Ryan and Jessica never guessed that an alarm clock would send them into marriage counseling, especially when it wasn’t even theirs.

Ryan bought the clock for Dustin, their middle-schooler, who was always running late and sending the family’s mornings into complete chaos. Jessica’s repeated efforts to get their son out of bed drove Ryan to distraction. “He’s 12! He’s old enough to know when it’s time to get up! And if he doesn’t get up on time and is late for school, let him suffer the consequences. We need him to be more responsible. Coddling him won’t help.” I’m sure you can imagine Jessica’s response and the inevitable arguments. Everyone was stressed and angry as they left the house, and the arguments resumed as bedtime approached.

Couples who eagerly await children as a source of fulfillment in their marriages quickly discover that parenting can be a significant source of relationship stress. It’s like the early days of marriage, when you’re getting to know each other’s habits and approaches. Newlyweds who struggle over matters like squeezing toothpaste tubes and placing the toilet paper roll the right way have no idea just how divisive differences in parenting attitudes and approaches can be.

Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) is an approach our professionals use when working with children who have had difficult lives, but it also offers insight to couples who are feeling strains in their marriages because of parenting issues. TBRI identifies three elements that provide the baseline for successful parenting: empowering, connecting, and correcting. When our counselors see parenting problems affecting marriages, they typically involve disagreements about those elements. Husbands and wives typically look at the three elements very differently.

Take Ryan and Jessica. The disagreement about Dustin and his alarm clock is really about differing attitudes toward empowerment. But they didn’t call us for that reason. They called us because they were concerned about Dustin’s behavior and felt it was straining their marriage. As we talked with them, it became apparent that the real problem wasn’t what Dustin was doing — it was the expectations each of them brought to parenting and how that was creating conflicts.

Dustin was a typical tween boy, and we gave Ryan and Jessica some insight. But we spent most of our time helping them explore the differences in their attitudes and perceptions about being parents. The arguments had them thinking their marriage was in trouble, but the reality was that they loved each other deeply and wanted to succeed. With some help in understanding each other’s parenting styles and learning to find common ground, they were able to turn down the tension, even if they still struggled to get Dustin up on time most mornings.

Does it seem like being parents has been interfering with your ability to be husband and wife? Maybe it’s time to sit down with one of our family counselors to identify the true sources of stress. We may not be able to help make mornings less chaotic, but we can keep them from damaging your relationship.

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