Here is what you can do to eliminate parenting conflict without going to marriage counseling
Taking the direct approach with a disagreeable spouse is like going head to head with a mountain goat. A disagreeable spouse will not back down, will not be reasonable, and will not admit you are right–no matter how much evidence you bring to the table. A disagreeable spouse cares more about winning than he or she does about your child, you, or your relationship.
If you are going to parent effectively and cooperatively with a disagreeable spouse, you need a strategy. Criticizing, complaining, and arguing are not strategies. They are needy behaviors that will create distance rather than positive change.
Strategy one: Refusing to battle
Your first strategy will be to do all of your talking with your spouse when things are calm. Never try to discuss or explain in the middle of a stressful situation. That will only create conflict. When your spouse tries to discuss things at that time, simply say you will only talk about it when things are calm.
No matter how much your spouse tries to draw you into conflict at that time, simply refuse to participate. Walk away or do whatever you have to. In no instance should you discuss things in less than an hour from your refusal. Many times it will be the next day. Try not to go more than one day.
The best time to talk about problems, whether with a spouse or your child, is when things are going well.
If you choose your timing well, that will take a lot of the stress out of the discussion. But, if things start to get out of hand, then table it again. Your goal should not be to solve problems as fast as possible, but rather to solve things as positively as possible, even if it takes longer. In the long run, that is actually the shortest route to cooperative parenting.
Your goal should never be to change your spouse’s personality. That is not going to happen. Your goal is to create cooperative parenting and a better relationship. That does not require your spouse’s personality to change. It just requires that you learn to deal correctly with your spouse’s behavior.
Too many people are focused on winning their point. They focus on making their spouse wrong. The goal in relationship work is not to create a win for you and a lose for your spouse. Rather it is always to create a win-win, or in the case of parenting, a win-win-win. A win for you, a win for your spouse, and a win for your child.
Let’s get real with an example: How would you handle this?
A hypothetical client, who I will call Judy, has come to me for marriage coaching. She is the mom of a 16 year old girl. Her relationship with her husband has become strained and the behavior of her teen is fueling the parenting conflict. Because of her husband’s controlling behavior, Judy has been trying a two pronged approach. She tries to get her husband to back off and let her handle her daughter. She also tries to get her daughter to be more cooperative. Her approach seems logical, but is not working.
Judy feels trapped in the middle between her husband and her daughter. She is stressed out and is losing her affection for her husband. She is also more and more getting the cold shoulder from him. Her husband thinks Judy’s ideas about how to manage their daughter are wrong and is not about to try things her way. Judy is at risk of further pushing her husband away in her attempts to protect and help her daughter.
If Judy could get her husband to work with her rather than against her, she believes it would greatly improve her family situation. So, she has put all of her effort into convincing her husband. Since he is not budging, Judy is starting to feel like she has to side with her daughter against her husband. But, she also fears that will lead to divorce and make things worse for both her and her daughter. She is stressed out and is quickly becoming burned out.
What would you recommend Judy do in this situation? What would you do? (If you can answer this question well without going on to my answer, you should be a relationship coach!)
Helping Judy with her goals in marriage coaching
Judy’s husband is not the kind of man who will go to counseling or family therapy. Because of that, Judy is instead using marriage coaching because it does not require her husband’s participation.
Because her relationship with her husband is already strained, I help her to take a step back from the parenting issue and instead make a goal of helping her husband to enjoy his relationship with her more. The hope is that if he enjoys his relationship with her more, he will want to spend more time with her and become more cooperative.
Parenting conflict damages relationships, which then increase parenting conflict, which further damages the relationship, and so on–what psychologists call a negative spiral because things just keep getting worse. Stopping the spiral is the best first step to making things better.
Judy’s first goal in marriage coaching will be to improve her relationship with her husband. Her second goal will be to create cooperative parenting. Her third goal will be to find effective solutions for how to parent their daughter.
After helping Judy to re-attract and re-connect with her husband, I will help her to restructure how she talks with her husband about parenting concerns.
Specifically, she will learn to
- Only talk about problems when her husband is having a good time with her,
- Focus on finding areas where they agree,
- Allow her husband’s idea to be plan A, as long as he agrees to use her idea as a Plan B,
- Try her husband’s plan for a month, in good faith and cooperation,
- Make sure she is maintaining a good relationship with her husband as they carry out Plan A,
- Switch to Plan B after one month, allowing her husband to make a new Plan B in case her idea does not work either.
- Continue to make a new Plan B until they find an idea that works or until they exhaust their ideas and get professional help
Using this approach will not only improve Judy’s marriage, but will help Judy and her husband to be consistently on the same page. That will prevent their daughter from being able to divide them. It also will take a lot of stress out of parenting because they will always have a back up plan.
Although Judy may not want to use her husband’s plan first, it has the advantage of creating instant cooperation. In addition, it is likely to be better to try his plan for a month, no matter how bad it might be, than to carry on as they have been.
A willingness to use another person’s plan with ours as a backup is typically better than trying to find a compromise solution. I am not a fan of compromise in relationships because with compromise each person needs to give something up, creating a lose-lose situation. Too many compromises increases resentment and increases emotional distance.
The coaching approach vs a counseling approach
If Judy had pressured her husband to go to marriage counseling, it would have increased conflict in her marriage. In counseling, one of two things would happen. Either Judy and her husband would spend time talking about all of their problems (a typical counseling approach) or the counselor would subtly or directly side with Judy or her husband’s approach to parenting.
In the case of discussing all of their problems, their relationship would become more distant. In the case of the therapist siding with one parenting approach over the other, one spouse would become more alienated. Marriage counseling should never be used when people take opposing positions because it will lead to distancing and polarization.
Marriage counseling or family therapy could become helpful for this situation if Judy first improves her relationship with her husband and they exhaust their Plan A’s and Plan B’s. At that point, they will both be more open to learning a new approach to dealing with their daughter without the additional need to work on their relationship. Additionally, neither Judy nor her husband would feel alienated.
The goal of therapists is always to improve the happiness of the individuals in therapy (which is not the same thing as improving the relationship). The goal of marriage coaching is to improve the relationship. For this reason, marriage coaching always comes before marriage counseling in conflicted relationships.
Parenting conflict is an opportunity
Every conflict, every difficulty, you have in your relationship is an opportunity to learn and apply a new relationship building skill. One skill, consistently applied, can do what years of argument can not. What skill do you need to learn to make your relationship just a little bit better for both you and your spouse?