially during the first few years, this makes sense and is inevitable. Over time, however, if the relationship between you and your partner is not being tended to, a growing tension and/or distance between you can arise, which can damage the relationship.
Routinely making time to attend to the relationship with your partner is extremely important. Attending to the relationship does not simply mean staying up after the kids are in bed to discuss how they are doing (though that might be a piece of it). Rather, it means carving out a few hours every week or every month to get out, go to dinner, or do some other activity that you both enjoy, and catch up on each other’s lives. Rekindling the intimacy that you shared before your child was born, and remembering that your relationship as co-parents is just one facet of your relationship, go a long way to staying close and maintaining perspective on the whole co-parenting endeavor.
Disagreements, and tension over parenting can often persist—even with all the perfectly timed “I” statements, understanding your own and your partner’s history, dates nights out, etc. It is at this point that you and your partner need to figure out what parenting behavior can realistically change and what cannot, what is acceptable and what is not, and what you can do about some instances of unacceptable behavior. When there is mutual trust and respect, resolution—be it acceptance or compromise—usually can be achieved. However, if there is a lack of respect, or a solution cannot be found to an issue that feels very important, it might be time to seek professional help.
Case Example: Jane and Martin
Jane and Martin came to me for couples counseling because they were feeling critical of each other’s parenting and had not been successful at resolving their parenting conflicts on their own. Jane felt Martin did not set appropriate limits with their four-year-old son, Max, and was not keeping Max safe. Martin felt that Jane was too strict and too controlling of Max.
When we explored the specific behaviors that made them feel this way, both brought up Martin’s roughhousing with Max as a major source of contention. Jane believed that when Martin and Max played roughhouse, Martin was too wild with Max; she was scared that Max was going to get seriously hurt. When Jane felt their play was getting too wild, she would intervene and stop them, chastising Martin in front of Max, and then take over parenting Max. When Jane intervened at these times, Martin would experience Jane as being controlling and roll his eyes in front of Max as if to indicate, “there she goes again—crazy, controlling Mom!”
What had developed between Jane and Martin was a lack of trust and respect for each other’s parenting and a pattern of communication that was not working, but was instead undermining their relationship with each other and with Max. Max began to see Martin as the fun playmate with no real authority as a parent and Jane as the “real” parent, who was calmer and more soothing but no fun. Neither Jane nor Martin was comfortable having these constrained roles.
As we unpacked this issue of the roughhousing, we first tried to get a handle on whether the play was in fact unsafe. When we looked at the behavior very closely, it became apparent that in fact Max had never gotten hurt rough housing. Martin did admit, however, that the play got a bit too wild at times and that Max would often get so stimulated that Martin found himself unable stop the play and transition to another, possibly calmer, activity.
When we explored Jane and Martin’s beliefs about roughhousing, some interesting things came out. Jane discussed how she had been one of three daughters of very strict parents in a household where roughhousing, or aggressive play of any sort, was not tolerated. She had felt controlled by her parents but always physically safe, something that she really valued. To her, Martin’s play with Max seemed wild and dangerous.
For Martin, however, roughhousing was something he had really enjoyed as a boy and had been one of the few ways he could connect to his father, who was very strict and generally unavailable, outside of these few moments of play. For Martin, roughhousing was a very important way to connect to Max. He did not want to be strict with Max for fear of becoming his father.
As Jane and Martin listened to each other’s stories in a context that felt safe and nonjudgmental, they began to feel more empathic toward each other and more open to hearing each other’s parenting perspectives. Jane admitted that she was a bit jealous of Martin’s playful connection with Max and resentful of having to always be the heavy-handed parent. Martin confessed that he admired Jane’s capacity to set limits with Max and that he really wanted to work on his own limiting setting so that he could share more of this aspect of the parenting with Jane.
Coming from this more accepting place, Jane and Marin were able to work together to come up with some solutions to their co-parenting conflict. Jane agreed to try her best not to intervene in the roughhousing or take over the parenting in that moment, and that she would leave the room if the play began to stress her out. Martin agreed to work on developing some strategies to identify signs of overstimulation before it was too late and to help Max transition out of this play into some other, calmer activity. They both agreed to try to refrain from criticizing each other in front of Max, and that if they still felt they needed to express their concerns about each other’s parenting, they would wait until they were alone and had enough time to really discuss the issues.
Jane and Martin also admitted that they had not been out together alone in over a year and that they were both feeling somewhat rejected by the other. We discussed the ways in which they could realistically incorporate a regular date night into their lives.
After implementing some of the goals and strategies that they had worked on in our sessions, Jane and Martin came to feel that, although thy still struggled with their co-parenting at times, in general they had reached a more accepting place of each other’s parenting and felt more connected with each other.
The challenges of co-parenting are many. However, armed with a willingness to let go of some of the parenting decisions, a pledge to try and communicate respectfully with your partner, and a commitment to nurture your relationship, harmonious co-parenting can be achieved. Although it can take a lot of work to co-parent harmoniously, the pay-offs are tremendous: Greater confidence and comfort in your own and your partner’s parenting, a more intimate connection with your partner, and, more often than not, a happier family all round.
The Six Stages of Parenthood, by Ellen Galinsky. Drawing on the work of Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson, Galinksy describes the six distinct stages in the life of a parent. Da Capo Press, 1981.
And Baby Makes Three, by John Gottman and Julie Schwartz Gottman. The authors draw on their extensive research to teach couples the skills needed to maintain healthy marriages so that partners can avoid the pitfalls of parenthood. Three River Press, 2007.
Lesbian and Gay Parenting Handbook: Creating and Raising Our Families, by April Martin. A much-needed book that addresses the many questions and important issues associated with lesbian and gay parenting, by a well-known psychotherapist and lesbian parent. Perennial, 1993.
The New Rules of Marriage, by Terrence Real. The author offers couples a set of exercises and practical strategies for working towards increased intimacy, honesty, and passion in their relationship. Ballantine Books, 2007.
Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for Your Child by Isolina Ricci. This easy-to-use book covers the legal, financial, and emotional realities of creating two happy and stable homes for children in the often difficult and confusing aftermath of a divorce. Fireside, 1997.
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