We have all heard, “The children come first” or “Whatever is in the best interest of the children”. Many parents live by those mantras. The trouble is, holding steadfastly to those beliefs makes our marriages or partnerships more insecure.
The first step to erosion of a partnership is disconnection, according to Dr. Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist and author of “Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships.”
The arrival of a child naturally pulls the attention of parents from each other to the infant. It takes much care and focus to ensure the survival of the child.
However, if the focus remains on the child and emotional support is not given to each adult, disconnection occurs. Mom becomes overwhelmed with the round-the-clock care of a baby. Dad feels left out as mom and infant bond. They each feel more vulnerable. If the adults do not attune with each other and relieve their distress, conflict arises.
Often a pattern of demand/withdraw develops. One partner asks for more help/attention/presence and the other, feeling inadequate or annoyed, leaves the scene to recharge/be alone/avoid fighting.
As the patterns play out more frequently, the distance between the couple grows. Trust is diminished because they’ve let each other down too often. They resort to pre-emptive defensiveness or withdrawal. Neither brings the couple closer.
According to couple’s therapist, Dr. Stan Tatkin, successfully integrating “thirds” into our relationships, requires security and responsiveness between partners. Dr. Tatkin considers “thirds” to be relationships we have with people or things outside our primary partner relationship. They could be: children, affairs, work, gambling, addiction, friends, etc.
Thirds become threats when one partner demotes the other partner’s status to a level below the third’s.
Children can threaten our intimate relationships. As babies, they require a lot of attention to ensure their survival. As young children their activities can take priority over couple bonding time. As teens, they can pit their parents against each other when it comes to discipline.
But if parents put each other first, security grows. Instead of conflict or distancing, responsiveness and solidarity soothe the weary parents’ distress.
Listen and respond to exactly what is said. As parents with busy schedules and busy minds, we often half-listen to our spouses and respond with our own agenda or defensiveness. If we take time to listen carefully and respond to exactly what our partner says, we save ourselves a lot of hurt feelings and confusion. Ex. Wife calls from work and says she is tired and wants to have a low-key evening. Husband could get defensive and proceed to tell the wife of all the activities the kids have going that night and let her know he is tired too or he could listen closely, acknowledge her fatigue and suggest ordering pizza for dinner.
Partner soothes partner first. Ex. Husband comes home and wife is arguing with son about getting ready for bed. Husband kisses wife on the forehead and rubs her shoulders. He greets son and then stands with wife as they both tell son it is time for bed.
Greeting each other at the door first. The returning spouse is met at the door by the at home spouse. They make eye contact and hug and/or kiss each other before children or pets arrive on the scene.
Us vs. them mentality. The couple views themselves as a team. All others experience their solidarity. They are careful not to demote each other’s authority. Ex. Parents supporting each other when it comes to disciplining their children.
Frequent eye contact and comforting gestures. Couples keep track of each other’s emotional states. If one is tired or overwhelmed, the other steps in and comforts them. Eye contact, hand holding, sitting next to each other, a kiss on the forehead, all convey the message, “I see your distress” or simply, “I see you.”
Ultimately, children feel much more secure themselves when parents attune to each other. The tone of support and responsiveness is set. Solidarity stabilizes the couple and the family.