Over the last couple months, I’ve become really fond of gentle parenting, and the way it has changed our family structure. Practicing gentle parenting has allowed us to move away from timeouts and power struggles and has helped us all to understand one another more fully. Trying gentle parenting out on myself even allowed me to better understand my own behavior and challenges as a parent to three young kinds. It's safe to say I'm a believer now.
Avoiding negative labeling, getting rid of traditional punishment, taking a playful approach when something needs to be done, and encouraging empathy and partnership has been a difficult, but surprisingly effective method of parenting. My kids have responded well to gentle parenting, and I'm thankful for the positive floodgate its opened in our everyday lives. It's had great benefits for me and my kids, but I wondered what sort of implications it could bring to my relationship with my husband. We’ve been enjoying the peripheral benefits of our children’s more even-keeled relationship with us and each other thanks to gentle parenting, but do we apply the same values to our relationship?
Though I felt fairly confident that my husband and I already had the sort of open, communicative relationship that gentle parenting aims to build between parent and child, I decided to dive into the practices of gentle parenting and apply them to our relationship. For week, I'd focus on him, and try to tune into his needs with empathy and awareness — the same way I did for my kids and for myself — to foster a better sense of connection and not force actions on him.
Would it work? Would our gentle-parenting luck run out? Would he just not buy into it? I decided to find out.
On the first day of my gentle parenting experiment with my husband, I immediately noticed what a massive shift it was to be focusing in on our relationship with any sort of effort. We’ve fallen into a predictable pattern and so we run on autopilot most of the time, especially during the week. When he comes home from work, it’s full on divide and conquer with the kids. There are dinners to be made, multiple bath times/showers, supervised pajama and teeth brushing, bedtime, work/baby duty, and emails to be sent for both of us. Usually, if we get a chance to connect at all, it’s hours and hours after he comes home, and we usually wind up watching Netflix together.
When it was all done, we went out for dinner as a family, and I felt so much closer to my husband. Working together was so much better than working separately on unrelated tasks like we do most of the time.
Making an effort to connect with him as soon as he got home made a huge difference in how I felt towards him for the rest of the evening. Simply asking about his day and giving him space to ask about my own and making sure we got a moment of connection seemed to make me less likely to get frustrated because I was seeing him more as a person and partner than simply my relief from the kids at the end of a long day.
After seeing what a big difference it made to make a connection with my husband when he came home from work, I made sure to do it again the next day. I realized that it wasn’t only making me more agreeable, but it was also making me more flexible. Even though I don’t normally think of myself as giving commands to my husband, as I watched our evening with the kids unfold I realized that asking him to do something nicely instead of telling him to do this or that for the kids was a big change from our normal routine.
I simply didn’t notice it before because unlike my children, my husband never fights against reasonable requests. Giving my husband choices in what tasks to take on didn’t change the workload on either of us, but it made us feel like we were working together more harmoniously as a team, which made me feel much happier.
One of the greatest “tricks” I’ve found in gentle parenting is turning bothersome or mundane tasks into a game. I let my kids race when putting on their pajamas, or I set 15-minute timers for myself to do housework. Putting a little competitive edge on everyday things makes them way more fun, and we get through chores and tasks faster because speed is usually the name of the game.
A big part of gentle parenting is admitting when you are wrong and apologizing like an adult. It was definitely easier to do this with my husband than it was with my kids, but it still wasn’t easy.
I decided to take a trick I learned from Gretchen Rubin’s podcast Happier and suggested a “Power Hour” with my husband. A power hour is an hour set aside to devote to the tasks we seem to keep putting off. We'd been meaning to move our older two into a shared bedroom and the baby into his own room so we could reclaim our personal bedroom space for months. Not only did the power hour get us to move their beds into one room, but the energy from our power hour set into motion an entire day of productivity: we completed rearranged the rooms, got rid of some old toys, and did some grocery shopping. When it was all done, we went out for dinner as a family, and I felt so much closer to my husband. Working together was so much better than working separately on unrelated tasks like we do most of the time.
On day four of my experiment, I didn’t have as much connecting time as I had earlier in the week. While our power-hour day had been a great bonding experience, I didn’t balance out my work well with our other tasks. As a result, I was way behind on things I needed to do when my husband came home on day four. Not only did I revert to being demanding, but I snapped at him when he needed help with the baby.
Even though explaining things this way may be good to get kids to understand how their behavior affects others, when I did it with my husband it came off super passive aggressive.
A big part of gentle parenting is admitting when you are wrong and apologizing like an adult. It was definitely easier to do this with my husband than it was with my kids, but it still wasn’t easy. All too often I let my bad behavior slide and simply try to make up for it later. Confronting my own issues head-on was difficult, but doing it right away instead of letting my resentment or bad feelings simmer made it easier to get back to work and back to normal.
When I woke up on day five of my experiment, I was met with a whole bunch of mess. My husband (who leaves for work very early) had left his clothes all over the house and a bunch of dirty dishes all over the kitchen. Honestly, my thoughts were all about how much he pisses me off. The truth is though, that it’s not him, it’s only his behavior — specifically this behavior.
When it comes to gentle parenting you have to separate the behavior from the person, so I had to take a step back and realize that on the whole, he isn’t the problem. He isn’t bad by any stretch of the imagination. Sure, the mess is obnoxious, but when I look at my husband beyond these relatively insignificant behaviors, he is a wonderful partner and dad, and I’m lucky to have him. I’ll just have to keep reminding myself that when I’m picking up stray socks from now on, so I’m not preemptively angry with him when he walks through the door in the afternoon.
Even though I tried to remember that my husband was so much more than the slightly annoying habits that left the house a mess, when it happened again the next day (you know, since I hadn’t reprimanded him about it the day before), I was feeling super resentful. I mean, seriously, how do four pairs of his shoes get tossed into the living room in a single day?
I tried to think of a gentle parenting way to handle the situation, instead of really nagging and getting upset with him. I decided to try addressing the behavior instead of just yelling at him, and told him how hard it was for me to wake up to a bunch of dirty dishes that aren’t even put in the sink and do the same for the kids all day long. Even though explaining things this way may be good to get kids to understand how their behavior affects others, when I did it with my husband it came off super passive aggressive. When it comes to an adult partnership, sometimes being direct is a lot easier than tip-toeing around the issue.
Since the past couple days of my gentle experiment hadn’t gone as well, my husband definitely felt the shift in my energy. Even though I'd tried to make things right by apologizing and reminding myself of all his positive traits, I was still not partnering with him in the way I wanted to. I had a lot of work to do, which also meant I was procrastinating a lot and checking in on my phone and social media, which left him feeling neglected. Unlike our kids, when something is wrong my husband doesn’t always show it so obviously (when kids are upset they’re pretty easy to read).
When we finally did connect later on that evening over a glass or three of wine, he let me know that he wanted more time with me, especially when I was messing around on social media. My initial reaction was to get defensive about how I’m working and I’m tired, but the truth was he was right. I do need to be more mindful with my time, and allowing space for his feelings rather than getting defensive made it much easier to admit. Remembering that we’re partners before reacting really does make for a better, healthier relationship.
Did I Need To Be More Gentle With My Husband?
By the end of my experiment I felt like I was finally getting the hang of it. Connecting with my husband was becoming more of a habit. I was being more gentle in my approach when I needed him to do something, and I was actively thinking about his feelings rather than running on autopilot. I didn’t initially think that applying gentle parenting tactics to our relationship would do much, but it made me aware that focusing any amount of positive energy on our relationship is a welcome change.
So often we take our relationship and our family roles for granted. When we don’t actively think about one another, we’re much more likely to fall into a routine that doesn’t make room for our individuality and love. My week of applying gentle parenting to my marriage allowed me to see that I needed to be more mindful of my relationship with my husband, and remember that he isn’t just here to help me with the kids. We’re here together because we love each other, and that's as good a reason as any to keep working on our relationship.