Feeling Our Way

Turn in the direction of the skid.

Parenting is a Zero Sum Game

Childless couples are “single.”

Functional couples are not entirely interdependent, just as a couple of ballroom dancers must, except during lifts and other daring maneuvers, be able to stand on their own two feet. This means that a functional couple must have many activities they do on their own or with other people. Sure, when you first fall in love, you have a tendency to put your friendships and work on the back burner. But if you try to stay like that, your relationship will become a death match instead of a life match.

Of course you’re still disappointed when you have a date planned or a meal made and your spouse cancels for a work obligation. But it’s a different kind of disappointment if you feel that nothing except your spouse can engage you. And, indeed, in healthy couples, when one spouse is busy, the other has plenty to do. As long as these activities do not threaten the relationship, all is well. (By activities that “threaten the relationship,” I mean hanging out with that person who hates your spouse, who encourages you to violate your couple-held values, or for whom you harbor sexual feelings.)

So all is well in the vast majority of couples if one member wants to hang with friends, go camping with old college buddies, or stay home and read a book. The other spouse has similar enticements. Couples vary in the amount of time they spend together, but successful couples don’t treat the time apart as imprisonment, abandonment, or limbo.

And then you have a child.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m glad I had children and never regretted the decision, even though I immediately started calling childless couples “single” and my own child “the old ball and chain.” As every parent knows, it’s hard time, and like any prison you can make it worse by constantly thinking of escape rather than finding ways to enjoy it and making it meaningful.

Still, once you have a child, your marriage becomes a zero sum game. Because the little buggers have to be watched, everything you take for yourself you take from your spouse. I suppose if you have enough money, you can hire someone to watch the kids, but in excess, that’s even worse, because then what you take for yourself you take from your children.

This fact alone accounts for many divorces. “We still love each other but we don’t love you”? That’s not what I mean. Instead, I mean that your spouse becomes a competitor rather than a collaborator. It can be a strange kind of fun to play dishwasher chicken, where each spouse dares the other to let the dishes pile up. But it’s not fun at all if it’s at the children’s expense, under which circumstances people cave quickly and resentment piles up. Under the rules of a zero sum game, it doesn’t take long for the children to seem like booby prizes and for your spouse to seem exploitive.

A good solution to this problem would be one that restores your relationship to your spouse as collaborative and to your child as parental. In other words, it just won’t do to add up the amount of time each parent is spending with the child and make sure that these even out. It won’t do because that method of equalizing parenting time maintains and exacerbates the definitions of the child as a chore and the spouse as a competitor. Instead, openly discuss how you can meet each other’s needs and how each parent can enjoy parenting time more. (The prospect of escape often leads parents to accept parenting time as a duty rather than as a potential source of fun.) Mourn the general loss of spontaneity that a child brings without giving up all hope of it on occasion. Mainly, though, the best approach is to recognize that many of your spousal interactions have changed from win-win to win-lose, and see where that brings you.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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