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March 24, 2015

Testimonial Tuesday: Don’t Parent the Parent

Image: Flickr/Dennis Skley

Image: Flickr/Dennis Skley

From time to time we receive emails from folks just like you who are discovering just how revolutionary our content can be. We love hearing this — not just because it validates our materials but because it means lives are being changed. Our whole idea is to help people stay cool enough to handle any moment in the moment. We know that if they can do that, they can find the momentum they need to create great relationships. Great relationships, change lives, which transform communities, which, in turn, heal the world. So, we want to share with you some of the stories we get to hear — stories of life change, stories of transformation. Today’s story comes from a woman who helped her friend realize that she needs to treat her husband like a partner, not just another child, for the sake of finding some calm in both her marriage and her family.

Dear Hal, I had to share this with you. I had a long talk tonight with a friend. This friend’s marriage has some serious deep difficulties. She’s a marriage and family therapist by profession. I’m not. We talked for a long time tonight about the struggles she’s having. I noticed that she started every sentence with her spouse’s name. It wasn’t the right moment for me to point it out. Eventually, after talking long enough, she said, “I don’t want a parent-child relationship with my husband. I want a partnership. I feel like I’m his parent, like I have three kids instead of two.” I’m guessing you’ve heard that line before. Guess what I said? I told her that most parent-child relationships are too parent-child. She asked me what I meant. I told her that most children need their parents to be a little less responsible for them so they–the children–have a chance to be responsible.

At this point, I got afraid that I wouldn’t be able to say things right and I thought to myself, “I’ll just go back to being the supportive listener.” I said something like, “I don’t know if that makes sense or how it applies. Nevermind.” But she said, “No, I think you’re on to something. Keep going.” So I said, “I don’t know what your patterns are, but when you notice one–a time when you’re acting like the parent, you need to figure out a way to change the pattern. Your husband’s not going to start acting like an adult with you doing it for him all the time, especially if he doesn’t notice this parent-child pattern. But you can stop being the parent.” She started listing off instances where she acts like the parent. The very first one? “Whenever he starts screaming in our home, I tell him. ‘You’ve got to stop that, you can’t scream like that in our home.’ ” What a perfect example. “Ok, so you’re acting like the parent and treating him like a child. How could you stop being the parent?” She had no idea. She offered a suggestion but it was still her being the parent. I said, “How about telling him what you want? You could say, “I want a partner who doesn’t scream. I want a peaceful home.” We talked that over for a minute. Then she said, “You know what my fear is? My fear is that it will create a harmful environment for our children, that it will damage them.” I said, “Well, what if you told him that? You could say, ‘I want a peaceful home. I don’t want our children to be around that screaming. So when you begin screaming, I’m going to take them into another room until you’ve calmed down.’ Or whatever you feel you need to do. Decide what you want to do to act on that concern you have for your children. And then tell him what you’re going to do.” She was truly floored. She said, “Wow. That is a really helpful idea. I’d never thought of that. I can just tell him, ‘if you do this, this is what I’m going to do.’ Wow, that is really a great idea.”

Hal, I gotta tell ya. I was a little floored myself–that the concept was so new to her. But also, I liked this experience very much. I felt like maybe I helped, just a little. And I desperately hope she will do it–undo those patterns one by one. She also told me something that I found extremely sobering. I don’t share it lightly. She said to me, “You are the only person I know who has a happy marriage.” I don’t think I will ever forget that. That right there is why you must keep doing what you’re doing. And it’s why I think I know what I want to be when I grow up. Looks like there’s a book I need to give her, what do you think?