Whenever I first start coaching parents, whether they’re rookies or veterans, I underscore a truism that most of us rarely think about:
Unlike most trades that demand flexibility, communication skills, commitment, significant effort, multitasking, intellectual & emotional dexterity, teamwork and long hours, being a spouse and parent are, often, jobs we tackle without formal training.
Plus, when our job descriptions as a spouse or parent change, which they always do in one way or another—e.g., kids move from preschool to grade school—there are no required mini-courses to supplement our skills, no downloads to upgrade our operating systems, just more on-the-job experience.
So in addition to some of the upsides of having spouses and kids (e.g., love), it’s no wonder many of us, at one point or another, find relationships or parenting (or both) confusing, disappointing, mystifying, and/or frustrating!
Granted, there are all sorts of relationship and parenting manuals out there—meaning, books—designed to help us, but many are hard to read, too long to fit into busy schedules, or they contradict each other.
One exception is Gerald Newmark’s How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Children, a refreshingly simple (in the best sense), easy-to-read, intuitive (it just feels right) and inspiring book designed to help parents, teachers and communities raise kids who thrive well into adulthood. (If you’re a Kindle Member or Amazon Prime member, download the book free here.)
Newmark’s work has the power to save children’s lives and preserve their wellbeing. I’m convinced it can have that impact on parents’ relationships, too.
The 5 Critical Emotional Needs described by Newmark—feeling respected, important, accepted, included, and secure—are, also, tools to enhance parents’ emotional health and offer us a chance to “raise” ourselves, and our marriages, as we raise our kids.
Critical Need #1: To Feel Respected
“To be treated in a courteous, thoughtful, attentive and civil manner.”
Whether passed between spouses or from one to the other, disrespect—what relationship-expert, John Gottman calls contempt—is the #1 predictor of divorce. Contempt can be verbal (dismissive comments, sarcasm) or behavioral (ignoring, rolling eyes). Given the destructive impact of disrespect—and the poor relationship example it sets for kids—we’d all do well to practice respect.
Simply put: Ramp up being thoughtful, considerate and valuing spouses, even and especially when they do or say things with which we disagree.
Critical Need #2: To Feel Important
Helping spouses believe: “I have value. I am useful. I have power. I am somebody.”
Certainly, respecting spouses enhances their sense of being valued by us. So, too, does suspending judgment when they do things differently than we do.
As parents, we have many opportunities to let each other tend to our kids in our own way. If we assume there’s no one right way to do so—e.g., dress kids, play with them, feed them, etc.—and we encourage and support spouses to parent in his or her own way, we impart our trust in the value of their contributions and their power to make decisions and choices, even ones that contrast with our own.
Critical Need #3: To Feel Accepted
“To feel accepted as individuals in their own right, with their own uniqueness, and not treated as…objects to be shaped in the image of what [we] believe [our] ideal [spouse] should look like.”
I’ve written elsewhere about how objectifying our spouses and kids undermines our relationship with them. When we treat spouses as objects—which includes: trying to mold them into who we want them to be, instead of loving who they already are—we act insincerely, dwell on a desired future vs. the present at hand, and foster disconnection and mistrust.
Understanding that our spouses are different from us, and worthy of our acceptance and love not only despite, but because, of those differences, enhances friendship between us and fans the flames of intimacy.
Critical Need #4: To Feel Included
“To be brought in, to be made to feel a part of things, to feel connected to other people, to have a sense of community.”
One of the surest signs that a relationship is strained is a persistent desire to spend time with our kids or friends or at work, instead of with our spouses. In lieu of collaborating, and working as a team, we avoid each other and foster bonds elsewhere.
In and of itself, turning to our children for connection and to create community is great. But when we do so as a substitute for connecting with spouses, we put undue pressure on our kids to fulfill us, and we forfeit relationship satisfaction in the process. Learning how to reconnect with each other, despite our differences, despite the demands of parenting, feeds our desire to feel included and an integral part of our family.
Critical Need #5: To Feel Secure
“Security means creating a positive environment where people care for each other and show it, where people express themselves and others listen, where differences are accepted and conflicts resolved constructively….”
Just as we’re not taught to be a spouse or parent, most of us lack skills to reduce conflicts or bypass them altogether. Yet, without know-how to resolve conflicts productively—e.g., to compromise out of choice vs. to appease each other—we often feel insecure in our relationships and unheard or rejected by spouses.
Given that 95% of conversations end the way they begin, one path to conflict-resolution is to become more aware of what we say, why we’re saying it, and the feelings that motivate us to broach a subject.
This can be especially useful if we want to tackle challenging topics. Before starting a conversation, take a moment to evaluate what you want to accomplish and what words might best help you reach your goal.
Every parent knows that our children are among our most inspiring and persistent teachers. They teach us to see the world in new ways, to look at our own childhoods for lessons we want to impart or avoid, to open our hearts wider than we thought possible.
Newmark’s 5 Critical Emotional Needs offer yet another way to learn, this time not from our kids, but with them. As we practice fulfilling their needs in our parenting and our relationships, we’ll all—adults and kids alike—grow up to be healthy and strong.