Parenting is a lot of work! But to be the best parents we can be, we have to take time to nurture ourselves as the people we are outside of being Mom or Dad. Psychologist Rick Hanson, PhD, and acupuncturist & nutritionist Jan Hanson, MS, authors of Mother Nurture: A Mother's Guide to Health in Body, Mind, and Intimate Relationships, are here to help! Less conflict
In this series of columns, we discuss how a mother and father can be a strong team in the great -- and sometimes amazingly difficult! -- undertaking of raising a family so that they have consistent parenting, a fair sharing of the load -- and fewer conflicts.
Through our professional experiences and personal lessons, we've found that a cooperative parental partnership has three key qualities: communication, negotiation, and effective problem-solving.
Communication is, of course, the foundation of the others. Recent columns explored civil and empathic ways of speaking, and how to give emotional support. This one is about being open and direct with your partner.
Core to core
Sure there are times to bite your tongue: Let's say a minor miracle has occurred during a weekend and you've been out for a movie/trip to the bookstore/workout at the gym while your spouse minds the kids. When you get home, kid stuff is strewn everywhere, and no one's been fed. A peevish complaint swells inside you and is about to burst out. But you remember who got the break and who didn't, that you hate it yourself when the first thing out of your partner's mouth on arriving home is a criticism, and that you can always make your point later. So you lasso that complaint before it slips through the fenceposts of your teeth, take a big breath, smile, and say something nice instead.
But there are other times when parents need to dig down and speak from their heart with each other. They may be prompted by a serious situation that requires nothing less than their deepest feelings, such as a child in the hospital, or by nothing more than simply having held something in for too long. What they have to say may be loving or angry, joyous or sad. But whatever it is, it is the real deal, and it comes from the bottom two of the three layers of our psychological self.
The outer shell of our self is the ACT, the active surface of our personality that includes polite sociability, the capacity to defend or attack, and a grind-it-out engagement with doing tasks. Additionally, the ACT is the face we present to the world, our persona, our mask, the person we want others to think we are, the person we want to think we are.
Everybody needs an ACT, an interface between themselves and the world, and it may as well be a skillful one, and reasonably appealing to others. A certain amount of parenting is about helping our children develop a civilized ACT. Below the ACT is the SCARED SELF, the parts of ourselves we don't want others to see, the parts we don't want to see, the repository of all the feelings and desires we push down or disown. The purpose of the ACT is to disguise and protect the SCARED SELF. The ACT is often the opposite of the SCARED SELF: the growl of a bully hides the fearful quaver of someone who feels frightened and small, the stern gaze of a self-righteous prude veils a furtively lascivious glance, the arrogance of an expert camouflages a fear of being found wrong.
Below that, in turn, is who we really are, the BEING, the core of our self. People everywhere describe the same qualities of the deepest part of themselves: awareness and compassion, wisdom, and a peaceful quiet happiness. We can sense it in others when they are most open, most real. When a mother and father communicate from BEING to BEING, there is a profound foundation of truth in their relationship -- and family.
We present our ACT to the world for three reasons: habit, caution about taking the risk of showing our SCARED SELF or BEING, and for protection when we feel under pressure or unsafe. Presenting our ACT says, "Let's keep things light, safe and easy," or "I'm wearing my armor." Either message signals others to stay with their own ACT. Then you have ACT to ACT communication.
That's fine some of the time. But family is about emotional closeness if it is about anything. When parents talk to each other mainly ACT to ACT, that says it is not desirable or safe to connect in a deeper way. Children notice. Their own acts harden beyond what is necessary, like the initially soft shell of a young crab becoming thick and stiff. Everybody may even be very nice.
But when they all sit down to dinner together, each being peers from within the innermost sanctum of the castle keep across layers of walls to other distant beings behind walls of their own. The air is thick with an unspoken sense of lonely isolation. If the years go on this way, it gets harder to find any road connecting one inner sanctum with another. When trouble comes, as it always does, there is less holding the kingdom of this family together.
Authentic communication occurs when we let our SCARED SELF or BEING be known to others. Then we are "congruent," the term coined by the late psychologist, Carl Rogers, to refer to the state when what is really true about ourselves, what we tell ourselves is true, and what we show the world -- are all the same.
A parent is talking in a congruent way when she says to her mate, "I felt disrespected when you criticized me in front of the kids," and she feels her hurt and anger as she speaks, they are present in her throat and in her eyes, and he can hear those emotions in her voice and see them in her heart.
She need not dump her feelings all over him to be authentic; restraint is not falseness. But mere reporting of one's inner experience, like a journalist's dispatch from a distant land, like the pseudo-intimacy of a person who has gone to Esalen too many times, is the ACT commenting on the SCARED SELF or BEING, and not congruent communication.
Here are some ways to help your communication be open and authentic:
When you communicate in an open and authentic way, you are direct, explicit, clear. There is no need to hint or beat around the bush. It's time to speak your truth.
When you talk in this way, you might be speaking about situations, such as the fact that there's no way around it: your son will need braces. Or your topic could be your partner. Your words might be appreciative or kind: "It really is something, how you get Susie to let you brush her hair." Or they might be confronting: "You have not gotten home from work literally once this week."
But in the main, the most effectively direct communication will be about yourself. Rather than "you," your first word will be "I." You will say things like: "I'm concerned about ______," "I'm mad that _______ ," "I really want ________ ," or "I'm sorry about ________ ." People might debate your account of situations or your partner, but no one can argue with your description of your own state of mind. You are the world's greatest expert on your own experience.
Whatever your subject matter, when you are direct you are invoking your right under the Constitution to say what you think reality is. The other person may disagree, which is his or her right, too. But that is out of your control. All you can do is communicate for yourself.
When you do that, your focus is on what you need for yourself in the situation, not on getting the other person to agree or change. If he does, that's great. But it's out of your hands. You're not locked on to him, watching carefully to see how he reacts, having him loom large in your mind, even larger than yourself, like a sun your planet is orbiting. You are unilaterally communicating what you need to say to feel complete. That could be saying you are sorry. Or going on record in some way so you know for sure that he or she knows what you think or feel. Or expressing something so you can let go of it and move on. Or just talking for a while in order to discover how you really feel about something. When you communicate for yourself, there is a breathtaking sense of freedom, of being fully present, of taking care of your own needs.
Here are some ways to help your communication be direct: