There’s a reason why you’re not supposed to have a baby to save a marriage. Adding a third party to the mix complicates a partnership and provides fighting fodder for even the most rock-solid relationship.
“The three things we identify that couples fight about most, we call it ‘PMS’ — parenting, money and sex,” says Kathryn Guthrie, a registered marriage and family therapist in Ottawa. “It makes a lot of sense, because what’s more precious to you than your child?”
While most parents would agree that they have their kids’ best interests at heart, they might quantify “best” differently, and end up arguing about everything from diapering to discipline. As much as you have in common with your spouse, there’s a good chance you have different parenting styles. And you’re probably making choices based on how you were raised.
“We all come into relationships with our own belief systems from our upbringings,” says Burnaby, BC, clinical counsellor Allison Bates. “But it doesn’t always mean it’s the best way to raise your family.” Another stumbling block is a lack of communication on the topic. Couples make sure they’re on the same page with religion and politics before tying the knot, and they probably have a conversation about whether they want children, but they don’t talk about the kind of parents they want to be until they’re faced with a screaming newborn.
While you can agree to disagree, here are some ideas for compromise around three hotbed areas of conflict: food, sleep and discipline.
Jason Podperyhora and his two-year-old, Annabel, have a little secret. Every day, when Daddy gets home, he breaks open a bag of chips or takes the lid off a tub of ice cream and shares the spoils with an eager accomplice. It drives his wife crazy.
“I wouldn’t say we disagree in terms of what we want to do, but in practice it all falls apart,” says mom Colleen Seto. “All the things we said we wouldn’t give her, he feeds her.” Somehow, Seto has become the hard-ass who plays bad cop to Podperyhora’s pushover good cop.
The compromise: Food can be a big source of friction for a family. Sometimes one parent insists on organic everything, while the other reaches for a carton of processed mac ’n’ cheese. Often it’s the “fun” parent, like Podperyhora, who undermines the other’s efforts at healthy eating by using junk food as a treat, says Bates. She advises partners to brainstorm better ways to bond with the kids.
“Rewards and fun times can be good, healthy activities, too, like going bike riding or playing in the park. It doesn’t have to involve going out for fast-food.” But if the “treat parent” likes his role or feels that a completely virtuous childhood diet is overrated, a trade off could be settling on an acceptable number of goodies per week. That way, Good Cop gets his way while Bad Cop is still able to set limits.
“At least be open to hearing your partner’s point of view,” says Bates.
Robin Watts likes a consistent bedtime routine, with tooth brushing and book reading followed by lights out in their own beds, for her two girls, ages six and seven. Hubby Kevin Turner prefers to pave the easy route to the sandman — under the cozy covers in Mom and Dad’s king-sized bed.
“They’re Daddy’s girls, and I want to have my two best friends liking me, so they get what they want,” confesses Turner. “I understand Robin needs to have a system, but I’m not going to follow her system for the couple times a month when I put them to bed.”
The couple has disagreed on sleep since the girls were babies when Watts wanted to sleep train them.
As soon as one would start to cry, Turner would say, “Just go get her and bring her in here!” If she wouldn’t, Turner would “rescue” the baby.
The compromise: The key is to talk about the differences (after the kids are in bed) and to try and meet in the middle. As much as it irks Watts, for instance, to come home and find her daughters asleep in the couple’s bedroom, it works out to be a “win” for each parent — just as soon as Turner carries the girls to their own beds.
If the issue is that one parent isn’t good about sticking to a bedtime routine, make it easier to follow — skip the bath, or put the kids in charge of getting into their own pyjamas. If Dad wants to sleep train but Mom can’t stand the crying, she should try to be out of the house when it’s happening.
And if one parent is dead set against co-sleeping and the other is solidly pro, a compromise could be a double bed for the child’s room so the one parent can co-sleep to his or her heart’s content.
When four-year-old Nikki Saville hits or throws her iPad, she gets sent to the “naughty step” for a time out. But dad Pierre also banishes her to the dreaded discipline spot for every lesser violation, from whining about bedtime to begging for candy.
“He’s sometimes too tough for my liking,” says mom Chantal Saville. “His first reaction is punishment, whereas mine is to diffuse or redirect the behaviour.”
Chantal believes their friction stems from different parenting styles, but also because she stays at home and thus has a higher tolerance for Nikki’s less serious (but highly annoying) behaviour.
Unfortunately, this is one parenting issue where parents must be on the same page, says Bates. “If you’re total polar opposites in terms of the way you discipline the kids, they will end up going to one parent and not the other, or just having a stronger relationship with one, and they can also pit the parents against each other. It can get really complicated.”
The compromise: Often a parent is too authoritarian or too permissive because he or she was raised that way and doesn’t understand the harm. Bates advises making a case for change by presenting current advice from modern parenting experts. That’s what Chantal did.
“Pierre is more amenable to trying it my way because I’ve done the research,” she says. “Since we’ve been talking about it, he’s far more conscious of it.”
When to worry
Parenting differences can drive a wedge between partners, says therapist Kathryn Guthrie. It’s OK to “agree to disagree” on some issues if it’s done with respect, but beware if disagreements become chronic and hostile.
“If there’s eye rolling, contempt or dismissiveness, then the couple starts to feel not so close. And if you feel less close, then you’re less likely to do the work it takes to compromise,” she says. Ideally, a couple should seek help from a professional before it comes to that.
While the issues are being worked out, Guthrie says it’s still important to present a united front to the kids and hash out differences behind closed doors, whether at home or in a therapist’s office.
“We know we’re different,” says Robin Watts, about her and husband Kevin Turner’s ongoing parental push and pull. “But ultimately we have the same parenting goals,” says Turner. “We respect that we’re working together.”