Why Won’t My Husband Parent the Way
I Want Him to?
Rachel Nielson: Do you feel frustrated with your partner when they don’t follow the bedtime routine that you have worked so hard to develop for your child? Or is your spouse’s tendency to coddle or spoil the kids really driving you crazy? Or maybe it’s the opposite–their tendency to scold or punish the kids differently than you would prefer.
If so, you’re not alone. I get emails and messages from women all the time who take their role as a mother very seriously but feel that that is being undermined by their partner who just does things a completely different way. This episode is going to free you from carrying the burden of that dynamic in your home–and I think it’s going to make everyone in your family much happier and more peaceful.
Our guest on today’s episode is Celeste Davis, a marriage researcher and sociologist who shares her insights into successful relationships on her blog, “Marriage Laboratory,” and her podcast, Marriage Theraoke. She and her husband, Rich, have four children and live in Spokane, Washington, and I’ve known Celeste since college when we did an international volunteer trip to El Salvador together, and we’ve stayed in touch ever since. She’s a dear friend, an incredibly intelligent researcher, a hilarious writer, and an all-around stellar human. So Celeste, welcome to 3 in 30.
Celeste Davis: Oh, you’re so nice. Hi, Rachel.
Rachel Nielson: And I should say, “Welcome back to 3 in 30!” because Celeste has actually been on the podcast once before, all the way back in episode 18 “Simple Ways to Speak Your Partner’s Love Language,” and we’re so excited to have you back, Celeste.
Celeste Davis: Happy to be here.
Rachel Nielson: And I have to say that the last time you were on, if I remember correctly, you had a really bad cold, and you croaked your way through the episode…and now I’m feeling it because the tables have turned, and I’ve had a really bad cold the last few weeks. So if I’m hacking or sniffling or croaking, you will all know why and just be patient with me. At least, Celeste, you’re sounding good this time.
Celeste Davis: Oh yeah. And you have all my empathy.
Rachel Nielson: Let’s get started then. The inspiration for this episode comes from the fact that I get a lot of DMs on Instagram from women who are frustrated that their partners won’t parent the way that they want them to. And they’ll send me questions about it, or they’ll tell me their woes about how they have this system that they really want to implement it for their kids, but their spouse isn’t on board and he’s undermining it, and what should they do? And I’ve reached out to Celeste for advice in how to respond because I understand the frustration of these women, but I’m also not a relationships expert. So I’ve asked my friend, Celeste, and we’ve had many good conversations about it. So we thought that we would bring those takeaways to all of you today. So Celeste, why don’t you just jump right in with this topic and the takeaways that you have for us?
Celeste Davis: Awesome. Well, this topic is near and dear to my heart because it’s definitely one that I have traveled through, and the lessons I’ve learned have really, really changed our family dynamic in the best of ways. So I love talking about this. So story time: yes, getting your husband on board or getting your partner on board is something that I think every parenting expert or author gets that question like constantly. And it’s definitely a question that I have grappled with.
So seven years ago, my oldest was three, and I read the book Parenting with Love and Logic for kids like zero to five, which is a fantastic book, because I had no idea how to handle her tantrums. I felt like she was tantruming more than she should be for age three, which, you know, she was my first. [laughs] I wanted a system because I didn’t know what to do and how to help her not misbehave and that kind of thing. So that book gave me a system, and it was really helpful. But then I pushed up against this, “Okay, now I’ve just got to get Rich on board. I’ve just got to get him on board. I’ve got to coach him through it and make him do it…”
Rachel Nielson: So we can do it perfectly!
Celeste Davis: Exactly. Like, “He’s going to undo my efforts if I don’t!” And so when she would throw a tantrum or misbehave, I’d be like, “Oh, okay. Now you say, ‘Uh oh! Looks like it’s time for some crib time!’ all happy, and you take her up to her crib. You can leave her there until she’s calm, and then you hug her.” You know, we had this system. And I would get so frustrated when he would talk her through her tantrums or when she would misbehave and he’d give her a lecture right on the spot. I’m like, “No no no no no–that’s not the way you do it! No no no no…wait, wait, wait. You have to do it this way so she’ll learn this thing.” You know? And it was just frustrating, and it put this huge wedge in our marriage with our parenting because I was always correcting and being super annoyed.
It wasn’t until I started my marriage blog–and I ran a series on what to do when you don’t agree about parenting–that really, I sort of had my eyes opened to another way of parenting with Rich. And it really just hit me over the head in the best of ways because as I was reading and researching about this topic, I kept coming up against these ideas such as not “throwing your spouse under the bus” and especially not undermining them in front of your kids and being on the same team. And also this idea of putting your marriage first. So I read this book that was very formative for me called, To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First by David Code. And it was so like, “Oh my gosh, I have been thinking about this so backwards.” I pay lots of lip service to the idea that I put my marriage first, that I love marriage–I mean, I have a marriage blog, like this is what I do–but still when you think about my mental energy and my physical energy and my time and what I prioritize, it is kids as #1 and marriage as like #11, which I think it is for most of us.
So some things that I caught myself doing, where I inadvertently put my kids above my spouse: I would undermine Rich in front of the kids. So when he would say, “Hey, let’s have some ice cream,” I’d say “Oh, actually, they already had brownies. So we can’t do that right now.” Or like when he’d say, “Okay, bedtime!” I’d say, “Oh, actually, it’s reading time” or just things like that. All the time, I would say, “Actually no…” Or I would be super annoyed when he parented the “wrong” way. I had maybe an unhealthy relationship with parenting books where I was like, “This is the right way. I just have to teach you the right way, and you’re doing it the wrong way.” So when he would respond to a whining when I was trying to ignore it, or when he would play with the kids when they got out of bed, stuff like that would really annoy me–
Rachel Nielson: I’m just laughing because this is so familiar, coming from my own personal experience.
Celeste Davis: Right? Or I would just worry a lot about the kids, and I would take that worry out on Rich. Or when I would leave the house, I would barrage him with all these instructions for the kids. And also like when I wanted to spend time with Rich, I would feel all this guilt for putting on a show for the kids, or maybe if we were taking a weekend away, I’d be worried about the kids. I was just exhausted at the end of every day from trying to juggle all the parenting balls and do all the things right and discipline. So Rich would get me at my very worst and I would reserve none of my good energy for him. So those are just some ways I think we can kind of see that we do put our kids above our marriages, and it’s to our kids’ detriment and it’s to our detriment. It’s to the detriment of our marriages, right?
So my first takeaway is knowing that our spouse is not the enemy of our parenting. Our spouse is not the enemy; we are on the same team. The real enemy is disconnection with our spouse, and that is going to have way worse effects than parenting differently or being on a different page. The Gottman Institute actually has a really interesting study where they’re able to tell the strength of a couple’s marriage by measuring the cortisol and adrenaline in their child’s pee.
Rachel Nielson: I heard John Gottman speak this past year, and of everything that he said, that was the thing that blew my mind and I don’t know all of the specifics of the study, but I do remember that he said the health of the marriage can be measured by the children’s pee, and I was like, “What is the world?” So explain to us more about that.
Celeste Davis: So they’ve also measured blood pressure, like a child as young as three months old when they are in front of their parents arguing their blood pressure will spike. And so these stress hormones develop from seeing arguing or even just felt, even if it’s silent treatment, just feeling the anxiety and the stress and the disconnect between your parents will give that child stress hormones that can come out in their urine.
Rachel Nielson: So crazy.
Celeste Davis: I know. And it’s so funny how we’re just trying to do the best for our kids, but actually by putting them ahead of our spouse, it’s worse for our kids.
Rachel Nielson: And so I’m going to give a little pushback that I know some listeners are feeling right now: But what if you really have studied and read, you’ve put a lot of thought into how into raising your kids well? Especially for women who are stay-at-home moms, they may feel like this is their life’s work, you know, and so they’ve really studied it, and they really feel that like positive parenting is the best thing for their kids. So you just let that go? You just let him kind of like undermine what you want for your kids long-term?
Celeste Davis: That’s a great question. There’s so many ways to come at it. But I think if we bring our integrity to the situation…like often when we see differences in our spouse, we feel all this pressure to make them agree with us. And so we’re showing up as kind of our worst selves with the pressure and the stress and just the trying to get them to change that we end up with a worse outcome than if we do just kind of let it go with love…Still express our desires, still express what’s working for us, but ultimately I do think that we have to let our spouse have their own relationship with our kids and not policing that and not putting ourselves in charge of that relationship. I mean, unless there’s cases of abuse, in which case, please, safety has to come first, and see professionals, please. But if it’s not a case of abuse, yeah, it’s just kind of like, what’s going to be the biggest enemy in my head? I mean, and I really think the biggest enemy is the anxiety and the friction that arises in a marriage when we’re constantly frustrated with our spouse.
Rachel Nielson: Yeah. Oh, that makes so much sense. So your spouse is not your enemy; disconnection is much more of an enemy than having differing parenting styles. When I thought about this takeaway, I thought about how you can ask, you can explain to your spouse what you’ve read, but in a calm connected atmosphere where it’s not this passive aggressive thing. Share what you’ve read and why it matters to you and why you think it would be the best route for your kids and talk about it together. And then let it go and say, “If he doesn’t do this perfectly all the time, my kids are going to be okay.” And my spouse and I are going to continue having ongoing conversations. We’re both going to get better at this parenting thing, but he doesn’t have to do it perfectly.
Celeste Davis: Absolutely. And here’s a story for you of how much this has changed in our relationship and in our family. So contrast my experience reading like Parenting With Love and Logic and many others parentings books–I read a lot of parenting books where that exact same scenario played out with lots of pressure, lots of frustration, lots of stress. So last year I read the book, Ignore It, which is a parenting book on the premise of, we don’t want to unconsciously give a lot of attention to bad behavior and have our kids learn that if they want our attention they have to act up to get it. So I read it and I started implementing it with my four year old, and I was seeing a lot of success. A lot of his whining decreased, and it was just a really positive thing. And it was funny that I felt no pressure to get Rich on board at all. I did talk to him about it and a lot of times I would recap our days and I’d be like, “This is really working! This is awesome. He’s whining a lot less!” But then when Rich would, you know, respond to his whining or like don’t do the “Ignore It system,” it was like not even an issue. I was like, “Yeah, he has his own relationship with my son, and my son knows who to whine to.” [laughing] He gets to have that relationship and that doesn’t undermine my work with him at all. I improved my relationship with my son, and I didn’t sacrifice my marriage for it.
I just remember so many conversations with Rich–we talk every Sunday night, we have an inventory kind of thing–and in so many inventories, I would prep myself like, “Okay! If I explain it this way, he’ll really get it! Or if I read this passage from the book, like he’ll do it!” Or I would come at it like, “I have to really convince him!” you know, and contrast that with the Ignore It experience. It was just so freeing. Just so much grace, you know? I improved my relationship with my son and I didn’t have to pressure my husband into it at all.
Rachel Nielson: That’s beautiful. And it’s such a great testimonial that it’s possible for those who are listening.
Celeste Davis: And I have another example that stress is really more of the enemy than agreeing: So there is a really good study that from researcher Ellen Galinsky, and she asked over a thousand kids ages 8 to 18, if they could change just one thing about their parents, what it would be? And they also asked the parents what they thought, and all of the parents, full of guilt, said, “Oh they probably want to spend more time with me. I’m sure they just want more time with me.” And no. The kids said their wish was they want their parents to be less stressed. They wanted their parents to be less stressed. And only 2% of the parents guessed that right.
Rachel Nielson: Wow. That is powerful.
Celeste Davis: And when you think about what’s stressing us out–our parenting is stressing us out. We’re so stressed by doing the discipline right, and the homework, and the sports, and everything by the book…it’s stressing us out and that’s what’s causing the disconnect, right?
Rachel Nielson: Yes, absolutely. And I feel like that is a really good segue into our next takeaway, and these do kind of all build on each other, but tell us what your second takeaway is.
Celeste Davis: Second takeaway is that difference with our spouse is not the enemy. There are so many benefits to having different ideas than our spouse, and there’s benefits to our kids. This is something that gets confused all the time. Unity is not the same thing as sameness. We do not have to be the same as our spouse to be unified. We don’t have to have the same ideas about how to parent, the specifics about how to parent our kids, to be unified in the goals we have of wanting our kids to be hardworking and kind and good citizens. And whatever our goals are that we share, we can come at those with different ways. There’s no one right way to parent. Right?
Rachel Nielson: Oh I love that. Because I think we hear so often like we need to be on the same page, you know, with our partner. Everything will fail if we’re not on the same page. But what you’re saying is being on the same page is more about having the same core values. And it’s not about having the same exact parenting systems or you know, routines with the children and forcing your partner to do it your way. That isn’t unity. Unity is when you have a solid relationship, good communication and shared core values.
Celeste Davis: Absolutely. And there is another interesting study by the Gottman Institute where they studied people who reported being happily married and those who reported being unhappily married. And you would think that the people who report being unhappily married would have a lot more differences than the people who report being happily married, but surprisingly, they didn’t find that. They found that they had the exact same amount of differences–meaning religious, political, financial, disagreeing about parenting–the same amount of differences. It’s just that if you can focus on your common goals and your common values, we have so much more in common than we think we do.
When we sit down with our partner and say, “what do we want for our kids?” I bet like 70% is going to be the same. You’re going to want your kids to grow up to be good and kind and follow their heart and love other people and love themselves. And you’re going to share that, right? But the thing is, we focus on that 30% that we disagree on and then we pressure and we cajole and we try to force our partner into sameness. But if we focus on the 70%, we’re going to get those stress levels down. We’re going to get that anxiety down and we’re going to be more connected.
Rachel Nielson: That is so beautiful. Another thing that I get asked about a lot is, when the two partners have different faith. Maybe they started as the same faith when they got married, and then one of them kind of had a faith transition. And a question I get a lot is, “How is this going to affect my kids? What do I do with this, now that my partner has changed faiths or I believe differently than I did when we got married.”
Celeste Davis: Oh Rachel, you’re speaking my language. Thank you for bringing this up. I’m so passionate about this because I ran a series on my blog in 2014 where I interviewed mixed-faith couples, specifically where one partner changed faiths mid-marriage. And it got picked up by different websites, it kind of blew up, and I ended up getting a lot of emails. So I ended up starting this project where I researched it more, and I interviewed three different therapists about this and asked all these questions. People’s most difficult struggle with this topic is kids…so much stress, so much anxiety over this. But I love the way that one of the therapists that I interviewed tackled it. He just talked about what a beautiful asset having differences can be if we learn to think of it that way and see it that way and treat it that way. Because it’s a really beautiful thing to show your kids that there’s more than one way to solve a problem, and that there’s more than one way to do a lot of different things.
It can be a really nice asset for your kids to be like, “I have this problem. I think mom would do it this way. I think dad would do it this way. What do I want to do?” And if your parents are unified in those core values that they do share, then it can be a healthy thing for your child to see. And it’s also a really beautiful way to demonstrate how to treat someone who has different ideas than us, right? We demonstrate to our kids that when someone has a different idea than us, we don’t shut them down; we don’t disrespect them; we don’t pressure them; we don’t silent treatment them. We listen, and we treat them with respect, and we honor their agency, and we can work things out, and we can state our desires, and we can state our frustrations, but we still listen.
Rachel Nielson: And I do think that it can be extremely painful. It will be extremely painful. And this isn’t to minimize any of that.
Celeste Davis: No, no, no.
Rachel Nielson: You have to go through the pain of losing a shared experience, a shared faith, that you really value. Because here we’re saying, “As long as you have shared core values, it’s going to be okay.” And some people listening might be thinking, “No, my core value is my faith in God, and my spouse no longer believes in God.” Like you have a very different core value now and that is going to be painful.
Celeste Davis: Oh yes!
Rachel Nielson: But what you’re saying is there will be beautiful things that your children can gain from watching you live that out with integrity and ultimately they are going to choose for themselves anyway. Even if you and your spouse had remained aligned with your faith, your children would still grow up and choose their own way.
Celeste Davis: Yes. And thank you for saying that. I mean, the very first chapter of this book I was writing about this exact thing was let yourself grieve. Let yourself grieve the loss of those expectations and don’t dismiss your own feelings. Let yourself grieve the changes in your spouse, the changes in yourself. There’s a grieving process that has to be met and fulfilled and seen out before we rush to the acceptance stage. There is definitely a grieving process.
Rachel Nielson: And it can be long.
Celeste Davis: Yes, yes! Absolutely. I mean, this is a podcast for a whole other day.
Rachel Nielson: I know, and I’ve actually said, “Celeste, if you ever want to do one on faith transitions, come on 3 in 30.” Because I get so many messages about this. A lot of people are struggling with it. So that may be a forthcoming episode. But continuing to live true to your values and modeling for your kids your beliefs and allowing your spouse to do the same, and knowing that your kids are ultimately going to choose their own way, whether it’s religion or whatever principle it might be.
Celeste Davis: Absolutely, we kind of think with our kids–”they can choose my way or their way, my way or my partner’s way.” But remember, they have their own agency too. And so the more that we can just kind of let go of all of the pressuring and the needing to have it just exactly our way, the better our whole family will be.
Rachel Nielson: Yes, for sure. And then what about your third takeaway for if your partner isn’t parenting your way?
Celeste Davis: Okay. So know that imperfections are not the enemy…your spouse’s imperfections, your kids’ imperfections, and even your imperfections. I mean, we just take it upon ourselves to be the corrector. We see an imperfection, and we’re like, “I can fix it! I’m gonna fix my kid’s disobedience. I’m going to fix my spouse’s laziness. I’m going to fix this!” We take it upon ourselves and then the imperfections become the enemy. And it’s just too much. We can’t do it. And it’s causing us lots of stress and frustration and anxiety. And so my favorite marriage quote that I quote all the time is from Dr. David Schnarch. And it goes like this: “The most loving thing we can do for our spouse is to learn to regulate our own anxiety.” When we are unable to regulate our anxiety, it’s going to spew inadvertently all over our spouse, and we’re going to expect them to validate us, and it’s just going to come out in a lot of unloving ways. And the most loving thing we can do for our kids is to learn to regulate our anxiety about our kids.
The most loving thing I ever did for our family dynamic was take on the thought, truly take on the thought, “My kids are fine.”
And this is not something that society teaches you to do. You have to work at that, because when I was parenting from a place of, “my kids are not fine, my kids are acting out and they’re not doing this, and they’re not being obedient,” I was showing up for them as my worst self. I was showing up as, “You need to change. I need to make you change. You’re not fine. And I know how to make you fine.” When I took on the thought, “You know what? I think the kids are going to be okay,” that’s when I was able to come at them with so much more grace, so much more love, and still have my desires for their lives and instruct them and parent them. But I got rid of that anxiety, which is really creeping into our marriages.
I think so many people have the thought of like, “Oh my partner’s going to be fine. But my kids–I have to worry about the kids! He’s a grown up, whatever.” But we need to kind of switch that, maybe put the marriage on top and realized that the kids are going to be fine. Because like I explained already, when we flip those, there’s all these problems that come out. And I just want to give you parents who are listening permission to do things like put on a show for your kids and connect with your spouse. It’s okay to hire a babysitter and go out for the weekend. If your kid is sleeping in your bed and it’s disrupting your marriage, they can sleep in their own bed. Stuff like that. Sometimes we think we don’t have permission because we have to worry about our kids, and we have to be stressed about them and put them above everything else. But it’s okay. Take on the idea that your kids are going to be okay. And just remember that imperfection is not the enemy, but intolerance of imperfection and anxiety over imperfection is the real enemy.
Rachel Nielson: Oh thank you so much. That is so beautiful. And I feel like that quote, “The most loving thing you can do for your spouse is to learn to regulate your own anxiety”…someone can hear that and take that so personally, like, “Oh, I’m a loser. I can’t regulate my own anxiety. See, I’m a bad spouse. I’m a bad mom.” Blah, blah, blah. That is not at all what we’re saying. And in the words of Dr. Jennifer Finlayson-Fife who I love, she always says, “That is indulgent.” To go there and indulge in that and be like, “I’m so pathetic.” This is permission for you to work on yourself and say, “I’m not a loser. I just need to work on myself and develop just like every other human being on the planet and I have permission to go to counseling if I need to become more emotionally resilient. I have permission to take time for real self-care to regulate my anxieties.” If my anxieties are out of control, that is a sign that I need more support for myself and my own development and that it is a loving thing to do for my spouse and my family. It’s not putting myself selfishly first because everything in the family system will start working better when individuals within that system can regulate their own anxieties.
Celeste Davis: Amen. Amen. Yes. Beautifully said.
Rachel Nielson: Well, Celeste, this has been so insightful and I’m sure that it’s given the women listening a lot to think about. You do such a great job with your work and I was wondering if you could recap your three takeaways before we sign off.
Celeste Davis: Yes, I’d be happy to. So, in our ongoing battle to improve our parenting: 1) know that our spouse is not our enemy (we’re on the same team!), 2) know that our differences with our spouse are not the enemy, 3) and know that imperfections are not our enemy. Anxiety, disconnection and stress are the real enemies here!
Rachel Nielson: So beautiful. Thank you so much for being on 3 in 30, and I hope you have a great day!
Celeste Davis: You too. Thanks, Rachel.
Rachel Nielson: Many thanks to Celeste for coming on the show to remind us that it’s okay to have different opinions and priorities and parenting styles than our partners…what matters is maintaining a foundation of friendship, love, and respect that can actually be deepened due to differences.
If you want to hear more from Celeste, the best place to connect with her and find out about all the different aspects of her work is on instagram at @marriagelaboratory, and I will link that in the show notes.
So Celeste asked us to remember three things as we learn to parent together our partners: 1) that our spouse is not the enemy, 2) that differences with our spouse is not the enemy, and 3) that imperfection is not the enemy.
So what can we do with these new perspective shifts this week? Well I would recommend: just start with noticing. Notice your behavior. Notice when you are trying to pressure your spouse to do things your way with the kids, or when you are undermining them in their unique relationship with your children.
The second step is learning how to stop yourself. And this won’t always be easy, and you won’t always get this right. But the more you rewire that habit in your brain, the instinct to jump in and correct or pressure both your spouse and your children, the easier it will become. Think of it as an experiment where you’re simply noticing the places where your inner control-freak comes out within your parenting–and you’re stepping back to observe with interest how things will unfold if you don’t default to your old habits of nagging, pressuring, correcting, or fixing. Observe with interest how the tension in your relationships loosens once you let go of some of the anxiety you are carrying around about parenting perfectly and correctly. And remember to tell yourself Celeste’s very wise advice from this episode: “My kids are fine.”
Mamas, you are doing a great job, and I want to encourage you that if you recognize that this is an area where you struggle–maybe you really don’t know how to let go of the mom-guilt that keeps you wound up and unable to relax into parenting–please go back and listen to episode 24 of my show: “Fighting Against Mom-Guilt.” The introduction includes one of my all-time favorite stories about when one of my best friends gave me insight into mom-guilt that I will never ever forget. I will put the link to that episode in the show notes.
Friends, I am thinking of you, I am rooting for you, each and every week. And I hope you have a peaceful, connected week with your family.
Episode 115: Why Won’t My Husband Parent the Way I Want Him to?