Relationship Therapy and Parenting Conflicts - Stories from Better Together
Partners often struggle to resolve conflicts that arise from varying parenting styles. Naturally, we want the very best for our children and we therefore try to offer them what we have found most helpful, show them love in the way we experience love and try to help them develop and keep safe in the same way we have. But what happens when these things are different for parenting partners?
Mo and Leila - Our parenting styles are so different – should we separate?
Mo and Leila met through their jobs twenty years ago, when both were in their early thirties. Mo worked for an employment agency and Leila was a graphic designer, freelancing sometimes for Mo’s agency.
Five years later they married and soon afterwards Mo left his job to start his own agency. Leila joined him, but after a year they decided that living and working together was ‘too much’ and she left. Mo, who sees himself as ‘determined, hard-working and strong on structure,’ saw his agency flourish. Leila, who described herself as ‘buzzy and creative, an ideas person’, decided to go freelance.
Though they agreed that they were ‘very different,’ they also had a lot in common and that ‘we were a good balance for each other’. Both had experienced discrimination in the past: Mo as the son of ambitious immigrant parents from Pakistan, who worked hard to give him a private education, and Leila as someone brought up in the care system. ‘It was go under or fight to survive,’ she said. ‘I wasn’t going to let the system beat me. I worked hard and I got into art college. I knew that was my way out, but growing up that way did make a fighter of me.’
Twelve years ago their son Jay was born. It was a difficult birth and from the start, Mo said, Jay was ‘a handful—never sleeping through the night, noisy and unable to sit still or concentrate.’
Jay’s little sister Suki was born two years later, and in contrast she was ‘an easy, calm child who just did as she was told.’
When Jay was eight and Suki was six, Mo and Leila decided to separate. The challenges of parenting Jay, and their very different parenting styles, had ‘brought us to our knees’. Mo’s constant efforts to ‘impose rules’ contrasted with Leila’s ‘hands-off, child-focused parenting’, and the two of them argued constantly. Realising that this was affecting the children, they decided to part, the children remaining in the family home with Leila, with seeing Mo frequently.
For a while, things seemed to be settled; Jay was diagnosed with ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) and he went to a new school where he was given a lot of support. Both Mo and Leila found his teachers to be, in Leila’s words, ‘brilliant with him and brilliant at keeping us informed’. In the process of the investigations into Jay’s condition, both Mo and Leila recognised that Jay was ‘more like his mum,’ and that Leila had ‘most of the symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), but without the hyperactivity.’ Though she had no formal diagnosis, an online test confirmed their suspicion.
After two years apart, during which they were able to co-parent ‘reasonably peacefully,’ Mo and Leila decided to move back in together. ‘We hated the family being apart,’ Leila said. ‘We missed each other, the kids missed Mo, none of it felt right, so we decided to give it another go.’
For the next year things went well. Jay was settled in his school and was ‘much easier’ at home. The family had found peace. But when Jay was eleven, he had to leave his school and move on to secondary school. At that point ‘all hell broke loose,’ Mo said. ‘The change to a much bigger school was too much for Jay’ and he began, in Mo’s words, ‘acting up— playing loud music in the middle of the night, vandalising the neighbour’s fence and arguing about absolutely everything’.
Once again, Mo and Leila began to argue. ‘Mo told Jay what to do, he told me what to do, it drove me crazy,’ Leila said. ‘Now I’m wondering if we should separate again.’
‘I wanted peace, and order,’ Mo said miserably. ‘I had Jay firing off in one direction and Leila firing off in the other and it was too much. But I don’t want us to separate, I want us to find a way to work together.’
Their decision to come and see me was a ‘last-ditch attempt to keep the family together’ and to find a way through the ‘parenting minefield’.
Towards the end of their second session with me, they mentioned that they were planning to build an extension onto their home, so that Jay could have a bigger room, further away from the rest of the family’s bedrooms.
‘I felt we’d all be able to breathe if we did it,’ Mo said. ‘But now that’s turned into a minefield too.’
The session ended there.
My Initial Response
I notice that my reaction to news of the building project is ambivalent. The aim is to provide more space and some separation between Jay and the rest of the family, but I wonder about its meaning for Mo, Leila, Jay, and even Suki. I find myself thinking of the tension that always arises for us around how much we need to do when faced with a situation that feels uncomfortable, and I suspect that underneath the building project decision is the alienation that they feel in trying to think together about Jay.
In terms of their togethering, I think of this as a tension in their engaging: they are misunderstanding each other because of the way they approach thinking differently. Mo is someone who thinks silently and alone, while Leila thinks aloud and with others. As a result, it seems that Leila experiences Mo as someone who makes decisions without her, and therefore most likely feels excluded. Mo, on the other hand experiences Leila as overwhelming to the point where he cannot think. In simple terms, while they are in agreement about what matters, disagreement between them can come from undertaking a project together and they have yet to accept that fact.
‘Can you tell me a bit more about the building project?’ I ask.
Mo puts his head in his hands. ‘It seemed like such a simple idea,’ he says. ‘I just wanted to get it costed and planned and to get it done over the school summer holidays.‘But Leila and Jay keep coming up with new ideas for it, I can’t pin anything down, and it’s getting more complicated every day.’
‘I just want it to be right,’ Leila says, looking animated. ‘I thought it could be soundproofed, so that Jay can make as much noise as he wants. And then I thought, why not add a little bathroom for him? And a door to the garden, so that he can come and go, when he’s older. And Jay thought if the roof was flat there could be a little outside iron staircase up to it and he could make a garden there. He loves growing things.’
‘A roof garden?’ Mo says. ‘Honestly, it’s crazy. He’ll fall off the roof on day one.’
‘He won’t, actually,’ Leila says, glaring at him. ‘We’ll put a barrier round it. It will give him something that’s all his own. He needs that.’
‘What he needs is clear rules and consistency from us,’ Mo says, ‘not his own property empire at the back of the house. I just can’t deal with the two of you bombarding me with your ideas and constantly changing things.’
‘Oh, you’re so stuck in your ways,’ Leila huffs. ‘And you don’t give Jay a chance, you’re always on his case, ordering him about, grounding him. Just because you were forced to fit in with your parents’ expectations, doesn’t mean our child has to be the same. Jay is a free spirit.’
‘Is grounding him so unreasonable, given what he did to the neighbour’s fence? You are the one who has got ADD and what with his ADHD someone around here has to try and keep a lid on things,’ Mo says. ‘He deserved it, and then two hours after I’ve told him he’s grounded, you’re undermining me, shouting at me that I can’t do that. So then Jay starts shouting about his human rights and the whole thing is a madhouse.’
Leila points at Mo, her voice raised. ‘I might have ADD but you’re the mad one. I’ve honestly had enough of your trying to control everything. That’s why I think we should separate again.’
Mo looks at her and then slumps back into his seat. ‘I just don’t know any more, I can’t think, I’ve no idea . . .’ he says.
Leila looks at him, surprised, and then looks at me.
‘Hmmm,’ I say, ‘I don’t think things are going well here.’
Leila sinks back down into her chair.
No one speaks. I feel there is something valuable in the silence, so I remain quiet.
Ten minutes later, neither Mo nor Leila has moved or spoken.
‘It’s time for us to end,’ I say.
For Leila and for Mo, the silence that followed my comment I don’t think things are going well here was the moment of surrender, the point at which they stopped arguing and taking positions and shared the experience of stillness and silence that brought clarity and the potential for communion and ease.
What Happened Next
Two weeks later, Mo and Leila came for their next session. Both of them appeared relaxed and smiling.
‘What happened after the last session?’ I asked them.
‘The children were with my sister, so we went for a quiet meal together,’ Leila said. ‘It did us both good, we stopped arguing and shouting and just talked. And we realised that the silence at the end of the session had felt good. It reminded us of something.’
She looked at Mo, who continued. ‘It reminded us of when we were first going out together. We lived in Brighton, and we used to go down and sit on a bench above the beach. We’d sit for hours sometimes, holding hands and enjoying the view.’
‘I looked at the clouds, mostly, the amazing shapes they made,’ Leila laughed.
‘I looked at the pier, its magnificent design and all the variety of life happening on it,’ Mo said. ‘So, we were in our different places but in the same place too. It was magical.’
Leila explained that after their last session and the dinner that followed, she had decided to contact a friend of theirs, an architect. Mo had actually suggested they contact him when the extension idea first cropped up, but Leila had thought it would be more fun to design it themselves.
‘Mo was right though,’ she said. ‘We did need help. And Troy, our friend, was great. He said he’d designed something similar not long before. He came up with a plan and a costing we could manage and said it could be done over the summer.’
‘He even got in most of the things Leila and Jay wanted,’ Mo said. ‘We agreed to drop the roof garden idea but to include the rest, including soundproofing which, given Jay’s proclivities, is actually a really clever idea. It feels good to have it sorted. We’re excited about it now.’
Leila smiled. ‘We are,’ she said.
‘And Jay and Suki? How are they doing?’ I ask.
‘Suki is suddenly much more engaged. I hadn’t really thought of her as being withdrawn but she is laughing, dancing, and singing in a way she hasn’t for ages,’ Mo says.
‘And Jay is calmer and more relaxed, a bit like he was at his previous school,’ Leila adds. ‘I guess that with both of them I thought it was just change that came with age, but now I think they were unhappy because Mo and I were struggling.’
It is hard when partners united by ideals that come from difficult life experiences then find that their relationship has become a further place of pain as opposed to the place of care and safety they sought. Leila and Mo first came together through their beliefs around equality and their shared experience of discrimination, but they found that they had very different ways of being. This worked pretty well for them in general, but they struggled to find consensus around parenting Jay. While their very different ways of being worked for them in other areas of their lives, in this one key area they could not find a way through that both of them felt comfortable with.
Underpinning their frustration and conflict was a strong sense in both of them that they did not want to separate for a second time: they wanted to find a way through, together. Their love and appreciation for one another was evident. But despite this, the row over their parenting styles was circular, going back around the same cycle again and again and I felt sad that their resilience and courage was somehow being lost as they came to see each other as oppressors.
Sometimes, I find that the best intervention is the simplest, and that is to state what is happening in the room. So I said aloud what was evident—that things were not going well. This statement of the apparently obvious allowed them to pause. They might have expected me to say something more, about what they could or could not do next, but my feeling was that there had been so many words spoken, and so many attempts to ‘do’, that a silent pause might be more productive.
A few minutes spent in silence can seem like a long time, but it can also bring relief and clarity. For Mo and Leila, it allowed a re-set; they were able to stop arguing and find a more constructive way forward. As is often the case, the prospect that something might be lost can be enough to make us stop and reevaluate.
The consensus they reached over the extension was significant—after so much disagreement they realised that they could find a way to work together and create an outcome that would benefit them and their children. It is so often the case that the business of living and the pressures that come with what needs doing can overshadow what really matters.