I recently had the pleasure of serving on a panel of experts at an event in Seattle for expectant and new parents, called “Happy Relationship, Happy Baby.” Not surprisingly, a lot of attention was paid to the importance of couples tending to our relationships for the benefit of our children, not just us.
Family Studies scholar, Dr. Stephanie Coontz, spoke to this issue in her keynote address, in which she made a compelling argument for the following:
There are greater payoffs for our families if we devote more time to our relationship skills than we do to honing our parenting skills.
A range of comments and questions surfaced that day which, like Coontz’s, have been rattling around in my brain ever since. They include:
- A new dad’s job demands extensive travel. He misses his baby and worries about the extra load on his wife. How can he still be there for his family?
- An expectant woman’s baby is due when her husband has to start his 2nd year of an executive MBA; he’ll be working fulltime and going to school part-time. If tending to their relationship and co-parenting are important to their own and their baby’s wellbeing, how can they still do so?
- A new mom worries she and her husband are setting a bad relationship precedent—only she gets up nightly with the baby—because she’s breastfeeding and plans to do so for at least a year.
The other panelists and I had plenty of advice to offer in response to these expecting and new parents’ queries. For example, we counseled the new dad to:
- Do what you can in terms of housework and childcare when you’re in town.
- Ask your wife how you can fit into her schedule.
- Find ways to spend time alone with your infant when you’re not traveling.
- Use Skype to stay connected when you’re away.
I’m confident we gave good advice to one and all. But what we didn’t do was underscore how being at CHOICE, specifically conscious choice, helps relationships navigate real or imagined fallout from our parenting circumstances.
In other words, it’s important for couples to first spend time together acknowledging the choices we’ve already made that contribute to the conditions in which we find ourselves. If decisions that led to current circumstances were unconscious, it’s even more crucial to evaluate whether or not they reflect our preferences right now. What’s the bottom line in all of this?
We need to be aware and intentional about choices we make in our relationships and parenting before we devise solutions to the issues that result from those choices.
For example, if the expectant mom and her husband decided it was crucial for dad to spend much of the first year of his new baby’s life shuttling between work and school, then reconfirming that choice, before their child arrives, can help them prioritize how dad can best spend whatever free time he has available.
If they never made a conscious decision about dad staying on track with graduate school, or if only one of them made that decision, they now have an opportunity to (1) be more intentional about their choice, (2) navigate disagreements, &/or (3) evaluate alternatives and options, e.g., defer enrollment; schedule work vacations in sync with school breaks to maximize dad’s time off, etc.
The more unconscious we are about our decisions—meaning, the more we consider them done-deals beyond our control, as opposed to choices we’ll stand by—the likelier we are to regret, resent or resist those decisions (or feel negatively about our spouses if we think the decisions are theirs, not ours).
Of course, being conscious about our choices doesn’t guarantee we’re happy about them. Here, the findings of a 2011 relationship study out of Ashland University are noteworthy, especially when it comes to decisions that are, say, a stretch for us.
While previous studies confirm that people who are willing to make sacrifices for their partners tend to report more satisfying relationships, new research suggests that our reasons for making those sacrifices are also noteworthy.
What kinds of reasons support relationship satisfaction? Those geared toward positive outcomes (or what researchers have dubbed: approach reasons), e.g., pleasing our partners or enhancing intimacy. By contrast, making sacrifices—and, I’d argue, making decisions—motivated by avoidance reasons, e.g., a sense of obligation or a desire to sidestep conflict or disappointment, point toward more relationship dissatisfaction.
Consciously choosing our circumstances in a way that emphasizes approach over avoidance, offers a foundation from which to make empowering and mutual relationship and parenting decisions. Plus, by keeping our choices front and center, if we’re faced with challenges, we can better resolve them as a team by reminding each other of how and why we chose them in the first place.