Nancy: 48, ad agency manager
Paul: 42, ad agency owner
Married: Five years
Kids: Patty, 18, Peter, 15, Pam, 13, Grace, 12, Paula, 2
Ron L. Deal, Little Rock, Arkansas
Nancy and Paul are raising his three teenagers, her 12-year-old, and the toddler they had together. She feels that he's too lax, he feels that she's too strict, and the house has become a war zone.
Nancy: I met Paul through work. He was this decisive guy with amazing leadership skills. We had that in common. So when we got together romantically, I figured we'd have similar parenting styles. But as a father, Paul has turned out to be really passive. I feel like he lets his kids run the house, and it's driving me crazy.
Paul: I've always thought of Nancy as a kind of supermom — I like that about her. But she's right: We definitely have different parenting styles. Mine has always been a little more, "Let's have fun now and get the work done later." Hers is more, "Work always comes before fun," even if that means the fun sometimes never comes. And my ex-wife is even looser than I am, which just adds to our problems.
Nancy: He makes it seem like I'm a drill sergeant and his ex is really cool. Look, I know a little about raising children. I got married for the first time when I was 17. My husband already had a 3-year-old, and we had two more kids together (one of whom lives on her own now). I homeschooled all of them, kept the house neat, and got meals on the table every night. The children had their duties, and I made sure they stuck to them. Even when the marriage was crumbling, our daily life ran like clockwork. And our children had time to play, too. I explained to Paul that kids need structure — they need to know what's expected of them. But when I said I wanted to make chore sheets for the kids, he said, "Hey, if chores don't get done, no big deal. There's always tomorrow."
Paul: I agreed to the chore charts because I respect Nancy's way of doing things, and I thought it was worth a try. We also laid down some pretty strict rules for our teenagers about behavior, TV, music — everything. For example, Nancy insists that they leave their doors open, except when they're changing their clothes. The idea is to prevent them from looking at inappropriate websites, talking trash to their friends on the phone, whatever.
Nancy: Paul may have agreed to this plan, but he doesn't follow up. My daughter does what she's supposed to while his kids go off with friends, and their rooms are still a mess. We decided early on that we wouldn't try to discipline each other's children, so I'll say, "Paul, you've got to have a talk with them." He promises he will, but he never puts his foot down. Instead, he makes excuses: "They were up late doing homework. I'll get on them after school today." Then I come home from work and his kids are sitting in front of the TV again.
It's just broken promise after broken promise, and I get madder every time. We've gotten to the point where our fights can last for days. When Paul gets tired of it, he'll try to placate me by saying, "You're right, I'll do better from now on." And then the whole cycle starts again. It also frustrates me that his kids treat my daughter like she's a stupid goody-goody.
Paul: Look, it falls on me to enforce all this stuff, and I honestly didn't realize how hard it was going to be. I'll be paying the bills or watching a football game, and Nancy comes in to announce: "Peter's door is closed." I get up and go talk to him, and I get crazy pushback: "This is a complete invasion of my privacy! Mom says this is an outrage!" My ex has partial custody and at her house there are basically no rules at all. She's always telling them, "Your dad shouldn't make you do that. He's changed since he's married Nancy." So they throw that in my face. They'll say, "You don't care about us anymore, you just do whatever she says." The kids really know how to push my buttons, and it's hard for me to convince them I'm serious about discipline. Meanwhile, Nancy is always on me: "Did you see how Peter left his room? What are you going to do about it?" And if I don't crack down right away, it becomes, "You don't respect me enough. You don't love me enough." It's just totally unfair.
Nancy: I feel like Paul is more loyal to his children than he is to me. It came to a head a few weeks ago. Grace couldn't find her favorite sweater and Paul's daughter Pam walked in to dinner wearing it. Grace accused Pam of stealing. It was obviously true, but Pam said, "It's not your sweater, I bought one just like it." Her brother and sister jumped in to defend her, and suddenly there's a screaming match. It was ugly. The worst part was that Paul took Pam's side. He said, "How do you know she took it?" Later that night he told me it was my fault, that I was too aggressive, that I was driving him and his kids away. I can't live with all this chaos and conflict. I love Paul, but I'm like an animal caught in a trap — I'm ready to chew my leg off to get out.
Paul: I still don't know the truth about that sweater. All I know is that my kids and Nancy's daughter don't get along and our marriage is falling apart. I thought it'd be like the Brady Bunch — one big, happy blended family. Now I see how ridiculous that is. I wake up at 4 in the morning thinking, "Oh my God, I'm going to be a two-time loser if we don't get help soon."
The Counselor's Turn
Nancy and Paul came to me for a three-day therapy intensive — a method I use for couples in real crisis, when an hour-long session might be taken up with 50 minutes of arguing. They said their conflict was over parenting, but I could see that there were deeper issues.
Nancy told me that her father was an alcoholic who abused her mother; the chaos in her childhood made her crave a sense of order and control. Her first husband was much more permissive than she was, which was one of the reasons that marriage didn't last. She'd thought Paul would be different, but he turned out to be soft on discipline too. That scared her and undermined her trust in him. So she tried to "fix" his parenting. When that didn't work, she got angry and attacked him. And when he still didn't change, she went into withdrawal mode.
Paul was raised by parents who put their children first and avoided conflict at all costs. He'd learned from their example to be overly accommodating. The thing that scared him most in life was being rejected — and when his first wife walked out, his worst fears came true. After the split, he felt his most important job as a dad was to make sure his kids felt cared for. He found it hard to set boundaries. But he couldn't say no to Nancy, either. When she demanded that he be stricter with his kids, he said, "Yes, honey," even though he didn't really agree. Paul worried he'd lose his children's approval if he cracked down, and Nancy's if he didn't. He was constantly on the defensive, trying to be loyal to both sides — which meant he was also constantly angry at the people he loved.
As I talked with Nancy and Paul, I drew diagrams of their family relationships, past and present, to help them see how things passed down from their earliest days helped make them who they are. I also had them pretend the floor was a checkerboard; they stood on the squares and acted out the patterns in their relationship. They could see how their fears made them work against each other, one partner attacking and the other retreating in an endless dance around the board. I told them that the goal is to stop the dysfunctional dance, get out of that game and recapture the love and desire that first brought them together. But to do that, each member of a couple has to stop trying to manage the other person. With issues like discipline, it can help to think about where you fall on a numerical scale. If one is very permissive and 10 is very rigid, Nancy saw herself as a seven; Paul considered himself a three. If they could both move a little toward the middle — if she could get herself to a six or a five, and he could get to a four or five — they could agree.
I suggested that they try saying those numbers out loud the next time they had an argument. Nancy could say, "Okay, I'm being a seven now, and I need to try not to do that." Paul could say, "I'm being such a three!" It would help them reset themselves, and it would also let each of them see that the other was making an effort.
After the three days, Nancy and Paul flew home — they live in another state — and we did weekly follow-up sessions by phone. It took a while, but Nancy found ways to back off and Paul was able to step up more. His kids didn't always do their chores, but they began to show more respect. Nancy and Paul's trust in each other grew, and they gradually learned to work as a team.
Paul's older kids never really got close to Nancy's daughter Grace, but they're in college now, so things are a lot more peaceful around the house. And Pam and Grace, who were fighting over the sweater? Nancy recently told me that they like to hang out in Grace's bedroom — swapping clothes.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, May 2012.