Last time I covered three different ways parenting stress shows up in a relationship/marriage: funneling our attention away from our partner, keeping score, and blaming. Coincidentally, this recent piece in the New York Times perfectly captured the ways in which couples keep score as a way of affirming their roles within the homelife, which turn into dynamics of one-upmanship. All of these stories and unproductive strategies are so familiar because they are universal.
So what are some strategies to get off this train to nowhere? Here are a few strategies that you can start implementing today to keep your relationship on secure ground through the stress of parenting.
1. Focusing on the problem at hand for a common solution: When dealing with parenting stress, we can enter a state of panic and anxiety. Wanting a solution, we turn to our partner who is just as helpless as we are, sending us to a place of blaming. What was supposed to be a joint discussion about Little Johnny's lack of motivation at school can quickly turn into finger-pointing about how you are each enabling his behavior, how your mother is to blame, or how he inherited your lazy-gene.
Instead, take a step back and remember that you're on the same team and the only goal here is to help Johnny. So agree on the actual issue at hand, what is the problem ? Johnny is unmotivated and distracted in class.
What are some primary external sources of information or support you could turn to? Speak with the teacher, the school psychologist, or a child therapist.
What are some tangible action steps based on these resources that you can put in place for your child? Create structure or incentives, have him evaluated, etc.
When you can break down the problem, identify resources and actions steps, it's no longer about who did what to whom. It's about the two of you, together, working toward a common goal.
2. Focus on the emotions underneath the stress: Frustration and anger are the most common surface emotions that arise when parenting stress is at its height. You've just had enough of dealing with what feels like an impossible situation. However, if you are able to sit with the emotion at hand (let's say anger in this case), you will find the other, more primary emotions, that lie underneath that anger. Find a quiet place to sit and begin accessing those primary emotions. What are you telling yourself about the situation? What do you perceive that mean about you as a parent? Usually it's fear: "I'm afraid I'm not a good parent", "I'm afraid if this continues my child will have a very difficult life", etc.
Accessing the vulnerabilities and fears you have will help you communicate with your spouse in a way that he/she can relate to what you have to say.
3. Allow individual "de-stressing" time: When a partner is stressed about parenting, invariably, the other partner is stressed as well. That's not to say you're always stressed about the same thing, but parenting stress has a special way of permeating into all other aspects of family life. This is why it's essential to recognize that you're not the only one who's in need of a break. An hour alone to meet a friend, go for a walk, exercise, meditate, or watch a movie can help you reset.
Ask for and give permission for your partner to take a break from this tornado of stress. this will lead to approaching the matter at hand with greater clarity and stability.
4. Seek social supports: You know the expression, "It takes a village"? Well it seems we have gotten so far away from the village concept as possible in Western culture. There is a terrible sense of being very alone with all the unexpected complications of parenthood. We no longer have our elders to turn to for advice or other parents to help us raise our children. Short of lamenting how and why we've gotten here (that's for when I get on my anthropological soap-box!), it is imperative to seek social supports. Here in Fairfield county, CT, we have The Parent Collective for new and expecting parents. Whether what you are struggling with is big or small stressor, social supports are essential for couples to remain connected through the stress of parenthood. There are many parent-child groups threaded through common interests whether it be yoga, or music, or art. If your child has been diagnosed with a disorder, ask his/her therapist to direct you to a support group of others parents who are struggling with the same fears.
Having others who are going through some of the same issues reminds us that we are not alone.
Parenting stress and the fall-out from it is one of the many reasons why couples seeks therapy. When I work with couples/parents, I often remind them that going through these challenges together will only reinforce their bond and commitment, and model for their children the power of resilience.
*** To find out more about how we can work together to alleviate the toll parenting stress has taken on your marriage, contact me for a FREE phone consultation ***