“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.
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.