Why Parents Break Up – And Simple Ways to Protect Your Relationship

Why Parents Break Up - And Simple Ways to Protect Your Relationship

Raising children is wonderful – and hard, really hard. All relationships will face their own unique challenges but for parents, some of those challenges are more predictable. New research has identified the risk factors that can put the relationship between parents under pressure to the point of breakage. By being aware of these risk factors, it’s possible to work towards building the relationship against them. 

Research from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the University of Oslo has been able to identify the early signs that a parental relationship might struggle to the point of break up. The study involved more than 500 mothers who were interviewed over a 17 year period after their children were 18 months old.

A number of factors from the early days of parenthood were able to hep predict which couples would eventually break up:

  1. Criticism

    Parents who criticised each other were more likely to separate before their children reached 8 years old. In any relationship, criticism will undermine the intimacy, trust and respect within the relationship. It will breed insecurity and resentment and it will slowly but surely destroy your connection. Otherwise it’s fine.

    [bctt tweet=”Parents who criticised each other were more likely to separate before their children reached 8 years old.”]

  2. Maternal age and financial stress:

    Earlier breakups were also related to younger maternal age, financial stress and other pressures related to housing, employment and health.

  3. Child care.

    Couples who experienced ongoing strain related to child care when the children were 18 months old were more likely to breakup when the children were between 8 and 18 years old.

  4. Partner support.
    Couples who received little support from each other were more likely to breakup at any time throughout the entire period. No surprises there.
  5. Teenagers – no problem unless …

    Teenagers didn’t increase conflict between the parents unless the parents were already battling it out. For couples who experienced an average level of conflict, having teenagers did not significantly increase levels of conflict for most parents. Couples who conflicted more before their children became teenagers were at risk of experiencing higher conflict when their children reach their teen years. 

Some of these issues can’t be helped, but the relationship can be strengthened against the effects of them.

We only have a limited amount of time, attention and emotional energy. When kids come into the relationship, giving them what they need can leave little left over for each other. This is very normal and it’s probably something we don’t talk about enough. Though the love and affection might always be there, it’s so easy to take each other for granted. 

The quiet temptation is to wait for ‘one day when the kids are older’ to start looking after each other and spending quality time together, the idea being that then there’ll be plenty of energy, attention and affection to heap on to each other.  The problem is that often, by the time that day comes, there has been too much of a slipping away, leaving the relationship thin, brittle and without enough emotional resources to give either person what they need anymore.

It’s okay to struggle – so okay. And it’s normal. Is there a relationship on the planet that hasn’t? Not likely. Being aware of the signs can cue deliberate action with a view to strengthening the relationship. This can mean being more intentional with the relationship, or being open to seeking some sort of supportive scaffolding for the relationship if you need it, whether that’s by way of counselling, babysitting or family support.

Research shows that healthier marriages lead to happier families and happier kids. The stronger your relationship, the happier you are and the better you’ll be for those around you, especially your children. It makes sense.  

Here are some ways to look after your relationship when you have kids on board:

  • The deliberate 20.

    Find at least 20 minutes each day to talk to each other face to face. It’s a good one to be deliberate about – it will make a difference. You don’t have to tell me how difficult it can be to find 20 minutes – especially if you have little ones and sleep feels like it something that other people do – but think of it as an investment in your relationship. You’ll be grateful for it one day (and so will your children).

  • Chores: They have to be done, may as well get something lovely out of it.

    There are always chores that have to be done but if you can do them together, and be deliberate about talking with each other while you do them, it can feel like time together. Steal the moments when you can – anything is better than nothing.

  • Date. If you can’t get out of the house, there’s always in-house.

    Commit to going on a date at least once a month. Even if you don’t feel like it when it comes around go anyway – you’ll always be grateful you did. At the end of a busy day, getting dressed up enough to leave the house can feel like a massive stretch, but the effort will always be worth it. (A confession though – I love dressing up – I really do, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I can’t think of anything worse, so there have been times when I’ve initiated a date to a car park, to eat drive-through from the car. I may have done this more than once, so no judgement from me if getting out of your trackies and slapping on some mascara feels like it has a level of difficulty that’s equivalent to neurosurgery.)

    More than anything else, it’s about giving all of your attention to each other for a while. Wherever and however that happens doesn’t matter as much as the fact that it does happen. 

    If babysitting is difficult, try an in-house date – feed your little tribe, settle them to bed or to something that will keep them happy for a while and share a meal, talk, drink wine, hold hands and enjoy each other. (When they’re older, your kids will love that you did this.)

  • Pay attention to the good.

    What you notice is what will become important. The more you can deliberately pay attention to the good, the less power the annoying things will have to ruin you. Practice gratitude. At the end of the day, think of three things you appreciate about your partner. Research has shown this to be powerful. 

  • The Magic Ratio

    There’s a magic ratio in relationships that happy couples practice, even if they don’t realise it: For every negative interaction, they have at least five positive ones. Research has shown that for every negative comment or behaviour, there needs to be at least five positive ones to balance things up again. It doesn’t take much – touching your partner’s back as you pass him or her, saying ‘I love you’. The consistent little things matter – often more than the now-and-then big things.

  • Pillow talk.

    It’s one of the most intimate things you can do. It takes a deliberate effort though, mainly because when you have young children, and it’s any time near bed time, sleep will clamour for you like it owns you. 

All relationships will come with their challenges and all relationships go through periods of struggle. There’s no such thing as a perfect relationship, a perfect parent or a perfect partner. Remember that your relationship doesn’t have to be a perfect one – or even close to perfect – to be the right one.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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