Learning to work together with your partner or your ex
30/11/2018 at 6:55 pm #8926Genevieve SimperinghamKeymaster
As co-parents there’s just so much to be worked out to move towards better communication for both partners and with the children. I’m a great believer in having talks about how you talk; talking about talking.
The attached article is quite long and detailed, but definitely worth printing out and highlighting relevant bits and maybe reading together with your partner to discuss what you each think/ feel/ agree / disagree.
Using some of the information in these posts as a catalyst for discussion. It can be easier talking about somebody else’s perspective, and presenting it in a way that you want both of you to get through stressful situations with the kids in a better way.
Coming on to the same page and learning to work together better generally involves quite a bit of very adult mature management of our emotions. Just blurting, or indeed spitting, out our grievances although very understandable when we feel hurt, frustrated and perhaps powerless, yet this usually results in one’s partner getting defensive and then feeling entitled to do the same.
Arguments create a high risk of damaging the warm connection. Some couples can argue in a way that they speak in a very raw way from the very hurt parts of themselves and express some big character judgments towards their partner and then move on to actually having a mature conversation where both are willing to hear and acknowledge each other, yet for the majority of individuals they just won’t be able to do the emotional gymnastics that this involves. More commonly arguments that include character evaluations and harsh judgments tend to be remembered and can damage the warm connection.
Anger tends to give people an over inflated sense of being entitled to express that which they believe to be the truth, yet when in the stress response the brain’s job is to scan for threats and our thinking becomes very black and white and lacks the complexity and ability to be compassionate or considerate or sensitive. How conflicts were dealt with in our family of origin is where we learned the first rule book about relationships and without huge scrutiny of how we operate when conflict arises, we are at the risk of re-enacting similar ways of communicating that may not unhealthy and dysfunctional.
This is why it’s very important that we all maintain impulse control when strong emotions rise up. This might read or feel like emotional repression but it’s more about healthy and responsible management of our emotions.
We all do need to really listen to and have safe places where we can express those raw emotions. Often valuable insights that feeling the pain of conflict in a relationship gets lost because of our inability to express those insights in a way that our partner can heal and digest and gain understanding. When feeling attacked or misunderstood, very few people can operate from the heart and work to truly understand the other with care and compassion.
Most adults grew up in families where they rarely if ever gained the emotional support and empathy that they needed to listen to and work through their anger and rage and resentments and consequently may have either continually missed the very important needs driving those feelings, or those needs were identified (my parents need to know this stuff!) but there was a consistent lack of validation and acknowledgement and hence resolution around those issues. In emotionally dysfunctional families, the most painful emotions tend to be either repressed or expressed destructively and aggressively. Both repression and verbal aggression (including harsh criticisms) compromise the bonds, the trust, the open lines of communication and ultimately the love in close relationships. As adults parenting our children, we have a huge responsibility to learn to communicate differently. We have a huge responsibility to our children and their children to break the cycles of emotional repression and the patterns of communication that lack empathy and sensitivity and lost trust.
It’s much better if both parties can learn to use similar communication skills that peaceful parenting teaches, like I statements, active listening, reflecting back what you hear, learn to acknowledge each other’s perspective even when you disagree, learn to slow down and get better at finding other safe outlets for their frustrations like in an agreed active listening partnership or through counselling or co-counselling.
Strong emotions compromise our ability to think clearly or be compassionate. It’s very hard to be diplomatic, level, encouraging, generous, reassuring and affectionate with our partner when we’re managing stress and when we disagree with how they are parenting, especially if we’re concerned about the impact on our child and especially especially when there’s also a huge backlog of unresolved and possibly even unexpressed thoughts and feelings, when there’s wounding and resentments. It helps when we share our difficulties “I often get frustrated as well when it takes so long to get her shoes just right, it takes so much patience when she’s struggling with her sensory issues” this way you’re aiming to relate and show understanding while reminding him of her needs – as a place to start at least.
When a couple or co-parents have build up some hard feelings and resentments, it becomes very difficult to communicate on the tricky subjects in a way that’s emotionally safe and actually constructive. Yet it’s only through more calm and emotionally safe and constructive communication that either party will actually get to the point of having their needs met. Both partners need to feel seen, heard, understood, to have their good intentions acknowledged and ultimately to feel cared for and supported around the issues that are the toughest.
Common ground creates a space for each party to meet in the middle. As well as talking through the particular issues and there are so many issues to work through when parents are not on the same page and that’s all very important, yet we also need to carve out times where we talk about our patterns of communication and aim to create more common ground and aim to really hear and understand each other’s perspective, then work together to make agreements. It’s particularly good if you could both agree on what the best approach would be in these kind of situations. As a couple of others have said, it’s good when the parent whose in a calmer state can intervene in a way that brings relief to the parent whose at or near the end of their patience.
When one person is in defensive mode, it’s hard for them to be aware that the other feels attacked. For most couples I talk to this process doesn’t tend to be very smooth and indeed leads to lots of defensiveness (denying that he said what he said is often a defensive tactic that people use to attempt to avoid possible conflict). So for the parent on the outside whose calmer to come in and intervene in a way that feels supportive and helpful, this usually needs to be agreed previously. The agreement helps the parent intervening to feel less anxious about the reaction, hence more able to stay calm and be empathic and supportive. And the prior agreement helps the parent losing their patience in the midst of a power struggle with their child to be better able to perceive the intervention as support and not feel so threatened/ criticized/ defensive.
Unfortunately most people didn’t experience a lot of truly peaceful loving support from another family member when they got into conflict as a child with a parent or sibling. Most of us learned that these were highly risky times and learned to expect criticism, anger or rejection at these times and these patterns are deeply hardwired.
Approaches that I’ve tended to use a lot over the years with hubby (not that I always manage to do it well!) is to acknowledge that it seems like a really stressful situation for them both (hubby and DS/ DD). I aim to touch DH knowing that he’s the one whose likely to worry about me disapproving of his interactions (he and the kids basically know that I tend to sway more towards empathy for them in these situations). I often have to manage my judgments and centre myself to be able to stay open hearted towards him. As much as I might like to thrash it all out there and then and come to a solution and resolution, those bigger conversations about the dynamics tend to work best at a calm connected time when the kids are otherwise engaged and then I attempt to start with expressing empathy “that was really stressful wasn’t it when yourself and …. were trying to work out …. , it’s so hard when you get back from work and you’re already exhausted and I know it’s been a big week in work for you and …. ” that kind of thing. If his approach was *not* quite PP he’ll know that I have thoughts and feelings about that and that I’m working hard to be diplomatic, yet in doing so, I’m helping him shift from being defensive to actually talking about his feelings and will make his way towards truly wanting to resolve it with DD or DS. Sometimes when I talk with him afterwards and help him see the situation from DD/ DS’s perspective he’ll have the urge to go and say sorry but I’ll know that it’s going to come across as defensive / poor me so I’ll encourage him to wait until he’s feeling better before seeking to resolve it.
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