Tag Archives: co-parenting

Can We Talk? Ways for Parents to (Re)Connect

Like most parents, I have a long to-do list on which any number of items get pushed from one day to the next and the next and…you get the idea. So instead of berating myself for playing that to-do game with a post for this blog, I thought I’d let you in on some of the to-do items I have been able to check off my list, including: Having a ton of fun being interviewed by SuperMommyNot.com founder, TV reporter Donna Tetreault. Donna, who has two young boys, and I had a great conversation, which was that much more fun because her cameraman was so jazzed by our discussion of parents’ relationships that he kept interjecting his own questions. The result? 4 short segments on Donna’s website, which ran a couple of weeks ago. In case you missed them, or one of these topics is near and dear to your heart and you’d like to take another gander, here are the clips:

“Can We Talk” Part 1: Reconnecting with Spouses
“Can We Talk” Part 2: Conflict & Communication
“Can We Talk” Part 3: Date Night & Other Strategies
“Can We Talk” Part 4: The Challenge of In-Laws


Mars, Venus & the Galaxy: The Power of Differences for Marriage & Parenting

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I attended a Bat Mitzvah recently at which the Cantor shared words of wisdom about peace. Peace, he proclaimed, is desired by all people, in all nations. Problems arise not because we don’t want peace, but because we each define it according to personal, cultural, religious, or other differences; same word, contrasting meanings.

Instead of subjective notions of peace, Cantor Maseng offered a more universal concept: True peace, he said, is about wholeness, and wholeness is only possible when we bring all our diversity, all our differences together. It’s easy to be at peace with those who agree with us; true peace is about connecting with those who don’t.

What does world peace have to do with marriage and co-parenting? When I work with couples, I always mention the importance of mutual understanding up front:

Mutual understanding is a major ingredient in relationship satisfaction and successful co-parenting. Understanding isn’t the same as agreeing; instead, it’s about getting curious about our differences, accepting them, and working with, not against, them.

In other words, relationship happiness depends on world peace at a micro-level. Understanding others’ differences can be difficult. Many, if not most, of us grew up in a family, community, country and/or world in which differences are grounds for intolerance and conflict, not compassion and cooperation. Meaning, while we might want relationship peace, we often define it as sameness. Then, we waste precious time failing to get others to comply with us.

In truth, even more than John Gray’s insistence that men are from Mars and women from Venus, we’re all from different planets. Understanding our spouse is, then, less about embracing presumed gender differences* (a challenge in same-sex relationships), and more about getting curious regarding our spouses’ unique differences from us.

Doing so truly allows us to “keep the peace” in our marriages and invites the wholeness noted earlier: Our relationships can be truly whole—i.e., peaceful, fulfilling and satisfying—not because we’re the same as spouses, or always agree, but because, together, we embrace, respect and work productively with and through our differences.

There’s no simple way to magically understand our spouse, but there are steps we can take to begin to do so. Marita Fridjhon and Faith Fuller, founders of Center for Right Relationship, created a wonderful technique called Lands Work, which starts from the assumption that every individual is like a nation unto ourselves, with our own cultural practices, cuisine, communication style, justice system, import and export policies, etc. While Lands Work doesn’t translate well to the written page, their starting point for the exercise does:

Imagine you’re an ideal tourist, guided by curiosity, openness, exploration, and a suspension of judgment. Now, imagine you’re visiting your spouse’s land as this ideal tourist, eager to learn more about their reality, their priorities and what’s important to them about what they believe, how they act, parent, etc.

If we can truly stay curious with our spouses, and suspend judgment, we can ramp up our understanding and compassion for them and, in turn, work with our differences, even if we don’t agree with those differences. In fact, genuine and sustainable compromises emerge out of mutual understanding.

One of Psychologist Harville Hendrix’s tools for increasing mutual understanding is The Imago Dialogue, which includes 3 steps:

(1)  Mirroring: When you have something important to say to your spouse always use “I” to express it. Your spouse paraphrases what you’ve said and then asks you: “Did I get that right?” Repeat these steps until s/he does get it right. To ground this, Hendrix suggests adding: Is there more? Or: Tell me more. I’d include: Tell me what’s important to you about this?

(2)   Validation: Once you’ve got mirroring down, add comments that indicate what your spouse has expressed makes sense to you, given their logic or priorities or concerns. As Hendrix notes, the idea is “to affirm the internal logic of each other’s remarks.” Here, it’s important to distinguish agreeing from understanding someone else’s logic; you can understand without agreeing.

(3)  Empathy: Hendrix’s final step involves acknowledging the feelings we know, or imagine, are behind our spouses’ remarks. This goes something like: “Given that you think I’ve done such-and-such (or that such-and-such has happened), I’d imagine you’re feeling x,y,z. Is that true?” If you’re wrong, ask: “Then what are you feeling?” And offer empathy for those feelings.

It’s no easy task to retrain ourselves to dialogue in the way Hendrix suggests and, in truth, even if we can learn to master Mirroring we’ll be ahead of the curve in our communication tools and our ability to begin to understand our differences.

If we’re truly committed to being in relationship with each other, we’d benefit by grabbing our passports or mirrors and traveling into our spouses’ experiences, so that we can ensure our teamwork is based on mutual respect and understanding.

Doing so doesn’t guarantee we’ll always end up feeling peaceful or with 50-50 compromises, but it does mean that whatever decisions or actions we make together truly include both our experiences and each of our differences.

* If you’re interested in how gender myths impact our relationships and families, read Same Difference, which teases apart research on which these myths are based.

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Parent Peer Pressure: What Is It and How Do We Deal With It?

Over the last year, I’ve collected clippings that detail research on diverse topics, like weight gain and physical fitness, with a common theme: the effect of our social networks–actual friends, not just Facebook ones–on our experiences.

For many of us, the influence of peers is most intense (or most obviously so) when we’re in school, especially as teens. But the truth is that during adulthood, our friends’ behaviors and attitudes can remain powerful.

Take weight gain, for example. In 2007, researchers from Harvard and UC-San Diego reported that obesity isn’t just spreading in the United States; it might actually be contagious. Specifically, being friends with someone who becomes obese—even if they live elsewhere—can increase our own chances of obesity by up to 171%, especially if they’re close pals. By the way, if our spouses or siblings become obese, our risk increases by far less, a “mere” 37-40%.

In case you think this phenomenon applies solely to weight (or fitness, as cited in a recent study by the US Air Force), it turns out that divorce is also infectious. According to research at Brown University, regardless of how far away they live, a close friend’s divorce increases our own risk by as much as 75%, while a sibling’s marital split bumps the risk of our getting divorced by 22%.

Why the higher impact of friends? According to Dr. James Fowler, one of the authors of the study on obesity:

We look to friends more than spouses or family to gauge acceptable social behavior.

So if our friends (and to a lesser degree family) can have a powerful effect on our weight, physical fitness, and likelihood of staying (or not staying) married, what impact might they have on our co-parenting? Specifically, how might friendships affect how we divide household and childcare responsibilities with our spouses?

I mention this topic because my coaching clients often cite housework and parenting duties as stressors on their relationships. In fact, division of labor is one of the Top 3 topics about which straight parents* argue most (the other 2 are kids and money).

The frequency of conflict over housework and childcare isn’t surprising, given that even in dual-income heterosexual households in the United States (and I suspect Canada, too),  moms tackle about twice as much of the household labor, and anywhere from 3 to 4 times the childcare as dads do on average.

These data are especially striking because it’s not unusual for expecting couples, in which both spouses plan to continue working outside the home after their babies arrive, to declare best intentions about sharing parenting duties equally or close to it. Yet, many end up lapsing into a mom-does-more-than-dad mode.

There are, no doubt, many factors that influence housework and childcare once we’re parents. They include employer attitudes that privilege the importance of men’s over women’s jobs, the fact that men still earn more on average than women (combined with the belief that earnings should determine who does or doesn’t do what at home), and enduring cultural ideals of motherhood that dictate mom-knows-best and dad-knows-least.

Plus, according to Mount Holyoke psychology professor, Francine M. Deutsch, who researches what she calls “equally shared parenting; the effort by some couples to equitably divide paid work, housework and parenting responsibilities:

The most predictive factor of how equal a couple will be is how equal their friends are. 

While I’m certain that peer-influence doesn’t operate in a vacuum, in the absence of quickly resolving the broader cultural factors noted earlier, how can our friendships better support our co-parenting efforts? Meaning, if we want a more equitable division of labor with spouses, how do we limit the impact on us of our friends’ inequities?

One option, of course, is to ditch our current friends. Not gonna happen, so here are some other options:

(1) Actively cultivate friendships with those who believe (and act on beliefs) that it’s not just important but doable for spouses to share more housework/childcare.

(2) Shift conversations with friends from complaining about spouses—e.g., wives sometimes kvetch about how little their husbands do; husbands sometimes bemoan their wives’ criticisms of what they do—to developing strategies to empower spouses to contribute more equitably, to feel good about what we both do, and to inspire a team attitude to housework &/or childcare.

(3) Chat with spouses about the possible influence of peers, and try to shift the lens from friends’ approaches to our own so that, together, we design a division of labor that’s true to our joint/compromised vision for our family and relationship.

Adopting any of these approaches requires a few ground-rules (feel free to come up with more, as you and your spouse see fit):

Both parents already know how, or are capable of learning on their own, to perform childcare and housework duties.

Our styles of parenting or doing housework might differ. 

There’s no one right way to parent or do housework. 

Unless our children’s safety or wellbeing is at stake, or our home is in ruins, support co-parents’ childcare and housework styles, without unsolicited advice, judgment or intervention.

While our friends’ behaviors and attitudes don’t always determine our own, it’s likely they are influential. Evaluating how our friends’ behaviors are in sync and out of sync with what we want for our marriages and families, not only increases our awareness of the external factors impacting us, it also empowers us to improve our relationships and co-parenting.

* Research suggests that, overall, the division of housework is more equitable among gay and lesbian couples, and that when lesbian moms argue about childcare, their focus is on wanting more time with their kids versus dissatisfaction with how little time their spouse devotes to childcare.

How To Appreciate Our Spouses Even When They Drive Us Crazy

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I’m having one of those days—okay, weeks—where the same topic keeps popping up in emails, tweets, newsletters, articles.

What’s the theme? The things we can’t stand in our spouses.

I’m especially curious about this topic because, when we become parents, it’s as if those very traits we’re least fond of in our mates—the same ones that, perhaps, we hadn’t really noticed before, or hoped would disappear over time, or thought were cute when we met, but not-so-much anymore—get amplified.

As challenging as we might find some of our spouses’ behaviors, I wonder:

What if the things that bug us most are opportunities to get closer?

What if every time they acted (or we worried they might act) in a way that makes us uncomfortable, we tried to understand them a little more, not less (instead of, say, avoiding or criticizing or silently judging them)?

I know, I know, some of you are thinking: What if pigs could fly? Bear with me.

Take Mike and Tina*, for example: When they got together, Tina thought Mike’s habit of greeting his closest friends, and eventually her too, with a special handshake he’d designed just for them was adorable. But adorable turned into irritating once Mike started doing his handshake routine with their 4 year-old son, Max.

What bothers Tina about Mike’s behavior? By insisting that he and Max do what Tina calls her husband’s “silly hand moves” when Mike gets home from work, before they say anything to each other—“That’s part of the fun,” Mike explains—Tina believes he’s sending the message that Mike’s needs trump Max’s needs.

Let’s say, for the moment, that Mike is hard-wired to do his handshakes and he’ll never change. Unless Tina is intent on being perpetually bothered, she has an opportunity to alter her experience of her husband’s behavior.

How can she do so? She can: (1) Reflect; (2) Understand; and (3) Appreciate.

(1) Reflect: As Tina’s response to Mike’s handshake-habit suggests, when we co-parent, some of our spouses’ qualities or behaviors sometimes become (more) challenging for us when we think that they affect our kids.

I don’t propose that we ignore behaviors that are detrimental to our children—such as verbal or physical abuse, which warrant immediate intervention—but I do believe that, oftentimes, what bugs us in others, especially our spouses, says far more about what we don’t like or refuse to embrace in ourselves than it does about them.**

When Tina looked more closely at Mike’s behavior from this perspective, she realized that she was terrified of being a mom who puts her own needs before those of her child. Mike’s handshake-habit triggered and mirrored a fear she has about herself.

Once Tina acknowledged that fear—and, further, admitted there might be times when, despite being a devoted mom, she will choose to put herself first—her husband’s habit lost a lot of its charge.

(2) Understand: There’s a useful concept from Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) that goes something like this:

Behind each of our behaviors, we often find a “positive intention” that serves us in one way or another.

Whether or not we’re conscious of it and whether or not they garner the results we want, our behaviors are usually motivated by a desire to care for ourselves. Common examples of positive intentions include: self-protection, being liked, garnering respect, maintaining independence, or eliciting affection.

So if your spouse (or pretty much anyone else) does something that drives you batty, consider asking:

What positive intention might be behind their behavior?

By asking the question of ourselves, by imagining what positive intention propels our spouses’ behaviors, we take a step towards understanding them better; we don’t necessarily agree with their behaviors but at least we understand them more (and no, I don’t believe you can’t come up with at least one positive intention and, yes, it’s okay if you’re not sure that what you come up with is accurate).

When we ramp up our understanding of our spouses’ behaviors, we begin to soften our perception of their impact on us and find ways to substitute compassion for criticism.

(3) Appreciate: The third technique to better navigate what drives us crazy in our mates, is doing our best to figure out what gifts might be embedded in their behavior.

In the case of Mike and Tina, when she considered this possibility, Tina discovered that there’s something comforting about the predictability of Mike’s handshakes. She also realized she appreciates being married to a man who literally touches the people he loves. Finally, she acknowledged that while handshakes aren’t her thing, she too might  benefit from being more demonstrative with others.

The more we reflect, understand and appreciate, the more we can embrace our mates and ourselves. When we do so, not only can we strengthen our relationships, not only can we make a good relationship better, we also expand our bandwidth for understanding and appreciating our kids. Plus, we model one of the most enduring truths about relationships:

If we change, we can shift our connection with others.

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*Names and some details have been changed to protect privacy.

**A lot has been written about this concept, which is often referred to as our “shadow.” I highly recommend Debbie’s Ford’s The Dark Side of the Light Chasers and the anthology, The Shadow Effect.