What do you do when you and your partner have totally different opinions about how the family handle domestic chores?
Just last week my teenage son deposited his considerable pile of dirty laundry next to the washing machine. Heigh ho, I was doing a dark wash anyway so I loaded his in too and set the machine off before going to work - reminding him to hang it up to dry when it was finished
When I returned home I discovered that he had indeed emptied the washing machine - straight into the tumble drier. When I asked why, my husband replied 'Oh, I told him to just chuck it in'.
Thank God for email. I was so livid I made myself a cup of tea and went to check mine knowing I needed to give myself some space before I said anything I might regret.
The next morning I felt ready to discuss Laundrygate. I didn't want to talk to my son - yet - I needed to clear the air with my husband first.
To be honest, even though I was making delicious banana pancakes for us both, he did not meet my request to talk with the greatest of enthusiasm. In fact, when I asked if we could talk about the laundry incident he promptly walked away and started looking out of the window!
To be even more honest, I was nervous about opening up this topic anyway - it could so easily fall into an argument about who was right and who was wrong. So I decided to start there - to explain that I felt nervous, that I was worried about bringing up this subject and that it wasn't about blame or criticism, I wanted to talk about it because I was upset about what had happened and there were some important issues I wanted to clear up.
My husband turned back from the window (the pancakes were ready) and we opened up the conversation. I explained that I had wanted our son to hang up his laundry for several reasons; firstly, not because I want to be the Laundry Police; our son is on the verge of adulthood and my focus is no longer on being a 'mummy' but on helping him develop the skills he needs for adult life. The experiences in my own life and in my work have shown me that household issues can become a REALLY BIG DEAL in a relationship and as a mother I want to help him understand that domestic skills are also important life-skills.
Secondly, the drier is a greedy beast that devours fossil fuels and is not something to be used unthinkingly. If I had been doing the laundry I would have hung the wet stuff up to dry. It can be a boring, mind-numbing job I know, but having a good system helps the general flow of laundry traffic.
But there was a third, even more important issue here, and it was the one that had the biggest charge for me. When I really investigated why I had felt so upset I realised that I felt I was being cast as the mean one by asking my son to do the laundry and that there was a game of Good Cop/Bad Cop going on. You know, the one where one of you is the nice, kind, cuddly parent and the other the mean, strict, stressy one?
The Bad Cop tells them to clean up their room the Good Cop laughs and takes them out for ice-cream. The Bad Cop asks for the dishes to be cleared away, the Good Cop starts a tickling game. The Bad Cop sticks to bedtime routine the Good Cop lets them stay up as long as they like.
In most relationships one partner tends to be more 'disciplined' than the other and the roles can sometimes reverse, depending on circumstances. There will always be differences of opinion and ways of handling situations, but the important thing to remember is the impact playing Good Cop /Bad Cop can have when there is no awareness of the dynamic, or when it is being used to score points off each other. Unresolved issues in a relationship makes the Good Cop/Bad Cop game really nasty; the conflicting messages are confusing to the children and create stress, plus in the race to score points the children are forced to choose and by doing so they suffer.
Even though I'm long in the parenting tooth this dynamic is an old pattern in our relationship and, like a pernicious weed, it keeps coming up just when I think its all gone. However, I am committed to addressing my part in it and it's not that I want to be the Good Cop, I just don't want to play the game at all anymore. I want to keep building partnership and I know that in order to do so I have to be willing to change the way I handle the situations that trigger me.
Instead of falling into Bad Cop mode ( blame & punishment) I gave myself some time to identify what it was that really bothered and then talked about it. It wasn't easy, I went off track a few times, but I kept reminding myself that to change the pattern I needed to remain open, communicate honestly and set my goal for mutual understanding. How to have a difficult conversation
Here's a link to the recipe for marriage-saving pancakes and another to get in touch if you want further help!