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6 Ways Your Kids Could Be Hurting Your Marriage
All the experts seem to agree on one thing: When kids come into the picture, it's all too easy to put your marriage on the back burner. After all, you've got achildto raise. Unfortunately, though, Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., couples therapist and author ofKiss Your Fights Goodbyesays that often means parents fall into the trap of arguing about something kid-related, when the truth is that they're feeling frustrated or neglected in their marriage. "Marital conflicts that we think are a result of our children are oftentimes smokescreens that conceal our own issues," says Turndorf. The biggest way to tell you're missing the point of your fight? "Rather than arguing over the overt issue (like how he doesn't come to the kids' soccer games), focus on the feelings that it triggers, and then connect those feelings to what the real problem is." Once you've exposed the root cause, you can talk about how to move forward in a way that works for the both of you.
Having kids can bring out the best in people—but that doesn't mean your "bests" are always compatible. The oxytocin rush that happens when women become mothers means that we tend to be super-nurturing and empathetic, whereas your husband has his own biological response to care for your kids. Research shows he's all about tending, communicating, and learning from experience. (Read: More action, less emotion.) Those two things can seriously crash when tensions start to rise and stress steps in. "It can create a major mess when one person is reacting with certainty about how a parenting situation should be handled, and then the other is equally as certain—but has the opposite opinion," says couples therapist Linda Carroll, author ofLove Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love. Rather than duking it out over who's right, remember that you're ultimately working toward the same goal. Caroll suggests taking turns to calmly explain your perspectives until you can reach a compromise—even if that compromise means agreeing to take turns on how things are handled. The key: Finding a way that works toward the same end game and sends the same message, even if you differ on the means of delivery.
You don't associate your laughing toddler with sadness or anxiety, but your subconscious might. Most of us have scars from growing up, and when they're triggered, we tend to reenact the dysfunctional dynamics we experienced with our spouse. It's our brain's weird way of dealing with unresolved issues, says Turndorf. "Our children rip off the scabs covering the emotional wounds we suffered during the same phase of developmentthey'recurrently in," she says. "It happens unconsciously, so parents may not have a clue what's gotten into them, but their distress can seriously affect the marriage." Turndorf says it's common to become irritable and withdrawn when this happens (and it's more than sleep deprivation woes), especially if you haven't dealt with difficult memories. So if you're feeling like something's off, now's the time to do your emotional work. Consider getting a therapist's help, journaling, and meditating to get in touch with the real feelings underlying your behavior, as Turndorf says understanding past emotional trauma is the first step to keep it from messing with your marriage.
You know your six-year-old is smart—he found the secret Netflix queue faster than you did—but what you may not know is how his mind could unwittingly mess with you. "As kids become more aware, they grow more skilled at playing on their parents' old scars," says Turndorf. "That's why it's important to figure out your emotional Achilles heel and not replay the same issues with your kids." Case and point: "A patient felt she was neglected as a child, so she constantly gave her son the attention she felt she missed out on," says Turndorf. "He took advantage of it in no time, manipulating her to get whatever he wanted, and her marriage suffered because her husband didn't agree with the regular over-indulgence." The lesson? The sooner you deal with your own vulnerabilities, the easier it will be to ensure that your little ones don't unintentionally exploit them.
One thing to remember: It's super common for kids to sense underlying tension and try to compensate for it, says Tracy Thomas, Ph.D. That's bad for two reasons: First, the kid can wind up filling an emotional role that you and your spouse should be providing each other. Second, they're too young to feel—let alone understand—what it's like to handle problems in a marriage. "But the older a child gets, the more possibility there is for that kind of disruptive dynamic to exist," says Thomas. "Your kids will try to make a cohesive partnership happen in whatever way they can, because they just want to diffuse tension and make sure their parents are happy." That said, they're too young to know what they're doing, so it's up to you to put boundaries in place. Not fighting in front of the kids or using them as ammo against one another is a good start, says Thomas, as is remembering to keep adult topics behind closed doors. You might know it's not their job to fix everything, but they don't.
We're not saying that you shouldn't put your kids first—sometimes they need more of your attention, and that's just life. But they don't need to be placed ahead of you and your husband every hour of every day. "Prioritizing our kids over marriage sends the wrong message," says Turndorf. "They learn by example, and when we put our relationship first, kids learn to take better care of themselves and they feel incredibly safe when their parents are happy." Plus, seeing a happy marriage teaches them character traits to seek out when it's time for them to find their own partners, she says.
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