Resolving child-rearing differences with partner

My husband insists that his sister babysit our 18-month-old and our baby-to-be. His sister and I have had many conflicts and I don't agree with her philosophy on raising children. This is causing a rift between my husband and me. I am at the point of considering divorce. Can you suggest a way to discuss this with him?



Gayle Peterson

Gayle Peterson, PhD, is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She is a clinical member of the Association... Read more

Dear Louisa,

A decision about who will caretake your children should be made jointly, not unilaterally. No wonder you are feeling upset! But perhaps this "in-law" problem reflects an overall pattern of unsuccessful negotiation in your marriage. How is it that your decision-making process has resulted in a struggle for control instead of teamwork?

First, be aware that your willingness to consider divorce reflects your sense of powerlessness in the decision-making process. Are decisions being made in a unilateral manner in other areas of your relationship? Or is this particular issue charged because you have not worked out agreements that relate to family loyalties? Is your husband's "unilateral" behavior a reaction to any extreme action on your part? Have the two of you sidestepped negotiation about how to relate to in-laws? About how to raise children together?

It is your job as a couple to resolve issues of "disloyalty" in family relationships by creating your own "team approach". Perhaps discussions about what your own child-rearing philosophy is as a couple have not taken place. If the two of you find a way to come together on your own differences, it may be easier to develop solutions for relating to your sister-in-law that are less threatening to you.

Ask your husband how he is affected by the conflict between his sister and yourself. Does he feel "caught in the middle" and if so, how can he take his place by your side and remain connected to his sister? Be open to his feelings about including his sister in his family life, but point out that he is married to you!

It is possible that the two of you are avoiding negotiating your own conflicts by triangulating your sister-in-law in your battles. Perhaps your husband is not sharing his own feelings about child-rearing with you and instead is expressing his differing views by insisting that his sister can baby-sit! Invite him to share his ideas directly with you and be sensitive to establishing a safe space for expression of differences between you.

An honest discussion about child-rearing differences may yield other ways of viewing the situation. If you feel your husband supports your motherhood, you may brainstorm ways to address your concerns that allow for his sister to baby-sit ( It is possible that you are over-reacting because you feel your husband is not on your side!) Or perhaps your spouse will understand your reasons and accept your perspective. Understanding leads to solutions instead of power struggles.

If after much discussion, the two of you cannot agree on such an important decision, it may be necessary to adopt a "right to veto" policy for now. Either of you would retain the right to "veto" a baby-sitting choice and consider alternatives that are acceptable to you both. If this occurs, let your husband know that you appreciate his strong feelings about wanting his sister involved in your children's lives, but that it does not justify undermining your authority as a mother! Let him know that it is not acceptable for him to put your children in a situation that causes you considerable discomfort and concern for any reason. Offer him identical consideration as a father.

But do not stop talking! Get to the bottom of what this power struggle is about and agree to nip it in the bud. It takes both of you to work on having a healthy marriage, but only one to file for divorce. Relationships thrive on empathy, but deteriorate under ultimatums. Develop a decision-making process that values understanding and cooperation over control and intimidation.

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