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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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