The family flashpoints that put couples to the test
Having a young family changes everything. Alongside the joys of parenting, there are plenty of challenges too – which can reveal sharp differences in what we value most as individuals. For couples, it’s time for compromise and understanding.
When a couple starts a family, it’s a time of huge upheaval, both on a practical and of course on an emotional level. Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of all is the stress it can place on the parental couple who may find themselves asking: ‘Surely, in the middle of the joyful event of our new baby, we should not be feeling like this?’ In fact, there are plenty of reasons why it can all feel challenging, and many are linked with the sudden realisation that the two partners may have totally different ways of thinking about life: differences that may have remained undetected until now. In this short article I want to look at four ‘flashpoints’ – areas of difference in a couple that can be triggered by the events of starting a family.
Wellwishers: Open house versus quiet night In
The arrival of a first baby – and subsequent babies – presents some challenges for families that can test people’s abilities in negotiating and compromising: often these are things that we don’t find ourselves doing that often. There are, after all, a lot of people we could call ‘stakeholders’ in the life of a young baby: people with close family connections and a keen interest in being involved. Grandparents, aunts, uncles of course, but also the extended family, perhaps through separations and new partnerships, as well as friends, neighbours and colleagues. For new parents, the challenge is to get on with the job of being parents while dealing with all those who’d like to get involved. But views on how this should be done will almost inevitably differ, in part because we each have a unique view on what ‘family’ actually means. One person may have a strong sense of obligation: ‘We should definitely invite them for the week.’ The other may not: ‘Are you joking?’ Suddenly the couple is having intense conversations about things that feel very important to both, and old loyalties are tested, sometimes to breaking point.
One way through this is to recognise and embrace the differences between the two people who make up the parental couple. After all, those unique aspects of your personalities are what brought you together in the first place. It would be pure chance if you both turned out to share common beliefs about everything. Learning to see the situation from each other’s perspectives is helpful, and resist the temptation to judge. It’s a case of just being different, rather than being better or worse.
Grandparents: Can’t live with ‘em versus can’t live without ‘em
The arrival of kids can bring generations together in a way that nothing else can, and provide a sense of real joy and fulfilment to the grandparents – and through their involvement, much-needed babysitting services to the parents too.
There is another side to this. As young adults, we may have become quite good at regulating how much ‘face time’ we have with our own parents. When we start a family, that sense of independence can become eroded. Yes, we can become dependent on our parents again, or in some cases, resentful about aspects of their involvement in the fine details of our own parenting practice. Some people even find themselves feeling the same kind of frustrations they used to experience as teenagers, triggered by a comment or a look that provides an instant connection to a very different time in life. There is a reality check to be done by everyone, across both generations: time has moved on, we are all adults, and the roles have changed.
Anger: Going ballistic versus going quiet
Everyone with kids feels tired. And when we feel tired, we get snappy. So far, so predictable.
Being short-tempered is something we all do, though what’s interesting to remember is that we all have a slightly different relationship with anger. There are some people who will show their anger quickly and easily, but the storm is over quickly and life resumes soon afterwards. This often will reflect the kind of family they grew up in, and how people dealt with anger at the time. For others, anger is a very difficult emotion to deal with: it is kept under a tight lid, for fear of what it could lead to. People who grew up with angry parents are often extremely wary of anger, and will do anything to keep the peace. In a couple, what may feel (for one parent) like a measured but robust response to a naughty child may appear (to the other) like a completely over-the-top outburst. These differences in how we ‘do’ anger are often not revealed until kids come along and start to vigorously press our various emotional buttons. Couples suddenly learn new things about each other, which can take some getting used to.
Once again, an ability to see things from the other person’s perspective is the key. If you are pretty relaxed about showing anger, but are aware that your partner gets freaked out by it, then remember to show to your partner that the angry outburst has a beginning and an end, and the end of it really is the end of it. No lingering grudges, when it’s gone, it’s gone. If, on the other hand, you are someone who finds anger difficult to handle, then try to take time to talk about this with your partner and share how you feel when they show their anger.
Sharing: Perfectionism versus ‘good enough’-ism
Working in partnership needs a bit of thought. It does not come naturally to any of us. When we say ‘we need to do this’ then often nothing happens, because nobody is nailed down as the person who will do whatever task it is. In families with young kids, there are a lot of what you might call ‘moving parts’ that need orchestrating. Childcare, drop-offs, pick-ups, appointments, visits, activities, household chores, admin, stuff to buy… To work in partnership, we almost need to assign roles: ‘I’ll take care of this, could you handle that.’ Nothing that anyone does needs to be ‘excellent’ or ‘perfect.’ The strict guide for quality here is ‘good enough will do.’
And roles also need boundaries: ‘I’ll take care of this; you handle that, and then I’ll judge your performance with marks out of ten’ is not usually a winning formula, and shows what happens when the sharing breaks down. One person in the partnership has taken on an additional role of ‘quality control’ – which in effect means they are now calling the shots. If you are intent on sharing tasks, it’s better not to let this happen. Is it really necessary, for example, to re-stack the plates in the dishwasher (already stacked by your partner) in order to fit in a few more glasses, thus negating and devaluing the contribution they have already made? Or is the re-stacking a kind of passive-aggressive attack by you on them, because you feel they never do anything properly? If so, then it’s time to ask yourself what this desire to do it ‘properly’ is all about, when doing a ‘good enough’ job will get the work done and allow you to move onto the next thing. From there, you could even start to ask why you are imposing such high standards on yourself and others, who you are trying to please, and what would happen if you took your foot off the gas - just ever so slightly.
Perhaps the common thread running through all four of these examples – wellwishers, grandparents, anger and sharing – is that the best solution is to try to understand each other. You probably won’t get the other to come round to your way of thinking, but agreeing to differ, and understanding and respecting those differences, would already be a great start.
Hopefully, the points above can help you and your partner understand each other better. However, if you feel you could benefit from couples counselling, and talking in a secure environment, then use our search tool to find a counsellor near you.