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Parenting from the Same Page

It's especially useful to translate general wants into concrete specifics, using examples of how things will be if you get what you want. This brings issues down out of the clouds of abstractions like "spoiling children" to solid ground, where you can actually do something. It lets your partner know exactly what you'd like him to do, and it enables you to tell if it gets done. For example, instead of saying. You're too permissive, try: I think you let the kids have too many sweets. I'm willing for the kids to have dessert at dinner, but not a candy bar in the afternoon, too. OK? Overall, focus on positive behaviors by saying what you want more of rather than less.

Of course, it's also all right to be clear about where you are unclear: I think we ought to try a new baby-sitter, but I'm not one hundred percent convinced; what do you think? Or: I feel like we need to push harder on toilet training, but I'm not sure how to do it; do you have any ideas?

To be sure, you need to find out what he wants, so you have to ask or give him the space to say. If it is not obvious, try to get at the wish or complaint embedded in his communication. Don't shy away from differences. Sometimes a couple will avoid conflicts by ignoring their issues, but the result is a relationship that is just not anchored in truth; the issues will come out one day, anyway, or some unrelated challenge - an unexpected pregnancy, a lay-off at work - could blow the relationship away like a tumbleweed with no roots. Ask questions even if you fear the answers: What is really bothering you? What's the most important part of this to you? What would make things better? What would it look like if we did it your way? It is okay to discover that your partner wants something from you that you do not want to give; it is all right if he does not love every single thing about you or approve of everything you do; you cannot please him - or any person - all of the time.

Prevent misunderstandings before they happen by double-checking. Ask him what he thinks you want. Or say what you think he wants.

4. Respect feelings. Communicating wants often brings up emotions, some of which can go all the way back to childhood. If these feelings are not acknowledged, they will clamor more loudly, like a child raising her voice to be heard. If you are nervous or irritated underneath, try to say so explicitly, because your partner is probably sensing your disquiet and may react to it instead of to the topic you want to focus on. For example: I'm a little nervous about bringing this up, but I don't think our child care is working out. Or: I'm getting frustrated that Amy is still crying most times you wash her hair. Explain why your wants are important to you, how they are linked to deeply felt values, and try to find out the same about him. If emotions are clouding your discussion, you may need to shift gears to talking about them for a bit, and then get back to negotiating.

5. Work out the details. Adopt a mind-set in which you are driving toward positive solutions instead of wrangling about negative problems. Study the times when all goes well as a model of what you each can do to make things work. Consider, at least to yourself, any payoff you are receiving from the current situation - such as getting to feel morally superior or like a virtuous victim - then consider the costs, and decide what you really want. You and your partner could ask yourselves, What would it be like to no longer have this problem?

Push to narrow your differences: It's not that I'm a Nazi or you're a hippie, it's that I think Latrell is old enough to put away his clothes and you don't. Or even closer together: Can't we just insist that he put his coat on the hook when he gets home, instead of dropping it on the floor? Since people in conflict usually overestimate their differences, chances are that you're closer together than you think. It's a lot easier to bridge a smaller gap.


From Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships by Rick Hansen, Jan Hansen, and Ricki Pollycove. Copyright © 2002 by Rick Hanson. Jan Hanson, and Ricki Pollycove. Used by arrangement with Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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