Note: This post isn’t meant to address more severe relationship issues, such as intentional abuse or manipulation, or divorced couples. Please see here and here for help in those cases.
Parenting is one of the toughest jobs in the world. There’s no rehearsal. No interview process. You really don’t have a clue as to what it’s going to be like but you sign up for it anyway and suddenly, despite your lack of experience, you’re hired.
You take consolation in the fact that you’ve picked someone you trust who wants to be there with you; you two want to do this “parent thing” together.
Sure… before kids came along, you found a few annoying things about your partner, but those rolled off your back because the good far outweighed the annoying. So he’s a little loud and yells at the television. Or she spends a lot of her free time with her mother. She works longer hours than she needs to, or he is a bit too extravagant with money. But you love each other deeply, know you have a solid marriage. and firmly believe that, “When it’s time, we’ll have kids. And it’ll be great.”
Annoyance turns into fear which morphs into defensiveness…
So you bring your first bundle of joy home (let’s call him Spencer) and slowly but surely, those very issues can rear their heads as virtual monsters. The things that were once tolerable suddenly seem intolerable.
“I need you to stop yelling at the TV. You’re making the baby cry.”
“Your mother’s always over here all weekend. Not only does she spoil Spencer, I want to do things as a family, just us, on my days off.”
“I thought you’d cut back on your work hours once he was born. I feel like a single parent.”
“You can’t keep shopping for unnecessary things any more; we should be saving for college.”
Not only do your partner’s habits affect your life, now you may likely fear how they’ll affect your child’s life. Instead of feeling closer as parents, you may realize these differences reflect the way your own parents did things so it’s normal for you. Or perhaps the opposite; you’re determined to not do it the way your parents did. And then.. each of you gets defensive.
For example…the television yeller?
“My family always yelled a lot. There’s nothing wrong with that. We express ourselves. It’s healthy.”
If you’re having mom over a lot?
“We’re a close family. We always had someone over at the house– an aunt, cousins — our house stayed full of people all the time. I have great memories growing up like that.”
And so the debate begins. Debates can turn into arguments, and perhaps your arguments can even get brutal.
How do you work together to make decisions about parenting and honor the fact that you two don’t see things the same way? Parenting is a complicated, marvelous, frustrating, boring, and intriguing job. So what does it take to compromise? To listen and not be defensive when you’re trying to work out your differences and beliefs about being a parent?
Four important realizations to help calm the debate...
It’s not always easy in the heat of the moment, but here are four guidelines to help when things get rocky with your partner.
1) Realize most approaches to parenting have their strong points, when used at the right time.
Say someone can be overprotective or obsess about safety and that irritates you. He may be the very parent who’s going to notice on a family picnic that a hammock is being hung right over a sharp rock. Or perhaps you’re the parent who’s more lax, not as vigilant in “watching the kids.” That parent is the one who, when little Jamie is getting older, is going to argue that it’s time for her to be allowed to go with friends alone to a game. Both brands of parenting can be “right” and each have their place depending upon the circumstances.
The trick is to realize what your own particular vulnerability is – what you might underdo or overdo – and understand that sometimes your instincts might be off base, and your partner could be right on target. You two balance each other out; if you use respect and honesty in an attempt to discover that middle ground you are both better off for it, as are your children.
2) Appreciate and be grateful for your differences.
Maybe your partner announces on a sunny Saturday morning, “It’s a gorgeous day! Let’s take the kids for a hike!” But you’d planned chores for the day. You could choose to argue about the value of teaching kids about chores. And then they could respond that you don’t know how to have fun anymore. Or both of you could take a minute and discuss it. Be aware and grateful for your differences. And compromise.
3) Realize that your children are better off because you two are different.
Your kids can benefit from you both if you’re not constantly fighting for control. Dramatic differences can be worked out, everything from diverse religious views to academic preferences.
This kind of cooperation takes flexibility. If you yourself are often a rigid or “black and white” thinker, or have to be seen as right, or you’re partnered with someone who is, the control battle will be hard to avoid. The more rigid person will either not allow the other person to parent, to make choices or suggestions, or will be highly critical of them if they do. “I don’t put the diapers on like that.” “Why are you letting him stay in the tub for so long?” “She doesn’t like her sandwiches like that.”
This kind of micromanagement of your partner is not only disrespectful, but you’re setting an unhealthy example for those kids who are hearing everything you say.
4) Manage your own insecurity.
Parenting is the most ambiguous task you’ll ever do. None of us know for certain what the outcome will be. As long as they feel safe and loved, the majority of children will thrive. Nobody is perfect and you’ll make parenting mistakes. If you’re concerned about your perceived failings, talk to friends, go to a therapist — whatever you need to do to get yourself to a place where you’re comfortable in your decision-making.
There are some wonderful books about calming down your communication that I’d highly recommend: one is The Four Agreements. The other… How to Improve Your Marriage Without Talking About It.
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Originally published on June 21, 2018; updated and republished on November 28, 2020.