by Erin Mitchell, MACP
Listen to the Podcast: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/couples-counseling-for-parents/id1598800142?i=1000642908013
Ugh… as a parent, I have to say I don’t feel even a little comfortable with the phrasing of this question. It sounds blaming and accusatory and the subject being a child- I don’t like it at all. My dislike for the question doesn’t stop it from being posed by potential parents and parents alike.
My knee jerk answer is no, of course not. Parents can ruin a relationship, a child cannot. But if I’m honest, I do not actually think this question is the real question here. I do not think anyone actually believes the responsibility rests on the child, I believe what people are getting at when they ask this question would be more authentically reframed as, “Can having a child ruin a relationship?” And to that question- which is a very very different question- my answer is yes. I do believe having a child can be the event that ruins a couple relationship.
“Buying a car can ruin a relationship…”
I also believe buying a car can. A night out with friends can. A toxic work environment can. A home renovation can. My point is, a lot of situational stressors can be the ‘thing’ that ruins a couple relationship but the even more honest truth a couple layers down from those things is: all of these things are situational events that with good communication, healthy emotional regulation, an intentional processing of life’s stressors, regular assessments of how things are functioning or not functioning well, and a great big dose of some laughter and enjoyment, can be worked through and even make a couple come out stronger.
“…sometimes the overwhelm feels so thick you could actually touch it!”
Don’t get me wrong, I am not at all trying to say there are not stressful elements to having a child. Parents are sleeping less, having more money going out, have more demanded from them with even less time to give to those demands, sometimes the overwhelm feels so thick you could actually touch it! Coming out stronger in the face of a stress like having a child is not at all inevitable. It takes work. A lot of couples try to address it like they have addressed the previous major stressors in their lives. For some it’s ‘We need to put our heads down and we’ll come out of this fog hopefully sooner rather than later hopefully relatively unscathed’ for some its, “This is a divide and conquer situation. You stay in your lane and focus on your list of tasks, I’ll stay in my lane and focus on my lists of tasks. And maybe here and there we will find some crossover connection, but at least we will make sure all the boxes are getting checked.”
“You take care of your job, the kids, yourself, but I don’t feel like you want to take care of me.”
And then there is the one I personally relate to most (I am not saying I am proud of this feeling most accurate to me, but it does), “I am taking care of a lot of people, I know you are too. I feel like you do a good job taking care the kids, I feel like I do a very good job taking care of the kids, but I don’t feel like either one of us is doing a very good job taking care of ourselves. And if I am really really honest, I feel like you prioritize making sure you take care of your job (which to be clear I understand because thinking about you not having a job is very very stressful- but me understanding it doesn’t mean I don’t resent it’s place in your life still from time to time), the kids, yourself, and then what sometimes feels like a very distant final place is feeling like you are still interested in me and my world and sharing your world with me.”
” These are the things that add to the ruin of a relationship.”
Knowing these are some version of the very common refrains we hear from couples it makes sense that couples would feel disconnected from their partner and that their relationship would suffer in becoming parents. But did the child do that? Nope. Not even a little. Not at all. The added stressors of becoming a parent with no plan for how to introduce and keep up with stress management tools and practices added to it. The conflict that kept turning into dead end fights added to it. The feeling of being last on one another’s priority lists added to it. The reality of the inequity in the division of labor with no movement to change it added to it. The defensiveness and attacks when trying to be heard added to it. These are the things that add to the ruin of a relationship.
“Do you know what a child can do to a relationship?”
Do you know what a child can do to a relationship? Create connection and wonder. Create moments of amazement you didn’t know were possible. Bring more joy and love to a soul than anyone knew that they had space and capacity for. A child brings themselves to the world and their self is always a good and wonderful gift. Our job as their parents is to work on ourself to make sure we are managing our stress and overwhelm and continue building connection and intention to our couple relationship, after all a healthy couple relationship does create safety and security in our children.