Category Archives: General

How to Raise Emotionally Healthy Kids (& Parents!)

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

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.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

Babying Our Battles: How Can Kids Inspire Parents to Reduce Relationship Conflict?

I was recently leading a workshop for couples. Our topic was resolving disagreements about household and childcare roles and responsibilities, a subject I’ve posted about more than once (see http://wp.me/pZuta-dh & http://wp.me/pZuta-b5).

Given that parents’ household division of labor is among the Top 3 issues most of us fight about, it’s not surprising there was a lot of heated discussion among workshop participants. Moms were especially vocal about resentment that their husbands didn’t do more around the house, and that their childcare efforts focused on playing with their kids, but not tending to their other needs.

I pride myself on leading workshops that aren’t just helpful but also fun, so the evening included a lot of laughter and a good dose of silliness. But no matter how much we laughed, no matter how playful the mood, parents returned insistently to their feelings of frustration, concern or anxiety.

Until late in the evening, when our hosts’ 2 year-old son, Leo* toddled out of his room, weepy from a bad dream. He climbed into dad’s lap and fell back to sleep.

While our topic never changed, Leo’s arrival altered, indeed softened the Emotional Field (EF) in the room. EF is a Relationship Systems coaching term for the invisible yet discernible energy that always exists among a group of people, regardless of what they’re doing or saying (or not doing or saying).

Once sweet, vulnerable Leo entered our space in search of parental care, the EF shifted dramatically from irritability and frustration to tenderness and empathy. Had Leo been wide-awake and in a boisterous mood, I suspect the change in Emotional Field would have been different, though no less noteworthy.

I interrupted the discussion to note what I’d witnessed and ask participants what they’d noticed. They reported feeling less agitated and more hopeful about the topic than earlier in the evening. They agreed that there was something about Leo’s arrival—both in terms of how he was feeling and what his presence inspired in them—that altered their perspectives on the subject matter.

I joked that it would be great if we could bottle Leo’s energy—specifically, the impact he had on the adults in the room—and pull it out every time we argued with our spouses (or anyone else). I was only half-kidding.

How can we tap into the emotional “softening” and optimism that a small, vulnerable child can inspire in us, even when that child isn’t present, or our kids aren’t small and (obviously) vulnerable?

One option is to imagine conflict as tangible, something you can touch and hold. Think of a challenging issue with your spouse and, in your mind’s eye, consider:

What’s its shape? How large is it? What’s its texture? Temperature?

Now, imagine holding a napping newborn in your arms. Imagine that, as s/he slumbers serenely, this baby’s very being can reach out and reduce the intensity of the conflict, soften it, make it easier to resolve.

How does the conflict appear to you now? How might this newborn-mode inspire you to approach this issue differently going forward?

When my preschooler is upset—and open to being held—I wrap my arms around her and try to keep myself calm, both to support her and prevent my own discomfort from overwhelming either of us.

How might holding conflict itself, as if it were our child, help us better navigate disagreements with our spouses?

For some, imagining conflict as a tangible thing is hard to grasp. If that’s the case, we can shift attention from how a child’s energy can alter a disagreement to how we want to model conflict for our kids.

The desire to parent our children as best we can, as kindly and compassionately as possible, often inspires us to change (or try to change) behaviors and patterns that don’t serve us, or them, well.

We can mobilize this parenting impulse with relationship conflicts. If we imagine our kids—especially young ones—learning how to “do” conflict by watching us work things out with spouses, we’re inspired to become more conscious about the priorities and goals we set for conversations, not to mention our tone of voice and word-choice.

Bottom line: Whether we imagine them as our conflicts, or we think about them softening our disagreements, or we cast them as witnesses to our heated conversations with spouses, we can improve our conflict resolution skills by letting our kids inspire us.

How can your children inspire you to navigate conflict differently?

*Client names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Why Perfectionism And Parenting Don’t Mix

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After being together 3 years, Kate and Tim* became parents to Logan, who’s now a toddler. To describe them in a nutshell: Kate’s a go-getter and Tim’s laid back.

Kate takes pride in what she calls her “enthusiasm for excellence,” which Tim more bluntly refers to as “perfectionism.” Before they select a service provider or make a childcare decision, Kate researches all of the options so they can pick the best choice.

Yet Kate’s determination, perfectionist or not, has produced professional results, too: She negotiated a promotion for herself and encouraged Tim to pursue a more lucrative and prestigious job, which he started last year.

In the meantime, they’ve moved into a bigger house, can afford a great preschool for Logan, and go on wonderful vacations.

Their contrasting styles drew them together: Tim appreciated Kate’s striving nature, and efforts to build the best life possible. Kate loved Tim’s calmness, easy-going nature, and ability to live in the moment.

As time goes by, Kate and Tim find it harder to balance work and home, and sustain the life they’ve built. In recent months, their contrasting approaches—or, as Kate argues, Tim’s “non-approach”—are taking a toll on their relationship.

Kate wants Tim to be more active in decision-making, and in planning for their family’s future. She’s tired of bearing those burdens solo. She also worries that, without coaxing, Tim won’t improve his lot, personally or professionally, thereby putting their family’s wellbeing at risk.

By contrast, Tim claims that, no matter what he does, it’s never enough for Kate. He thinks she’s always “raising the stakes” for how they should live, what Logan needs to thrive, and how to spend or save their money.

Kate and Tim’s conflict and styles aren’t unique. It’s not unusual that, when one spouse leads the way for “a better life,” the other goes along for a while but, eventually, either can’t keep up or doesn’t want to.

Like all perspectives in a relationship, both of theirs have merit. They also reflect values that compete or contrast: e.g., striving for more/satisfaction with what is, being the best/doing one’s best, financial success/financial stability, risk-taking/safety, excitement/calm, to name but a few.

When it comes to their family’s future, Tim and Kate fall into two roles that social psychologist, Barry Schwartz, refers to as Maximizer and Satisficer. Originally coined to describe consumer behaviors, the terms apply to decision-making more broadly, especially when it comes to parenting or relationships.

Maximizers like to make the best choices; they want to be familiar with all the options so they can make the right decision. A challenge faced by maximizers is, after making their choice, they worry that a better option might be, or might soon become, available. Parenting or marriage maximizers might ask:

Is this the best school for my kid or is there another one I should be considering?

Is my spouse the right match or is there someone else who’s better suited for me?

Satisficers make decisions in line with their own criteria or standards. They’re not looking for the best, but for what’s good enough for them. A challenge for satisficers is ensuring their criteria change as they change; what was once good enough might not be over time. Parenting or marriage satisficers might ask:

Does this school meet the standards that I most want for my kid?

Are my spouse and I great matches for each other?

Research shows that satisficers are, on average, happier and less anxious than maximizers. Yet resolving the conflict between Tim and Kate isn’t just a matter of encouraging her to calm down and become a satisficer, given that excellence is one of Kate’s values and that being a maximizer is her way of honoring that value.

What can they do? For starters, they can locate areas in their lives where they occupy the opposite role. When he reads, Tim’s a maximizer; he only picks Booker and Pullitzer prizewinners. Kate’s a satisficer at yoga; her poses are good enough for her.

After recognizing they both occupy maximizer and satisficer roles, they revisited their conflict. Here are some questions I prompted them to ask each other:

How do you think your role (as maximizer or satisficer) serves our family’s wellbeing?

How do you think your role (as maximizer or satisficer) limits our wellbeing? 

What do you appreciate, if only 5% or 10%, about my role (as maximizer or satisficer)?

If you were to apply just 5% or 10% of my role to your approach to our family’s wellbeing, what might that look like?

What’s your worst-case scenario about applying that 5% or 10% to your approach?

What’s the best-case scenario?

How can we work together to make our best-case scenarios happen?

Kate and Tim used these questions to increase their appreciation of each other’s roles and to shift their own approaches to accommodate the opposite role.

The net result was: they decreased criticism of each other, integrated what they believed was the best of each other’s roles into their own, and began to see eye-to-eye on family-related decisions, even those decisions still being made by Kate.

If they came up with a motto for their new perspective, it would be: Maximizers and Satisficers unite!

If some of these issues sound familiar, consider using the questions above to explore your and your spouse’s respective maximizer and satisficer dynamics. Like Tim and Kate, they’re worth exploring to reduce conflict and find new ways to unite!

*Names have been changed, and client identities combined, to protect privacy.

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

I’ve joined the blogging team at A Hopeful Sign!

I promise that a new Parent Alliance post is on its way in the near future. In the meantime, I’m excited to announce that I’ve joined the blogging team at A Hopeful Sign, a wonderful website devoted to spreading the message of hope. As the site’s founder, Gary Doi, phrases it, the goals of A Hopeful Sign are: “To encourage people to live life fully, to learn for a lifetime and to make a difference in the lives of others.” Check out the site and my premiere post: Did Your Relationship Suffer After Kids?

I've joined the blogging team at A Hopeful Sign!

What’s Important to You About That? Asking Powerful Questions for Our Relationships & for Our Kids

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My preschooler has become a skilled “whyer”: Why does the sun go down at night? Why is my hair brown? Why do I have a baby brother and not a sister?

Why-questions help her learn; they signal her curiosity and thirst for knowledge. In other words, when we’re kids, why-questions are educational tools.

By the time we become spouses and parents, many of us have learned to replace whying with whyning.” Instead of using why-questions to learn, we ask them to complain, criticize, control, show mistrust, etc. Case in point:

Why did you say that? or Why didn’t you do what I asked? 

Read literally, neither of these questions is whiny or critical. But read with the right tone—you know the one I mean—why-questions undermine curiosity and closeness. Instead of inviting conversation, they shut it down and trigger defensiveness.

What can we do? For starters, we can be our own tone-police. Before asking a question of our spouses or kids, especially if we’re peeved or out of sorts, we can take a moment to decide how we want to come across: e.g., sincere, caring, judgmental, wary, etc.

We can also ask more open-ended questions. While not always criticism-free—e.g., What possessed you to do that?—what-questions and how-questions are often friendlier than why-questions, e.g., How did you decide what to say? or What held you back from doing what I asked?

Another option is to add this powerful, relationship-enhancing question to your conversational vocabulary:

What’s important to you about that?

Asking spouses—and kids old enough to respond—what’s important to them about something they’re saying or doing, sparks connection. Amazingly, this question can bring us closer even when they’re doing or saying things we don’t agree with! 

Don’t get me wrong. Tone still matters. The question—What’s important to you about that?—enhances our relationships only if we’re truly curious about the answer. It sparks connection solely if we accept that our spouses and kids are different than us.

If we can be curious about those differences—instead of rejecting, fearing, resisting or denying them—we gift our spouses and kids space to be true to who they are, instead of who we want them to be. In turn, we grow their trust in us.

Willing to add another question to your repertoire? Whenever you start whying your spouse or kids, consider asking yourself:

What’s important to me about this?

There are no guarantees that spouses or children will welcome our answer, but:

(1)  Exploring and, then, articulating what’s important to us in any given moment, especially if we’re on the cusp of whying others, increases the likelihood that our conversation will be productive;

(2)  Figuring out what motivates our requests and expectations helps us honor our values and priorities, instead of focusing on how others fail to honor us; and

(3)  Evaluating what motivates us can help us realize that what motivates our spouses and kids might be different. In other words, it might inspire us to circle back to asking: What’s important to you about that?

Why bother with any of this? Wait, I just lapsed into why-ing. Instead, I’ll leave you with a different, more open-ended question:

What’s important to you about increasing closeness with your spouse & child/ren?

Discover how to thrive in your relationship & your parenting!

Giving Thanks: Cultivating Gratitude in Our Relationships & Parenting

As a parent to a preschooler, one of my pet peeves has been teaching my daughter to say: “Thank you.” I mean no disrespect to “please,” “excuse me,” or “bless you,” all of which I’ve also espoused. But expressing thanks strikes me as the foundation of politeness and a key to strong relationships with others.

A recent study from the University of Carolina at Wilmington affirms the power of gratitude, but has me reconsidering my assumptions about expressing it.

According to Cameron Gordon, the study’s lead author:
 “[E]xpressing gratitude to your spouse doesn’t seem to be very strongly associated with…relationship satisfaction…[But] if you feel grateful, your spouse is more likely to rate being happy in the relationship.”

I had to read that quotation twice to get the gist because, frankly, it shocked me to learn there was no correlation between a spouse verbally expressing gratitude and relationship satisfaction. Instead, the crucial finding was:

Relationship satisfaction and a spouse’s feelings of gratitude are linked. Our spouse’s emotional state of thankfulness impacts us more than their words.

Why the power of feelings over words? For starters, words are more open to interpretation: Is he really grateful or buttering me up because he wants something? Is she genuinely appreciative or do I sense sarcasm? Is that a reflex or a sincere thank you? (Check out my post on sincerity.)

In contrast to the ambiguity of words, when our spouses feel grateful for us, we’re likely to sense their emotional attitude. In turn, their positive feelings for us impact our appreciation of our relationship with them.

None of this is prescriptive: Fulfilling relationships might inspire more feelings of gratitude as much as gratitude enhances relationship satisfaction.

Yet, even if that holds true, there are important lessons here about:
(1)  The positive impact of felt-gratitude upon those we care about; &
(2)  The power of understanding how our loved ones like to be appreciated.

Perhaps, the reason that the link between expressed-gratitude and relationship happiness isn’t as strong as the link with felt-gratitude is that our style of saying thank you, in words and actions, is often filtered through our preferences.

If that old standard “thank you” is open to misinterpretation, it might be worthwhile to do a little research and ask our spouses how they most like and want to be appreciated by us.

Once we recognize that we each express and receive gratitude uniquely, and that “thank you” might not always strike a chord, we can tailor gratitude to our spouse’s preferences, and also give them a chance to express their appreciation in a way that resonates for us.

Below are a few questions to help explore gratitude in a deeper way. Not only can you ask these questions of your spouse, but you can answer them and share your responses with him or her:

When do you feel most appreciated in our relationship?

What are the best ways for me to show my gratitude for you?

If I were to express my appreciation for you just 10% more than I do now, what might I do or say that would be meaningful to you?

Thinking of non-romantic relationships in your life, who makes (or made) you feel most appreciated? How did they do that?

Paying attention to how we express and receive gratitude isn’t just a boon to our relationships, it also dovetails with parenting.

Thanks to the University of Carolina research, I’m trying to be more conscious of feeling grateful whenever possible, including when I say “thank you.” For my sake, for the sake of the person I’m thanking, and for my kids, I want my words to be genuine, not automatic; I want to feel grateful when I say I’m grateful.

I also believe that the more we work with our spouses to better understand each other—including better understanding our individual experiences of gratitude—and the more we accommodate our differences respectfully and kindly, the more our kids will learn those skills, too.

In the end, they’ll thank us for it, if only and especially in how they feel about us.

The Language of Relationships: Why Silly Nicknames Aren’t Silly

I’m a nickname person. I love calling friends and family abbreviated versions of their proper names. I also relish using endearments, both common and made-up.

I wasn’t always a fan of romantic or expressive endearments. I remember going to New York in my 20s to visit a pal who was living with her boyfriend; I also remember cringing every time they called each other “babe,” which they did a lot.

I’m sure there were compelling reasons for my discomfort, but they don’t apply anymore, at least not to me. These days, I, too, lapse into “babe-ing” my wife.

Turns out, my communicative shift might be good for our marriage. I laughed when I read the first line of an article about couples’ “insider language:”

“Lovey-dovey language—even your own—can be so corny it makes you want to puke.”

Yep. See reference to NYC trip above. But here’s another perspective:

Pet names and made-up terms help nurture playful, happy and resilient relationships.

One study found that relationship satisfaction is higher among couples that use a lot of silly names and code phrases with each other.

Just to be clear, we’re talking about language that our spouses want to hear, not unwelcome nicknames or code words. Those terms can be detrimental.

For those among us who remain on the fence about using “insider” language with spouses, here are some reasons to introduce it (or ramp it up if we’re fans):
-       Endearments enhance intimacy and mutual appreciation;
-       Code phrases or private language are efficient communication;
-       Insider language helps us bond when we’re in public;
-       Playful communication & inside jokes ease conflicts;
-       Spousal playfulness has a positive “spillover” effect on our kids.

Not able to overcome the nausea or embarrassment this kind of communication prompts in you? No worries. You don’t have to use it. The research isn’t prescriptive; it just means there’s a correlation between endearing language and relationship fulfillment, not necessarily a causal effect.

Plus, that old standby, “I love you,” still remains the fastest way to ramp up positivity in our relationships, without the need for cutesy or made-up embellishments.

No matter what your opinion about using endearments or code phrases with spouses, or I might add kids, the research reminds us that what we say (not to mention, how we say it) is important.

Remaining aware of the impact of our words—and doing our best to ensure that impact is positive—can only enhance our relationships with co-parents.

The Shame of Childcare & Housework: How Parents Can Shift Household Conflict

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I read an I-can’t-put-it-down-book last week entitled, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It’s Not): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power. The title notwithstanding, Brené Brown’s book is, primarily, about shame.

If you just had a visceral response—and not a good one—while reading the word “shame,” you’re not alone. Most of us have an aversion to shame: our own, someone else’s, just the word “shame” itself.

Brown defines shame as:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”

“Guilt” refers to feeling bad about or regretting something, which can propel us to change. Guilt can, then, be a transformative force in our lives.

Not so with shame, which is all about the deficiencies and faults we believe define us. Shame makes us believe we can never change.

While most of us were raised in a family or society (or both) that fostered shame—and taught us, overtly or subtly, to shame others—we lack a cultural, personal, and relationship vocabulary to manage shame’s destructive effect.

Why address shame in a post about parents‘ relationships? For starters, a lot of women experience motherhood as a shame trigger (whether or not we have kids). Parenting, too, is among the top shame categories, according to Brown.

The remaining categories are: Appearance & Body Image; Family; Money and Work; Mental and Physical Health; Addiction; Sex; Aging; Religion; Being Stereotyped and Labeled; Speaking Out; and Surviving Trauma. (FYI, we don’t necessarily experience shame in every category, but I’d wager we could all point to at least one that triggers our shame and our judgment/shaming of others.)

These categories apply to men, too. But, Brown notes, women’s shame is layered and often contradictory e.g., be sexy yet not too sexy. Men’s shame, instead, is often about threats to masculinity, e.g., weakness, fear, failure. While not specifically tied to marriage or fatherhood, how men define what it means to be “a man” impacts their approach to being a husband and a dad. In other words:

Failing to meet gender expectations can trigger shame in both men and women.

The role of shame in our lives is pervasive and complex. Many relationship issues can be addressed through the lens of shame. So much so that I encourage all of us to spend some time assessing how our shame (in the categories cited above) might be impacting our relationships and parenting.

Yet, as I was reading Brown’s book, I kept circling back to an issue that’s always near the top of heterosexual* parents’ conflict list: Childcare and Housework. (BTW, while I focus on straight relationships in much of this post, these–and related–issues apply to some gay and lesbian parents, too.)

Why focus on that stress-point? My hunch is that—despite strides in women’s rights, despite the prevalence of dual-income families, and men’s increased parenting and household roles—if masculinity is at issue for many men, and motherhood is at stake for a lot of women, then it’s probable many couples play out shame dynamics around childcare and housework.

The thing is: (1) We’re not always (or often) aware of our shame triggers; and (2) What we consciously think—e.g., I’m a man who’s cool with housework or I’m a woman who likes my hubby to clean—and what we feel might not match.

I’m not only thinking of some men’s conscious or unconscious resistance to childcare or housework, I’m also thinking of some women’s mixed messages and judgmental responses to their spouses when they do try to help.

Many moms feel the pressure of “doing it all”—working in or outside the home, caring for children, taking care of a household, supporting and remaining attractive to spouses—and that pressure can easily morph into shame when the reality hits that we can’t do it all, or at least not for long.

Some men’s shame might, then, be triggered by doing certain types or amounts of childcare/housework that challenge notions of masculinity, or by being asked by wives to help more, which might feel emasculating. Plus, just as women hold themselves to unattainable standards, so too might their spouses, who sometimes judge them for not handling everything child- and house-related.

Likewise, some women’s shame might be triggered by having to ask for help—by admitting they can’t do it all—and by their spouses’ assistance, which those same women might judge harshly if they’re already judging themselves or are concerned about the judgment of others.

I genuinely believe that the men and women who say they want more equitable relationships really do want them. I also believe that what we want and what we act out in daily life don’t always sync up, especially when shame is triggered.

How can we decrease shame’s impact on us as individuals and on our relationships?

A great place to start is to increase awareness of how shame feels and what triggers it, especially around issues that most affect our relationships with spouses and kids.

Most of us experience shame physically. In my case, my throat clenches, I feel nauseous, and I simultaneously feel paralyzed and defensive.

To explore your experience of shame, click to download Brown’s “shame worksheet.” In addition to increasing our shame awareness, Brown suggests 3 tools to reduce shame’s impact, all of which can be explored with spouses (and our older kids):

(1) Contextualize: Shame is often taught or reinforced by social, religious, educational, media, government or other influencers. Recognizing the degree to which our shame is reinforced by larger cultural forces helps us…

(2) Normalize: Shame is a lonely experience, yet we all feel it. Whatever shame categories trigger us, there are many women and men who, also, feel shame in these areas. We’re not alone, which is why it’s important to…

(3) Demystify: Speaking out about shame with those we trust to respect our vulnerability can be supportive, if scary. Plus, it reduces shame’s sting.

Feeling ambivalent about looking at shame? I get it. I do. But we’ll all benefit from considering shame’s impact on us…and our kids. As Brown writes:

“Parenting is a shame minefield. Not only do we hang our self-worth on how we are perceived as parents, but we hang a big part of it on how our children are perceived.”

Unless we decrease shame’s effect on us, we’re poised to pass it on to our kids. Since they’ll get a good dose of it elsewhere (e.g., in school, sports, at a dance), it’s up to us to lessen its impact on our lives. Doing so will benefit everyone, including our spouses and kids.

There’s no shame in that.

* Interestingly, research shows that lesbian and gay couples don’t battle about housework to the degree that straight couples do. Research among lesbian parents indicates that while gay moms argue about childcare, it’s usually about wanting more time with their kids, not more assistance caring for them. See my article on gay and lesbian parenting at http://bit.ly/h3jERV.

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Saying What We Feel: Sincerity & Trust in Marriage & Parenting

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Last week, my wife and I hosted a birthday celebration for my mom. Before our guests arrived, I tried to wrangle my 3 yo out of her PJs and into a party dress. Tried is the operative word.

I smiled brightly as I told S that wearing a dress would be fun. I did my best to make a game out of changing. I promised her she could revert to PJs when guests departed.

As each of my efforts failed, I felt the tug of disappointing my mother who, I knew, would relish seeing S in a party dress. Yet, my wife and I had agreed months ago that it wasn’t worth taking a stand over clothes when S insisted on wearing pajamas to preschool. This was a variation on that theme.

So I sat down on the floor and told S it was fine that she wear her PJs. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have claimed that my words to her were gentle and genuine.

My perceptive daughter promptly sat on the floor next to me and said:
“Don’t be disappointed, Mommy.”

Yikes! While S might not have heard my inner dialogue about disappointing my mother, she sensed that her not wearing a dress = disappointing me. S had pegged my insincerity.

I took a moment to remove my mother from the equation and realized I was fine with S’s PJs. So I thanked her for helping me understand there was no reason to feel disappointed and I apologized for my earlier response. Now, I said, I really did feel fine about her not wearing a dress. I said it like I meant it. S’s smile and hug told me she believed me.

It wasn’t lost on me that I could have easily—perhaps, more easily—resisted S’s comment and claimed that I wasn’t disappointed. But the cost of my denial would have been high.

There have been times in the past when I’ve been on emotional autopilot and told S that everything was fine when that’s not how I felt. Or I’ve contradicted her perception of my mood because it seemed easier to do so, or I didn’t know how I was feeling.

When I’ve negated what S’s finely tuned intuition tells her, not only have I lied to my daughter, I’ve eroded her trust in me. Also, by denying my emotional truth—even if that truth is not being aware of my feelings—I’ve reduced my ability to trust myself.

The more I thought about the dress-interaction with S, the more I realized I’d lapsed into 2 modes that often go hand in hand: insincerity and objectification. My insincerity was obvious: What I said and felt didn’t match.

Objectification happens when we try to get others to do things with little regard for them. I didn’t really care that S preferred PJs; I was intent on getting her into a party dress, on having her play the part of compliant daughter and granddaughter to serve my needs.

I’d turned my child into an object.

Objectification is often combined with insincerity. When we’re treating others in a mechanical way—meaning, when we focus on what we want from them—we often resort to disingenuous tactics, like false compliments or other forms of manipulation.

I’ve learned a lot about the dangers of insincerity and objectification from Leadership and Self-Deception, a business book. Unlikely as it seems, given its corporate focus, this is an excellent book on individual and relationship change. Seriously. Here are 2 quotes:

“No matter what we’re doing on the outside, people respond primarily to how we’re feeling about them on the inside.” 

“Whatever I might be ‘doing’ on the surface….either I’m seeing others straightforwardly as they are—as people like me who have needs and desires as legitimate as my own—or I’m not….One way, I experience myself as a person among people. The other way, I experience myself as the person among objects.”

In other words, when we force a smile to cover anger as we try to make spouses help more with housework and childcare, when we utter compliments to inspire sexual intimacy, when we do or say anything that doesn’t match how we’re feeling, or with the unspoken purpose of having others do our bidding, we’re being insincere and objectifying.

Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t get what we want, or when we do that we suspect we’ve sacrificed something important in our relationship to get it?

There are a host of reasons we resort to insincerity and objectification with spouses and kids (and colleagues and everyone else) and, thus, sacrifice trust in the process.

Most commonly:
(1)  We’re unaware that what we say and feel are out of sync;
(2)  We believe masking feelings &/or treating others functionally are how to best get what we want;
(3)  We don’t know how to get what we want without these tactics.

If we’re not aware of what we’re feeling, how can we limit the impact of lying to others and ourselves? 

One approach is an after-the-fact remedy: If spouses or kids challenge what we say we’re feeling, or suggest we might be feeling something we’re not admitting, instead of resisting their perception, take a moment and consider their claims. Literally, pause and do an internal check-in.

If we notice defensiveness or resistance, it’s likely they’ve struck a cord. Consider copping to our internal response. If we’re not sure of our feelings, say so. If we still believe we’re not feeling what others sense, genuinely tell them so.

If insincerity and objectification are the only, or the best, ways we believe we can get others to do our bidding, what’s the alternative? 

This is, of course, a bigger challenge than lack of emotional awareness. One way to shift this dynamic is to admit it to our spouses (and kids, if they’re old enough to discuss it).

In addition to copping to the tactics we sometimes use to get what we want, we can ask them for suggestions on how to better get our needs met, or better navigate differences in what we need and what they need.

Why bother discussing this? Because our family’s trust in us, and our trust in ourselves, is far too precious and central to relationship and individual fulfillment to sacrifice to the convenience of insincerity and objectification.

We deserve our family’s trust. They deserve our trustworthiness.

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Moody Relationships: Staying Connected When Postpartum Emotions Pull Us Apart

A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece for PlaningFamily.com entitled, “Mood Swings & Relationship Swings During Pregnancy.” My post focuses on helping couples manage the relationship impact of pregnancy mood swings.

These days, my wife and I are all too aware that hormonal mood swings also show-up postpartum. After all, her body has had to adjust rapidly from the hormonal fluctuations of gestation to the demands of lactation. (BTW, our son is 1-month old today!)

Beyond J’s hormones, other factors impact both of our emotions, and affect the mood in our home: e.g., sleep interruptions, exhaustion, our 3 yo daughter’s ups and downs as she tries to integrate a baby brother into her world.

In other words, mood swings rock the boat of our postpartum lives on a regular basis. How can we steer through them with as little relationship and family wreckage as possible? Ask me in a few months! ;-)

In the meantime, I want to expand on the suggestions I made in my article for PlanningFamily.com:
(1) Normalize: Whether pregnancy-related, or due to postpartum hormones and sleeplessness, or tied to other daily stressors, emotional shifts are part of the parenting journey. Unless mood swings are truly extreme (which might require medical attention and, in some instances, might also be a subjective determination–see below*), one of the best ways to ease the impact of moodiness on our relationships is to acknowledge and accept that it’s a normal part of life-as-parents, especially when there’s an infant in the house.

(2) Cultivate Patience: Just as it’s important to bring patience to the fore during pregnancy, it remains valuable in the months (and years) after we become parents. Becoming parents and adjusting to our kids’ growing pains at each new phase of development, ensures we’re in a constant state of flux. That flux can create emotional challenges with our spouses, which is where patience comes in, especially postpartum.

(3) Name ‘Em and Tame ‘Em: While we aren’t always aware of our own moodiness, there are times when we feel “Bitchy Bertha” or  “Frustrated Fred” coming on. Giving our moods silly names and then calling them out to our spouses (and our kids, once they’re old enough to understand) lessens their impact, and empowers us to shift away from them more rapidly.

(4) You Name ‘Em, I’ll Tame ‘Em: It can also be productive to encourage our mates (and older kids) to call them out when they sense our less-than-helpful moods coming on, as long as we keep our sense of humor close at hand and our defensiveness at bay.

(5) Take the Temperature: Given that gauging our own and our spouse’s moodiness can be subjective—what’s good for the goose might not be for the gander (or the other goose in my case)—devoting time for each of us to take the “emotional temperature” in our relationship and household is worthwhile.

Ground rule 1: It’s only worthwhile if neither of us is in “a mood.”
Ground rule 2: We need to agree to accept our spouse’s different temperature reading—especially if it’s much higher or lower—as his/her valid reality. If we both think moodiness is running hot and agree that lowering the emotional temperature is a good idea, consider asking each other these questions (if only one of you is concerned about what’s happening, then the one who’s not can ask the same questions):

What’s important to you about changing our emotional climate?

How do you think we can start to shift the climate while still respecting each other’s emotional realities?

Mood swings on the part of one or both spouses can definitely affect our relationships, especially during the haze of postpartum life. That’s why it’s worth finding ways to ease their impact on our connection with each other, and to shift away from them more quickly.

* For the purposes of this article, mood swings refer to “normal” emotional shifts that don’t require medical attention. If your emotional state, or shifts in your moods, feel extreme to you or to those who spend a great deal of time with you, please consult a medical/health professional.