At the heart of parenting is the idea that you are the best parent in the world when you are yourself. Sometimes, unfortunately, when the parents of a child are themselves, the combination is explosive. They clash too hard or too frequently or both. This leaves the child feeling lost, insecure, responsible, and guilty – the last two because she is convinced that it is she who is in some way responsible for her parents not getting on.
You ache – for yourself, for your child, for what could have been with your partner – if only he or she would… but there’s no point going down that road.
Say you want to have another child, and your partner doesn’t. You both have ‘valid reasons’ for the way you feel. (The inverted commas are because everything everyone feels is valid, though most of us forget this! 🙂 ) It has gotten beyond discussion and reasoning. Each of you is unwilling to give in, and no half-way compromise is possible.
As the tension slowly ratchets up, you see the fun, the laughter, the joy, the togetherness – all of it, dissolve under the weight of this conflict. And you see your once happy family of 3 breaking up under the strain.
Your son is perplexed. All he can see is Mom and Dad being nasty to each other. If they are not openly warring, they are making snide comments to each other or about each other, or giving each other the silent treatment.
And he’s trying to figure out how to fix what is wrong between you two.
Can you do anything to make it easier on your child? I’m convinced that you can. You can lessen his pain, make it easier on him.
Only you can do this.
You can do this by acknowledging that there is conflict between you and your partner. Tell your child that the two of you disagree about something, and that is what is causing all the fights. Let him know that the conflict is not related to him.
The best course of action is if both of you agree on what to say and sit together with your child to reassure him that the conflict is not his responsibility. But this is not always possible. Sometimes there is so much bitterness that you may not be able to do even this together.
In which case, tell your partner that you would like to reassure your child about the tension in the household. Tell your partner what you intend to tell your child. Give him or her the choice of being present as you tell your child.
If communication between you two has broken down to the extent that even this conversation is not possible, just go ahead and speak with the child yourself.
There are two things you must do if you decide to speak to your child about your conflict with your partner.
The first is to put it in context. Depending upon your child’s age and temperament, you must tailor the message so that he can understand what you are saying. You cannot tell a 2 year old you are fighting about whether to give him a sibling or not.
You might say, “When you fight with your friend about whose turn it is on the swing, you are angry with your friend, but not with Mom and me. Just like that, Mom and I are angry with each other about something, but it has nothing to do with you. We will keep being angry for some time, but we are trying to stop being angry and be friends again.”
You might tell your 5 year old, “Dad and I are angry with each other because he wants something and I don’t want it. Suppose I want to bring a dog home. I love dogs, but you are scared of them, so you and I will fight about whether or not we should adopt a dog for a pet. There is no ‘right’ answer, and we both feel strongly about it. Dad is out of this picture. Just like that, Dad and I want different things, and we’re fighting. Not pleasant, but that’s how it is. You are out of the picture – the fight has nothing to do with you. What you need to know is that we both still love you and always will. It is silly for us to be fighting when we tell you not to fight with your friends, but grown-ups are silly sometimes.”
You might tell your 8 year old, “Mom wants us to have another baby – a sibling for you – and I don’t want another baby. That is what we are fighting about. Let me explain: you always want to go to the beach on vacation, and Mom and I love going to the mountains. So sometimes we go to the beach, and at other times, we go to the mountains. But when it comes to a baby, we cannot sometimes have a baby and sometimes not. We either have one or we don’t. Do you see? And we can’t come to a decision, so we’re arguing and shouting at each other. We’re upset because we each believe what we want is right for the family. But what you need to know is that both Mom and I love you, and whether or not we have another child, we will always love you.”
It’s a good idea not to tell your child why you feel the way you do. If you tell her the pros and cons of the issue, you will be actively involving her – the very thing you’re trying NOT to do!
Also, depending upon her one-on-one relationship with you and with her other parent, she will be more inclined towards one view or the other – again, she will be involved, and will feel responsible about the conflict and its outcome.
The other thing that you must do is NOT to vilify your partner. This is a much tougher thing to achieve.
You are hurting, you are bitter and you are angry. It is very likely that these emotions will spill over into your explanation to your child. You don’t need to actively say, “She’s bad” or “He’s wrong”. The tone of your voice, your body language, the way you put your point of view across – all of it can communicate to your child that you feel your partner is cruel and unfeeling not to give in to your point of view.
But remember, you and your partner are the first relationships your child has. If he gets the impression that “Men are unfeeling” or “Women are wicked” or whatever, these ideas will influence all his relationships throughout his life – at school, at work, romantic and social. These ideas will become his worldview. It is a very high price for him to pay. Just because you could not hold back your angst.
When you say negative things about your partner to your child, you are forcing him to choose between you, and he gets caught in the middle – not fair!
Not fair to him (why should he choose between two parents?)
Not fair to your partner (feeling differently from the way you do does not make him / her a ‘bad’ person; it does not disqualify him/ her from being a loving parent)
Not fair to yourself (your child will always remember that you made him think badly of the other parent. At some time or other, I am positive, your child will resent, maybe even hate you, for doing this.)
In your own interest and that of your child, avoid saying negative things about your partner to your child.
But what if your partner is saying negative things about you to the child? It becomes even more important that you desist. Show your child an alternate way of being, of loving, of living. If the child confronts you “… says you’re really mean because you don’t understand the problems (the other parent) is having”, you can say, “Yes, … feels this way. It doesn’t make me mean. … just feels I’m being mean.” And stop right there. Don’t defend yourself, and don’t accuse your partner. Leave it there. Your child will not question you further on this.
Your conflict is your choice. Your child is caught up in it through no fault of his – he has no choice in the matter.
The best you can do is to assure and reassure him as often as it takes, that he is not to blame for what’s going on between you and your partner. It is difficult, but it needs to be done.
And you can do it! If you let your love for your child be your guide.