Tuesday, August 08, 2006

From a Straight Line to a Triangle

A handful of my close guy friends and I have all become dads around the same time, so it's nice to have peers to share with and learn from. I don't think I'd be surprising any readers or airing anyone's dirty laundry to say that a frequent subject of our conversation is conflicts we have with our wives.

After all, consider the conditions in which our marriages have to operate: we're adjusting to being parents, operating with less sleep, responsible for another life who is completely dependent on us. We can't as easily do "couple" things, and if we do, how easy is it for our children and the administrative details of caring for them to monopolize our conversation, for bumps and strains in our relationship to be easily avoided amidst the easy "out" of bragging about our little angel?

In addition, whether our spouses work or not, both the husband and the wife are dealing with changes in their identities, as we find ourselves with not nearly as much time or energy for our careers and have to deal with adjusting our expectations and ambitions. Such infringements on our time, money, and dreams can easily become causes for frustration, impatience, and guilt. And where better to unleash those icky feelings than on the one to whom you've pledged your undying love and fidelity?

Because my wife is so well-versed in psychology and therapy, she and I talk often about Bowen, a prominent expert in the field of family systems theory. For Bowen, and thus for Amy, everything is about family systems, and particularly "triangulations." One obvious one, of course, is how kids play parents off each other.

But there are so many other potential triangulations that we can find ourselves actualizing, to the detriment of our relationships and our emotional well-being. And adding a third party to a former family of two moves the typical relational dynamic from a straight line to a (you guessed it) triangle.

We parents jockey, often subconsciously, to prove ourselves the better parent. We can scold or lecture our spouses for not being as "with it" as we are when it comes to discerning our child's needs. We air out our partner's flaws indirectly to our children, instead of addressing them with each other face-to-face. We keep a mental scorecard of our contribution to the family unit, and lash out at our better half when we feel we are way ahead, or cower in insecurity when we feel we are way behind. We form an impression of how we ought to look to the outside world, and seethe at our spouses or ourselves when our reality doesn't hold up to that impression.

Even worse, we blame our child or our spouse for the unhappiness we think we feel about not being able to do the things we really want to do in life, rather than taking responsibility for the choices we've made and taking the hard inward looks to see if maybe our areas of unhappiness have nothing to do with anyone or anything outside of ourselves. For who wants to perform such a searing self-examination, fearful as we are of finding something we don't like, when we can instead cast our displeasure outward at someone who is so nearby of a target?

Of course, becoming a parent isn't a total disaster when it comes to your marriage. I can speak for myself as well as for my friends when I say parenting is a precious way to "do life together" with your life partner. More often than not, Amy and I are able to look past ourselves and try to find ways to "outdo one another in service," and there is great joy in serving and being served in that manner. And we've started going out on dates again, probably because we realize the important of strengthening that line in the midst of our triangle, and it's been an absolute blast to do that.

In the midst of all the conflict that comes from being a parent, being imperfect, and being in an imperfect marriage in an imperfect world, I'm thankful for my guy friends and for the frankness of our conversations as we share about our struggles as husbands and fathers. And of course, I'm thankful for my wife, with whom there is trust and commitment through which conflict can and does get worked out.

In parenting, as in life, there is so much potential for conflict, and so much temptation to deal with that conflict in unhealthy ways: avoiding it, trying to win arguments rather than build trust, using force and volume over patience and humility. We'll even drag our innocent baby boys and girls into the muck with our triangulating ways. I know we'll fail at this on practically a daily basis, but my guy friends and I are emboldened to give healthy responses to conflict a shot. We've seen too much of the good of healthy responses and the bad of unhealthy responses, and ultimately we love our wives too much, to do anything otherwise.
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