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.