When marriage conflicts do damage to your children

When Mark and Jennifer had a breakthrough in their marriage relationship, their joy was mixed with all kinds of regrets.

Mark said, “Why couldn’t we have learned these things about our marriage sooner so our kids didn’t have to grow up in a war zone?”

Their happiness was tarnished by thoughts of what constant fighting had done to their children.

Are there things that happened in the past that you regret? Are you concerned about how your mistakes might have affected your children?

Here are some steps Mark and Jennifer took to turn regrets of the past into hope for the future.

1. Keep growing in your marriage

You can’t change the past but you can change the future. You can’t change where you’ve been but you can change where you’re going.

Although you began badly, you can end well.

Although Mark and Jennifer spent much of their marriage in conflict, they did not give up. They found some powerful tools through Imago Relationship Therapy that helped them reconnect and rebuild their relationship.

So they had a breakthrough in their relationship. That’s great, but what about the collateral damage? What about the damage done to their children?

2. Let go of the past

Mark and Jennifer realized they have to let go of their past. They decided to not let their past failures define them.

History is full of examples of successful people who did not let their past define them.

Historical figures like King David and the Apostle Paul had pasts that make most of us look like saints by comparison.

And yet through their faith, they found forgiveness that enabled them to forgive themselves and move on toward monumental accomplishments in life.

When we allow a failure to define us, it limits us all our lives.

It’s not an easy thing to do. It may be a difficult process. But choose to let go of the past.

3. Look at what you have; not at what you don’t have

Jennifer and Mark did not minimize the pain they caused, or the loss of time and opportunities with their kids. But instead of looking at what they don’t have, they decided to look at what they do have. 

A soldier who loses an arm in battle can let that loss define him for the rest of his life.

Or he can look at what he has and ask, “How can I build on that?”

In the same way Mark and Jennifer began to express gratitude for what they have – a marriage that is now on track and an opportunity to change their story.

4. Look to the future with hope

Mark and Jennifer realized the final chapter of their relationship is not yet written.

Though they started out badly, they could end well and have a positive impact on their children.

They were surprised to find that their children still looked up to them. Their children could see the changes in their marriage. They learned it’s never too late to have a positive impact on your children.

5. Extend your healing to your children

Mark used the dialogue skills he learned with Jennifer to talk to his daughter who was now out of college and building her career. He said things like, “I can see how I was into my work too much and was not available to you and your mom during that time.”

She opened up and told him of an instant when she was in middle school and needed help that involved calling a teacher. Mark was busy and told her, “You’re a big girl. You can make that call yourself.”

With tears she told him of the pain she felt at that moment, and how she vowed she’d never ask him for help again.

From that point there was a strain and distance in their relationship. But now, as Mark acknowledging the hurt he caused, there was healing. 

And then a thought came that surprised them both. His daughter said, “You know Dad, that was hurtful. But in many ways it served to make me the independent and self-sufficient person I am today.”

Wow! Healing and acknowledgement of the good that came out of a childhood wound. Can it get any better? 

Healing in Mark and Jennifer’s marriage is being extended to their children. 

Could it be that your children need you now as much as ever?

It’s not too late to give your children a blueprint of what a healthy marriage looks like – not a perfect marriage, but a growing marriage.

Never underestimate the impact changes in your marriage can have on others, especially your children.

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How to become a great parenting team with your marriage partner

“Why is it that you get to be the Sugar Daddy, and I always have to be the ‘bad cop’, party pooper disciplinarian with the children?!”

Sara’s complaint to her husband Jon is one I often hear from couples who are struggling to parent together.

It’s common for one parent to see the need for more fun and flexibility, and the other parent to see the need for more structure and discipline

One parent is saying kids need to feel loved. The other is saying yes, but they also need limits.

Who’s right? 

Sara says she’s right. “If it were up to Jon, the kids would never learn any discipline. He gives them whatever they want whenever they want it. Kids need love but they also need limits!”

Jon says he’s right. “If it were up to Sara, it would like military school 24/7. Kids need more than just rules. They also need relationship!

Who’s really right?

I’m sure you guessed by now. They both are.

All children need love AND limits; rules AND relationship.

As a couple, are you experiencing this kind of problem?

Here are some steps that can help you reconnect and resolve this conflict, and  become a great parenting team with your partner.

1. Always use conflict as an opportunity for a deeper connection with each other

Differences in parenting styles can create conflicts that rip a couple apart. Serious marriage problems begin when conflicts like this result in a couple feeling disconnected.

That’s why, in Imago Relationship Therapy, we don’t settle for problem solving or conflict resolution. Instead we seek to turn every conflict into an opportunity for a deeper connection.

Why is that?

Because it is possible to resolve the parenting problem and still feel disconnected.

If a couple doesn’t reconnect their relationship in the process, the fix will only be temporary until the next difference in opinion is encountered.

That’s why, as couples, we tend to argue about the same kinds of things over and over.

So, if you’re in conflict over parenting (or over anything), learn how to turn your problem into an opportunity to reconnect with each other. Then solving the problem will be easier. 

The next three steps will help you do that.

2. Incorporate your partner’s need for “limits and structure” into your parenting plan

Sara saw the need for limits and structure in parenting. Her perspective came in part from her own childhood experience

Growing up, Sara’s need for fun was suppressed by parents, who were good disciplinarians, but didn’t see much need for flexibility and fun. 

As a result, Sara grew in discipline but never developed an ability to be flexible and have fun. 

One of the reasons she was attracted to Jon was his free spirit and fun-loving nature. But, when they entered the Power Struggle Stage of marriage, this trait that Sara once admired now feels like a threat to the well being of their children. 

In the Couple’s Dialogue process, I encouraged Jon to seek to understand what was driving Sara’s need for more structure.

We discovered that Jon’s “lack of limits” with the children was triggering a fear that caused Sara to overcompensate. It was pushing Sara’s “need for limits” into overdrive and therefore out of balance.

When Jon got to the point of empathizing with the all the fear Sara felt, his image of her was transformed from a “control freak” to a “wounded child” who was terrified of failure.

As an adult, this old fear was triggered by thoughts of what could happen if their children didn’t learn discipline.

Empathy helped Jon to open his heart to Sara and her need for more structure in their parenting plan.

Jon recognized that if her perspective could be brought to the table in a more balanced and respectful way, it could be an invaluable part of their parenting plan. He discovered that he did not fundamentally disagree with Sara. He was just reacting to her “over-reaction”.

As Jon took the time to really understand Sara’s need, the anxiety that was driving her began to subside. As they continued in safe conversation, Jon began see and accept Sara’s side of the argument.

3. Incorporate your partner’s need for “fun and flexibility” in your parenting plan

Before Jon had this breakthrough, Sara’s “overreaction” would cause him to respond in kind adding fuel to their conflict. He would say things like…

“You’re frustrating our kids. Rules without relationship drive kids into rebellion.” 

The Couple’s Dialogue process helped Sara see that Jon’s angry reaction was rooted in his own childhood experience.

Jon’s parents gave lots of “love” but without many limits. As a result, he brought some baggage of insecurity into his marriage. One thing that attracted him to Sara was her discipline and structured life. 

But now Sarah’s request for more structure from him triggered his deep feelings of insecurity.

Her complaints were received as messages that he wasn’t good enough. And that triggered a fear that he would fail as a husband and father. As a result he became reactive and began pushing back, arguing his point.

The Couple’s Dialogue helped Sara empathize with Jon’s fear of failure. It also helped her see the need for more grace and flexibility in their parenting plan.

This began to dissolve Jon’s defensiveness.

Empathizing with each other helped Jon and Sara reconnect on a heart level.

This led them to a fourth step that helped them apply what they learned about each other and  become a more effective parenting team. 

4. Remain flexible in your balance of freedom and structure

An effective parenting plan changes and adapts to what is needed at the time.

There are times when children need more limits and structure. There are times when they need fewer limits and more freedom to learn through failure.

A connected marriage has the ability to negotiate a healthy balance of freedom and structure into the parenting plan. 

By reconnecting emotionally, Jon and Sara began to rely on each other more. When the need for discipline arises, they now look to Sara for direction. When then need for grace arises, they look to Jon.

And as Jon sees the need for discipline through Sara’s eyes, he is growing in his ability to be more balanced toward the discipline side. And the same thing is happening with Sara with regard to fun and flexibility.

It’s the connection with each other that helps you flex your own boundaries and “recompensate” for each other. 

When you feel connected with your partner there is a more security, less anxiety, and overreactions are diffused. That’s when you can see and value the perspective of your partner, and make a healthy decision that honors you both and is best for your children.

So let’s work together to establish age appropriate limits, while at the same time, let the love you have for each other overflow toward your children giving them the flexibility, fun, and grace they need to grow into healthy adults.

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Is criticism wrecking your marriage and hurting your children? Here’s what to do!

Here’s how to stop the criticism and begin modeling a healthy marriage for your children.

The first step is to…

1. Regulate your own reaction to criticism.

You can’t control what your partner does to criticize you, but you can control your response to your partner.

And if you’ll do that, you’ll change the whole dynamic of your relationship.

Criticism triggers defenses and activates counter-criticism.

Whenever opinions differ, you’ll tend to criticize your partner for not being like you.

For example:

Wife: “Make sure when you load the dishwasher you face the dishes inward, put all the silverware sorted in the tray, and don’t turn it on until is full so we don’t waste energy.”

Husband: “You know it really doesn’t matter which way they are facing, they’ll get clean either way. And just put the silverware in there. We can sort it when we put it away. And really it doesn’t use that much energy.”

That’s a setup for a critical reaction and a counter-critical reaction:

Wife: “You never listen to me!”

Husband: “You’re always telling me what to do!”

Can I say it again? You CAN’T control your partner’s choice to criticize you, but you CAN control your response to your partner.

You don’t have to engage in counter-criticism. And when you make that choice, you diffuse the tension, disrupt the cycle, and the whole dynamic of your relationship changes.

So, how do I regulate my reactivity?

Instead of reacting in your default, “critical mode”, respond by “MIRRORING” what your partner says.

MIRRORING is a tool that empowers you to stop reactive feelings in their tracks, and turn your rational brain on with genuine interest and curiosity.

When you mirror your partner’s criticism back to her, you not only hear WHAT she’s saying, but you become curious as to WHY she’s saying it.

Here’s what that could look like:

Wife: “You never listen to me!”

Husband: “Let me see if I’m getting what you’re saying.”

OK, before you say that’s a silly way to answer just bear with me!

That opening sentence becomes a powerful pivot point, enabling you to turn in the opposite direction – from reactive criticism toward interest and curiosity. It helps you turn on your upper brain and temper your lower brain.

“If I got it, you said that I never listen to you.”

Mirroring is about focusing on what your partner is saying with such intensity that you can repeat it back word for word.

Then you ask a question that helps you focus on hearing her with complete accuracy.

“Did I get it?”

This ensures that you hear ALL she is saying.

In the case above, the husband heard the words the wife said, but now he’s inviting her to clarify what she meant with those words.

And finally…

Is there more about that?

This last question puts curiosity in overdrive, and bingo! Congratulations! You’re in “regulation mode”!

Now you’re not driven to react with that ugly counter-criticism:“You’re always telling me what to do!”

And, you have made it safe for your partner to access what she’s really feeling.

When you do that you’ll probably see her re-compensate and say something like…

“Thanks for hearing my concern. What are your thoughts?”

(OK, I admit, it doesn’t always go this smoothly, but your chances are a whole lot better than if you react with your counter-criticism! :-))

Then you’ll find yourself without a ruptured connection, and in a better place to solve the problem.

You cannot be curious and critical at the same time. Your brain can’t run on those two tracks at once. The problem is our reactive neurons move 10 times faster from the bottom up (lower brain to upper brain).

And the moment a conversation becomes unsafe, your lower brain triggers the release of cortisol and adrenaline into your system. This causes all the blood to rush from your brain into your larger muscles in preparation for fight or flight.

In this kind of reaction mode, we can’t think straight! In that drugged-up and dumbed-down condition, we tend to do our worst when it matters most!

Mirroring disrupts all that. It gives the top-down neurons a chance to regulate your emotions, and this empowers you to make a conscious response rather than a triggered reaction.

And here’s a BONUS! This process builds new brain pathways, connecting your lower reactive brain to your upper rational brain. So the more you practice it, the better you get at regulating your reactions.

Modern scientific discoveries about brain plasticity tell us that “old dogs” can learn “new tricks”!

As the husband in the example above regulates his own reaction, it not only keeps him from adding to the negativity, it also changes the way his partner responds to him.

Many times that’s how it works. But of course, not always.

Sometimes regulating your own reactions is not enough, because your partner’s reactivity is so intense.

That’s where a second, even more powerful tool comes in.

2. Respond to criticism with forgiveness.

How can I forgive someone when they are attacking me?

Well, what happens when you mirror her criticism? What do you discover?

You discover that beneath your partner’s criticism is cry for connection with you.

Disconnection results in anxiety. Unchecked anxiety is what manifests in criticism. Therefore, every criticism is an unspoken desire for connection.

Knowing this, enables you to “pre-validate” your partner’s feelings.

And then, when you stand tall and forgive her for that criticism, rather than shrinking in shame, or exploding in retaliation, you become her hero!

That’s what happened with Mark and Sunny.

Nedra Fetterman tells the story of her parents, Mark and Sunny, how a simple request changed their whole relationship dynamic in a way that stopped the criticism.

The impact on their relationship was not a surprise. These tools really work.

But the subtle impact this had on their daughter’s marriage, and even their grandson came as a complete surprise!

3. Model for your children a marriage that is “in process”.

The third step is to simply let your children see you growing in your relationship.

Regulating your reactivity, responding in forgiveness, and reconnecting with your partner will help you eliminate criticism in your relationship.

This will become a beautiful example for your children – one they will see when you least expect it!

Watch how all this worked in Mark and Sunny’s relationship in the brief video below. Then use the discussion questions to go deeper with your partner.

The video ends with these words:

“Consciousness is contagious. Love is irresistible. Acts of courage and kindness are never forgotten. You never know who is watching you, or who you inspire. The ripple effects of healing pain are boundless in every neighborhood, in every family. In every moment you have a choice. Each moment is a crossroads. Our culture glorifies the magic of falling in love, but says very little about how to sustain a more seasoned love.” – Nedra Fetterman

Discuss with your partner:

1) How is criticism affecting our marriage?

2) What can we do to regulate our own reactions?

3) Behind every criticism is a wish. How can you turn your criticism into a request from me? How can I turn my criticism into a request from you? 

4) How can we “pre-validate” each others criticism as  a cry for connection, and how can we meet that criticism with forgiveness?

Subscribe below to receive my weekly post that will come to your email inbox every Saturday morning! 

My goal is to provide free relationship tools and resources delivered to your inbox every week!