Do you ever get sick of having the same old fight with your partner? Good news — if you have kids it will truly diversify the things you argue about. From changing diapers and dealing with tantrums to homework and curfews, the list gets longer with every developmental stage. The bad news is that these exciting new conversations will soon become as predictable and exasperating as your old favourites, thanks to the familiarity of their underlying themes.
According to relationship gurus John and Julie Gottman, at least 69 per cent of couples’ conflicts are “perpetual problems,” i.e. based on fundamental differences between partners. After 45 years happily in love, the brand of cheese my parents buy isn’t really why they continue to argue about groceries — it’s their different values about money (she wants the fancy stuff and he can’t resist a deal).
I’m creative and spontaneous. My partner is careful and tidy. So, when he found me letting our toddler explore the spice cupboard while I cooked (mustard seeds make a great rattle), he didn’t compliment me on my ingenuity or domesticity; he had visions of us going to the ER for cayenne inhalation. In an ideal world, he would have said, “Good morning honey,thanks so much for making breakfast! I love that you are getting our child involved in the kitchen, and I’m also worried about her spilling some of the spices that could hurt her. I wonder if there might be a safer way to have her engaged while you are cooking?” What I heard sounded more like, “I can’t trust you with anything, you’re a terrible
mom.” It was probably somewhere in between.
If we had been alone, I might have accused him of being rigid and overprotective. But our daughter had picked up on the tension and needed an explanation: “Daddy loves and cares about you so he was worried that Mama was letting you play with something he thought could hurt you.” The act of narrating compassionately for her helped me see things from his perspective, and hearing this encouraged him to do the same with me. Suddenly, instead of being on opposite sides, we were playing on a team for our daughter. From that place of connection, we could come up with the compromise to keep the more potent spices on the shelves she cannot (yet) reach.
Of course not every disagreement is so easily resolved. Maybe there’s just no feasible middle ground, or one parent just can’t budge in their conviction. If it’s something minor that won’t cause you resentment, I suggest letting them have their way, explicitly stating,“I can see this is really important to you so I’m choosing to let it go, and I trust that when something is really important to me you’ll do the same.” But when it’s something that one partner feels is potentially harmful or developmentally inappropriate, such as threatening violence or putting a nanny cam in your teenager’s bedroom, a neutral third party advisor (your family doctor is a good place to start) should be consulted.
As you may have figured out by now, trying to change your own, or anyone else’s, personality is an uphill battle. Occasionally a characteristic is pathological (such as extreme anger or crippling anxiety, perhaps caused by trauma or mental illness), in which case a therapeutic intervention could be helpful. But I can’t send my husband to therapy to be less of a neat freak any more than he should expect me to stop being so adventurous. Nor would I want him to be exactly like me or for us to have a conflict-free relationship.
What I want is for my daughter to grow up knowing that all different types of people are OK, and to learn how to navigate conflict respectfully and productively. Of course, I’d steer clear of sex and money convos in front of the kids. But when he expresses hurt about my unsolicited feedback on his cooking (I am my mother’s daughter) and I apologize and thank him for his effort, our daughter learns about assertiveness, empathy, gratitude and taking responsibility for our impact on others.
This doesn’t mean I don’t value the importance of parents presenting a united front — it would be confusing for a kid to be allowed to play with the spices, get dessert or watch TV only when dad wasn’t around (that’s the grandparent’s job), and would undermine his relationship with our daughter. Especially when it comes to rewards and consequences, consistency between parents is key. What it does mean is that he can continue to interact with her in ways that feel comfortable and genuine to him (quiet, routine play), while I can conduct pot and pan concerts and take her tobogganing. Both are important, and everyone is happier when we acknowledge the benefits of each. I notice her gravitating towards me when she needs stimulation and him when she needs grounding — what a wonderful way to learn to get your needs met!
Mara Kates has an MSW in child, youth and family services and is director of Camp Arowhon.