“My spouse is not at the table with me on the issues surrounding my Complex child.”
This is a common refrain, a hot topic on any parenting blog. I hear it weekly from my clients, and I've experienced it in my own life. It's likely the most isolating and challenging situation that any parent can face. And it can totally suck! (Forgive my French.)
Parenting is hard work. Having someone in the house who has your back and can lighten the load feels more like a “must have” than a “nice to have.” Having another adult in the picture that understands and gets what we are going through can remove significant pressure. Whether the person you co-parent with has checked out of the situation completely or is actively and openly in disagreement with what's going on and how you are parenting, it feels really yucky when you aren't on the same page.
I'm not going to say that this blog will provide you with the answers to how to fix this situation. As a parent who lives with this challenge on a daily basis, realistically, there are times when the goal is more about how to cope or live with the circumstances rather than being able to change them.
One of the most helpful things I find is spending less time focused on understanding “why” your spouse is the way they are and more time on you and what actions you want to take. Stephen Covey talks about the circle of influence and concern. The more you focus and take action on the things you can actually influence, the more success and satisfaction you can have.
Like so many other things, we typically go through several emotional phases in response to this situation: denial, concern, problem-solving, frustration, anger, resentment, and acceptance. You may experience many or all of these, perhaps even at the same time or on a daily basis. I certainly have and still do. Here are some ideas for what to do if you are in each of these places:
Denial: Frankly, if you are in denial, you likely haven't read this far into my blog 😉
Concern: Get clear on why it's important to you to be on the same page and share it with your spouse or co-parent. Find a common value or goal that you can connect to and work on one challenge area together. This can often create momentum to tackle more difficult scenarios.
Problem-solving: Many times, we get stuck trying to “fix” the situation with our spouse, wanting to make it different than it is. Taking action and moving forward can be helpful. At the same time, make sure that your focus is on improving the situation for your child, not on changing your spouse.
Frustration & Anger: These emotions are a natural response to a disappointing situation. It's important to do what you can to manage your frustration and stress and, at the same time to clear as much of the emotion as you can. It's not the emotions themselves that cause problems, it's when we cling to the story behind them that they become stressful. If you find yourself constantly re-working past conversations, pulling your hair out, and wishing things were different (sound familiar?), it can be a perfect time do to some letting go. Make time to take care of yourself in these situations. It can be a powerful help and healer.
Sometimes it is also good to review the expectations you have of your spouse and evaluate how realistic they really are. If your co-parent has a different perspective on what's going on or is challenged with their own complexities, the reality is that you may be limited in what you can expect in terms of support. You may need to figure out how to prioritize and accomplish as much as you can on your own (or even get some outside support.)
One of my favorite quotes is: “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.” This doesn't mean that we can't ask our co-parent or spouse to help or do things to assist us. At the same time, when we hang on to the outcome and convince ourselves that the other person “has to” do something we request, it can lead to disappointment and, over time, resentment. Sometimes, our reality is that we can't change or control other people, so we do need to focus our energy and effort where we can.
Resentment: When we get into a place of deep resentment, it can be like walking around with a stone in our shoes. Not only does it do damage to ourselves, but it affects our kids and can even impact our ability to take action. The tendency can be to give up and do nothing. We think, “Why bother? Nothing will change.” Our lives, our work, and our kids suffer right along with us. We become so accustomed to feeling like this that we don't even notice that we are in pain. So check yourself. Do you find yourself avoiding situations with your spouse or not wanting to take action? Personally, I've lived here, and it's not a fun place to be. It's not healthy for you or your family.
If you do find yourself in this spot, you may need to get some help. Most of us can't easily get out of resentment on our own. Work with a therapeutic professional, a coach, or even a friend. Process the pain you are feeling, and find ways to move forward. Put your focus on your kids and what they need, and continue to try and do what is best for them. Let your frustration propel you forward. Sometimes that can be enough to get you back to a state of being able to take action again.
Acceptance: This is where the magic can happen, and often the only place where you and your kids can reap the benefits of your intentions to be the fabulous parent you are. It requires finding ways to cope, release, and forgive any resentment and disappointments that are getting in the way. Challenge yourself to get to a place where you clearly can see the situation as it is and can continue to move forward responsibly in whatever ways you can.
As an added bonus, some of us might even be able to get to a place of non-judgment: seeing the situation as a reality of life rather than something that is “good” or “bad.” (OK, perhaps that seems a little too Zen – at the beginning of this blog, I was talking about how much this situation sucked!) If you are up to the challenge, leave me a note below, and we can work on it together. In the meantime, keep on moving forward and taking action when you can.
The reality is that there is often no solution to this significant challenge that many of us face. The lesson is in learning to move forward wherever you are and to do your best. I hope you find support and peace in my words and in knowing that you really aren't alone in this journey.