Dear Christine: What If I Don’t Agree With My Co-Parent?

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Dear Christine,

What should I do if my husband and I don’t agree about family rules? For example, I really want to establish your no-phones-in-the-car rule, but my husband won’t enforce it. He often lets our kids use their phones when he is driving (or pretends not to notice that their phones are out). And when we are all in the car as a family, it’s too hard for me to be the one insisting that the kids get off their phones when they know that he will allow it.

Please help.

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Sabotaged Spouse

Dear Sabotaged Spouse,

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In Dear Christine, sociologist and coach Christine Carter responds to your questions about marriage, parenting, happiness, work, family, and, well, life. Want to submit a question? Email advice@christinecarter.com.

I know just how darn frustrating it can be when a spouse or co-parent doesn’t want to get on board with one of my fantastic (and science-based!) parenting ideas. This is a hard issue.

We know it is much better for kids when parents cooperate—when we are all “on the same page” and we “present a united front.” There are mountains of research that demonstrate that conflict between parents is bad for kids, and collaboration is good for them. We all get it…right? And yet many of us struggle to get co-parents on our page. It’s so frustrating to not be able to control other people! Especially when we are right!

I’m only sort of kidding. I certainly have given a lot of thought to what best parenting practices are, and the strength of my convictions is pretty mammoth. How can I back down when I feel so strongly? And my husband is also very strong-willed (and not a big reader of research or parenting books).

So, again, it’s hard. And also: We must carry on.

The first step is acceptance. We can’t change our co-parents, tempting as that might be to try and do. Trying to change a grown human is a fool’s errand. Not because people don’t change—they do—but because we can’t force change in other people. The only truly effective option is to practice what we preach ourselves, and hope it rubs off on our co-parents. (Besides my husband, I also co-parent with my first husband and his wife, my daughters’ stepmom. Fortunately, we are pretty naturally on the same page!)

What has happened for me, and what I hope happens for you, is that the other parents in my life notice that the way that I parent works, and they can see that what I’m doing is rewarding for everyone. The kids respond, so my co-parents tend to be more motivated to mimic what I’m doing.

However, I’m also prone to overhelping my co-parents, which kills their motivation. When we overhelp, we subconsciously send the message that we believe that they can’t do it without us. This can make them feel like they’re being criticized or like they need fixing, and that can hurt. People don’t appreciate it when their spouse (or former spouse or former spouse’s new spouse) don’t accept them as they are. Often, overhelping others gives us a false sense of power that can distract us from our own problems. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.”

Fortunately, we can still help each other parent more authoritatively by supporting three basic psychological needs related to self-motivation: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

We can support autonomy by backing off a little. Let them make their own decisions about how they’ll parent, even when they parent differently from you. This means practicing acceptance, as they are probably already parenting differently, whether or not we “let them.”

We can ask questions that help them build a vision for success and help them focus on the outcomes that they want. What does good parenting look like to them? How are they hoping to feel? And what will they need to do to succeed? Where will they need to ask for help?

We can encourage their competence by helping them build the skills they need. Do they want you to teach them what you’ve learned? What you are reading about in this book? What you are practicing?

No? Then take a deep breath and back off.

Finally, we can foster relatedness by building a sense of family. How can you find security in doing something together? Can you create common goals and common values? How can you make it fun to do together?

In the end, Sabotaged Spouse, the best thing you can do is to keep your own side of the street clean. When you feel frustrated that your spouse isn’t doing it right—or you fear that he’s undermining you—take a deep breath and turn your attention back to yourself, and to the things that are within your control. It is never too late for you to be the parent you want to be.

Love,
Christine

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