You are a great parent. You care. You are curious. You want to educate yourself. I know. Because you are reading this. And In the pursuit of being the best parent you can be, you likely offer your kids all the goods. The mindful special time. The loving gaze. Hugs, kisses, laughter and interest. Which is amazing.
But also dangerous. Because without even noticing – from the moment we embark on parenthood and two become three (and four and five) our children stretch the bond that exists between us and our partner – to the point that at times it feels as if our only function in our family life is to be someone’s mum and dad.
When time is of essence, and fatigue and overwhelm become chronic states – it makes total sense to be economical with our resources. And down prioritise the one person who we believe needs the least from us – our partner. So for many of us our partner ends up being prioritised lower than the laundry, the clean kitchen and feeding the pets.
Contrary to what you might think – being a good parent is not about giving the children all the goods and leaving only the scraps for yourself and your partner. Let me tell you why and how you strengthen your connection – benefitting not only you but your children too.
Mum and dad’s relationship is the family’s WIFI
The most important relationship in the family is not the one we share with our kids. It’s the one we share with our partner. Think of this as the family’s WIFI. Our kids’ are constantly hooked up on our WIFI and respond to our ups and downs, unresolved conflicts and feelings of hurt that mount up in our relationship, by acting out – or acting in – all the things that interrupts a strong signal. Try as we might to hide our own emotions from our children and side step discussions out of fear that things could get uncomfortable – children sense us under our skin. Therefore one of the best things we can do for both ourselves and our family is to put some energy into nurturing the one relationship that made family life happen in the first place. You and your partner.
Children are wired to sense us under our skin
Children are hooked up on our wifi and sense us – even the parts of us that we think we hide so well. Why? – you might ask.
Because it ensures their survival. It is essential to their emotional and physical survival to be able to tune into mum and dad’s emotional state so they can better predict what is needed in the family and what their role in the family might be.
Think back to your own childhood and you might be able to see a little clearer how family dynamics work. If you grew up in a family where there was lots of tension and explosive conflicts between mum and dad – you might find that you or one of your siblings responded to this dynamic by mirroring the behaviours, being ‘difficult’ – as if to signal that something isn’t right! You or one of your siblings might have adopted the other unoccupied role in the family to be the family’s peace keeper. The diplomat. Developing mediation skills worthy of the Nobel peace prize.
Families are complex and children are robust. But when mum and dad are unable or unwilling to assume responsibility for the tone, the way arguments unfold and what it does to the family – it can land as a heavy burden on the children.
Don’t get blinded by your child’s behaviours
Many children will want to distract us from one another if they sense that conflict leads to shouting by becoming loud or contact seeking. Siblings also mirror our relationship dynamics. So if you notice that your children’s tone or behaviour towards each other is particularly harsh – rather than getting furious – get curious.
When children act out – or respond by turning their feelings inward through low self-esteem, harsh inner critic or sadness- it is always a signal to us to get curious rather than getting blinded by the children’s behaviours – wanting to address it only at the level of behaviour. Because we behave how we feel. So if your child’s behaviour is difficult – it is because they are finding things difficult.
A good place to start – is to begin to notice if you can see a pattern in how your children behave and how you feel – both in yourself and in your relationship. Lockdown puts strain on our relationships and you might find that you bicker more than usual. Worry and anxiety masking as irritability over mundane things; like who’s doing the dishes, who’s putting the kids to bed and who’s turn it is to take have some needed me time.
Questions to reflect on
- How are we as a couple right now?
- Are things a bit dead between us?
- Do we fight more than usual?
- Do we avoid conflicts because we are in lockdown?
Peace keeping is not the same as love. We can be angry – and feel love. We can disagree – and feel love. Allowing our family to express both the good and bad stuff – can free up a lot of pent up emotion and energy. It’s not so much WHAT we say – as it’s HOW and WHY we say it.
3 tips to a stronger relationship
- 10 min check in
Conflicts don’t go away by brushing them under the carpet.
They just mount – and the bill mounts up and will want to be settled somehow. And while it is a good idea to deal with our upsets and express our feelings – it is also a good idea to learn to not let loose in every situation.
Often when we want to highlight to our partner that something isn’t okay – is when emotion runs high and cognition is low. Blinded by our own indignation we likely end up shaming and blaming – which leads our partner to defend his /her position.
By agreeing to a 10 min check in on a daily basis – where we are free to offload, share our thoughts, ask questions or clarify we ensure that we don’t harbour too many pent up frustrations – plus we make sure that our conversations don’t go on forever.
This can be over a cup of tea / glass of wine – and end up becoming a really great way to keep the communication open.
- Objective reality doesn’t matter
Where conflicts get stuck in my own relationship is when my husband and I get too concerned with ‘who said what – and how’. When our aim is to find out who’s wrong and who’s right.
But where intimate relationships are concerned (and these include our children) – objective reality is not important. It leads nowhere – and the aim is only to establish who’s the winner and who’s the looser. This means we become less concerned with listening and more concerned with defending and talking to reply.
Try instead to validate your partner’s experience. Not WHAT happened – but how it was experienced. When we feel heard and acknowledged – even if we don’t see eye to eye – we are far more likely to open up and ultimately dissolve our conflicts.
- Be forgiving of both yourself and your partner during this time
In the daily grind of family life it is easy to forget why we fell for our partner in the first place. What wonderful qualities we believed him/ her to have – and how the fact that we weren’t the same – somehow felt like it only made us more right for each other.
Now – during lockdown – this seems like an absurd idea. Now – most of the conflict is likely due to the fact that we have different ideas and ways of doing things. This can be hard to tolerate when we have little – to no time away from each other.
I think there is comfort in knowing that this is natural. Inevitable. And that this experience is shared by other couples the world over. This is not a time to amplify what isn’t working in our relationship. This is a time to show compassion – both for ourselves but also for our partner. Think about how nice it would be to be given a break. To be cut some slack. Emotions are running high in the world right now – and in our families too. Few of us are pretty when we are anxious, scared or angry.
Not looking to our partner to be both our friend, lover, confidant, co-parent, therapist, father, mother is one of the kindest ways we can free each other from impossibly high expectations. These are roles that no one person can fulfil. Try instead to FaceTime that friend that allows you to off load, complain and get it all out. And then contact that person in your life who helps you see the whole picture. Because not even one friend will give us everything we need.