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 shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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