Supporting Your Partner Through Their Conditioning

We all have different triggers and blind spots, things we are still processing from our own childhood that lead us to act on our conditioning rather than from our ideals.

So how do we approach a situation, where we can see the other parent doing so? How do we help them navigate back to where they want to be for both them and the child/ren’s benefit?

In the past, a situation may have played out like this….

We are swimming but it’s time for that to end so we can eat, everybody is hungry. But the kids are stalling, this is not unusual even when they are ready to leave, they are not keen on the process of becoming dry when they’re already feeling cold.

Parent one gets impatient “c’mon, just hop out, it’s time for lunch”

Parent two jumps in to defend “they’re worried about how cold it will be hopping out” and starts empathising with the child “I’ve got your towel ready to bundle you straight up and we can hug until you feel warm enough to get dry and dressed”

Parent one feels dismissed and ganged up on “you’re always on their side” but parent two counters “well, I’m trying to protect your relationship, this is being on everyone’s side” not realising they are further dismissing parent ones feelings, something that is very painful due to their childhood experiences and difficult to see past in the moment.

People end up dry and dressed and eating yet nothing feels genuinely resolved. Parent one is hurt, parent two is frustrated.

Parent two obviously didn’t have malicious intentions. They wanted parent one to be able to recognize the child’s needs, they wanted to be a mediator, a bridge between them…. but they were only building on one side.

It is an erroneous assumption that adult’s are able to recongize the needs triggering their emotions and communicate them clearly when this process has often been interrupted within most people again and again as children. Adults can need just as much help in this process of identifying what their feelings are indicating about their needs.

Parent two thought by advocating for the children they were making the message more clear but instead it made it that much more difficult to hear because parent one became defensive. They needed a new approach.

Let’s play out that situation again…

We are swimming but it’s time for that to end so we can eat, everybody is hungry. But the kids are stalling, this is not unusual even when they are ready to leave, they are not keen on the process of becoming dry when they’re already feeling cold.

Parent one gets impatient “c’mon, just hop out, it’s time for lunch”

Parent two addresses parent one’s needs and feelings “you really want to eat right now, you’re hungry and this is taking longer than you were expecting it to, that’s frustrating” and parent one feeling heard can now recognize that it is not the children’s behaviour that is triggering their emotions but their own unmet need. Hopefully they feel reassured that parent two understanding their need also wants to find a way for that need to be met. They can work towards that solution together.

Parent one and two now acknowledge and empathise with the children “you’re feeling worried about being cold, we have your towels open and ready for you to jump into, we can hug until you feel warm enough to get dry and dressed”.

People end up dry and dressed and eating. Everybody feels heard and as though their needs are important.

This shift of course doesn’t happen in isolation.

If a person has experienced a lot of shame, belittling and dismissal during their childhood then it will be very difficult for them to trust your intentions and care without that being something you invest in outside of these moments too and initially, it might require more than one exchange for them to feel understood and as though their needs will not be ignored before they can move through to acknowledging the needs of others.

And you need to be genuine. This isn’t a trick. This is about actually supporting your co-parent; helping them to recognize and verbalise their needs and working towards solutions that meet them because you care about them just as you intend to do with your children. This is not about manipulating them to be the person you want them to be but supporting them to be who they are, intentionally rather than re-actively.

Kindness too can be triggering in it’s own way, it can be very painful as a person comes to realise that which was absent from their childhood and that they actually are and were deserving of it. In order to process this, adults need to be treated with the same patience we seek to offer our children, they need lots of connected space to feel their grief and appreciate their worth.

Healing takes time.

The important thing to remember is that empathy is important in all of our relationships, not just those with our children.

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care” ― Theodore Roosevelt

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12 Comments

  1. This is so good to read! I often feel frustrated with this, not with my husband but with my mum! It often feels like, when she has a dispute with my oldest (which is often as he is a “difficult” child and definitely doesn’t conform to her expectations), that I have to mediate between them as if it were two kids. I’ve even snapped at her in the past that I can’t be responsible for soothing all her feelings. Your post is a real eye-opener! In future, even though I’m not responsible for her feelings I can still make her feel heard. Thank you!

  2. By so called education people run without knowing the cause of running. The purpose of schooling is to live a life which parents and society want to.

    let’s try to free them to learn spontaneously

  3. I’ve had this article open in a tab on my computer for over a week and finally sat down with a spare moment and read it. I am so glad I saved this article. My partner and I are struggling with this very issue and I was feeling so stuck. I seem to have near infinite patience for my children but I have trouble sparing any for my partner. I know this is stemming from my childhood issues of not being heard by my father and I am taking this out on my husband when he butts heads with my kids. I do often verbally empathize with our kids in what I thought was an attempt to get my husband to see things from our children’s perspective and preserve their relationship. This article did a great job of showing me that extending my partner patience and acknowledging his feelings will better help us navigate through this and will do a much better job in preserving our family relationships as a whole. Thank you so much for sharing this!!

  4. My partner would feel very angry if I spoke to him like this. He does not feel it’s empathetic, but patronising. My son doesn’t like it either. There must be other ways. Any ideas?

    1. I took a good overall message from the article, which is really useful. I do agree about the specific examples. I guess it might be about trying to write this sort of thing down. It comes across like parent one knows everyone’s needs (better than they do), which may even be true but wouldn’t necessarily come across very well in the moment. In practice you could perhaps just be a little more circumspect (“I’ve got your towels ready to wrap you up warm, would that help?”). And I’m not sure about the partner side in the swimming example, but there is a wider message here which I’m certainly going to take away.

      And to be clear, I really appreciate the article!! Wonderful food for thought as ever.

      1. Yes, it is impossible to script empathy! So there are limitations in trying to offer advice; I can’t tell anybody what they should say or how, it’s just a general vibe of trying to identify and meet the needs of everybody.

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