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"I Hate How He's Raising Our Kids"

Stacey and Patrick had opposite parenting styles. While Stacy was warm, fuzzy and spontaneous, Patrick was strict and disciplined. They fought constantly. Can this marriage be saved?
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The Couple

Stacey: 42, graphic designer
Patrick: 39, IT specialist
Married: 10 years
Kids: Jesse, 10; Sophie, 6

The Counselor

Samara Fabrick, Beverly Hills, California

The Background

Patrick and Stacey have completely different parenting styles. He's big-hearted but also rigid and strict. She'd rather indulge her children than discipline them. They fight so much about it that their marriage is in trouble.

Stacey: Patrick loves our kids like crazy, but from the start he and I didn't agree on how to raise them. Like when Jesse was learning to walk, he would fall or hit his head and then turn to me and cry. I would reach out to him to help, but Patrick would start clapping and laughing and yell out, "Great fall!" Then he would swoop in and take Jesse away from me and toss him into the air. He thought the tears were a good thing — something that would toughen him up, but I totally disagreed. The baby needed our love and support.

And it's just gotten worse as the kids have grown. Recently Sophie had a tantrum. She was screaming and crying, throwing her toys on the floor. I tried to soothe her by getting down at eye level and talking it through, and next thing I know Patrick is in the room forcibly pinning her down on the ground with his knees on her arms. I screamed at him, "Stop it! You're hurting her!" And Patrick just raised his voice at me and told me he was handling it. I freaked out.

Patrick: First of all, Sophie is fine. Restraining her like that calmed her down. If we don't nip these kinds of tantrums in the bud, then Sophie will throw a hissy fit every time she doesn't get what she wants. She uses these tantrums to get out of taking a bath and going to bed. I don't believe everything has to be a negotiation. Sometimes kids need to be told what to do. And this sort of thing happens all the time. Stacey constantly undermines my parenting and wants to do it her way, which is to "honor" the kids' needs. If we're late for school, I'll say to Jesse and Sophie, "This is the third time I'm asking you. Put your shoes on now." Then I'll come back five minutes later and they don't even have their socks on. So I get more forceful and firm with them, and Stacey says, "Don't yell at the kids. You're scaring them." And when I try to defend myself, she goes into victim mode, accusing me of scaring her, too. Then Jesse and Sophie say, "Stop scaring mom!" It's like she makes me into this horrible monster when all I want is for everyone to leave on time.

Stacey: I'll admit it — lateness is a problem for me. But I also believe in being spontaneous and not so scheduled all the time. I think that a child's pace in life is very different from an adult's pace. They're discovering the world and there's so much going on right in front of them. If you just rush kids through life, you're cheating them. I'll do anything to avoid conflict, but Patrick never backs away from a good fight. His voice gets loud, his body gets stiff, and he starts pacing around and slamming his fists down. I feel like this is a hostile environment for our kids.

Patrick: That's just how I talk. That's how my family talks. We're a loud, passionate family. When I yell it doesn't mean I'm going to hurt someone, it's just me yelling. It's only scary to Stacey because she's not used to it. She grew up in a laid-back family with hippie parents. The important thing is that my behavior doesn't upset the kids. Of course they don't like seeing their mom get upset, but when I raise my voice at them it doesn't scare them at all. Stacey will be the first to admit this. I've asked her, "Do you think the kids are afraid of me?" And she admits that they're not.

Whenever I'm with the kids by myself, everything runs like a well-oiled machine. Just last Saturday I took them for a hike while Stacey had a spa day alone. We had an incredible time — no tantrums and lots of laughs. Then Stacey came home to tuck the kids in and they told her they're hungry. I explained that they had just eaten a huge dinner an hour ago and it was time for bed, but she insisted on going down to the kitchen and making them a snack.

Stacey: Call me a pushover, but I'm not going to let my children go to bed hungry.

Patrick: This is exactly what I'm talking about. She gives them whatever they want and it makes me so mad. We had a huge fight that night.

Stacey: I'm so tired of arguing all the time. Patrick is convinced that I think everything he does is wrong. Last week I asked him to help with the kids' breakfast. He snapped at me because all he heard was an accusation: "Why aren't you helping me?" But that's not at all what I meant. Right now I can't say anything to him without him exploding at me. And when we aren't fighting, we just avoid each other. We don't even make eye contact. We don't sleep in the same bed. Patrick has been sleeping on the couch downstairs and recently he moved into the bedroom over the garage.

Patrick: We've been throwing words around like "divorce." We both agree it's time to see a marriage counselor because we can't fix this on our own.

Stacey: I want our marriage to work, I really do, but sometimes I wonder if it's actually worse for the kids if we stay together.

The Counselor: When I first started seeing Stacey and Patrick, they were fighting every day. They knew they had different parenting styles but they didn't realize that practically every disagreement they had related to their kids in some way. Their fights covered the spectrum — from their values and morals to communication styles and discipline tactics.

Stacey is warm and fuzzy — the kind of person who will stop with her kids on the way to the store to notice a caterpillar on the sidewalk. Patrick is all about getting things done. He likes rules and order. If the plan is to go to the store, they go to the store because that was the plan. She wants to attune herself to the kids' needs and bend the rules. He's much more task-oriented. She values spontaneity. He values consistency. No style is right or wrong — they're just very different.

The way they handled their problem was to divide and conquer. They would basically take turns with parenting duties rather than doing it together. That meant no family outings or vacations. Either Stacey would watch the kids and Patrick would go out, or vice versa. This was the only way they could exist without fighting. They both wanted to be right, which caused them to stop listening. One of them would begin to formulate a rebuttal in their head before the other one even finished a sentence. There was this constant jockeying and positioning to win the argument rather than to resolve it.

To make matters worse, they couldn't read each other. Stacey interpreted Patrick's emphasis on disciplining the kids as anger and hostility. Although he never lifted a finger to harm her, she was scared of what she called his "violent outbursts" at the kids. Meanwhile, Patrick interpreted her go-with-the-flow approach to parenting as overly indulgent and wimpy.

When they asked me if I thought that they should separate, I said, "Patrick's either going to move back into the house and you're going to work on this, or he's going to move out into a place of his own." The half-assed approach was not good for the marriage or for the kids. So he moved in with his sister, and I didn't hear from them for a while. But a few months later they came back and insisted that they really wanted to make their marriage work.

It was hard and painful — there were a lot of outbursts and tears — but they were committed to saving their family. One of the first things I had them do was put a moratorium on fighting. The analogy that I give is a boiling pot of water. You put too much spaghetti in a boiling pot and it overflows, and the only way to stop it is to turn off the heat. If they were feeling the urge to fight, they needed to go into separate rooms and cool off.

Next I had them work on slowing down and listening to each other. They didn't have to agree but they had to listen reflectively — meaning they had to repeat back what they heard the other person say until that person felt understood. This was a lot easier for Stacey, who tends to over-communicate, than it was for Patrick, who has trouble expressing himself. So I had Patrick write down his feelings and then read them to Stacey. At first she was shocked but then she was thrilled because she finally began to understand where he was coming from. It was so important for Stacey to see Patrick through a different lens.

Take the incident when Patrick restrained Sophie. Stacey was convinced her daughter was terrified for her life, but in our sessions, she realized she was only seeing it from her own perspective. She grew up in a household where behavior like that would be viewed as threatening, but Sophie is growing up with Patrick as her father. Kids learn their parents' styles very quickly. To her this was just dad being dad.

It took some work but Patrick and Stacey's marriage is back on track. He has moved back in and he's eased up considerably on his strict approach to discipline. "I've learned to be more patient, and I can see that yelling isn't really productive," he says. And now that Stacey understands Patrick's regimented parenting style better, she doesn't feel compelled to challenge him in front of the kids. But their greatest success is that they're making an effort to do more fun stuff as a family. "Next summer we plan on renting an RV and driving around the country," says Stacey. "That's something we wouldn't have considered doing a few years ago, but now we're confident we can have fun together instead of fighting."

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