Relationship Advice for Parents: How can we reconnect after a fight?

Question of the week: “My husband and I have a tough time reconnecting after a fight. How can we just be cool with each other?”

Dear Angela,

My husband and I have a tough time reconnecting after a fight – even when we both agree that the actual fight is over. How can we really let go of whatever we were arguing about and just be cool with each other?

Signed,

Stuck in argument purgatory


Dear Stuck in argument purgatory,

Let’s first recognize the fact that you’ve worked out the problem and come to a resolution. Give yourselves credit for that because not everyone reaches this point.

And then let’s talk about that thin layer of grit and grime left behind after a really good fight. It’s unavoidable – like the hangover you get when you know you’re drinking too much but you don’t really want to stop yet. I’m sure there was a point during your fight when you knew you shouldn’t have said that, but you were so angry that you let it fly anyway. And now you’re not drunk anymore, but you sure are dehydrated/feeling guilty/you were on the receiving end of the hurtful words, and you can’t figure out how to truly let it go.

I’ve lost the metaphor, but let me offer four argument hangover cures that are sure to encourage that feeling of reconnection.

4) Remember that – ultimately – you two are on the same side. This can be tough after spending an hour (if we’re conservative) arguing for opposite things or feeling as though you weren’t being understood. But really, if your relationship is fundamentally sound then the two of you are teammates who can disagree and then get back to playing together.

Just like Tim Riggins and Smash Williams.
Just like Riggins and Smash.

3) Pretend it never happened. This requires some Jedi mind trickery, which is super handy in many circumstances so why not master the skill for this purpose? I’m not saying forget what happened or the outcome of the argument – especially if progress was made or a new agreement was forged. I’m just saying pretend all the good stuff existed without the fight and move on.

Expect a learning curve.
Expect a learning curve.

2) Hug it out. The power of the hug is undeniable. Even a casual embrace raises levels of oxytocin in the blood – promoting a sense of contentment and reducing anxiety. These things are exactly what you need after a fight. You’ll also need to ignore the cynical voice in your head telling you to stay away from your partner because right now, the best thing to do is move closer… closer…

Permission granted.

1) Have sex with each other. I’ll see your hug and raise you two naked people. (Or something like that. I don’t gamble.) You see, another fabulous side effect of hugging is that it will often make you want more. Sex is the positive redirection of all that energy and emotion you expended on the argument. Doing it will remind you both that you have much better ways to spend your time.

(It always worked for David and Maddie.)

Before.
Before.
After.
After.

Ask Angela: I’ve become undateable

My husband and I recently made a promise to go on one awesome date every month. I suppose that when we made this promise I knew we might eventually have to break it, but I certainly didn’t imagine it would happen just a few months into the attempt, or that it would be my fault.

Perhaps I should temper my disappointment with the reality that my husband was home just nine days out of the entire month of March . Squeezing a super rad date in between his much-needed time with our kids, his parents visiting for three days, and my being sick for two could be classified as “ambitious.”

Still, I’m bummed. Because, man-oh-man, did I need to go on a date this month.

And there you have it. I needed a date this month. I needed some awesome.

I talk a lot about the importance of keeping your relationship lively and interesting – that these dates are just one way to help couples spend a little bit of time focusing on their very important partnership. I’m realizing as I write that I’ve forgotten how aptly that notion could apply to my relationship with myself, too.

In truth, we spent yesterday’s would-be date in our therapist’s office. While I desperately needed a date, it turned out that we desperately needed a therapy appointment. During Ryan’s time at home he felt like I was being extremely critical of his every move, from the way he drove to the sponge he used to wipe the counter to the way he cut the grapes. And I was, but I thought he should just deal with it because I have very specific systems in place to make things run smoothly when he’s gone. I can’t simply shut off the part of my brain that, in fact, does have to control everything when I’m the only parent at home for weeks at a time.

I was sure our therapist would agree with me and tell Ryan that he needs to give me a wider berth during his (what are essentially) visits home. He’s been gone for work most of the year and will continue to pop in and out of our home life until the fall, so he should just let me run the show and do his best to fit in. It makes sense.

Ha! HA HA! I can almost laugh about it now… Because what she actually said was, “Angela, what happened to you?”

Further questioning led to a confession about my insanely high frustration level, spiked in the past few months by the combination of working more than I ever have since before our kids were born and having far less help. As I’ve taken on more work (a good thing!) my kids are spending a lot more time with the iPad (a not-so-good thing!) and I’m left feeling like I’m not writing or mothering half as well as I know I can. I feel bad about everything I’m doing. And it sucks – it really, really sucks.

But far be it for me to actually say all of that to my husband. Apparently I’d rather let it out in barbs and jabs and tiny little criticisms that can’t possibly seem bitchy on their own, but taken in aggregate make my husband feel like he’d rather not be in the same room with me, let alone go on a date.

Turns out, if I’m not caring for myself the way I need to – the way I would encourage any of my friends to do, but have a hard time allowing for myself – I become undateable.

That one therapy-session-in-lieu-of-date made me realize that I have to stop trying to do this by myself; it’s time to find and hire the help I need. And I have to be okay with the fact that I’m not superhuman. I’m just a regular human who needs a massage and routine therapy appointments. Oh, and I need to take myself out on a date (yes, I said it – cue the corny sitcom music and ask me if I care!).

Ask Angela: Should we have another kid?

“Ask Angela” is a bimonthly relationship advice column for parents. Submit your question here with the subject “Ask Angela.”

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Dear Angela –

My husband and I are so back and forth on the idea of having a third child. We have a great family and life is good, but we always thought we’d have more kids. Should I just tell him I want to pull my IUD and convince him we should go for it?

Signed,

On the picket fence

In preparation for writing this post, I did or did not conduct the following Google searches:

1) “how to make a decision”

2) “world problems due to overpopulation”

3) “should I have another baby?”

I did. I totally, totally did. Because who am I to answer this question for you? This is such an intensely personal, situation-specific question! But I’m doing it because you asked and I care about you.

Here’s the full disclosure: I’ve never really contemplated this big question for myself. My husband inquired about getting a vasectomy before our second-born and I were even discharged from the hospital, and I was okay with that. Two kids feels right – has always felt right – for us. In that way, I consider myself very lucky because this is one of those questions that can plague you for years, and with the added stressor of having a perceived expiration date.

So I thought we could walk through and around this multi-acre dilemma to look for a few tell-tale signs. We can start right here, with a few reasons that should kick you off this path before you take another step.

If you can relate to even one of the following, you should definitely NOT have another child:

1) You already have a couple kids of the same gender and you really want one of the other gender. I know, I know, there are ways to increase your odds of conceiving an XY or an XX, but really? Really? What if you don’t?

2) You’re bored. You like a challenge. If this is the case, take snowboarding lessons or teach yourself Mandarin. Do not, for the love of God, bring another human into this world because you need a new hobby.

3) Your relationship is in a rut. Know what, almost everyone’s relationship is in a rut. Having another child when it’s your partnership that requires your attention is relationship suicide.

Alright, if you’ve made it this far, it’s time for us to start taking things seriously. You want another child. Maybe. You know, something you said stands out as a red flag to me. It’s the notion of doing something because you “always thought” you would. I “always thought” I wanted to be a lawyer, until I went to law school and learned that nothing had ever felt so wrong. I left after one semester.

Obviously, you don’t have the option to quit once you’ve had another child because you “always thought” you’d want more kids. Basing any decision on a line of thinking that came about before you knew exactly what was involved is a terrible idea. Particularly when, as I said and I’ll say it again, you have no real way to back out once you’ve moved forward. You need to make this decision by taking into account everything you now know to be true.

Remember the sleep deprivation that comes with an infant? Even before that, do you remember feeling like a parasite was taking over your body (or was that just me)? Be very honest with yourself when recalling the process of having a child. They don’t show up smiling and self-sufficient, that’s for sure. Are you ready, at this point in your life and the life of your family, to go through all of that again?

Maybe you are. If so, then we’re getting somewhere. I know how intoxicating I found the scent of my babies heads and the feeling of their downy soft wisps of hair on my chin as I held them (I’m even crying a little bit right now), but I do not want to do it all over again. So if you aren’t dissuaded by the realities of those early days and weeks and months, let’s press on.

You mentioned that your husband and you are both on the fence. Have you had a seriously open, no-judgements-allowed conversation about why? It is imperative that you both have a clear understanding of the other person’s misgivings. And if you reach a stalemate, then you have your answer.

It’s tempting to believe that, as the woman – the carrier of the child, the one with actual biological yearnings – your vote matters more. This is not the case. Don’t enter into RomCom territory by secretly ditching your IUD with the belief that he’ll come around once you’re pregnant. Don’t play the “you don’t understand what it’s like” card and try to guilt him into agreement. This huge, life-changing decision has to be mutual. Period.

If we’ve arrived all the way here, at the almost-end of my thoughts on the matter, and you aren’t just trying to shake things up in your marriage, you aren’t scared away at the prospect of returning to mommy-zombie land, and both partners are game – then I have one final consideration. It’s cold. It’s hard. And it’s a fact.

This planet is disgustingly overpopulated. Will the addition of your next child cause substantial harm? Not likely. But it is symbolic of the root of the problem – that we all just assume we get to create as many humans as we’d like with no consequence. That the Earth can sustain our desire for a big family, that it will continue to provide as it has since the beginning of time, and that we’ll all be just fine.

Listen, I have two children myself so I won’t even disagree if you say I have no right to make this argument. But it bears mentioning. So I mentioned it.

And on that colossal bummer of a note, I leave you. If you still feel like you want another child, you know what to do next…

“Dear Parent Co” tackles: How to stop keeping score

Dear Parent Co. –

My husband and I are constantly keeping track of who does what in our family – specifically the necessary day-to-day tasks. It’s become a competition and a source of resentment when the tallies seem unbalanced. We don’t do it consciously but I know it causes problems. Is this common? How can we stop it?

Signed,

Habitual Scorekeeper

Dear Habitual Scorekeeper,

Living with a running tally of who does what in your relationship is as common as, well, relationships. It often seems as if we’re hardwired to look for absolute equality in the parental responsibility realm. The thing is, it’s an impossible desire. The list of responsibilities will likely never be equal. So we’re doomed to spend our lives pissed off that we’re getting the shaft or feeling guilty that our partner is carrying more than their fair share.

Unless we work at NOT feeling that way.

According to my psychologist (who is a genius) this whole mess starts when we are kids ourselves – usually with sibling rivalry. We learn early that in order to gain the love and affection of our parents, we have to stand out and “do more” than our siblings. We start keeping track as a way to prove we deserve appreciation, recognition, love.

If you’re an only child, chances are very good that you received the memo about using competition to set yourself apart from any one of a thousand other possible sources.

When you look at the tit-for-tat situation you’ve got going on with your partner in this light, can you see what it’s really all about? My goodness, it’s still about love. You’re still doing this for appreciation. As my brilliant psychologist explains, “we’re much more willing to actually put in more to the relationship if you have the sense that you’re being acknowledged and appreciated and really understood for what you’re doing.”

This is incredibly good news; it tells me that you love your partner very much and you want him or her to love you back. It’s that simple. If you weren’t keeping track of how much you do for this person, it might indicate that you just don’t care anymore. This would be a completely different conversation if that were the case.

So let’s work from the perspective of someone who is very much in love and looking for some indication that your partner recognizes how much you love him or her. Here are a few ways you can start to change your perspective when it comes to the mental scorecard, even eventually (and with lots of practice) moving away from the habit altogether:

1) Switch roles from time to time. There is simply no better way for your partner to gain empathy for all that you do on a daily basis than to be you for a day. (Maybe two or three.) If you’re the primary caregiver this will likely require that you go away for a weekend or at least an overnight.

2) Make a chore chart. Ugh… I know. But having some of your jobs, the really mundane ones, explicitly laid out is a great way to eliminate any argument surrounding them. Don’t look for your respective lists to contain the same number of duties – rather, divide your household responsibilities based on what feels fair. If there’s a big, time-consuming job that one partner doesn’t mind doing, let that count for two or three on the other side of the tally. Be sure to also include a timeline with this chart. It’s important that both partners know and agree on when this stuff is going to get done.

Follow through is HUGE here. The worst thing you could do is to establish this agreement and then fail to hold up your end of the bargain. This leads to someone feeling lied to and betrayed. Can you think of two more damaging emotions when it comes to your partnership? I can’t. Be extremely honest about what you’re willing to do when you’re crafting this list, and then be honorable.

3) Think of all the good! My guess is that you wouldn’t be asking this question if you didn’t know, in your heart, gut, core, wherever, that there is a ton of good in your relationship. Make an effort to focus on that stuff more often. Do your part to appreciate all that your partner does for you – especially the little things.

And when your partner tries to acknowledge all that your do for him or her, make sure you let that love in. We don’t all speak the same language when it comes to this stuff, but you’ll know when someone you care about is thanking you. Accept that thanks, feel that love, and then give it back twofold. 

Conversation Hearts: Now with REAL conversation

I have an idea, and you may not like it, but stay with me.

It’s about Valentine’s Day.

I know that Valentine’s Day is a bullshit holiday that causes undue stress and anxiety when you’re first dating, followed by I’m-out-of-ideas type hopelessness in the middle years, and finally resentment or straight apathy once you’ve been together for a long time. It’s useless at best and harmful at worst.

But listen, we’re never going to escape Valentine’s Day because the 18.9 BILLION DOLLAR Valentine industry simply can’t let that happen. The instant the Christmas decorations are struck from store shelves, it’s hearts and doilies and waxy chocolates filled with nuts and nougat. You may not always know the exact day of the week it’s going to fall on, but there are forces in place which make playing dumb completely impossible.

So, what if we were to use the ubiquitous V-day hype as a reminder, of sorts, that it’s time for our Annual Relationship Check-Up. Yes, similar to the way my hypnobirthing instructor invited me to change my notion of “pain” to a gentler word, like “pressure,” I am inviting you to reclaim February 14th from the Hallmark monster to make it a day as simple and routine as your annual car inspection. Not the sexiest analogy, but again, stay with me…

I propose a Four-point Checklist to be used on this day for the purposes of evaluating and tuning-up your relationship. The Four Points are as follows:

1. Strengths: Because we all know the bad stuff rises to the top, that mistakes are what we remember, but things aren’t as messed up as they may feel. Start your relationship eval with the aspects of your partnership that feel right, that spark joy in your heart and maybe even make you proud of who you are together. It’s all there, maybe just under the surface, and once you start digging you might find you’ve got a full-on excavation underway.

2. Weaknesses: Approach this task with as much compassion as you can muster, and then gather a little more. Know that your partner is imperfect, just like you, and most of the stuff that’s driving you crazy in unintentional on his or her part. This is a good practice, albeit a scary one, and making each other aware of what you perceive to be cracks in your relationship is obviously the only way you can even attempt to fix them.

As you proceed through this list, remember all the awesome qualities you just discussed. Keep an open mind and a non-accusatory tone. Finally, speak from your point of view – the old “I think/I feel” statements. Laborious, yes, and effective.

3. Ask yourself : ‘Are we routinely spending dedicated time alone together?’: You’ve earned it – a “yes” or “no” question. Except, if the answer is “no,” you’ve got some extra work to do. Decide NOW when you will set aside time to be with each other and nobody else (especially not your kids). If once a week is unattainable right now, agree to once a month. If we’re working with the automobile reference, your time together is essentially a refueling. (And at once a month, you’re getting incredible mileage.)

4. Give a Gimme: This might be the most challenging item on the checklist but it’s also the most immediately gratifying. The idea is that you give your partner something they’ve been wanting – something you’ve known for a while that your someone needed to hear but you’ve been too stubborn to say. This could range from, “yes, I ate the last macaroon and then lied about it,” to “I’ve loved you selfishly for the past three years.” Whatever level you’re shooting for on the “Major Revelation” scale, don’t hold back. Own your shit! Take responsibility and give your partner the break she or he rightfully deserves.

Keep in mind, a good partner will recognize your vulnerability in this moment and should not gloat or become angry at your delay in fessing up. Ideally, the benefits in this exercise are mutual, as the satisfaction you witness will actually be matched by the sense of relief you feel.

I recognize that this idea isn’t exactly a middle finger in the face of a traditional Valentine’s Day, but it does take the whole thing out of the commercial realm and into the vastly more substantial emotional world. Roll your eyes or give me your best snarky jab, but then tell me: when is the last time you took a super honest look at the state of your relationship – as a team?

It’s not the sort of the thing most of us do unprompted, though it is the sort of thing that can have a lasting positive impact on your life and the life of your family. February 14th is as good a day as any, and this way you don’t have to set an iCal reminder.

36 Questions for Valentine’s Day

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[stag_intro]Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. If you’re tired of the crowded unoriginal restaurant dates or can’t score a babysitter, here’s an alternative date for you.[/stag_intro]

New York Times contributor Mandy Len Catron recently created buzz among singles and couples alike in her Modern Love essay “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This”. In her essay, Catron refers to a study by the psychologist Arthur Aron that explores whether it’s possible to accelerate the intimacy between people by asking a series of 36 personal questions.

The 36 questions are broken up into three sets, with each set consisting of more probing questions to elicit deeper reflection and responses. Catron tried this experiment herself with a stranger. She reveals at the end of the article that she later ended up marrying him.

“We all have a narrative of ourselves that we offer up to strangers and acquaintances, but Dr. Aron’s questions make it impossible to rely on that narrative,” Catron says in her essay.

Catron’s words remind me of some dating advice I took from Laurel House, a dating coach and former college roommate of mine. House suggests screwing the rules while dating to find the perfect partner. In Screwing the Rules: The No-Games Guide to Love, House says “the best way to create connection is to be open. Be revealing. Get raw. Talk about your core values and express who you are.”

House’s first rule to screw is don’t reveal too much on the first date. I had terrible luck finding the right partner as a single mom until I started following House’s advice. This is why Aron’s love quiz makes sense to me. The sooner you get real and raw, the faster you’ll find the right person.

This is how I ended up with my partner. We’ve been together for a few years now, but decided to take Aron’s quiz for fun. We went to one of our favorite bars and cozied up next to the fireplace with some cocktails and 36 questions on our iPhones.

It took us about two hours to go through the questions. The final part of the process is to stare into your date’s eyes for a full four minutes. We left the bar for that awkward step.

We didn’t learn anything shockingly new from one another, but the questions did lead to meaningful conversation and reconnecting. It was a fun date, and staring into your partner’s eyes for four silent minutes is a powerful and intimate experience.

Single parents will find Aron’s questionnaire helps them screw the rules and weed through mismatched partners faster. Couples will discover the 36 questions help them reconnect and deepen their relationship.

If you’re looking to ditch the ordinary and crowds this Valentine’s Day, Aron’s 36 questions may just be the perfect date for you.

Big Ups: It’s always somebody’s turn to be the bigger person

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It’s always somebody’s turn to be the bigger person

On our way home from a spectacularly great weekend, one without the kids that included a three-hour couples spa treatment, my husband and I got into a really stupid fight at the airport. As it was happening, I knew it was unnecessary and immature and getting more blown out of proportion by the minute. I also felt powerless to stop it – and there’s where I was wrong.

The truth is that I was being stubborn. We both were. I could have – if I’d taken three deep breaths – thought of at least four ways to change the conversation, to defuse the situation, but in that moment, I didn’t feel like being the bigger person.

Things did not improve hours later when I decided to revisit the conversation. I offered a half-hearted apology and got even more upset when I did not receive the same. Things escalated once again and I admitted defeat. “I don’t think we’re capable of having this conversation,” I said.

Cut to: our therapist’s office, two days later.

“One of you has to climb up on the ladder and look down at the situation,” she told us.

Get tall. Get big. And look down from a place of non-judgement where everyone is safe.

Had I done this at the outset of our stupid fight, I would have seen that when I aggressively sniped at Ryan with, “I don’t understand how you can spend this much time staring at your phone. Honestly, it’s alarming,” what I meant was, “Hey. I’m bored. Can you put your phone down and talk to me?”

And when Ryan answered with, “why are you trying to pick a fight? Our flight is delayed, and I’m just sitting here. I didn’t do anything wrong,” he could have said, “I’m sorry. I guess I didn’t realize I’ve been staring at my phone this whole time. What’s up?”

It sounds so simple in hindsight – so possible. But the clarity and maturity necessary in the moment can feel unattainable.

“Sometimes you have to look around ‘the thing’ to talk about what’s actually bothering you,” said our therapist. “Otherwise ‘the thing’ becomes everything.”

In this case, the false thing was Ryan’s screen usage. That isn’t what I actually wanted to talk about in the airport that night. I really just wanted his attention. But since I focused on him and his phone – a much more volatile topic – that is exactly what we ended up fighting about. Had I just asked for the attention I wanted in a direct statement, I likely would have gotten it.

Our therapist reminds us that humor and levity go a long way in these cases. She suggested simply tugging on his shirt and playfully whining, “heeeeyyyy… hellloooo,” as a way to snap him out of his black box.

But I was so annoyed!

Too bad. It’s still my responsibility to climb that ladder and look down on the girl who’s about to attack out of hurt feelings and remind her that she won’t get what she wants by setting her husband on the defensive. It has never worked. It never will.

Climb up. Be big. Even if you think you do it more often than your partner. And if you’re the one on the receiving end of a childish barb, take a breath before reacting. Try to get above the situation to see what’s really going on, and respond from there.

Couples Therapy Will Make You Better Parents

Last week I talked about a few of the reasons I think you need couples therapy. Now I’d like to expound on one that I’d place in the “So Obvious it Hurts My Feelings” category: Going to therapy together will improve the way you function as parents.

Even if parenting is not the focus of your hour on the couch, the permeating effect of the work you’re doing will no doubt reach the very core of who you are to your little ones and how you treat them.

Here are the top three lessons that my husband and I have found to be the most immediately applicable to parenting:

Words matter. Who better to prove this than my then-three-year-old daughter, who bristled when I jokingly told my husband he was being “a bad friend” for not sending a timely RSVP for a friend’s wedding. “But he’s a not a bad friend,” she said. “He’s my daddy and he’s a good guy.”

I felt like such a jerk, and was instantly saddened for all the kids whose parents insult, name-call and disrespect one another without a thought for what it does to their children.

Through the process of therapy you learn how to speak to and about one another in a way that is constructive, loving and honest. You realize that even a flippant comment said in jest or out of frustration can carry long-lasting consequences.

Messages are delivered and quickly take root, so be sure that you mean exactly what you’re saying. Modeling this thoughtful approach for your children will serve them well in their own relationships.

Your happiness is everything. This one seems particularly important for moms to hear and internalize. Though we’ve come a long way, as they say, women still tend to postpone their own happiness for that of others – especially our children. But guess what? Your kids are not happy if you are not happy. Neglecting yourself and your needs is a well-trod path to a sad little household.

[Tweet “Neglecting yourself and your needs is a well-trod path to a sad little household.”]

It’s okay that you need a break and it’s imperative that you take it. Plan a girls’ night, a date night or just a night off. Exercise. Do something that recharges your soul so that you can be truly present when you’re with your children.

They’ll feel your distance more acutely if you are absent-mindedly sitting right next to them than they do when you leave their side to take yourself out to lunch.

Your kids will feel about things the way you feel about things. We parents spend a lot of time wondering how certain events will impact our children in the long-term. Instead of trying to predict the future, devote your energy to more consciously deciding how you react to those events now.

An example: My husband travels a bunch for his job as a touring musician. I miss him when he’s gone and it can be a pain in the ass being the only parent at home for days or weeks at a time (sincerest kudos to single parents). But I have a choice to make. I can wallow in my loneliness and harbor resentment towards my husband and the requirements of his career.

Or, I can keep in mind that I’m lucky to be married to a wonderfully creative man who loves what he does and has the freedom to spend a lot of time at home when he’s not on the road.

By choosing to focus on the joyful aspects of my husband’s frequent departures, I’m able to share, in words and energy, a positive message with our children. When our daughter says she misses her Dada, I remind her that he’s away because he’s making people happy by playing music for them.

I assure her that he misses her a bunch, too, and that he’ll be soooo happy to hug her when he comes home. I know this message reaches the very important layers of her heart and mind when, each morning until he comes home, she wakes up and says, “Dada will be soooo happy to hug me when he comes home!”