I don't mind being totally open and honest about the fact that relationships have struggles. There's nothing shameful in acknowledging them. In fact, and on the contrary, in order to grow as individual human beings we must be uncomfortable. A sure-fire way to grow, of course, is within relationship. As a lifelong learner, I'm never done evolving, and the things I learned from my relationship struggles that make me a better mom are part of that constant, never-ending, necessary evolution.
In our 15 year relationship, my partner and I have had our share of struggles, conflict, and heartache. We grew up together, for all intents and purposes. I like to think we've lasted this long because we've grown, and supported each other's growth, each time we've faced hardship. I also like to think that we'll continue to last because when we face hardship we do grow. This growth isn't something that happens passively. Once kids are in the picture so many other things can take priority over your relationship, so it requires intention and attention to keep things on track.
But the good news is that because my relationship struggles actually make me a better person, they also make me a better mom. To me, life is about perpetual self-examination, self-exploration, and self-growth. None of us is ever done forming therefore we can always improve on ourselves which, be definition, helps us improve as parents. Specifically, here are the ways relationship struggle has actually made me a better mom:
When I Practice Nonviolent Communication
Nonviolent communication (NVR) is a practice of intentional, compassion-based communication that I learned about in graduate school. The founders and teachers of this philosophy use practical skills to go beyond diplomacy to create peace between world leaders and everyday individuals.
In our 15 year relationship, my partner and I have learned to use these skills when in conflict, since our natural communication styles are so different.
These are the skills and values that I want to raise my kids with, so when I'm challenged to use them in my relationship it helps to strengthen the non-violent muscle I need in teaching them to my children.
When I Acknowledge I'm A Work In Progress
We're all works in progress. Acknowledging this, as any relationship counselor will tell you, is essential for a successful partnership. It's also quite helpful when it comes time to start forgiving yourself for parenting mistakes and for being gentle with your kids for not yet being fully formed adults. I mean, how often do we get frustrated with our kids for something that they just aren't developmentally capable of doing yet, like controlling their big emotions?
In my relationship struggles, it's been important for me to keep coming back to forgiveness for myself as an in-progress person, and forgiveness for my partner as an in-progress person. Whenever I'm able to do that for myself, I'm also reminded that I need to do that for my children.
When I Unpack The Baggage
Part of any relationship is facing the baggage you bring to it. If you're anything like me, unpacking your emotional baggage helps you to get clear about the messages you swallowed whole that you no longer want to control your life. This certainly helps me be a better parent, as I'm continually faced with what my automatic response is to my children (which is usually conditioned by my own upbringing) versus my intentional response. When intentional response wins, which it's more likely to do when I'm already using it in relationship, we are all happier.
When I See Myself In My Partner
When my partner and I face a conflict, part of the resolution comes when I am able to sink beneath the content of the argument (i.e. "you never do the dishes!") and into the context (i.e. "I'm feeling unappreciated.") Usually, the conflict stems from one of us feeling some variation of not feeling appreciated, heard, or understood. Regardless of whether we agree on the content, I can see my own feelings in his.
When I remember that it's about the feelings underneath the conflict, I'm able to relate to my children's big emotions about, say, spilled milk. Though the spilled milk might not be important to me, per se, the big feelings my children have about it are.
When I See My Partner In Me
One of the things we happen to disagree on regularly is parenting. This is probably not a surprise to anyone who parents with another person.
My partner will totally back me up when I say that sometimes I can get a little, shall we say, judgmental about his parenting style. Because my own relationships with my fathers were quite toxic, I can be hypervigilant to any raised voice or harsh tone. When, however, I catch myself using a frustrated tone with my 7 year old after requesting she stop reading for 10 minutes to sweep the floor 17 times, I see my partner in me.
As a stay-at-home dad for seven years, he has, by far, spent the more parenting time with our children. When I see myself getting frustrated, I can appreciate how many times over the years he didn't raise his voice after the 17th request. That helps me back off and consider the intention I want to use with my child, regardless of her penchant for selective hearing.
When We Continue To Choose Each Other
We have struggles. We grow apart. We grow back together. Through it all, we continue to choose each other. That active choice is present with parenting, too.
When I Used Intention
Every time I actively choose my partner — choose to stay with him, choose to love him, choose to empathize with, and choose to support him — I'm using intention. Flexing the intention muscle within relationship struggles allows me to actively use the intention muscle with my children.
As I've said above, when intention wins we are all happier.
And I'm a better mother.