Marriage

How adolescents can stress the parental marriage.

Having adolescents can stress the parental marriage.

Posted Jun 08, 2010

Marriage and just managing the relationship with each other is a challenge. Marriage and managing children is more challenging. Marriage and managing adolescents is more challenging still.

The simple domestic partnership of marriage creates the complexity of learning to live with incompatibilities, cooperating about sharing, and communicating about disagreements.

Add children and new adult roles are introduced into the marriage as partners become parents, start defining what mother and father roles will be, and shoulder mutual family responsibility.

Come children's adolescence, parents feel more embattled and less appreciated by young people who push for more independence through social separation, experimental differentiation, and opposition to authority. Now "the hard half of parenting" begins -- hardship that is usually harder upon the marriage.

When marriage partners think about becoming marriage parents they are usually shortsighted. They focus on the early delight of having endearing children, not on the later demands of having abrasive adolescents.

Although they will see their teenager less than they saw their toddler, because adolescents are more drawn to the company of peers and eager to experience life away from home, parents will spend more time preoccupied with the teenager. They will be more entangled with conflict over matters of freedom and responsibility, and more beset by worries over harmful conduct and social danger.

There is no point underplaying the stress that having adolescents can place upon a marriage. Letting go as children separate from childhood and push against and pull away from family for more independence causes parents to feel less in control but no less responsible for what occurs.

Making this pressure worse is when discord over parental contributions (who supervises what) or over appropriate discipline (whose approach is right) creates unresolved conflict in the marriage.

Perhaps rule number one when parenting adolescents is this: never let parenting decisions about the teenager become divisive of the marriage. Remember, when the young person is grown and gone, how well parents partner will partly depend on how well they managed their relationship during their son or daughter's adolescent years. Was it a time of unity and gratitude for each other's support or of intractable opposition and resentment for feeling abandoned? Did they pull together or did they pull apart?

I believe it works best to treat every parenting decision about your adolescent, particularly when you first disagree, as primarily about the marriage and secondarily about the teenager. "Should she be allowed to?" Parents initially disagree. Now they have to talk for however long it takes, while the teenager impatiently waits, for them to discuss and reach a mutual accord.

They need to feel "married" on whatever parenting decision they make so they feel unified and together. Maybe their solution is to say "yes," but setting conditions that address issues of safety about which one of them is truly concerned.

As for value differences between parents, they are not a problem to be eliminated. They are a reality for them to accept. All marriages are cross-cultural. Partners come together out of different family backgrounds, having received different kinds of parenting, being given different models for mothering and fathering, knowing different experiences growing up, and inhabiting different sex roles of being a daughter or a son.

When value differences arise, "Who is correct about the appropriate discipline", don't argue values. "I was taught that if you break your word you should be severely punished!" "Well I was taught that not all promises are kept, and when they're not there needs to a thorough talking to."

Who's right? They both are. And the more they argue values, the "righter" each will feel. Then from defending their respective positions, the more polarized the relationship is likely to become.

To "get on the same page" they need to translate values into the wants they dictate, and then negotiate those wants, leaving the value differences uncontested and accepted.

"Well, we both agree there should be some response to breaking promises - maybe something more than just a talking to and something less than a harsh punishment." And now the process of accommodation begins, the goal of which is to reach a parenting agreement that unifies the marriage and deals with the misbehavior at hand.

Then there are parental conflicts based on sex role experience. "You don't know what it's like to be a teenage girl, and I do!" "You don't know what it's like to be a teenage boy, and I do!"

Rather than discount the other parent's opinion or position, it's better to remember that two of you are always smarter than one of you. Combined, two parental points of view give a more adequate perspective about what may be going on with the adolescent and about what might be most effectively done.

Not only does parental divisiveness weaken the marriage, it opens up parenting to adolescent manipulation. Most young people cannot resist exploiting disagreement between parents for freedom's sake.

Growth is just a gathering of power from dependence to independence. The job of parents is to help the adolescent gather power (the capacity to decide one's way and make one's way and get one's way) in a responsible and appropriate manner. It is not appropriate to give the adolescent power to play one parent off against the other for manipulative gain.

Nor is it appropriate for parents to lose sight of family priorities during what can feel like the onslaught of adolescence. Parent must treat children, and particularly adolescents, as a third order priority.

Number one needs to be sufficiently attending to the wellbeing of parents as individuals so each remains healthy and strong.

Number two needs to be sufficiently attending to their relationship so that the marriage remains healthy and strong.

Number three needs to be attending to the adolescent so that his or her growth remains healthy and strong.

When parents come to treat priority number three as priority number one for a sustained period of time, the family becomes endangered because parents stop taking sufficient care of themselves and their marriage, and the teenager assumes more importance than is good for any of them.

A common example of this deterioration often occurs when an adolescent gets into significant substance abuse and frightened parents can think of nothing else. Then they are at risk of neglecting the maintenance of a healthy marriage and family to everyone's cost.

Of course, there are times when parents must set the interests of themselves and the marriage aside for the adolescent. There are times when special circumstance or crisis arrives (like illness or injury), but this needs to be a time limited sacrifice or else support for the teenager erodes support for parents and their marriage that support the family.

No question, great adventure of adolescence can place a lot of demand on the parental marriage, but it can't do so without parental permission.

For example, in marriage counseling the couple are at least together in this opinion: "Our teenager is the problem! Either we're fighting with her or about her! She's ruining the marriage!"

But I have to disagree. "Your teenager is not responsible for the unhappy state of your marriage. You are ‘ruining the marriage' on her behalf, and then blaming the ruination on her. So lets begin by talking about how you can take better care of yourselves and your relationship - the reason you got together before you decided to have kids. Then we can talk about how to do the dance of adolescence differently with your daughter."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Adolescence and accidents.