“Separated Parents Struggling To Respect Each Other”
:My husband and I have a beautiful 16-month-old daughter. She is the absolute joy of our life and we are trying so hard to do everything right for her. Of course we are far from perfect but her best interest is our absolute priority. Without going into a lot of detail, my husband and I were separated before she was born. He and I have a lot of unresolved issues together and individually so we have decided it is best for all of us that we not live together now.
One of the problems that have cropped up is that my husband tends to criticize my authority in front of our daughter. For example, I was trying to hold her hand in the driveway as we were all going to the car. She was yelling and struggling. He said in a disparaging tone that I am too restrictive, and that I should let her go. He does this frequently because she yells and makes a fuss (especially when he is present). I know this is going to turn into a huge problem if he continues to do it. She is already aware of this because she tends to act up when I try to merely put on her shoes in his presence. He likes to take over and feel in control but I don’t know how to handle the situation.
I want my daughter to respect me and listen to me without interference or being undermined. I brought this to his attention and he said he would try not to do it, but I am very concerned. He lets her run around the driveway but I am certainly not going to! I am not restrictive; I am sensible. He has a very big issue with control. HELP! We need to go to family counseling quickly!
Most parents, including both those who are parenting together and those who are co-parenting, have differences of opinion and different parenting styles in regards to their children. Every person comes to parenthood with his or her own experiences, assumptions, beliefs, fears and expectations. Joining with another person to come up with a consistent parenting philosophy is a challenge even when parents are communicating easily with each other.
There are several factors to consider whenever parents have strong differences of opinion about parenting. Children don’t need their parents to be identical to each other. They can benefit from having parents who have different skills and viewpoints. Children can learn different styles, and even different rules, from one parent to the other. The more different parents are, the longer it may take for children to learn the two “systems.” Children may do more testing in order to find out how each system works and they may test more when the parents are together. It is important that each parent be as consistent as possible to his or her own system and that the two parents come up with a predictable way to respond when they are with the child together.
Parents may find, through talking with each other, observing each other, and observing their child, that there are some areas in which consistency between parents is important. Figuring out what those areas are takes good communication and negotiation skills.
Another important issue has to do with the fact that children define themselves in relationship to their parents, and they largely view each parent through the eyes of the other. If either of their parents is being devalued or disrespected, children often feel the criticism personally. Therefore, respect between their parents is essential to children’s sense of confidence and well-being.
Respect means that parents don’t interrupt each other when one of them is interacting with their child. It also means that they work to build an attitude of respect towards the other parent that they can communicate implicitly and explicitly to their child. This can be difficult for parents who are in conflict. However, with effort, it is possible to gain this sense of respect. It is well worth the effort for the sake of the child you both love.
Here are some ideas to consider in building and maintaining an effective co-parenting relationship, in developing mutual respect and in resolving conflicts between parents.
. Work on communication. Communication is key. Think about the times you have been the most successful communicating and try to duplicate those. It might be that you communicate best taking a walk together, on the phone, in writing, or with a third person there. Many couples who are in conflict may feel like they don’t know how to have a successful conversation. Getting couple’s counseling or help from a family therapist can assist you in developing positive communication strategies. You can request that a counselor focus on helping you learn to really listen to each other and to express your opinions and ideas without attacking the other person. Remember even people who have been unsuccessful at communicating previously can always learn how to do it.
. Communicate on a regular basis. Nothing is as doomed to fail as communication that occurs on an “as-needed” basis (translation: when there is a conflict.) It is essential that you schedule regular times to talk about your child and your parenting relationship. If they only happen when there is a fight, you will inevitably have a fight every time you try to talk together.
. Nurture mutual respect. Most likely you and your husband are separated because you have discovered things you don’t like about each other. This doesn’t preclude you also remembering things you appreciate and respect about each other. Your daughter will benefit from you regularly taking the time to reflect on the things you admire about each other as a parent. You can even like things about the other parent that are different from your own strengths. For instance, you may discover that you appreciate your husband’s commitment to helping your daughter develop a sense of freedom, even though you don’t always agree with his methods. Alternately, he might appreciate that you are concerned about her safety, even though he doesn’t agree with how you do it.
You can nurture mutual respect when you are together or when you are apart. You could make it a part of your regular meetings by starting with an appreciation of the other person. “I want to tell you that I think our daughter is lucky to have you as her parent because you are so playful.” “I appreciate how responsible you are in remembering all of the day-to-day details of our daughter’s care.”
. Respect the other parent’s interactions with your child. When you are together with your daughter it is important that you don’t interrupt each other when you are interacting with her, unless there is a serious problem occurring. When one of you intercedes when she is interacting with the other, your daughter gets the message that the first parent isn’t being trusted. If one of you is interacting with her and you ask the other parent for assistance or advice, that is different. In that case the first parent is still “in charge” of the interaction.
. Discuss your differences apart from your child, for the most part. Use your regular communication time to discuss differences that come up in your parenting styles. Occasionally, there may be a simple, non-volatile, decision that you could talk about while your daughter is present. “Do you think it is a good idea for her to go barefoot here in the grass?” But big differences should be discussed in privacy where you can work things out without putting your daughter in the middle of a potential conflict.
. Figure out what your bottom lines are and work to negotiate the rest. Learning to negotiate with each other will be a process that takes time. As you gain experience as parents, each of you will become clearer about what issues are really important to you and which are less important. Many things you will be able to just “let be;” each parent can do it his/her own way. Other things you will want to discuss until you can come up with a mutually agreeable position. Even though you start with very different ideas, if you a committed to negotiation, it is possible to come up with creative mutually satisfying solutions.
. Discuss your basic goals as parents. Each of us has goals that inform our parenting decisions. Even when parents have very different parenting styles, they may often share some basic goals. Take some time to talk about what each of you want your daughter to learn in her lifetime. Even if you don’t come up with the same list, most likely, you will find that you appreciate many of the goals the other person holds.
. Remember that children will benefit from knowing each of you fully. Sometimes when we are in the midst of conflict with each other, we are tempted to try to limit our child’s relationship with the other parent. It is important to remember that your daughter needs both of her parents, if at all possible. Each of you has unique gifts to offer her. She can be enriched by your differences. In fact, the more fully she is permitted to love both of you the freer she will be to love each of you.