Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mothers, be the bad guy once in a while. It's good for you, your children, and your husband.

I counsel numerous families per work for in-home therapy. One of the biggest problems that counselors see in triangular families (father, mother, child) is that the mother is often seen as the nurturer and the father is seen as the disciplinarian. I know many of us in New England are uncomfortable with gender roles. After all, we know plenty of men who are more sweet and kind in their tone, whereas their spouses are what we'd say, "wicked blunt." Now, rather than trying to prove this argument, because you and I know there are too many counterarguments to make this a deductive and sound argument, please just go with me for a minute. If you know the frustration, then keep reading. Also, if you're offended at my description of men as disciplinarians, that's fine, feel free to switch the genders.

What happens when the mother is always seen as nurturer and the father is seen as the disciplinarian? In dysfunctional families (which just means families that are not accomplishing their goals), the child will often hide behind mom's nurturing nature/aura/personality and use it as leverage when dad tries to set limits. Over time, the child will even ignore dad's pleadings, and he will then be seen as the bad guy. Eventually, mom can be tempted to play into this role when she really should join forces with dad when the child is being wilfully disobedient or ignoring him. After all, look at mom, she's so calm while dad disciplines the kids. But if this pattern goes on for years, it's much harder to break.

Don't we all want to be seen as the cool and collected ones, bringing peace when there's a disruption in the system? That's a tempting role to play. The problem is that rather than bringing peace into your role as nurturer, you're actually bringing serious chaos. When mom believes she needs to always play "nurturer," the kids will eventually ignore dad to the point that he becomes angry and isolated. When dad becomes mad, mom needs to be nurturer because dad's anger loses control as he storms out of the house. This doesn't excuse dad. I can write another blog entry on the need for men to be clear in their communication style and to not overreact. But dad is losing patience with his wife and the children. Slowly, he may just back off completely, and unfortunately, this cycle happens too many times. When these families knock on my door, mom is at the point of walking out because dad's not intervening. Dad's at the point of not caring and refuses to intervene because he thinks mom is covering up for child when she needs to be firm. This is what marriage and family therapists call the vicious cycle.

How do we stop this? We must acknowledge that both partners are afraid of stepping out of their comfort zones. These learned roles have been going on for years. It likely went on with their parents. Mom is going to have to be firm; something she may be terrified of doing because she'll have to take the risk of "losing her child," in that her child will not want to go to her for comfort. What gives her this logic?

"Dad's firm with the child and our child is not close to him. If I'm firm, then my child will not want to be close with me either. My husband and I aren't close right now. Where would that leave me?" 
This actually makes sense. What needs to happen is a slow process of dad playing nurturer while mom plays the disciplinarian. Rather than bringing disunity, they have (for the first time in their marriage) something in common, something to laugh about, and something they can work towards. It's important dad doesn't play the "I told you so" game when she tries to perform this new role. If anything, his role most likely needs to be more nurturing and listening. IF he plays that game with her, she can turn it right back on him while he plays that game with his kids. "Yes honey, you're not supposed to tell Cindy to "just get over it." She'll only cheer up if you take her shopping and buy her ice cream afterwards."