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Family therapy usually starts with a child's problem: Justin is impulsive; Katie is defiant; Rachel is making poor progress in school; Kristen is getting into playground fights with other children; Ryan has become sullen and moody. But this often precedes a litany of complaints about the marriage:
Childrearing can place great stress on marriages. Whether they were quiet lovebirds or noisy debaters before having chilidren, many couples become argumentative, bitter, and polarized when children arrive. What can be done to help strengthen marriages as parents cope with these stresses?
Five common stresses create conflict for many couples as they cope with parenting. Tackling these specific stresses effectively can do much to strengthen the parent bond.
DISTRIBUTION OF RESPONSIBILITIES
When children enter a family, the number of areas of responsibility increase enormously, while the number of available hours to manage responsibilities decrease. For example, getting two adults out the door for an errand might take two to five minutes. Getting two adults and two young children the same distance can easily take twenty-five minutes, time enough to answer questions about where you are going, pack a snack for the car, visit the bathroom, find childrens' shoes and socks, insist that the reluctant child really must come along, gather up stuffed animals for the short trip (and for younger children, diapers, wipes, bottles, etc.), look at the ant hill on the sidewalk, deal with the skirmish about who will sit where in the car, and buckle car seats.
It is a rare couple that negotiates the distribution of these responsibilities, the "who does what" of parenting. More frequently, couples fall into a distribution of tasks without discussion based on some combination of habit, convenience, preference, and gender roles. The typical result of this unnegotiated distribution of responsibilities, unfortunately, is that resentments develop about who does too much, who does too little, what is fair, and how the distribution of tasks was decided. In many families, these tensions go undiscussed for years until an unexpected crisis brings them out into the open. Sometimes, considerable damage has been done by that time.
It is a useful rule of thumb that if either partner is dissatisfied with the distribution of responsibilities, this needs to be discussed with an assumption that responsibilities probably need to be redistributed. In my experience, the person who notices the distribution problem is usually the one who carries the majority of responsibilities. The spouse who benefits from their partner's work rarely fully appreciates the degree to which they benefit from the arrangement. Once a couple is aware of the problem, solutions need to be developed, and this is not always as difficult a task as it first seems. For the majority of couples, one spouse will not accept a grossly unfair arrangement which allows their spouse to work endlessly while they themselves rest. For the few couples where gross unfairness would be acceptable to one partner, some family therapy is probably in order.
Time becomes a precious commodity when children enter the family picture. With more responsibilities to fit into the same 24-hour day, time becomes more precious than ever. Yet many parents live with great dissatisfaction about who feels entitled to the available time, who gets that time, and how time allocations are decided. Unilateral decisions are made to change jobs, accept volunteer positions, coach teams, and make other major decisions than influence time commitments for spouses.
A point of difficulty for many couples is that time is taken rather than negotiated. A helpful rule of thumb is that everything is up for negotiation. This includes Mom's night out with the girls, Dad's weekly basketball game, how often and at what time of day parents play tennis or visit the gym, and who drives which child to what event. Optimally, it will also include job hours and travel, which requires a discussion about lifestyle, income, values, and priorities.
It is a useful exercise, proposed by Ron Taffel in his book Why Parents Disagree, that each parent keep a log for a week of the activities they do for the family. When I have assigned this task, the most frequent complaint is get is from fathers who say:"Of course I do less! I am not home as much as she is!" The rule of thumb stated above about the distribution of responsibilities applies here as well: if someone is dissatisfied with who has time for what, this needs to be discussed with an assumption that time probably needs to be redistributed.
On average, an American couple spends only 20 minutes a day together. This is rarely willful avoidance. Rather, it reflects the tremendous demands placed on their time from many directions. One family at a time, we have a responsibility to our loved ones to assess our own allocation of time resources in the family and make decisions about what is important.
THE BLAME GAME
Righteous self-justification may be human nature, but blaming others and feeling faultless are among the most destructive influences on marriages. The Blame Game, in which each spouse focuses on the mistakes of the other and admits no wrongdoing, does more than destroy marital intimacy, though. A steady diet of angry marital conflicts can produce anxious, depressed, and withdrawn children, and children who have poor models for relationships. Spouses need to decide whether continuing The Blame Game is more important than doing what is best for themselves and their children.
Still, it is hard to be humble and reflective about our own mistakes unless we know that our partner will do the same. Sometimes, spouses are willing to admit their faults knowing that their accusations and hostility leave them feeling depleted or undignified. Sometimes it is the negative effect on children that provokes change. Sometimes spouses can agree to a trial period during which each agrees to focus on being responsible, constructive and not blaming.
The goal in reducing The Blame Game is not to gain agreement on the issue. Rather, it is to have each spouse accept responsibility for their part in preventing or creating a solution. That involves each spouse being able to say: My approach does not work for you. I am willing to change.
Interrupting The Blame Game is only the first step in solving problems, but it is a crucial step.
TOLERANCE FOR EMOTIONAL INTENSITY
There are individuals who enjoy a good fight and who tolerate intense feelings with little difficulty, but they are the exception. Faced with the intensity that accompanies conflict, the more common reactions are "fight or flight" responses range from calm discussions to insults to physical abuse. Flight responses range from ignoring others to silent hostility to slamming doors and driving away.
Adults, like children, can get overstimulated. They need to learn to stay calm during arguments, tune in to verbal and non-verbal information from others, control their impulses, and tolerate emotions (their own and those of their partner). John Gottman's research has shown that both "fight or flight" usually are reactions to too much responsiveness to conflict, not too little, as many people assume.
As a society, we have a poor track record of teaching tolerance for the intensity that often accompanies conflicts. In marriage, conflicts are almost guaranteed. Partners need skill in getting angry, having an open and respectful conflict, finding common ground, perhaps agreeing to disagree, giving up something for the sake of compromise, and getting on with the relationship.
A respectful model of solving conflicts includes, as a first step, listening. Partners will probably not be heard until they have listened, really listened, understood, and respected the other's position. Yet at the time this skill is most necessary -- in the midst of a heated conflict -- it is hardest to use. When points are being repeated, it usually signals a failure of listening by all parties. To interrupt patterns of silent hostility, criticism, and defensiveness, we must begin with listening.
When couples have poor tolerance for anger and conflict, they often have difficulty tolerating other normal feelings in marriage: dependency, excitement, sexuality, empathy, and love. By expanding our tolerance for emotions during conflict, other feelings may be more tolerable, too.
A GUIDING VALUE SYSTEM
Like nations, corporations, clubs, churches, and schools, marital partners benefit when they are guided by a value system, beliefs that give meaning to their lives. Values not only give a sense of purpose and perspective, they provide much-needed guidance during difficult times as well.
Many of us find it hard to think about the meaning of our lives, and some of the value systems that surround us are not supportive of marriage or family. The values of the marketplace often teach self-interest and self-gratification. The values of the workplace often teach competition and hierarchical power. The values of many television programs and movies teach the importance of money, appearance, and ownership. None of these values will help us to create a marriage based on maturity, mutual respect, and love.
ACHIEVING A HEALTHY MARRIAGE
Marriage can be a strong, healthy, fulfilling alliance for a lifetime. Couples who achieve this learn a variety of skills: negotiating how to distribute time and responsibilities; tolerating emotional intensity; accepting responsibility for their own behavior and avoiding blame; and identifying a guiding value system. Learning these skills can go far toward strengthening the parent bond.