Is it OK to have someone else do the talking for me?

RELATIONSHIP QUESTIONS (#33 in a series)
To access previous posts in the series, use the “Relationship Questions” link under “Categories” and the “Older Posts” button.

One of our kids just won’t listen to anything I say, but is more likely to at least hear my spouse out. Is it OK if I let my spouse do the talking for me?

Well…it depends. If this only happens occasionally, and everyone involved is still confident in the connection they have with one another, I wouldn’t worry about it. But if this becomes the regular pattern, I’d be concerned.

Here’s a sample scenario. Dad is frustrated with his son, whose grades are slipping in school. He thinks the boy is lazy and irresponsible, tells him so, and demands that he buckle down. But the boy gets angry and sullen, and retreats to his room. So Dad recruits Mom to deliver the message — maybe she’ll be able to get the son to do what Dad thinks needs to be done.

There are numerous potential problems here. Let’s start with the relationship between the father and son. Dad is right to be concerned about the son’s grades and the possible consequences of that long term. But it helps no one to call the son “lazy” and “irresponsible.” No one likes to be demeaned in that way, whatever the truth of the matter might be. Such a verbal attack is likely to evoke defensiveness and rebellion. Even if the kid complies, that’s not the same as being self-motivated and industrious. It’s just biding time, and doing what the big people tell you to do until you can get out from under them.

There’s also a good chance that Dad is passing on to his son the legacy of his own childhood, the way he was bullied by his own father. If his own father shamed him, he is more likely to shame his own son. What’s missing in the scenario is the father’s desire to patiently understand what’s going on with the boy. That’s not saying that the parents won’t need to give direction or set limits (“No video games until after you’ve finished your homework”), but kids typically don’t respond well to limits if they don’t feel cared for and understood.

What about the relationship between Dad and Mom? By drawing Mom into the middle of the conflict, Dad is doing what family therapists call “triangling” or “triangulation” — essentially, dealing with his own anxiety by passing it off to someone else. She may resent this, but talk to the son anyway, because that’s easier than dealing with the tension that’s now arisen between her and her husband.

And the kid? He probably knows that Mom’s not coming to him on her own accord, but is instead Dad’s emissary. That won’t make him any more cooperative, nor will it increase his respect for his mother. Or, alternatively, a conspiratorial relationship may develop between the mother and son: Look, we both know that Dad’s unreasonable. So let’s just play along to keep the peace, okay?

Again, it doesn’t have to go this way. If all the relationships in the family are basically solid, if everyone generally feels comfortable in each other’s presence, then the occasional use of go-betweens won’t necessarily be a problem. But a consistent pattern of avoiding conflict by drawing someone else into it typically resolves nothing, and can create new tensions besides.

The alternative? Learn how to handle your own anxiety. Face the fact that some conversations are going to be difficult. Decide on a realistic goal for a conversation, and shoot for that. For example, don’t expect one conversation to “fix” a longstanding problem; if one or both of you can leave that conversation feeling heard, even if you don’t agree, that can be a huge step in the right direction. And learn the skills you need to hear and be heard.

Letting your spouse do the talking for you is OK once in a while. Ideally, though, it should even then point the way for you to have the next conversation with your child, one in which you can come to a mutual understanding and build a more positive relationship.

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