By Betty Richardson

Q: Sometimes I don’t like my husband much and often don’t agree with him or appreciate him. Will my lack of love for my spouse affect our kids negatively?

A This question could have come from a husband, a partner of the same gender, or divorced parents. In therapy sessions I’ve worked with a fair number of people who have convinced themselves that, while the other in the relationship may be a good wage earner, their parenting partner doesn’t do enough to help, isn’t good enough for them, or the romance is simply gone.

Sometimes, parents focus all of their attention on the children, and not enough their own relationship. It can become obvious that the couple may not like or respect each other. Sometimes these parents compete for who is the best parent. This behavior can be confusing, and even scary for kids. If the parents are together, often the kids worry their parents will divorce. If the parents are separated or divorced, concern arises that persistent arguing will affect the children negatively.

So, what are some of the negative effects of parents not showing love to each other? Some children will exhibit behavior problems and show great disrespect for not only the “bad” parent but other adults as well. A child whose security is threatened will burn energy dealing with this issue instead of focusing on school or developing their talents. A child who feels secure in their parents love and respect for each other simply does better in life.

My father would always kiss my mother “goodbye” even if he planned to run a short errand and would be back in 20 minutes. In my mind, I was certain my parents would never divorce, unlike some of my friends at school whose parents didn’t express affection. In my mother’s behavior, it was clear she always thought my dad was right, and any decision of his was unlikely to change. And Dad’s behavior made it clear that Mother was to be respected. Disrespect was not tolerated.

I’ve noticed some young parents whose behavior is much like that of my parents. One husband made it clear there would be no disrespect toward mom and would tell their kids when they were being disrespectful, “Stop and think about what you are doing and saying.”

So, if you’re having trouble feeling love for your partner or it’s difficult for you to express it, here are some recommendations:

  1. Notice and appreciate. Notice things your partner does that you appreciate. Make a list. Leave notes of appreciation or focus on telling your partner one or two things you appreciate every day. You might engage the kids in writing a note of appreciation from you and them.
  2. Express gratitude. Imagine what it would be like if you had to do everything yourself. Think about all those things your partner does for you and the kids—especially chores you wouldn’t want to do. Let your partner know when you’re grateful.
  3. Touch more. Resolve to touch your partner more throughout the day, especially when the kids are with you. Just a small rub of the shoulder or a peck on the cheek is a great gesture of love. Model affection around your kids.
  4. Stop and reset. Take a “time out” if your parenting conversation is becoming uncivil or likely to escalate in that direction. Return to the conversation when emotions are more relaxed.
  5. Avoid criticism. Notice when you are being critical of your partner. Maybe being critical has become a habit. Shift to being kind and more supportive.
  6. Regulate emotions. Learn to manage your emotions. Laura Markham, PhD tells parents, “Your number one job as a parent, after assuring the safety of your children, is to manage your own emotions. Yelling is an expression of anger.” She points out that yelling scares children and makes them feel insecure. Yelling also lowers the respect that children feel for a parent.

Actor Matthew McConaughey once said in an interview, “Best thing you could probably do as a father is make sure they see how you love their mother.” I would add that it’s important for the mother to model love and respect for the father, too.

Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.

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