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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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