"He's a Wimpy Dad and Lets Our Kids Run Our Lives"

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The Counselor's Turn

Nancy and Paul came to me for a three-day therapy intensive -- a method I use for couples in real crisis, when an hour-long session might be taken up with 50 minutes of arguing. They said their conflict was over parenting, but I could see that there were deeper issues.

Nancy told me that her father was an alcoholic who abused her mother; the chaos in her childhood made her crave a sense of order and control. Her first husband was much more permissive than she was, which was one of the reasons that marriage didn't last. She'd thought Paul would be different, but he turned out to be soft on discipline too. That scared her and undermined her trust in him. So she tried to "fix" his parenting. When that didn't work, she got angry and attacked him. And when he still didn't change, she went into withdrawal mode.

Paul was raised by parents who put their children first and avoided conflict at all costs. He'd learned from their example to be overly accommodating. The thing that scared him most in life was being rejected -- and when his first wife walked out, his worst fears came true. After the split, he felt his most important job as a dad was to make sure his kids felt cared for. He found it hard to set boundaries. But he couldn't say no to Nancy, either. When she demanded that he be stricter with his kids, he said, "Yes, honey," even though he didn't really agree. Paul worried he'd lose his children's approval if he cracked down, and Nancy's if he didn't. He was constantly on the defensive, trying to be loyal to both sides -- which meant he was also constantly angry at the people he loved.

As I talked with Nancy and Paul, I drew diagrams of their family relationships, past and present, to help them see how things passed down from their earliest days helped make them who they are. I also had them pretend the floor was a checkerboard; they stood on the squares and acted out the patterns in their relationship. They could see how their fears made them work against each other, one partner attacking and the other retreating in an endless dance around the board. I told them that the goal is to stop the dysfunctional dance, get out of that game and recapture the love and desire that first brought them together. But to do that, each member of a couple has to stop trying to manage the other person. With issues like discipline, it can help to think about where you fall on a numerical scale. If one is very permissive and 10 is very rigid, Nancy saw herself as a seven; Paul considered himself a three. If they could both move a little toward the middle -- if she could get herself to a six or a five, and he could get to a four or five -- they could agree.

I suggested that they try saying those numbers out loud the next time they had an argument. Nancy could say, "Okay, I'm being a seven now, and I need to try not to do that." Paul could say, "I'm being such a three!" It would help them reset themselves, and it would also let each of them see that the other was making an effort.

After the three days, Nancy and Paul flew home -- they live in another state -- and we did weekly follow-up sessions by phone. It took a while, but Nancy found ways to back off and Paul was able to step up more. His kids didn't always do their chores, but they began to show more respect. Nancy and Paul's trust in each other grew, and they gradually learned to work as a team.

Paul's older kids never really got close to Nancy's daughter Grace, but they're in college now, so things are a lot more peaceful around the house. And Pam and Grace, who were fighting over the sweater? Nancy recently told me that they like to hang out in Grace's bedroom -- swapping clothes.

Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.


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