Presenting a United Front When You’re Not on the Same Page
“It ain’t fiction. Just a natural fact:
We come together, ‘cause opposites attract.” – Paula Abdul
If you’re like most people, you were attracted to traits in your partner that you, yourself, lack. His strengths are your weaknesses and vice versa. You balance each other out. One of you is spontaneous, the other’s more careful. One is frugal, the other loves to shop. One enjoys being social, the other prefers to stay at home.
When you switch from being partners to becoming co-parents, your differences show up in relation to managing the children. He’s anxious, you’re calm. You’re punitive, he’s more sympathetic. These differences often cause tension in the marriage and confusion for the children.
While it’s definitely easier and more beneficial for children when the adults in their lives provide consistency, the truth is that no two people are completely alike, and no two parents will handle situations exactly the same way. In fact, I believe that trying to always be “on the same page” can set couples up to be in competition with each other over whose approach is better.
You and your partner have different histories and experiences that have shaped your individual values, attitudes, and beliefs. You have unique “triggers” – thoughts that evoke feelings of anger, resentment, or fear, or that make you feel guilty. You have different expectations and standards rooted in the messages you received growing up.
All of these factors come together to make up your parenting style. Understanding your parenting style is important because it allows you to identify your typical patterns of interaction with your kids. Once you know that, you’re about halfway to figuring out how to parent them most effectively (we’ll get to the other half in a moment).
What’s Your Style?
There are probably as many parenting styles as there are parents. More and more parenting labels are coined every day, from Tiger and Elephant parents to Helicopter and Snowplough parents. But in the 1960’s, psychologist Diana Baumrind was the first to categorize three main parenting styles: Authoritarian, Authoritative, and Permissive.
According to Baumrind, Authoritarian parents make most of the family decisions and control matters of discipline. They provide a high degree of structure and set rigid family rules. They can be aggressive in their attempts to achieve compliance.
Authoritative parents are more democratic. They involve their children in family decision-making and problem-solving. They tend to be nurturing and supportive, while maintaining clear rules and limits that are somewhat flexible, taking into account the children’s needs.
Last, Permissive parents are very open and encouraging. They allow children a lot of freedom and only get involved when necessary. This is not to be confused, though, with neglectful or uninvolved parents.
Some parents can immediately recognize one approach as their dominant style. Others may employ a range of styles. There is no right or wrong approach as long as it works. Remember I mentioned above that knowing your parenting style is only half the equation? The other half is figuring out your child’s style or temperament because each parenting style works best with particular types of kids.
Your Child’s Style
In his book “Family First,” Dr. Phil McGraw identifies three main kinds of kids: Rebellious, Cooperative, and Passive. To some extent, they mirror the parenting styles. When your style and your child’s style complement one another, you likely have smooth sailing at home. However, when styles clash, there tends to be more conflict.
For instance, when an Authoritarian parent and Rebellious child get together — watch out! This pair will have power struggles galore, whereas an Authoritarian parent and Passive child get along swimmingly. Other good matches are Authoritative/Cooperative and Permissive/Rebellious.
To parent effectively, you’ll need to adapt your style to best fit your child, not the other way around. This may mean going outside your comfort zone and trying some of the techniques of your less dominant styles. It’s more important that you and your partner do what works for your child than to parent in similar ways. Recognize that each of you has strengths and weaknesses and that your children can benefit from learning to manage relationships with different types of people.
If you start to feel resentment toward your partner, it’s a sign that you need to discuss your expectations with him, adjust your expectations, or do something different. For example, do you resent being the “bad cop” in your family because you seem to be the only one enforcing rules? Communicate to your spouse that you expect both of you to do this.
If you discover that he’s just not willing to enforce them or feels that it’s not his strong suit, have a conversation about why he's so hesitant to enforce the rules. Remind him that kids who live with boundaries and rules actually feel more safe and secure knowing that the adults are in charge. If he still resists, consider enlisting the help of a qualified family therapist or parent coach who can help him work through his difficulties.
Also take an honest look at your own behavior. Are you being too strict? Perhaps you could experiment with your own style of parenting and try some new strategies. Or, if you immediately jump in and never give your partner opportunities to carry out consequences, he’ll just assume that’s the way you want it or the way it should be. Back off and watch him step up.
Finally, don’t undermine each other’s parenting in front of the kids. It can be confusing to them and send the message that you’re not a team. It’s fine to disagree, but do so in private, and focus on your desired outcome (what’s best for your child) rather than the method of reaching it. Remember, the approach that’s best is the one that works. Let go of the need to have it done your way if another way gets the job done just as well.
Your partner’s style may be unlike yours, but remember that his differences attracted you to him in the first place. Your kids will benefit from each of your approaches, and they need you to present a united front so they don’t take advantage, manipulate, or pit you against each other. Support each other’s approaches, reinforce each other’s decisions and demonstrate unity. It’ll not only help your kids, it’ll also strengthen your relationship as a couple.
In the comments below, share about how you handle decision-making when you and your partner are on different pages (or in different books).
A version of this post was first published in StepMom Magazine in February 2014.