by Jamie C. Williamson, PhD
Around Father’s Day traditional and new media produce pithy articles about the characteristics of great fathers. These lists typically include valuable advice like: spend time with your children, discipline with love, be a role model for good behavior, teach your kids to appreciate what they have (don’t be an ATM), read to them, play with them, listen to them, always put their interests first, and be sure to show that you love and respect their mom.
Each of these insightful suggestions have merit but sometimes they create a conundrum for even the most devoted fathers. For example, how does a busy Dad balance investing ample time with his children with investing quality time in his relationship with their mother – his wife?
Too many women contemplating divorce tell me that their husband is a great dad, but no longer a great husband.
Recently one brokenhearted mom lamented that her husband does his share of the work at the house and spends a great deal of quality time with their children, but pays very little attention to her. She gets home from work first, and when he gets home, he always greets the kids before he greets her. He’s affectionate with the kids, but shows little affection to her (except in bed). He compliments his daughter’s appearance, but rarely hers. He plans fun family activities, but never an evening out with her. She feels like she has a great co-parenting relationship and a disappointing, empty marriage.
I listened to these concerns knowing that if her husband doesn’t learn to balance being “a great dad” with being a “loving husband”, he will soon be a divorced dad planning visits with his kids, rather than coming home to them and his wife each day.
And, I listen knowing that in situations like this one – where the dad has the best of intentions but is missing the mark – the “fix” isn’t that difficult. In most cases, the devoted Dad is more clueless than truly insensitive. He would never intentionally demoralize his wife and certainly doesn’t want to be divorced. So, I suggested that the wife should try to initiate a collaborative conversation about this common, solvable problem.
For the most successful outcome, avoid putting your spouse on the defensive by picking the right time for initiating the conversation and by using a Soft Start-Up.
Address the issue directly and head-on, but still use a Soft Start-Up that includes a complaint, but not criticism or contemptuous accusations. Here’s the difference:
Complaint – focuses on a specific behavior and addresses the specific infraction your spouse made.
Example: You are such a great Dad. You do more than your share of work around the house and you spend time with the kids on their homework and just playing with them. They adore you. And, so do I. I would really like for us to find a way to have more quality time together. I know if may sound a bit selfish, but I need to feel like your wife, not just their mother.
Criticism – is the complaint plus a negative comment about your spouse’s personality or overall character
Example: You are such a great Dad. You spend plenty of time with the kids. But, you just don’t get it. You never think to pay that kind of attention to me. Don’t you care about my feelings?
Contemptuous accusation – fueled by long-simmering negative thoughts about your spouse and conveys disrespect and/or disgust through sarcasm, cynicism, name-calling, eye-rolling, hostile humor, etc.
Example: You are such a GREAT dad. Too bad you are such a lousy husband. People say I’m lucky to be married to a man that helps out so much and spends so much time with the kids. But, they don’t know that you are not really a man to me. If you don’t start paying attention to me, I’ll find someone who will.
It isn’t easy to turn a conflict about needing more attention from your husband – or any other topic – into a collaborative conversation you are both comfortable having. Partners need to have a positive disposition about each other to be willing to participate openly and respectfully (rather than defensively). This is most likely to happen if the initiator choses the “right time” for the conversation – meaning you are both calm and able to focus – and use a Soft Start-up.
You also have to be open to considering your partner’s opinions, ideas, motivations and preferences. For collaborative conversations to work, you have to be willing to back away from strident views. You have to be willing to listen to, and be influenced by, your partner. This does not mean that you have to agree with each other, but rather accept the other’s point of view as valid and understandable, under the circumstances. This is the point where you seek more to understand than to be understood, and move out of conflict into a productive conversation about how to resolve your issue. Which, in this case, is how to inject a bit of romantic love back into your marriage.
Collaborative Conversations require the willingness to bring up a touchy subject. But, when the possible outcome can make your marriage work again, the payoff is worth the effort to overcome your nervousness, learn the soft-start up, and “work it out”.
Let me know if I can help.