COUPLES CORNER–Every so often, there are particular themes that couples bring in to counselling, and as a therapist, I begin to notice trends. Some common challenges that arise for coupes include issues with intimacy, communication, and relationship trauma. Occasionally, couples even arrive to counselling with all of the above impacted as they try to work together as parents. If there is one thing that can polarize opinions and disagreements amongst even the most cohesive couples, it’s parenting.
Why is this? Parenting not only brings up differences in beliefs, but it also tests the ability of a relationship to adapt to one of life’s biggest changes – the decision to grow your family. As a result, with big life changes, comes excitement, stress, and, of course, potential conflict. It is almost impossible to be on the same parenting page as your partner for every issue, so what can you do when you find yourself not only on a different page, but perhaps in a different book altogether?
My first question would be: what does it mean to you that your partner sees a particular parenting issue differently? Some clients feel that if they are not in agreement with their spouse, it means their partner is putting their children at risk or that they are dismissing the importance of their perspective as a parent. Most of the time, parents are trying to protect children and want to make the best decision possible for them at all times; yet, what if there isn’t always a single best decision? Perhaps both partners are holding in mind two important needs that could benefit the family in different ways.
This is where values come into play. First, listen – can you hear, without defensiveness, why a particular perspective concerning parenting is important to your partner? Can you ask questions to deepen your understanding? I like to work with couples to identify what value their partner is wanting to teach their child and where this value might come from.
For instance, let’s say two parents disagree on the procedure for preparing school lunches for their child. If Parent A wants to prepare lunch on their child’s behalf, perhaps they are valuing organization, efficiency, or the importance of balanced nutrition. On the other hand, if Parent B wants the child to make their own lunches for school, perhaps they are honoring the values of independence, challenge, and freedom of choice. If you begin to ask yourself what value is supporting the other parent’s perspective, you can start to uncover teachable opportunities rather than differences. The over-arching question becomes: is there an option where you can meet in the middle to honour both sets of values?
I also like to consider the nature of various relationship roles. Within our romantic relationships, we play the role of a partner and also the role of a parent should children come along. As a couple, it’s important to perform routine maintenance on your relationship within both roles. If you work on your relationship as a united, well-communicating couple, you can support your relationship as parents, and vice versa. In contrast, if your romantic relationship has been neglected, and you have only focused on your relationship as co-parents, you may begin to experience disconnection as a couple. Perhaps, functionally, things are going well within the family household, but is there depth, intimacy, reliability, and trust shown not only within the relationship itself but also to the children to observe? Are you demonstrating a healthy, loving, positive relationship as partners AND parents?
We cannot win every parenting battle. At some point, someone has to be willing enough to put down their sword and hear the other person. It is possible, as well, that it was never even a battle to begin with – just a field full of values and a blocked view.
Jennifer Goldberg, RP, M.Ed., CCC, is a registered psychotherapist who works extensively with couples at The Counselling Group. She incorporates current topics arising out of her couples therapy sessions into themes and issues covered in Couples Corner.
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