Facing struggles that plague new parents when trying to balance marriage & parental responsibilities
Sophia stirs in her sleep as she hears the insistent whine from her daughter Jenny’s room. “Mommy, take me to the bathroom please…Mommy”. By this time Marcus is already wide awake. “Take her, please” he says “I have to be up in an hour”. It’s 4 am.
Now Sophia is wide awake. “She’s seven. She can learn to take herself” she snaps. Marcus angrily throws off the covers, and storms out to take Jenny downstairs to the bathroom. Once he comes back, the two argue until dawn, when Marcus heads off for his early start.
By the time they visited Imago relationship therapist, Marcia Ferstenfeld, for help, their relationship was verging on the rocks. “He just doesn’t know how to set limits” Sophia cried “It’s ruining our daughter.” Marcus muttered darkly under his breath “And your obsessive behavior is ruining our marriage.”
“I stop couples right there” Marcia told me, “and teach them a different way to talk about things called the Imago dialogue.” Many couples have a great relationship until they become parents, and then suddenly to their horror they discover they have dramatically different ways of relating to their children. “One parent may take the role of the limit setter, whereas the other is eager to give the child space” she told me, “The Imago dialogue can be used to develop deeper understanding, and use a conflict like this as an opportunity for creating a deeper connection between everyone in the family."
Step 1: End blame and criticism
Parenting is a subject that people hold strong opinions about. It’s important to them to get this right. After all, a child’s future is at stake. So it’s natural to feel that it is right to criticize a partner who seems to be consistently spoiling the child with their lack of parenting skills, and to blame them when the child acts out. But to move forward as successful parents, the first step is to eliminate this negativity, and instead to shift the conversation so that you can reconnect.
Step 2: Become curious about what is going on for your partner
Marcia taught Sophia and Marcus the Imago dialogue, which is a safe way of talking about things which have a lot of emotional content, such as how to bring up your child.
Sophia started by explaining to Marcus why setting limits is important to her. Usually when I listen to someone I disagree with I use all my listening time to work out a good response. But using the Imago dialogue, Marcus was coached to just listen, and then show that he had heard by mirroring back Sophia’s words. Then he would ask “Is there more?”
As a result, Sophia and Marcus learned so much more about each other. Marcus learned that Sophia wants to set limits because it’s the way she learned from her parents, and that she was afraid that without setting appropriate limits their daughter would not learn how to do things herself. Sophia came to understand that Marcus was afraid to lose the love of his daughter, and was worried about hurting her by being too strict. They bonded when they realized how both cared deeply about the same thing, their daughter’s happiness.
Step 3: Become curious about what is going on for your child
“But she’s seven! Why can’t Jenny go to the bathroom by herself? Will she ever learn?” Sophia asked. “Let’s work on that question” responded Marcia “Why don’t you be Jenny for a moment, and talk to Marcus. He’s going to pretend to be you.”
As Sophia put herself in her daughter’s shoes, she found herself talking about Jenny’s insecurity, as an adopted child, who had been abandoned. Early each morning Jenny would hear Marcus tiptoe past her door and leave. What fears did this bring up? Could this be why she looked for comfort and security, usually just an hour or so earlier?
They tried an experiment. When Marcus left, even though it was early, he would drop into Jenny’s room, and kiss her. From that day, Jenny never asked again to be taken to the bathroom in the night.
Step 4: Ask for change
Often when people are frustrated, they criticize the other person. Why not ask for the change you want instead? Well, often it’s because you don’t get it. Imago has a different approach to asking for the change you want to see.
Marcia led Sophia and Marcus through a process where before asking for change, they each explored what lay underneath concerns they had. For example, Marcus did have a deep fear of Jenny rejecting him. That’s why he resisted Sophia when she asked him to support her with some of the limits she set. But by sharing together Marcus’s underlying fear, he felt supported when he decided to stretch and respond to Sophia’s request to be stricter. He had also learned how much this would mean to Sophia, because he now understood her fear that if they didn’t set limits, they would be failing Jenny as parents.
Step 5: Support each other when change isn’t so easy
Most of us have an experience when someone agrees to do something differently, and then a week later they have slipped right back into their old habits. That’s what usually happens when a couple agrees to make their parenting styles more uniform too. It’s tempting at that point to feel worse than ever.
Marcia guided Sophia and Marcus to use another concept from Imago. When change is hard, instead of despairing, simply use the opportunity to become curious about what the resistance is. Instead of blaming each other for failing, they used the Imago dialogue to discover more about why it was hard to change. In doing so, they learned more and more about each other, and their relationship became richer and more connected.