© Kalanit Ben-Ari, Ph.D.
“She is too strict. What’s the problem if the children go to sleep a little bit later so I will get the chance to see them when I’m back from work?” claimed the husband with desperation.
“Easy for you to say. You are not the one who takes them to school in the morning, or makes sure they are in bed on time”, the wife snapped back.
This tension, where one parent is ‘stricter’ than the other, is a common issue in modern families. What couples are often missing is that the conflict is not about the topic being discussed, but about the feelings beneath that. It might be the feelings of loneliness, being misunderstood, unsupported, frustrated and/or inadequate to offer a few possibilities.
Having parents that work collaboratively together is crucial for raising healthy, confident, balanced and happy children.
Here are some suggestions to shift the energy from conflict to connection:
1. Change your mind-set.
Do you see the differences in parenting style as a problem? Or do you celebrate the differences, knowing this is an opportunity for growth?
Couples who co-parent successfully understand that their partner brings parenting skills and qualities that they themselves need to develop. For example, the more serious and responsible partner needs to grow to be a more relaxed and joyful person. Whereas the free spirited, stress-free partner needs to initiate and take on more responsibilities with the children. Who is better to teach them that than their partner?
Change your mind-set from 'we have a problem' to 'we celebrate our differences as this is the way we can raise more balanced children'.
2. Change your belief system.
I’m often stuck in the belief system that I’m right and my husband is wrong. He just doesn’t know it yet. However, what I have learned from my personal and clinical work is that the fact that my partner is right doesn’t mean that I am wrong. You can both be right. And I have learned to ask myself- do you want to be right or to be in relationship? If it’s the latter, ask your partner what can you do so they will feel supported and heard. Parenting is challenging enough as it is, your partner needs an advocator not a blamer.
3. Move forward.
The more you pull your energy in one direction, your partner will pull harder in the other. Its physics. In Imago therapy we believe that beneath your partner’s complaints, there is a wish. It might be a wish to be appreciated, to feel supported and equal, bringing the fun back to the relationship or simply to feel closer.
What is the wish beneath your partner’s complaints? What can you do this week to move forward towards your partner’s wishes? Maybe appreciate all they do for the family? Or initiate household chores before being asked? Can you surprise them by coming home early or organising a fun evening together?
When you move forward, the whole structure of the relationship changes to a more balanced one.
4. Learn something new.
New perspective about your partner will help you understand and empathise with their point of view. In my recent book—Small Steps to Great Parenting- I suggest a dialogue about the ways you were raised as children. How were your parents managed differences? How did you feel observing them? Your history has a crucial part in the parent you grow to become. Shedding light on those areas will deepen your understanding about who you and your partner are.
5. Balance the power.
If you feel your partner holds the ‘power’ regarding decisions about the children, it might be a reflection of an unbalanced power they feel in other areas of life (e.g., money, sex, in-laws). Starting a conversation about these power dynamics and shifting to make mindful decisions together—beyond the preferences- can help to bring that balance and harmony back. To do that you need to trust that your partner wants the best for the children, as do you. It’s just that their parenting methods may be different to yours.
6. In front of the children you are one.
Resist the urge to ‘save’ your children from your partner. You do not do any favours to them by doing so. If you disagree with some of your partner’s behaviour, save it for a private conversation. In front of the children support each other. This will free the children from manipulating situations, and from the responsibility they could potentially feel as being the cause of any conflict. It also strengthens both of your authority with them.
This article was written by couples therapist and parental advisor Dr Kalanit Ben-Ari. With a doctorate in Psychology, Dr Ben-Ari has worked in the field for over 20 years and runs a private clinic in Hampstead, London. She is also an author, speaker, therapist supervisor and has been the Chair of Imago UK since 2013.