This post has been reviewed for clinical content by Clinical Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. K
There is no doubt that having children increases the day-to-day mental load on adults. And we think that couples counseling for parents means working on your parenting skills. For us, however, what we learned as a married couple, translated beautifully into more effective parenting.
We have a pretty strong couple relationship already and make good parenting partners. So I was surprised to find that the evidence-based approach of the Gottman method taught us valuable skills for both our marriage and our parenting.
We had a clear example of that recently.
Video Games & Spending
These dynamics are not uncommon in many of our parenting and family struggles. Imagine this: It's Sunday morning and my 9-year-old son is playing video games.
He comes asking me to add money to his account so that he can get tokens to purchase some cool video game thingy. He recently got gift money and it was burning a hole in his pocket. He was excited to start spending.
This is not my department, so I sent him to talk with my husband.
The two of them went down to the game room and 10 minutes later my son marched upstairs. He was red-faced, avoided eye contact with me, and headed straight to his room.
My husband followed and started talking to me about the shameful predatory practices of the video game industry. It was an eloquent speech about how they hijack young kids’ brains to make impulsive decisions. This, he pointed out, carries over into a lifetime of bad financial decisions.
And, we had a heartbroken child in the other room. I thought that he should probably be part of this discussion.
Teaching financial literacy
Financial literacy is a very strong shared family value of ours and so we really wanted our son to hear this as a learning opportunity and not as a punishment. It was a small but critical opportunity to plant the seeds for future financial responsibility.
We needed to make sure he could hear it that way, and if he was flooded, that was unlikely.
Flooding and conflict
I work at Couples Therapy Inc, and my husband and I have learned about some excellent principles of evidence-based couples therapy. One relevant to our discussion is stonewalling.
My husband and I do not approach conflict in the same way. When in conflict, I argue loudly for my point of view and use a lot of words and details. In these moments, I sometimes realized that my husband was present, but wasn't really listening anymore.
He might be looking away, physically turning away from me or even walking away. I spent years getting frustrated when my husband would “shut down” in arguments.
Stonewalling is one of Gottman’s four horsemen.
What I have come to understand is that he was likely flooded at that moment. He was overwhelmed emotionally, adrenalin was kicking in and his heart rate was elevated.
Rather than shouting (as I do when I'm flooded) he was tuning into his own self-talk and checking out of the conversation. He wasn’t doing it to be mean or punitive but rather his brain could no longer engage. He was flooded. It’s a sign that he needs a break or nothing good is going to come of the conversation.
When it happens now, I am still a little hurt, and a little frustrated but we have a plan; we have a practical way to approach it.
Teaching our children to pause, with good role modeling
When our son emerged from his room, my husband explained how the $5 worth of tokens had to be purchased in $10 increments. You also had to leave your credit card linked. There were always going to be new cool things to buy…in $10 increments. Would our son know when it was time to stop? My husband was not yelling but he is a loud talker.
In response to this "conversation," our son was staring blankly at my husband. He was respectfully maintaining eye contact but he was not responding. His face was still beet red. I am guessing his heart rate was also pretty high.
I look over at my husband and mouthed, “He’s flooded”.
My husband stopped his lecture. He tells him, “I love you bud, let’s talk in a few minutes.”
Our son speeds out of the room. We reconvened to decide how we should handle it.
Integrating values into communication skills
Using principles from Gottman couples therapy we now have a shared language. I can wave a little flag called “flooding” at my husband and he gets it. It is a 'couple code' and it meant that I could offer him support without undermining him in front of our son.
Together, we discussed how this wasn't about $5 or $10, but about our son's relationship with money. It's an important issue for my husband, he was an impulsive spender in his youth. After our marriage, I taught him how to save, and he taught me how to enjoy spending once in a while.
We helped our son write up a plan for how his gift money and small allowance should be spent/saved each month. Now he has a few dollars budgeted for video games, snacks that mom refuses to buy, and toys.
Couples counseling and happy families
One of the privileges of working with this group of couples therapists is that I spend my days surrounded by relationship-positive people who are leading the field. Each weekend they improve relationship satisfaction and reduce relationship distress in intensive marriage retreats.
What is unexpected is that I can confidently say couples therapy taught me how connecting with your partner has not only made my marriage better, but it also made us more effective parents.
This is significant, much like financial literacy, learning healthy relationship skills can create a multi-generational impact.