The Dangers of Partnering While Mating

In the Sept/Oct, 2012 issue of Psychology Today, a short article, “The Beauty of Benign Neglect,” resonates with me today as it did 6 years ago. “Parents lack (a) trust in children’s desire to be competent and that nature will influence the course of development.” Attachment parenting strategies have much to recommend but they can become radicalized and misconstrued as an all or nothing polarity situation. I will speak more about this later.

The Couples Counseling Debate – Independence Versus Dependency

In the world of couples counseling, there is one popular belief that mutual independence is crucial to coupledom (promoted by Schnarch, among others), whereas, on the other end of the spectrum is the belief that a good relationship requires an acceptance of healthy mutual dependency (Tatkin, Hendrix, Gottman, and others). As a perinatal couples counselor, I land squarely in the latter camp. I work entirely with premarital and new parents and it has become increasingly clear to me that partnering while mating is treacherous territory. Of course, partners should be sufficiently secure with themselves to be able to tolerate the inevitable ups and downs of a committed relationship. It requires a good deal of ego strength to know when to confront problems and when to let them go. If one has autonomy of mind, one will have the understanding that their mate cannot fulfill all their wishes and desires. A fragile ego, on the other hand, will be easily wounded and depending on their attachment history, may have difficulty recovering from the perceived blows. Such individuals might have learned that it is smart to distrust others, that no understanding or gratification is even possible, and therefore, decide it is a waste of time to express one’s needs. These persons will suffer from resentment – avoiding arguments at all costs and instead harboring toxic feelings. The feelings will need to go somewhere, often manifesting as low sexual energy, depression, and physical symptoms.

Cultivating a sense of trust in one’s partner allows for the expression of one’s needs and the expectation that they will be met (or not, with good reason). In my opinion, this is the hallmark of long-term relationship success. The metaphor of being “in the boat together” evokes this phenomenon well. If one tips the boat over, both fall in the water, leaving each partner equally responsible for maintaining each other’s physiological states of affect regulation – this is the ability to stay calm during difficult emotions. When I think of healthy dependency, the “zone of proximal development” comes to mind, which is where development occurs as long as there is sufficient “scaffolding” from another. I use this approach while working with couples premaritally, post-marital/procreation, or once married with children.

Sex Is In the Head – Partnering While Mating

If a couple is able to emotionally connect, help one another feel valued, and then have children, their dynamics will likely change – and they will manage to find ways to continue to connect. If there isn’t a strong emotional foundation, however, the center will not hold and the first thing to go will be sexual intimacy. Understandably, being bone tired, emotionally drained, and being busy with the LO, are not aphrodisiacs for hot sex. Nevertheless, here is when some good ‘ol benign neglect comes into play. Relationships don’t run on automatic pilot. Allowing time alone with one another is essential, even if you don’t really feel like it. Get the babysitter lined up, take a nice shower, and show up for your partner. Sex needs to be cultivated, like a good artichoke plant. Good soil, water, and added nutrients are necessary conditions for the flowering of an artichoke; same thing applies to your partner relationship. It needs to be tended to like a garden. Guilt plays an enormous part in this issue. I often hear objections that the child is innocent but the partner is an adult and should be more understanding. I also hear that economic stressors are a real buzz kill. I call BS on both of these excuses. Both men and women need to feel loved, valued, and accepted before the erotic fire is ignited. Life happens but maintaining sexual intimacy – this means hugs and kisses, not necessarily intercourse, should still be a priority. That is, if one or the other desires it. If both are okay with a sexless relationship (temporary or permanent), it isn’t a problem and one shouldn’t make it one.

Sex starts with mental kindling like dinner, a run on the beach, a party with some friends – anything that gets you out of the house together and enjoying one another. I am here to say that your baby will be fine. In fact, your baby will be more than fine because he will have loving parents who want to stay together for the long haul.

Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

annabellesmallDeborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist,  Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.

Posted in Attachment, Behavioral Problems, Children, Connection, Development, Hard Feelings, Intimacy, Love, Mindful Parenting, Mommy Guilt, Parenting, Parenting Tips, Rejection, Social Connection, Special Time | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

When Things Fall Apart With Your Toddler

You’re having a great time with your little one when suddenly things take a turn for the worse.  How do you turn things back around?

Difficult times with your toddler can actually be rich opportunities to connect if you approach the situation mindfully.  I know in the moment you just want your child’s “big feelings” to Go Away.  Studies show, however, that this is exactly when the attachment system kicks in – the opportunity for us as parents to provide our little ones with a lifelong sense of security and trust in others beginning with trust in us.  A secure attachment is when the child finds the parent to be their “safe haven” in times of distress.

When you become angry or punish your child with a time out, your child may show increased anger due to separation anxiety or display withdrawal behaviors indicating that she has decided “no one is there to help me when I am upset”. Inadvertently, your angry reaction could be interpreted by your child as, “your negative feelings are unacceptable to me, please do not show them to me”.  Using parental reflective functioning (or mindfulness) to help your child cope with his/her frustrations, your child’s anger will more likely turn into sadness, displays of dependency, and finally, loving feelings.

The mindfulness tips below will help you to respond to the emotions rather than the behavior.  This approach builds deep, everlasting trust, but requires a bit of inner work:

  1. First, ask yourself what the behavior is triggering in you and why.
  2. Second, ask yourself what your child might be communicating.
  3. Third, respond to the underlying feelings. They often reflect an unmet need, wish, want, fantasy, desire, or all of the above. This must be understood but not necessarily gratified. Empathize, but don’t give in even when the feelings become more challenging.

Reflective function, or mindfulness, allows you to respond with a calm, centered state of mind. Once calm, you are more able to practice the art of observation followed by narration in order to communicate more effectively with your child.

For example, how does your child currently respond when stressed or frustrated?  Does she throw herself on to the floor screaming bloody murder, push you away demanding “to be left alone”, or run into your arms seeking comfort and containment? Optimally, your answer is the last one.  Once clear about this, ask yourself what he/she might be communicating, and how you can assist.

Using narration technique (or “sportscasting”), will let your child know that you understand what’s going on (“I see you are not ready to stop playing”). Remember: If she’s giving you a hard time, she’s having a hard time, so focus with compassion on what she is going through, good, bad, right or wrong.  Stating her point of view does not necessarily mean agreeing with it. (“Not wanting mommy to give you your bath. You aren’t ready yet.”). Then, offer a solution and set a limit (“So in 5 minutes you can either get into the bath all by yourself or I’ll help you. You can choose.”)

Notice what happens when you validate her experience before setting the limit. Often, respect and understanding is all she really wanted.  Once she feels your empathy, she will usually calm down and cooperate. If she is still upset, stay with her experience, narrating “now I’m going to help you into the bath. You’re not yet able to stop your body but I don’t like being hit so I’m going to stop your body.”).  Bearing witness to your child’s struggle without trying to fix it — or condone it — is a true gift.  Equanimity is a mindful parent’s best tool.

Deborah and the Well Baby Center Family

annabellesmallDeborah Groening Rother is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Doctor of Psychology (PsyD), and Certified Infant-Parent Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Clinic Director of Well Baby Center.


Posted in Children, Correcting Behavior vs. Talking About Feelings., Discipline, Loving Discipline, Mindful Parenting, Parent-child relationship, Parenting, Parenting Tips, Uncategorized, Value of Emotions | Leave a comment