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Nurturing & Deepening Your Relationship When You Are A Parent

Nurturing & Deepening Your Relationship When You Are A Parent

Written by Kathryn Tonges

Nurturing your baby and children is all encompassing. So you may be wondering: how can it be possible to nurture your relationship with your partner let alone deepen it?

We are each behaving to get our needs met and your baby and young children are very needy – dependent in fact.  You would be excused therefore for overlooking your own needs and your partner’s needs especially during the early phase of parenting but also at any stage of parenting as you focus on the changing needs of your precious children.

The problem is that sooner or later you and your partner are going to feel deprived, even resentful and less accepting of each other and or your child. If this gradual need depletion isn’t addressed, psychologist Dr Thomas Gordon has observed that parents become “… too needful of their children bringing them joys and satisfactions that are missing in the marital relationship”. (p 317).

The trouble is that when you have a new baby, how you used to get your needs met seems almost an impossibility. Perhaps before your baby you didn’t ever think about your needs. You just did what made you feel right and had the freedom and time to do so.

Knowing just what your needs are can help you and your partner support each other. It can lead to you finding new ways to get your needs met that are mutually satisfying and nurture not only you but also your relationship.

Recently a new parent, Sophie, told me, “But I don’t even know what my needs are!”  She explained that she grew up in a family where she had to always consider others needs and not her own. She was now exhausted and beginning to get angry at her husband. Together we explored a few options including looking at some useful theories about our basic human needs.

Firstly I asked Sophie her ‘time’ needs.  Exasperated, Sophie replied, “I really love my baby, but I am so consumed with him and household jobs, I have no time for me, let alone my husband!”  In one sentence Sophie had summed up the Three Kinds of Time taught in Parent Effectiveness Training workshops:

  • Activity Time (eg many stimuli, generally task oriented)
  • Alone Time (time to process feelings, ideas, re-establish feelings of personal control).
  • One-to-One Relationship Time (time alone with another; parents and children need this also).

The ratio of meeting these time needs depends on the individual however you can handle Activity Time much better if your other two kinds of time needs are met – you feel balanced. Finding time for yourself and one-to-one time with your partner is the focus of this blog.

The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow devised a Hierarchy of Needs about the nature of human needs. He studied exemplary people in society who had a zest for life, creative energy, a sense of humour and higher and more frequent “peak” experiences. He believed these people used their full potential and knew how to get their needs met. He called the possession of these characteristics “Self-Actualisation”.

Self- Actualisation is depicted in his model as the pinnacle of a triangle at Level 5 while Level 1, Physical Survival needs, are at the base. These level 1 needs are our biological needs for food, air, water, sex. Did I mention the sex word? What happened to that need when you have a newborn? Possibly not on the mother’s radar but a strong wish for the father! As you’ll see there are other need levels in between.

Level 5 – Self actualization needs

Level 4 – Success and achievement (self-esteem needs – productivity and achievement)

Level 3 – Social relationship needs (we’re social beings & need relationships)

Level 2 – Security needs (feeling safe and free of fear – psychologically and physically)

Level 1 – Physical survival needs (our biological needs)

If you are not getting level 1 needs met then Maslow suggests it is difficult to focus on getting higher level needs met. When people are deprived of needs satisfaction at any level in the hierarchy, Maslow found they were limited in their personal growth.

If you have a newborn or multiple children you are probably thinking I don’t care about personal growth I just want to get my basic needs met. And that’s exactly Maslow’s point!

Think about your needs right now and what’s important to you based on Maslow’s Hierarchy. Perhaps draw a triangle with the 5 levels and fill in your unmet needs. Your partner could do one separately, then you could compare. This isn’t the point where you start to blame each other however.  There is an exercise a little later that will draw on these shared findings.

I know when my needs are not being met I tend to get irritable and cranky with myself and the people I love the most. I  become stable again when I tune in to what needs are not being met and I take action to meet them.

Identifying your needs helps you get your needs met! It helps you feel more empowered and comfortable with yourself. You can be clear with yourself and others. You can give more freely of yourself.

Sophie could see the benefit of this self discovery however she was having a challenge with angry feelings. I explained to her that her feelings are red flags that signal when her needs are not being met or she is not aligned with her values.

Together Sophie and I brainstormed some tips to help her tune in to her feelings and so identify her needs:

  • Tune in to your feelings regularly and identify what you are feeling
  • Tune in to your physiology – your body’s tensions or changes are also indicators
  • Tune in to your thoughts. They may be sabotaging your efforts to get your needs met by negative self-talk eg I can’t do that. Everyone else’s needs are more important than mine. It’s selfish to think about my own needs. Your needs are important also.
  • Ask yourself: If I were 5% more aware of my body what would that be like? If I were 5% more aware of my thoughts what would I notice? If I were 5% more aware of my feelings what would my day be like? Each day become a little more aware.
  • We behave (or misbehave) to get our needs met, ask yourself “How am I behaving (I’m irritable) – what is my need (more sleep, more alone time)?”
  • If you are angry, this is a secondary emotion, the tip of the iceberg.  Uncover what’s below the surface and identify your primary emotions eg hurt, tired, worried.  This will give you a clearer idea of your needs.
  • Notice when you feel joyful, relaxed and happy – these times point to times you are getting needs met.
  • Sometimes however we have to look for new solutions to getting needs met. As mentioned earlier how we used to get our needs met may not suit our current family situation for example.

Sophie found it useful to think of this simply as a 3 step process:

  1. Tune in to your feelings and physiology – especially your primary feelings.
  2. Identify your unmet needs (think Maslow’s hierarchy to help).
  3. Brainstorm ideas for getting your needs met – think of new and creative solutions.

Clarity of your needs is essential before you work out solutions. For example you may have a solution to get to bed earlier which could lead to an argument with your partner who accuses, “We will never have any time together if you go to bed so early”. Your need however is for more sleep (survival need).  Your partner’s need is possibly missing alone time with you (love and belonging, relationship needs).

When you identify your needs you can brainstorm with your partner a variety of new, creative solutions to best meet your tiredness need and your partner’s relationship need that best suits your new family dynamic. It’s a win -win approach that means you both get your needs met and leads to mutual respect rather than resentment. It is an approach to problem solving and listening that is revealed along with other time tested methods of effective communication skills in the book and parenting course by psychologist Dr Thomas Gordon, Parent Effectiveness Training.

Like Sophie, perhaps you and your partner can come up with ideas such as, Mum has an afternoon sleep on weekends when baby is sleeping which means Mum doesn’t have to go to bed as early and feels more refreshed for an intimate evening. Dad agrees to do more chores so Mum isn’t so tired. The list is endless but the key is thinking outside the box and not pointing fingers.

When you focus on getting your needs met in conjunction with helping your spouse and baby (and other children) get their unique needs met, the intent is one of helpfulness and desire to move forward rather than blame. When effective communication skills are used, positive outcomes are the result rather than resentment via accusation and the ‘blame game’.

You need to be able to voice your needs clearly as a statement of fact and a request for help. Sophie decided to say to her husband, “Since the baby was born I’ve been feeling very tired and I need more sleep. That’s why I’m finding it difficult to be social and loving. Can you help me to work out some ways I can get these needs met and have more time with you?”

This is called an I-message. Instead of using an accusative you-message and saying, “You should know that I need more help”, “You never help me” or taking on a victim role with negative indirect blame like “I’m over this”, it places the other person in the position of a helper rather than a culprit. An I-message is empowering for all concerned.

Sophie’s husband was surprised by her new way of speaking about her needs however he willingly came up with some solutions. He could see the benefits for both of them.

It takes time to learn new ways of relating with each other and new ways of getting needs met, so be kind to each other. Consider it as an evolving approach to taking responsibility and effective control of your lives. Just remember:

  1. Tune in to your feelings and physiology – these are the keys to unlock the next step.
  2. Identify your unmet needs
  3. Brainstorm ideas for getting your needs met – think of new and creative solutions.

When you focus on helping each other to get your needs met you get rid of the toxicity of blame from your life.

Using more effective communication skills and becoming more aware of your needs leads to greater enjoyment in your lives, deepening your relationship and being wonderful role models of healthy family interactions for your children.

First published in Kathryn’s website The Parent Within.

Kathryn Tonges

Kathryn Tonges

Sunshine Coast & Brisbane, QLD

I began conducting 'Parent Effectiveness Training' courses in 1978 and have been deeply rewarded by seeing the positive transformations within families. I am filled with gratitude that the effective communication skills I learnt with P.E.T. have underpinned all the interactions with children and people in my life since then. My two sons are now parents and I am witness to their natural use of P.E.T. skills. In my teaching career I taught from early childhood to tertiary level focusing on Child Development and Communication Skills. Children, parenting, and effective communications became my passion. I lived in Beijing for seven years and conducted P.E.T. and BYB courses for expatriates as well as training expatriates to become P.E.T. instructors. I have written for parenting magazines in Beijing and Australia and blog for my website The Parent Within (theparentwithin.com). Whilst in Beijing I co-authored a book with P.E.T. Instructors I had trained, to help expatriate children cope with the changes in their life. Since returning to Australia in 2014 I have taken on the positions of State Executive Officer for ETIA Queensland and more recently President of ETIA Ltd. I am also a National Trainer of Instructors for ETIA Ltd. for P.E.T., B.Y.B., T.E.T. and Y.E.T. My passion to teach P.E.T. courses continues in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast as well as coaching parents individually.

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About ETIA

The Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia (ETIA) Ltd is a not-for-profit, community based organisation that is dedicated to making courses in communication and conflict resolution skills available and accessible to all people in Australia.

ETIA’s mission is to provide individuals with effective communication and conflict resolution skills to build connected, harmonious relationships.

Our inspiration and programs come from the late Dr Thomas Gordon who is the author and founder of Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.) program and Gordon Training International (GTI).

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