Question: Since my 6-year-old daughter was born, my husband has been traveling for work 50 to 75 percent of the time. Re-entry after travel is really difficult for all concerned. The biggest issue is setting limits and aligning our parenting. My husband cannot set limits to save his life, and try as I might to express needs and remedies, I am not able to get through to him. I’ve gone to parenting classes; he doesn’t like them. We’ve gone to child development and marriage counselors repeatedly for a wide variety of issues, this among them. Nothing seems to be working to align our parenting. When he is home, my daughter throws tantrums, acts helpless and refuses to do what I ask her to do. I also often find that even when he and I reach agreement on how to set limits, he reneges and gives in to my daughter when she presses him in the slightest. Suffice it to say, there is a lot of upheaval in the house when he comes home. Please advise.
Answer: I know that what I am about to say may make you gnash your teeth and tear out your hair, but here goes: Let’s leave everyone alone for a while.
Stop trying to make your husband do something he is clearly not going to do. Go a little easy on the boundaries with your daughter.
Since you are the captain of this stressful ship, I imagine that the idea of relinquishing any control may set you into a panic. So, slowly unpack the dynamic of your family and get some perspective that can help relax this a little.
When your husband is traveling, your daughter is now old enough to wait, watch and worry for him. Her nervous system is alerted to the fact he is gone and, like a typical 6-year-old, she is not enjoying the boundaries set by you. She equates your husband’s arrival to the fulfillment of all her young-girl desires, and this is awesome for her! And why wouldn’t it be? When he attempts to hold a boundary, she pushes back and her upset is too much for him to bear. So back into the same cycle we go.
This moving boundary is setting a problematic dynamic, and I am imagining this is how it goes:
1. You and your husband set up a plan to hold a boundary (which is mostly your idea and at your insistence).
2. Your husband is unable to see your daughter upset. When he holds the boundary and she presses him, he acquiesces. Maybe the guilt from his traveling is too much for him to bear? Maybe he felt unloved by the adults in his life growing up? Maybe his role models showed him that love is giving in? Why he can’t hold a boundary is the key to unlocking how he can move toward positive parenting change.
3. When she is pushing back, this is your daughter becoming in charge of him. While many parents assume that this would bring some relief to the child, it only makes her more anxious and needy. The demands on your husband keep coming.
4. As she increases her demands, your frustration, anger and resentment build. You see that he is not holding up his end of the bargain, you believe that all of your hard work is being undone, and you vacillate among frustration, anger and hopelessness. Watching your daughter run the show forces you to take control of everyone, which makes you feel like you are the only adult in the house.
Your husband appears to have made many good-faith efforts to go to counseling, though I don’t know if he went to obey you, to appease you, or to truly try to change. But there is hope in the fact that he keeps trying. I strongly suggest he see his own therapist (alone) to better understand his own issues with boundaries and his relationship with his daughter, as well as his relationship with you.
I also don’t know how much therapy you have attended on your own. I know that you identify this problem as existing only in your husband (and believe me, I get it), but I strongly suggest you see a therapist in order to safely vent your frustrations, take a look at “the other issues” you mention, and take a peek at any control issues you may have.
It’s unrealistic to expect your household to run the same when your husband is home as when he is traveling. Your daughter has a completely different relationship with him, as every child does with each parent. He is another human with needs, desires, insecurities, so his presence is going cause disruption. Instead of expecting no changes to the family, meeting with a therapist can help you find simple ways to make room for him.
A therapist will also help you come to accept that there is no true parity in parenting. Sure, blogs and articles will talk about equal sharing of chores, work hours and child care. But true co-parenting is a dance, and as in all dances there is one who follows and one who leads. These roles can switch, and in some relationships they can switch quickly and almost seamlessly. Some relationships have roles that remain more static. In others, you have the couple fighting to both lead at the same time. And in other relationships, neither partner wants to call the shots.
The only thing that matters is that your dance works for you and your family.
Please see a therapist to understand the dance with your husband, your part in it, what you can let go of and what you simply can’t. You have the right to have your feelings heard and understood, and to make a plan for the future.
Finally, let me bring you some peace of mind: Whatever rules and boundaries you have set with your daughter are not being undone by your husband. Not in the way that you think.
Children have the capacity to adapt to many caregivers. This means that the rules you create belong to your relationship with your daughter. This also means that the rules your husband creates (or doesn’t) belong to his relationship with your daughter. Do such differences create a problem? They can slow down maturity, yes, but please trust that your daughter is receiving limits and safety for a good bit of her childhood. She will take that right into early adulthood. Your parenting — and your husband’s — matters.
Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A with Leahy at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past columns. Her next chat is scheduled for April 15.